Tall Stories: The Danny Wheeler Interview
Interview: Ed Blomfield
I didn’t realize it when I organized our chat, but this will be Danny Wheeler’s fourth interview for White Lines. He’s also had four covers in his time, surely something of a record. “They said I’d never get another interview after the second one," he admitted halfway through our conversation. “They also said I’d never get another cover. So I don’t listen much to what you guys tell me!"
It says something about Danny that he’s still impossible to ignore after a decade at the top, riding as well (better, mostly) than anyone in the British scene. The truth is no one has been more influential or enduring than this lanky shredder from Yorkshire. From his dryslope days in the early 90s to his current position as a respected European rider, he has stood out as both talented and motivated – living proof that you don’t have to be short to have style. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact this journey to recognition was basically made alone, at a time when British riding was viewed by Johnny Foreigner as something of a joke and his peers were developing a UK scene based on casual seasons and partying hard. In gaining the respect of established international pros and carving a whole career out of snowboarding Danny Wheeler has laid down a marker for the latest generation to follow. If there is such a thing as a British ‘professional’ snowboarder, Danny is it.
So without further ado here is our fourth (and final!) interview with the big man himself. Surely there won’t be another one… will there?!
For people who are newer to the sport, can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got into snowboarding? I grew up in Pontefract in Yorkshire and started playing rugby actually, when I was really young. I played outside centre. But I got to about 12 and then I got into skateboarding.
Were you one of those really tall lads on the opposite team that’s bigger than everyone else? I guess I was, but as I got to 12 or 13 everyone else started catching up and I was really skinny! I really enjoyed it but skateboarding started to takeover. It was pretty magical back then and I went through all sorts of trials to get my first board.
When did snowboarding come into it? I went on a skiing holiday, and I’d seen this snowboard supplement they did in the middle of RAD skateboard magazine back in the day. It had Si Smith on the cover doing a really cool suitcase air, and a thing on how to make your own snowboard – like, cutting a bucket in half for the insert straps! (laughs) So anyway I tried it on holiday and then didn’t think about it for years, just skated, but then I went to Rosendale and saw all the snowboarders – Chris Moran, Steve Bailey and their mates - and it was night time and it just looked really cool. There was already quite a scene going on. They were gapping moguls and shredding around and it just looked so much fun. I thought, “I have to be in on this!" I relentlessly badgered my mum to buy me a snowboard and eventually I think I had to sell my Commodore Amega to afford it. She wouldn’t let me have both.
What was your first board? It was a Burton, which Moran and Steve were really mean to me about – saying how gay it was and all that!
But weren’t they were on the Burton team?! Yeah but that was later on. Back then they were really ragging hard on it cos I had all the Burton stuff. I actually wanted a Joyride Eldorado but the Burton stuff came with a warranty so my mum wanted me to get that.
Do you owe it all to your mum? Kind of! We lived miles away from Rossendale – like 45 minutes – and she’d drive me over once or twice a week. Some weeks my mates’ mum would drive but we hated that cos she had a Citroen 2CV and we had to go on the M62, which is the windiest motorway in Britain. We’d be going at 45 mph with the boards sticking out of the roof – even if it was raining. Actually it was best when it was raining cos the slope was fast. The atmosphere was electric back then.
What was the early scene like? The magazines looked up to the Kaos boys – Si Smith and that – but you didn’t see the mags much; it was only when you could get your hands on one. Rossendale was really the be all and end all for us – I didn’t know much about world stars particularly. Maybe Terje a little bit. Chris and Steve were just so good they made it look like fun, and that was the be all and end all: to be as good as Steve.
What were THE tricks to do back then? Anything Steve did! Kickers – anything to do with kickers. And we had this little line. Steve could ollie off the flat maybe three and a half feet and tailslide the fence at the side. And he could do things on the rope tow, and there were lines and gaps through the moguls too. It sounds daft talking about doing terrain-stuff on dryslope (laughs!) but Steve had all the lines down at that place. This was before they even started putting ramps out; we were making our own jumps.
