Nicolas Müller

Nicolas Müller

Back to Basics — He's one of the best snowboarders in the world, has the career CV of a true champion and demands complete respect and awe from his peers. And yet, as Gemma Freeman finds out, Nicolas Müller is not happy. Over a veggie dinner in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the soft-spoken Swiss unveils his solution for a cleaner planet whilst sharing his deep frustrations about consumerism, industry politics and the annoying futility of small talk.

White gold smothers Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Snow-pregnant skies are sliced open by the jagged peaks of the Grand Teton National Park as Rendezvous Mountain blows huge snowflakes onto the slopes, which lie smothered by the highest-ever recorded snowfall.

It’s mid-season and conditions are perfect for local pro Travis Rice’s Quiksilver Natural Selection: a new surf-inspired comp where the world’s finest snowboarders display their freestyle skills on natural terrain. The concept is genius and the line up immense. But I’m not here to record another set of results. Instead, I’m here to focus on one contestant: Nicolas Müller.

The personification of snowboard style and creativity, the Swiss German is a legend at the age of twenty-six. Born in the Alpine town of Aarau, just outside Zurich, he learnt to ski as a toddler, but, as a talented skater, turned to snowboarding in 1992. After honing his talent on the immaculate halfpipes of his home resort of Laax, he began to notch up podium places and was snapped up by Burton. Soon after, he started winning medals at prestigious events like the Air and Style, Burton European Open and Arctic Challenge, garnering much attention for his uniquely explosive style.

But, an artist at heart, it wasn’t long before Nicolas rejected the park for the backcountry. His first film part for Absinthe’s  Tribal (2000), saw him take the skills he’d perfected on man-made features and apply them to the whole mountain, joining the ‘backcountry freestyle’ movement and redefining what is possible on a shred stick.

Whether he’s boosting out of the pipe with a beautifully exaggerated Japan or buttering deep Alpine powder, Nicolas’ lines are liquid and spontaneous. But his inimitable approach inspires far beyond snowboarding. Following in the footsteps of rider-campaigners such as David Rastovich and Elise Garrigue, Nicolas has created his own agenda, and uses his position to educate others on environmental issues. Working closely with Burton, he even helped develop The Green Mountain Project, a collection of environmentally friendlier snowboard products.

As it pukes snow in J’Hole, global warming seems like a bad joke: flights are grounded; roads are littered with post pile-up debris; lifts are packed with powder fans. The first day of Rice’s event is going off, as Bryan Iguchi, DCP, Bjorn Leines, Gigi Rüf, David Benedek and Romain de Marchi charge at the natural hips and kickers that snake down Dick’s Ditch, hucking spins despite slow run-ins and deep powder landings. But it’s the long-limbed, slim vegetarian who stands out, skater legs popping huge ollies off each hit with feline flexibility.

Fast forward to 7pm the next day. We’re dining alone in an upmarket Teton village restaurant – Nicolas’ choice as it has the best vegetarian cuisine in this steak-loving, cowboy town. It’s strangely silent for peak season, but that’s because the Super Bowl is on, resulting in loud cheers from the neighbouring hotel bar. There’s also an over-zealous waiter to contend with, who seems intent on hovering around. Distractions aside, soon enough drink and food arrive – and conversation starts to flow.

HUCK: Most people would kill to snowboard for a living. But I’ve got to ask: does anything about pro snowboarding ever piss you off?
Nicolas Müller: Actual snowboarding, on a great day, will never get old or boring. But the daily routine is always the same. I don’t know, I’ve been doing this for a long time – a long, long time. I started snowboarding in 1992, I stopped school at sixteen and since then I have snowboarded for a living. I’ve been to all the contests, been motivated, a couple of them I won, and then you come back the next year and you’re like, ‘I could win again or…?’ After a while it gets kind of boring. So now, it’s powder trips that I enjoy the most. This contest is really cool though – you get to ride for a week with your friends.

So are you going to concentrate more on filming and forget the comps next season?
But then I’m bored of filming too [laughs]. Right now that’s how I feel, you know…

Are you bummed out on it all?
I’m not bummed out, but what really gave me joy before, it changes you know; you grow up, times change… I snowboard all year, then snowboard all summer in New Zealand and then I go to all the premieres. Over the last two years, I do so many premieres and promotions in the fall, that when it gets to November, when the winter should start, I can’t even go snowboarding. I’m usually so over it. But then I have the Air and Style, where I’m expected to do good, show a new trick, spin… I just need a break from it. Just clear my head in general, you know?

