Danny MacAskill Interview Part I
Danny MacAskill lives in a flat in Glasgow with six friends. Sharing domestic arrangements with a bunch of dudes is guaranteed to preserve your humility, but Danny likely didn’t need much help. The unassuming lad from Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye is every bit as warm and approachable in person as he seems on video.
I have wanted to interview Danny for a long time - particularly regarding his influences and inspiration - and then I got lucky. I was sitting on a picnic table outside the Santa Cruz Bikes head office on a warm afternoon last year when my friend Tarek Rasouli rolled up. Tarek, who founded rasoulution, a sports marketing agency based in Munich, was with Danny, the biggest star in mountain biking. Sure, he rides street trials, but most of the hundreds of millions of people who have seen his videos likely just think of him as a mountain biker. And yes - you heard that right. Hundreds of millions. On Youtube Danny’s videos have attracted 300 million pairs of eyes, which makes him that rare breed; an action sports star with the mainstream appeal that makes brands like Red Bull salivate.
Beyond fans, Danny’s effortless execution of mind-bending moves has earned him big sponsorship contracts, TV interviews, movie roles and, most recently, a book deal. But Danny just wants to ride his bike. Since quitting his job as a mechanic after his first viral video, Danny has done little else, at home and abroad.
I would argue that, apart from his skill and tenacity, it's creativity that has set Danny apart from his peers. In every MacAskill video, you are sure to see a move you've never seen before. Something surprising and unique - a move you had never imagined or may have thought impossible. A feat you'd dream up as a child - like Danny's entire Imaginate video.
Danny is genuinely easy to talk to, and I realized right away that this was my chance. I met Danny back at the Santa Cruz office the next day and we sat on the roof and had a pleasant and wide-ranging conversation.
The first piece published on NSMB.com was an interview so it’s fitting that this is hosted on our fresh new site.
Cam McRae - Thanks very much Danny. I want to begin with how and when your life changed when you went from being a kid, and you were in Glasgow then?
Danny MacAskill - And in Skye.
Cam McRae - In Skye, where you went back to shoot later. You went from being a kid doing trials, bouncing around on your bike, and then all of a sudden everyone in the world knew about you.
Danny MacAskill - How did it all start? I suppose just the same as any kid, riding bikes. You know growing up in Dunvegan, it was just quite a rural spot. A lot of my friends lived miles away from where I did. Although I lived in the village, all of my friends lived outwards so I would have to be cycling to see them. I used to just enjoy riding about you know?
I spent a lot of time kind of by the village by myself, kind of practicing my wheelies. Doing skids down the pavement and all that kind of stuff. I think as soon as I started riding bikes I was always straight into seeing what I could do, you know. I don't know what the early influences were. I really can't remember what kind of pushed me to want to do jumps and things, it just seemed like a natural thing that you wanted to try to do with a bike.
Then over the years as you know I was just riding around on cheap $150 kind of bikes you know. You'd bend the forks. When I was 7 I probably bent my first set of forks from building jumps with planks in the garden. And I would have to upgrade my forks, and gradually my bikes would be in the bike shop and keep fitting slightly stronger parts.
And then in 1998, I got a 16” Kona Fire Mountain which was my first sort of decent mountain bike. That was really the beginning for me to start finding out what trials was through magazines like MBUK and with the two Martins. And from then on I started modifying this bike you know. I started getting some wider bars and a DMR bashring on the cranks and it turned into what you kind of call a trials bike.
You know it was like on YouTube but it was getting shared around MySpace and I remember someone telling me that it had like 250,000 views, which didn't really make any, didn't really mean anything to me at the time. I’d just say, oh that's interesting. Cause the riding at the time was quite basic you know. There was a couple of new things in there but I just filmed for a day of what I do on a daily ride.
From there I moved to Edinburgh, again I’d just ride around all the time. I never sort of rode to be a sponsored rider I just rode every day and just yeah it was just kind of what I did and later I made a video in Edinburgh that kind of went viral.
CM - You made this video, your cousin edited it, it got lots of attention on MySpace, but it didn't really mean much to you?
Danny - Yeah. I mean my childhood, always since I was 11 or something, trials was just what I did. My friends all started riding, we kind of all progressed together, and it was just what we did on the Skye. We had like huge influences back then. I'd say my first introduction to trials was definitely Martyn Ashton and Martin Hawyes, and MBUK in the sort of real glory days of MBUK when those guys were on probably a few covers a year doing something cool. Then I'd say there's a video called Tricks and Stunts which was kind of like a how to kind of film with those two, Martyn Ashton and Martin Hawyes, and also Hans Rey who plays a kind of baddie. That was like really classic. I could almost word for word say every single bit of that whole film. We watched it so much we kind of wore out the video tape. These are the days obviously long before internet videos and being able to see all the newest stuff every day. You'd still get good coverage in magazines, and sort of see what was happening every month type thing.
