Culture Interviews

Against The Odds | The PJ Gustafsson Interview

It’s this grit that starts to separate the wheat from the chaff

Interview by Joy Dutch. Above Photo: Jun Watanabe 

As a kid in small town Sweden PJ Gustafsson never imagined he’d go on to become one of the most recognisable Scandinavians in modern action sports. 

Both on and off the hill his style is a hark back to the halcyon days, when snowboarding was punk rock, an international underground subculture that actively stuck it to the man.

You can spot PJ a mile off, his signature look is more ‘Black Sabbath’ than ‘black run’, but his forgoing of traditional snowboard garb has only served to help him stand out in an industry that some would argue falls victim to stifling its own creativity. Both on and off the hill his style is a hark back to the halcyon days, when snowboarding was punk rock- an international underground subculture that actively stuck it to the man. We recently sat down with PJ to talk about his life and career as a professional snowboarder, delving into sobriety, modern snowboard culture and recovery.

Photo: Key Sato / Catapult tree kicker in Japan.

As is often the case with kids, PJ didn’t necessarily fit the mould. Growing up, he tried his hand at a number of more ‘traditional’ sports but never clicked with any of them. Not one to give up that easily, PJ continued to seek out something that he could pour his passion into.

“My parents then gave me my life’s most important gift for my birthday 1988, a skateboard. It wasn’t something that I had wanted or begged them to get me, they just bought it cause they thought it seemed like a fun “toy” for me to get for my birthday. Little did they know what a great impact it would have for the rest of my life! I was hooked and skateboarding has been with me and helped shape me to who I am ever since that day.”

Seeing his long and storied career as a professional snowboarder, it’s almost comical to think that at first, snow was actually something that inhibited his fun standing sideways. “So the place where I grew up is located in a pretty flat area of Sweden but the winters when I was a kid were usually pretty cold with lots of snow. So if we wanted to skate in the wintertime we had to try and sneak into indoor parking garages or go by car, bus or train to Stockholm, which is 200km away, to skate in an indoor park.” 

But despite the initial rocky start, like so many riders today, it was actually skating that got PJ interested snowsports in the first place. “I remember buying my first Thrasher magazine in early 1989. It was the January ‘89 issue and it had a shirtless Jay Adams on the cover doing a FS 5-0 in a pool, still one of the most badass covers of all time if you ask me. Anyway inside the magazine was an article named “Chill Factor” that was all about snowboarding and how snowboarding was what you should be doing if you couldn’t skate in the winter. There were also some Sims and Kemper snowboard ads in there if I remember correctly. I thought snowboarding looked really sick and like the perfect option for me to do in the wintertime.” (PJ hastens to add that whilst he initially tried skiing, he very quickly realised it was lame. Good man PJ, we totally agree.) But alas, PJ’s parents weren’t as sold on the idea of snowboarding as he was and it was several years before he got his opportunity to try the sport that would go on to shape his adult life.

Eventually, Santa came in clutch and Christmas 1994 PJ Gustafsson received his first snowboard and the rest, as they say, was history. He took to the sport like a fish to water, and very quickly began entering contests and racking up sponsors. PJ falls into the category of snowboarders, like the vast majority of us, who didn’t grow up with easy access to mountains or resorts. We’ve often found that when snowboarding isn’t on your doorstep you grow a different appreciation for it, one that is visceral and borderline obsessive.

“Everyday after school it was all about trying to get a lift from someone to go to the local hill or a small resort about a 40 min drive from town and then just shred until the lifts stopped spinning. Snowstorm, heavy rain or -25 celsius and pure ice in the slope didn’t matter at all back then. I just wanted to ride. I still do.”

It’s this grit that starts to separate the wheat from the chaff, the riders that are willing to put in the work, 9 times out of 10 are the riders who will make it to the true upper echelons of snowboarding. Over the years, PJ found no small amount of success in his snowboarding career, riding for some of the biggest brands in the world and making his mark on the industry. 

Japow / Photo: Jun Watanabe

Possibly the biggest commercial shock of PJ’s career came in the late 2000’s, when he dropped his long-time head-to-toe sponsor DC and hooked up with Japanese stalwart Death Label Snowboards. 

