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Words / Cody Liska
Photos / Alan Gerlach, Cody Liska
Videos / Esthera Preda
In the early 2000’s, there was a Renaissance in snowboarding that took place in the streets. A few visionaries left the mountains and ended up in schoolyards, junkyards, abandoned buildings, or on some nondescript flat-ground with shovels and traffic cones. Edging ever closer to skateboarding, they eventually started unstrapping their bindings. Shuvits, big spins, kickflips, varials, and no complys accentuated hammers and enders. Spots previously thought to be played-out became new again because there were new tricks to be done and new ways for them to be hit. Gus Engle, with his absurd kits and his keen eye for the fantastic, was the first of those luminaries.
In Anchorage, Gus lives off Rabbit Creek Road. His house is in the woods. It’s a rickety-looking structure that’s filled with Civil War memorabilia and haunted photos, both of which the Engle family inherited with the purchase of the house. At least that’s how it was back in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Today, it’s an ongoing construction project with the occasional wildlife encounter. “There was a bear in this house just the other day. It could’ve walked into my bedroom. That’s just kind of normal for here,” Gus tells me. “All that to say, I feel like I grew up in a place where you can do whatever the fuck you want.”
Video parts were important to us. The merit of our season, and by extension our riding, was dictated by them – judged in equal parts talent and creativity. That’s how our generation of Alaska riders compared ourselves to riders outside of our state. We watched the videos. And then we watched them again. Gus’s early style was influenced by Nima Jalali and Corey Smith’s parts in Neoproto. Nima’s riding was pretty traditional, but there was flair to it. Corey’s part, with that song by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the rock trannys and the bomb-drops, was a different story. It was something we’d never seen before. The fact that he was riding shit that was right in front of all of us felt like something familiar and brand new all at the same time. He just saw things through that creative lens. Same went for Scott E. Wittlake. His part in Happy Hour made an indelible impression on Gus. And then there’s Jesse Burtner. This connection cannot be overstated. The Think Thank videos gave Gus a platform to stretch his creative wings. Without those video parts and Jesse’s mentorship, Gus wouldn’t have left such a lasting impression on snowboarding.
Over the years, Gus has gone from cargo shorts to tracksuits to dressing like David Bowie to dressing like Captain Jack Sparrow. Today, he looks more like an American Apparel model auditioning as an extra for a French version of Portlandia. He’s a romantic with just the right amount of venom – I’ve seen him charge at someone and drive his head into their gut like Link charging a soldier in Hyrule Castle. In high school, he tried to fight me in front of my girlfriend because he was in the car when I was buying beer in a Wendy’s parking lot. That was a long time ago though. Right now, inside that house off Rabbit Creek Road, we sit downstairs drinking beer in his makeshift bedroom and talk about the past and the present, not so much the future.
Photo: Alan Gerlach
“We were thalking about thomething before.” French has affected his English pronunciation and manifests itself as a lisp. He squints his eyes, tries to remember. “Oh, yea. Craigslitht ads.”
Right. There was this one that I read awhile back…
You read these? Regularly? (Laughs)
Yea. So, there’s this guy on there and he’s like, “I can pick you up and I want to go to Ben Boeke [Ice Arena] and you can suck my dick in the parking lot and then I’ll just let you out of the car. I’m not gonna drive you home because I don’t want to drive you home. And that’s gonna be it” (Laughs).
(Laughs) Literally, the least appealing offer ever.
And what’s even funnier is I’ve seen numerous posts like this – the other posts are rephrased or different in one way or another, but they amount to the same thing: I’ll pick you up, you suck my dick, then I leave you in a parking lot.
(Laughs) Oh my God…
I wanna interview the people who’re sucking this dude’s dick and getting dropped off in parking lots.
It’s pretty awesome how realistic he is though. Like, he knows the second he nuts, he’s gonna be over it.
I guess that’s Alaska for you (laughs). Where are you living now?
I moved to a little town, outside of Quebec City, called Fossambault-sur-le-Lac.
How’s your French?
Pretty good, man. I can speak it pretty fluently.
