Will Smyth Interview

Interview by Matt Coplon / Intro by Cooper Brownlee.

You may not know the name but if you have any type of interest in BMX then you know doubt know of DIG BMX. Will is the main man behind this great magazine/media outlet. He is the world’s longest running magazine editor in BMX (and possibly even action sports) which is an amazing feat. 

On a personal level, DIG would be one of the main reasons I love BMX so much and persued an interest in photography. I still remember the first time I saw DIG and the impact it had on me. Years later I was fortunate enough to have a few photos grace the pages of the mag which is, still to this day, one of, if not THE, proudest moments from shooting BMX photos.

I’ve know Will for a few years now but I knew nothing about his early beginnings or how much amazing shit he’s done over the years outside of BMX, this interview is as in depth as you could ever get and well worth reading.

DA: Visiting Glasgow, Scotland in 2010, one of the highlights for me was listening to your stories about growing up in the punk scene in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It almost seemed like a warzone? Was the punk scene as dangerous as it seemed? Or was it more like a refuge?

This wasn’t your typical punk scene and It was definitely more like a refuge. The only thing dangerous about it was walking to and from the venue (a volunteer/ D.I.Y. run space first called ‘Warzone’ and then later, ’Giros’) was in the centre of Belfast, which in the evenings wasn’t the safest place to be for anyone, let alone a bunch of nerds, punks, hippies and indie kids. Obviously that’s something that’s common in a lot of big cities but the political situation and armed conflict in Northern Ireland at the time added an extra dimension to it. 

The gigs themselves though were pretty much self-policed with almost an unspoken understanding with everyone there that we were almost all escaping the unwanted daily political/religious community and cultural connections (and divisions) forced upon us in our everyday lives. Thankfully by then the local punk scene had moved beyond the stereotypical ‘fuck you’ approach of the late 70s/early 80’s and by now any hint of tribalism that was left was much more of the ‘open and inclusive’ variety. The Punk scene in Belfast that I was a part of was much more than being anti-state. We had two states to kick against and rival paramilitary/terrorist groups to avoid, all within a relatively small city. Some touring bands would come to Belfast and were a little confused that the punk scene wasn’t focused on being anti-British (seen by many as the occupying force in the North of Ireland; in a six county state under UK rule with a – albeit slowly decreasing – majority pro-British population. Confusing isn’t it?). 

For me, it was all about being anti-flag and anti-gun, regardless of which flag anyone was flying or who they claimed to be fighting on behalf of (over 3600 people died in Northern Ireland since the start of what’s known as ‘The Troubles’ in the late 60’s). That shit ruined way too many lives and unfortunately continues to do so to this day. That scene was a temporary sanctuary for it all and somewhere for like-minded people to say ‘fuck this, we live here too and we’re not picking sides’. At least we could all try swimming up-stream together against both sides of the nationalistic and religious bullshit. It wasn’t easy though. The movie ‘Good Vibrations’ (true story of a Belfast D.I.Y. label/record shop owner, fighting against the grain, away ahead of his time) –  co-directed by my lifelong friend and original Jive Five member, Glenn Leyburn, comes closer than anything I’ve seen to explaining what it was like for people like us to grow up there.

IRA bomb explosion beside my workplace in belfast city centre in 1992 (i worked in the shop behind that yellow van and we got out just in time) via warrenfyfenews.net

IRA bomb explosion beside my workplace in Belfast city centre in 1992 (I worked in the shop beside that yellow van  – thankfully we were evacuated just in time). This was a pretty normal scene for me growing up in Belfast. Photo via warrenfyfenews.net

“for like-minded people to say ‘fuck this, we live here too and we’re not picking sides’. At least we could all try swimming up-stream together against both sides of the nationalistic and religious bullshit. “

DA: Here in the states, during this same period, we had serious issues with cross over neo-nazi/punks. Did a similar (empathetic to that ethos) group plague your scene? 

