Stick to your guns: A Keegan Valaika interview

Keegan Valaika is lucky. Snowboarding comes naturally to him, and he’s had the ability to dictate his path through it. But the path Keegan has chosen is not that of the most fame, the most money or the least resistance. Keegan’s ability on a snowboard is transcended by his ability to ignore bullshit.

All photos by Austen Sweetin

You had physical therapy this morning?
Yeah.

What did you do to your knee?
I just hyperextended it really bad on this wallride up in Mammoth. Nothing’s fully torn, but it’s as close to blowing out your knee as you can get. I don’t have to have surgery, but it’s pretty bad.

Are you out for the season?
I’m not sure. I’ve been in physical therapy every day, but it’s hard to say right now. I’m out for a bit.

Damn. I’m sorry to hear that.
It’s alright. Shit happens.

So what are you doing to stay busy other than physical therapy?
Just reading, painting, drawing, playing music, cooking, sitting on the beach. There’s plenty of stuff to do. Working at Gnarly.

Who all works for Gnarly?
It’s just myself, Jon [Francis] and Dylan [Fait]. That’s it. Three to make it G.

What are each of your roles?
Dylan deals with the finances. He keeps shit in line and makes sure we pay our bills. He does all the orders and that stuff. He’s the boss hog. Jon does a lot of things. He does a lot of talking to the factories and figures out how to get the stuff actually made. And myself, I just kind of oversee everything and bring ideas — mainly just ideas. And then I’ll Photoshop whatever I can. I know how to work Photoshop decently. I definitely don’t have a very extensive skillset in that, but I make all the ads and anytime Jon needs something like that, I usually do it.

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Yeah, so are you mainly just designing the ads or are you designing say a t-shirt as well?
Yeah, I do a lot of the t-shirts. I can put designs on a t-shirt template, ya know? But when it comes to like tech-packing and stuff, I don’t really know how to do that. I don’t do any of that stuff. When it comes to the designs, I can scan ‘em in and put ‘em on a t-shirt or whatever. And then the website and everything — I do a lot of the art and stuff for that.

Who else do you work with in terms of design for apparel?
There’s a lot of people. There’s this guy Curt [Everitt]; he actually works at Victoria’s Secret in New York. He does a lot of design stuff for us, and then my friend Evan [Rossell] is always helping. It’s a collective thing. Anyone who has an idea is more than welcome to throw it in. There’s a lot of people. We don’t have a designer, per se. Anything we need to do in-house I try to do, and then if I can’t do it, we have to hit someone up and see if they can.

Why did you call it Gnarly?
It was just like a joke when we were way younger. Growing up in Laguna there’s just that heavy surfer slang. And I think Airblaster was around at the time, and I thought they were one of the coo”That was the worst call ever.” Dumb name. Ya know, it’s more a joke on the people that think we’re idiots. I don’t know, man. I love it and I love it more now that I ever have. It stands for everything that we believe in. Take it for what you will, but if someone is the type who wants to be negative and talk shit on things then they can definitely go ahead and talk shit on us. We’re going to make it even easier, so have fun.

Airblaster is a perfect example of that. I’m sure there are people who hear that name and think, “What idiot called their company Airblaster?” But the people involved, and the people who know, are what make brands like Airblaster so rad. Who’s on the Gnarly team?
I’d rather not name names because then I might forget someone or I might include someone who’s not in. If you’re down, you’re down. You know you’re down. We know you’re down. If you see a sticker on someone’s board, they’re down.

And Forest [Bailey] is not involved anymore.
No, he’s not.

Are you still friends?
Yeah, I guess. We don’t really hang out anymore. But we’re family. I see him around. We’re just different people with different outlooks on things. I don’t know. He’s a good kid, and he’s always gonna be my friend.

Right. It seems similar to Matty [Ryan] and Nate [Bozung’s] relationship.
Yeah. I don’t know, it’s just like my path wasn’t his path. His path wasn’t mine. He saw things differently in terms of Gnarly, but I’m not judging him or anything; that’s not my place.

