Interview: Josh Ruggles
The first time I saw Aaron Biittner ride was in Finger On Da Trigger’s Moment of Truth. It was one of those moments when I realized things are changing, and the bar is getting further from my reach. He dropped some of the biggest hammers of the year, in my opinion. To this day, I have not seen someone stick a front board through a kink like he does in his part ender. As anyone who saw that part could tell, he was going places—and he did.
Just as DC snow was making a big push in the hardgoods realm with the release of their board lineup, Biittner was brought on, and went from having a few standout parts with Mack Dawg Productions and the Technine crew, to being a major player in one of the most influential brands in standing sideways. His riding style is unmistakable. The apparent refusal to sacrifice style for technicality is reminiscent of MFM and JP Solberg, yet is a brand all his own. Even in the sketchiest situations, Biittner looks like he’s not really trying. It borders on maddening for the rest of us, who can’t help but look like Flappy Bird on occasion.
For those out there who have been wondering where Biittner has gone for the last couple seasons, I was asking myself the same question. So I caught up with him to find out. As he sat behind a glass of pale ale in downtown Salt Lake City, I got learned on how a dream job can turn sour so quickly. Biittner was basically caught up in the snowboard industry’s version of a bad soap opera, aside from the rampant murder, of course.
What’s good? What have you been up to this summer?
Not much, man. I just got back from Costa Rica. It was amazing. Still trying to heal up from the 100-plus bug bites I got down there. Surf was great though.
I’m jealous. I need some sun.
Yeah. It was really nice to chill out on the beach.
You’ve gone missing for a while in the shred scene. Where did you go?
I guess the best way to put it is, I broke up with DC. So, for the most part I have been doing my own thing, filmed a bit with my homies from Finland for Cooking with Gas the season before last, but I broke my collarbone and that cut it short, and last season I filmed for the Celtek movie called Nothing to Prove. It was an amazing season all-in-all. It’s refreshing what they’re doing with it, and the direction they are going. Hope people will be stoked on it.
What makes it refreshing?
It’s just about showing that snowboarding is about having fun with your crew—not just who can do what trick. It’s always good to be filming with a crew like that.
What happened with DC? They were your bread and butter.
So, I got on the DC program when I was really young. It had such a cool culture and movement behind it. DC boots and DC snowboarding in general were just awesome, and it has so much history. It was a no-brainer wanting to ride for them. When I was 18 or 19, I got on their flow program and everything sort of went from there. It was amazing to be a part DC back then—we had the (DC) Mtn. Lab right up in Park City, and so many good riders that I have looked up to rode for DC at some point.
Just that vibe and culture around DC made it so cool and such a desirable brand to ride for. When I got on with them, it was still like that, and as we progressed, you know, we had a really good thing going. After a few years of putting out parts with Mack Dawg they asked me to ride for their pro team, and for me it was a no-brainer—a dream come true. To be a part of a hand picked 4 man crew: Devun Walsh, Iikka Backstrom, Lauri Heiskari and myself, spearheading their push into making snowboards was insanely cool to be a part of.
In that process, I had to quit riding for Technine, which was really rough. Those guys are who really helped me get my start in snowboarding—so that definitely wasn’t easy for me. Riding for Technine was a dream come true as well. I was also filming for Mack Dawg, so everything was happening so fast for while. Then after a few years of being with DC, they got sold to Quiksilver, and that was the first red flag. But we just kept hoping nothing was going to change, the same people would run it—and it would stay the same.
And then, a few years after DC sold, things started to go downhill really quickly. They decommissioned the Mtn Lab--the one thing that really set DC apart from all the other brands. Quiksilver started taking more and more control, and I don’t know the whole backstory, but I guess they weren’t really doing too well and started taking away from the DC program a lot. They really started to tie our hands on what we were able to do. Really, it was a turning point for me when it started to feel like, “OK, this is really starting feel more like work.” It just felt like they lost touch with the whole reason that they started it.
What were these changes?
I mean, one example: I went from having total control over every aspect of my first pro model board, you know--I could put any graphics on it, had input through the whole process, and long story short, it was the best board I’d ever had. It was sick. They let me do everything, you know? Then the very next year, they told me that because the sales force wanted reverse camber, my next board was going to be a reverse camber, or I wouldn’t get a pro model. That’s when I was really like, “OK, this is fucking bullshit. Political bullshit.”
