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J.N. - Interview with the P of the PJ

How did you and Jean meet?

It’s all a bit hazy, but I think we met at a training camp run by José Fernandes at Stubai and then again at the O'Neill World Cup in Lech Zurs in ‘88 when we were both on the podium.

How did he end up on the Burton team with you?

Burton was looking for a French rider who could represent Burton in France, so I hooked him up with Burton Europe guys and a year later he was on the team. 

You were both on the team as independent athletes. How did the whole PJ thing come-about? Was it an idea put to you by Jake or somebody else at Burton or something that happened organically?

The idea came from Jean and me, it wasn’t something that was seeded by another person or a marketing team. I was already heavily involved with R&D and Jean was really into filming. He was playing with the idea of going to Argentina to make a movie together and at the same time I was working on an asymmetrical snowboard. Obviously, I always made sure Jean had test boards, because I really wanted his opinion. We both believed snowboard design should reflect state-of-the-art riding technique, even though we had very different techniques, but somehow, we shared the same vision of how a snowboard should ride.

With Jean working on the film and me developing a new board with his input, we thought it would be really cool to have a shared signature model. That’s how the first PJ came about. 

You each brought something different to the PJ comradeship?

Yeah, as I said, Jean was really into filming, I think it was a French thing to be into filming and to have a certain storyline through the movie, not just showing some turns and jumps. He’d been in Canon Surf and was inspired by films like the Apocalypse movies with Regis Roland produced by famous film maker Didier Lafont and Patrice Aubertèl. Jean was a professor at a renown music school in Lyon and was really into producing music. He had incredible skills on the bass guitar and played really funky, black jazz… he was really keen to produce a movie and score the soundtrack. He always said, “you take care of the board development and I’ll do the music”.

Jean was a few years older than you. Did you look up to him?

He was almost 10 years older than me!

He was very knowledgeable. He was reading a lot and was very into philosophy. When you’re twenty and the other guy is thirty, there is a big difference in wisdom and worldliness, so, yeah, I looked up to him, for sure, because he was simply a lot more experienced in life.

Did you and Jean have a rivalry when it came to racing?

If you’re racing, you’re competitive, otherwise you’re doing the wrong activity. But our rivalry was never with negative energy, we enjoyed competing against each other and we were never jealous of each other’s successes.

And did Jean become World Champion?

Yeah, Jean was World Champion twice, in ’88 and ’90, but more importantly he was World Champion in moguls… he still is the current World Champion because he won the last championship race.

What was it like being the poster boys of Eurocarving? Did you get a lot of shit from US riders?

Snowboarding had so much more presence in mass media back then. There was TV and big, national newspapers and it was here, not social media, where Snowboarding was visible. It meant that professional snowboarders had almost rock star status.

The European scene got a lot of shit from US riders. It didn’t help that we were riding with hard boots and they were riding with soft boots. What we used to do with our arms was a pure “swing-show” and the angles we used to ride were ridiculous… we had 48 degrees on the front foot and around 33 degree on the back, but this was still conservative, there were some Frenchies riding with 55 degrees on the front foot and 45 degrees on the back.

Actually, once in a while Jean was riding with soft boots on the PJ, but I was always riding with hard boots on that board. We got a lot of shit for the hair we had, for the pink headbands, for the funky clothing. But we gave shit back, because in our opinion they had terrible clothing, dark colours and tight… super stale, just like skiers at the time. We wanted to be different. They always called us the “Euro Fags” and this was how “Eurocarving” was born, because Americans didn’t carve in their soft boots. It was always light-hearted and good natured.

Was Shaun Palmer the mastermind behind the opposition?

Nah, Palmer was actually a good carver, and he had his own style. You couldn’t tell him to wear drab gear, he was punk… in his own league. Mark Heingartner, Ricky Fruehmann, Andy Coghlan… these were the guys who came up with that. It was all fun, but I must add that we kicked their asses in the alpine disciplines, because at that time hard boots were the better equipment.

Are there any trips with Jean around this time that standout from the others?