Then my friend Donnie who I used to ride with, my Kona probably by this point had snapped, and then I got a Pashley, which is a real nice sort of steel ... It's a UK brand. They actually make a lot of post bikes, but they made these really nice trials bikes as well. I watched videos, Revolution, Evolve, and Contact, they're a few years apart. I'd say Martyn Ashton and Martin Hawyes were maximum influences getting into riding, and these sort of late into my teens biggest influences were definitely Ryan Leech and Jeff Lenosky in these videos. They were the kind of stuff they were doing in the films looking back I've kind of taken a lot from, basically stolen what they were doing, and maybe added in a few extra kind of spins or tricks. It was kind of what I would kind of term more speed trials now, although back then it was just trials. Because the competitions got a little more specialist, kind of like what I've done, it's kind of a little bit more tricks. It's almost like it needs a little bit of separation.
CM - Its own category.
Danny - Yeah. I'm a trials rider, don't get me wrong. Trials is what I do. I'd say Ryan's riding in particular had a massive influence, the kind of things he was trying to ride, his balance. His balance I think maybe there's some competition riders that have got similar balance, but when it came to the video stuff he was trying to ride on things that just defied belief, like riding along a chain, or various railings. He just had this almost freaky kind of balance.
CM - Those moves appealed to you when you saw the video?
Danny - Yeah. I think as a trials rider this was something new, like what could I find in my local village, what fence... I had a garden fence that the top of it was like 45 degrees that I could kind of wobble along. Just always had a massive influence. Then sort of later on, we literally watched those videos I don't know how many hundred times, probably thousands of times. We watched them so much. We used to put tar on our rims, this paint, this stuff called bitumen. We'd rub this on our rims, and then we'd go watch Revolution, and then go riding for the afternoon, or whatever, on the Skye.
Later on, another film that had a huge influence on me was Manifesto, where Ryan would basically try to eliminate correction hops on trials, which I now feel has been a very important thing that I've taken from what he does. There's a way to make trials a little bit more aesthetically pleasing on camera. Rather than doing a line that you could do within a few goes, doing loads of hops, then you'd sort of have this certain quality control overall that would mean that it'd probably take you thirty or forty takes. It was as good as you could make it, I think that was the difference, and sort of took away from maybe the more competition side where it was like can I get through it first go, or that kind of feeling. It's a right pain in the ass. It's got a lot to answer for as well, me taking hundreds and hundreds of takes just to try to get rid of one extra hop, but I think it was quite an important rule for the filming side.
CM - I remember watching your Inspired Bikes video and it seemed to me that there were some influences from Ryan Leech, and so even then were you trying to do a take without any correction hops?
Danny - Yeah, of course. At that point I already had this basic quality control instilled in my riding, from riding in Edinburgh, I mean back probably about a few years before I filmed in 2009. I don't know what the exact year. It must be like 2003 maybe Manifesto came out, maybe later. I cannot really remember. Also, my friend Dave who I ended up moving in with, my flatmate Dave, who filmed Inspired Bicycles, was a very well respected, he's a really good BMX-er for starters, but very well respected filmer, as well. Through watching lots of BMX films, I learned a lot of the kind of quality controls that they have as well. Sometimes it's a little much, people can get very militant, especially nowadays with internet where people can say what they want. They can be that ... You know, if a kid sees something they’re stoked with that's kind of important thing, but you'd have these basic rules like if you 180 clockwise so you're going backwards, you'd come out of it clockwise, carry on the rotation.
Things like bitch cranks, if you're riding along a wall, and then your manual was dropping, you wouldn’t kind of put an extra kick in, things like this. It was really basic stuff, but I started just having these kind of basic rules that I gave myself, and where possible I would try to eliminate them from my riding while filming. I think that was one of the big parts that made that first film do what it did.
CM - If you imagine your trajectory without having the influence of Jeff Lenosky and Ryan Leech at that time, would you have picked that up eventually? What is your feeling about that?
Danny - I don't know. You never know. In 1998 is when I got my first bike. I almost bought a Heavy Tools 20-inch trials bike, and I think that could have really changed the outcome of what I've done. It might have pushed me more toward the competition side, more natural riding, all that kind of thing, and I might not have picked up on ... You never know. I don't think so. I don't think without their influence I would be the rider, especially looking back on that. Recently I was looking back through Ryan's catalog of videos just while we were going to Switzerland just for the day, and to do a show, and that kind of way he approaches filming and his riding, I totally see a huge influence on how I ride today, for sure.