I didn’t witness it personally but there was a time a bunch of  dumb/violent skinheads showed up at an early local show intent on causing trouble, but were thankfully locked out before they could do any damage. People of that mindset quickly realised that they wouldn’t be tolerated and it wasn’t a place for them. It was definitely something that was more prevalent in the generation of punk that came before us when they had to deal with complicated connections between skinheads and Loyalist (anti-irish/Pro-British) Paramilitary (terrorist) groups.

Strangely though, skinheads did influence one of my favourite early gig memories at a Nomeansno show 100 miles away in Dublin (in the South of Ireland, where there was a different political landscape). A small bunch of generic nazi skins showed up and every time they tried to crowd surf to the front, the crowd shuttled them really quickly backwards and onto their asses at the back of the hall until they were eventually all kicked out. Seeing that really made me feel like I was part of something good, positive and unique. 

“Ironically it’s often bigots who think that it’s ‘only’ the other side who are bigoted. “

Watching 'The Farewell Bend' - me on the left in UGP hoody - Belfast Giros Cafe Circa 2001. Ricky Adam pic -

Watching ‘The Farewell Bend’ – Me on the left in UGP hoody – Belfast Giros Cafe Circa 2001. Ricky Adam photo.

DA: Incredible…a subtle form of non-violent-ish protest. Were there any political punk bands, either Irish or touring Ireland at the time, that were perceived as a threat by either political side?

Locally bands did reference it regularly (as it affected all of our lives on a daily basis and it was an extremely unusual situation that we lived in) but it was pretty much all about a unified voice against violence, regardless of who the perpetrators were. 

Most touring punk bands were respectful of the situation thankfully and the important thing for us was that we were able to sit and talk with them about it if they did have any interest in learning how it was from our different perspectives. Most obviously had pre-conceived notions of how it would be. There wasn’t anyone touring though that could be any more threatening than what we had to live with on a daily basis. 

Some of the bigger bands that toured (‘Rage Against The Machine’ for one) got it horribly wrong but Chumbawamba was probably the only personal disappointment in our world of punk/DIY. They came over and stayed in one part of the city and seemingly based their whole view of Northern Ireland on that experience. For a political punk band it was a pretty disrespectful and lazy approach as far as I was concerned. The “my flag/nationalism is better than your flag/nationalism” approach, is one of the least punk things I can think of. Ironically, it’s often bigots who think that it’s ‘only’ the other side who are bigoted. 

DA: Ah man…I want to dive deeper into this but we might open up a dissertation’s worth of punk history. So the BMX questions, equally as historic. Let’s start here:

The infamous Can-Can evolution into the “Nac Nac’ story…if you’re not tired of telling it, could we hear it again? 

Back in the eighties myself and a few friends started a BMX clothing and number plate company called ‘Jive’ (not to be confused with ‘Jive Handles’ from LA who just made grips). Like many people, our gateway to BMX was very much via racing, but we also liked to have fun with the conformist nature of the sport. Through Jive we sponsored some not so typical US riders (Dave Clymer was our first based on the fact that he ran a Dead Kennedys sticker on his plate) which in turn attracted some attention from the then editor of BMX Action magazine, Craig “Gork’ Barrett. He liked what we were doing and enjoyed the fact that we made fun of big-name Pros and focused more on controversial underdogs. The result of all this is that it gave us a credible voice in the magazines (something that was very unusual at the time for any non US riders or companies). 

early home made jive number plate circa 1988

Early home made Jive number plate, circa 1987.