What are your memories of the dryslope comps you used to enter? Chris and Steve were the first ones to start entering contests, and they blew everyone away. No one knew who these guys were, and they didn’t really know what the level was supposed to be. So Steve was doing a lot of stuff before he’d seen them on any videos. He had late spins and every single grab on all these tricks. Then I suppose I kind of followed. I went to one in Sheffield, and one in Scotland. Those are the ones I did best in. But I didn’t spend a lot of time on dryslope actually – maybe two and a half years solid between 16 and 18.
Would you say you turned your back on dryslope? Steve always went back and rode it but I never did that. I went away on snow and when I came back I just couldn’t get my head around dryslope again. I’d got used to the speed of snow and how much bigger you could go and I just didn’t want to. They say snowflex is better though – I dunno if anyone would come back these days to shred dendex! It’s like learning all over again.
When did you start moving in a different direction to your dryslope crew? What inspired you? Two videos really captured my imagination - The Hard, the Hungry and the Homeless and Upping the Ante. Those two movies were just exactly what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be like Roan Rogers, Jeff Brushie and those guys. I’ve never really liked the more obvious guys – like I was never a super big Terje fan – but these guys seemed more interesting. The underdogs.
Speaking of supporting the underdogs - you’ve had a mixed bag of sponsors over the years and a lot of them have been smaller brands like Duotone and now Icon. Did you deliberately steer clear of the bigger players like Burton and Ride? I believe the bigger the brand the less personal freedom you have. I’ve tried to ride for brands where I was more than just a rider and am more involved in things. I think there’s a pretty ruthless culture in place at some of the brands. I’ve had seasons where I’ve been injured and I’ve only rode a few days all winter but no one’s even known – you blag it and you get a few shots. But if I’d been at a bigger company that might have been it – career over. So maybe you can earn more money somewhere else but the small guys repay you when you’re having a rough time or whatever.
How much input do you actually get into your pro jacket and board? It can vary. The stripey jacket I designed myself, and it worked really well for Westbeach. I wanted to make it as cheap as possible so kids could afford it and it would do what it needed to.
And on the board side? Do you decide the flex and all the rest of it, or just the graphic? Kind of. My pro model is a scaled down version of my board. I ride a 166 which is too long for most people so the one in the shops is a 160.
Does it help your riding much? There’s something for everyone now. As long as you get the fundamentals right - length, flex and width - you can’t go far wrong. I had a nightmare back in the day where I wasn’t riding very well, cos I was on boards that were way too small for me and the stances were too narrow. Once I tried my first wide board I started to ride better.
You started appearing on the radar of the European scene quite early whereas the rest of the British guys weren’t too well known. Did you feel like you got to that stage because you were at a better level, or you just had more desire to ‘make it’? I basically ended up living in France, and I was pretty ambitious I guess. None of the other guys in my generation quite had the desire, they were just having fun doing seasons. Because it wasn’t much fun sometimes, travelling on your own all the time. Other countries had a crew y’know, but I’d be on my own at some contest, eating dinner on my own… After a while I got friends with some guys, like Jakob and Darius, and they were the first guys I’d met who were really friendly. They were all technically better than me because they’d been riding since such a young age, and that pushed me on. It was nothing I couldn’t learn, I was just behind in years.
Would you say you wanted to make it as a proper pro rather than bum your way through seasons like your average British ‘pro’? Yeah, the word ‘pro’ gets thrown around a lot but there’s not many British professionals really. But I didn’t think too much about that, I just wanted to be good, and I didn’t want to be a joke. Some of the guys [on the circuit] were dicks about anyone from England; even the foreigners who weren’t that good at riding just think it’s so funny that you don’t have mountains. I don’t understand why it’s funny – Travis Parker’s from Texas for god’s sake and no one gives him any shit. After a while I started doing alright an in the end I actually won a couple of contests and I lost that chip on my shoulder.
Are contests a necessary evil? Kind of yeah, I don’t really like them but you only have to do them a little bit to prove your point. Sometimes you need to put yourself out there and get to know people.
You said in an interview recently that ‘European snowboarding needs to unite’. What did you mean by that? Every country seems hung up on their own scene, and we look to America too much anyway. When a rider makes it over there, then we say, “Oh yeah he’s really good." But we shouldn’t need them to legitimize what we do.
