Behind The Scenes At Natural Selection | The Matt Barr Interview

We chat to selection committee member and commentator Matt Barr to get the up close and personal scoop on the Natural Selection Tour

Above: Matt Barr and NST Co-Founder Liam Griffin, PC: Owen Tozer

As the dust settled around the first stop of 2022’s Natural Selection Tour in Jackson Hole, we sat down to chat with Matt Barr to get his thoughts on the event that has been described as ‘the future of competitive snowboarding’. Not only a member of the NST selection committee, Matt was rubbing shoulders with snowboard royalty as he repped the European contingent in the commentary booth.

An authority in action sports journalism since the mid-90’s, Matt cut his teeth working as the Editor for Whitelines before going on to found Marketing and PR agency, All Conditions Media, and later launching the ever-popular Looking Sideways podcast.

“Obviously snowboarding’s still relatively niche, isn’t it — I mean, we’re not talking about the Olympics here”

How are you doing?
Yeah, I’m alright. That was terrible timing for the call, though. The dog was basically like, ‘Right let’s fucking go now.’ So now we’re out for a walk.

So you’re in the UK right now? Any time planned in the mountains soon?
I think the only other trip I’ve got planned is up to Aviemore at the beginning of April. But yeah, another season where I haven’t really had a season…

I guess you got some riding done in Jackson though?
A little bit, but as you’d have seen conditions weren’t amazing. It was more like piste cruising, really. Minishred, and all that.

The start gate at dawn | PC: Owen Tozer

Obviously the next stop at Baldface is about to launch, although unlike the Jackson Hole stop, it’s not going to have the same live spectacle to it. Not that it’s put off any viewers, everyone still seems pretty hyped on it.
Yeah, I think what they’re trying to do is ambitious. Not just with the actual snowboarding, but the scale of a live broadcast in Jackson is a big production. Obviously snowboarding’s still relatively niche, isn’t it — I mean, we’re not talking about the Olympics here — but within snowboarding it’s massive.

It’s almost like a startup. They’ve got this grand vision, which is that these three stops that will be broadcast live and my understanding is they’d like to take it to Europe and to Japan and run the whole thing as a legit global tour with the level of production we’ve seen in Jackson, but that’s obviously going to take a lot of money.

“And I was a bit like, ‘Fuckin’ hell, okay, that’s quite a big responsibility.’ So I actually said no, at first”

They want it to showcase this idea of snowboarding – and it’s a serious thing for everyone involved. I know it’s the line that you often hear from the people within the Tour – and I don’t just mean Travis and Liam [Griffin], but the army of people involved in the Tour are all legitimate snowboard lifers, really. So it’s a long road to get to where they ultimately want to take it, but I also don’t think they want to cut any corners to get there.

Let’s take it back to the beginning of your involvement in the tour. You’ve been part of the selection committee for the last few years. How did that opportunity come about?
It was quite a surprise for me, to be honest! I’ve known Liam [Griffin] for about 20 years. I first met him when he was doing all Burton’s events. He was running all the Open Series and I was working for Motorola — back when mobile phone companies had teams! — and I basically traveled around, working at all the Opens around the world. So we became friends and stayed in touch.

And then I’ve known Travis for about five years. I interviewed him for Looking Sideways, and we got on pretty well. So when they were putting it together — back in summer 2020 — Liam got in touch and said, ‘Look, we’re looking for somebody from Europe to come on the selection committee, do you fancy it?’ And I was a bit like, ‘Fuckin’ hell, okay, that’s quite a big responsibility.’ So I actually said no, at first.

Wow, why was that?
Probably a bit of imposter syndrome or something like that. Which probably sounds ridiculous considering how long I’ve been doing this, but I was just a bit like,’You know what, I really appreciate the offer, but I’m sure there’s other people that are probably more deserving of this than me.’

So Liam was like, ‘I wasn’t expecting that, but I sort of see where you’re coming from’. And then I think they had a chat and came back to me saying, ‘Well, that definitely means you should do it’. So they didn’t really take no for an answer.

The riders tent | PC: Owen Tozer

How do the committee actually go about selecting the athletes?
Before we even started the process of making selections, we had to agree on how that was going to work, how the votes would be counted. Obviously recent footage was non-negotiable. So the riders that had footage that basically showed that they were basically at it — let’s just put it that way! — was an obvious factor.

So, this year, somebody like Arthur [Longo]… well, you don’t need more of a calling card than that [referring to his latest film with Vans, Elles]. Delving deep and going into all the parts out there, is obviously, a fair amount of work, but it’s a lot of fun to geek out to that extent.

