Taken from Whitelines Issue 94 January 2011
Interview: Tristan Kennedy
As the opening notes of Gnarls Barkley's Smiley Faces ring out, a rider slashes a face, before launching into a smooth buttered 360. The camera angle switches, and as the tune drops he boosts a floaty front three tailgrab off a cliff – a move that looks so effortless it's as if he was born to do it. Forum's 2006 film That contained many classic clips, and this was far from the most technical trick. But it has stuck in my head long after the memory of all the double-kink back-lips has faded because it looked like so much fun. The rider appeared to be having the time of his life. Four years, several major movie parts and a sponsor shift later, and Jake Blauvelt still looks like the cat that got the cream. But then that's hardly surprising, because by anyone's standards, this man has a lot of reasons to smile.
Since winning the US Open Slopestyle as a precocious 17-year-old, Blauvelt has carved out a name for himself as one of the best backcountry freestyle riders out there. His arsenal of super-technical moves is combined with a flowing, almost feline style and an old-school soul surfer's attitude that sees him reject man-made kickers in favour of riding the mountain as he finds it. Still only 24, he now finds himself in the enviable position of riding with - and being compared to - legends like Nicolas Müller and Terje on a regular basis. Jake's easy-going, zen-like manner might lead you to believe that he's not too fussed, and decisions like his sponsor switch are just lucky gambles. But nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, a lot of stuff comes naturally to him, but behind the laid-back, surfer-dude drawl there's a sharp brain, and his young-looking face belies a wisdom beyond his years. His habit of always landing on his feet comes from his considered career choices off the hill as well as his cat-like abilities on it. We caught up with him to find out what life is like for the man that some are calling 'the future of free-riding'.
Winning the US Open at 17 was pretty crazy. Travis Rice got second, and I was like, 'what the fuck?"
Hey Jake, how’s it going? Where are you right now?
I’m in Bellingham, in Washington. It’s just like 15 minutes south of the Canadian border. It’s the closest town to Mount Baker.
I guess if you base yourself in Baker it’s a good place for the kind of riding you’re into right?
Yeah exactly. So Baker’s like an hour up the road, and there’s Whistler, and I do a lot of filming up there. With that new highway they put in from Vancouver to Whistler it cuts the drive down a little bit. It’s only two and a half hours from my doorstep up to Whistler.
When did you decide to move up to the Pacific Northwest? How long have you lived up there?
I’ve lived here for three years now. This is my third full winter here. I was just renting from one of my buddies for the first year, and then I bought a place after I just fell in love with the town and everything.
What was it that pushed you to move? Cos you grew up on the East Coast right?
Right. Yeah. It’s kind of like a natural progression for myself. I started off in Vermont, kind of East Coast riding. I was competing in some USASA [USA Snowboard Association] contests - the north Vermont series - and then I won the nationals for slopestyle. And I was like “Woah, maybe I can actually do something with my snowboarding!" So I moved out to Mammoth Lakes. My parents were all stoked on it, they’d backed me since day one so I’m really fortunate for that. But they were like, “Ah, you’re 16, you can’t go and live by yourself right now" so we found a family for me to stay with, and I did online home-schooling for that first year. And that was really cool. And then the following year, when I was 17, I moved in with some buddies in Mammoth – that was actually in 2004, and I won the US Open Slopestyle that year…
I remember that. You were only 17?! That’s gotta be a bit of a headfuck? Just look at the list of former winners!
Yeah right. It was pretty crazy. Travis Rice got second. And I was like, “What the fuck?" [laughs]
[Internet connection goes down, cutting us off]
Is your internet dodgy up there?
No it’s normally OK…
How rural is Bellingham? Are we talking like a tiny little town?
There’s probably about 70,000 people maybe. So it’s a good size. It’s kind of nice, cos you can get away from the whole 'action sports scene' and all that stuff.
How does that compare with your hometown?
My hometown is Waterbury, Vermont. Right next to Stowe Mountain Resort.
A lot of talented young kids go to specialist snowboard schools, was that ever an option for you?
Yeah, I went to a snowboard academy, called Mount Mansfield Winter Academy. They were based out of Stowe, and that was my freshman and sophomore year [age 13-15]. That was just in the wintertime, for like four or five months of the year. It was pretty small. I think there were something like eight or nine snowboarders? And maybe like 20 skiers. It was all affiliated with my regular state school that I went to, so they’d just transfer the grades and everything back to my regular school in the spring time.