I think mutual involvement in small brands has taken its toll on a lot of relationships in snowboarding and otherwise.
It sucks that’s how it is, but to make money you have to be a certain size I think — to be able to pay people and stay afloat. It’s not easy, dude. It’s a constant struggle.

What do you think you have to do these days to make a living off snowboarding?
Snowboard. A lot. You have to snowboard a lot, and of course you have to film or do contests or whatever. But to make a living off anything you should do that thing quite a bit, more than any normal person. If you like it — if you love it — you want to do it all the time. If you’re all the way in and you’re truly about it, then it shows. And that’s I guess why I think people deserve to get paid for doing it.

But certain people are able to play the game better. I mean, there are a lot of people that are all about it, and they deserve as big a check as someone making a lot more, but they’re never going to actually make a living off of it. They’re always going have to work another job or have some other hustle on the side.
Yeah, that sucks. But I do think the kid who truly loves it versus the kid who’s selling himself on Instagram and creating this false marketing for himself — ya know, just shit that doesn’t matter, so not part of the snowboarding — the kid who loves it will always prosper if he just keeps snowboarding because he’s in it for the right reasons. He’s not worried about all that other shit; he’s just worried about snowboarding, whereas the other kid that may be getting paid more is just concerned with his persona or whatever. You know what I’m talking about?

Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
I do think the other kid will prosper because that’s just how I believe the universe works. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think good things come to good people.

Maybe it’s not monetary, and maybe it won’t even be through snowboarding directly, but I’d also like to believe that eventually things will work out better for anyone who does things for the right reasons.
And there’s always going to be plenty of times to give up along the way, but if you keep at it, you’re only going to get better. It’s just like anything else — a musician maybe isn’t super marketable or signable, but if they’re an undeniably good musician and they keep fucking playing music, ten years down the road, they’re going to be way sicker than whoever’s had to be out there playing the same shit over and over again. They’re going to be burnt out. But the other guy is going to be fresh and bringing new shit to the table, and they’re only going to have gotten better at what they do.

I agree. I think with whatever it is you’re into, if you keep your head down and focus on what you’re trying to do, it might not be the quickest path to success — whatever that means — but I think for the most part, things sort themselves out, and people end up where they deserve to be.  
Yeah, yeah, I think that’s inevitable, ya know? If you just stick to your guns and don’t ever fucking let anyone tell you you’re wrong or you’re blowing it, you should get a normal job or this, that or the other thing — if you truly feel it in your heart that you should be a snowboarder — then you should be snowboarding.

So since Burton, why haven’t you taken a bigger board sponsor?
I don’t know. I just rode for Bozwreck. I was riding for Bozwreck up until like a week ago or so, really. Those dudes had my back when I was coming up, and I just always felt I guess that in some way I owed it to them. Like, “Fuck yeah I’m gonna ride for you guys’ shit one day when I can.” That day came, and I did it, and it’s just unfortunate that we had no one to run the actual business [laughs] because I think it was a really cool thing. We were out doin’ other stuff. We even got orders and whatnot, but they never got shipped.

How did you meet Nate?
In Laguna, through his girlfriend at the time, Dom. She lived here. I think she was like 18 at the time. I was probably like 15 or something. I don’t know, I guess just being in Laguna. He was always hanging out with her. I don’t remember the exact instance, ya know? He was just like around and then I met him, and that was it.

I hung out with Nate for the first time when we did that interview with him, and it was awesome. It seemed like he was really starting to get things together, but it wasn’t long after that he sort of fell off again.
Yeah, it’s just girls with him, ya know? He’s just a lover. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s really emotional, and he’s really honest with his feelings. He has a really hard time holding shit back, which I don’t blame him for. That’s some bullshit societal crap you’re taught you have to do to be normal, but honestly, that’s Nate, at any given moment. He’s not holding anything back. If he’s tore up about a chick, you’re going to know about it. I think he’s just always kinda spun out, so that doesn’t help when shit hits the fan. Shit gets worse and then it’s just like a fucking tornado, ya know? It’s just so out of control. But when he was sober, he was super fucking good. And alcohol, for him, is a bad thing. He needs to not drink, and everything else will fall into place. Everything was going way better for him. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor or anything; I’m just his friend. And it sucks ‘cause he’s a really fun person to party with, but I think it’s just been too long that he’s been living that life to where he’s kind of lost any sort of perspective because he doesn’t even know what it’s like to live the other way, ya know?

