All photos courtesy of Sean Newton.
DA: I was having a hard time figuring out one solid thread to start with. Your history in bmx spans almost to its inception. Your connections, tour stories, and experiences in the DIY scene could fill a book. And I’m sure we’ll touch on some of that…but I think the image and accompanying story I’d love to start with is an Instagram post of yours from a couple years ago. It was of a staircase at one of the many casinos in Vegas. The photo was dark, a bit grainy, almost haunting.
You mentioned that in many previous years, you had walked down similar stairs in vegas on your way to the airport. The difference with this photo was, you weren’t hung over…
Let’s start here…from where have you been?
That’s a profound starting point. For many years, drinking was integral for me with almost any “industry” activity in BMX, skateboarding or snowboarding, especially trade shows. Long, wild nights of partying and hanging out with the bros quickly transitioned into really long, miserable days–trying to handle business, before starting the cycle over the next night (or afternoon). I can remember leaving Vegas after a really long Interbike one year, almost in tears: From exhaustion, feeling like crap physically, and just dwelling on how much time and life I had wasted over the previous days. I just wanted to be home. The post you mention was symbolic in that I was clear-headed and healthy (although I’m sure I was exhausted too) as I left one of those events, and it was a big deal for me to feel good. Drinking was always an escape for me. Escaping from anxiety, sadness or stress. As the years went on, I could justify getting drunk with almost any negative occurrence in my daily life. Of course, alcohol feeds anxiety and depression, so it was an almost never-ending cycle. Breaking out of the cycle wasn’t easy.
“the feeling of freedom and satisfaction that I get from BMX is something I’ve never been able to replicate with any other activity”
DA: I was talking about this before and after scenario with my buddy Dan last night…he’s been sober for the past 9 months and mentioned that now, at 40, is the healthiest and most motivated he’s ever felt. I can’t vouch for you, but I’m assuming the “ride every day” IG documentation that started a couple years ago was catalyzed by the change? I know you’ve always been driven, but how does the then and now compare?
The “Ride Every Day” mission was only partially influenced by the decision to stop drinking. I was riding, or trying to ride, at least 3-5 days a week already, going back quite a few years. Being hungover almost every day, trying to “work through it” was a bummer. I was really disappointed in myself when I was struggling to ride or didn’t have enough energy to keep the wheels in motion. I was perpetually letting myself down. I took my last drink on July 6, 2011. The ride every day program commenced at the beginning of 2012. An increasingly busy work/life schedule really spurred the commitment to make time to ride every day, but keeping my mind occupied was a big part of it. Riding bikes is an escape, like drinking, but in a much different way. Drinking turns your mind to mush and shuts off the bad thoughts. Taking a motorcycle ride through the country is more of an “escape” than riding a BMX bike is, I suppose, but the feeling of freedom and satisfaction that I get from BMX is something I’ve never been able to replicate with any other activity. It’s something I truly love, and don’t want it to stop. Not partying or being hungover has freed up my schedule and makes riding more enjoyable. It all adds up. Like your buddy Dan, I’m just motivated to ride, always. I put myself through ridiculous situations to get to ride as much as I can. For example, my kids have a soccer camp this week that ends at 8pm. On Monday, I worked until 6pm like usual, ran outside to start mowing the lawn, mowed until 6:45, came inside, prepared and ate food in under ten minutes, drove 20 mins to the skatepark, rode for less than a half hour, drove 15 more mins to pick the boys up, took them to get food, then drove home and got seven laps in at the trails in before it got too dark to ride. If you break down the math, I rode for about 45 mins during a 3-1/2 hour span, but it was awesome. I couldn’t have done it if I were hungover and probably would have been too scattered to organize it in my mind.
“My mom was an alcoholic, and she left when I was 12. She picked me up from rollerskating on a Friday night, super drunk, told me she was “going away for a while” and that was it.”
DA: I wonder if we all have addictive personalities? I know wild (and sometimes strict) scheduling is a part of that. Maybe that’s one of the personality traits that draws us into bmx…or anything with risk for that matter (and maybe, that too, keeps us here for the long haul).
You reveal a lot about your past in your IG posts…sometimes they are almost like journal entries (and that is a compliment coming from someone who loves non-fiction) cataloguing events that initiated and perpetuated your involvement (early on) and love for both skating and BMX. How did those paths come about and later converge?
