Taken from Whitelines Issue 95 February 2011
Interview: Tristan Kennedy
In Norwegian fairy tales, there are some characters that crop up again and again - one of the most popular of these is a fox called Mikkel. A mischievous little creature, Mikkel likes to play tricks on his fellow animals, using his natural abilities to outwit them. Sometimes his practical jokes go wrong, and he often finds himself in trouble, but a combination of good luck and cunning means he usually comes out with a cheeky grin on his face at the end of the story.
Norwegian rider Mikkel Bang shares a lot of similarities with his namesake. He first appeared on snowboarders’ screens as a pint-sized grom with a massive grin in White Balance – Standard Films’ 2003 release. His innate natural ability was obvious, and his relaxed style set him apart from his peers, even at the tender age of 13. Since then, he’s grown to over six foot tall and has notched up a series of impressive contest results to match his stature. His path from child star to adult achiever makes him an interesting enough interview subject in itself. But what really makes Mikkel a pleasure to talk to is that he’s still got a lot of that irreverent, cheeky kid in him. He’s currently one of the best contest riders in the world, but he seems to have got there almost by accident, without trying too hard. There’s certainly no way you could ever accuse Mikkel of taking himself or his snowboarding too seriously. When Whitelines talked to him shortly after Christmas, this superstar was spending time just hanging out with his family and a tight-knit group of friends at his parents’ holiday home in Hemsedal – as he has done every year since he was young. In fact, what shines through more than anything about Mikkel - both in interviews and in video parts - is that he snowboards purely for the love of it, and he still loves it just as much as when he started. He goofs around on the hill, he’s got a happy-go-lucky attitude off it, and he constantly has a cheerful, cheeky smile on his face. Last year, Burton began picking symbols to represent their riders on their new website. Kazuhiro Kokubo got a pair of crossed samurai swords; Freddi Kalbermatten (famous for his scratching skills) got a turntable; Terje ‘sprocking cat’ Haakonsen got… you guessed it, a cat, and Mikkel Bang? Mikkel Bang got a fox tail.
Hey Mikkel, how's it going? How was your Christmas?
Yeah, really good. It's always nice to spend time with my family. We have a lot of relatives, a big family, so that’s pretty cool. We actually all live in Oslo, but right now I’m up in Hemsedal in my parent’s cabin. After Christmas we always come up here and hang out and snowboard and stuff. It's cool.
Does your whole family snowboard then?
No, both my parents ski. They love skiing, they've been skiing their whole lives. But my sister snowboards. And I snowboard. [laughs]
Did you start off skiing then when you were small?
I did, yeah. They got me on skis pretty early, and then I switched when I was aged about seven.
How much time do you get to spend in Norway generally then?
This year I think I'm gonna be gone for pretty much the whole season. I'll leave on my birthday – I turn 21 on the 8th January – and then I’ll be gone 'til May probably. But I get to spend a lot of time in here in the summer. Like 17th of May is the last day of the season, and then I'm free you know? [laughs] I get to stay at home. I love skateboarding, and there's concrete everywhere outside my house. So whenever it's a sunny day I get to go and hang out and skate. It’s pretty cool. But I actually kind of like travelling really - I find it very relaxing these days sitting on a plane. It becomes the time of the month where I get to sit down and just completely relax. I can listen to my iPod or do whatever. It's kind of nice.
Do you ever hang out with the other pros who live in Oslo, like Torstein or Andreas Wiig or anything?
I don't actually, I usually hang out with my friends who I grew up with in the neighbourhood... and also Torstein and Andreas live in kind of a different area to me. So it's kind of a mission, well, actually not so much, cos Oslo's not that big a city, but yeah we don't really hang out that much. We see each other at contests and stuff.
“That's the reason I started snowboarding, because you could just go out there and do whatever the f**k you wanted"
What are your plans for New Year's Eve then? Big party?
Well, I'm going back to Oslo, and then I'm going to have dinner at my house with a couple of friends. I mean New Year's Eve is definitely a big party in Norway, but I kind of wanna have a quiet night – well not quiet, but not super-crazy. Though that's easy to say now, I don't know if it will actually happen! [laughs]
How did it work when you were a kid with school? Because you started travelling to contests really young right?
I was lucky ‘cos both schools I went to gave me the opportunity to travel. It was never a problem being away from school, I just had to do more shit when I came back. I think the hardest part about being away from school and travelling is that you have to teach yourself stuff, compared to the other kids who get to sit in class and get taught in actual lessons. I always had to sit down and read when I wanted to do other things, like hang out or skate or whatever.
