In modern yoyoing, few can say that they’ve created as many memorable tricks as Spencer Berry. His name is synonymous with the undeniable classics Rancid Milk and Breath, as well as others such as Enigma, Havoc, and Wonder Woman. Spencer was a member of the Duncan Crew until 2008. These days, he is currently standing behind his own yoyo, the Walter. Spencer can also be found on 365yoyotricks.com every Wednesday in 2013, showing off another one of his tricks for an entire year. Spencer was kind enough to agree to do an interview for my site, and immediately I knew I had to dive into his tricks, how he got his start in yoyoing, and more.
Spencer, first and foremost I’d like to say thanks for taking the time to do an interview! I’d like to touch base on some stuff that I’ve personally always been curious about. You’ve been involved in yoyoing for over a decade, but how did you get your start?
Matt, thanks for showing some interest.
My introduction to yoyoing was sort of slow and took place over a few years. I was given a Proyo II one year for xmas when I was pretty young, but never really learned any tricks. A few years later, during the boom, I got excited about the prospect of a ball bearing yoyo and paid something ridiculous ($30?) for a Raider. But I never learned more than Rock the Cradle and One Handed Star. And quickly lost interest. In 8th grade (1998/99), as a sort of joke, I chose yoyos as the topic for a huge research paper/presentation. Mostly I presented on the history of the yoyo and I was not necessarily learning tricks at that point. It wasn’t until 2000 that the perfect storm hit and I actually became yoyo obsessed. That year a few elements combined:
- I lost my older brother in late ’99, so I was full of grief. I craved a hobby to distract from the pain of loss and to ease me through the drastic transition my family had to go through.
- My literature class had a twelfth night secret santa type gift give away and a girl bought me an X-Brain (because she remembered my presentation the year prior).
- My mother worked for a gift store and was given a copy of Kickin’ Tricks by SuperYo on VHS as a product demo. She gave me the tape and it inspired me.
Those elements combined in January of 2000 and by the time I learned Braintwister, there was no turning back. I would sit in my room, practice yoyo tricks while watching Kickin’ Tricks and using AIM/ICQ/IRC to chat with yoyo folks. I probably averaged 6-8 hrs/day of practice in 2000.
Wow, I kind of began in a similar way. I picked up a Duncan Imperial somewhere when I was young, but could never use it. I got a knot in the string, and my Grandma cut the string off. She tied the string back on after getting the knot out rather than looping it, which caused the yoyo to come back automatically. I had no idea of course, and thought I was progressing rather quickly.
I put the yoyo down too after a while though, but got a FHZ for Christmas a couple of years later. I also lost interest though, and it wasn’t until 8th grade when a friend brought a yoyo to school that I remembered the few tricks I had learned on my FHZ (Sleeper, Walk the Dog, Eiffel Tower). and from that day on it was a wrap, and I’ve been yoyoing since. It seems like everyone has their own unique story with how they became involved with a yoyo, and I feel that it’s not just something you do but something that draws you in and really does become an obsession.
I’ve watched all of the Spindox videos from the early 2000’s, granted they were way before my time. How did you initially get involved in Spindox, and what was your early approach to making up tricks? Some of the early tricks I’ve seen from you include Grotty and Raging Demon, which if I’m not mistaken were before Rancid Milk (correct me if I’m wrong)
You must be young if you had a FHZ in 8th grade!! I remember testing the original Freehand in the “FH dark ages” before bandai bought the FHZ mold. (Editor’s Note: Bandai didn’t buy the mold, the original Freehand mold broke. Bandai requested the old shape, and Duncan Toys created a new mold to meet their demand.)
I started getting really into yoyoing at the beginning of 2000 and spent a lot of time on the internet reading about it. The first Spindox video by Gabe (02-05-00) was mindblowing at the time. It took me a few months to get the courage and to talk my parents into driving me out, but my first Spindox was April 8th 2000. I was just a kid and showed up. And I was welcomed with open arms. David Capurro (Cappy) even tried to talk my little brother (he was 9 at the time) into staying. He asked him what trick he’d have to show him to stay. And he told him Kamikaze. So Cappy called Paul Escolar over to show him. It actually only took him a few tries to hit it. I was in complete awe. I lived about 90 minutes away from Spindox but I was very lucky to have supportive parents who would drive me to club most months. So there I met Gary, Jeff, Gabe, Paul, Cappy, and everyone else. I’d just soak in all their madness and awesomeness and then go home and practice every waking moment until the next meet.