And I think it’s worth saying that we’re trying to find a balance of people. I’m definitely trying to get more Europeans in there. I think snowboarding, generally, is pretty US-centric, isn’t it? It always has been. And they [Liam and Travis] were quite clear that they wanted me to be arguing for the rest of the world and to sort of shake up the US-centric approach.

“I don’t want to say we’re just thinking about ‘storylines’, but it is something you’ve got to sell”

I don’t want to say we’re just thinking about ‘storylines’, but it is something you’ve got to sell. Every sport does that — especially professional sport that’s being broadcast to a high level. You need characters, you need stories, you need to have a narrative. So that definitely gets talked about.

I think it’s kind of a combination of those things, really, but there’s also a lot of debate. And what I was really gratified about was how democratic the whole process is. Everyone gets listened to, my arguments always get taken seriously. So it’s an example of how serious they are about making sure it’s representative and it doesn’t just come across like a fit up with Travis’s mates.

And that’s the obvious thing when you’ve got somebody so associated with it, making sure it seems fair. Which is something that we all take extremely seriously, when we’re doing the selection part of it.

Robin Van Gyn Boosting | PC: Owen Tozer

I can imagine the pressure that’s on everyone’s shoulders making those decisions, but it must also be quite liberating, in a sense, right? Rather than a regimented points based qualifying system you can almost cherry pick the most exciting riders out there — for whatever reason, whether it’s a movie part, results on the competitive scene, or whatever.
Yeah, I mean, it feels like a big responsibility, obviously, because everyone that knows snowboarding, everyone that’s passionate about snowboarding gets the significance of Natural Selection. That idea’s been talked about for years and people have tried it — TTR being the obvious example — but they haven’t quite worked out. So it feels like quite high sakes with this one.

It was always gonna take somebody like Travis Rice, with his clout and energy, to deliver something like this. So, I think we all feel the responsibility of that, but you’re right — I mean, just look at Jared Elston this year. That was just so gratifying, because if you’d asked people if they thought he’d get to Natural Selection, nobody would have thought he was even in the conversation.

But when we saw his part and when when we started doing more digging, we were like, ‘Fuck me, look at this kid!’ And we were able to make the call, get him in there, and obviously he did really, really well. I think all of us were pretty hyped on that, because it felt like the process had worked. You want it to be a platform for riders like that, where they’re a bit of a wildcard. Not everyone will know who he is… and he absolutely fucking killed it.

“A lot of that competitiveness is directed inwards, because that’s the nature of the game. Everyone seems pretty laid back and joke-y, but equally there’s this undertone that they all want to do really well”

I guess the format and all the variables can sometimes play into the hands of the underdog or wildcards. I mean, look at Zoi the year before, right? Were there any particularly tough or contentious decisions the committee debated over this year?
There’s usually really good consensus. I think what was tricky this year was it being an Olympics year. So Jamie was out, Mark was out, Zoi was out.

I think it’ll be interesting to see how that changes in the future because I sort of got the vibe that there were a few people that were genuinely wondering what the best thing to do was. I think it’s real progress — you’ve got people that are seriously thinking, like, ‘Should I do the Olympics, or should I do Natural Selection?’ I think that’s a really good thing, personally.

Big Air Jare contemplating the huckfest | PC: Owen Tozer

Like Sage, fair enough he’s won an Olympic gold medal and he moved away from that scene years ago, but he genuinely was like, ‘This is as legit – this is up there for me’. So it’ll be interesting for years to see what happens in four years time .

We had a really similar conversation with Sebbe de Buck about this. Seems like many of the riders already view the Natural Selection as the pinnacle of competitive snowboarding, which is interesting, because in a lot of the pre-contest interviews we did, many of the riders just said how happy they were to be there and that it was just a cool experience to be a part of. But surely when they get in the start gate, their competitive instincts kick in?
Oh, definitely. Everybody is genuinely stoked to be there, everyone broadly stays in the same place, there’s one bar everyone goes to every night, everyone’s riding together all day. You know, there’s always people around to go riding with. So that’s really nice. They’re all genuine friends, they’ve all grown up together and they’re all absolutely stoked on it.

“As far as I know, nobody else in sports broadcasting is really doing that, and executing it to that level. That’s obviously very ambitious and a complete fucking mission to deliver.”

But they all definitely want to win. I mean, Travis is probably the most obvious example of that. We’ve had a couple years now where he’s gone full game face and he can’t hide that. It’s who he is.