I guess when you're 13 or 14, having that kind of self-discipline must be hard?
Oh for sure! Dude there were so many trips when I didn't do anything you know? Where I had like a bunch or stuff to do and nothing got done. So I'd have to make up these stories about how I lost books on the trip, or my luggage went missing or whatever [laughs]
But you stayed in school all the way through to the end?
Yeah, I stayed all the way through. I'm glad I did it. I think it was good to learn, and to – I don't know – to be under some sort of control, to have something to do rather than to be completely free. I don't know if that makes any sense, but that's kind of how it felt.
You've been a proper pro since you were really young, how did you first get hooked up with Burton?
Well, Burton had a photoshoot going on in Hemsedal, and I was just a local kid you know, hanging around in Hemsedal and riding and joking around. I must have been 11 at the time. And I knew someone who had a bit of contact with Burton, so they introduced me to one of the team managers who was on the trip, and I got to spend some time with all the pros. Romain de Marchi was there, Shaun White, JP Solberg, Mads Jonsson... big, big names. And I got the chance to ride with them. When the whole week was over, the team manager, Rene Hansen, went and talked to my dad, and... well, that was it! And then, after that, everything just happened. I got the chance to film with Standard, for White Balance, which was sick... I don't know how, but for me everything just kind of happened! All I cared about was the snowboarding really. Like I was just lurking around you know, I didn't really look at it as a job, or like I had to do something for it, I was just riding. It was pretty nuts...
“Double corks shouldn't be called double corks, they should be called double flips. I mean all you do is whip yourself around and hold onto your board and then you got it, you know?"
So your dad was kind of like your manager when you were young?
Well, yeah, I guess he helped at that stage, and I needed it – at that point I didn't really understand anything, you know? I was 11 [laughs] I was just cruising with it. It was pretty nuts. Especially now, looking back. I mean, growing up a little bit and seeing the business side of it, it seems even crazier. I was just 11!
In White Balance, you shared a part with Fredrick Austbo, another Norwegian – did you know him at all, did you used to hang out?
I didn’t know him before. I met Fredrick Austbo for the first time in 2001. But after that we became friends pretty quick. We started riding together and it was sick riding for Burton, ‘cos we were both very young, and we had the exact same... well, we were interested in the same things. So I rode with him pretty much all the time until he left Burton for Quiksilver. We still hang out though, I go to his place in the summer, and skate – and dude he is such a talented skater, he's sooo good.
How about Luke Mitrani, ‘cos he was in the same part right? Do you hang out with him and his brother Jack at all?
Oh yeah, those are the guys I hang out with most of the time these days. Luke is like one of my better friends. And actually I'm seeing him now at the Burton European Open, we're rooming together there, and then we're going to head off filming together.
“People can go hit airbags if they want, but I'm not going to do it. Because that's not what I feel snowboarding should be"
So do you train like an athlete for your runs, like the run that won you the US Open Slopestyle?
No, I didn't train for that run [laughs] It was more just like it was a really good day, and it was soft, and I guess I had a really good feeling inside me, so I guess that's the only reason why I put that run down.
How did that feel, winning the Open?
Oh, it was amazing, it was like a dream coming true - well, not a dream coming true, but it's definitely one of the coolest contest experiences. Especially ‘cos I've been to the US Open every year since I was 13, so it was pretty cool just to get on the podium after being there for so many years.
Did you ever feel like there was pressure on you to win something big like that because you've been there on the scene for so long?
No, I never really felt pressure at all. All I really focused on was having a good time [laughs]. Well, no definitely there's been pressure, but I never felt it that much, I've always just kind of put those feelings to one side and concentrated on having a good time.
So how old were you when you first realised you could do this as a job?
Well, that's the funny thing – I never really thought this could be a job. It never really felt like one. I just snowboarded and it just happened! [laughs] It's pretty crazy actually. I mean, when it comes to business and negotiating contracts then it goes a little bit serious, and then it feels like a bit like a job, but really, I don't look at snowboarding like that, I see it as kind of like a hobby almost, or just something I love to do.
A few people thought you were robbed at last year’s BEO, when the judges gave Peetu the win - did you feel like that at all?
[Laughs] Ah I never really care when that stuff happens. I mean, there's always going to be different views and opinions on who's the best so when stuff like that happens I'm just like: “OK, it's just another contest". And it happens you know, you can’t always win.
“Snowboarding is turning into something completely different to what it used to be. Imagine if you saw a coach at a skatepark, it would be so silly!"
