WHITELINES ISSUE 97 - OCTOBER 2011
Once you’ve seen a picture of Dan Brisse at his best, the chances are you’ll never forget it. That’s not down to his appearance – he goes for a subtle look, halfway between baggy-panted gangstas and the skinny jeans set – but rather his position in relation to his surroundings. Take, for example, the shot of him frozen in the air between two rooftops, at least 40 feet off the ground. Then there’s the sight of him plummeting from the top of a building towards an impossibly small mound of snow. If it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, in these cases those words are all exclamations of disbelief, profanities, and gasps. As the internet makes video increasingly available, there are few images that can still provoke that kind of reaction. They make you wonder how anyone of sound mind can even comprehend doing such things. Into our head pops the question that has followed this man around since his emergence on the urban riding scene, the question we’re hoping to get to the bottom of during our chat:
Is Dan Brisse insane?
It’s mid-morning on America’s west coast when Whitelines gets hold of him. He’s in Vancouver, Washington, not far from the Oregon border. With a fun session at Mount Hood done and dusted, he’s taking some time out to relax for a few months. The plan for the rest of the day involves a bike ride, a spot of reading, looking after his brother’s dog and generally “hanging out". So far, so confusing; can this really be the same man who regularly risks his neck, and even his life? In search of answers, we take things right back to the beginning....
Born and raised in Minnesota, just over the border from Canada in the Midwestern United States, Dan is definitely a product of his environment. His and his friends’ first forays into snowboarding were limited to what was on offer. “The nearest resort was called Powder Ridge", he remembers. “It’s like 300 ft vertical, it’s just tiny. We had some crappy park jumps, but you never really got the full feel for it. It was fun, and still is, but other than that the only choice we had was the urban stuff".
So he played the hand he was dealt, spending every available moment of winter out on street sessions with his friends. By the time he’d finished high school, he was making enough progress with his riding to consider forging a career out of it. While his home had given him the opportunity, he knew he’d need to trade Powder Ridge for powder heaven to stand any chance of going pro. Like Bjorn Leines before him, he left the North Star State and headed for Utah. It quickly went from option, he recalls, to inevitability. “In Minnesota it’s always the dream to move west, because it’s so urban related and that’s all you’ve really got. I just wanted to have a more well-rounded video part and more well-rounded snowboarding, so Salt Lake City was the place for me".
It’s been nine years since he made the move, and the plan seems to be working. As soon as the snow falls he’s out looking for street spots. Come February, it’s about getting as many powder days as possible. The result is truly jaw-dropping video parts year after year, from his breakout part in Capita’s First Kiss to the coveted end section of Absinthe’s NowHere. Having heard about his reputation as a grafter, we ask the man dubbed ‘Blue Collar Brisse’ to explain just how much goes in to getting those urban shots.
“During early season it’s such a grind I can’t even describe it. Pretty much all day, while you’re awake, you’re working", he says, the dread registering in his voice. “You sleep when you can, but I sleep for as little amount of time as possible so I can get back out there and snowboard. It sounds crazy to some people but that’s just the way I like to do it. For me, I’m just excited because I love snowboarding".
Dan’s passion to get out there and put the hours in must make it all the more frustrating when, after hours of planning and preparation, someone threatens to stop the session. For a prime example, look no further than his first shot in 2009’s Neverland. The monster quad-kink handrail would be daunting at the best of times, but especially so when a shrill cry of “THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY!" cuts the air. It’s a common problem for urban riders in the litigation-loving United States. The fear that someone might get injured on their turf is usually reason enough for worried proprietors to shut Dan and his crew down, even before they’ve had a chance to get going. Luckily, his years of experience in this field have left him with a few tricks up his sleeve. Watch Absinthe’s behind-the-scenes footage and you’ll see a familiar-looking man decked out in hard hat, safety goggles and high-vis vest, left to his own devices as he takes a grinder to a handrail. If you’re wondering why Dan rocks a ‘tache these days, here’s your answer – it definitely completes the look.