In September 1988 Gork ran a pic in BMXA of a guy called Cory Unger doing a one-footed kickout and called it a ‘don’t don’t’. Around the same time back in Belfast we’d been doing a dirt jump variation of a trick we’d seen Brian Blyther do on vert called a ‘back can’. Scott Maitland from our crew did it best out of anyone. Now, all 3 of these 3 tricks were slightly different but we’d been calling our variation a ‘nac nac’ (can can backwards). We thought it would be funny to tell Gork what we were calling it and that ‘don’t don’t’ was a stupid name. In December that year the ‘nac nac’ name was referenced in a BMX ACTION photo caption Gork called it ‘the next big controversy’. In March the following year BMX ACTION ran a picture of me doing the trick with the photo caption “Nac nac. Who’s there? Will Smyth”. The name has stuck since then and it’s surreal to hear it used so widely. The funniest thing is that we endorsed an article that mocked the trick over 10 years later in DIG (telling people it was the lamest trick you could do at the trails) and people bought into that too. They had no idea we’d come up with it in the first place.

will smyth nac nac photo by Spike Jonze - from BMX ACTION MAGAZINE - march 1989

‘That’ nac nac photo by Spike Jonze – from BMX ACTION MAGAZINE – March 1989.

DA: I love the underdog mentality. Although we all held the Hoffman Crew on a pedestal, for some reason it was what all the older riders in our scene rode. The other half of that dichotomy, was the S&M crew and their punk ethos. That’s who we chose (Moeller, Clymer, Treanor): we all grew longer hair, sideburns and doned chain wallets.

You mentioned Clymer and the DK sticker…for you guys, what came first? BMX or punk? Or did it kind of converge at the same time?  

BMX definitely came first but it was with a select group of those new found BMX friends that we all discovered punk, and when I first heard the term ’straight edge’. My older brother was into late seventies punk and everything from new wave to Sparks to Rush to Motorhead, so the seeds had been unknowingly planted. When we were making Jive Plates late at night in Rick Hall’s we would tune into John Peel’s infamous BBC night time radio show. He played a couple of things that peaked our interest including the Dead Kennedys whose lyrics excited us as much as their sound. We searched high and low for one of their records just so we could find and read the lyric sheet. Bands that had something to say meant everything to us, and it’s really what made the difference from listening to the likes of Motorhead, etc… 

From there it was hearing bands like 7-Seconds, picking up on SoCal punk music from skate videos, and our local record shop starting a section called “US Hardcore” with maybe 4 records it. From there on we were hooked and every BMX trip became a potential trip to see a gig too, closely followed by us starting to help with gig posters for touring bands and helping to put on shows. We even dubbed over our early BMX videos with the best music we’d found and shared with our friends. (For years many of them thought BMX was a lot more punk than it actually was)

early Lungfish poster design - february 1994

Early Lungfish poster design – February 1994.

None of us ever conformed to the stereotypical generic ‘punk’ ideals though and we were all more drawn to the ‘question everything’ approach rather than the ‘let’s fuck shit up’ approach. None of us even drank, smoked or took drugs (which was very much frowned upon – getting drunk was the norm) and when I first heard Minor Threat and read some stuff with Ian MacKaye I was relieved to hear that there were not only people who felt the same, but that there was a quick/shorthand way of saying that you weren’t into those things. Addiction issues aside, I’d always associated drinking, smoking and drug taking with mainstream conformity and pretty much still do.

“the fact that the drugs and alcohol ‘business’ (whether legal or illegal) prey on and profit from weakness and vulnerability, and enable addiction, violence and domestic abuse.”

I know I’m digressing here but I maybe need to add too that I’ve still never drank, or smoked or taken drugs to this day. There’s a lot of reasons why, but the over-riding one is still that I have no interest in doing anything like that because I’m just not interested, and I never have been. That’s before we get into the fact that the drugs and alcohol ‘business’ (whether legal or illegal) prey on and profit from weakness and vulnerability, and enable addiction, violence and domestic abuse. I still struggle to understand how people from a punk/hardcore background can support such shitty industries. (I’m not immune from supporting questionable companies by the way – I’m just curious why those get an easier pass than most).

