London Calling: The Danny Kass Interview

Interview: Ed Blomfield
Portraits: Dan Medhurst

Danny Kass is a bit like baseball’s World Series: huge in America, but something of a mystery to the rest of us. Not that he’s overrated – Kass is hands down one of the burliest kicker riders on the planet, and along with Shaun White has dominated the halfpipe scene for years – but since he hasn’t appeared in many of the big-name films he has sailed somewhat under the European radar. In the States, Kass is a bona fide rock star, with an army of fans and a sponsor list that reads like a telephone directory. He’s even starred in a commercial for Budweiser. If you’re a British snowboarder however, the chances are you won’t have seen much of his riding unless you’ve got a subscription to the Extreme Channel and can tune into the X-Games. It’s fair enough I suppose – if you’ve already cracked America, why bother with Europe?

A couple of years ago I, like millions of other people, tuned into the Winter Olympics to watch the halfpipe final. Shaun White was coming in off the back of an undefeated season, and the talk of Turin was whether the ‘Flying Tomato’ (how the media loved that nickname) would seal his record-breaking winter in style. He duly won (cue Rolling Stone cover, computer game and worldwide fame) but Kass’s silver medal run was almost as impressive. For guys like me it was a rare opportunity to see him ride, and there was something about his run (floaty air-to-fakie on the first hit, switch back rodeo alley-oop to finish) that was just… well, cool. With his lazy style, headphones and own-brand goggles, he just didn’t seem to give a fuck. More than any of the other competitors – least of all the squeaky clean Shaun White – Kass came across as a ‘real’ snowboarder, an athlete who didn’t fit the Olympic mould. As if to prove my point, the BBC were left dumbfounded by his attitude (more on that later).

Photo: Frode Sandbech

Back on home soil, Danny’s brand Grenade has gone from strength to strength. In his adopted home of Mammoth he is practically royalty, though recent sponsorship deals with Oakley, Quiksilver and now Nike boots have led some to cry ‘sell out’. One thing’s for sure, Danny Kass is an interesting character, and I was keen to get him an interview so he could set the record straight and introduce himself properly to the British scene. It took me a while (over a year in fact) to nail something on, but in the end the mountain came to Mohammed: Danny was coming to London to compete in the Freeze Big Air and promote the new Grenade video, Boned Age. Since he was fresh off the boat from Amsterdam, he wasn’t yet ready to brave the head-mashing tube system (understandable!) so the Whitelines crew popped over to his hotel in Kensington, grabbed some food at the bar and settled down for a chat.

How was Amsterdam?

Amsterdam was good. It was a little break from the Boned Age video tour but it wasn’t really a break – it was more like a wild, wild 24 hours!

And is this your first time in London?

Technically no. I changed flights here once, and got stuck on a bus going from one airport to the other, but I never really got off the bus. So this is officially like, me popping my United Kingdom virginity. I might be looking in the phone booths for a few numbers!

Are you excited?

Yeah I’m excited, and a little nervous. It’s kinda weird – the first day riding this year’s gonna be on a big air jump in the middle of London. Hopefully it’s not rainy and windy. It should be really really exciting though, those jumps are always crazy; it’s almost like dropping into a rollercoaster your first time.

Photo: Andy Wright

Do you enjoy competing?

Yeah I do. I mean it depends on the events, but I’ve been riding halfpipe since I was a little kid and competing in that for well over ten years now. After taking some time off to film I’m really excited, and it’s been a few years since I’ve felt like that actually. It should be a good year.

Has the TTR cock-up (where they crowned Kevin Pearce champion before Shaun White overtook him) put you off competing in those events?

I didn’t really pay too much attention to the TTR last year. It seems like they’ve got so many events going on that are ‘TTR’ it’s hard to keep up. And me, I haven’t done too many opens in a while, so I’m just excited to do a bunch of different ones like the Dew Tour, the X-Games and a few World Cups.

How do you feel about entering events that aren’t run by snowboarders? i.e. FIS (International Ski Federation)

For us in the States who want to go to the Olympics, we kinda have to be a part of FIS. It’d be nice to see some more snowboarders in the organization but at least on the US halfpipe team the coaches are all snowboarders. But it’s gonna take a lot to take the Olympics away from those skier Nazis. Maybe a mail bomb would help? I’m just kidding!