I was out for dinner with Elena [Hight], the night before the opening ceremony. And she really wanted to win. She was nervous. She was like, ‘Yeah, I’m here to win’. And it was the same with Sage. Y’know, he’s the mellowest lad in the world, but when I asked how he was doing he just told me, straight up, he wanted to win. He didn’t do that great last year — definitely not as well as he wanted to and he was like, ‘I’ve lost sleep over this. I wanna win this thing’.

I just think you don’t get to where these riders have got in their careers without having that. A lot of that competitiveness is directed inwards, because that’s the nature of the game. Everyone seems pretty laid back and joke-y, but equally there’s this undertone that they all want to do really well.

It’s a friendly rivalry, honest | PC: Owen Tozer

One of the best things about this year for me was Marion [Haerty]’s performance. I think everyone would agree she didn’t do great last year. I mean, I think she ended up coming second maybe, but people were talking about the fact she straight aired everything. And she went away and absolutely worked her arse off. She legitimately did that in the best possible spirit. She was like, ‘Okay, that’s the level I’m going to come back at, that’s the level I’m going to be.’ And everyone was just fucking hyped for her. That was such a great part about it.

And the other thing I’d like to say — because last year, and even this year, there was some criticisms on the women’s standard of riding — I think we’re going see this event drive women’s backcountry snowboarding progression into the stratosphere, in the same way that Anna Gasser did in slopestyle. It’s going to be really positive on progression in the right avenues.

Give us some idea of the scale of the operation that goes into it. Just how big is the setup for this event?
Firstly, they’re closing the course at Jackson Hole for about 4 weeks before the event to work on the course and let snow stack up — and they’re up there building it throughout the summer as well, adding features, takeoffs, clearing out landing zones. That’s a pretty massive deal. That’s not what goes on with slopestyle events, or something like the Freeride World Tour.

And then there’s the production side of things, and that’s a mission. The team that are working the drones are the best in the world at what they do, they’ve modified handmade drones to do that. As far as I know, nobody else in sports broadcasting is really doing that, and executing it to that level. That’s obviously very ambitious and a complete fucking mission to deliver.

“We’ve all hit jumps and got the speed wrong, or dug the nose on patchy snow and gone arse over tit, we all know about that”

One of the guys from our team was out there and described standing inside the ropes like entering a colosseum. Did you get a chance to check out the course?
Yes, it’s absolutely fucking massive. I strongly feel that the conditions this year made it more impressive. It’s one thing to hit those jumps in three or four feet of powder, but to hit them in basically hardpack with three inches of dust was quite mental, really!

Just simple things like speed management, board control: you take those things for granted when you watch an event, usually. You’re not really thinking that a professional snowboarder isn’t going to get the speed right to hit a jump, ordinarily. But because of the conditions, because it’s so, so variable; that was happening.

The Shrub Brothers | PC: Owen Tozer

And everyone knows about that. We’ve all hit jumps and got the speed wrong, or dug the nose on patchy snow and gone arse over tit, we all know about that. But to see those riders have those same problems, and then adapt — and that’s before they’ve even left the ground — I was blown away by that.

El Hefe Travis with a mega nosegrab | PC: Owen Tozer

Yeah, I liked that yourself and the other commentators were stressing they were the kind of conditions most of us wouldn’t even consider even leaving the ground in, let alone line up 100-foot transfer, like Longo. On that note, how did the commentary gig come about this year?
Well, I turned that down as well [laughs]. They asked me in January. And again I was like ‘Oh, fucking hell, really?’ Because I’ve never done any live broadcasting. I’ve obviously done a lot of talking into a microphone over the years, but I’ve never done live production like that. But Liam said, ‘We wouldn’t ask you if we didn’t think you could do it’. And then he said ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to be the enthusiastic guy, we all know what you’re like. We’ve got the Americans for that’ [Laughs].

“You look at somebody like Kevin, and then we look at Arthur and what there was room for at Natural Selection was a huge diversity of styles and approaches”

In the end, I treated it like the world’s most stressful best man’s speech. I thought: I’m gonna turn up, be on time, know my shit, try to be helpful and just do my best really. The broadcast itself was almost like an out-of-body experience. And there is a point, especially if you’ve practiced and rehearsed, where the muscle memory almost takes over and it’s like you’re watching yourself do it.

Obviously you’d done your studying, you had your notes, and you were in commentary mode, but were there any moments where you found yourself switching into ‘spectator mode’, and just reacted as a fan watching a rider throw down something insane?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I really, really liked watching Blake Paul. He’s just such a beautiful snowboarder. And I know he didn’t ultimately get that far, but you can’t watch somebody like him and not just forget what’s going on really, because he’s just so controlled, so measured, so stylish.