I’ve never been comfortable with seeing ’straight edge’ as any kind of movement though; in the same way that I was bummed about brands like Shelter bringing religion to hardcore. I got into all of this to get away from jock-ish group mentalities and arbitrarily invented rulesets. In reality ‘Straight Edge’ is a song by Minor Threat. There’s no absolute definition beyond that.

dig issue 7 EDITORIAL april 1995

DIG issue 7, EDITORIAL, April 1995.

Positivity in music and BMX was always what really drove us, combined with fun and an ‘against the grain’ ideology. Almost everything I’ve done in BMX since then has been heavily influenced by the DIY energy and work ethic of the Washinton DC hardcore/punk music scene. That quickly became the sweet spot for me and not much has changed over 3 decades later. S&M Bikes was a huge influence at that time as I’d become personal friends with Chris (Moeller) during the early days  of the company and I was very lucky to have been very close to that scene and the POWs/HBP’s etc. And although I maybe didn’t realise it at the time, two people who had a massive influence on me having a DIY approach were Mat Hoffman and Ron Wilkerson. Both of whom still influence me heavily and positively to this day.

“In many ways this was in direct response to the state of BMX at that time, and sill in part today, where (what feels like) a sizeable chunk of the BMX world was happy to support media that had (has) very questionable moral standpoints”

For me, the ‘punk ethos’ has embodied a lot of ideals but inclusivity and respect towards fellow human beings have always been at the forefront for me, along with that positive DIY approach and a desire to always ask questions. When I regained 100% ownership of DIG in 2014, we ran with the #giveafuck slogan derived from an old 7 Seconds song, “In your face”. The chorus went… “So, use your head, be aware, give a fuck.” That one stuck with me from the minute I heard it.  In many ways this was in direct response to the state of BMX at that time, and sill in part today, where (what feels like) a sizeable chunk of the BMX world was happy to support media that had (has) very questionable moral standpoints allowing sexism, homophobia, and even on occasion racism, to go unchecked and unquestioned. Not to mention how poorly and disrespectfully BMX (and it’s history) was being represented.  

 

early fugazi poster design and print- september 1990

Early Fugazi poster design and print- September 1990.

DA: And then DIG started…the one magazine within the world BMX scene that I feel more heavily combined these two ideas. I feel we can get thrown down a rabbit hole on this one too, so to start, what was the catalyst for creating the first print issue?

The US magazines of the early eighties had a huge impact on me, but BMX Action, Freestylin’ and Homeboy from Wizard publications really made a lasting impression, and I pretty much held everything in print to that standard.

The Wizard mags all bit the dust and since then I felt there was still all this great stuff happening but no-one was giving it the coverage it deserved. We’d travel to BMX jams in Scotland and England on the bus and ferry from Belfast, only to discover that the main UK magazine of the time, ‘Invert’ didn’t really bother with too much that was North of London. Even Back then the infamous RAD magazine was down to about 3 or 4 pages of BMX, and of course there was so much happening worldwide that we were seeing bits of pieces of on video. We’d previously made our own zines (‘Flail’ – where we mostly mocked ‘BMX PLUS’) and contributed early on to Invert trying to scratch that unfulfilled print itch, but for some reason, I never actually thought that making a magazine myself was an option.

“that’s when the penny dropped and I thought… “hang on, if he could do that magazine from home then I’m pretty sure I could do that too”. “

In 1991 I met the UK vert rider James Hudson and heard that he was starting a new mag called BMX NOW. I started helping him out with content and after 4 or 5 issues we talked about me becoming the leading contributor/editor.  I went to meet him at what I thought would be their offices but it turned out he was just producing it from his home. Right after that trip he sent me a letter which I expected would include details on our future plans: Instead it contained the bad news that due to advertising problems he was no longer able to continue with BMX Now. I guess that’s when the penny dropped and I thought… “hang on, if he could do that magazine from home then I’m pretty sure I could do that too”. 

flail 1 inside - our first ever homemade zine circa 88

Flail 1 – Our first ever homemade zine circa 88.

