s p e n c e r b a k e r & d u s t i n b e n t a l l
- b b g u n l e a t h e r
A little background to this interview. I walked up to a house in Strathcona, Vancouver that Spencer Baker and Dustin Bentall had given me the address for. "Let's chat in our studio they said". A small sign pointed to the side of the house and I gingerly peered over the gate into the yard while a giant cat lept up onto the fence next to me and I shamelessly ran back to the front of the house. I went back to the gate and saw a woman tending to a huge and beautiful garden - "she doesn't look like a leather worker" I thought. She noticed me and said "Are you here for the boys?". Sure, I guess I was. She opened the gate and led me through a small sea of bikes and bountiful raised beds of vegetables into a small shed in the back of the yard. This was definitely not the meeting my boyfriend had envisioned me telling him I had planned for the day. Around the corner of a wall filled with the most beautiful, structured leather products, Spencer and Dustin sat in their studio drinking pellegrino. This studio is it's own perfect little microcosm of a world. It smells good. It's comfortable. It gives you a deep sense of nostalgia even if you haven't been there before. It resonates with the spirit of authenticity that the boys live by every day and is engrained in their work.
So...how are y’alls days going?
Dustin: Wait, can we say stuff like f**k and s**t?
Go for it.
Dustin: We have two kinds of days. We have days like today that we call kind of a flex day - it’s not one of our intense work days and so we’re taking care of some stuff on the computer and the website, finishing some builds. It’s sort of a combination but we try to do three days a week that are ten plus hours of building.
Spencer: We’re leather workers for three days a week which is just stitching and cutting and pretty much being out of touch. You can’t really get me on the phone. Emails don’t exist. Monday to Wednesday is just full on and it’s not because I'm forced to, it’s just because my day has such a cool flow. There was a day where I work from 8:30am until two in the morning and I just loved it. But our ‘build’ days, Monday through Wednesday, are solid ten hour build shifts - pretty much until are hands aren’t capable of pulling another stitch. Today was a sleep in day to basically catch up on the last three days of communications. Today is a nice day.
D: On the days when we get really deep into it, in the evening you start feeling the fatigue and then you get a second wind and are re-energized. It’s peaceful and quiet and it happens to both of us where we just don’t feel like stopping and as we go into the night it just gets quieter and quieter.
S: As I was saying to Dusty, when the physical fatigue is mounting, the lane quiets down and there’s no conversations or ‘beep beep beep’ backing up of cars. Then our focus becomes so acute and tight - so aligned that it keeps you going. On Monday, by six o’clock I was tired and things became so clear focus-wise because it was quiet. There was no noise pollution or phone ringing. We could just dig in.
That’s what captured me most about it - just how well it ages, it gets so beautiful and supple over time. If you treat it right, it can last forever. - Dustin
And how did you get into leather to begin with?
D: We’ve been into it our whole lives. Even when we were kids and I went to high school I would go with my parents to pick out shoes and I got these gnarly leather motorcycle boots. I kind of got made fun of in high school because that’s not what the kids wore, I think kids were so confused.
S: I wasn’t even that cool. I wore a half-inch Western style boot. Like, if you come in wearing a hard piece of western boot, at least you’re defined as that guy. But I wore the kind of boot that grandpas wore because their backs hurt. Usually kids in our era would go to West 49 and pick up their Etnies and DC. We both, for some reason, were so focused on those high quality leather goods. At 16 we were like, “these will last us two years” where most kids would just go through new ones every semester of school and recycle their whole wardrobes.
D: My mom gave me one of those kits to make a wallet when I was like ten or something. It came with a leather stitching for the edges. I made that and I loved it. I just wanted it in my pocket. I wanted to sit extra hard on it because I knew it would start to get that patina and start to take the shape of whatever was in it. That’s what captured me most about it - just how well it ages, it gets so beautiful and supple over time. If you treat it right, it can last forever.