Pachamama for sure, in Argentina, was probably the most memorable. First off, we were probably the first snowboarders in Argentina. We paid a military pilot to get our own helicopter. They placed a Lama helicopter for us, all semi-legal of course, and we had a helicopter for one month, so we were riding every peak we could find for an entire month.

The nightlife in Argentina is intense, there are a lot of beautiful women, a lot of good red wine and steak, so, I think it was the month of my life where I slept the least. Also, the cameraman was a real dictator and would wake us up at five in the morning, because the helicopter would launch at six, to capture the sunrise at the peaks.

Being in Argentina in ’88 you were really far from home, there were no cell phones, in fact there were no telephones in Las Lenas, it was so remote that you’d have to travel to Malargue, a one hour car drive, to go to the Post Office to call your folks and tell them you’ve arrived safely.

You guys travelled a lot together, do you have any funny travel stories?

We both went on an incredible trip to New Zealand with Mike Jakoby, Tera Eberhart, Jake (Burton), photographer Stefan Fiedler and Brian Sisselman, a cameraman for Warren Miller.

Jake called me and said he had tickets for me, but that it wasn’t a direct route because it was cheaper to fit within the budget. I flew from Munich to Paris where I travelled across Paris from Orly to Charles de Gaulle where I met Jean. He’d come from Lyon. Then we flew together to Newark. At Newark we boarded a flight to LA where we were supposed to meet the American guys, but our plane was delayed so we missed them and boarded the next flight. After a stop-over in LA we flew to Honolulu in Hawaii. Next stop was Auckland from where we took a flight to Christchurch and another flight to Wanaka. Every successive flight we took the aircraft got smaller, from an Airbus to a Cessna. We counted 48 hours in a plane, not counting 12 hours in a sleezy hotel in LA. Somehow our luggage made it!

Where we were, there were no lifts, only a heli. We spent our time filming for Burton’s movie Chill and for Warren Miller. It was awesome.

Jean was always wearing a bum bag, which was never cool in my opinion, anyway, it filled-up with so much paper that when we arrived at Wanaka, he decided to throw-out all the paper he didn’t need. He threw away a lot of paper. At the start of the return journey he asked me “You have my return tickets right?”, but of course I didn’t. Then he asked Jake who told him he’d been given all his tickets at the start of the trip. In his hurry to clear-out his bum bag he’d thrown away his tickets. He almost missed his flight and it took the airport staff two hours to hand-write Jean replacement tickets. Luckily for Jean the ground staff lady fell in love with his French accent, so she did it for free.

And did Jean spend a lot of time with you in the Northern Alps?

Jean spent a lot more time in Germany and Austria than I spent in the French Alps. Burton’s European HQ was located in Innsbruck, as it is today, and our whole training program happened between Hintertux and Kaunertal. Between training session Jean would often stay at my place instead of driving all the way back to France for a couple of days. We rode a lot with the Burton team, guys like Martin Freinademetz, Cla Mosca and Dieter Happ… Terje and of course Åshild Lofthus from Norway, she was a legend. This was the core team at Burton and most of the time we rode with those guys.

You and Jean were selling a lot of boards and probably making good royalties in the PJ days. Was Jean the kind of guy to have all the toys?

It was very contradictious, in a kind way. Jean was very intellectual and extremely ecological. He was always pissed-off that in Germany we separated glass from the garbage already in the 90ies and in France it took another decade. He was a bit of a Che Guevara of the green movement, but he couldn’t supress his enthusiasm for the throttle.

He had powerful Enduro bikes, he had a Lancia Delta Integrale with a silly amount of horsepower and he was in this constant struggle between the two, horsepower and the environment, but he couldn’t help it. He was able to laugh at himself for it, which made it legit. Nobody is perfect.

When did the popularity of the PJ and Eurocarving movement start to die off?

Asymmetry went a little bit out of fashion because in Alpine snowboarding the technique was becoming more symmetrical. Instead of going to your knees to make toeside turn or leaning back to make a heelside turn the technique was to be more forward facing and to shift your body left and right to initiate turns. The theory was that it wasn’t so important to have offset sidecut arcs, so we started developing the Factory Prime boards with Burton and they were symmetrical. That signalled the end for the PJ and at that point freestyle was taking more of the limelight in snowboarding.