I remember awhile back you told me a story about being in a car full of Estee’s (Gus’s wife) friends and, even though they could all speak English, they chose to speak French because they knew you couldn’t speak it that well.
Yea (laughs). I totally understand it now. I was really offended by it at first, which I think is everyone’s initial reaction. But then, after living [in Quebec] for awhile, I started to realize that it’s like this little bubble surrounded by so many English speakers. They explained it to me like this: “If we spoke English every time there was an English speaker around us, we would always be speaking English.”
Yea, that makes sense. What about your music, how’s that going?
In the same way that you and I were obsessed with snowboarding, that feeling has just kind of transferred over to music. I just need some sort of obsession in my life. I’ve always loved music. I didn’t always make it, but now I’m trying to make it like all day. Honestly, my dream is just to make like a beautiful album. Like how Tolkien made Middle-Earth and it’s so complete and so beautiful. I just want to make something that is that seamless and wonderful. That’s as far as I’m looking right now, just making something that I’m proud of. I’m just focusing all my energy on that right now.
I’m living in a tiny town as big as Ninilchik, [Alaska], a Quebecois version of Ninilchik, pretty much. So, I always think to myself, “if I put out anything that’s worthwhile, is anybody going to care about it?” The more I thought about it, the more I think that music has this way of resonating with people, almost more so than print. And it doesn’t matter where it comes from because music has this universality to it. Good art is just good art, you know what I mean? I think if you make something that is truly good, it can transcend where it came from.
I think a lot of the time it’s the perseverance more than it is the talent.
That is the talent; perseverance is the talent. And it’s not something to be taken lightly. Everyone doesn’t have the ability to persevere.
I remember this one time we went to Hilltop [Ski Area in Anchorage] and it was like negative 20 outside, I’m sure there were a bunch of times where it was that cold, but this time my mom was like, “honey, I think it’s too cold to snowboard today.” And I was like, “no, Gus and all the guys are there. I’m going.” I didn’t even think about it being too cold. Didn’t even enter my mind.
I think I remember that exact day. I remember getting up to the lift and I just had on a polypropylene shirt – that gold one I used to wear, it was super short (laughs). I remember getting to the chair and there wasn’t a fucking soul there. It was just me and the lift attendant and he’s all, “What’re you doing here? No one’s going to be here today.” And I’m like, “my friends will be here.”
I did this podcast with my brother’s friend and he didn’t have any prior knowledge of snowboarding. It was really cool because he came at me from the perspective of a complete layman. Didn’t know anything about snowboarding. About halfway through the interview, I realized how ensconced I was within this world that I didn’t even consider a world. I didn’t realize how isolated and insular it is. And then I realized, “wow, this is so natural to me.” [The guy interviewing me for the podcast] said, “you know, you can’t do this forever. Most people get a job and they think, ‘I’ll just do this for the next 35 years, I’ll retire, and that’ll be it.’” First of all, it made me fuckin’ shudder to imagine my life being that planned out. I was so lucky to have role models like [Jesse] Burtner and Scott [Liska]. You and I just grew up in this world made by all these luminaries. It’s just nothing short of wonderful.
I think Alaska, in general, really breeds individuality. The whole scene, when we were coming up, made you realize that you could be an individual on a scale that affects a lot of people. Like, your dad is such a character and such an individual. And he affected everybody that was interested in snowboarding and skateboarding in Alaska – every single person in Alaska. He did it on his own terms and it was exciting and he didn’t give a fuck.
It was a special time. We never even had a curfew when we were kids. We would be out till like 3 a.m. on a school night filming snowboarding. We’d get like 3 hours of sleep, go to school, and then we’d do it all over again.
And then in the summer, with skateboarding, it was the same thing. I know it sounds cliché, but I think we just come from this land where freedom is really abundant. You can do whatever the fuck you want. And it’s not only the landscape that allows that, it’s the culture and the wildness of it all. What other large American city do you know of where you can go biking, on a bike trail, and potentially get mauled by a bear or trampled by a moose? I’ve been snowboarding at schools in downtown Anchorage and I’ve had to jump over fences to get away from moose. All of that contributes to the Alaskan zeitgeist. It’s more than that too. It’s the escapists and the type of people you encounter up here. You gotta ask yourself, “why are you living in Alaska?” It’s beautiful, but it’s also austere and it’s not an easy place to live.