S: Dusty’s older than me by quite a bit, he’s my older brother’s age. My brother and Dusty were always people I looked up to. In my adolescent or teenage years, trends weren’t like they are now where vintage and the older and used stuff is in because it has a story. Even at that time, if Dusty got something new, belt, he would purposely try to beat it up. He’d say “this looks too new” and throw it on the ground and stomp on it. (to Dustin), I remember clearly you got a new harmonica holder that was brand new and shiny and everyone was like “Oh hey, that looks nice, you got a new one”. I think you had lost yours or something. You kept taking it off and scraping it on the concrete.
Dusty was before his time, I guess, in that when everyone else was truly tapped into materialism and ‘newer is better’ and the cycle of replacing stuff that’s aged or was damaged, Dusty was just like, “No. It’s cooler that way.” This is kind of similar to Dusty’s wallet story but my grandparents were Albertans and Albertans are a certain breed of Canadians, maybe more traditional types. My Papa would hunt buck and it wasn’tlike hunting today where you do it for a trophy or how many kills you get in a season. If he got one buck, he would use every piece of that animal and one part of that is that he would get the hides finished. My grandmother was a seamstress and that’s what we’d do with her - we’d make pouches for our pogs or our playing cards. My most prized possession as a kid was a First Nations style vest. I was taught that leather and hides are beautiful, things to be cherished.
D: We both spent time on ranches. My parents still have a ranch in the interior in BC and for a time when I was in high school, we operated a full blown cattle ranch. Like 250 heads, so a relatively decent size. And with Spen, the same sort of thing. His best friend’s family owned a big ranch as well so throughout those years too we actually spent a lot of time around horses and there was just a lot of leather and western culture involved there.
S: We had a lot of influence from makers, too. Ranch people are the true definition of genuine makers. They have to repair everything from engines to saddles to fences. Being a maker, that’s just what you have to do because you’re miles away from anyone who can do it other than yourself. I remember being so enthralled and so motivated by seeing the true ranchers on the property. There was a German family and this guy named Frank who could do anything. There wasn’t a trade or a skill that was outside of his capability because even if he hadn’t done it before, he had this quality of being a maker - someone who could figure it out. That’s something that I’ve always wished I could do but it’s never been part of our society.
"He had this quality of being a maker - someone who could figure it out." - Spencer
D: All that said, that might give someone the impression that we’ve been doing this our whole lives but as far as bb gun goes, we first put an aul to leather about a year and a half ago. And as far as building products for production and for retail, it’s about a year old.
S: We’ve been operating under the guise for a year and a half but the true initial launch of bb gun was only a month and a half ago when we launched our first full product line. That was our initial statement to our public and to people that ‘now we know what we’re doing’. There was a lot of experimentation, a lot of failure, a lot of being a custom company where you do whatever is brought to you. Now, we have our style, we have our vision, we know what is our genuine and authentic representation of leather work. We know what bb gun is.
And what is that?
S: Dusty summed it up beautifully and accidentally in an interview a couple of weeks ago which is, “classic European or, more so, English styling that is complemented with Western touches and overall, a feeling of rock and roll.”
D: One other thing to add, too. Part of why we’ve been able to progress as quickly as we have is because we went from working in Spen’s bedroom - one little tiny desk and an amp case. I’m a musician so I had this road case that I sat on.
S: For a few months, Dusty only sat on that amp case, which at least is kind of the same height as a chair. But for some weird reason, I sat on this little footstool that was about this high (puts his hand about a foot off the ground). It was December in Vancouver, which as you know is super dark and we didn’t own TV or have cable. We weren’t into watching hockey as most of the public. We were like, ‘What to do?' It was very much like, we have some time to pass and let’s try this out. We sat in that bedroom for months.
D: It was February when we moved out here [to the shop in the garage]. We froze. We realized on the first day that we had to get a wood burning stove. But we worked out here for thirty days straight, everyday, for long hours. After that we burnt ourselves out and there were two weeks where we didn’t set foot in here. That’s why our designs came together so quickly is because we were so immersed in it in the beginning. That’s when a lot of our learning happened.