“You throw the hard hat on and give it a shot, and it does work. People see you and they instantly think ‘he’s part of the city, he’s doing his job, we just need to let him be’. Most of the time people are really nice and are like, ‘you’re working so hard, can we get you something?’ It’s fun, you know? As long as you’re not causing any harm, I think it’s ok".
This year he’s taken things a step further, getting hold of a Bobcat skid loader. As well as drastically reducing the need for shovelling, and hence the amount of time required for setting up, Dan discovered a bigger advantage. “We rented one for a week and it was just awesome. If you’re shovelling for four or five hours, people come out and ask what you’re doing, but if you’re in a Bobcat with the hard hat and the reflective vest, they just assume you’re helping out. You know, who else would have a Bobcat?"
His technique of hiding in plain sight echoes tightrope-walker Philippe Petit (‘Man on Wire’) and BASE-jumper Felix Baumgartner, both famous for conning their way past those who’d stand between them and their goals. Like them, Dan doesn’t want to cause trouble, and certainly has no intention of suing should the worst happen. He just wants to get on with what he’s doing, and knows that it’ll take a little improvisation. It’s a similar situation when he’s up against a padlock. “When you go to spots that are closed up for the winter they just lock ‘em, and part of doing what we do is getting through these locks, so we cut ‘em with bolt cutters. After we’re done getting the footage, we lock it up with a fresh lock and mail the key to them without a return address. We write a little letter in there and just tell ‘em ‘Thank you’".
And when all else fails? “Just play dumb", he laughs. “We just say, ‘oh sorry, we didn’t realise’. When we’re in Salt Lake City, we say we’re from Minnesota. When we’re in Minnesota, we say we’re from Salt Lake City. By doing that, usually you can get out of it pretty easily".
In a few years, though, there may no longer be any need for such tactics. The 2010 season brought a new development, one that could potentially put an end to the problems Dan faces. As he explains, “when you’re telling people what you’re doing and drop the word ‘X-Games’, most of the time they can relate to that, and they help out. It’s big enough that some people know what it is and if you say you’re doing something with it, they listen".
While it has been written off by some as a stunt show designed to sell energy drinks, snowboarding at the X-Games took on a different face last year. The ‘Real Snow’ event invited 16 top riders to film a short video using only urban features. Like many others Dan was sceptical at first, but he was soon won over after a look at the rider list. As well as contemporaries like Nic Sauvé and Joe Sexton, he’d be competing against the old guard – J.P. Walker, Jeremy Jones and Seth Huot. “Growing up, J.P. and Seth and Jeremy were the heroes", he remembers. "They were the untouchable guys that you saw in the movies and magazines. You never rode with them and never thought you would, and to be in a contest with them was insane".
Dan’s 76-second video took the judges’ prize and earned him a cool $50,000. More significant for him, however, has been the knock-on effect that association with the increasingly-popular X-Games has brought. He now gets offers from the very businesses back in Minnesota who would usually chase him away: “They’ve heard what we’ve done, and seen the X-Games. Now they’re contacting us to say that if we want to shoot stuff at their businesses next year, they’ll help us".
And what about the more ‘straight’ contests? Does he have much interest in the realm of flow scores and world rankings? “I watch some of the Dew Tours and the X-Games", he says, “mainly because I enjoy watching Torstein [Horgmo] ride. He’s a pleasure to watch. I don’t watch many other events, but it’s just amazing how these slopestyle riders have the double corks on lock. It’s next level."
Speaking of next level, what’s his take on the new and divisive phenomenon that is the triple cork? Where does he stand? His reply comes after some deliberation. “It’s tough. There are guys that can keep style in and do it well. It’s.... I dunno, I guess I’m still developing that opinion".
While he may not be completely sold on it yet, Dan hasn’t joined other prominent urban riders in thinking that this realm of big tricks and big bucks has effectively cheapened snowboarding. “I think both sides will only get stronger", he reflects."The people will just ride what they really truly enjoy and are good at. You’ll always have people that are good at the doubles and the triples and the slopestyle contests, and you’ll always have the urban kids."
