Interview by Andrew Duthie
You could be forgiven for thinking that Nicolas Müller is very much the same guy we spoke to in late 2006 (a joint interview with Fredi Kalbermatten, WL69). Let’s look at some of the facts: he’s still on the Burton global team, still into classic camber, continues to shoot regular parts for Absinthe Films and has retained that laid-back, amiable attitude. Now, as it was back then, he’s the one most likely to feature in any snowboarder’s ‘Top 5’ list. And he’s still the go-to guy whenever any snowboard filmmaker is looking for a good quote (his familiar Swiss drawl is present and correct in just about every recent snowboarding documentary, including 91 Words for Snow, For Right Or Wrong, Lines, That’s It That’s All and The Art Of Flight).
Having said that, five years is a long time in snowboarding, so it seemed high time we found out what’s really been going on in the life of the definitive ‘rider’s rider’ since our last chat.
We catch up with Nicolas in Laax, Switzerland. Like most of Europe, the resort had a slow start snow-wise, but is now experiencing some of the best conditions in years. For him, it’s all the more exciting, because having first visited Laax in the mid 90’s and ridden his first halfpipe here, these days it’s home. “I bought this house in Laax two years ago,” he explains. “For the first time, after being a snowboard pro for so long, I actually live in the mountains. These last few years I’ve been travelling a lot, and I felt I needed a place where I could grow roots.” He takes a minute to pan his webcam around the room he’s in and, while it’s a nice-looking place, it’s
what we can’t see that made him sign the papers. “The fact that I can walk through the forest to the gondola – to me that’s priceless.”
“Snowboarding is more than just acrobatics. It’s good for kids to go to contests and get their name out there, but then you have to evolve”
You can hardly blame him for wanting a little more stability in life. When we last chatted to Nico he was on the road constantly, accepting any and every offer to ride. “Five years ago I think I was going to every major contest, filming a video part and just fully
committed, you know?” he remembers. “Then I just wasn’t as motivated to go to events anymore. I just wanted to explore more mountains and be a little bit away from the scene. I just wasn’t hungry anymore. I won some stuff but, when everybody’s stoked but you, it’s a good time to find other challenges.” But while he’s not likely to be found at the Air & Style any time soon (which is a shame – his antics, including an attempt in at a one-footed inverted 720 in 2007, are much missed in these double-corking times), does he at least pay attention to the goings-on? “Right now I don’t even know which contest is when. You know, I’m turning 30 soon and I run a small clothing label [Atreebutes] and I’m still on the road a lot, and I have a girlfriend that I don’t spend anywhere near enough time with.
There’s only so many hours in the day.” On top of that, he’s found himself put off by what he calls the ‘Groundhog Day’ nature of today’s events: “With contests, it’s this guy for a couple of years, and then it’s someone else, then someone else. There’ll always be a better kid destroying the contests, but that doesn’t really tell a story. Obviously they’re amazing snowboarders, but snowboarding is more than just acrobatics. It’s good for kids to go to contests and get their name out there and show their skills, but then you have to evolve from there.”
“Being told I had Terje style was the biggest compliment I could ever have, but this is the way I do it, and I do it different”
At first it might seem strange for someone with such an aversion to conventional freestyle to settle in Laax. Widely recognised as a
park rider’s Mecca, the resort has been home for many years to the Burton European Open and, of course, the Brits. However, as Nicolas explains, there’s a whole lot more to it than that: “It sucks for freeriding, don’t come here!” he jokes. “Sure, there’s a park, and there’s a lot of park rats, but I love picking up all the little runs that shaped the way I ride. There are so many hits; it’s like ‘boom boom boom’ all the way down. That’s what developed my riding.” If that’s the case, all of snowboarding owes a debt of gratitude to these slopes. Nicolas’ riding style is world-renowned – no conversation either with him or about him would be complete without mentioning it. Thanks to years of incomparable pow-slaying and healthy media coverage, there are few more instantly recognisable riders on the planet. The question is, how much of it comes naturally, and how much did he work on? Does it take a lot of
effort to look this effortless?