S: We took, what people might think are unwise jumps in our progression. Most people start with a belt and then maybe move to a wallet. We made a simple belt and then the next day were like, “well, let’s build a bag”. We challenged ourselves.
*pause: This is big, my family’s dog. And this is my mom, Laurie*
So that’s the brief history of how we started.
How did you come up with the name bb gun?
S: It was again an accidental thing in that the very first thing we ever thought was that we should do something very traditional like Bentall and Baker (our last names). And then we realized that it’s long and expected so then we moved to initials and we were like ‘We can’t use bb, that means bed and breakfast”. In that discussion and internal quarrel, we were stuck. Our most creative friend, Ryan Goldemann (SP) of Mother Mothe is an awesome rock and roller and he hangs out here a lot. We were around him in that exact moment and he just spat out, as he does, “well, bb gun”. At first we didn’t know what that had to do with anything. And then it sunk it that we really love bb guns. We love that idea of a simpler time and innocence, but also that western feel. And that’s also how leather working started for me - wearing my first nations vest and having the air pop gun that my Papa gave me. That’s all where this idea started.
"We were like ‘We can’t use bb, that means bed and breakfast...and then it sunk it that we really love bb guns. We love that idea of a simpler time and innocence, but also that western feel." - Spencer
D: We also went to this leather supplier and we found out that there are three tiers of pricing. If you’re a full operating business you get the biggest discount so we told them “We’re not...yet. But we could be the next time we come in”. They told us they’d give us the discount if we came back with our papers the next time. We went home that night and thought we had to register the business. We looked up at the wall and then at each other and said “Well, I guess it’s bb gun”.
S: And as more time passes, I’m so ecstatic that we stumbled upon it as a name because it’s everything that we are. It’s cute, it’s not too serious. It’s not the egocentric Baker and Bentall. It rouses a lot of positive memories. Everyone looks at that word and immediately attaches some sort of their own personal story to it.
What’s been the happiest accident in building this business?
D: Basically, all of our designs have come that way. Just stumbling on new techniques and stuff.
S: The best happy accident was the entire story of bb gun sessions. You’ll know this, and not many other people will, that the bb gun sessions are a musical performance series that occur in our workshop right here. It happened because Dusty and I would be here late into the night. Dusty’s girlfriend (who is the most talented fiddle player, I think, in the world), my brother, Ryan, and all of our people knew that the only way they could see us was by coming to visit us and also, this little space started becoming more and more vibey. Music was just happening. The idea started spawning that maybe we should host little musical performances here. It’d be kind of fun, something to do. We thought about local Vancouver musicians, people passing through, and then Ryan (the same gentleman who accidentally named our company) just didn’t accept that. He was like “no guys, let’s think bigger”. We were thinking yeah right, there’s no way to get big artists in here. What’s the value in that? Then we started thinking about creating an online video performance series. Then my brother, who is a really high energy shoot-for-the-stars kind of guy decided he liked that idea too.
D: As we were thinking bigger, we thought that maybe we should pitch it to CBC, our friend is a producer there. At least give them the option that if we could get someone big, they could come onboard. We thought it was a gesture, because we planned to do it ourselves anyways. He loved the idea but said it had to be a certain caliber of artist - so we just stated throwing Father John Misty around for two reasons. One, he’s our current favorite artist at the moment and two, because Spencer’s brother Rick is a manager at Network Records in Vancouver. And Network has a Boston office that had just signed Father John Misty. We started to feel pretty comfortable with it. Rick came up with a pitch for CBC and we left that meeting with them and they said “We love the idea, we love the space, we think it’s great so...get it going and maybe it will be something CBC takes up. Long story short, Rick did a great job pitching it and Father John Misty agreed to it. He came in and played, he had to cover a song by a Canadian so he chose ‘Suburbs’ by Arcade Fire. It got released and all of a sudden within hours, Rolling Stone, LA Times were posting it. It went viral. People were screaming that it was one of the best covers of 2015. It all happened from this space right here.