OK, so how was the Olympics? Is it an enjoyable event?

It’s gotten a little better. In 2002 it really held back my kind of riding. It was all about ‘even runs’ where you had to do so many straight airs and so many spins, and you’d actually get penalized if you did too many spins. And then they slowly moved into one straight air per run. So it’s better, but the judging is still a little weird.

How about the atmosphere? Was the media frenzy strange?

Yeah the media’s totally crazy. People who were never into the snowboarding all of a sudden get really into it, so you get a lot of weird press from people who are covering a sport that they don’t know anything about.

We had the BBC covering it, and there was a brief interview with you where they asked you who you thought would win, and you said, “I dunno. I hope Giacomo wins (i.e. the local rider) cos the party would be awesome!” The guys in the studio flipped out when they heard that. They couldn’t understand how you could want someone else to win. To them it seemed to prove snowboarding wasn’t a ‘real’ sport.

Yeah, it’s a really weird thing you know? For me – and most of the snowboarders who do it – it’s not about the organization that runs it, it’s about being able to take part in a competition that’s on a whole other level. It’s about snowboarding in front of that many people, on that wide a scale. But the media haven’t figured out how to cover it yet. They hold onto certain frameworks that don’t’ make any sense. In 2002 we were doing a press conference, and there were all these world renowned journalists there, and once of them said, “So snowboarding seems like a pretty easy sport. It seems like you guys could do it on mushrooms, or smoking this and that.” They didn’t get that it’s really about your riding, not what crazy drugs you’re taking.

Photo: Aaron Dodds

Were you listening to tunes while you were riding at the Olympics?

Yeah I was actually.

What were you listening to on your final run?

My playlist was pretty crazy. In Salt Lake I was listening to ‘Bullet’ from the Misfits, and in 2006 I think I was listening to ‘The Game’ – which is kinda odd but sometimes hip hop calms me down a little bit.

Do you think you ride better to music?

Y’know a little bit. I think music’s just a good way to kinda pump yourself up. I don’t know if I necessarily ride better to music but it kinda calms me down and it stops you from over-thinking certain things and worrying about this and that. I like to try and stay focused and pump up the jam. You feel it, feel the music!

Photo: Andy Wright

You’ve got silver twice. Were you stoked to get silver a second time or were you a bit bummed that Shaun White beat you? Are you guys competitive?

Kinda, but we’ve always beaten each other so many times that it was kind of like a trade-off. He was riding so good that season and he’d really excelled going into that year. For me it was actually pretty cool to come back that year and beat a lot of the odds and really come so close. It’s really the whole experience. Making it there for me was half the battle, so when I ended up getting second I was just pumped.

So from Olympic Games to Grenade Games. We did a road trip to California a couple of years ago and went to see them. For people over here who don’t know much about it, what’s the deal?

Grenade Games kinda started as Grenade ‘day in the park’. We basically took over June Mountain. It was a throwback to what contests used to be and how fun they can be. It wasn’t a real contest, but was a real contest! The breakdown these days is that we usually do a slopestyle and halfpipe – just a really really loose jam format – and we give an award away in each of those events. For the last few years we’ve kinda added our own events to snowboarding. I really don’t know if you’ll ever see the ‘Chinese Eyed Downhill’ in the Olympics or the ‘Bullrider’ – which is a mogul field with no bindings.

Is that really one of the events?!

Yeah! The Bullrider. It’s a snowboard with a rope attached. It was actually created by Mike Ranquet and then he had to work at Electric and couldn’t make it. He was really pissed but it’s one of the most fun events ever.

Are the Games happening again this year?

Yeah, last year we did our fourth year at June Mountain.

Is it still on April 20th?

Yep, we’ve tried to pick a weekend around then.

Why April 20th? It’s not a holiday we Brits celebrate!

Oh it’s not really a holiday of sorts (laughs). Apparently we found out that it was a pretty big pot-smoking day. Or at least that’s what the police told us! We didn’t really know that at first…

What a happy coincidence! OK, let’s go right back. How did Grenade start, and why did you pick gloves initially?

