Taken from Whitelines Issue 103 October 2012
Interview: Ed Blomfield
It’s hard to believe, but the baby-face in front of me belongs to a snowboarding veteran. Still just 28-years-old, Lauri Heiskari has been riding professionally for over a decade and living in his adopted home of California for almost as long. When Forum’s “Video Gangs” dropped on screens in 2003, he was just another baggy-trousered Finnish rail kid; but thanks to a crazy 50-foot gap 270-to-boardslide (and a memorably enormous beanie!) he was soon the latest pin-up of the yo-boy golden era. Since then, he’s served his apprenticeship in the backcountry, become a founding member of the DC team and notched up more video parts than the average porn star.
“I absolutely hate competing: the pressure, the mental aspect, everything”
Lauri’s industry experience shines through from the start. We meet at the DC Shred Days event in Meribel, a three-day get-together for team and retailers (read: jolly). There’s a foot of fresh outside and the hotel bar is buzzing with excited snowboarders who’ve been let off the leash. At the prospect of yet another magazine grilling, though, Lauri doesn’t slink into a corner with Devun Walsh and the pro clique; instead he bounds happily over to the sterile media room to fulfill his promise of an interview. After 10 years in the game this boy knows the drill, but more than that, he still realises how fortunate he is to be paid to ride.
“I look back and I see there were so many different twists and turns where I got lucky and met the right people,” he says through that trademark curtain of blonde hair. His accent is almost American these days; just a little of the Scandi lilt remains. “Like, when I first filmed for Forum they didn’t want me to go shoot powder. They were like, ‘Oh, you don’t have a sled, you’re gonna be in someone’s way, just go film some park stuff and we’ll get you a couple of tricks in the movie.’ Then I met [director] Sean Johnson and he was like, ‘Fuck that, you’re gonna have a part. I’ll take you to the backcountry myself.’ There’s so many people like that who made it happen for me, whereas I know a lot of Finnish kids who weren’t so lucky; after one or two years in the scene they fell out.”
Blessed he might have been, but it takes a lot of inner strength to leave your homeland as a teenager and carve out a career amongst the high-fiving industry silverbacks of the West Coast. “For sure the American culture – compared to the shy, quiet Finnish culture – is very different,” he admits. “People are like, ‘Fuck yeeeaaah! That was SICK!’ Guys in Finland are like, ‘Nice.’ But you just have to decide who you hang out with.”
Having knocked down the door with that progressive rail and park section, it would have been easy for Lauri to stick to his obvious strengths. Instead, he expanded his horizons from Cali to Canada, where he pushed himself to become a more complete snowboarder:
“Learning to ride powder jumps was “terrible” for me! I’d never ridden backcountry in my life. I bought a huge pile of shit sled off some Canadian dude, which was a lot harder to throw around than the new ones; it had no power and was heavy as shit. I used to hate it. Powder riding generally was tough – and it still is, compared to people who’ve ridden it all their lives, like Devun. It takes me a lot more tries to land stuff.”
So what do those guys have that the Finns don’t?
“Filming a video part takes twice as much work as it did four years ago”
“A lot of it is seeing stuff. You don’t view the mountain as other people do. Devun will spot a cliff from a mile away and be like, ‘Oh that’s a doable cliff over there’ and I can’t tell if it’s huge or tiny. I feel like I still have so much to learn; how he finds stuff, how he lands stuff and everything. It’s tough to see that from a video part. Like when I was watching him on screen as a kid, I was never really there – I couldn’t relate to it coming from Finland. I thought, ‘Oh I could do a switch backside 5, I could probably hit that jump,’ but when I see the place in real life and I’m like, ‘Ho-ly shit!’ You just don’t know how good some people are until you’re actually there and you see them with your own eyes.”
Now that he’s got a taste for the deep stuff, I wonder if the icy little hills of Finland seem boring to him? “I actually enjoy going back,” he counters. “I hate sitting on a chairlift. Like at Park City, it takes 25 minutes to get up there. You’ll get two runs in an hour, maybe three, it sucks. I go to Talma in Helsinki and I’ll get 25 laps in an hour. But most of all I love hitting rails in Finland. I never wanna film rails anywhere else again. It’s so easy; people don’t care, you don’t get busted by the cops; the locals are just stoked on snowboarding.”