So he’s not one of the guys who see the recent rise of urban shredding as a backlash against the private jump sessions and mainstream sponsors? An attempt to reclaim the original punk spirit of snowboarding? “No. Some of the kids are completely against it [the sport selling out], and voice their opinion about it every day, which is kinda funny. It may be a bit more about attitude now, and in the future, but for me urban riding was never about that. It was about riding what I enjoyed and what was there."
So it all comes back to Minnesota. And so does Dan – it’s still a big part of what he does, as well as who he is. That monster handrail at the end of Neverland? Minnesota. Those dumper trucks that crop up in almost every video he’s in? Loaned by old friends from high school. He even continues to get footage for Bald E-Gal Productions, the local film crew that he started out with. His home state will feature heavily in both Absinthe’s twe12ve and Capita’s Defenders Of Awesome. As he explains, is was a no-brainer: “Minnesota got hammered with the most snow in about 40 years, so we were there five times in the space of a month and a half. It’s got a lot of great urban terrain, and I just know it so well, so it’s easy to go there and get footage".
For a rider so connected to his past, what could the future hold? Dan isn’t giving anything away just yet, but he’s got big plans for the upcoming season and is excited by what’s in store. And why wouldn’t he be? This is his time; new events like X-Games Real Snow and the Transworld Team Shootout (Capita didn’t win this year, but Dan’s rail-to-cliffdrop session was the talk of the contest) seem tailor-made for riders like him. Then there are the advances in tow-in technology, which for him have “completely changed the urban game. You can go to a city that’s been filmed at for so many years and find stuff that no-one’s ever done before". Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the wider world is starting to sit up and take notice. We wonder if he might even take it a step further and stage a major one-off media event, where the TV cameras are rolling and the line between ‘snowboarder’ and ‘stuntman’ is blurred. There are precedents in other sports; think Travis Pastrana’s New Year’s Eve rally car jump, Danny Way clearing the Great Wall Of China on a skateboard, or even Evel Kneivel and a whole load of school buses. Surely someone will do it one day – could it be him? “I dunno", he laughs. “I’d have to put more time into thinking about it. I’ve never really thought about that at all. There are so many factors that would come into play".
What about the idea of trading the tightly-knit crew of filmers and fellow riders at the urban spots for a global live audience of potentially millions? “I think it could go either way and I’d be fine with it, you know. It’s just the way it’s worked out that, when we film, no-one’s really around, but if something like that came about I don’t think it would change much at all".
The longer we talk to Dan, the less we can picture his involvement in something like that. In terms of ability he’s the prime candidate, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’s looking for headlines and his name in lights. Dan puts the riding first – the rest is an afterthought. And as for him being mad, forget it. For someone that’s often seen leaping between buildings, his feet are firmly on the ground. What we see is simply what happens when peerless ambition and resourcefulness meets a strong work ethic. It’s about seeing potential where others don’t, and having the determination to realise it. As he points out, it’s not like he’s a natural risk-taker. “I’m not living on the edge every moment, which is maybe what people might think. I’m more of a relaxed person. The rest of my life is pretty mundane and mellow. I’d consider it to be boring compared to the snowboarding stuff." With a self-deprecating laugh, he sums it up. “I don’t even drink alcohol. I like to read books, know what I mean?"
At the end of the day, it’s really just about dedication. Whether he’s in the Midwest or Utah, being filmed or not, it’s a safe bet that Dan’s giving it his all. He ploughed everything into his riding long before Absinthe and the X-Games came a-calling, and will continue to do so. He works hard, thinks positively, and most of all enjoys it. As a result, great things happen. There’s really only one potential danger to his sanity:
“I got a new double this year, cab double cork 900. I would have liked it to be cab double 10, but I couldn’t get it together. It’s tough when you’re doing a part that’s both urban and backcountry. You spend two and a half months filming city stuff so when you switch it to the backcountry and the jumps, you’re kind of behind. It’s just not as easy to try to get three or four doubles on lock in your part every year when you can’t put as much time into it."
Even as winches open up new spots and Bobcats slash set-up times, even as growing recognition erodes the need to bend the law, there will never be enough hours in the day for Dan Brisse to ride. And that might drive him nuts.