According to Nicolas, “there was never a conscious decision. It’s just the way I ride.” That may be, but we can’t help bringing up the similarities with a certain Norwegian – a comparison that has followed Nicolas throughout his career. How much has the Haakonson factor shaped his style? “Terje’s been a huge influence”, he admits. “When I couldn’t make it up here to ride, I would watch Subjekt Haakonsen at home. I didn’t really copy him too much, but maybe unconsciously in the way he would look sideways at the mountains, like ‘Oh, here could be a hip transfer’ or ‘the impact is not so strong here’, all that kind of stuff. Craig Kelly would say he was like a ball just rolling down the mountain, finding the natural line. He definitely did pass that along.” Despite this, he’s quick to point out that he’s his own rider: “Being told I had ‘Terje style’ was the biggest compliment I could ever have, but this is the way I do it, and I do it different. It’s just my style and nobody else’s.”
“I never stress too much. My goal is to snowboard for all my life.”
Putting style to one side, there’s another reason why some of the world’s best riders mark him out as Terje’s natural successor. Much
like the man who famously boycotted the Olympics on principle, Nicolas seems to answer to no-one. He attributes his longevity (and his almost entirely injury-free career) to the fact that the only one who can put pressure on Nico is Nico. “For me it’s never been about ‘I need to get these tricks done for this contest’ and, if somebody in the industry wants me to go do a park shoot, I’m like, ‘no’.” He recalls a recent example: “Some Hollywood dude who got hired to do a shoot suddenly decided that the whole Burton team needed to be in California in May. I was like, ‘No, I’m not going. I’ve just got back from the US and I’m not your workhorse’. Then people are like, ‘You’re not going? Uh, then do you still have a contract? Is it up?’ but I’m like, ‘Look, I’m not going, I haven’t had time to schedule it.”
So he’s never worried about being dropped? “If there’s anyone out there who says I’m not shredding, I can prove otherwise. There’s no need to worry or stress about me. The minute they don’t think I’m doing my job, we can talk about it. But right now, I’m having fun. I wanna learn tricks and I still will learn tricks, but I don’t need to have them by a certain day just because I’m the top snowboard pro right now and people expect me to still be the best. Shaun White does it, that’s his deal, but I’m not Shaun White, so I’m gonna go off and find my own challenge.”
It’s hard to argue with his logic, and even harder when you consider the fact that he’s more revered as a rider now than he’s ever been. As well as picking up two Transworld Rider Of The Year gongs, he’s made dozens of classic video parts. Nico realised early on that he must be doing something right. “In my video parts, the stuff that people commented on were just weird little things. And I was like, ‘Ah, that’s cool, they enjoyed that even more than the gnarly gap. And that’s it: if you enjoy it then people will enjoy watching it, and then it’s easy. You’ll have a career.” It’s certainly worked out that way for him, but how about the rest of the field? As more riders chase the latest tricks in an ever-expanding competitive circuit, does he recognise any kindred spirits whose style sets them apart? “Gigi [Rüf], of course, but that’s nothing new. Jake [Blauvelt] as well, he’s sick. And I was watching the Air & Style in China the other day, and I really dig Stale Sandbech. You can tell he’s got exactly the right attitude – he’s just stoked to shred. He’s having fun and he doesn’t care if he’s getting a high score or not, you know? That’ll bring you much further than anything else. And I just met Halldor [Helgason], he’s a cool kid and I love his style, the stuff he does. He’s on a good path.”
If ‘style’ is the word most closely associated with Nicolas Muller, ‘green’ would doubtlessly be second. The man once dubbed ‘Eco Nico’ has an environmental track record worthy of a Captain Planet ring (one of the good ones as well; not ‘Heart’). He offsets all carbon emissions caused by his jet-setting; he pays for the re-growth of Brazilian rainforest that’s been cleared to farm cattle; as president of the Breathe Foundation, he tackles several environmental issues through direct action and fund-raising; and he works with his sponsors to develop environmentally sound snowboarding gear. We wonder how he feels about the recent, post-An Inconvenient Truth surge in awareness and the fact that, in part thanks to him, ‘green’ snowboarding is definitely on the rise. “I never did anything to try to change people,” he affirms. “It was just part of my path. The first step was 20 years ago when I decided not to eat meat anymore. Now, when I’m working with my sponsors, it’s ‘Hey, we’re talking about shapes and colours again, but let’s talk about materials’. It’s all about just asking, and giving it your best.” And as much as he is helping to steer snowboarding in a more sustainable direction, he concedes that “you can only do things for yourself. I compost at home, I drive a natural gas car, I use 100% biodegradable soap, I recycle all my garbage. The fact that I can have all these things is so great. For me, it’s about cleaning up your own backyard.”