I spoke with my friend Ed Docherty (fellow zine maker, artist, and an amazing photographer) about working with me on a new title. Between us we came up with the name DIG, I spoke to a local printer, worked with Stu Dawkins at Backyard about selling copies and the rest is history. I pretty much learned everything in-between as we went along and after 3 years and 5 random self-published issues a publisher approached me about getting onto the newsstand. We’ve actually been through about 5 publishers over the years but after the first one (Air Publications) a few of them went back on their word or ripped us off in one way or another – but equally, most of them helped me keep DIG going for a period of time, so that’s a reasonable trade-off in my book. I’ve even had to buy DIG back for a substantial amount of money three times and I’ve sold it for a £1 three times too. Business has never really been my strong point and money has never been the motivating factor for keeping DIG alive. 

“I figured it would make an interesting article as the norm in BMX back then was to be a drinker, and it would be a nice connection from BMX to our interest in the hardcore scene”

DA: That last anecdote is unreal…from selling it, to buying it back. 

I had no clue…

DIG, early on, presented an issue dedicated entirely to “straight edge” riders. Regardless of the time frame, it’s risky pigeonholing anything that’s a sub-genre, within a sub-genre so as to not exclude anyone.

But you guys did it pretty craftily without pissing anyone off and it remains as one of the most iconic issues within the 100 issue legacy.

What sparked the idea?

Were there any pushbacks behind the scenes or after it was released?

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of identity and how (and why) people choose to identify themselves. DIG has always (and continues to be) a really personal project for me, but equally, not everything that interests me personally would make for interesting content in a BMX magazine. Around that time however, I’d noticed that a lot of the riders I was being drawn towards were non-drinkers /non-smokers (something that I discovered about them after I’d noticed them as riders). After I got chatting with a few of them we realised that they all had their own reasons (of course) and didn’t all necessarily like to be be considered as ‘straight edge’… something again that resonated with me personally. I figured it would make an interesting article as the norm in BMX back then was to be a drinker, and it would be a nice connection from BMX to our interest in the hardcore scene, and the confusion and misconceptions of the term straight-edge. The issue still gets talked about today which is pretty wild. The funny thing was that the rider who was the original inspiration for the piece, had started drinking before the mag came out. I don’t think there were any pushbacks (no more than usual for a non-drinker / non-smoker anyhow) and if anything it was our defining moment of being a BMX magazine that was following its own path. I’m curious though if we’d get more pushback if we published something similar today, due to the current normalcy of drug use within aspects of our culture. 

dig issue 7 cover april 1995

DIG issue 7 cover, April 1995.

DA: Going back even further into the archives, you mentioned a conversation you had with Ian MacKaye at an early Fugazi show in Ireland. Mind sharing some of that conversation?

When a band played Belfast, they’d usually also play Dublin the next day, and we’d always be sure to go. It was pretty much so we could relax and watch any band without the stress of being involved with the show (Fugazi shows were rarely fun to organise due to the amount of confused aggressive idiots that would show up). I think it was the 1995 show and Fugazi had hired a van to drive to Dublin that needed to be returned to Belfast early the next morning. Ian MacKaye was driving but he needed someone to direct him back up North late after the show. It was suggested I do it (as it was a given I’d be sober), but my first reaction was ‘oh shit’!. I’m a very shy person (even to this day) and the idea of spending time with someone that I truly respected definitely made me nervous. “What if he’s a dick”, “what if he thinks I’m a dick”, “what if we’ve got nothing to say”, “what if he says something controversial about Ireland” etc etc – It was as if my whole faith in DIY punk/hardcore could be cemented or fucked in one 3 hour journey. I brought my good friend (and fellow nervous traveller) Chris Magee along for backup and turn out we had nothing to worry about. For 3 hours we chatted about everything from his feelings on accidentally creating the whole straight edge thing and his thoughts on the negative (and positive) aspects and baggage that came along with that, to his strong work ethic and,(most notably at the time) how stoked he was on Mat(t) Hoffman! He ended up coming back to my house pretty late where we hung out and drank tea whilst watching BMX videos. 