I obviously wanted to keep my pro-model to make the money and support the brand, but I was really bummed to put my name on a board that I didn’t even like to ride—that I hated.
So that went on for a little while, and I finally got back to where I could get a board that I wanted to ride. Torstein and I got the PLY board. We had a few different sizes and graphics, so we were thinking it was going to get cool again. My board was the second highest selling board behind Torstein’s, and then through a process that became all too familiar, the design team left and they brought in a new designer who had his own idea of what was a good direction--blah blah blah. And somehow through Quiksilver Europe they let the headquarters in France take over a lot of the brand direction. That bummed a lot of us out.
When was that?
That was two—almost three years ago. So that was the year that I left. We had been through a handful of team managers throughout my career working there. Most of them good homies, but at the the end of my time there, it was one of my best friends Nick Olsen that was our team manager. He was liked by everybody, especially us riders. He stood up for us so much, and really voiced his opinion, which was basically, “DC is really blowing it, let’s remember where we came from.” And it’s something we all shared. They basically made him meet with me and tell me that the following year I would not be getting a new pro-model, and in terms of re-negotiating my contract, they weren’t going to be paying me as much or supporting me in the same capacity. Basically, it felt like I was getting phased out. DC went from feeling like a family, to just being an institution with disposable parts.
I understand that those who are doing big events and stuff get paid more, and that’s how it has always been but the way it’s handled these days and the gap in pay getting so much bigger makes these brands run like a one-man army. Companies decide they don’t need anyone but that one guy who is on TV the most to promote their brand.
But when all this stuff went down, to me, that was the end of it. I didn’t care if they were going to pay me or not. At that point it wasn’t even a decision. They put me and my team manager in a really hard place. I just told him not to worry about me. I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore, because it wasn’t fun anymore.
I just wanted to do my own thing and snowboard for the reason I started snowboarding, which was for personal enjoyment. It was never just about the paycheck, or rockstar status. I snowboard because it’s my favorite thing to do—and when it ceases to be my favorite thing, I know I need to change something.
What’s happened since that change?
It’s rough in the industry right now. I haven’t had a board sponsor since I left. But at least I can go and do what I want to do, spend more time at my home resorts and have fun with it again. I don’t have to feel like it’s “work” all the time.
You brought up the one-man army type of riders. Why do you feel it started happening at DC? It always seemed to have a solid core of riders.
I think it had something to do with the French Quiksilver crew, and Quiksilver in general. Just different priorities, based solely on the ignorant idea that the almighty X-Games is all snowboarding is.
That sort of shit is not what I signed up for, so while getting out has really been a bittersweet thing, it was necessary.
How did it feel to close that chapter, and walk away from it all?
You know, some of the best years of my life were when I was with DC. But things change, and it was very apparent that things had changed. I was hoping for the best when I signed my second contract, but it just never got better. More and more of the best people that made DC great kept leaving because it just wasn’t what it used to be.
There was just no passion or culture left in the brand. It basically became a hollow shell of what it once was. As far as my starry-eyed little kid idea of what riding for DC was and having known the Mtn. Lab, it’s just not the same. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the riders that I had the privilege to be on the team with, and there are still great people that work there, but when I first signed up it was it was the dopest brand to be a part of, and it had roots in Utah. Now it’s based in Huntington Beach at Quiksilver.
Considering you don’t have a board sponsor, and the income that comes with it, was leaving DC the right decision?
That all depends on your perspective. It was the right decision for me. I mean, I’m hopeful that another opportunity will develop, but those things take time. I had been with DC for so long that I was branded DC. I’m sure it’s hard for other brands to make sense of working with me because of that. Honestly, I haven’t pursued it too hard, which probably isn’t the best decision, but I really had chill out and regroup after going through such a big part of my career with DC.
I still have some good support, and awesome sponsors but my pay is not close to where it was. I think a lot of companies are timid because they think I will come in asking for tons of money, or they wont have the budget for me.
I've gotta make a living, but ultimately, this is what I do. It’s not really about making a ton of money, but to continue to support and be a part of the side of snowboarding that I love.
Going from such a big brand to no major sponsor, what comes next?