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It’s hard to see friends with addiction problems. If you don’t struggle with addiction yourself, you want them to be able to just do all that stuff with you — drink, maybe do drugs every now and then or whatever — but they just can’t.
Yeah, and I mean I can relate. I have to seriously keep my own ass in check because I’m the same way, dude. You think I don’t wanna just stay on a bender forever? Nothing matters. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s a great fuckin’ time. But there’s a point when you gotta be like, “Alright, enough’s enough because if I keep going, I’m going to get in a spot where I can’t climb out of this fuckin hole,” ya know? But you just gotta tell yourself, “Alright, I’m gonna chill for a week now.” But that just does not exist with him. I don’t know, man, when he was sober he was so good, and it was so awesome. He was here in Laguna, and I was kickin’ it with him every day. And honestly, it helped me not party much ‘cause I’d almost feel bad having a beer in front of him at first. It was really good. We were just skating a lot and, ya know, you do a lot of things when you’re not fucked up all the time. You’re just constantly doing stuff. I hope he gets sober again.

Yeah, I mean from my perspective — just watching it from the outside via Instagram basically — when he was sober, it was like, “Sick, Nate’s skating all the time, he’s riding bikes, or just doing whatever.” But then it’s like as soon as the booze hit, all that just stopped.
Exactly.

On the topic of Instagram, you mentioned earlier people over-promoting themselves via the internet, and it seems like your Instagram is always pretty obscure. How come?
‘Cause I hate it. [laughs] I don’t like anything about the social media stuff. I just hate what it’s done for people and how everyone’s just walking around like zombies staring at their phone now. You don’t strike up a random conversation with somebody because everybody is staring down at their phone, minding their own business in their own little perfect internet world or whatever. I’m starting to maybe change my mind —not change my mind — but alter my opinion of it. For a while, I always felt like I didn’t want to be the reason for one more kid looking at their phone one second longer, ya know? And if I’m constantly puttin’ shit up there and people are looking at it, that’s just one more second of someone looking at their phone that I’m kinda responsible for, so in that way I’ve just stayed away from it for as long as I could, and now it’s very real. Everybody is saying shit — like that I need to do it. It’s like, “Fuck.”

You’ve gotten pressure to use it more?
Yeah, for sure. There’s definitely pressure. And I get it. I’m hired to, ya know, sell products for these companies, and that is a huge way to sell stuff, and it’s only growing. It makes sense they want you to do that. It just scares me. The soul just gets ripped out of everything. But I think it can be kind of good because there are people that I follow on it and they definitely psych me out and inspire me and make my day better so that’s where I’m kind of changing my perspective a little bit and I’m like maybe it’s not so bad. Ya know, maybe it can make someone’s day better if I post something funny or maybe I inspire a kid to try a new trick or even just go snowboard one day. So, you see what I’m saying?

Completely.
It’s crazy; like I hate what the phone does to people more than what the actual interconnectivity of social media does. I don’t think that’s the bad thing — the reach it has — that’s actually kinda cool. I just wish it didn’t have to suck people in so bad.

It definitely sucks people in. It sucks me in.
It becomes like a drug. It’s compulsive. That’s when it’s bad — when it becomes an addiction.

It’s crazy for me being obligated by my job to post stuff to the internet. For the most part, if I go snowboarding, it’s expected that stuff is being posted. 
That’s what I’m saying, dude! You can’t let that happen. You have to be just alone with your snowboard.

