Michael Burnett was raised in College Station, Texas—home of Texas A&M University, where his father served on the faculty as a professor of marketing. He describes his upbringing as relatively uneventful.
By his own admission, Mr. Burnett now leads a quiet life in Cardiff, California. He and his wife—whom he met in college—are kept quite busy raising their two young daughters.
And yet, as Editor of Thrasher, widely-considered the most “core” of the major skateboard magazines, Mr. Burnett’s working life is far from staid. In addition to photographing many of the magazine’s most resonant images, Burnett provides and oversees much of Thrasher’s editorial content. (His witty articles such as “Florida Will Kill Us All” are often classics of the form.)
In this regard, Burnett’s professional responsibilities are quite solemn, for Thrasher still serves as the skateboarding industry’s most impactful rating agency.
What distinguishes Burnett from many of his peers is the understated affection he brings to bear on his young subjects.
Because Mr. Burnett spoke in the forthcoming, anecdote-rich and self-reflective manner of an experienced interviewer, a reporter was required to do little besides read out questions and periodically say “right” and “nice” with an occasional “sure” as his earnest, entertaining answers poured forth.
Q: You make a point of abstaining from some of the more riotous aspects of the skateboard industry. Did you experience more pressure to experiment with drugs and alcohol when you were new to the industry?
Michael Burnett: I didn’t realize it, but I had been sheltered, you know? I had lived in a bunch of small college towns my entire life. When I came out here, I remember being around some pro skaters and thinking, “This is the stupidest person I have ever met in my fucking life.”
I don’t think that now. But at the time my initial reaction was, “These people are retarded.”
One of the first tours I ever went on was a World [Industries] tour. We all met at LAX. One of the guys was already wasted. I had never met him before and he was like, “DRINK THIS! HERE. DRINK THIS! Are you scared to drink after me because I’M BLACK?”
I was like, “Hm. Good. Thank you. Hm. Delicious. Delicious Jim Beam.” Or whatever he was drinking.
I hadn’t been around people like that. At the time, it was a culture shock. I just couldn’t believe it.
I had never been around full-time stoners. I had never been around like, overtly, sexist people. I had never been around someone who would go, “Fuck yeah. Big tits !” right to a woman. I was like, “Oh. Oh, dear.”
I think I have a more subtle personality and they did not know what to make of me. I wasn’t really… I am sure I was kind of a weirdo.
I grew up in what I think of as a traditional skate experience, we were the lowest rung socially. One of the dudes in our crew had Down syndrome. College Station is a nice place, safe town. It’s real conservative. The biggest building in town is Kyle Field, where the Aggies play. Football is super-big. One time the quarterback at our high school hurt his knee and we had a special pep rally for his knee. They wheeled his ass out in wheelchair and you had to go. It was, like, mandatory.
I just had a scowl on my face the whole time in high school.
My parents weren’t against skateboarding. They just thought you shouldn’t just skateboard. When I was a little kid I had done, like, community theater. But again, my social failings in junior high might have been linked to that impulse. My dad thought I could star in Brigadoon.
So I wasn’t like The Muska1. The Muska was very jarring to me. I had never been around somebody like that. I didn’t know exactly how to take it. The photographer Chriz Ortiz would physically try to push me at contests, physically shove me.
MB: But, I see it differently now. There are all kinds of different things that compose your intelligence.
Part of it was my insecurity. I was real nervous about being able to do what I needed to do. To be able to shoot the photos.
I am aware of my own shortcomings.
And that kid with the Jim Beam was probably dealing with his own insecurities; he was probably trying to live up to some expectations. I don’t know.
[Burnett to daughter.] Oh, that looks so nice sweetie. Have a good puddle stomp.
I had never shot street skating before. And I remember the first time I went with somebody trying to 360 flip 11 stairs, or whatever, and just the amount of smashing and like… just the idea that you would eat that much shit jumping down these stairs was crazy to me. I wasn’t ready for it. Like, “Are you sure, dude?” People would be landing primo. I couldn’t believe it, like, “AHHH… are you ok? “UGH, YEAH.”
I made efforts. I would cold call people.
But, I felt old the whole time. I felt old at 24. I think I had to put myself there, for whatever reason. I got serious about college. I got serious about career pursuits and it was hard to go back to, like, you know, “I’m going to do an upperdecker.”
Q: I’m sorry. I don’t actually know what an upperdecker is.
MB: That’s when you take a dump in the upper tank of the toilet so the turd flushes back into the bowl.
MB: But things have gotten a lot cooler. At the time it as if James Kelch2 was going to come out of the bushes and focus3 your board at any moment.
Over time I really got excited about what new guys bring to it. Not that I thought that a Muska flip was better than a Chris Miller lien air.