Interesting perspective. My wife used to say I was “trading one addiction for another”, which is accurate to a point, but I’ve been “addicted” to BMX forever, so there was no exchange there. I was just giving one up, which allowed me to focus more on the other. Many people will argue this, but I honestly don’t believe that alcohol is physically addictive. For me, it was an emotional addiction. Maybe there’s no difference, or it’s irrelevant as the end result is the same, but caffeine, nicotine, heroin, those are chemically addictive–luckily I’ve only ever latched onto caffeine. When you drink so much and so frequently that you have to keep drinking to function, it becomes a physical dependency, but I don’t believe alcohol fires the same synapses as other chemicals. That said, the incidents and memories you mention in my journal entries all come from the same area of my mind, I’m sure of that. BMX came into my life via Evel Knievel. Cliche story for almost anyone in my age range. He was a huge influence. I just loved everything with wheels. Some people love sports, some people love wheels. I think that is an inherited personality trait. Trains/cars/trucks/motorcycles/bicycles is how it worked for me. Rolling free. My mom was an alcoholic, and she left when I was 12. She picked me up from rollerskating on a Friday night, super drunk, told me she was “going away for a while” and that was it. Pretty traumatic–and there’s obviously a huge alcoholism aspect there. The fruit doesn’t roll far from the whiskey bottle, right? I was already obsessed with BMX, and with home life turned upside down, it became everything to me. my interest and my escape. Like every kid in the neighborhood, I had a skateboard in the 70s, but when they re-paved our hilly road in 1984, just as skateboarding was starting to come alive a little more, it was on. I started skating after having shoulder surgery that year and have been doing so ever since. I actually paid more attention to skateboarding than BMX from the end of the 80s through almost all of the 90s. Partying is (or was, at least) a more accepted part of skateboarding too. I announced many skate contests in the 90s while under the influence. Same as every other time I drank, it was just to be more comfortable in my own skin. I could have a couple beers and still skate, too. As I re-emerged into BMX, I found that I literally could not drink one beer and still ride. I think riding bikes is such a natural extension of who we are, the alcohol messed with the balance. I know people drink and ride, but I don’t see how they do it.
How have the people close to you have reacted to your change? Be it previous drinking partners, family, friends at work etc..
Drinking buddies said “What? You don’t have a drinking problem.”, which is typical alcoholic denial. ha ha. People that really knew me or saw me in action while drunk were probably relieved. I wasn’t the guy starting fights, I was the guy who just never shut up. I was usually putting my foot in my mouth, too. For my family, my kids were really young when I stopped drinking. They don’t remember me being drunk (and I tried not to be in front of them), but I was just an asshole when I was hungover. Hard not to be when you feel like shit every day. For my wife, it was probably as much a matter of saving our marriage as saving my liver. The last couple years of my drinking days, I mostly stayed home and drank by myself. That’s never a good sign.
DA: We wanted to touch back on that idea of BMX being “such a natural extension of who we are.” Such an interesting perspective. How so?
I don’t have a thorough understanding of the term “muscle memory”, but after riding a BMX bike for most of my life, so much of what happens while in motion just becomes automatic–your body knows what to do without thought. The impulses are not conscious. To apply to my current riding circumstances, riding my backyard trails, the motions and rhythm are so familiar, I could almost ride them with my eyes closed. With a couple drinks in me, the reflex and response times slow, or become exaggerated (think of a drunken fight scene with late, slow, wild punches). For me, it only took one beer to affect my abilities and reaction time. I don’t need any help making riding more difficult. The fluidity of motion while riding a BMX bike is everything to me, whether it’s riding trails, carving a bowl or just riding through a city. Hitting doubles, lip-sliding coping or bump-jumping up a curb at speed are all feelings that can’t be replicated in the “real world” for me. Alcohol effected all of these actions in a negative manner.
” I remember one incident specifically, stopping to puke while digging on a berm, thinking “Weird. I’m not even hungover”, but knowing it was brought on 100% by alcohol. Related, the “conditioned response” aspect of drinking was one of the hardest challenges to overcome when I quit”
DA: So how did the daily drink effect sessions at Birdland a couple years ago?