Ah yes, rails. Make no mistake Lauri hasn’t lost his jibbing touch, hitting some next level spots last winter with good pals Eero Ettala and Heikki Sorsa during filming for their Cooking with Gas web show. Massive gaps, creative lines and gnarly ledges are all on the menu as the trio effectively turn the streets of the Finnish capital into a giant urban slopestyle course. This kind of riding might not appeal to skate-minded purists, but according to Lauri it’s a natural consequence of pushing the limits:
“We kinda have to find all these creative, different-looking spots, cos that 30-stair down rail’s been shot so many times before no one really wants to see it. With Eero and Heikki we have this winch that we’ve gotta work on, and it weighs a frickin’ million pounds, and we’ve gotta take that to the spot. So it takes us like four hours to set up the place – it’s like a backcountry jump – instead of just doing a little dust off jump to a down rail. Now we gotta do all this work just to get one rail shot, so to film a video part it takes twice as much work as it did four years ago.”
“I love hitting rails in Finland. I never wanna film rails anywhere else again”
The demands of progression are no easier in the backcountry, where bigger jumps and harder tricks have become expected. Throw in a tight schedule and it’s easy to see why the whole process of filming can get stressful. “If you build a kicker all day, it’s the first sunny day in two weeks, and then you don’t get anything, you wanna blow your brains out,” says Lauri. “ That pressure is tough to deal with.”
Although like most Finns, Lauri spent his formative years hitting icy park jumps and dialling his spins, he sees more to snowboarding than just upping the technical ante year after year. “I’ve always looked more at style than tricks,” he says. “When I was a kid, I picked idols from watching snowboard movies and it was always the guys with good style. Nowadays it seems kids think they need to learn how to do a double cork, but it’s more about accomplishing it then how it looks or feels.”
“I don’t view snowboarding as a sport”
Not that Lauri has a problem with today’s multi-axis moves; they just need to be ironed (and styled) out. “Tricks are evolving. When riders started doing 9’s people were like, ‘Oh my god that’s too many rotations, it looks like shit.’ But now you can do a 9 so slow and easy it looks sick. Triple corks? I’m sure in five years time someone’s gonna do a huge frickin’ triple cork Travis Rice style, and it’s gonna look good. If you do it big enough and smooth enough then anything can look sick.”
Lauri’s own smooth, baggy style made him a perfect fit when, in 2008, DC decided to push beyond boots and develop a fully-fledged snowboard team. With his friends Iikka Backstrom and Devun Walsh also making the move across from Forum, he felt instantly at home. “I love that when you go to the DC office, it’s still a skate company. All those guys are down to do cool shit and make sacrifices for that. Of course it’s a corporate company these days but there’s a heart there. [Founder] Ken Block loves snowboarding, he really does, so when they first started the full snowboarding programme he was like, ‘Maybe we won’t make money on it but let’s see what happens’.”
Helped by that self-same boss driving his Subaru rally car around the mountain, DC’s first two team movies – MTN LAB and MTN LAB 1.5 – proved massively popular, and Lauri’s latest footage will be used in a much-anticipated third release. “We’ve been waiting for this movie for a long time,” he beams excitedly. Will it be another half hour of feel-good entertainment? “We’re not gonna use the mini shred stuff we did for 1.5, we’re just gonna film a regular video part. But for sure we’re gonna do some fun intros; it’s a team movie like how we used to do it.”
It’s interesting to see brands like DC, Burton, Forum and (in The Art of Flight’s case) Quiksilver/Red Bull increasingly funding these team projects, while Eero and other pros are taking charge of their own coverage by releasing footage online. I put it to Lauri that the days of the big, independent snowboard film – with its all-star cast of riders pulled from different teams – might be numbered.
“It’s tough for them because of the numbers,” he admits. “They don’t sell movies like they used to. [2001 Mack Dawg film] True Life sold like, 120,000 copies; now the biggest movie companies sell 15,000 DVDs. So the money’s not there; if you’re an independent production company trying to survive it’s just not gonna work. For Forum or DC it makes sense, cos we get the money back in marketing value.”
Again, I’m reminded that Lauri is a guy who knows only too well how the business side of the game works. He makes no bones about the fact that “like everything, snowboarding is affected by the recession,” and accepts that when economic times get tough, even the fun stuff like designing a pro model becomes a compromise. “Everything needs to sell. If there’s an idea that might be cool, like a crazy idea for your board graphic, it’s tough to follow it through. You can’t take risks.” Having flown to LA in search of fame and fortune as a teenager, he also sees that it’s getting harder for the next generation of would-be pros:
“That’s another thing about the recession. There are so many good riders out there without sponsors. Especially back home in Finland, which is a pretty small market for product. There’s in-sane kids there! I’ll be talking to DC and I’m like, ‘Hey I know this kid in Finland – ‘ and they’re like, ‘Well yeah, but we know a kid in Tahoe, and this is our budget. It’d be a lot cheaper for us to get the guy in Tahoe: he already has a car, he maybe has an old sled…’ Compare that to hiring some kid from Finland who doesn’t have any money – he has to get a ten grand travel budget right off the bat, before they’ve even seen him. Plus there’s the visa, it’s this whole big thing. And he has a name no one can pronounce, so you’ve gotta market the kid twice as hard to even get him out there… It just sucks.”