My body is my business you know? If my body's fucked up my business can't work"
What is it about East Coast riders heading west? You grow up on these icy slopes, and then you spend your careers shredding pow. I mean people like big mountain Jeremy Jones was an East Coast lad and he spends his whole time in the pow…
Right yeah. He used to ride Stowe actually, my home resort! Uhm [thinks] I think what we have is not so much an extra special love of powder, but people learn the basics right from the get go. They learn how to turn and stuff. Everything’s kind of harder on the East Coast cos it's so icy, and then when you get to the west coast everything seems like butter [laughs]. And they don’t really realise how good they have it growing up with like Bear and Mammoth and stuff. I think it’s just more about getting the fundamentals right off the bat, instead of going and learning a frontside boardslide or a 540 before you can even turn, which a lot of kids do at Big Bear and places like that. 'Cos once you have the basics you can really excel. It’s all there you know?
You obviously had your slopestyle technique dialled, and you won the US Open and stuff, but then you pretty much stopped doing contests. Why was that?
Yeah, pretty much from that point on I realised that I wanted to get into powder and film. I was looking up to guys like Devun Walsh, and Terje and all the guys putting out sick video parts, and Nicolas Müller and Gigi and I was like: “Dude, I wanna do that, that looks so fun!" After I won the US Open, that gave me a chance to get in with a film crew - Defective Films, and Sean Johnson. Derelictica was the first movie I ever filmed for. That year I moved to Tahoe, and that was the first of three years I lived in Tahoe. I'd been with Forum since the age of like 14, and the following year they started filming for the Forum video That. I was psyched, cos they were like: “Yeah, come up to BC and film with Devun Walsh." And I was like “Alright! I can do that." [laughs]
How was that, quite a steep learning curve?
Yeah. Yeah I learned a lot from him. I remember one day up there, we were on this big pillow set. I was just gonna like start in the middle of it, and Devun was like: “No dude, link it in. Like flow into the shot" - so don't just have it like a quick drop and you're done. And that was one of the best lessons I’ve learned yet.
So you get the line into it and the line out of it?
[Enthusiastically] Exactly! So you get your main feature, but you can link it! You know, you don’t just have to start right above that main feature, and drop and land and done. You can throw a couple of plumes into it, and then hit the main feature and then slash out of it. Instead of just: point it, air, land. It's just fun, I enjoy it. Because a lot of snowboarding these days, it seems like they’ve got their cheese wedge built, and then they point it in, do no turns, hit the cheese wedge, do their trick and then stop. I mean maybe they’re fine with that, but I like to turn into stuff, and slash out. There’s nothing risky about doing a little turn or a little butter into your main feature. And I just find it fun! [laughs]
To tell you the truth I don't really understand Facebook"
How is it filming with Absinthe Films? This is your first year with them right?
Yeah. It was really cool man. It was awesome to be able to go to Alaska with them. I’d never really done that before because Forum always kind of stays down in the lower 48.
Was riding in Alaska very different for you then?
It’s definitely different. It’s kind of like the final stepping stone in snowboarding. I felt like there’s a natural progression. I mean Tahoe was super-tiny, really fun to learn in with the Defective guys. And then I came up to the Northwest and started filming in Whistler, and I was like “Woah dude, this is crazy compared to Tahoe." And then after three or four years I started to get the hang of it, and I was like “OK, what’s next?" It seems like AK is the only thing after BC. It’s a step up in terms of the gnarliness of the terrain, and the size of the features – like everything’s huge up there! And at the same time there’s gnarly bergschrunds and avalanches and crevasses and... everything’s just gnarly. Like you can die real quick up there. So I felt like a rookie again this past year. I was like: “OK just watch what these guys are doing. Listen to what Justin [Hostynek, Absinthe main-man] says is the right thing to do." I got to ride with Gigi a lot this year too, and yeah it was cool to be a rookie again. To be learning from guys like Gigi and be in the back seat and taking in all this information you know? And after a couple of years I guess it’ll be kind of like BC, where I feel comfortable and I can charge up there. Because last year I’ll be the first to admit that I was not comfortable in AK.
Looking at the footage I wouldn’t have guessed!
Ah thanks man [laughs]. No but I’m not as comfortable as in BC or whatever. But I’m hoping it’ll get that way as the years go by or whatever.
So tell us about this Blauvelt’s Backcountry project that you've also been filming for.
Well we did four 20-minute episodes on Fuel TV – well, it’s Fuel TV in the States, and different broadcasters elsewhere [it’s on Sky in the UK]. It’s kind of like Tracking Eero.
How does working to that format compare with working on a conventional film like Absinthe?
