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Saturday, December 27, 2008
Updated: March 30, 6:19 PM ET
Brain Child

By Colin Whyte

To put it bluntly, Burtner is the bomb.

IT'S JUST BEFORE DECEMBER when I visit Jesse Burtner and his wife Christina at their North Seattle cottage, but he's already been at it non-stop for a few weeks: shredding; shooting.

A few days of early season riding in Utah dovetailed into a Portland pit-stop on the way home for him to announce the Backyard Bang. Multi-tasking like this is just Jesse being Jesse—he's known for his skills on a snowboard as much as he is for his ability to put together solidly strange films every season under the Think Thank label he runs with partners Sean Genovese and Christina.

Since he just returned from SLC, I ask him how that scene compares to the NW, and the 30-year-old tells us, "Salt Lake is the scene. It's where the most pros live...and there are different versions of each pro. Like, up at Brighton, you see six Jon Kooley's every run; you'll see maybe one or two Gus Engle's; you'll see, like five Jeremy Joneses...[laughs]. Everyone is so in tune with, like, the minutiae of snowboard style. It's a little weird in that way, you feel micromanaged a little bit... everyone's all up in everyone's business. But it's also super exciting that way...because it's where a lot of stuff's happening. It's fun like that.

"How did I get inside this little camera?" JB and Genovese check out the day's work.
"[In the] Northwest it's still all about...mellow: O.R. mittens and soggy days. It's all just about stoke. I guess Utah has it all though. They have that one-percent of the industry more than most places but there's the soul shredders, too. Just tons of boardin' goin' on there."

Burtner drops his G's less often than fellow Alaskan Sarah Palin, yet the last frontier plays an important role in all things Jesse Burtner, too. Despite calling the Seattle area home for over a decade, the Chugach Mountains—his literal backyard growing up—informed his roadside DIY ethic more than anything else: "I would just walk out my door and snowboard," he says. "Walk out, strap in, and do whatever's in front of me... Whatever the meadow had to offer, that's what we rode." Not surprisingly, movies like Thunk, Patchwork Patterns and this year's Stack Footy are all about chucking big airs and even going for the big tricks. But they're keeping snowboarding close to the ground also: accessible, inviting, personal. This riding is imagination more than it is about money and big budgets.

The snow in the Chugach or Snoqualmie Pass, two key locations, might be bottomless, but the Think Thank travel budget? Not so much. The snowboarding often involves jibbing household objects, building mini-golf style "parks" out of whatever snow/swing-sets/bum barrels are available and then "unlocking the creative potential of the objects" as Burtner puts it, be it a handrail or a hairdryer. You know how MacGyver could build a catapult out of a pen, his watch and some hair ties? Think Thank's crew can build a shootable mini park out of less.

You know how MacGyver could build a catapult out of a pen, his watch and some hair ties? Think Thank's crew can build a shootable mini park out of less.

Knocking Some Self Into Yourself

Burtner wants kids to have their own "voice" when they ride, not merely to express what's already been "said" in some kind of corporate, hand-me-down way. "Instead of buying a snowboard to emulate someone else's expression, you buy the tool to create your own expression—that's the agenda I'm trying to push." He also finds that fellow pros "tailoring their snowboarding to a company's bottom line" is a trend that is "a little bit disserving."

He would know: The first half of his career was spent trying to live up to an ideal that "wasn't him," he tells us. He was trying to ride like someone else, doing someone else's tricks—and it was hurting his style. A serious bonk on the head jibbing in 2002 led to life changes most of us can't even imagine, including $85,000 dollar brain surgery with no medical insurance, a golf ball sized hole in his head, and three days in the ICU. So he started to wear the helmet that has become one of his trademarks, got promptly dropped by his sponsors, and was basically "eating a bunch of humble pie," he says. "Progressive freestylers don't wear helmets; so I was a dork now... But that was freedom. I was free to be me."

With a standing vertical worthy of the NBA, Burtner goes bananas.
It should be noted that some team manager types also told Jesse that he shouldn't get married and that doing so would spell the end of his pro career—an idea he still clearly finds funny as both he and Christina LOL on the couch, clearly at ease talking, laughing about stuff that most folks might find awkward discussing with a stranger.

Think Thank in many ways grew out of this head bonk experience hence, perhaps, the tagline, Thanks Brain! "It's more important for you to be you on your board," he tells the riders in his videos at the start of the season. "I really don't give a sh*t about the 'it' trick."

The Diversity Dilemma: Snow-Mocracy Now!

Burtner also worries about a near-future dystopia, in which the small branches coming out of snowboarding, the weird "ghetto" crews and obscure video companies, are killed off. If the money only gets unloaded on big contests, Olympic halfpipes, and major motion pictures, the diversity that keeps any system healthy will be eroded and the "culture" part of snowboard culture might cease to be: "Another 180. Ten more feet of air! Another 180 on the other axis!...[laughs]. That pretty much sums it up..." he says. "I think that progression comes from so many different places. And basically, if you don't have diversity you kill progression."