I think my first full length trick was actually Liquidizer or Ragnarok (though I’m not sure I ever had an ending for Ragnarok). Liquidizer is in the X Games video. The only inspiration for that was the under the arm suicide – the rest of the trick was mostly setup. Ragnarok on the other hand was more original – it was me trying to come up with complex new holds. So very very techy but not a lot of smoothness built in. In the beginning I was definitely more of a tech head than I am today. And by that I mean really obsessed with numbers games, complex/unique holds, and the idea of taking a super complex hold and throwing it all up in the air to have it land in a trapeze. Which was a common ending for a lot of my tricks to come. Raging demon was all about using your thumbs – but wasn’t too lush beyond that. Grotty I actually made up the day I shot it – so technically Rancid Milk came before. I just liked the mount, but again, not a trick that stuck with me or I take much pride in. Rancid Milk was really the first trick I got a reaction from. It was completely designed as a triple or nothing version of Kamikaze with more tech. It start in a triple, has a kamikaze hop, then adds around the arm stuff, and then layers more complexity around each piece of kamikaze (at least the first half – no magic drop to be seen). But to address your broader question regarding my early approach to making tricks: Pre-Rancid Milk, it was usually a singular move that I built the trick around. Rancid Milk and beyond I started to get much more into having a concept to explore:
- Rancid Milk was Kamikaze extreme
- Engima was all upside down
- Cataclysm was all about plucks
- Havoc about motion and growing complexity
- Wonder Woman was an inverse Superman
You get the idea.
Then of course you have the laceration, which was just a lucky discovery one late night while trying to land a suicide on my doorknob. So there was definitely a growing order to my tricks. I think right around the time Rancid Milk came out I saw a lot more tech tricks in videos across the world. The Spindox helped me realize the value of smoothness and flow. They influenced my tricks slowly but surely and I think my tricks became more potent because of their advice and influence
Yes! I actually turn 17 in February. Wow, that’s interesting. It had to be cool to meet all of the guys from the Kickin’ Tricks video in person. I definitely know what you mean about being a “tech head”, and how there were more tech tricks in videos around the time Rancid Milk came out. That sort of slow, techy, style was getting popular around 2001 and I’ve seen guys like Kalani Bergdorf doing it in videos from the era. I feel that it would be hard NOT to evolve in someway while hanging around the guys who made up classics like Seasick, White Buddha, Kamikaze, and Timetwister. Personally, I’d have to say that my favorite Spindox video is definitely “Wish We Were At Worlds”. Of course, that’s where Breath first appeared which is in my opinion one of the greatest tricks ever invented. I’ve heard that Breath was invented as pieces of other tricks that you were working on put together, is that true? The other tricks in the Breath series are Breeze and Inhale, right? I recently saw the 365yoyotricks.com video for Inhale, and it blew me away (heh). I think Breath is an amazing trick for being invented in 2001.
Breath was definitely an AHA trick for me. It wasn’t really pieces of other tricks – once I had the first “breath” move – the rest of the trick followed pretty quickly. But getting it all together and smooth took quite a while. I was learning White Buddha 2 during BAC of 2001 (I believe this was when Paul had shown me it, but it wasn’t yet “released”). There is that flip to plane bend that is the main new component of white buddha 2. Well, one time, the loop fell off my left hand, but I had a strong pinch on my right thumb and the loop just sort of hung there. And I cocked my head to one side and whipped the loop around. From that the rest of Breath was born. I see a lot of people trying to make Breath work with a traditional, thumb+index pinch. To me that makes it look very forced and amateurish. It is the “thumb butt pinch” that makes breath what it is. I always hated pinched because they killed the flow of most tricks and made them look much more awkward. So when I found the thumb butt pinch, I was really excited to put it into a trick.