The trick that got you onto the podium last year was a super-tech flat spin – a switch back 12. Do you feel like it got a little overlooked by judges because of all the hype around double corks? A lot of people reckon that switch back 12 is a harder trick...
Well, the double corks you know, they shouldn't be called double corks, they should be called double flips. I mean all you do is whip yourself around and hold onto your board and then you got it you know? Compared to a flat spin I dunno... but flat spins are also very difficult. You gotta know how to like, turn your body at the lip... but who knows? It kind of goes back to the same thing – people are always gonna have different opinions on what's best. The only thing is, I'm going to have to start doing that stuff soon, because it seems you can't win a contest with a flat spin anymore. At least that's what it looks like.
So we’re going to see you whipping out doubles in contests this year?
Well I'm kind of cutting down on the whole contest scene a little bit. I'm actually trying to sort of slip away from it. [laughs]
Oh really, how come?
I feel like filming is more important, especially nowadays, with what snowboarding is turning into. Snowboarding is turning into something completely different to what it used to be you know? Like people have coaches and trainers and... well, imagine if you saw a coach at a skatepark, it would be so silly! Or a coach running around a street course, or some dude skating in the street and there's a guy, like, running next to him! I feel like snowboarding is a very individual sport. Actually that's the reason I started snowboarding, because you could just go out there and do whatever the fuck you wanted. Cos... [sounds a bit disgusted] yeah. [pause] I mean, I think it's really cool that the sport is growing and everything, but that's the reason I kind of want to go more into the backcountry and the powder, because that's what I feel more happy doing – the freeriding and the powder, rather than the contests. I'm not saying I'm going to quit doing them totally, I'm gonna keep on doing them as long as I'm maybe able to get good results, but I'm definitely trying to move towards the filming side of things, I wanna just follow my heart, you know.
And Burton are backing you on that?
Oh yeah yeah. They're happy with that. I just told them this year I'm gonna do four events, or maybe five events, and then the rest of the year I'm just going to film. And they are totally fine with that. So I've done Air & Style, then it’ll be European Open, X Games, and then the US Open, probably.
Can you imagine a format you’d be really stoked to compete in year after year?
Well I guess the best contest I can think of right now – I've never been there – would be the Baker Banked Slalom contest.
Do you think the Olympics has played a part in the move towards a more professional, training-focused attitude?
Oh, for sure! Like foam pits and private coaches, and... I dunno man. I mean, I don't care if people want to go do that, people can have coaches and people can go hit airbags if they want, but I'm not going to do it. [laughs] Because… well, that's not what I feel snowboarding should be. I feel like it should be more individual and should be more about the feeling and... a little bit more hippy maybe! [laughs] It's definitely turning into something different. And the crazy thing too is that the kids that are growing up now seeing what snowboarding is now, they're going to see it as totally different. I don't think snowboarding needs all that stuff.
So if they do include slopestyle in the next Olympics, would you go?
[Laughs] Yeah, actually I think I would. But I think probably the biggest reason – well, actually the only reason - I would do the Olympics is for my father. Cos he would think it would be cool. So... yeah. I'm sure the Olympics would be a fun experience to go to. But if slopestyle doesn't become an Olympic event I wouldn't care. Because I don't think snowboarding needs the Olympics. I think the Olympics needs snowboarding.
“I never practised good style. I think if you try to have good style then your style won't be as good"
Was Terje right about the Olympics from the beginning then?
I thought what Terje did back then was super-cool, man. I really thought so. Specially ‘cos it showed what snowboarding really was, you know? It wasn't like... like you didn't have to have drug testing, or you didn't have to have coaches, it was just a free sport.
Was he one of your heroes when you were a kid?
Well I was inspired by a lot of people, but I think everyone has a little thing for Terje, because he is definitely a living legend. He is a really, really, really good snowboarder. But I think at the moment, Gigi Rüf is probably one of the best. Gigi and Nicolas [Müller].
Interesting. So the guys who are taking the sport in a more freeride kind of direction?
Yeah. Yeah. I really like that stuff. I wanna... I wanna be more into the powder. You probably don't make as much money, but in the end, I don't really care about that you know? When I'm old, I wanna be able to look back and be like: “Yeah, I did what I wanted to do." [laughs]
Do you think internet video is going to have an effect on those kinds of snowboarding careers - like the traditional way of filming a powder part?
Yeah, it's insane. I think it's kind of sad what the internet has done actually. I mean the internet's good and I think it's cool how everything can be free for people to watch. But at the same time I kind of miss the whole thing with like that one movie that you've been waiting the whole summer to watch, and everyone's getting excited about it. It was more… it was more special before. But I mean, I guess movies still come out in the stores. And Burton is making a movie this year. So I'm filming for them, and Keegan Valaika is making a movie this year too. So I'm gonna be filming for both.
