JEFF THORBURN PORTFOLIO
Make a few moves in your adult life and you’ll inevitably end up with friends and family all over the place. Such...
I first met Chris in Spring 2016, when we met up to work on an ongoing photo and video project. Throughout the first morning session, it quickly became clear that we got along well and had lots in common, ranging from our preferred skate spots to a mutual interest in urban design. Plus, the first trick we ever shot together at the first spot ended up being one of my favourite photos and clips from the whole project. Chris and I have shot together plenty of times since, and he has continued to reveal himself to be an interesting, easygoing dude who will take a crack at the obscure spots that everybody else avoids, almost always rolling away from something aesthetically pleasing and gnarly. Now, whenever I find something new, it’s a no-brainer that I’m sending a photo of it to Chris first, and it’s a sure thing that I’m going to have a blast throughout the whole session. After a Fall day of skating, we sat down with a few beers and shot the shit about skating in Northern Ontario, owning a board company, and a whole lot more.—James Morley
So Chris, what’s new and exciting?
Well, I’m living in Toronto now. It’s been two years since I moved from Ottawa, so that was a pretty big leap, but I’m enjoying it quite a bit.
Why did you move to Toronto?
It was mainly for school. I’ve always visited Toronto, and it seemed like a good spot. I also got accepted to a pretty wicked program, which I think was the main reason for moving.
What’s the program?
I’m doing a Masters program studying urban microclimates. It’s basically how weather is influenced by the built environment and vice versa, and then looking at that from a pedestrian comfort perspective. I look at areas of the city that are built in ways that might result in unintentional discomfort in summer or winter. People built these cities at times when they weren’t thinking about those sorts of things, and now, because of things like climate change and the unpredictable weather we have nowadays, it is becoming more and more important. I’m hoping to finish at the end of this year, so I’ll be defending my thesis in January. Come 2018 I’ll be free, which I’m super excited about as well.
Despite the trees attempts to block the wind, Chris was still able to power through a Hurricane, creating a domino effect akin to a butterfly flapping its tiny wings in Taiwan and creating a storm in Toronto.
What’s your thesis?
People in Toronto dislike cold weather, which is interesting because I come from up north where people often don’t like hot weather. Personally, I don’t like the cold because I enjoy skating, which can be pretty hard on the body. I’m also looking at how tree design can increase comfort in winter and summer. Since Toronto’s landscape is already fairly established, people aren’t going to change the form of the city because I say it will be uncomfortable, you know? You need to find cost effective ways to make those changes. Trees can block wind, create shade, and things like that. I’m actually using Pond in Toronto as my case study, which is cool if you’re a skater who knows that spot.
Definitely a famous spot.
Yeah, it’s a pretty ideal place to be in the summer. I actually got to survey there so I’d just bring a board and skate with people during off-time. I got to be a local but for a different reason, so that was kind of neat, too.
Kind of a different experience of the same space, and being there with a different purpose.
Yeah, exactly. People would see me there and I’d be wearing runners or something, and skaters would look at me twice and be confused. Like, “Why is he here, but he’s not equipped to skate?” It was funny.
When did you become interested in that field of study?
I actually started university in a business program, but when I moved to Ottawa, they had environmental courses which I enjoyed a lot more. I figured that if I was going to do four years of school I might as well do something I enjoy. The ironic part is that I enjoyed environmental studies thinking it was going to be about nature, but then I started learning about cities as an environment and how they grow in ways that people aren’t all consciously aware of. Cities are very much alive. I got into that and then, when I graduated, I found that there weren’t really any jobs out there for realizing the things I had learned. I had applied to some jobs as well as this unique Building Science program in Toronto. I got accepted and it seemed like the right thing to do.
Being a skater and having that type of urban experience, do you bring a unique perspective to that line of work?
Yeah, definitely. The program is heavily based in engineering so you have some people studying things like wall insulations or small details like the gaps between two window panes. They’ll study that in a lab under fluorescent lights or something and I don’t really have the patience for that. I found a supervisor that was into outdoor stuff and focused on that.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in Sudbury, which is several hours north of Toronto. I was raised there and that’s where I first started skating. Not many people know about that area but it still has a really cool skate scene despite not even having a skateshop. They have mall shops and there have been core shops in the past, but they don’t seem to last so long or they have to branch into other avenues as well. Sudbury is also a rural place to skate, which has shaped my approach and perspective of skating. There’s something unique about it that I still see in the friends I grew up skating with too.
What was growing up there like? Was skating a popular thing to do?