“If you enjoy your riding then people will enjoy watching it, and then it’s easy. You’ll have a career”
With credentials like these, his decision to sign for Nike Snowboarding brought with it plenty of controversy. Eco Nico taking a wage from one of the biggest global sports brands on the planet – one with a murky ethics record to boot? Bringing up a recent example, Nicolas sets the record straight: “The other day a sound guy working on the new spot for my boot said something about the Nike swoosh being like a swastika. So I got into a conversation with him about it and told him a lot of things and he was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that’.” So it’s a case of people not doing their homework, then? “Yeah. Nike can afford to have better standards, whereas for some companies, especially these days, every cent counts. They don’t care, and Nike does. Some people haven’t evolved past that perception. For me, it’s an amazing company. Every single person I met at Nike is the shit. My new boot, the Kaiju, is the best boot I ever rode. It’s so good. And it’s given my career another spark; when I signed with Nike and strapped on those boots I felt like a little kid again.”
Due to how he’s perceived, Nico will probably have to put up with guys like that sound-man more than, say, his compatriot Roger Federer. He welcomes the discussion, though; years of experience have honed him for taking on all comers. “Since I stopped eating meat, I’ve found that some people actually almost hate you for it! But all these discussions help me learn and grow. Anyone who wants to talk to me about anything, I love it.” Sadly, there is one notable exception. It’s the place where consideration goes to die, the arena where reasoned debate is fed to the lions: the internet. Despite spending only a small amount of time online, Nico’s seen the ugly side of it: “So many people have nothing better to do than just hate on the internet. You read some of what’s said, and you get actually mad. And you can’t really talk to the guy properly.” For him, it’s just another reason to leave the internet game to other folk. “It’s like, ‘Fuck, whatever. In general, after a while I have to step away from the computer. It’s like, ‘Which reality are you living in’? With Facebook as well, it’s just too much.”
“I wanna learn tricks but I don’t need to have them by a certain day just because people expect me to be the best. Shaun White does it, that’s his deal, but I’m not Shaun White”
Fair enough, but what about all the positives, such as the easy (and free) access to edits from some the best snowboarders on the planet? Sure, there’s plenty of swill, but then there’s Torstein.net and Helgasons.com. Isn’t he tempted to expand NicolasMuller.com, which currently offers nothing more than a dated Swatch video? “I think it’s cool, all those web things, but it gets to be too much. Everybody posts a little video every week, chasing hits. I don’t want to get into this battle of hits. Hey kids, get out there! Step away from the computer!” Still, among the sea of web edits, there’s one series that must be right up Nico’s street. After all, he was in it. ‘Blauvelt’s Backcountry’, the online show that followed Jake and friends in search of the world’s best freeriding terrain, was a hit. As expected, Nicolas approves. “I think it’s amazing. He used to do all this park [stuff], and then decided ‘I just want to get out there. I wanna hike this windlip and try this trick naturally’. He does it his own way and it doesn’t matter if he’s not in a major movie or anything. He goes out there and has so much fun. He just killed it so much. It’s ridiculous, the stuff he did in that show.”
Having had a taste, joining Jake for a burn around British Columbia in episode two, wouldn’t he be keen to front his own series? Probably not; it seems he gets all the satisfaction he needs from Absinthe Films. “The hardest working guy in snowboarding is Justin Hostynek. Every single day he’s out there. It’s 12 years I’ve filmed with them and even now I have to tell him: ‘Dude, tomorrow we’re chilling!’ He hasn’t gotten better, he’s gotten worse! If it’s stormy, Justin’s like, ‘Yeah I love shooting in the storm!’”, he laughs.
While he admits that “the era of making money from selling DVDs is over”, Nico’s not ready to make a change just yet. “Absinthe is my family. Filming with those guys, that’s how I want to spend most of my time. It’s really low key, and all about having fun, being out there. A whole season of doing a TV show, with mics the whole time? I dunno. Maybe.”
Such is Nicolas’s dedication to Absinthe that he even called time on the Art of Flight sessions to go back to filming for their latest release, twe12ve. The mention of Curt Morgan’s epic brings us on to another major development in snowboarding over the last few years: Energy drinks. From the Red Bull helicopters in The Art of Flight to the Rockstar logo on the base of Chas Guldemond’s board, sugar-and-caffeine peddlers have made their presence known in every area of the sport.
As a man who’s both opinionated and keen on nutrition, we’re expecting this to get his goat. He sits right back in chair and looks to the ceiling. Perhaps he’s looking for the diplomatic response, given all the free heli-rides he’s had? Much to our delight, that’s not the case: “It’s just a disease of our society,” he concludes at last. “I know I was just part of this Red Bull movie and went on the tour, but I can never back the drink. In fact I think it’s really diabolical. It’s on the dark side. It just can’t be good.”