Do you think you’re a bit battered and tired?
Yes, but then no. I used to live in Zurich, where I was born. I’m a city person. I love and am in the nature a lot, I travel with my job, but when I come home I love the city. But I’m not there much, maybe three or four months out of the year. I don’t know about England, but in Switzerland, every town has a different tax rate. So right now, I work hard, and am always gone – last year I filmed a video part for the Burton movie, I worked on Terje’s Season Pass TV show, I did Fuel TV’s Firsthand, I worked with Absinthe Films, I did five contests, I did the Burton World Tour… And I don’t even live in Zurich… Then I get my tax bill which is like half of my salary and I’m just like, ‘What?’ [he pulls a really shocked expression]

My dream has always been to buy a house in Zurich, so last spring I almost bought one – my dream home, not far from the lake, it was old, with trees all around it, perfect. So I pretty much signed the contract, which is only valid if you pay a certain amount of money, but then the bank called me and were like, ‘Maybe you should speak to the tax expert first?’ So after three hours I came out, and I was like, ‘Fuck, my life’s changed’. I woke up and asked myself, ‘Is this really my dream come true?’ I never buy shit, I saved everything to buy a house in Switzerland, which is expensive. And I had to negotiate with my sponsors, like with Burton… I make good money and I’d be rich in the US – I probably wouldn’t have to work ever again – but in Switzerland I’m not.

So, anyways, that night, I had to cancel my apartment and realised I had to get out of the city. Right now, if I stay in the city, I can make all this money but I have to give away half of it. Or, I can move to the countryside, to a low tax town, and when I decide to take it easy, still have a bunch of money. This all happened last summer. So now I’m pretty much homeless. At first I thought it would be pretty okay, because I travel so much, but still, even if you come home for just a couple of days, it’s worth so much just to have your own four walls.

This is me right now. It’s like psychiatrist talk, but I don’t know… Sometimes I just have those moments, you know? I love snowboarding, and if it’s a great powder day I forget about everything. Even here, the day before the contest, I had one of the best days ever. But on the day of the contest I was like, [shrugs shoulders] ‘Whatever…’

You weren’t feeling it?
Yeah, I was just really not feeling it. I don’t know why. Here in the US, people are so friendly, everyone’s like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ but I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to go places, I just want to be alone’. Sometimes I take it, but sometimes I just don’t have the energy to make small talk. But maybe that’s because I don’t have a home? I look at it like everything happens for a reason, so it’s just something I have to learn to deal with.

As you snowboard for a living, do you miss that pure fun of having a good day? Do people have high expectations even when you’re just riding for yourself…
No, up until now I was always really hungry and enjoyed everything. But, after a while, it feels old to me. This season I had fun, I didn’t win any contests for the first time and I normally always do well. But it’s interesting… I can’t always win.

Are people quite close in the scene or not so much? Like, when you come here: is everyone friendly or are you not actually that close?
We definitely all know each other from our snowboarding life from way back. I know Gigi really well from Absinthe and Burton, Romain the same. Travis, Austin – some more, some less, but still, it’s always about snowboarding for all the guys. Like yesterday was cool, I was hanging out at the bar, and wanted to talk about something other than snowboarding, but I didn’t know what…

I know what you mean, like a conversation like this…
Yeah. I read this interview with Terje and he said that when he was twenty-five, he took it slower, he wasn’t riding that much – maybe only fifteen days a year for a couple of years – because he wasn’t really enjoying it. It was only recently that I read that and I was like, ‘Fuck – this makes sense’. He’s a huge influence on me, and I’m twenty-five so it’s kind of a coincidence.

A quarter life crisis?
[Laughs] Thanks! No, no… I really understood him. Terje was always the biggest influence on me and I read all his interviews. I don’t want to say I’m like Terje, but it was crazy when I read that – I really knew what he meant.

I hear Terje surfs a lot nowadays. Do you surf at all?
I love skateboarding, but I’m starting to surf too, especially in the last year or two… it’s normal to me; there is so much more in life.

Have you ever thought about going back to school or university?
I definitely want to learn but I don’t want to go to school, to learn crap based on somebody’s opinion. Okay, not everything is crap but – this could be a really long story – humans, right now, we’re in a time of change. A lot of people feel it. We’re coming into a new age, the golden age, starting 2012. It’s just a number which is calculated from the Maya culture of time, but I do believe that there is a new age coming up. People are going to be more conscious. What life is about right now in the world is having a good life. Everything is easy: you have a car, you have an elevator, you have TV, you can order things online. Where’s the meaning? It’s like nobody knows. We’re totally in the dark; tripping in the dark, if you know what I mean. That is definitely some people, but not me; that is not my life. House, wife, kids, car, everything; that is not what life is about. There is so much more, you know. A secret… I don’t know.