S: Maybe this wasn’t completely accidental, but it was a great stroke of luck that this all came together. I guess you could say that’s a happy accident.
So you (Dustin) come from a music background and you (Spencer) come from a sports background, how do you think that has an influence on your work?
S: Well, I was an athlete but I think I was always living the wrong life. I think that this is a true representation of my authentic self and Dusty has helped me to learn that too because he did live quite the opposite life - unstructured. Sports is a military-type lifestyle. You check in at 0-600 hours, and this is your lift schedule, and this is your diet, and this is the competition breakdown, and it’s all just one big structured life. It was the performance life and I had the awesome opportunity of learning from Dustin and my mom as they helped me to exit my athletic career and enter into a life that really makes me happy. It wasn’t an easy transition, that’s for sure.
Spencer’s Mom: Hahaha I’m just remembering the time! It really was just...not easy going from such an intense lifestyle. Wiening yourself of that is really what it is. It’s a process.
Dustin: For me too, I always wanted to see a lot of the world and I got out high school and couldn’t wait to leave town. I had to get the fuck out of Vancouver and see something. So I worked for a few years and then bought a ’69 Impala and drove it across the country and back with my best friend. On the last day of that trip, we were about 3 hours outside of Vancouver and had a head-on collision on the highway with a big tractor trailer. It crossed the lane, hit us head on. And that moment completely changed my life in so many ways. When I recovered from that I realized I couldn’t go back to my job and I had to recover. I wasn't spending enough time with my music so I went to 100% pursuing my music and never went back. I’ve always known that that’s how fleeting life can be and after I survived it, there was so much to think about. I carry that with me everywhere I go and with everything I do and I kind of refuse to conform to the majority of society. I’ve just done my own thing and I’ve survived that way and I think that this is kind of a natural extension of that. I grinded it out for eight years on the road and still continue to. I burnt myself out and lost a lot of my close friends all at this one time and I realized that I needed to go back to Vancouver. I needed to see my old friends and the people I grew up with - really spend some time here. In that time, I got bored because I can’t really sit still for very long. It was the middle of winter and I called Spen up and I was like “Dude, I just made a belt! I took some old leather and I made a belt, we’ve been talking about this, let’s do this!”. I came into town and then we started working on it.
S: And back to how we work together and lifestyles, Dusty is one end of the spectrum and I came from a past that was quite the opposite. And I think it still influences how we work. Dusty keeps me continually in touch with authenticity and how genuine our product is. I’m the kind of guy that can’t help but be the most systematic. My approach is a little more mathematical. I’m more the small business spirit and Dusty is more of the just - bb gun spirit. Together it works. We continue to push each other forward but Dusty makes sure we have a fucking good time doing it.
D: It absolutely never would have happened if either one of us tried to do it on our own. There’s no way. I wouldn’t stand a chance trying to put together an operation like this on my own.
S: It’s tough. It looks like this quaint, humble, little shop but small business is small business. We buy all of our materials, we design, we produce, we market, we sell. Every step of a small business has to be controlled and reinvented by us. It’s posed a lot of challenges but we’re making it so far.
"I’m more the small business spirit and Dusty is more of the just - bb gun spirit. Together it works. We continue to push each other forward but Dusty makes sure we have a fucking good time doing it." - Spencer
Who do you guys look up to?
D: The biggest inspirations for me are my closest core group of friends. Some of us go back really far and that’s really what I do everything for - those relationships and those friendships are so priceless. To me they’re just the most important thing in life. As far as leather work, there’s one guy named Ken Diamond whose a really great leather worker and his shop is just right down the street from us. It’s been really cool and inspiring for us getting to know him because he’s been doing it for over a decade and has a great style. He’s very talented and it’s been very humbling to see him accept us as friends and a mentor. It’s a big pat on the back for him to recognize that we’re doing quality work. It’s elevating our experience.
