This interview was originally published in issue 12.
What Don “Nuge” Nguyen loves about skateboarding is the exact same thing he loves about music: there are no rules. Both are lawless, leaving you to create your own version. And they’re two things that Nuge plans on doing for the rest of his life. For Nuge, skateboarding, playing guitar and bass, and running his clothing brand, Volume 4, have no boundaries. There’s no one telling him what he can and can’t do, and there are no specific rules or guidelines he must abide by. Rather, these intertwined loves perpetuate his overall outlook on life—”live heavy, travel light”—and maintain his ultimate sense of freedom, on the board or on the stage.
Nuge has been turning heads and dropping jaws since he moved to California from Oklahoma City and ollied the massive twenty-stair at El Toro High School. He spent his early skate years under the Tum Yeto umbrella—first on Hollywood, then Pig Wood, and then on Foundation—but eventually landed at home on Baker Skateboards, at the unprecedented age of thirty. From his massive hill bomb at Baxter Street in Echo Park to the kickflip in Los Feliz that landed him the cover of Thrasher, Nuge has been such a legendary part of modern street skateboarding, often skating spots that most people wouldn’t dare face.
There’s no doubt that Nuge is emblematic of the skateboarding subculture that shaped him, embracing creativity as one his core values and never waiting for anyone’s approval, all with the utmost resourcefulness. He’s figured out how to do it all: skate all day, play music all night, travel incessantly, and wake up the next morning to do it all again. To give you a clearer picture of his views on life, music, skateboarding, and the nature of his creative quest, we asked him some questions.
I know you grew up in Oklahoma City, tell me a little bit about growing up there and what the city was like?
I was born in Portland, Oregon and immediately moved to Oklahoma City. I started skating really young; like four or five-years-old was the first time I stepped on a board. It’s obviously a small town vibe, I have so many friends that live there still, and it’s that everybody knows everybody type of places. My parents opened a pool hall when I was five or six, and that’s when I really started skating a lot, in the parking lot.
How did you decide to move to LA?
I wanted to skate 365 days a year. I couldn’t do that in Oklahoma. The summers are too hot, the winters are too cold, and then in between, there were three months of nonstop rain.
Who did you come out to LA with?
Two friends from Oklahoma. We saved up some money and said, “Let’s fucking do it,” and moved out to Huntington Beach because that’s the first place we knew. I came out here once before and I remembered going to Huntington Beach because that’s where the skate park is, and that’s where all the dudes were shredding. So when we moved, I was like, “Ok we’re moving to Huntington.” We moved out here, lived there for like six months, and those dudes couldn’t hack it and left. I was like, “Fuck, I really don’t want to go back,” and decided to stay. For two months I was homeless, living in my car, just floating around. Every day was going to the skate park all day, go party, then pull into a parking lot and sleep.
What was the shittiest job you had during that time?
When I first moved here, my friends were like, “Yo we work at Jamba Juice, come work with us. It’s super easy.” I was working there for three or four months and at the time I was getting flowed by Toy Machine. So when I was working I would call Tum Yeto and be like, “Yo I need some boards,” and they had caller ID and it would come up as Jamba Juice. They’d be like, “Jamba Juice? What are you doing?” And I would just be like, ”I’m at work, can you send me some boards?” Then one day they called me at Jamba Juice and were like, “Hey we’re going on this trip, it’s an am trip, but one of the dudes got hurt and can’t go, so do you want to go?” I took off my uniform, dropped everything, and just walked out. They picked me up two days later and that’s when I met Richie [Belton] and J Roy [Justin Roy], everyone that I’m still friends with now. They really helped me get more opportunities. First I skated for Hollywood. Then got on Foundation, and from there got onto Baker. And here we are now.
Baker is much more than just a skate company; it’s really a family.
It’s a straight-up family; once you’re on you’re on. I don’t think anyone has ever quit Baker. It’s like Girl and Chocolate, they are a family too. They take of each other. It’s the same shit. Baker was my dream team. When Andrew [Reynolds] called me I was in a van with all the Baker dudes, and he wasn’t there for some reason, he called and was like, ”This is Reynolds, I talked to everyone and we decided that you should ride for Baker.” I was like, “Yeah right,” and hung up. I looked around, and everyone I knew was in the van so they couldn’t be pulling a fast one or anything. Then he called again, and of course, I was like, “Yes, I’ll quit Foundation right now,” like let’s do this. That was the craziest phone call ever, and I didn’t even believe it at first. It felt like I was landing at home when I got the call from Drew.
What’s it like jumping from one board company to another? Is there drama?
There’s definitely skateboard drama, but they understood. I just told them, “You know I love you guys and thank you so much for everything, but Andrew just called me.” And they just got it, they wished me well, and I’m still homies with all those dudes. You don’t want to jump around a lot; it doesn’t look good. But once I got on Baker, I knew this was it. We’re filming Baker 4 Live right now, which will come out in 2019. I’ve been stacking clips, wanting to get ahead. There’s an official deadline now. It funny because we used to have a van that was called “the skate tank”, and Beagle [Ryan Ewing] was the bus driver. He would do a lap; pick up a bunch of people from one house, then swing by here and grab the rest of us. It was like we were on a bus, going and skating all the spots. It’s like that again now and it’s like going on a tour of LA every day.