It’s sobering to hear first hand why being the best rider isn’t always enough to guarantee a career. Given their geographical handicap, it’s not surprising that so many of Lauri’s fellow Finns choose to make their name on the competition circuit instead. “Contests are their only chance, so I’m glad they’re doing it, “ he says. For his part, though, Lauri doesn’t enjoy competing. “I absolutely hate that part of snowboarding: the pressure, the mental aspect, everything. I get so messed up. Some guys actually do better under pressure, whereas other people break down, and I’m one of those. When Forum said I didn’t have to do contests any more if I didn’t want to, I was like, ‘Fucking awesome. I’m done!’”
So it’s safe to say we won’t see him alongside his podium-topping compatriot Peetu Piiroinen at the Olympic Games?
“I don’t view snowboarding as a sport, so I don’t really care about the Olympics. I actually think it’s funny when people have coaches and stuff like that. That’s why I started snowboarding – because I didn’t want to have someone telling me what to do. And that’s why I like filming: it’s just you and a few friends, there’s no crowd around, it’s more what snowboarding is about.”
Again though, Lauri appreciates that he’s lucky to be able to make that choice. Since the digital age saw the video market become saturated, the big sponsorship money has been re-directed towards contests. “It’s not as easy as it was to just film and still be a professional,” he says. “You have to be on a big team to get a production company behind you, or else you’re just doing webisodes.” A side-effect of this is that genuine all-rounders like Lauri are becoming a rare breed. Think about it: to stand a chance in the ever-more-competitive slopestyle and pipe events, you have to dedicate your life to training in the park; meanwhile rail punks and powder hounds follow increasingly separate agendas. “It’s splitting the scene a bit,” he admits.
After eight years based in the States, Lauri is eligible for dual citizenship in a year, but he’s got no plans to settle down there for good. And while that blonde baby face is no doubt popular with the ladies, he’s certainly not in the market for an American girlfriend. “There are cool girls in Cali but there’s still that cultural difference there,” he says. “It’s weird how old fashioned they are. I feel like women don’t wanna be as independent over there as in Scandinavia. It’s a society thing. Like when you have kids, they don’t have the same public kindergartens and places where you can drop them off; there has to be a stay-at-home mom.”
“Learning to ride powder was terrible for me. I feel like I still have so much to learn”
To be fair, his dismissal of the local talent – and his stated intent to move back home when his career winds down – might have something to do with the fact that Lauri Heiskari is now one half of Finland’s hottest celebrity couple. His girlfriend, Anna Abreu, is a massive Helsinki-based popstar.
“I had no idea she was famous!” he laughs. “I haven’t lived at home for eight years, I don’t listen to Finnish radio, so I have no idea what’s going on. Basically I meet this girl – she’s Eero Ettala’s filmer’s best friend – we start hanging out, and I totally fall in love with her. She’s super humble, and she knows all my friends –it’s strange that I never met her before. I knew she was a singer, but I had no idea she was a big star or anything. All of a sudden she was like, ‘Hey I have a concert in Helsinki, do you wanna come see it?’ and I said, ‘Sure’. I go there and I’m like, ‘Holy shit!’ She’s on stage in this whole big production with dancers and stuff, and then I find my mum has her CD’s, and everyone in Finland knows her!”
So is he a celebrity himself now?
“The thing is nobody knows about snowboarding in Finland, but they photoshopped me and her together in one of those gossip magazines, and it went everywhere. All of a sudden my dad’s old school friends were calling up going, ‘What’s going on?!’ It got so gnarly. She still gets stopped in the street by fans every day when we’re together. They’re like, ‘Can I get a photo with you?’ and I’m on the side going, ‘Wow! WTF?’
A famous girlfriend, a dream job and a house in California: it seems Lauri Heiskari has things made. But as we wrap up our chat and he disappears back out into the crowded bar, it’s hard to begrudge him any of this success. While fortune has played its part (Lauri has yet to suffer a serious injury, for instance) he has dedicated his life to making the dream a reality – putting in the hard hours on the cold streets, taking his sponsorship duties seriously and grabbing those opportunities when they come along. Above all, he is a lesson in making your own luck.