S: This sounds mean at first but I’ll explain it: I don’t think I have any major influences or people that I look up to in the leather world. Not because there aren’t phenomenal leather workers all around us, but because I’m so uneducated when it comes to their styles. I think I’ve done that on purpose because when it comes to our style and the way in which we build, it’s truly a representation of ourselves and it’s very holistic. I don’t study this person’s handbags and that person’s shoes and that person’s wallets. This is a true manifestation of self - it’s us. That’s why I’ll probably never study other people’s leather work. Only now do we study technique and old tradition because we want to help to keep the leather working trade alive, especially in the way we do it. That’s a tradition that has no assistance from modern technology. And in terms of personal inspirations that keep me going it’s my mum - she’s a constant influence on how to live life. She’s a very positive spirit and is all about the idea that happiness is the one and only important thing to achieve. Like Dusty said too, we have this really cool group of friends where every one of them is an inspiration to us. We’re their biggest fans and they’re our biggest fans. We all challenge each other to get bigger, to get better, but also just to have a good time with it. We’re lucky to have our friends, holyyyyy.
Give me your best description of Vancouver.
S: For me, it’s home through and through. It just is. We are some of the very few Vancouverites who have spent the majority of our lives here and were born here. I’ve tried other places in the world but Vancouver is this perfect accumulation of everything right in a city. The right geography. The right weather systems, and the fact that we do have seasons. The evolving social aspect of Vancouver. I like that Vancouver will never be a Montreal or be the arts town. The fact that we are always going to try means that we will always be challenged. It’s good. If we were cemented in our ways and Vancouver was known as something, there wouldn’t be this struggle of identity and I think the struggle of identity in Vancouver breeds a lot of cool shit. That’s just it - it’s home and it’s a struggle.
D: I don’t know if it’s a manifestation of my own mind, but I feel Vancouver is coming into a new era that’s exciting and sort of coming into its teenage years, maybe. When I first got out of high school and I was living in Vancouver, it wasn’t big enough for me. I wanted to go elsewhere. I spent a lot of time in Toronto and saw a lot of the big cities in the states as well. It might just be because I’m in a better headspace and I’m more happy to be here after seeing everything and coming back, but I do kind of feel like it’s coming into a better time. It’s more established. It’s a little bit bigger, even over the last decade. Also, I couldn’t be happier being in this neighborhood of Strathcona. There’s a lot of really cool things happening here and it’s really growing. I feel like Vancouver is sort of on the verge of having more of a footprint on the world scale. I know it has for a long time - “It’s the prettiest city in the world” or “It’s this” and “it’s that”.
S: But the people are the ones doing that. We didn’t make the mountains, we didn’t make the bay but we can make an imprint on arts, on culture, on leatherwork. Any one of those things would be nice. We were so happy with bb gun sessions getting started because it spawned an impact on the people of our city through the CBC. We did something for our city, and something for our nation on the world scale. It did effect the world. We created a vibe, an energy. We hammered out the logistics to make something cool happen in a place that maybe isn’t known, as much, for cool shit.
S: But for us, because we’re so rooted in music (my brother in music management and he’s a musician, Dusty, Kendall, all of hour housemates), if we can help the music scene and build the arts scene through bb gun and our little space, there’s no limit. Bb gun is a leather shop, but we are artistic, and we are hardworking, and we are authentic, and that’s what music is. Hopefully our little space, our energy, can reinvigorate Vancouver, if not our entire country when it comes to music performance and visual demonstrations...one day. bb gun is such a whirlwind for us. I think that the one thing that I would like people to know and understand is that at its core element, bb gun and people who support bb gun are supporting two people who truly love what they’re doing. When they purchase a product, they’re investing in an old trade that will expire and investing in people that want to keep something alive. And the product that represents that has a quality that is not achieved by current techniques. We so appreciate all modern leather workers who use hydraulic presses and a plethora of machinery to create their products, but how we do it is not unique, but ageold. In the 1800s, we’d be a dime a dozen for how we do our leather work but the way we do it, we know, is the least profitable way to go about a company. But it is the most authentic way. So when people wear our products and represent bb gun, the represent just that - authentic human activity.