Interview: Ewan Wallace
A couple of years back Snowboard UK mag ran a cover of a snowboarder jumping out of a helicopter, nicely poised mid-indy, with roughly 120 feet of air between him and the ground. For much of the snowboarding population of the UK, that was the first they’d heard of Californian rider Mike Basich.
Since then, Mike’s come more into the limelight through his association with David Benedek and friends. He acted as a guide for them in Alaska, and had a section in their movie 91 Words For Snow, which ran as a cover mount on this magazine last year.
Mike’s relative obscurity in the freestyle-focused world of snowboarding today is not because he lacks talent as a rider (his skills are plentiful, as you’ll see from this interview) but because he has always sought to do his own thing - the heli drop being case in point. How many other riders have you seen try something like that? His riding is also very much freeride orientated, though Mike’s freestyle skills are not to be underestimated.
As well as snowboarding professionally, Mike co-owns the Riders Union snowboarding shop in Truckee, California, and his own clothing brand 241. But what’s perhaps most interesting about him is that, as well as being a gifted snowboarder, Mike is a gifted snowboarding photographer. And as befits this somewhat lone rider, the vast majority of photos you’ll see of him are in fact self-portraits, crazy heli drop included:
We caught up with one of snowboarding’s more unusual characters for a brief chat, and to find out what else he’s got in the pipeline.
Where are you at right now? And what have you been up to this summer?
This summer I have been getting my warehouse up and running for my clothing company 241-USA.com. That’s taken up most of my summer, but today I am working on my cabin up in the hills. It’s a rock cabin. I’m hoping to finish the rock work outside today.
How was your winter last year?
Last year was interesting. I had a lot of other stuff going on that took a lot of time. So you could say I didn’t ride much, but I went to Alaska for two months and got some riding in.
Did you get up to any crazy shit?
I hope to this winter. Last winter was a lot about getting my shit together. I should be ready for some good old crazy stuff for this season if the winter is really good.
What have you got planned?
Most of the time I don’t plan much. I let the winter come as it goes. But for what I do have planned, I’m heading to Croatia and Bosnia for two weeks. It should be interesting.
You’ve always done your own thing in snowboarding, and it seems like you’re not really too concerned about the fashions, I mean in how people actually ride. What do you think about snowboarding at the minute? Is there too much focus on park and freestyle riding?
There are a lot of people in snowboarding now which makes for a lot of different opinions. The mass for sure is focused on what’s cool. I still ride for the same reason I started: pure joy.
Do you think there’s any room for progression in the sport?
There will always be room. It’s just harder to find. But that is a good thing.
In what respect?
There will be more people looking for personal growth in the sport. This makes for much more creative riding, more on the artistic side.
In his Roots interview last month, Dave Downing said that he thought it was easier to be creative back in the early to mid 90s in filming, as you never had to build such huge jumps. What do you think of the trend to build bigger and bigger jumps?
It’s really never about the bigger part of it. It’s about it being different. Big or small, the difference is what make something get printed, or makes someone stop and look at something. Which leads to sponsorship, because you are drawing people’s attention.
I’m assuming that you look at all the mags and videos since you’re a pro rider and a photographer, but do you pay much attention to what everyone else is up to? Who impresses you?
I don’t look at that stuff much. I like staying away from it most of the time - just cos it gives me more time to think without being influenced by the mainstream. But I do watch to see what is now ‘cool’. It’s funny, this last winter the Olympics now say we are cool. Why twenty years later? I’m not sure. Seems to me like we are still standing sideway on a board.
How did you get into photography – are you trained or is it all self taught?
You could say it is a self-taught. I am still not that good at lighting and the tech side of it. But I do like capturing the things I see.
Dan Milner from SUK told me once that you’d decided it would be cool to have a portable rail that you could take around with your truck, presumably because you’d end up getting some unusual shots. Is that a big motivation for you – to do things that other people aren’t doing?
I like pushing the industry. I enjoy making stuff that is new or different. The big rail I made was something I did cos rails where so in then. I hated it! But heck if I am going to get a shot run in the mag, better make it a rail. But I was going to do it my way.
What’s the next project in the pipeline – anything crazy like the helicopter drop?
I have a couple smaller projects but we will see if they grow over time. I also have some stuff to do with my paraglider.
Okay, the helicopter drop. It’s one of the most genuinely crazy things I’ve seen. What was going through your head when you did that? And what was the idea behind it?
The idea was to make a photo that didn’t look real. I’d wanted to do this for years. I did it with very few photographers or filmers, because I didn’t want the pressure if I didn’t feel it was right.
Is that how you got in touch with David Benedek and co?
No that was a couple years later, when they wanted to check out AK. You could say I was their guide, in a way.