“Yeah, I’ll take “Yeah, I’ll take that heli-ride from Red Bull, but you’ll never see me drinking it. I wonder who buys that stuff?”that heli-ride from Red Bull, but you’ll never see me drinking it. I wonder who buys that stuff?”
Surely he must feel at least a little complicit, though? He may not wear the logo, but he’s still part of a highly effective marketing tool, designed to get people into Red Bull as much as snowboarding, if not more so. “Yeah, but then again it gets me shredding in a sick movie. And I went to the premieres and everyone was stoked with what they saw, and Travis was stoked to have me in his movie. Basically, I chose to be a snowboarder, and I got in this movie, and if it wasn’t for that I maybe wouldn’t be doing this interview with you, and talking about things that inspire people. Yeah, I’ll take that heli-ride from Red Bull, but you’ll never see me drinking it. I wonder who buys that stuff? Nobody I know drinks it!” Just when it looks like he might be getting worked up, the calm sets in again: “It’s just funny. And a little bit sad. I’m not blaming any kid sponsored by Red Bull. I’m like ‘I dig you, you’re a cool dude and you’re a sick shredder. Take that money, man. Take it! You chose to go this way, and I don’t blame anybody.” As for those who do partake, whoever they are? “I’m opinionated like you said, but I’m pretty open. I have understanding for these things. Go out and have a blast if you like – party ‘til the break of dawn. A couple of Red Bulls will help you do that. It’s up to you.”
And has the internet pounced on him for this in much the same way as they did over Nike? The short answer is yes but, once again, it’s
nothing he hasn’t dealt with before. He recalls a similar situation from a few years back: “I was sponsored by Fiat once. And people were like ‘How can you ride for Fiat?’ Well, you know what? I’m not running by foot everywhere, because I would get there at night. Yeah, I drive a car! And yeah, I take money from this company, but then you see how I spend it. I don’t spend it on Coca Cola and Red Bull and the cheapest garbage from the supermarket. I spend it at the organic store. I give it to these people that care about what they’re doing. In a similar way, I would consider riding for Red Bull. I would take that money, and reinvest it in the rainforests or an animal foundation. I could take that money and channel it, but I can’t back that drink. I’m not gonna wear a beanie or a cap with Red Bull, Rockstar or anything.”
While that’s not what some people in the industry would like to hear, Nico couldn’t care less about what anyone else thinks. Maybe
you’re a gas-guzzler-driving carnivore who balks at enviro-spiel. Or maybe you’re a card-carrying eco warrior who can’t accept shaking hands with the twin devils of Nike and Red Bull. Regardless, the message is the same: if you have a problem with Nico, it’s your problem. Cancelling his contract or slamming him on Twitter won’t change who he is or what he does. Now more than ever, the world could do with more Nicolas Müllers, and it might not be far off; even Jamie Nicholls, the UK’s most successful male freestyler and fellow Nike team member, is taking notes. Says Nico: “I rode with Jamie in Norway this year. He’s a cool kid. He was actually asking all about the freeriding, saying he wants to do more of that stuff. He’s on a good path for sure.”
There’s that expression again. For Nico, it’s pretty straightforward. It doesn’t matter how fast you go along it, or how many triples you huck along the way; if you’re happy with your path, and having fun, that’s all that matters. His own journey has seen some twists and turns, but it’s ended up in a good place thanks to keeping one simple objective in mind: “I never stress too much, you know. My goal is to snowboard for all my life.”
HOW TO RIDE LIKE NICO
Obviously no-one can, but here are five things you can do to get a little closer…
Embrace the mini-shred – Nicolas has always highlighted the fun that’s to be had in the smaller stuff. Take your cue from 2004’s Pop, and go get creative.
Bin your rocker/hybrid board – “it doesn’t make sense to me. Rocker takes away from the pop. Whatever floats your boat, but I’m a camber guy. I’ll bend the board the other way in a butter, but why would I want it to be like that all the time? That would suck!”
Do something unique – Nico’s one-foot inverted 7 at the Air & Style was first time he’d tried it off a jump like that. He’s also never tried it since.
Study tweakonomics – Get some WD40 in your joints and work on those Japans. It’s a surprise to many that the uber-flexy Nico doesn’t practice yoga.
Keep an open mind – “If I find the right spot to build a kicker to learn a triple cork then I’ll try it. Or I’ll just do a method”.