First of all, I’ve been sober for SIX YEARS, so it’s been much more than a “couple years”. Ha ha. I used to try to have a beer, just one, and ride the jumps, but I just couldn’t do it. Especially back then, the layout was tighter and less forgiving. I would overshoot every landing and the run was over right there. So, riding and drinking weren’t a big issue, but being hungover and trying to ride always sucked. No energy, shaky, unstable–those aren’t positive attributes when you’re trying to get through a set of jumps. That said, I Ioved to drink beer as I was digging and working on the jumps, but nothing spells out the toxicity of alcohol like hard labor (especially in the heat). I remember one incident specifically, stopping to puke while digging on a berm, thinking “Weird. I’m not even hungover”, but knowing it was brought on 100% by alcohol. Related, the “conditioned response” aspect of drinking was one of the hardest challenges to overcome when I quit. When I was drinking, it was: Mow the lawn, have a beer. Fire up the grill, have a beer. Going camping, have a beer. Working in the barn, have a beer. Those were hard habits to break. I still have to mow the lawn, you know? I will say I’ve done very little camping since I’ve quit drinking though. Ha ha.
DA: And to jump ahead, let’s talk about Birdland: Where did the name come from? And thinking of most of your social media posts, it seems Birdland is the catalyst for a lot of your philosophical reminiscences…I’m assuming riding them conjures some deep thought?
Pretty easy answer on the name. The birds love it out there. Always birds chirping, birds perched on the lips (and subsequently, bird poop on said jumps). The jumps are in a field, and in the ten years we’ve lived here, the growth of trees, bushes and of course, weeds, out there has been substantial. It’s pretty wild to witness the onset of nature, and I love the trees coming in. Beyond the birds, it’s my sanctuary. Physically, mentally and for the birds, so “Birdland” made perfect sense. I started calling it by that name pretty early on. I like the Jazz reference to Charlie Parker, too. I’m not going to lie and say that I love physical labor, but I truly do enjoy the act of creating and shaping jumps. It’s been a huge learning process. Digging with a shovel is a great “core” workout as well, and as my wife has been telling me for years, you have to “strengthen your core”. She’s right. I do a lot of thinking while I’m out there too. I’m always by myself, so it’s the perfect scenario for introspection. Digging and shaping a jump doesn’t take a huge amount of concentration, so I can get pretty in-depth with my thoughts. With the exception of a couple times a year, I’m riding by myself as well. It’s a very real experience. I probably think too much about too many other things while riding, but it clears the mind. It’s as good as I’ll feel on any given day, physically and mentally.
DA: How does this fit in with the kids? It seems like you’re omnipotent: Riding Birdland, yet still taking the kids out regularly to ride the not-so-local parks? I’m impressed that you can fit it all in…and how has it been riding with the kids? It seems like as they get older, their interests are starting to stoke quite a bit more with BMX and skate?
Raising kids is like no other thing I’ve experienced. It requires full commitment at every level. I love it. The balance is tough to maintain. There are “fixed” factors, like my work, their school, tons of soccer, etc., so scheduling is a necessity. Sometimes, the stars align right in front of us and we hit the road, but usually there is planning involved. Even though I’ve tried to create lines and such for them at Birdland, they don’t even go out there. I don’t force the issue. I won’t get into the whole psychology of them riding/skating as it pertains to my involvement, but I have to be careful about how much of it I try to “persuade” them to do. Noah is almost always down to hit the park on skateboards (and has had a more recent resurgence in interest in bikes, depending on the park), but Dylan is very hit-or-miss. Both are progressing every time out, regardless, and I just love that it’s something we can do together. A big part of my inspiration to keep rolling is to be able to share the experiences with them, although part of me thinks if I just sat on the bench and watched, they might be more into it. I feel like there’s this unspoken sense of “competing with dad”, which is not conscious, but I know it’s there.
My Birdland sessions are almost always the last hour before dark. It’s hard to invite others to come out and ride with such a small window “Yeah bro, I’ll be out there from 8:45 until dark, which is about 9:15, come on out”. The jumps are so dialed right now, I’m loving it.
DA: So I’m curious to know how they react/have reacted to your music selection. I know you tend to shred it in the barn especially during winter.
My kids, especially Noah, who is almost 12, like a lot of my music. I have satellite radio in my car, so we listen to “first wave”, which will play Joy Division or the B-52s, but then a buzzkill Tears for Fears song for the next, so we have to change it to Faction (the pop-punk-ish station) or the metal station. I’m all over the board with my musical tastes and they are hit and miss with it, but for the most part they like it. They like sing-along songs and funny bands, like NOFX, Green Day, etc. Noah went through a Johnny Cash phase a couple years ago, which made me really happy. Regarding the barn, for whatever reason, everyone seems annoyed by what is played out there–mostly because of the audio levels. If someone comes out to talk to me and the Bad Brains are at full volume, it’s tough to communicate.
“From about 1990-97 I was deeply involved in music. Playing in bands, writing music interviews and concert reviews for the newspaper, and going to shows almost every day.”