A lot of the younger riders will have only really become aware of you since your part in 91 Words. How did you find that? Was it pretty funny having a group like that coming out to the backcountry with you? Did you feel like you were babysitting them?
A little bit, but they soon got going. I was happy to share the great adventure of Alaska with some of the best snowboarders out there in the contest world. It’s funny, they are now so stoked to go to AK. They wait all year for it now. It is a fun group to be up there with.
Who’s riding impressed you most out of the bunch?
I am not sure who exactly. I think the most I’ve ever been impressed by any rider was Chris Roach in the early years. He had a sick style. Today I would say any rider that stands out and that is doing their own thing. I like people that don’t give a shit what people think.
Right, I’ve got a question now that Ed, the White Lines editor, asked me to pass on. What do you do with your sled when you ride off on your own into the backcountry? Do you drive it to the bottom of a face, hike up and ride back down to it? Or do something crazy like ride it up, give it a nudge and ride down the pow in front of it?
Ha ha! Yeah some times I do let it roll and see where it goes, but only if there are no trees. My sled doesn’t slide very fast so it is OK most of the time. I have had my sled run into other sleds, but not often. The best thing is let someone take you up and drop you off. Sledding by myself doesn’t happen that much, unless I am at my cabin - that is a great place to sled around with no one nearby. A lot of times in AK, I leave my sled at the bottom and just hike. The hills are most of the time too steep to ride up anyway.
I hear there’s a real skill to riding a sled, as any of the British riders who get on one over in the States end up immediately crashing it or getting it stuck?
Yeah. But you know, it’s about not feeling like you know it all. A lot of guys say “Oh I can do this, I’ve driven a four wheeler or a jetski". But it’s nowhere near being the same. My advice is to just take a little time and you’ll be fine. The main thing about using a sled is that it takes a lot of body weight shifting. When you get in deep pow it is hard to slide climb. It took me about two years to get it down. I’m still getting better too.
You’ve been around in snowboarding for a long time. Do you ever get bored of pro riding?
When I get tired of it I go off and do something else. I like building things, out of wood or metal. It’s funny. I’ll go build something for my room and in the same day I will end up building a rail or something to go out and ride on. That is how I keep things interesting. I always keep bringing things to my snowboarding to keep it fun. That is why you could say you see me doing different stuff than just jumping off a kicker to see if I can spin one more time around. I like the difference of things, not really the fact they are harder.
Have you thought about moving on altogether?
Yeah, but not since last year. I have so much going on in the summer I forget about the winter. But as soon as it starts to snow, I get all excited to ride again and then I really enjoy it. I like working with the industry so you could say I like the pro thing because of that. I’m not big on travelling like I used to for a contest. Those days are over for me. I will be riding a lot at my place, AREA 241. Mikey’s Backyard!
What would you do if you did finish pro riding?
I would start a company that took old cars and made them into electric cars. I will still do this. I am on my first car. And I would build wood and metal furniture.
What’s happening with all your other projects at the minute, like the Riders Union shop and 241 clothing?
The Riders Union is running itself, I’m not there too much. I’m spending most of my time working on 241. I have a nice warehouse here that is taking a lot of fixing up, so it is back to building stuff and getting everything ready for the winter. I’ve spent a lot of time on my website which isn’t something I’m used to, but it is fun to work my photos and stuff.
How’s your plot of land in Tahoe shaping up? I hear you were building a cabin on it?
The cabin is coming along nice. I just finished the outside rock work. The entire cabin is rock. I lift rocks all summer. About 500 tons, so I’m in shape for the winter. My bridge washed away so I had to fix that with a tractor. But all in all the place is looking so great. I can’t wait to get the first snowfall that will stick. It has snowed but hasn’t stayed – I’m just waiting to get the snowcat fired up.
Okay, some quick questions for you just to finish off. Who’s your favourite rider?
I really don’t have one. But if it is anyone I would say Andy Finch. He rides like we used to in the old days. He doesn’t care about the contest, he just wants to go as big as he possibly can. A lot bigger then we did, but you know what I mean.
What’s the most fun thing you’ve ever done on a snowboard?
Jumping out of a heli. Double backflips.
What’s the most memorable single trick you’ve ever done?
Heli drop you could say. I knew as soon as I did it I would never feel or see that view ever again. Quite an experience.
What’s your favourite trick?
Pow turn. Haha! On a 50 degree slope
What other sports do you enjoy?
Really I don’t do any other sports. Some surf but not much at all. I think I would be really fat if I didn't snowboard. Or maybe not, maybe I would be lifting rocks as a sport!
Any shout outs?
Have a great and safe winter everyone. And if you want to join an underground network of the best clothing out there
check out 241-USA.com.