Breeze is the sequel to Breath. It is like breath but with doubled variations. I was a bit bummed about Breeze because Gabe filmed it for Project Sector Y. But before that project came out, JD came out with his grind videos. And I thought they were very campy and I know the “palm tap” in breeze would be categorized alongside them. Breeze sort of quietly came out years later but I don’t think it was a very popular trick.
Inhale was more of a sister trick. It isn’t really a full length trick – it doesn’t really have a strong theme like breath/breeze (or the third trick which could be done one day). But it has that crazy loop knot thing at the end. So I put it in the same family but not really part of the linear trilogy.
I totally agree about the “pinch” thing with Breath. I’ve hit that trick before, but it was more or less luck and it wasn’t smooth. I learned it from an old text description which described using your thumb for the pinch, and I know exactly what you mean. Everybody that I’ve seen do it besides you uses their thumb and index finger, which leads to tilting the hand in a weird way and does look awkward. JD is definitely sick and one of my favorite yoyoers, but I totally agree with you as far as being categorized with him goes. Breeze was probably created around the same time as JD’s first video, if not slightly before. Inhale is literally insane and I’d probably have to put it up there on my list of favorites despite only discovering it lately. It also appeared in your “Debt in Knowledge” video, what’s the story behind that? I know that video got some harsh and undeserved criticism, but I think from a trick standpoint it’s top notch.
If you’ve hit Breath, it was practice, not luck. So nice job.
I didn’t mean to say anything mean about being associated with JD. I think he is an awesome player and his skill level in those days was leagues more technically advanced than mine. I felt like the end to Breeze was more about the direction change than the skin contact, so it was more a feeling of it being associated with a concept that was very different. Not unlike the way that Laceration are used as a label for an entire genre or tricks, but the original idea was very specific.
As far as Debt in Knowledge goes, I’ve heard before that it received a lot of negativity – but I don’t remember that affecting me much. For some reason when I wasn’t making videos (2005-2007? Maybe earlier) – people thought I had stopped throwing. Debt was asked for by a lot of people (especially Adam Brewster), who had kept in touch and wanted to see what I was into. So that is what sparked it.
I was also in film school. So I was hearing a lot about music rights issues and and seeing videos pulled off of youtube, so I wanted to avoid using a copyrighted soundtrack. I also was in a film sound class so I had a crazy collection of weird sound effects I had gathered with my group. So that is where released soundtrack came from. But I had originally edited the video to radiohead’s “15 Steps.” You can see that edit on Sector Y.
As far as the style of the film – I intentionally didn’t show any throws or catches. This is a similar style to fidget. The idea there was to avoid fluff. There were a lot of yoyo videos at the time that had sloppy unresponsive catches, tons of mistakes left in the video, and all kinds of others time wasters that would inflate a video with two or three good tricks into a 5 minute production.
The choice to only bookend the video with full tricks came because I wasn’t making full tricks very often. I was throwing long combos back then and so instead of having a few long throws I just decided to capture the components I liked most. And then cutting them back to back. I can see how that editing style would annoy viewers though.
I also wanted to make a point of minimalist lighting. Lighting is often terrible in yoyo videos, especially when you can’t make out the string. Debt was shot with my normal lights on, plus a single open bulb at my feet with some tin foil to cut it off my body. That is why the string is sharp. I wanted to show people they could make their videos look crisp with minimal equipment. Plus the backdrop was an organized mess to sort of prove that lighting could make a yoyo video work even if you have white walls and clutter in frame.
There are also a couple weird easter egg-ish things I put into the video. That image in the lower left behind my leg (and sometimes on my leg/crotch) is from a slide film projector I had laying around, intended to add some texture. And in the final shot, during Shepherd, I tinkered with the green triangle sticker on the left side of the frame. You can see it slowly go from de-saturated to glowing green.
And Shepherd was super sloppy, I know.
Overall, Debt was made very deliberately but not conventionally. That was what made it worth doing to me: to try new things and to counter the yoyo climate with a video that I was proud of. Plus it is only 80 seconds!