It’s uhm, it’s definitely different… Yeah cos Justin is still shooting film and stuff and he’s super artistic. It’s cool you know, he’s always been that way. He doesn’t care about the behind-the-scenes stuff too much, or wearing microphones or anything. But then, when you’re filming for the TV, you gotta get all that stuff and you’re always wearing a microphone. It seems that kids really wanna see that behind-the-scenes stuff lately. And it’s good to show a little personality, as opposed to going off the radar all year and coming out with a three-minute video part, along with 20 other dudes in the film. I mean the cool thing about Absinthe is they’re gonna take nothing but the A+ shots – that's what makes them great. They’re only taking the best of the best because they can’t make a two-hour film you know? It has to be around 30-35 minutes and they gotta fit all the other riders in as well because all their sponsors are paying for their fair share of video time. But I feel like the normal video part is kinda old-school and you can do a lot more these days. And with Facebook and everything online, it seems like kids just want a bunch of information like, uhm… now! They don’t want to wait all year for a three-minute video part. But then at the same time it’s good to support those core video companies. Like the classic snowboard video is really important.
Do you think of yourself as internet savvy then?
Well, I’m learning. But I don’t even have Facebook or anything. I’ve always kind of steered away from it, but I think I’m gonna give in to the pressure eventually.
How come you decided not to for this long?
Err, just cos I… I don’t know, I just kind of like my privacy I guess. At the same time I don’t even really understand it to tell you the truth. I mean I peek into my girlfriend’s every once in a while, and it seems really useful to keep in touch with people, but there’s so much stuff that you could just steer clear of at the same time. Like, say I’m at a premier and there’s a picture of me dancing or something and there’s a girl dancing next to me and then all of a sudden it’s like “who’s that girl with Jake" and I’d be like: “What?! I was just dancing!" [laughs] Especially with kids, if they get the wrong idea with something you put out there on your Facebook, cos you’re a pro-rider… I dunno, you just gotta do it tastefully. But I’m gonna start learning about all that stuff. I’m not that comfortable with computers generally though. [laughs]
So I’ve got to ask about Forum, and leaving them. Did the fact that Devun left along with Iikka and Lauri have any effect on you? Did you think about leaving as well?
No, but I was definitely bummed to see them leave. But it’s just business I guess. I mean, I think they got some really good offers that they couldn’t pass up – I think, I’m really not sure. That’s kind of how it goes I guess, you gotta pay the bills. But it meant I didn’t really have anyone to ride with, it was crazy. Like everyone else was on rail missions and I was the only guy hitting powder for a couple of months. That was a major concern of mine, I was like, “dude, I don’t have anyone to ride with for these team videos!" They had a BC filmer that I worked with. And sometimes Shin Campos would come, or just buddies in the Whistler area. But I voiced my concerns to Forum, and then the next year they hooked up John Jackson, and that was sick!
You two got on well then? It looked like you rode quite a lot together.
Yeah, John J, he's one of my best friends man, he's just such an awesome dude. That was awesome to be able to ride with him, so that worked out really well. But leaving Forum... well it basically just came down to me wanting to expand my horizons. I've still got a really good relationship with all the Forum guys, everything's really cool. It was strictly a business move. Like I wanted to market myself as an individual, as my own rider, and not just one part of the Forum team. I felt like I just wanted to be Jake Blauvelt, not 'Jake Blauvelt part of Forum'. I wanted to be grounded in the industry too, not just cycle through like so many people seem to, you know, like ride for a few years and then you get pushed out by the ams. Also, it was kind of getting monotonous doing the same thing year after year, just filming on sleds in BC or in Tahoe. I was always telling them, “I really wanna go up to Alaska" and stuff. I kind of wanted something new. And I think change is good.
They were surprised though right?
Yeah, it was out of the blue.
Is it true that you quit Forum, fired your agent, and then disappeared off to Costa Rica to go surfing for two months?
[Laughs] It was a month actually, but yeah. I was in Houston airport, and I just knew I was gonna be out of cell service and away from the industry and stuff, so I just made the move. So yeah, I got rid of my old agent, and then... it was really hard to leave Forum. I wasn't sure, I was still in the middle of my contract actually, so that made everything kind of sticky! Like I quit in September and they'd spent marketing dollars on me up until February. But in the end it all worked out.
How do you feel about the business side of snowboarding in general? You sound like you enjoy getting away from the industry - in places like Costa Rica and Bellingham - but you also sound like you're pretty aware of yourself as a brand. How much do you make decisions based on business logic and how much of it is just about riding?
Well, it's funny. I feel like every year I become more conscious of being... like, I dunno I'm not a businessman by any stretch, but you just gotta be aware you know? Even if you do have all these major corporate sponsors, you gotta really market yourself as an individual and have your own name. Your name is your business. I really think of it like that with staying healthy. Like my body is my business you know? If my body's fucked up my business can't work. I'm always trying to stay really healthy, like eat good food, do yoga, I play a lot of soccer – I'm in like a local league at the minute. We got games every Friday.
Do you watch football at all? Do you ever see the Premier League?