Grenade started in 2000 and I was eighteen. I started it with my brother Matt, who was four years older than me. Basically we really wanted to form a company and do something different to other people in the industry. We’d both been riding for sponsors, companies and big corporations for a few years. There was just a staleness in the industry and it was getting stagnant with everybody doing the same thing. We really just wanted to spice it up. The whole thing with gloves was me. We were on the lift at Mammoth Mountain, and Matt’s going on and on, “We should start this company” and I’m like, “I love it but what are we gonna do?” I kinda looked down at my hands and at the time I was wearing this one net glove on one hand and on the other hand I didn’t even have a glove. And I said “Well, why don’t we make gloves? I mean who’s making gloves in the industry?” So we were like, “Alright,” and when it came to the name we said we wanted something powerful, something different and explosive in a way. We kinda looked down and we thought, “Well, what about Grenade?” It was something that went with the ‘G’ in gloves and it became Grenade Gloves right from there. Within six hours we were meeting with graphic designers, and we came up with the G-bomb within twenty-four hours of that lift ride.

Have you had any grief about that since 9/11? I was speaking to a British pro Danny Wheeler and he told me he got his belt confiscated at the airport in the States because it had a grenade buckle on it. Have you heard anything like that or experienced it?

Yeah that’s an affirmative. The belt buckle was pretty much a replica of half a real grenade, so these weren’t really made for airports, I’m not going to lie! Some of the stuff we make is not maybe the shirt you wanna wear through an airport check-point. But these days in airports they wanna give you shit for everything. There was one time where I wasn’t even allowed to bring a nail-clipper because it had the little file thing and that was considered a weapon. And then I broke it off and they still wouldn’t let me take it in. It said ‘I Love Norway’. What have those guys got against Norway? But yeah, there’s been a few incidents like that. Some of the more graphic t-shirts we make are pretty controversial, which is cool. We’re not really answering to big corporations or lawyers. We’re here to snowboard and skateboard and sometimes drink a few beers and cause some shit. What’s wrong with that? Everybody wants to break something once and a while!

Photo: Andy Wright

Justin Timberlake. Was he not on Grenade in an informal capacity? I heard he rocked up at the warehouse and said “I want that, that, that, that and that,” and they said he’d have to pay for it, at which point he was off the team. Is there any truth in that?

There is some truth to that. I’ll set the record straight. Justin Timberlake was never on the team. What happened was, he’d been coming to Mammoth for a few weeks and we were definitely trying to get close to some high end chicks by giving Justin some gear. He’d actually had some photos taken in some clothing he’d gotten and we said we’d hook him up with some more. They came to the warehouse and I remember our sales manager at that time leaned over the balcony and went, “Hey Justin! If you’re taking that, I just want you to know that I’m gonna be riding your coat tails to get laid tonight!” Then I think I said something about how it was funny that somebody who pretty much had everything and so much money was so psyched about getting some free clothes! I think he got some bad press over that. So we may have traded a few jackets, but we did meet Cameron Diaz.

Is she hot in the flesh?

Yeah she’s pretty hot. I think she was pretty bossy, she had him whipped. We were hanging out at his house trying to get this shot [for the Smell the Glove credits] and she had him on a pretty short leash. She was kinda like, “Oh, I gotta finish this up.” It was pretty hard to get her. She was alright, but you wouldn’t put her on your list. So anyway, Justin’s no longer getting hooked up, he’s off the team. I think he rides for Burton now. I’m pretty sure they cut DCP and put on Justin Timberlake.

Do you read much on the internet about yourself, or do you stay out of all those forums?

I pretty much stay out of the whole internet thing. I like to check out the websites when good stories are up or whatever but I’m not a big poster. I’m pretty convinced it’s people who sit at snowboard companies and talk shit all day.

We were surfing around recently, and it seems you’ve got a lot of fans on there – but some people will be like, “He’s signed for Nike and Oakley, therefore he’s sold out.” What would you say to those guys?