Hockey is the main thing to do, for sure, and I did do that when I was younger. I found an attachment with skating by growing up as an only child, I think. It was that quality one-on-one time with the board. I think a lot about how kids nowadays will want to start skating and there’s already so much information and media about skating available to them that they can start to emulate much faster. I didn’t have any sense of skate videos or anything. I didn’t even know that Sudbury had a skateshop until at least four years into skating. The first few years was just spent rolling on my road and not doing much. It was only in later years that the internet became a place where you could lurk videos or download pirated copies of This is Skateboarding and stuff.
Making his disinterest in jumping down stairs visually known, Chris opts to ride the comfortably rugged interlocked bricks for the approach and landing of this Backside Flip.
When did you start to film, and shoot photos and stuff like that?
I worked one summer for my dad and bought a handycam camera with a funny, clip-on fisheye. My friends and I committed to making a video so we all did lots of the filming, skating and editing. Around that time, my mom had moved downtown so everyone would sleep at my house. We’d just wake up and destroy a whole loaf of bread with this stuff called “Map-o-Spread,” which was this maple-flavoured sludge and it would keep us going for the entire day. The downtown didn’t really have a lot of spots but it was dense enough that you could hit five or six spots in a day. We skated every day that summer and put out the video in the fall.
Sudbury definitely has pretty unique terrain. How did that shape the way you skate and approach spots?
Well 52 millimetres just aren’t going to cut it. We would skate a lot of sketchy spots with either cracks in the take-off or it would need some random configuration to make spots work. We call them “almost spots” where you’d think, “This would be so great if you changed that aspect, or if it even had landing.” When we got older and got cars, you could drive and really experience the city. Everyone scoured and hunted for spots, which every skater enjoys. This summer a friend of mine is actually making a full rock skate video that I feel Gou Miyagi would probably enjoy. Because of the way they cut the rock in that area, there are lots of places where you’ll have a massive rock bank that can actually be quite smooth. It definitely has to affect your skating differently than having nice marble ground—you have to adapt.
So you’ve owned your own board company for a while now. Can you tell us a bit about that and how it got started?
We’ve had Moodra for three years now. It started in Ottawa largely because I knew that I was graduating and was worried about not being able to skate as often. I’m always on and thinking about skating, so to me it made sense to make a project around skateboarding. That’s definitely how I look at it; Moodra is more of a project than a business, which I think can be seen in the way that we conduct things. My role is mainly looking after Moodra’s best interest and moulding it into something that’s sustainable in the long term. It has definitely confused some of the people involved financially, but not a lot of people understand skating so it’s my job to make sure all ends are met. It’s paid off in the sense that we’re all having a lot of fun with it, and it is maintaining itself now which is pretty rad. We have to be realistic in that it’s a Canadian brand so it’s very seasonal. So I mean, we have our high summer season and then things started to taper off towards winter, when I was in school mostly anyways, so it just made sense to me. Winter is for scheming while summer is for skating. The core group of people were chosen well before Moodra ever came into fruition. I contacted the people that I knew would motivate me and who are passionate, talented skateboarders. There isn’t much money in a small brand so if you want to do something sustainable, you have to take small steps. We have our core group and we’ve just added a couple new people. Nobody is getting very much and everyone pulls their own weight to make sure that the company is doing what it needs to do. We’ve tried the skateshop approach, but we had some issues with that sort of stuff early on, and because I’m not trying to make a living off of it and I want it to be like fun and low maintenance, I’ve caught wind of it early and pulled it from shops. To be honest, for now, the best approach is a direct skater-to-skater interaction. The Moodra boys always have boards to get to the people who need them. It’s also likely that if you’re supporting the brand, you’re probably already skating with one of those people anyways, so it’s really within arm’s reach at all times.
Taking his Sudbury-spawned love to skating rocks to new heights, Chris ditches his running shoes and notebook, equips himself with proper skateboarding gear, and connects a couple of Ollies at Pond.
What’s the idea behind Moodra, and where did it come from?
The original word with a different spelling essentially refers to hand symbols that are supposed to promote different energies in practices like yoga. I thought that was kind of rad because skating is so focused on the lower half of the body, yet the hands actually do really weird and unique stuff. We just started with that and it has sort of evolved from there.
What was your experience moving to Ottawa like?
Well, Jon Pie lives in Ottawa but is originally from North Bay, which is only about an hour outside of Sudbury. We have a running joke where we usually call the other person’s hometown “Shelbyville,” implying that our own hometown is “Springfield” [laughs]. Jon has been an integral part of Moodra and just my life in general. We both came from small towns so we think alike in many ways. He moved to Ottawa before I did and made all of the good connections in Ottawa. Ottawa is the best too—they’re an amazing community of skaters.