“Death Label as a brand fits me like a glove. Death Label is truly my extended family and some of my best friends. They’re not just a company that I ride for. They’ve had my back through both good times and really bad times and I’ll always have their back. We’ve been through a lot together and that has made our bond really strong. We’re family, we really are.”

“I had a broken pelvis, a severe internal bleeding, several fractured ribs, concussion, several bruises and after a while I got sepsis and things got even more sketchy.”

The tip off had originally come from a friend, and after talks it manifested itself into Death Label signing their first non-japanese pro rider. PJ’s been riding for Death Label since 2008 and now has a long standing pro model, The Boneless- for which he also creates the graphics. And that’s not even close to the extent of PJ’s creative streak, he’s also designed boards for Smokin’ Snowboards and Moonchild. 

PJ’s Moonchild collab guest model is an insight into his fervent advocacy for equal rights and support for the LGBTQ+ community. “I basically got free hands to do whatever I wanted when it came to the graphic, so we talked about the theme and how sick it would be to make a snowboard that shows where both I, Moonchild snowboards and the person that buys the board stand when it comes to show support for the LGTBQ+ community and striving for equality. My guest model with Moonchild was released last season during Pride Month and I couldn’t be more happy with how it turned out. Many thanks to Marcus and Jure for making this fun collaboration with me.”I believe you have a responsibility to speak up about things that are fucked up, especially if you have a platform to use as I do. I’ve always felt I’ve wanted to take a stand against injustice, even as a kid I felt it was my duty to step up to bullies in school. Keeping your mouth shut and turning your back away makes you a part of the problem. I’d rather speak out loud than say nothing at all. I wouldn’t label myself an activist, I’m a world citizen!”

Photo: Jun Watanabe

While speaking with PJ we can both agree that while the snowboard community has come on leaps and bounds in recent years with its commitment to diversity and equality, there is still a hell of a long way to go. “Just as with the world in general, we can and should do way better and I think the best way to do that is to start with yourself, try to set good examples and be a good role model for others. When it comes to events within snowboarding I think all organisers should look at Snowboy Productions and the way that they are doing things. Shout out to Seen Snowboarding & Pink Dollar Possy for doing really amazing things as well.

PJ’s been in the game a helluva long time, and seen first hand how snowboarding has changed over the years, for better and for worse. He’s been up close and personal with it, seen the true nature of it, warts and all. One thing that he’s felt the effect of is what we’d refer to as ‘the generational disappearing act’. The concept of a ‘shelf life’ for a pro rider isn’t a phenomenon unique to snowboarding, but there’s no denying how prevalent it is in our world. We see top athletes cast aside once the next shiny new toy comes triple corking in, riders who have devoted their life to snowboarding and had a genuine impact on the sport, and now they find themselves sponsor-less and unsure of where to turn. 

“Snowboarding puts too much pressure on pros, everyone has a shelf life and it’s getting shorter. The industry doesn’t care about the legacy riders and old heads, we can’t let these guys fade away. Skateboarding doesn’t have this sell-by date for older people.” He cites legends like Steve Caballero and Tony Alva who are still on the frontlines of skateboard culture decades after they initially rose to fame. 

Photo: Tsukasa Uozumi

And this isn’t the only place that we can learn from skateboarding, PJ goes on to talk about how skateboarding seems to embrace creativity in a way that snowboarding, especially comp riding, doesn’t seem to be able to grasp. “Everything feels a bit copy and paste at times, we’re suffocating our own creativity.” PJ isn’t afraid to be different, his determination to survive as a professional snowboarder outside of this bubble is admirable and something that transfers to his personal life. If PJ puts his mind to it, you can bet he’ll work his ass off to make it happen. 

Resolve is not something that PJ Gustafsson is lacking by any stretch of the imagination, in 2008 he set up his own skateboard brand, Kaleidoscope. He quickly signed his friends Halldór and Eiki Helgason to the team and went on to become one of Europe’s biggest brands, with retailers and distributors worldwide. 