There’s a lot of haters out there. People just hate because they’ve got nothing else to do. Every snowboarder is loved and hated by so many people. To be honest a lot of those people don’t know what’s going on at the company so it’s hard for them to figure it out.

Photo: Frode Sandbech

How did the Nike thing come up? And what are the boots actually like? Because we haven’t seen any yet.

The boots are actually really really good. It was cool for me because I’d ridden for Vans for a while, but what people don’t know is that they were bought by Jansport and other companies a year or two before I left. The last paycheck I got from them was totally different to all the ones before it, so I actually felt really good about making that decision. And then I went from just changing different colourways in the last few years to actually engineering a whole new snowboard boot. For me it was a chance to learn a lot and work with people who were really psyched on their jobs.

You don’t find a conflict between running a core brand like Grenade and riding for some of the biggest brands in the business?

Well Grenade’s totally separate. I’ve always ridden for big brands. I heard the same thing when I was a kid and I rode for Quiksilver. It was like, “Why are you on Quiksilver? They’re this and that.” And people are always like, “Why don’t Grenade make snowboard boots?” I can only make so many things! It’s the same kids who go to contests and say, “Hey, gimme your hat, gimme your goggles, gimme your gloves.” And then you get the one who says, “Well why not? You get all that for free.” I say to them, “Hey kid. I own more gloves right now then anyone else in the world, besides maybe Jake Burton. I’ve bought more snowboard stuff this year than you’ll ever buy in your life. Gimme your candy. Gimme your ice-cream!” Basically every dollar I’ve made from snowboarding I’ve put into my company, and I run it the way I wanna run it. I mean when Grenade stopped making goggles it wasn’t like I could stop wearing goggles! I turned down deals from even bigger companies like Smith and companies I never would back. But Oakley, they have really smart people in there and they’re amazing products – you can’t deny.

I wanted to ask you about your board. Do you ride reverse camber?

Right now I mostly ride the Banana Mag but I find it’s really good for slushier conditions in spring. For riding icier half-pipes and big parks I like to stick to plain Magnetraction. But Banana’s awesome. It’s got a whole new feeling to it. I mean it’s different, it’s a little more loose but for beginners it’s one of the best things you can ride. On icy stuff it’s a little dangerous. You can slip on the banana, I’m not going to lie. In slush though it’s the best board in the world.

You grew up in Florida and New Jersey, but is it fair to say you’re the most famous Mammoth local these days?

I’m definitely pretty famous but Mammoth’s kinda like a little locals’ town. When I first moved out there I was part of an East Coast invasion. It was like me, Kyle Clancy, Zack Leach and a few other people. One of my close friends at the time was [Mammoth local] Jeffy Anderson. We had this love-hate relationship, because he loved me in the way I rode and my style in the half-pipe and all this stuff, but he hated that I came out with all these East Coast kids and we were taking over someone else’s scene. There were a few parties and it was all Jeffy’s friends wanting to beat up all of my friends, and he was kinda like stuck in the middle, like, “No, these kids are good”.

So as a Mammoth bigwig, where do stand on snaking? Do you take priority in the line?

I take priority more than most. When I was a little younger and I flew under the radar I could get away with snaking pretty good. I still don’t always wait in the biggest lines but now I’m a little more recognisable I get in trouble for snaking so it kinda sucks. I have to wait in line or people are going to go home and be like, “That guy’s an A-hole!”

What’s your ideal day. Freshly-cut halfpipe or perfect powder day?

That’s hard, that’s hard! Perfect powder’s great for sure, but I like pipe. I can’t give it up. Everyone says powder. But a perfect day in the halfpipe with your friends, there’s nothing really better than that. There’s nothing better than shredding some powder too, but it’s a finer taste. It’s like Don Perignon. You just can’t drink Don Perignon everyday – unless you’re from London maybe!

Yeah, we’re always drinking champagne over here…

Yeah, everyday! (laughs) I’m always trying to find some orange juice and they’re like, “Do you want some Don Perignon in that?”

Just before saying, “Shall we shag now or later?”

Yeah, I’ve heard that three times since I’ve been here.

Well on that note I think we should sign off. Enjoy London baby.

Thank you.

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