Yeah, hopefully I’ll get some of those days this season. You were saying though that there are a couple people on Instagram whose stuff you like looking at. Who are they?
There’s this girl @ssarabin, she does illustrations. She just travels, and she draws people in real life. And she can do it really fast. And she captures a lot of emotion and movement and they’re just really fun to look at. She’s always posting funny, stupid selfies too. I also like my friend Butters’ Instagram — the kid who made the Absinthe movie last year. And I follow that dude William Strobeck, and he will post some really sick old skate footage every once in a while that’s just really inspiring. And all my close friends, of course —I love looking at their stuff ‘cause they’re always making jokes that maybe other people don’t get, but if you’re their friend it makes your day better.

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You mention Bill Strobeck — Lately I’ve been thinking about snowboarding and what people are doing with video in snowboarding. Obviously you have a lot of experience with that. To me, it seems like a lot of people are stuck in a state of copying whatever’s going on in skateboarding. I feel like surfing’s doing a better job of making videos that appeal simultaneously to I guess what you’d call the “core,” but also to the mainstream. There are few people in snowboarding making videos that appeal to both.
Wyatt [Stasinso], Nick [Russell] and Cory [Stasinos’] movie is going to come out soon and it’s going to be pretty much the best video ever. It should appeal to the most core person and the most out of snowboarding person. I think equally both of them should be able to look at it and know there’s something special right there.

That’s rad. I think that’s more how it used to be.
Yeah, they’ve been making their own movie — all film — they’ve filmed each other for the last three years. Wyatt’s mom works for an airline, so they can do standby and fly anywhere. So they’ve just been traveling and shooting all 16 millimeter. It’s going to be insane.

So, what is it called?
I think it’s going be called ‘FREE’.

Interesting. And what about you? Is your plan to keep filming with Absinthe?
Now that I’m hurt, I have no idea. I love those dudes and they’re definitely like my brothers. Butters has been one of my best friends for a long time now. Filming with him is always really easy. It just works. And that is something that’s hard to find. It’s just so natural and it makes it a lot easier to just snowboard and not have to focus on all this other bullshit. It’s a crazy relationship. It’s like recording in a studio and knowing like, “This is my boy producing this. I don’t have to worry about shit.” I just gotta play music, and it’s going to sound good.

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Did you watch the trailer for Jérôme Tanon’s Eternal Beauty of Snowboarding? That’s one of my favorite things I’ve watched recently and it’s only a teaser.
It’s hilarious. There’s a shot of everyone doing exactly what I was talking about. Everyone’s on their phones. And I feel like we’re pretty good about that, but look, even us, we’re doing it. But that’s going to be amazing. Jérôme’s such a beautiful person and has such a cool outlook on everything. Everything’s fresh when you’re around him. It’s really inspiring. I love how he just shoots film. There’s none of that like, “Oh, let me look at it.” Or, “You should do that one more time; your arm was a little weird.” There’s none of that crap with him. You know you did it; he knows he got it. That’s that.

Would you say that’s a similar concept to how things work with Gnarly?
Yeah, exactly, we just know each other so well, so it just works. It’s been a lot of hard work and that part sucks because it makes it harder to just snowboard, ya know? A lot of times I wish I could just snowboard and not have to think about this shit, but at the same time, all the positives about it outweigh the negatives of the work aspect. And yeah, I don’t know. I love hanging out with my friends, and I love helping people out that deserve it — just good people — and I’m grateful for everything we’ve been able to do with it. I get a letter in the mail from a kid every once in a while and just reading how psyched he is on the freedom of Gnarly and what it means to him gets me so psyched. And I guess it reminds me that it is doing a good thing.

It’s cool to have a vehicle to help your friends out like that even if it’s not monetary, whether it be running an ad of them or whatever.
Yeah, and I mean it’s not even so much that. You know, that part is definitely sick, but I think it’s just cool we can promote the stuff that we believe, and we can be just one little force standing up for what we believe in against all these thousand pound gorillas. We don’t have that much of an impact, but we have some, and for that I’m very grateful.

So what is it that Gnarly believes in?
I guess, freedom — creative freedom. And that you should never be told what to do or how to do it, or that there’s a right way or a wrong way. Be true to yourself and be natural. Be loving to everyone and everything, and respect the earth. Be grateful and share with people you love. Foster the love for everything. Try to be happy and be with your friends.

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