Basically, I just need to take what I learned in that situation and keep moving forward with my snowboarding as long as I can. I’d like to get in with a brand that I really respect and that has potential to do good in the industry.
It seems like there are a lot less riders that are riding for the passion than there were 10 years ago. Where is this change in mentality coming from?
Here is one main issue for me with big brands, the common core snowboarder, and the corporate takeover of snowboarding. That issue is the millions of dollars that are spent on something that is of questionable benefit to snowboarding in any way. This hysteria over the X-Games, Olympics, and mainstream TV is a manufactured crisis based on “data” that compares apples to oranges in snowboarding. There are CEO’s, presidents, and yes-men that only care about seeing their brand on TV and in the mainstream, and have no idea how to take stock in the core side of the business. It has turned snowboarding brands away from caring for, and nurturing the lifestyle.
One thing that I have always tried to balance in my own career, is in order for me to have a good season, I have to have a solid amount of days just riding my snowboard. So, when I am out filming, or in a contest or whatever, I feel ready for whatever situation I’m in. I have never understood people who just memorize tricks and lines for contests or filming and never just go and take run. How can that be any fun?
A lot of media has said the snowboard industry is on the decline. How do you think it could be fixed?
I think one thing is, more people need to be put into a situation like I have been in. Take it all away. Take away the money, contracts and distractions from it, and see how many people stick with it. Those are the people who really care. Not the ones who are trying to be the next Shaun White.
Too many people look at snowboarding like a sport. I never really have looked it at it like that. To hear that it is in the Olympics is still fucking crazy to me. Now with all the action parents, getting their kids into it to become a big star is so off. If my parents told me start snowboarding to go to the Olympics, I wouldn’t have done it. Not to rebel, but because that is a ton of unnecessary pressure for a kid.
I think we all need to take a step back and remember what got us here in the first place—just that excitement for riding.
There are a lot of guys in it, that still do it because they love it. Bjorn (Leines) is a prime example of that. He has done it all. He’s won contests, and been on arguably the greatest team ever to be in snowboarding (Forum 8). He’s had ups and downs, but he does it because he loves it, not just to get a paycheck.
So I think if you were able to get more people to step back, and think about it without the money or pressure of having to answer to someone behind a desk in southern California—I’m sure there would not be as many people involved with it. But the right people will be involved.
That’s an interesting point. Do you think the industry’s proverbial back is about to break, or is corporate control going to continue?
Yeah, I think it’s there in a lot of ways. There are companies out there that are still doing good, like Videograss, or Celtek. A bunch of core companies are still trying to do things the right way. They may not be able to pay like these big companies can, but they still support the idea or dream of what snowboarding should be, and why snowboarding started—and what it’s all about. Then you have situations like mine, where I put my trust in a company that no longer had a direct connection with me, or snowboarding.
I got into snowboarding for all these reasons that were cool to me, and out of respect for that youthful ideology of snowboarding, I always try to do things a certain way. I never want to screw over someone who I feel is a homie, just for money. If I wanted to be cutthroat, I would have picked a different industry to be a part of. I’d rather leave snowboarding pure, just like it started. That’s why I had to leave DC, I went from being so stoked and inspired to totally frustrated and discouraged.
It sort of feels like the snowboard industry is polarizing itself. There are the dudes like you, who want to sidestep all the corporate involvement and fame—then you have the other end, which are all about standing on podiums, or getting network interviews.
Yeah, it’s getting crazy. So many people have been, and are getting clipped, some of which are basically legendary status. And that goes back to what I was saying earlier. A lot of times, these decisions are made by a guy sitting behind a desk, who has no direct connection with snowboarding, or these riders. They are making big mistakes.
But it could be a blessing for all. From the outside, people probably see snowboarding professionally as the best job in the world, and wonder why I would leave a major company like that. Snowboarding professionally, to me, is the best job out there, but I would rather work with like-minded people that look out for each other. It really comes down to your personal ideals and happiness.
Are you happy?
Yeah, I am very happy. My life is a lot different. I’m not required to be a part of things that I don’t believe in. Basically, it came down to the question of, “Is it worth being unhappy because I make a bunch of money?” Ultimately, I felt like I wasn’t doing the right thing for snowboarding or for myself. I would rather ride good product, make less money and back a product and brand that I believe in.
I want to do this as long as I can, but I want to do it the right way and be able to enjoy it.