I honestly think that you and JD both have certain things you do that are very cool, but especially cool when you really understand what’s going on. That’s all honestly so cool. Going to film school had to give a huge advantage with yoyo videos. Yoyo videos are probably a small blip on the map as far as film goes, but it would be cool to know more. I always liked Debt in Knowledge because it looked like it could have been filmed in my house, but looks good.
All of the things you said make sense, but I wouldn’t have thought of them. I totally understand the “deliberately but not conventionally” thing. I personally think the yoyo world needs more of that, now even more than in 2007. On a side note, what yoyo were you using in that? Is it a FHZ?
Not long ago, you released The Walter, a tug-responsive yoyo that I’ve seen you pull off some really great stuff with on 365yoyotricks.com. Any more yoyos ever coming, and any other things we can expect to see from you soon? I personally think a sequel to Debt in Knowledge would be great.
I think the Debt yoyo is technically a Hyper Freehand. Love that yoyo…
I’m glad you got the feeling that Debt was both attainable and looked good.
Walter has been a labor of love and took a very long time to complete. Walter fit a very definite gap in modern yoyos for me: responsive slimline that is ultra durable. The ultimate pocket yoyo. Now that I’ve finally completed the project, I do want to make more yoyos, but I am having to really think about what hole my next yoyo is going to fill.
Right now I have a full size responsive yoyo in the works named Theodore. I hope to really take it to the next level in terms of finish and packaging. The shape is somewhere between a Gnarwhal & the YWET (two of my favorite throws ever). Theodore will probably be more expensive than Walter, partially because of the yoyo materials, but mostly because I am going to have a truly exquisite custom case made for each Theodore. I hope I’ll have a product for sale before fall 2014, but I won’t rush him.
Oh yeah, I love Hyper Freehands too. That sounds so sick, the Gnarwhal is one of my favorite throws too, I’ve never thrown a YWET but seeing you throw one in your 365 videos has definitely made me want to try one. I haven’t gotten the chance to throw a Walter either, but I feel the same with that as the YWET, thats such an awesome throw to drop in 2013 (The Walter). Any last words/advice for any yoyers out there? On behalf of myself and YoYoNews, thank so much for doing this!
The YWET is from 2011, but I think I see what you’re saying.
And I definitely have some closing thoughts.
Most of all – throw what you love, when you love it, how you love it. There seems to be a lot of unnecessary drama in the yoyo world – as though one yoyo is inferior or one brand is the ONLY brand worth throwing. Get over it! Some people seem to feel the need to put people down or claim that they aren’t “real” yoyoers if they don’t do x, y, z. GET OVER IT!!! Everyone gets to find their own enjoyment in yoyoing and it may not match how everyone else enjoys yoyoing.
The hobby is incredibly multi-faceted – there are not only a plethora of divisions (1A-5A), but also responsive, fixed, p213, moebius, double dragon, whatever else. If you are getting burnt out or feeling an absurd amount of negativity – take a break or find something else that excites you.
There is no reason to poison the well and tell people what is right, wrong, cool or not cool. I’ve always been an incredibly self centered yoyoer – only competing when I wanted to – judging when I want to – making up tricks when I want to – not releasing videos for years on end. That is because I love yoyoing. It is an important aspect of my life and I want it to be there for me when I need stress relief, or a creative outlet, or just to have some goofy fun while waiting around in line. So cherish the joy you feel around yoyoing and don’t try and tell others that there is a right and wrong – because there isn’t. It’s a toy. Have fun.
I had 9 months where I only played with an imperial No Jive. Not because I wanted to prove anything – but because my life was incredibly stressful and I had no time to innovate or invent so the No Jive was like comfort food for me. I could go to the bus stop after a 13 hour day in the office and just do some loops or Braintwisters or behind the head regen to trapeze – and it was relaxing, therapeutic RELIEF. So while I didn’t move yoyoing forward or come up with a freestyle full of unique tricks, yoyoing still remained an important part of my daily life. That isn’t to say that making up tricks, building freestyles, and crafting videos aren’t fun too; they are, to the right person in the right frame of mind at the right time. So go with the flow and learn to enjoy yoyoing in the present – and spread the love.