DA: Speaking of music, like in BMX and skate, your roots run deep in the punk scene. From where did it start and to where did it take you?
Being from such a small town, I wasn’t really exposed to real punk music until after high school. Little did I know, Kalamazoo, which is only 15 minutes away, saw tons of legendary bands in the early 80s: Minutemen, Misfits, Circle Jerks, Black Flag and similar legendary bands played here several times. I had no idea this was even going on, but I wanted to hear more than Devo and the B-52s, which were about as punk as it was getting for me. Kalamazoo is half-way between Detroit and Chicago, so traveling bands would play here all the time. It’s a big college town, too. I did get to see Black Flag, in 1984. It was a life-changing event. From the late 80s on, I saw a ton of shows. Funny enough, I didn’t join my first band until age 25. From about 1990-97 I was deeply involved in music. Playing in bands, writing music interviews and concert reviews for the newspaper, and going to shows almost every day. Not surprisingly, being in bars almost every day didn’t help to deter my alcohol consumption. I became a product of the environment, and really became comfortable being drunk all the time. It’s hard for me to imagine being a local bar fly, but I definitely was. Our bands did several tours, and I loved that most of all. I just loved being on the road and in the van. A lot of the shows were a bust, but those experiences struck a chord with me–and of course, reminded me of BMX and skate trips, which I’ve also always loved.
DA: I think that is something that ties heavily into the BMX scene…you said what you considered a bust struck a chord later on, and I believe, for all of us older dudes, it’s the same feeling under similar circumstances. With the rush of contemporary social media, and communication becoming white noise, those small shows (or traveling to the middle of nowhere to ride/skate that skatepark with two other people), created the longest, most meaningful relationships (and best memories). You had time to breathe with those folks, and for a lack of better description, time to connect.
With “The Deconstruction,” I remember you citing shows where instances like this happened. Tell us about the band…and tell us about the top three shows on tour and what what made them unforgettable.
The Deconstruction was a band of misfits–which, just by nature, I suppose a lot of punk bands are. I was the singer/screamer and had a few years on Alan, the bass player, and Sean, the guitar player. Our drummer, Josh, was even younger and kind of the goofy kid brother of the band. We were a band from 1991-96 and played countless shows, mostly in our area of Michigan (which had a thriving music scene during that era), but played the Detroit area plenty of times, as well as doing two tours. We played some pretty remarkable shows, more by the circumstances of the venues/locations than our performances, but there are a few standouts. On our big tour of the South East in 1995, we played a hardcore festival in Pennsylvania with Hare Krishna band 108 and enjoyed the delicious food prepared by their womenfolk. We played a fun show at a nice bar in Palm Beach (I think? Somewhere in South FLA) where a dude in the crowd drew a picture of us as we played. Pretty weird, and awesome. We got free drinks, paid well, etc. and would have hung out all night, but we had to bounce immediately after the show and drove north 10 hours to play in a kid’s basement. He didn’t want too many people to come to his parent’s house, so he didn’t make flyers or tell anyone. There were about six people there. We were pretty pissed at and about that show, and I’m sure our performance was half-assed at best. Oddly enough, he was a BMX kid and had a bike and a little ramp in his driveway. A couple days later, we played in this weird little shed in Biloxi, Mississippi and it was super fun and a cool scene. Oppressively hot. We played with Dillinger Four and the based player and guitar player duct-taped themselves together for some reason. One big dude and one little dude. The little dude passed out. He was out for a long time, and eventually someone sprayed him with a hose to revive him. Ridiculous. I also met famous zine maker Aaron Cometbus there, which was a standout occasion. In ’94, we opened for Rancid in Detroit. I made fun of them for being from California and having a song called “Detroit” (which I love) and also made comments about the stupidity of the pit. I got a lecture from Tim from Rancid after our set. Like a “listen here, son” kind of lecture. I was taken aback, as I was just being sarcastic. My sarcasm got us into trouble a few times, now that I think about it.