"We need to have a poly-culture not a mono-culture," wife Christina adds.

It's not all jibs and jousting for Jesse. AK pow hack.
We discuss $90 lift tickets and the degree to which snowboarding has turned into a rich kids' sport, like polo or climbing Mt. Everest. "Always has been, always will be to a certain extent," he says. "But we try to include more people rather than making it exclusive. I want it to be so like you get the board, you get the boots, you're in the club. That's it. That's it, that's all [laughs]... You can wear jeans. You can wear a Starter coat, your little league jacket—whatever. You don't necessarily have to have a snowmobile, heli, travel budget—you don't even have to have a truck. You can carpool. Just get to the snow with your board and your boots and it's game on. And the game can be good, too."

While the rest of the world is looking for a gnarlier angle, bigger booter, and extra rotation, Burtner is capturing something far, far more significant.

—Jeff Galbraith

Frequency's publisher, Jeff Galbraith, is a Burtner believer: "Once when I was working for Snowboarder Magazine, and I was to travel with a crew to the Rockies from Seattle, we had to stop at the then corporate offices of Sims. While the "pros" I was traveling with accosted team managers for more gear, more travel budget and less responsibility, a quiet kid milling around piped up: 'You guys going to Stevens Pass? Can I get a ride?' Jesse Burtner did not care about the photo shoot, the potential exposure, the magazine story, or even who I was. He just wanted to get to the hill and ride.

"Since that day, I've watched Burtner grow into one of the more influential riders and filmers in snowboarding today, but most importantly he has never lost that essential drive to simply be up there doing it. While the rest of the world is looking for a gnarlier angle, bigger booter, and extra rotation, Burtner is capturing something far, far more significant. If snowboarding's future can be linked to people like Jesse Burtner, hope will be more than a political mantra."

Cue The Birds

"Getting married will spell the end of your pro career..." Jesse and wife Christina doing just fine, thanks.
In some ways Think Thank's '05 movie Cue The Birds might be the strangest snowboard film ever made. It's definitely up there with Murray Siple's '90s pro-murder-fest Cascadia, or the stonier animations in Volcom movies. As Burtner puts it, "Cue is about releasing your inner artsiness and [was] a response to the corporatization of art. Like, 'You're gonna do your 5-0 down the rail and we're gonna cue the ravens." Like, cue your artsiness!' So it was kind of poking fun at it while also participating. [For] that movie we made these paper mache bird masks and we were just weird, dude."

Fast forward a few years and check Burtner, Gus Engle, Austin Hironaka and friends in Stack Footy and you'll get a good representation of how the creativity in riding has come way around and the weirdness of the movies is maybe fading a bit. You'll see it all—maybe even some 1080s—but you won't see much in the way of wildlife. Well, except Engle...

Cue The Nerds

"LARPing," says Burtner, like it's common knowledge.


"Live Action Role Playing. I'm trying to get a wizard cloak made at Airblaster. Maybe playing cards and a wand. We've all been LARPing, that's the thing... On the hill you're like this thug, this rapper... but off the hill you're, like, the Mormon kid who's mom's little champion. Or you've got these guys [who] are the missing member of the Ramones... I want to bring actual, straight-up LARP into it. If we're gonna LARP let's LARP! Let's cast some spells and slay the dragon. Like, 'You guys wanna go film today or do you wanna unlock the castle?'"

The totally uncensored Jesse Burtner slays Bush while talking politics with this high-consequence rail.
At the fear of being asked to don a suit of armor, I change the subject and ask joustin' Jesse whether the current economic mood and/or state of video poaching on the web is going to make it harder to do what he does. "How ghetto are the real artists and creators willing to get to put their message out there—that's the question. To what level will you stoop to make a snowboard movie you believe in?" he asks, semi-rhetorically. "See, I'm willing to go all the way to the bottom [laughs]. Wherever it takes me... I'm here to make snowboard movies. I'll try to just continue to do that and, if the bottom fell out and I had to get a job, I could still make a snowboard movie I'd like to watch—if I had to... If I couldn't pay the mortgage I'd go make a movie about Snoqualmie on my days off."

Burtner might have a reputation for "weird" thanks to certain aspects of his movies and general fearlessness when it comes to saying smart/strange things, but his weird is informed by a desire to elevate the shred movie model while sticking to his shoestring budget. "You don't have to dumb the movies down. Like, don't think 'the kids' can't hang with 'the new, more intense concept.' I could hang when I was their age, so why can't they? It's funny, but that idea is almost considered seditious in a way by the industry. It's nothing short of everything—that's what snowboarding is," Burtner says by way of summary. "Why shouldn't we put all of what we have into it? If snowboarding videos are what we do, let's make 'em insane! Let's really go after it and make it a relevant art form." —Colin Whyte/Redcard Writing Group