You don't see something like the liftline.tv [Burton’s video sharing website] or anything like it taking over from traditional DVD-style formats?
Well, I hope there's always going to be movies that you can buy in the store, and like keep the packaging and have it forever. And I mean, there's definitely a lot of shit on the internet! [laughs]
What do you think of something like the Helgasons' blog, which has helped them boost their profile in a huge way? Are we going to see you doing that anytime soon?
Oh, blogging? I'm not really into it, that's not my style. I mean, I don't even have Facebook. I'm old-school, I'm like: “Send me an email!" [laughs]
You don't have Facebook? How come?
Well, a couple of personal reasons... I mean, I had it, and it's probably something I'll go back to at some point, but it just became a big mess you know. Because, now Facebook is becoming something that people actually take seriously. And I just couldn't deal with people being mad at me because I didn't reply to them on Facebook. I mean what’s that?!
Fans were getting angry at you?
Yeah, you know, or just a lot of people writing stuff, and I didn't have time to write back and then they'd get all bummed on it and I was just like: “I am not going to be a fucking... [tails off] I'm not going to do that basically." And back to blogging, that's totally not my style. People don't need to see that much of me you know? They can see me when I'm snowboarding. They can see a movie part, or if I get a result at a competition then I don't mind being on the internet, but other than that I wanna kinda be a little bit away from the internet.
So if you don't use Facebook, how do you fill your downtime? You play guitar right?
Yeah, and I always bring my guitar on trips.
“Right now I'm riding a 163, but I actually want to go bigger. I want like a 165 or something. Not just for powder either, when I have a board I like I ride it for everything"
What guitar do you have?
Right now I have a guitar I bought in Japan, in Tokyo, the name is Greco, I think it's like a Japanese make. It's a really sick guitar and it has like a sun in the middle... wait, I'll go grab it. [picks up hippy-looking acoustic guitar and picks out a bluesy riff]
Nice! Sounds like it's got good tone
Yeah, it's got a good sound.
How long have you been playing for?
For about three years now...? No actually four. Yeah it's been four years now.
What kind of stuff do you like to play?
Well, just kind of rock you know. But I usually don't play songs, or I don't sit down and learn a whole song. I just kind of like to mess around, going on like blues scales and stuff. I play the Jimi Hendrix chord a lot.
What music do you have on your iPod then?
Most of the time I listen to classic rock. Like Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath... I mean, there's good music in every genre, you can always find something you like, but most of the time I'm just rocking!
What's your favourite trick to do on the hill? Is it that switch back 12, or something a little more classic?
[Laughs] I dunno... the switch back 12 is a lot of fun, it's kind of crazy being in the air and rotating that fast... but I'd have to say my favourite trick is – ah, it's hard to say, cos there are so many fun tricks – but maybe backside 5. That's a really fun trick. Or a frontside 3, styled out. That's so much fun.
A lot of people have commented on your super-casual riding style, right from when you were a kid. Is that something you ever thought about consciously?
I think style is really individual again, that's the cool thing about it – everyone has their different way of doing things. So I never practised good style [laughs]. I think if you try to have good style then your style won't be as good. I think the most important thing with style is to try to be relaxed. Not to stress in the air, just to be calm and make it look smooth. That's the most important thing.
Well, you certainly have a reputation for making things look relaxed. Does that have anything to do with your equipment? Do softer boots or bindings help with that easy-going style?
I dunno, I guess I could ride a stiff board and stiff bindings, but I do kind of like them soft. But I'm 6'3" so I guess I ride quite a long board for freestyle. Right now I'm riding a 163, but I actually want to go bigger. I want like a 165 or something. Not just for powder either, when I have a board I like I ride it for everything. And with a long board you can go faster you know! [laughs]
So are we going to see you putting in rapid Jeremy Jones-style lines in future?
Yeah I guess [laughs] that's the idea! More of that kind of thing anyway.
When you're old and you look back on your career, what would you like to have achieved? Do you have any set goals?
I don't really have any set goals, I think my goal is to keep on doing what I'm doing now, and as long as I'm happy, you know, that's what I care about. As long as I'm happy that's good.
Thanks Mikkel, you said you're going out riding now?
Yeah, I'm going to go out night-riding in Hemsedal with my family and friends now.
Nice! Well, enjoy dude.
Will do, thanks a lot.