Dhani Harrison, off the wall
One of the first times musician Dhani Harrison remembers encountering an infinity wall -- those white, seamless backdrops used to eliminate shadows and lines in photography -- was on the set of a Traveling Wilburys shoot with his dad. He was young, around 10 or 11, and the wall's steep transition called to him.
It bore a striking resemblance to the bottom of a pool. And it needed to be skated.
Harrison had his skateboard with him -- he always had a skateboard with him -- so he started pushing around the set. It took about 30 seconds for a production assistant to put an end to that dream.
"Since then I've done lots of music videos and seen a lot of infinity backdrops, but it's never been my studio to skate," says Harrison, 34, son of the late Beatles guitarist George Harrison. "I've always been on other people's shoots, asking, 'Can I skate that?' This time, I didn't ask."
The result of that clandestine session, shot at 160 frames per second by photographer and filmmaker Steven Sebring, is the video perched atop this story. Originally destined to be the opening sequence of a music video, Harrison decided to hold on to the edit and release it on its own.
The under-a-minute clip is both giddy imprint of a childhood dream realized and test run for a project Harrison, Sebring and musician Ben Harper hope to collaborate on next year. (More on that later.)
"I've always wanted to get a huge wall ride on one of those walls," says Harrison -- front man for the band thenewno2, but a skater first and foremost. At the moment, he has three boards and a full set of pads in his car. Fistful of Mercy, Harrison's band with Harper and singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, was born of a mutual love of skateboarding. Harrison's Santa Monica, Calif., record studio is strewn with a veritable gallery of iconic skate decks, and its layout is, not accidentally, skateable from one concrete end to the other.
"I've managed to skateboard through all of America, through every airport in the country, and not get busted," Harrison says. "I take a skateboard with me everywhere I go."
Including to music-video shoots. In September, Harrison and his bandmates spent two days at a soundstage in Santa Monica filming more than a dozen videos, including one for the track "Station," off their latest LP, "thefearofmissingout." And there, tempting him once again, was that smooth, sloping backdrop. So Harrison waited for the staff to leave, pulled out his Baker Andrew Reynolds Heli-Pop and scored a few wall rides. He also nearly broke his left wrist and rolled an ankle trying to attempt the same feat fakie. (That, too, is in the video above.)
Then, inspired perhaps by the recently released "Bones Brigade: An Autobiography" documentary (in which, incidentally, he's interviewed), Harrison began attempting a few of his favorite freestyle tricks. After he landed a Mullen flip, Sebring told him to grab his guitar. "He said, 'I've never seen anyone do a Mullen flip whilst holding a guitar,'" Harrison says. "And I think I'm the first person who's done that."
That trick, of course, was an homage to Rodney Mullen, the Bones Brigade skater Harrison was always most intrigued by, but the lone member of the team he hadn't met until recently, when Mullen turned up with Harper at thenewno2's show at The Wiltern in Los Angeles in October.
"It was an instant fit," Harrison says. "He's such an interesting guy and totally bonkers, in a really genius, genial way. His emotional understanding of skateboarding is incredible. He walks like he's skateboarding. He literally doesn't have a skate style or a stance. His whole thing is to remove his ego from the equation: 'I am not left-handed. I am not right-handed. I am not regular. I am not goofy. There is no such thing as switch. It just is skateboarding.'"
As he talks, Harrison walks out from behind his desk and grabs a pink, tattered Powell Peralta Rodney Mullen, a board he's had for nearly two decades. It's beat up, and chunks of wood are missing from one of its edges, but the graphic is still recognizable. "I got really frustrated trying to learn some of Rodney's tricks," Harrison says, "so I tried to hack it in half with an ax."
I got really frustrated trying to learn some of Rodney's tricks, so I tried to hack [his pro model] in half with an ax.Dhani Harrison
As a kid, Harrison was as fascinated by Mullen's skating as he was frustrated, but his favorite pro was Tony Hawk. When Harrison was 10, the Bones Brigade traveled to the U.K. on its 1989 world tour and his dad took him to the demo as a birthday treat. Afterward, with dad's prompting, Harrison walked up to Hawk and invited him back to the house for dinner and a skate.
When Hawk realized who was asking, he was blown away that his newfound fame stretched that far across the pond. For Harrison, "It was the coolest thing that happened to me up until that point in my life. Tony Hawk hit a launch ramp at my house."
The next year, the Brigade returned. That's when Harrison met Mike McGill, Ray Underhill, Steve Caballero and Tommy Guerrero. "It became a fixture," Harrison says. "Dad would say, 'Stacey [Peralta], next year if you're sending out the Bones Brigade, tell them to come again for dinner. They're always welcome at Friar Park.'"
In the warmer months, the guys returned the favor. After skating frozen metal ramps in England all winter, Harrison spent his summers with family in L.A. While there, he hung out with his new big brothers, the Bones Brigade. McGill invited Harrison and his cousins to skate the Encinitas skatepark his dad owned and even let them hold sleepovers at his house.
"I went from skating soggy halfpipes in rainy England to skating Masonite ramps with the Bones Brigade," Harrison says. "I have a picture of me putting on my pads next to an 18-year-old Tony [Hawk] putting on his. One time I even dropped in on the big ramp Mike probably practiced the McTwist on the most. It was epic."
Twenty years later, Harrison's love-hate affair with skateboarding hasn't waned. But today he's as interested in documenting the sport as he is in progressing his own skating. Outside of music videos, Harrison and Sebring collaborated on "The Guitar Collection: George Harrison," an iPad app released in February 2012 featuring Sebring's 360-degree photography of Dhani's father's guitar collection.
"Now we want to take it to the next level," Harrison says. "We want to shoot 360-degree video that you can watch from any angle at all times. It's bringing what you can do in video games to real life. But technology's no good unless you can apply it to something."
So they began asking questions -- most importantly, what would be most impressive to see using this technology?
Their answer: skateboarding.
"I realized we should be making really awesome art movies involving skateboarding, doing the soundtracks and using them to explain the physics of what we're doing," says Harrison, a physics-o-phile who took several aeronautical engineering classes while at Brown University. When he started conceptualizing the content side of the project with Harper -- Sebring is developing the technology to make it all possible -- Harrison realized they were each interested in delving into opposing sides of the same questions.
"I'm interested in how tricks are done, and Ben wants to know why skateboarding evolved in this way. So I think we're going to call this project 'The How and the Why,'" Harrison says. "It will be an interactive app, a piece of art. It will be more artistic than the simple [360-degree] documenting of guitars."
And the skateboarder who will star in it? "He's one of our favorite skateboarders, but he will remain nameless until we've officially started," Harrison says. "We've talked to him and he's really interested in the project." After that buildup, the same can be said for the rest of us.