Power of fear: A Bode Merrill interview

He’s risen to the top of pro snowboarding and in the process invented a multitude of new tricks — some of which aren’t likely to be repeated. He’s a known risk-taker and admittedly enjoys the sketchier side of life. He obviously takes little issue with laying his life on the line to progress his snowboarding, and with one of the most creative styles ever seen, Bode Merrill is one of about a half dozen certified super pros.

In an industry where a rider’s worth is judged by the footage they produce, Bode has made a habit of documenting his value for many years now. In fact, his worth was so high last year that he scored Rider of the Year and Video Part of the Year — no small feat for the big man from Utah. In our scene that’s a damn high honor, right up there next to a high five from Jamie Lynn.

So how does he follow that up? What happens when the flurry of new edits start to drop? What happens if he gets hurt and is unable to release a fresh video part? Will his stock drop? Will his work be lost and forgotten?

Of course I’m exaggerating, but it does call some issues into question — concerns Bode didn’t shy away from addressing.

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Tricks like this elusive bean plant slide count for one of many dimensions of Bode’s style. | Photo: Mike Azevedo, Marquette, Michigan

So you live in Southern California now for part of the year. How much of your life in the off-season is snowboarding?
I’m always thinking about snowboarding. But I definitely come down here to get away, which is ironic because most of the snowboard industry is down here. But I do remove myself from the scene as much as I can. I always do an annual Hood trip in the summer — I love that. But I do stay away from it for a good chunk of summer by skating and surfing. If you are in it for too long of a time it’s good to have a break; you just have to.

The best thing for me is just to go ride the resort and fuck around with my friends.

There are worse fates than snowboarding for a living, but a lot of pros don’t snowboard for themselves as much as they would like. How often do you ride for yourself?
Honestly, it’s tough because of the need to film a video part in such a short window. We all have to film these parts every year in snowboarding or you kind of get forgotten about, which I think is a terrible model. And it’s very stressful. So you have this window, December through April pretty much, and if you don’t film an amazing video part in that timeframe everyone is left asking, “What did that guy do all year?”

That hardly seems fair.
So to get a good part you almost have to film every single day that you can, and in the past few years there have been stints where it’s just film, film, film, film, trip, trip, trip, trip, and then I realize that I only rode at the resort with my friends like two days all winter. I do have to remind myself of that because sooner or later it will get to the point where I get burned out. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say that filming snowboarding isn’t fun. It’s hard, it’s stressful and it’s really grueling, but at the same time it’s extremely fun. The feeling of getting a trick on film that you are excited about — there’s no better feeling in the world. It’s an addiction for sure. It’s like a drug you need. Getting a three-second clip every couple days … it’s kind of a silly thought actually, but that’s what pro snowboarders’ lives are based on.

But to answer your question, yeah, I do kind of lose track of just snowboarding to have fun and know that sometimes the best thing for me is just to go ride the resort and fuck around with my friends.

Every season someone gets hurt, doesn’t have a video part and then the rumors start.

Aside from the contest circuit, the model of how pro snowboarders are paid is to make these commercials every year. When I say commercials I’m referring to videos or edits. Is that just how it is, or do you think there is another way?
There are a couple points there. The yearly commercial for the brands, personally, I find that annoying. In the music industry a band can make a great record and live off that forever. Even in the skateboard world some guys come out with a part every five years and they stay relevant. But in snowboarding, if we don’t come out with a rad part every single year, we are nervous that we’re on the chopping block. And every season someone gets hurt, doesn’t have a video part and then the rumors start. I’ve seen it happen a lot. People get hurt for a couple of years and then all of a sudden they are irrelevant and gone from snowboarding when they still have a lot to offer. I don’t really know how to fix that, but for starters the less crap being shoved down your throat might be better. I’m a fan of less quantity and more quality. You shouldn’t have to have an amazing video part every year to stay relevant, but rather just work hard on something that you are proud of instead of scrambling to film just so you have something. In that regard, movies and video parts these days are sometimes watered down because everyone is just scrambling to get enough content. But that’s the model that it’s always been. I don’t know how to change that.

Do you ever just film for filler?
Sometimes I’ll be filming and just for the sake of getting something I might do a trick that I’ve always done, and to me it’s not fulfilling. I’m not progressing for myself as a snowboarder, but rather just filling up a video part. I think everyone should just go on their own path to film what they are really excited about. Build on that and then wait to put something out that they are really proud of.