“For a lot of years I put so much blood, sweat and tears in to Kaleidoscope and of course it paid off in many ways, but it has always been more about a way for me to stay creative, express myself, be my own boss and staying in close contact with skateboarding, than it has been about making money and becoming big.”

Skateboarding has always been something that heavily influenced PJ, not just in his snowboarding but his everyday life, so it made sense for him to pursue this avenue. “Skateboarding and punk rock definitely inspired me the most and shaped the way I snowboard more than anything else. When you’re young you go through different periods and try out different styles, in my case I always ended up coming back to skateboarding and punk rock because that’s my roots.”

He’s not afraid of having the difficult conversations, or breaking the status quo, he’s a beacon of authenticity in a culture where originality isn’t always the path to success.

In February 2020, PJ suffered a bad accident while filming in Japan, with potentially life threatening injuries and a long road to recovery. Through it all, PJ was determined to defy the odds and get back on his feet, his unprecedented recovery is testament to his mental fortitude and inner strength. 

“I had a broken pelvis, a severe internal bleeding, several fractured ribs, concussion, several bruises and after a while I got sepsis and things got even more sketchy. It felt very surreal at times but I think that my biggest motivation at that point was just to survive and get back home to my family again. Initially the doctors told me that I should count on 10-12 months to recover and I remember thinking to myself that there’s no way that I’m gonna need that much time to recover. I’m gonna aim for 4-5 months. Then after the first couple of sessions with my physiotherapist he said I could probably be back in 8 months and I was like ok, I’m gonna do whatever it takes to be back doing turns on my board again before this season is completely over.

Photo: Tomofumi Ishikawa

I’ve never been a fan of taking any kinds of meds if they aren’t completely necessary to get back on track and for me painkillers or any medication that reduces pain is totally unnecessary and will only prolong your recovery time. 

Physical pain is only natural and it is a weakness leaving your body. It’s not dangerous by itself to feel pain, but if you take meds to not feel pain, just like with any drugs, painkillers/pain medicine will only slow down your body’s natural healing process a lot. Your body will have to put a lot of time and energy into getting those drugs out of your system instead of putting that same energy into healing your injury. This goes for alcohol and other drugs as well. I believe that the best and fastest way to heal if you ever get hurt is to heal the natural way without any drugs.”

Photo: Key Sato

Snowboarding and action sports in general often have a pretty chaotic interconnection with drugs or alcohol, and PJ’s decision to forswear both has been something he’s grown into in recent years. 

Japanese mushrooms / Photo: Jun Watanabe

“Being sober has definitely had a huge positive impact on my physical and mental health, but of course it has been a very difficult choice to come to terms with. Being a pretty shy guy on the inside, having dealt with PTSD, anxiety and depression for almost 20 years, alcohol definitely helped me to cope at big events, contests, gatherings and just with people in general. I’m pretty sure alcohol helped me snowboard better in some ways even if that’s something you maybe shouldn’t say out loud.

My brain will tell me I’m not good enough, but that’s nothing new, the difference is that before I used alcohol to shut it up. People today see a much more analysing and less impulsive person, I don’t take the same risks while snowboarding these days. I still love snowboarding just as much as I ever did, but it will probably take me a while longer to find my rhythm in sobriety. It takes time, but I’m in no hurry.”

This candid honesty is part of what makes PJ Gustafsson such a great figure to have in snowboarding. He’s not afraid of having the difficult conversations, or breaking the status quo, he’s a beacon of authenticity in a culture where originality isn’t always the path to success. Thank you PJ for taking the time to chat with us, we appreciate you and all you do for snowboarding. 

Thanks to my family, Louise & the kids, my friends and all my sponsors, especially Death Label, Vans, Cannadips, Union bindings and Love Inc for all your help and endless support. It means the world to me. Thanks for keeping this old man out of trouble and snowboarding in the mountains instead haha. Shout out to Jesper at No Class Tattoo for being the amazing person and friend that you are and for making me look more badass than I actually am. Thanks for inspiring me to stay sober. Thanks to you Joy and Whitelines for doing this interview and for all that you do for snowboarding. Hope to see you out there! – PJ 

Photo: Hiro Hiroyuki
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