Do you find it hard doing what you do as you’re promoting consumption – through sponsorship, you’re effectively marketing a brand and product. Is there a crisis of conscience there at all?
Yeah, but only in the last year. I’ve always been an ‘organic guy’, and growing up my mum was always preaching, cooking healthy, organic food and telling me not to eat badly. And I’d be like, ‘Come on, I want to eat this, all the kids do and it’s cool’. But she told me, ‘If you want to be a snowboarder, you need to take care of your body. You’re young now, and can eat crap and not look after yourself, but you won’t be a snowboarder for a long time’. It made sense. Then I did it for my body, but as I got older I realised you have to live like this for yourself – and for everybody. We’re all connected, we’re all one energy. I realised that I live an organic lifestyle not just for me, but for the world. It’s just, you can’t change people overnight. You can’t tell somebody what consciousness means; it’s hard work and it takes time to understand.

Have you ever been into Buddhism or Indian philosophy at all? I know there is the idea of world consciousness and us all being connected by energy there… Is that something you’ve looked into?
Yeah, not too much yet, but I definitely want to look into it. Maybe it’s because of where I am right now; today I waited all day for two runs and am like, ‘What am I doing?’ This contest is sick, the snow is amazing, and Travis is doing an awesome job but… [pauses]. I sent Jake [Burton] a book called Cradle to Cradle, which is about a total solution to how we make products – anything. Like this chair, the paint on the walls, our carpet, our clothes, it’s always made the same way, resulting in a dead end where they end up burnt or in landfill. Burton was a huge part of that; all those bindings, boots, boards, clothes, everything – there was nothing recyclable… That’s why we started the Green Mountain Project.

What are you doing for the rest of the winter?
I don’t know, take it day by day. I’m going to film with Absinthe again. Enjoy, ride powder and not think too much. But for next season, I can’t do this the same anymore. I’m not saying I want to quit, and not do anything anymore, but I want to make a change – mix it up. And I think I’m at the point where I can allow myself to – without being kicked off Burton, I hope.

There is no… what’s the word… not respect, but no relationship to the world… Like it’s all about enjoyment and making life fun, easy. People don’t see that food, it grows for you, and for free – and that is pure love. Nothing else. You know, everyone’s like, ‘I need to eat,’ so they’ll go to a bar, order stuff and talk about TV. I’m like, ‘Dude – this is so shallow’ – and it’s driving me crazy…

Why are you vegetarian?
My grandmother was a vegetarian for as long as I remember, because she loved animals. I was raised by my mother and she would cook meat for me, but when I was nine I had a nightmare, and dreamt I was a cow in a factory about to be made into burgers. Screaming, I woke up. My mother was like, ‘What happened?’ and I told her that I didn’t want to eat meat, and she was like, ‘Okay’. My parents are actually both vegetarians.

Have you encouraged any other riders to become vegetarian? Are people cool about it?
Yeah, everyone is – some can’t see how I do it, but it depends on cultures, where they come from. I know Freddie [Kalbermatten, Nicolas’ best friend] turned vegetarian as well, shortly after me when we were kids. I met him when I started snowboarding. He didn’t really like meat so stopped eating it. Then we had another friend, Greg, who rode with us, and he’s a vegetarian too.

Are you and Freddie still quite close?
Yeah, totally. We run Arcus [streetwear] together, but we don’t ride too much together anymore due to different schedules, politics, whatever, but we’re still pretty tight. I saw him in Haines, actually, with Burton, and we’re going to start riding again on our own project.

What do you think about global warming? How should the snowboard industry change in order to save itself?
I don’t like ‘global warming’ as a term: we’re facing a climate change, but that’s because we have so many monocultures that exploit the earth’s natural resources… So many products that work one way – dead-end products that will never fit into the ecosystem again. Snowboarding is a big part of this. Snowboard companies make a lot of shit, and every year they recreate the same – snowboards, bindings, jackets…

What do you love about snowboarding?
The great thing is that when you snowboard you’re just yourself – your life, your soul, your character, whatever, is out there. Snowboarding doesn’t tell you what to do. Surfing and skating are the same. Other sports always tell you what to do. I think that is what is so attractive to a lot of people, everywhere in the world – no matter which nationality you are or language you speak. It’s like yoga. Universal.