Isn’t it just the same as skateboarding like that? Skating’s just the same but it’s a few years ahead. Now you have Blueprint and Cliché and all the European brands and some of the emphasis has swung back. We can do our own thing over here – we don’t have to leave home to make a living, we can get our own scene going.
Do you think of yourself as a British snowboarder, a European snowboarder - or just ‘a snowboarder’? I think of myself as a snowboarder now. I’ve seen the bad side of patriotism so I’m not too keen on that really. The way I see it I was born wherever I was born and then I moved away and I lived in France. I just loved those mountains, and since then I’ve been all over the world. Yeah I live in England in the summer but I’ve made great friends all over the place.
So are the British Champs unnecessary? I think it’s pretty positive, although too much emphasis can be placed on results. Like when it comes to getting sponsorships and stuff. The champs are cool but they just need to be viewed in a different way rather than as a realistic ranking system for who’s good and who’s not.
It seems like outside of Britain we’re viewed as a serious market for selling snowboards but at the same time we’re not taken that seriously for producing top riders. Is that deserved? I think we produce some good riders but we’re all a bit hung up on it. It’s not realistic to expect us to produce a Shaun White, and actually if you look at a lot of other countries in Europe they haven’t produced a lot of winning riders either. They might have a higher proportion of good riders but they haven’t produced the guy who’s blown the snowboard world away. These guys are few and far between. There’s no reason to expect that we would or should have one.
It’s like our obsession with producing a Wimbledon champion. Yeah, and even more so because we don’t feel like we don’t belong in the mountains. We need somebody to make us feel better about ourselves. So we can say “We don’t have any mountains BUT we’ve got the best snowboarder in the world." It’s kind of like we’ve always been looking for that end to the sentence. But I’ve never needed that. I’ve met a lot of world renowned snowboarders and ridden with them but I don’t look up to them any more than I looked up to Si Smith or Steve Bailey or anyone who’s pioneered British snowboarding. You can only do the best with what you’re given.
Which of the current crop impresses you most? I think Tyler [Chorlton]. Maybe it’s cos he grew up in the mountains but he’s creative and he’s comfortable in the backcountry so it’s all there for him. Plus he’s the best frontflipper in the world! He’s lucky they’re not gay any more! He wouldn’t have made it in the 90s (laughs)
What were you hoping to achieve with your movie Skyrocket last year? In every other country park riding is great but the epitome of snowboarding is what goes on in the backcountry, and I just felt that that wasn’t really respected enough in the British videos. Obviously people can relate to the park stuff but so much more goes into getting footage in the backcountry, and it seemed like we were patting ourselves on the back for getting a bit of park footage, which is really way too easy. Also I wanted to put some guys on the map who weren’t really getting the coverage they deserved for one reason or another – like Mark Kent, who’s never really pursued sponsorship, or Nelson Pratt.
Were you pleased with the result? I was, but I think people maybe didn’t understand how small it was. We didn’t even have a filmer – me and Si [Brass} were filming each other on a six year old camera. When you take it in context of how small the budget and crew was then it was pretty good. It was only supposed to be a few hundred copies originally but it just so happened that we got the opportunity to put it on Onboard. In England it wasn’t that well received but across Europe people seemed to be into it.
How long do you think you’ll keep riding professionally? It’s hard to say. It could be five years but every year could be your last. Like if you blow your ACL. I take it one year at a time now. The sport’s so young I don’t think there’s really a bar set. I know skateboarders seem to be going on a long time these days.
Do you ever feel old when you turn up to snowboard parties now? You’re never the youngest kid there. Like Tyler’s only in his early 20s but he’s twelve years older than Jamie Nicholls, and Westbeach have just signed this kid Will Smith whos… ten? I dunno but he’s pretty short! (laughs). I don’t envy them, it’s beyond ruthless now! It’s like skating though, you’ve got young kids but you’ve got older guys who look after themselves and know how to film. It takes time to learn these things, they’re pros. And when one of them comes out with a part, like Mike Carroll, everyone sits up and takes notice. It should be a bit more like that in snowboarding – embracing the personalities.