Are you filming for anybody?
Pozi Pozi. It’s an audio/visual project that Estée and I make together. We make everything from the ground up – I make all the songs on this little synthesizer and Estée films everything and then we arrange it all into various forms.
It came out of necessity because I was project-less and I wanted an outlet that I could use freely and without having to hold any ideas back. Estée and I make all the edits together.
How about your snowboarding?
It’s sort of taken a backseat. I love it and I still do it a lot. This is probably the most I’ve enjoyed snowboarding, as far as doing it professionally, because I don’t quote unquote care about it so much. You know what I mean? It’s like when you stop caring about something so much, that’s usually when you feel like you have the freedom to do whatever you please. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, “I’ve done a lot in snowboarding, I feel like I can kind of do whatever the fuck I want and maybe people are gonna like it, maybe they aren’t. I don’t care.” And, I think, that’s when you create your best stuff.
It takes awhile to get to that point. I was talking to [Chris] Larson about the idea of longevity and how if you can exist and remain relevant or somewhat relevant for a certain amount of time in something as insular as snowboarding, you kind of earn this tenure.
Yea, definitely. You kind of chip-out a place for yourself over the years. Maybe you’re not on the edge of progression or whatever, but you have your place.
I mean, look at someone like [Ben] Bogart. He’s been in it long enough for his fans to have grown up and now they’re professional snowboarders. And now he has their co-sign, in addition to the core support he’s built up over the years.
It gives you a sort of confidence, you know? Now that I look back on it, there are all those different stages: When you’re coming up, you’re just super horny (laughs). Then, a little later on, you become self-conscious because you’re not quite to the point where you don’t give a fuck. And then you get older and you’re a grown ass man in a 16-year-old’s world (laughs).
For sure. At a certain point, you outgrow your audience. I think it’s safe to say that your peers aren’t going to be disappointed with your riding.
Exactly. The people I actually care about, I know they’re at a place intellectually where they’re gonna kind of get whatever I do. Whereas, it might go over the heads of younger generations. I know it would’ve gone over my head at that age.
Your style has changed so much over the years. Way back, when we were skating Hanshew [Middle School], you wore cargo shorts. Then there was Gangster Gus. Then Beatles Gus. Then Gypsy Gus. Then Hobo Gus. Now you’re, more or less, just normal dude, Frenchy Gus. Why all the transformations?
The easiest way out is to just say that I’m a human being and I’m constantly evolving. In general, if you look at your favorite musician, they usually change a lot. And I don’t think you’d want them to stay the same. It’s more about keeping it exciting than it is about a lack of identity. My favorite artists are constantly reinventing themselves. And that takes many shapes and forms. Obviously, sometimes it wasn’t intentional. Like, when I was skating at Hanshew with cargo shorts, it was because I was 10-years-old (laughs). There’s a sundry list of things I can attribute it to. For example, when I was kind of dressing like David Bowie, that’s just how I was dressing.
Yea, your everyday style always transcended to your snowboarding style.
Yea, my daily life would influence my snowboarding style. Like in high school, that’s when I was dressing like David Bowie. And somehow the jocks didn’t beat me up. The gnarliest jocks would honestly have my back. Like there’d be some new, burly jock and he’d want to beat my ass, but the other jocks wouldn’t let him (laughs). I swear it was because I was on the Boarderline team. They’d be like, “no, man, he’s cool. He’s on Boarderline.”
Then the [Boarderline video premiere] would come along and I’d be like a god for the next couple days. Chicks at school would be like, “heyyyyyy. Dope shots, Gusssss” (laughs).
What made you want to ride the way you do?