Yeah I saw Arsenal and Tottenham the other day [the derby that saw Tottenham come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2]
Don't talk to me about that...
[Laughs] Yeah Arsenal should've had 'em right?
How did you hook up with Ride? Were there a few deals on the table? At one stage there was a rumour flying around that you were going to join Jeremy on Jones Snowboards. Was that ever really a possibility?
[Laughs] Ummm... not really. I didn't really talk with too many people because it was just such a sticky situation 'cos I was still in contract. But Ride's based just down the road, in Seattle. And then I'd always known that Ride gear – especially their boards – are unbelievable. So it was kind of a no-brainer. But I mainly wanted to work with Oakley on Gore-Tex pro-series outerwear – that was kind of the first move. And then after that I was like “OK, I need to find a board sponsor now." And I didn't have too many plans, but I was hoping that some sponsors would wanna back me.
Well you seem to have fallen on your feet with Ride. What do you ride out of their range?
Well this year I ride a board called the Berserker – it's not called the Blauvelt pro-model, but it's kind of got my name on it. We're just testing it at the moment and then it'll be on the shelves next year. It's cool with Ride, 'cos I can work with all the engineers. I go down to Seattle and there's the main engineer Paul McGinty – he's actually an English guy – he's super on it.
Over the years I've developed a big passion for travelling. You learn so much when you're abroad."
Are you a stickler for tech specs, or have you always been happy riding pretty much whatever?
Actually, I could never really get Forum to make me a stiff enough board - I like 'em super-stiff, narrow and snappy. I'm actually kind of a geek when it comes to things like that, because it really makes a difference to my riding. And I always come back to camber. Like we're trying to develop a hybrid board with Ride that will ride like a camber board in and out of turns but then float like a rocker in powder, but as of right now, I'm a camber fan. I think when you know what you really like and dislike it helps your riding. And it helps the mental side cos you're like “I know how my board's gonna react to this."
There was a recent video of you riding with the Nike 6.0 guys at the D-Pad Session in Norway. At one stage you're like: “I need to get my park legs back!" How did it feel riding park again, and with all those young guys like Staale Sandbech and Gjermund Braaten?
It was unbelievable seeing what those kids would just chuck right off the bat – everyone's got the double backside corked 1080 or whatever – that's like a 360 for them now. It's pretty crazy [laughs] I was blown away. It was really cool to see them busting out. But at the same time, when Terje showed up at the end I had way more fun slashing the little bumps on the way down to the jump with him than hitting the jump [laughs]! I guess that's just the kind of person I am and the kind of rider I am. I'm just more into that kind of stuff than just 'point it, air, land, stop'. But at the same time, those guys are pushing a different side of snowboarding - that maybe I'm not so much into - but it's sick what they're doing.
Did you hang out with Jamie Nicholls at all?
Yeah, Jamie's such a sick kid! He's awesome. He was probably one of my favourite guys. He was telling me about the “cup of builder's" Like what is it, Yorkshire Tea? [laughs] Such a solid kid. And he was the first one to throw that like double backside 10 cork. He was pushing it really hard, I can't wait to see him in years to come.
But we're not gonna see you hitting parks and riding contests any time soon?
[Laughs] I don't think so...
So what's the best thing about your job?
To put it simply, exploration. Being able to go and explore – whether it's some new run in Mount Baker, or being able to go down to Chile and Argentina and ride in the Andes and Patagonia. Or over in Europe. And being able to enjoy all those things with your friends.
The travel's a big part of it?
Yeah. Over the years I've developed a big passion for travelling. I've loved it lately. You know, sometimes it's hard to motivate before a trip, but when you get back, you feel like a different person almost, like you've learned so much while you've been abroad.
And what's the worst thing about your job?
Travelling! [laughs] That sounds stupid but yeah it can be hard. Injuries suck as well. When you break yourself off and can't do anything for two or three months. Yeah the biggest bummer is injuries, or having to go to sales meetings, or doing stuff you don't wanna do.
Is that a cat I can hear?
Yeah! [laughs] he's pretty vocal! Here we go [picks up cat]. His name's Pierre. Pierre-Maurice. He's a French kitty [laughs]. I normally wouldn't keep a pet cos I'm always gone, but the previous owners of my house, they just left him. He came with the house. He's cool though, he's totally mellow.
What are your plans for the coming season?
Well, it's still kinda up in the air. Most likely film with Absinthe, and then try and find some other ways to get myself out there – like what we were talking about, trying to get some more bang for your buck both for yourself and for your sponsors. But yeah, nothing definite. Just hopefully go riding, get some good pow, and hopefully it'll all fall into place.
Cool, well thanks Jake, take it easy.
Yeah thanks man, you too.