In the mid-90ies you and Jean started transitioning towards freeriding and away from racing.

Jean quit racing before me so logically, because I was still following the World Cup, our ways parted. Jean quit from competing but continued to represent Burton. He started to get into journalism, he wrote a couple of books, he was organising board tests for big magazines and he produced a couple of movies by himself like “Le Jouet”. I was on the World Cup ‘til 96 and then I stopped racing gates and started competing on the Boardercross World Cup and in fledgling Freeride contest like the Freeride World Tour and King of the Hill in AK. When Jean stopped racing gates in ISF contests he stopped competing, but he was still riding a lot.

Music remained incredibly important to him. He didn’t return to teaching once the competing ended, but he played in several bands and played some big concerts. He really was a very talented bass player.

Jean had a daughter in ’96, Nina. Jean asked me to be Nina’s godfather, that’s something that’s very important to me and one of the key motivations behind this project.

Ah, the project! You and Jean have collaborated on one last snowboard, tell us about it?

I wanted to make a very special snowboard to honour what Jean brought to snowboarding, what he gave to his friends and he gave to me. It’s to support his immortality, secure his legacy in Snowboarding’s Hall of Fame and to create something that helps Jean’s daughter Nina with her future.

How did you decide on the shape?

You know the game that kids play where I draw the head of a character and fold it, then you draw the body, and so on? If Jean and I played this with a snowboard design and folded the paper between the bindings, he would have drawn this tail and I would have drawn this nose.

Jean learned to snowboard on a Winterstick in the mid-80ies. I think the classic swallowtail snowboard is a French, more specifically a Savoie, legacy, emanating from the Apocalypse days with Regis Roland. Back then, these boards worked really well. They were made to make big arcs, to float, they were really stable. Jean was always into these “French” shapes.

I on the other-hand didn’t see the retro value on these designs and my interest was in shapes that were a lot more modern. These days I get it, there is nothing better for fast fall-line riding down open faces and making big sprays than the quintessential French swallowtail, and we’re talking here about the rear half of the board… these boards always want to point downhill.

I really feel like there is no other concept that would be appropriate for Jean.

I never liked pointy noses, so, when I decided to make the J.N. a swallowtail I made the tail for Jean, but I made the nose for me. To me a huge pointy nose just creates swing-weight without adding anything beneficial to the board.

And, the graphic is an ode to the timeless “Roses” PJ!

In total we made four series of PJs and the second version had the roses graphic. We didn’t do the graphic ourselves, we worked with a guy named Michael Jager from an agency in Burlington. His agency did a lot of the board designs for Burton, including the M6, the Fusion, the Supermodel and the Custom, because those boards were twin tips, but were heavily influenced by the European market. The roses were Jean’s favourite PJ graphic. Jean was the textbook definition of a romantic, so roses were an obvious choice.

Can you tell us a bit more about the limited quantity and what you’re doing with the proceeds?

We’re only producing 31 snowboards, that’s the age of Jean when he became Moguls World Champion. I don’t want this board to sit around in a warehouse, it should be owned and cherished by the snowboarders that Jean inspired. Half of the boards will be available from the other half from very special snowboard stores. Ideally, I see all 31 boards ending-up either under the feet of total powder-connoisseurs, you know, the guys saving it for the big days and riding it like if there is no tomorrow. Or, as a rare collector’s item on the wall of someone’s living room, waiting to one day beat Banksy’s “Balloon Girl” under the hammer at Sotheby’s.

Jean’s daughter Nina is studying and so the proceeds from this project will go towards her education. I think Jean would be humbled that his snowboarding legacy can still help his family.

Lastly, what do you think Jean will be remembered for in snowboarding?

Obviously, his French accent when speaking English. For being so unapologetically French. For being funny, because he was incredibly funny. For those swinging arms. And for reminding all of us that there is more to life than snowboarding.