Thinking of the competition as a whole in a wider context, I’ve heard people refer to it as the antidote to competitive snowboarding. It’s clearly a move away from these manicured courses and hyper-technical tricks and in some respects it’s a move towards that relatable or slightly more authentic snowboarding, although it’s obviously still very, very elite level. Do you think the Natural Selection Tour is achieving that, is this the future of competitive snowboarding from what you’ve seen?

Well, like I said earlier, it’s still early days, isn’t it? And I think you can really see that, and I’ve already kind of mentioned about the women and their level of progression. I think it’s gonna drive progression, just in different ways, and I know that’s a very glib and obvious comment. But you look at somebody like Kevin, and then we look at Arthur and what there was room for at Natural Selection was a huge diversity of styles and approaches.

“After the first day, some of the riders had queries, the same way the spectators did”

That’s already very different to most competitive snowboarding. If you take the most recent Olympic halfpipe final for example. It’s not like they’re all doing the same run, Scotty’s doing unique tricks, Ayumu’s doing unique tricks but essentially, you know, you have to tick a certain amount of boxes to win and those formats, as I think we can all agree, are for a particular type of snowboarder. We don’t need to go into that debate here but I guess my point is that Natural Selection already seems to have room for a lot of different takes on snowboarding which I think is a really good thing, obviously.

So I think once you’ve got people that have got a couple of years under their belt, and who understand what it is and the scope of it, I think it’s gonna be really interesting to see what type of snowboarding it promotes. I mean, I ended up interviewing one of the judges and I think they’re also working it out in terms of the judging and I think that should be allowed. I think that type of progression and room for growth is built into the whole idea of it and I’m enjoying seeing where it leads us. This is new territory for snowboarding, we should remember that.

I think you’ve kind of made the points there, the fact that the judges are still figuring it out. I think it was quite apparent to me at least, the whole concept of the course is this wide, open, natural course, and yet we ended up seeing the majority of riders, from the men certainly, taking a very similar line from top to bottom.

And it almost almost evolved into that kind of ‘one more-ism’ where you just add one more rotation to your last run or just go that little bit deeper or cleaner. So I think whenever you have judges, or whenever you have any form of contest and some sort of subjective sport, it’s natural that it’s gonna funnel in this same direction that you see in halfpipe or slopestyle.
I get that, when you have a judged activity, at some point, that will create a paradigm which people will work out and adhere to, to actually succeed, and that becomes a fact. One of the things that I found interesting being there, was that it was actually discussed. After the first day, some of the riders had queries, the same way the spectators did. I went to the riders meeting and there was a lot of “Can we ask why this is this way?”. My point is that there was a lot of transparency there, and there was a lot of conversation back and forth to kind of work that out, really.

Jackson’s Prince of Pow Blake Paul at the Start Gate | PC: Owen Tozer

What they want to promote is expression, style, and progressiveness, so I think it’ll keep developing really. But I do hope it does promote a wider interpretation of what good snowboarding is. And I think it will.

When you put it in the wider context of the tour especially, you can go to any country in the world and a Superpipe is a Superpipe, but you can go from Jackson to Baldface to Alaska, and that’s three very different kinds of courses that are going to encourage three very different styles of riding. So, I guess in that sense, you get the diversity and the progression and you promote the different styles of riding there. When you take it as a collective maybe that’s where it really starts to redefine snowboard contests and how snowboarding is judged but potentially in isolation, each event kind of becomes a little bit samey.
Yeah, exactly.

“It’s cool to see that the spirit of snowboarding is alive in that sense as much as in the riding”

There’s one thing we’ve heard a lot about but wanted your take on – how was the wrap party at the end of the event? It sounded pretty loose.
Yeah, it was pretty loose actually. There wasn’t like a main focal point, there were a lot of different things going on. I went out with Bridges, T.Bird, Owen and then bumped into a bunch of people out. We’d got quite pally with the guys from Fast who were one of the sponsors who are really funny and friendly people. And they had a free bar at the Mangy Moose, which is one of the only proper bars in Teton Village. And you know what happens when there’s a free bar.

Sage laying one out | PC: Owen Tozer

So there was no after hours Looking Sideways podcast where they sat around the bar chatting?
Ha, no, although I did do a lot of podcasts when I was out there. It was good, the party night, but I kinda dodged the bullet with a sneaky exit. A lot of them went to town and you probably saw Jake Price was on Venmo trying to get Jared [Elston] hammered.

Yeah, I liked it.
It got quite wild. So all things considered, I got off quite lightly.
It’s cool to see that the spirit of snowboarding is alive in that sense as much as in the riding, you know? It’s in good hands.

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