Where is the support in the meantime? Brands are constantly peppered with new kids begging to take an old man’s job.
There are so many good snowboarders out there today and… I don’t know, maybe I’m too close to it, but when I go to a park these days everyone can do the same trick that everyone else can do, and everyone is getting flowed free gear. It’s really easy to get free product in snowboarding, and every kid these days thinks they are sponsored — It’s just so easy to be sponsored these days. I feel it needs be harder.

As far as videos go you have been lucky enough to work with Absinthe Films, which in my opinion is a timeless production company.
Working with them has been the highlight of snowboarding for me. That’s what brought me from nobody to somebody. As opposed to a lot of those old production companies who would get these elite riders together but not include them in the entire process, Absinthe is a little different in that respect, and maybe that’s where the artistic side comes from. Because all of the riders have a say in the movie — it’s not just them snowboarding. They’ve taken my input to heart and they do that with everyone. I owe everything to them really.

Watching your parts over the years, you seem to me like the kind of guy who would be getting gnarly no matter what.
I definitely do enjoy getting sketchy, and it’s not just in front of the camera. If I’m going to go ride the resort, I’m still going to try something new that day. That’s just me as a snowboarder right now. I’m just trying to progress myself and do new things because there are only so many times you can do the same trick or go to the same park or ride the same run before you get bored. Maybe it’s something simple that I’ve never really learned that might be easy for everyone else. Even if it’s just a switch front board which I’ve never really been good at — I try not to do the cool tricks but rather what I feel that I need to do for myself.

But really, how do you get gnarly like that?
You basically have to go scare the shit out of yourself. A lot of it is mental, but the main thing is just making yourself try something. Once you get over that hump, usually you can do it. I don’t know; that’s how I’ve always thought about it. I mean, every time I film I’m usually terrified, but for me it’s all about overcoming those fears in my head. I feel like if you can do that, then most of the time you will come out okay. But if you don’t go in 100 percent or go into something timid, usually it will not be good. Convince yourself you can do it, then give it your all.

No filler here.

What is inspiring snowboarding to you?
Watching a couple generations of pro riders, it’s always changing, but in the end there are always the greats. The Forum 8, Technical Difficulties, True Life, The Resistance — that was like the top of snowboarding for me. Then right around the same time I saw Absinthe and Nicolas and Gigi and their next level freeriding. The thing is that now, those guys are still relevant and killing it. They are still so much better than everyone after all these years! I take a lot of inspiration from them.

The model of snowboarding is set up in a way that is disposable.

And for style?
I think the style of snowboarding is changing right now. It was so tech-heavy in the past — everyone was just trying to do the hardest tricks possible. Now I think people are realizing how rad it is to do something very simple, but to do it right. Just carving is cool again. Making the simple stuff look better is important. There’s a new generation of kids making snowboarding look better, not harder. I’d like to see snowboarding continue in this direction.

The double Miller flip, a first for Bode and a first for snowboarding. | Photo: Oli Gagnon, Revelstoke, British Columbia

So, Rider of the Year and Video Part of the Year, those are some pretty high marks right there. How the hell are you supposed to follow that up?
I don’t know! Honestly, for the past year, after winning Rider of the Year — which is a dream come true — I’ve asked myself what’s next. That’s a great accomplishment and I’m trying to still figure that out internally. And I think that’s it. I have to keep that stuff to myself. I have to make myself happy before everyone else when it comes to my snowboarding. When it comes time to go into winter with fresh ideas and the need to progress, I have to remember that it’s for myself and not for anyone else or for awards.

But the fact is you aren’t going to follow it up with anything. You got hurt last year, right?
I had a series of shitty little injuries. A rib in December, then not too much later I sprained my ankle, which put me out for two weeks, and then right when that healed I went skateboarding in Salt Lake and I fractured my heel. It was a compression fracture that took me out for the rest of the year. I’m 100 percent now, but no video part.

Well, I don’t think you are cut just yet. But honestly, just a select handful of riders out there have that kind of security. The content saturation these days might not serve the pro rider so well.
The model of snowboarding is set up in a way that is disposable. You know, “I watched that one web video and I will never ever go back and watch it again.” Why do all the work if no one even cares? So if you come out with a video part every single year for ten years, of course they are going to blend together. Right now, so much is put out that is instantly forgotten.

It sounds like a problem with the immediacy that the industry demands. Perhaps part of our culture has become more obsessed with what’s next, not what is timeless.
Yeah, the whole model could use a change. But I’m not sure that could ever happen. I mean the snowboarding aspect will never change — it will always be the shit, but I don’t know, maybe someday soon professional snowboarding could die.

Originally featured in Snowboard Magazine 12.4: The Detour Issue

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