Was it in Ottawa that you got hooked up with Cons?
Yeah, exactly. That was a learning experience too. It doesn’t it doesn’t seem to matter how good you are up north. The industry just hasn’t really woken up to what’s going on up there, which I suppose makes sense. Right around the time I started riding for a shop that Aaron Cayer had started at the time called Antique, I passed along some footage to Trent Matley who passed it on to Wes Loates. Wes was like super excited about it and emailed me back right away, which I was extremely surprised about. It was pretty surreal at the time. He was telling me that he was going to send me a box in the next month, but I had actually planned a two-month trip to Taiwan with a friend within a week after the email that he’d sent, so I emailed him back and he ended up sending me the shoes within just a couple of days. That’s when I learned that it’s not about the brands but it’s the people who are behind those brands who can make things happen. People need to value people, not just the brands. I have mad respect for Wes on that level, and now on a personal level, too. We hang out and skate together now. He’s just a rad skate dad now in my eyes.
Again choosing to side-step the stairs, while additionally thumbing his nose at a handrail, Chris carves his way across a glass embankment while momentarily forgetting his concerns about weather-induced discomfort.
The best skate dad. What was going on in Taiwan?
I’d decided to take one year off from school when I was in Ottawa, and I just didn’t want to work at a restaurant or do something ordinary. A good friend of mine from high school was going to visit his brother out there, so it was a good opportunity for me to go with him and experience it. When the chance to go came up, I was fascinated by the idea that all of our stuff was made there and that I didn’t actually know anything about it. I thought it would be cool to go and see what it was all about. Only later realized that it’s just a regular country with factories located outside of what you see on the day-to-day. I did drive by some crazy industrialized areas though.
Like that was the face to go along with the “Made in Taiwan” label?
Exactly. We went there and I was supposed to stay for two months, but I actually ended up staying for eight months instead. They have an amazing culture there, and I would have been coming back to the winter in Canada after the two months, which didn’t really make sense to me. In Taiwan, the people are amazing and super polite, and all of the things that were maybe perceived as “different” didn’t seem outrageous at all, and actually made a lot of sense. The culture shock was coming back to North America.
Back to Cons, what was your take on the events of this past summer, where, for whatever reason, that whole program stopped?
They stopped the whole Cons Canada program from what I heard, continuing all of the other areas, which was surprising. It wasn’t like Cons Canada wasn’t putting out content or collaborating with magazines. That’s the downside of dealing with big money and corporations. We joke that the cost of shoes probably went up six cents in China and that somehow that resulted in the Canadian program getting cut. It’s not like people are going to understand, but a lot of these decisions aren’t made out of the kindness of people’s hearts. With a big company like that, if that decision hadn’t been made, maybe it would affect Cons U.S., or Cons wherever. I guess it just had to be done. It’s definitely a bummer for a lot of people because Converse was supporting a lot of Canadians. There’s a lot of people on the hunt for some free shoes now. To tie that back a bit to what we’re doing with Moodra, when it’s a project you can put a little more heart into decision making, but only to a certain extent because at the same time you want it to float.
I feel like nowadays, if you lurk message boards or YouTube video comments, there is a strong “anti-corporate” sentiment. Being from your background and having a small board brand, but also having ridden for a big shoe company, do you have an issue with corporate involvement in skateboarding?
I mean, I think it takes all shapes and sizes of companies to make up skating. I would love to see some smaller shoe brands emerging, if that’s even possible. Everyone joked that once Cons got wrapped up that Moodra should make shoes. In terms of big brands, you can have a wicked big brand that’s closely affiliated with skating that experiences turnover in their staff and all of a sudden someone who doesn’t skate is responsible for giving away a bunch of product. It doesn’t really make sense to the average person. It’s hard for that person to justify giving away thousands of dollars of shoes when they could just make that money instead. Or, why the skater can’t just keep skating the same shoes. Maybe you’ve got to start taking that fabric griptape approach. Maybe that trend needs to take off so skaters can stop destroying their shoes.
My mom always made the joke that the indestructible skate shoe would be the million-dollar invention.
It’s like the carbon fibre skateboard! So many dads have tried talking to me about carbon fibre boards. Like, “You run a skateboard company, you need to do carbon fibre boards.” I actually think the whole carbon fibre idea comes from the fact that hockey sticks went from wood to carbon fibre. I’m convinced that’s where the whole idea came from. One board lasting 20 years or something crazy. When I worked at a skateshop in Ottawa, I had someone come in with a prototype for a carbon fibre board, and I just couldn’t take him seriously. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Plus, skating is all about just destroying. Destroying shoes, ledges, your knees, whatever.
Interview and photos by James Morley