You’re married now - where did you meet your wife? I met her at a new year’s eve party and she was a friend of a friend. The rest is history (laughs)
How was the wedding? Was it a big snowboard bash? She’s Italian so there were a lot of extended family there, plus my family and all my friends from snowboarding. It was a reunion for some of them, the ones who rode back in the day and who don’t get to see each other much anymore. It was pretty funny. It was an amazing day actually.
If you have kids will you encourage them to get involved with snowboarding or is it too cut-throat these days? I’d just want them to do it to have fun. Snowboarding’s as cut-throat as you want it to be. The better you are doesn’t necessarily mean you’re having more fun. It’s more about the feeling you get from pushing your own limits.
Putting the grumpy old man hat on for a minute, what’s wrong with snowboarding today? I want as many people as possible to enjoy it but there did seem to be something more magical about it back in the day. For me it’s not a sport in the sense that football is, but some people seem to be viewing it in those terms now, like it’s a discipline. That’s a negative thing for me because it’s got so much more to give than that. It’s creative, it’s athletic and there’s no right and wrong. But people are trying to format it into a package that people can understand.
I read that you had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Is that right? How does it manifest itself? Everybody has it a little bit, like not stepping on cracks and all that stuff. I think I’ve had it most of my life, but when people get it really bad it’s usually in their mid 20s and they get really struck down by it. A small percentage of OCD is having an actual action you have to do to get rid of it - like lock the door multiple times or wash your hands (that’s the one they show in films all the time). Some get what’s called ‘pure O’ and it’s like you don’t actually do anything but your brain gets caught in loops, and you can’t brush it off. Like a thought might pop into your head and normally you’d say to yourself ‘oh that’s stupid’ and you wouldn’t think about it again, but if you’re ‘pure O’ then it comes back into your head straight away again and then it basically plays on a loop to the point where it’s this thing inside your head, and you’re never really concentrating on what you’re doing. From when I was 27 I pretty much wasn’t concentrating at all on snowboarding; I didn’t even wanna do it because I was in too much of a mess.
So you were affected by ‘pure O’? Yeah, for a couple of years it was pretty horrible. I got misdiagnosed a couple of times but then they figured out what was wrong with me and I started having therapy to deal with it, and eventually you learn to manage it. There is no cure or anything but generally you just learn to live with it, it becomes totally manageable. The problem is a lot of people don’t know what they’ve got - they say most people live with it for seven years before it gets bad enough that they try to get some help. After I learned to manage it I totally fell in love with snowboarding again.
What’s the favourite picture you’ve ever had published? The coolest was a double page spread in Transworld that Nick Hamilton shot. It was a cab 7 tailgrab or something. Me and Nick were in the carpark in Snowbird and the mag wasn’t even out yet but some kid had it. It was like “nobody gets spreads in Transworld!". And on the back of my double page Danny Kass had like a one page Check-Out! (laughs) He’s eclipsed me now obviously!
Your first White Lines interview took place in the Hacienda in Manchester. What was that all about?! Matt Barr was the writer back then and he had this idea to have a great night out and just bring his dictaphone along to do the interview. It didn’t make much sense! He was asking these girls in the club what they thought of Danny Wheeler and they were saying things like “I really liked him in Star Wars!" It was pretty funny I suppose but people reading it probably wondered what the hell it was all about! That was what it was like back then though. Those early years weren’t professional at all. We were all just doing seasons and having fun.
Last question. Do you feel lucky? Yes. Snowboarding is who I am, it’s what I do, but I have a life too. The freedom we’re allowed in the sport is amazing. It’s not like football, we can go out whenever we want. To be honest if it had been so serious back then I would’ve missed out on all the funniest experiences. The best memories are all doing things we shouldn’t really have done.
Thanks Danny, that’s it. Cheers. Can I just add special thanks to my wife, Mum and sister too.
Image One: Francesca Genovese; Image Two: Vernon Deck; Image Three: Vernon Deck; Image Four: Natalie Mayer