I think it was all those wonderful creative people I was lucky enough to grow up around in Anchorage. [Jesse] Burtner, Mark Thompson, Micah Hollinger. I pretty much just stole about 90% of what Micah was doing in his Wet Boys videos and translated it to my snowboarding (laughs). I’ve always been more attracted and excited by the possibilities of inventing new things that maybe people haven’t thought about before. So, that contributed as well. [All of that] continues to inspire me.
What do you think is the hardest part about being a pro snowboarder from Alaska?
First of all, I think you have to work about ten times as hard. It seems to me anyway. Like, if you’re living in Salt Lake City and you’re doing something that’s interesting within the snowboard world, people are there to watch. In Alaska, you have to be doing something that’s doubly interesting, I think, to really draw attention. Because Alaska is so remote and, understandably, you’d have to be doing something pretty exciting for people to look all the way up here. I don’t know if that’s changed because of the Internet. Now, there are certain outlets on the Internet and everybody looks at those same outlets. And it’s not so impossible to [be featured] on those outlets than it was to get into the magazines back in the day.
I think that there are just more outlets now. There are more people willing to help out.
It’s that whole concept of The Global Village. And it all just contributes to it. I actually believe the Internet is a wonderful and beautiful way to independently release and promote just about anything that you ever could dream up. I think sometimes I just get frustrated with the disposability of content. That’s really my only objection to it. It’s that lack of a filter that is a gift and a curse. It takes a lot of sifting to get to anything of any real worth.
The Internet has really closed the gap between pedestrian and celebrity because it’s made everything so much more accessible – there’s not much of a barrier between fan and celebrity anymore.
It’s always at arm’s reach. I see that as a positive thing.
I can also see the negative aspects of it. Say someone walks up to their idol and that person is flip with Mr. Idol and maybe Mr. Idol is having a bad day. As a fan, that’s not your place to act that way because you’re not their friend or part of their family. You’re just not in that position. You never know how that person’s going to react. You don’t know how their day is going. So, I can see both sides of the coin.
Me too. It’s a scary time for comedy in general because sarcasm is a fuckin’ dangerous thing on the Internet. It can ruin people’s lives.
Exactly. And you never know what a person is thinking. It’s all about perspective and every perspective is so different.
Especially under anonymity.
I know. They can just write whatever they want. And it’s just terrible.
Like the YoBeat comment section? (Laughs)
(Laughs) Lowest common denominator. You get a Too Hard post on YoBeat and the comments people leave… dude… makes me lose my faith in humanity. Because Dangy is fuckin’ awesome. She’s the shit. To me, she is one of the best things in snowboarding. I don’t know if everybody would agree with that. Like I said, sarcasm is dangerous and half of Dangy’s personality is sarcastic.
And a lot of people get it. They understand it. But, like I said earlier, the audience is 16-year-olds and I don’t know if I would’ve gotten it when I was 16. So, I can kind of understand that. Like, when you’re 16 and Dangy’s out there doing her Dangy thing – and we understand that she’s kind of joking, but to the everyday 16-year-old, they’re just going to hate. I still don’t understand the shit they write. It’s insane. Sometimes it’s just horrible, sexual shit – the basest, animal instinct. Like I don’t even want to repeat some of the shit. I would feel uncomfortable saying it.
And somewhere in the middle of the comment section there’s always that pivotal comment that turns the whole conversation. You can go from the first comment to the last comment and it’s like two different universes. Like, “how the fuck did we end up here?”
Because it’s all reactionary. It’s all about the reaction to someone’s idea and then, after awhile, that idea becomes the reality. It’s kind of apparent at this point how hard it is to accurately depict someone’s real essence over the Internet.
If you had a choice, how would you like your essence depicted?
Well, I’ve gone through so many different phases. I’ve tried to depict myself in about 100 different ways. But, I guess, I would be happy if when people looked at me they saw a creative genius/golden God amalgamation (laughs). No. I’m not really sure how I would like for people to see me. I’m 29-years-old now and I’ve been getting to know myself better and I think, deep down, I’m just a guy who gets very excited about creative possibilities and is prone to obsession – if anything has made me successful at what I’ve done, it’s those two things working together.