DA: Oh man…..you can’t lead us on without some stories of sarcasm gone awry…
Ha ha. A couple incidents come to mind. We were playing this real grimey club and there were stickers and graffitti for “Team Spider Kill” all over the place. It was a ridiculous name to me, and not knowing anything about who or what it even was (it was a band, it turns out), I just thought it was funny. When we took the stage, the first words out of my mouth were “Hello, we’re Team Spider Kill”. This big, gnarly punker dude stands up and says, quite loudly “What about Team Spider Kill?”. Dude was so not stoked on my making a mockery of their band. I tried to back-pedal out of it, fumbling around that it was “just a joke”, which of course suggested that his band was a joke–I was just digging the hole deeper. Nothing came of it, except for the dude’s menacing glare throughout our entire set. Another time, after a show in Cleveland, we were staying in the cool flat downtown that one of the bands we played with that night had. The guys were really gracious and nice, making conversation, but the singer kind of went on and on about the Crucifucks, a somewhat infamous band from Michigan, and asked if we ever played with them. In a tone I believed to be obvious sarcasm, I said “Duh, they broke up like ten years ago”. His deadpan reply was “Yeah? And you’re staying in our house right now, too.” It was pretty lame of me.
In hindsight, all that sarcasm was just a front. It was all insecurity on my part. I was really insecure as the singer in the band, too. It wasn’t until I started drinking more heavily that I started cutting loose on stage. It probably added some excitement to some shows, but it definitely wasn’t a healthy path.
Something else I’ve been thinking about, in regards to my years in the band, is that the band started right as I was fading out of BMX and I got back into BMX just as I was fizzling out of playing in bands (I was in another band after the Deconstruction). I don’t think it’s a coincidence. To my wife’s point of trading addiction for addiction, I suppose. When I wasn’t riding BMX, I was always trying to replace it. Skateboarding, bands, mountain bikes even, but nothing ever came close. Drinking is what “I did” for a few years there, too. Skateboarding has been there for me since before I pumped the brakes on BMX, and I still do it and love it now, but it’s never provided the same feelings as riding a bike. Being in a band provided an outlet and an escape. Alcohol provides temporary escape, but becomes a prison. I’ve always been a prisoner of my own mind. We all are, to some extent, I’m sure. I’ve just found better ways to deal with it. I could be in a band now and not drink, I’m sure of it.
At the risk of going on too long about the band days, I realized I skipped over a point Matt brought up about the connection of being in band. Practicing all the time and especially traveling to shows made for a genuine bond. Spending the entire night after a show in a gas station parking lot in Detroit with a broken down van, really brings you together. Hours and hours on the road, bonding over music (bad and good), various quotes and inside jokes that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone besides the four of you, and the ability to just be sitting next to someone for hours and not say anything. Those kind of relationships have to be earned. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. On a related note, my boys and I have a similar “secret language” bond now. They quote things all the time from various trips to Rays MTB or some of our skatepark trips. Very confusing to my wife.
“The thought of not having BMX, or being able to really ride, is terrifying to me. “
DA: And it shows, your feed is full on bmx. We love it. Almost a daily affirmation of what we (the BMX community) should be thankful for. I know I always joke and say you’re the “torchbearer,” but in reality, I think you actually are. Ha! Do you ever feel lack of motivation?
If so, what’s your poison, what’s your placebo? Give us hope!
Thank you. “Torchbearer” is a huge compliment. If my riding (and documentation there of) can inspire anyone to dust their bike off and air their tires up, or buy a new complete, then I feel like I’m serving “my people”. I get so stoked to see old friends and acquaintances getting back into riding, or for some, really just getting into riding, in their 40s. I have a list of people that comes readily to mind. Of course, being able to continue to ride with my kids is a big motivator, too. How many activities can you do as an adult, with your kids, in the same arena, at the same time? I can kick the soccer ball around with them, but it’s not the same thing. It’s not as if I’m going to play on their teams with them. They would destroy me. Ha ha.
To bring this all full circle, a lot of motivation comes from those wasted days–not just drinking, but a lot of time spent chasing my tail in general. There is a certain component of making up for lost time, but my true motivation is just that feeling that BMX gives me. As I said earlier, I’ve never been able to replace it. The thought of not having BMX, or being able to really ride, is terrifying to me. Getting out of bed or off the couch causes great pain and discomfort sometimes, probably as it does for every rider/skater over a certain age, but the reality of my hip or knee, just kind of “giving out”, as they do frequently, is becoming more common. Things like that make feel really old, and at 52, I understand that I am pretty damn old to being doing all of this–I’m not delusional about it. Not so coincidentally, I never feel stronger or more solid than when I’m on my bike. For me, riding every day is the key. I would be lying if I said I get super excited to go and ride the little setup in my pole barn when it’s zero degrees outside (and only significantly warmer in there) and the grease in my freecoaster is frozen so it won’t engage (this has happened a few times). When I’m out there, in motion, there’s nothing better. “Use it or lose it”, right? All cliches are true.