The thing that is still troubling to me… I still don’t understand people that don’t have a self-preservation instinct. This gimme-danger thing still feels foreign to me.
Q: Is that aspect going to be part of skateboarding forever? The self-destructive behavior?
MB: That thing has been marketed. It’s been marketed in music. I go on tour. There are kids drawn to that. They see some sort of kinship in that. Kids with too much energy and bad decision-making skills have always been drawn to skateboarding.
I think there will always be somebody who will trade in that.
I feel protective of the kids.
You know this is what I tell the kids all the time. I go, “You know what? You don’t have to smoke weed. It’s not a rule. It’s not a requirement. You don’t have to. You just don’t.”
Maybe it doesn’t work for you.
And me playing myself out as the square over and over again is partly that I do think I am the square. I also don’t mind being the square. I like the idea that if there’s a kid on tour that doesn’t want to do cocaine, they can come over and watch Dog the Bounty Hunter with me.
I have real benevolence for kids. I think that the teenage years, teenage life, is really special and fantastic. I love the enthusiasm you can have at that age and I like the fearlessness you can have at that age. I don’t ever try to be unkind. But, I see it over and over again. It’s an insane time and I get to watch it over and over again.
It’s just part of this weird story, this weird prolonged American adolescence that will never end.
Q: What was your first article for Thrasher?
MB: There was this guy Rich Johnson who did the John Doe ‘zine. He was an amazingly funny, eccentric dude who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He would send thousands of ‘zines to Big Brother magazine and in one issue they took a picture of themselves burning an entire box of ‘zines he’d sent. He got one of his articles in Thrasher, just snap shots of his dumb buddies. It was called, like, “Homegrown Homeboys.” Jake loves that stuff. He loves Americana. That was not that far off from the whole Thrasher tradition. The whole ‘80s would be like, “We got a killer ramp down here in Pawtucket.” And that would be the article. Before that you had Craig Stecyk who was basically doing a tribute to Hunter S. Thompson. Then you had these weird dudes who wrote for Thrasher who would go to a street contest and be like, “She was a comely lass when I spotted her across the cantina.” When I was reading that as a kid I was like, “What is this?”
So to Rich, I was like, “How did you get to do that?” And he said, “I called them.”
So I called Jake, and left Jake a message and said, “I want to do a Colorado article.” So he’s all, “Ok.” So I said, “What kind of film?…What do I shoot?” And he said, “Slide film.”
And I cobbled together some little thing. Looking at it now, I don’t hate it. But, it was a miracle anybody would want to run something like that.
Or maybe Jake saw something in me. I knew how to put together a cohesive story. I had an alliterative title.
And then I was like, “I want to do more of this.” I would try and give him some good ideas. “I want to do a Texas article,” I said. I did another horrible article. Just my dumb buddies in Texas and he gave me six pages.
MB: But, the next issue, my cross-town rivals from nearby Bryan, Texas wrote a thoroughly insulting letter to the editor of Thrasher… which they ran. I was mortified. I have never felt that way in my entire life. I think what it was is… there was this one kid named Robbie Cahill and he was like the bad ass of their town and he didn’t get a photo in the article and that was basically what set it off. So from the get-go, I was like, “This is what this feels like. This feels terrible.”
It was a good lesson too. And I know it was you Robbie Cahill.
Q: Had you had ambitions of becoming a professional skateboarder yourself?
MB: For me, I wanted to be good. Yeah. But, I think everyone reaches that painful point where they realize they don’t got it. Less so these pure of heart soul skaters. Maybe they never think of it that way.
I remember I made it to the N.S.A. regional. Which was the midpoint. My Dad was like, “Why do you have to skateboard in St. Louis?”
But Eric Koston wiped the floor with everyone at the regionals. This was in ‘91. So Eric Koston was in my heat. Eric Koston was in my heat! In the miniramp competition, which was then a category. His trick was a tail grab 540 over the hip. My trick over the hip was a tail grab one foot. And I had a board with a broken nose and I had a pulled groin and I felt and looked like a complete piece of shit.
And it hit me.
I remember I was talking to some guy in the parking lot who also had competed and he had also not done well. And I was like, “Man, I don’t even know why I came to this.”
“Yeah, man,” he said. “I missed a kick-ass Cure concert because of this.”
Q: Hundreds, if not thousands, of skaters across the world would probably consider your role as editor at Thrasher, a dream job. In what ways is it a dream job? In what ways can it be nightmare? Could you offer specific illustrations of both?
MB: The dreamiest part of it is that I work out of my house. I don’t have to set an alarm. I hate knowing I have to get up early. Not that I am sleeping in until 11:00 every day.