The highlight though was my roommate’s boyfriend arriving home drunk. He’d recently been through a serious straight edge phase (of the “I’m more straight edge than you” variety) but now was back on the booze and excited to tell the house exactly how much he had to drink (as they often do). As he walked through the door he boasted “I’ve had 10 pints tonight” and then looked around with a shocked and embarrassed expression to see his one-time hero, Ian MacKaye, sitting on the couch. It was a lovely moment…

will smyth estonia 2008

Estonia 2008.

“I just rode, what felt like nonstop all day, every day for almost 15 years. It was like breathing… I needed to do it and it felt like the most natural thing in the world to do.”

DA: That is incredible. I could only imagine that existential anxiety building up before the trip. Stoked to hear it was not only memorable, but ended with an ironic twist.

Might be a hard story to follow up a with a final question. 

I did want to ask this, and it might be a little touchy…after your injury (years ago) that prevents you from riding, what exists now as your driving connection to BMX, resulting in the continuation of DIG?

It doesn’t prevent me from riding physically, just mentally.. and that might take some explaining. From when I first starting riding, what I knew to be called BMX in 1980, it was pretty much a non-stop whirlwind of activity that just kept picking up speed as it went along. From going to the first races ever held in Ireland and helping get BMX tracks built in Northern Ireland (as a 14/15 year old), to racing for various brands (GT/Raleigh/Redline) in the UK and then the USA, meeting the BMX Action crew, becoming a BMX Action ‘Test Pilot’, co-creating the first-ever KING of DIRT contests (we invented the KING of DIRT name too) , running our own BMX Supercross style races after the ‘adults’ told us it couldn’t be done, co-creating zines and the aforementioned company Jive being the first non American BMX brand to gain popularity in the United States. Then transitioning even more from racing to dirt and street riding (and street contests/jams) in their very formative years… it just didn’t stop. 

To me, BMX had always meant moving forward as that’s all I’d ever known and I was fortunate enough to have been part of a lot of pivotal moments that were happening for the very first time. In 1992 a took a really bad slam street riding (leaving me permanently blind in one eye) and it changed everything. I kept riding in the subsequent years but the fearlessness had gone and was I overthinking everything (only having one eye completely changes depth perception), resulting in even more bad slams. A broken leg at Sheep Hills a couple of years later (combined with a nightmare journey home) unknowingly became the tipping point. Up until then, riding was everything to me, and I never paused to think… I just rode, what felt like nonstop all day, every day for almost 15 years. It was like breathing… I needed to do it and it felt like the most natural thing in the world to do. But, I wasn’t enjoying it anymore… and that felt really alien to me.

will smyth - sweeper - antrim town northen ireland 1993

Sweeper – Antrim town Northern Ireland 1992.

Although it wasn’t a conscious decision at the time, this all coincided with starting DIG, so my life was still BMX 24-7. I’d effectively replaced riding with the magazine, so I was still focused on what was happening next in BMX (rather than looking back) and I was still traveling, meeting people, progressing…. only with DIG as my focus rather than my bike. It was only after 15 years of doing the magazine non-stop with my head down that I paused for thought (just before the birth of my daughter), and realized what had happened. 

Of course there are countless riders who keep riding after much worse injuries but when my newfound lack of ability stopped me from progressing as a rider, then it really did knock the wind out of my sails… and I really wanted my riding to be something that I had great memories of. My bike was the tool that allowed me to explore all those layers of creativity within BMX and in all honesty, the magazine replacing my bike as the vehicle actually felt like a natural transition. If anything, it’s maybe allowed me the chance to stay motivated and excited about BMX for much longer than I could ever have imagined, and there’s no signs of that changing anytime soon.

will smyth circa1988 wigan - inbetween motos at a UK BMX race

Circa 1988 Wigan – Inbetween motos at a UK BMX race.

 

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