Everyone is looking forward to Baker 4; can’t wait to see what kind of massive shit you pull. You’re kind of known for always going big—when you ollied El Toro, the Baxter Street hill bomb, the kickflip at the apartment complex in Los Feliz—is that a thing for you?
I always loved skating big shit for some reason. I always had this urge to charge. Watching the Baker videos and seeing them do massive shit, I wanted to jump off shit, do stuntman kind of drops. That was my favorite shit, but now it hurts more. Back then I could try all day, then wake up the next morning and do it all again.
I know that music is just as important to you as skateboarding. How were you first introduced?
My older cousin Randy was a total metal head, like Sabbath, Metallica, and Judas Priest; then my brother was into gangster rap; my sister was like Madonna and all that other shit. So I was raised around a really cool mix of genres. Also being raised at the pool hall, I was always the little dude there and my mom would put me in charge of putting music on. So I was pretty much DJing there a lot too.
What are some of the records that are in heavy rotation for you right now?
There are so many. I collect records, but all old ones, mostly from the 70s. Sea of Tombs is a record that I always start my set with. Just to set the mood. It’s an old band, that’s just heavy. It’s Earthless before Earthless; Mario Rubalcaba the drummer from Earthless was in the band when he was living in Chicago. I actually bought the record off of him at a record flea market. He was like, “You need this, it’s my first shit.” So I bought it and have always thought I was the sickest shit. That and maybe Jerusalem or something.
What was the first band you were in?
The first band I played with was in Oklahoma. I was filling in for someone on a tour, and that was the first time I got a taste of playing live. It was crazy because I got the same feeling I did when I was skating. When you’re up on stage and the whole band connects and is in sync, it’s a crazy feeling. That band was called American Rouse, from an MC5 song. After that, my first band I was ever in was LSDemon. We started because Thrasher was doing the whole Skate Rock thing and Jake Phelps called me up and said, “Hey we’re leaving in two days and we need another and to come with us. Do you have a band?” Me and Figgy [Justin Figueroa] were like, “No, but we can make one. Just send us.” We got Thomas [Bonilla], myself, Figgy, Richie, and Dustin [Dollin] was the singer. We made eight songs in two days; we didn’t have a name and called it “48 Hours” because we made the band in that amount of time. We flew to Australia and played our first show ever there. Then LSDemon did three Skate Rock’s. It eventually started to die out, and we started Arctic—me, Figgy, and Frecks [Sean Stewart]. That’s still alive and more recently we’ve started the band Easy.
Yeah, so that is you, Josh Landau [The Shrine], and who else?
My friend Wilder, he plays drums. Jordan Jones plays guitar, and then Ben Brown plays keys. I think Josh was going through a breakup and wrote a bunch of songs and didn’t know what to do with them. I was in New York at the time, I told him to fly out and we could just kick it and keep ourselves busy with music. We got home to LA and we started jamming with the other guys and it evolved.
How would you describe Easy to someone that hasn’t heard it before?
I would say Ramones Stones. The Rolling Ramones.
I saw Easy play at Monty a few months ago at Eliminator.
That was our first show. It was packed there. Our second show was the Thrasher Skater of the Year party. After that we wrote more, recorded it, and are taking our time, not playing too many shows. We recorded a five-song EP and shot two music videos. We’re waiting to release it right. Everyone in the band is a musician; I’m just the skater dude that picked up a bass a while ago—guitar and bass, and feedback.
What are some similarities between playing music and skateboarding?
The feeling of landing a trick and playing in front of people. It’s hard to explain the feeling of landing a trick, but it’s kind of the same thrill and adrenaline rush when you’re playing live.
I know skateboarding is an accepting community, but did you ever feel, as an Asian-American skater, you’ve had to work harder in order to get recognition or get noticed?
Skateboarding is accepting to all. I really felt weirder in the real world. Picture my dumb ass in Oklahoma.
How did your Vietnamese family even land in Oklahoma?
It’s so weird there is a huge Vietnamese community there. A lot of people landed in Houston then realized Oklahoma was close by and even cheaper to live. Throughout high school, my cousin and I were the only Asian dudes. I got along with everyone at school, but when we used to skate around town, cowboy hicks would chase us around. You would have to run or stand there and fight. As 13-year-olds, grown men would chase us, but by the time we were sixteen or seventeen we were like, “Fuck this,” and turned things around. Skating was always the safe zone for all of us.
Skateboarding is the one place everyone can just be themselves.
Yeah, between the hair back then, or you know, wearing big ass Fuct shorts; everything was all good when you were skating.
You’re totally a creative person. Is there ever a day off for a creative person?
I don’t want a day off. I want all days on. I want to keep doing shit. Sit still, fuck that. I can walk, I can do shit, so I might as well.
Do you think you’ll be skating forever?
Yes, unless I can’t. Like I only have one leg or something. I’ll skate forever, even if it’s just cruising down the street.
Photos taken by Kris Evans.