This is more abstract, but it’s hard having something you do for work remain fun.
The photography is hard and time consuming. It is really hard to find a place to street skate, and the standards are incredibly high. You have to deal with cops. Strangers yell at you. You have to have a skater that is well known and people like him. And you have to drive through terrible traffic to get to skate spots and then the pro has to do a trick that is better than every person that has ever done a trick there before. The only thing that is harder than this is shooting elusive snow leopards or something.
Overall it’s an excellent job. I like feeling I’ve got a connection with people of different ages.
When you’re a skater you love whatever was yours when you were a kid. And you think nothing could be finer than the thing that you and your buddies cared about at age 13-18. That was a growing step when I got the job. I thought what I liked was the best and that skating had reached its perfection.
Q: Who is the typical Thrasher reader?
MB: This is a weird one. Our market research will tell us that the bulk of the Thrasher readers are between the ages of 13 and 16. I do not feel as though I am writing for these people.
I write for an imaginary group of friends.
I try to make the article sound decent to me and I try to entertain myself and some people who I know read it. I think I use… it’s a little bit of a formula. I don’t feel confident enough to say, “I am going to try to write this as a one act play," of "I am going to write this all as a series of flashbacks.” It is what it is. I try to make any article funny and not too long and boring. I try to avoid philosophical ramblings or anything. I try not to insult any of the skaters or the kids. And if I do make fun of them, which I do some, I try to frame it as me being the square and not getting that they are actually cool.
I like to skew my entire life towards kindness. Not to be too hokey.
Q: What are some common challenges you face in interviewing professional skateboarders?
MB: The biggest challenge to interviewing skaters is that they’re really young and they haven’t done anything. They’re not in a point in their life where they are reflective at all. They’re not trying to see trends. They’re not trying to think about mistakes they’ve made. They’re really living in the present. And I realized this recently when I interviewed Ian MacKaye4. It was, “Wow. This guy has done a lot. He’s been through a lot. He’s seen a lot. He’s had time to reflect. He ties what he does into national trends, or psychology.” Whereas, 19-year-olds don’t do that. It’s inappropriate that they would do that. So, how do you interview a guy who’s not thinking about himself? You know, it gets silly.
The best-case scenario is I get them to tell me anecdotes about what their lives are like. Adventures they’ve had.
Worst-case scenario you ask them absurd questions to see if they’ll say something funny back.
They’re interesting. But they don’t want to talk about themselves. They’re not into that. That’s not any part of their experience. Maybe these new douches, who are used to doing their Dew Tour interview, and they have their canned…
I still like the old adage in skateboarding, where you don’t brag about yourself. That’s poor form. You don’t pump your fist in the air after your run. That is sort of one of my hang-ups. These new teen millionaires, that’s their whole fucking program.
MB: Again, you use the normal kind of interview style.
You give them easy questions at the beginning. If you have anything controversial you save it for the end. You say, “People have said you’re a douche bag. How would you respond?” You don’t call the subject a douche bag. You don’t have to do that.
So that’s about it.
That said, I’ve had great interviews with 17-year-old kids.
It can be hard.
I wouldn’t say I have done it, but I have resorted to directing the interviewer to go, “Just try and get as much inappropriate swearing from them as possible.”
I interviewed David Gonzales5 when he was, like, 14 years old and I said, “What are your favorite sports besides skating?” And he goes, “My favorite sport is rock and roll and masturbation.”
But that gave me material for other interviews that weren’t going so hot. I said, “David Gonzalez says his favorite sport is masturbation. What do you think about that?”
MB: I can do research. I know the material really well. If someone has a lot of juice, I can go deep with them. I just hate too much philosophical… I don’t think kids give a shit about that. More than ever skateboarding is just whatever you and your dumb buddies make of it.
I try not to go into too much skate philosophy, like, “What it means? Is it an art?”
I just think kids don’t give a shit.
Like, “NO WAY! You had a fucking chicken for a pet?” That’s way more interesting to me than, “Do you feel pressure for your next video part?”
Q: Are there any hardball questions I should have asked in this interview but didn’t?
MB: I don’t think so. Most people want to know about Jake and they want to know about bad behavior of pros.
Q: I felt I had to touch on it.
MB: I don’t know exactly what I would like to communicate. I am touched to be interviewed at all. I guess I think I did alright.
1 Chad Muska is a flamboyant professional skateboarder known, in part, for carrying a “ghetto blaster” while executing tricks on handrails. At the height of Muska’s fame in the late 1990s he was often known simply as “The Muska.”
2 A notoriously combative professional skateboarder prominent in the early 1990s.
3 To deliberately break a skateboard in half.
4 Lead singer of the music group Fugazi.
5 A Colombian professional skateboarder.