IN CONVERSATION WITH PHIL ZWIJSEN

Phil Zwijsen has been on our list of interviewees for a while now.

Namely because he recently fell in love with surfing and moved to the small town of Guéthary, a short drive from our office here in the French Basque country. Being one of the locals now, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to hang out with one of Europe’s finest skateboarders.

When discussing this with Phil in Copenhagen last August, Tuborgs in hand, the thought of eating pintxos and skating down hills sounded far too appealing to resist. We thought we would be done in no time.

But that was on paper… and without taking into account how much of an active schedule Phil has.

Before we knew it, he was filming in Spain with Jarne… then he hurt his hip… then he went to the States, and then Russia… Our iMessage thread is a 3-month ode to mistiming. By that time it was already November and, with winter in full swing in the Basque country, skating outside was not an easy duty.

Through some form of divine intervention however, we were blessed with two days of blue skies just before Christmas, and with Phil at home we jumped at the chance to hang out, surf, skate and pick the brains of one of Belgium’s finest exports.

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Wasted Talent: So Phil, how was Russia?

Phil Zwijsen: Russia was amazing. I’ve been there twice, but it was 8 years ago. This time I was sent there by Monster for a contest part of the world cup. But I didn’t want to do all the paperwork and stay only 2 days. So I reached out to my friends at Absurd Skateboards, and they were going on a tour, so I decided to join them. It was good to hang out with them and see how much the country had changed. We went to Sochi, the host city of the Olympic Games. It was actually really warm. Warmer than the Basque country in winter. I believe Putin lives there, because it’s the best climate (laughs). Can you believe that people surf in Russia? People were surfing in Sochi, surfing the Black Sea. It wasn’t great though. It looked like the waves we have in Belgium.

Have you ever surfed back home in Belgium?

Yeah. Most of the time we go to Holland though. The spots in Holland are actually closer than the ones we have in Belgium, and most of the time it’s actually better there. I mean… a little bit better, but it’s still very average.

Who got you into surfing?

All my friends back home started surfing and they told me I should give it a go. Actually I tried surfing once in Biarritz before that, but it was way too big for me. I ate shit and thought I wouldn’t ever surf again. But I decided to give it a second chance with my friends and after a few sessions I really started liking it. And the waves were small in Holland, so it was easier to have fun and that’s when I got hooked.

What is it that you like about surfing compared to skateboarding?

I guess the thing the two have in common is that they’re both hard to learn. Most people give up pretty quick after they start skateboarding because it’s hard to learn tricks at first. Even doing an ollie is hard at first. I think surfing’s the same. It’s hard to start catching waves at first. Both are the same, in the sense that it looks easy when you see someone good at it doing it. You think you can do it easily. When you see someone kickflipping down ten stairs, most people think it’s easy when the person is really good at it… but it’s not. So that’s what makes me want to surf. You really have to stick with it in order to get better. In order to get a little bit better, you need to put in a lot of effort.

Quite a lot of skaters have made the move here recently. Sam Partaix now lives here, Lucas Puig too… do you think this is related to surfing?

I guess it is. I feel like it’s good to do something different than skateboarding. It’s also about getting older maybe and being tired of skating all day, every day. I think surfing gives you a strong motivation to skate in a way, because one day you surf and the next day you’re more hyped get back on the skateboard. Getting your head off skating is good to shift your focus away and come back to it with a more original approach. It’s also great for your body in my opinion.

Do you miss Belgium at all?

I don’t miss Belgium. Although I miss my family and my friends….  but apart from that I don’t miss any of it really.

What were you like at school?

I think I had a lot of energy… and sitting on a chair eight hours a day when you have a lot of energy is not really good. I didn’t have school problems or anything; I was actually doing alright but it was hard to be sitting still for that long every day. I think it’s the same for any kid who has a lot of energy. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do to those kids because I remember how it was with me, trying to focus all day on something I didn’t really care about. I think they should try to modify the school system, which of course is not easy, but they should try to make it more intuitive and fun for young kids that have a lot of energy and have trouble sitting still for 8 hours.

A good example is what’s happening in Sweden right now with the Bryggeriet school. At first I really thought nothing of it. And then I went there and I had way more respect for it. The kids can go skate during the breaks, use their energy… the teacher is amazing. He’s a teacher and a good skater too. They can do school projects oriented toward skateboarding and I think that if you want to work in the industry, it’s quite a good thing because they teach you specific stuff, knowledge that will be useful if you get a job in the field. When I got my first job, I realised what I learnt at school was a fraction of what you need to know for this specific job: completely useless and I had to learn everything from zero. The only part of my studies that I actually found useful was the internship at the end because you’re actually in a company, and you have a better understanding of how it works because you can see them doing it.

What did you study at school?

I studied heating and cooling systems. After school I worked in a company that was the distributor of LG air conditioners for Belgium. Smaller companies then bought the systems from us, installed them, and if they ever had problems, we had to go and fix it. I did that for three years, and then I worked for a year at a skate park, because I wanted to live the dream! I wanted to be a professional skateboarder! So I did that for a year but the skate park closed and I had to go back to my old job. But when I left I was like ‘Yeah, I’m gonna work at the skate park and try to make a living from skating’ and when I came back a year later, it really sucked. Not that it was a bad job, but I was disappointed to be back at the same spot. I think when I came back some of these guys were like ‘Look, you’re back here… you’re gonna have to do the same thing like all of us, work here all day, every day like all of us! ‘ I had a lot of friends in the company, so I had a good time but I really wanted to do something else with my life. So after spending one more year in the company, I quit again and I told them the same thing! That I wanted to give it another go and live from skateboarding. That’s when I moved to Barcelona. Shortly after I won a contest and from there, everything started flowing and I stopped working. That was a really amazing moment actually because I believed in it, but it still needs a lot for things to come together.

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How was living in London?

London was nice, but I felt like I travelled too much to really enjoy the city properly and I was spending a lot of money to live there, while not really living there. So I felt like I had to move somewhere more quiet, like here. The Basque country is perfect for this.

What motivated the move to Guéthary?

Mostly surfing I think. I live with my best friend and his girlfriend here and that’s important because it makes me feel at home. I always go to big cities to skate and when I’m back, I can relax. For me it’s like paradise. Guéthary is beautiful: you have the mountains within 30 minutes, you have the sea in front and you can skate here too! There’s Sam (Partaix), Lucas (Puig), Javier (Mendizabal), so it’s perfect really. A lot of people talk about the weather in winter, but it’s still better than Belgium, and you can go surfing pretty much every day.

How is your surfing coming along now?

My surfing…. haha. My level is slowly going up I think. It’s definitely getting a little better since I’m here. At least I’m having more fun.

At this point Phil goes on his balcony and shows us his quiver.

I’ve got a couple of boards. I like trying new ones and it’s always good to switch whenever I have friends over. I feel like most surfers are super protective! I guess it’s because surfboards are more expensive than skateboards and easier to break, but I don’t really mind.

Did Jarne surf with you when he was here?

No he didn’t actually. Jarne doesn’t really surf. We only skated when he was here as he was finishing his part, so we went to Spain and filmed a lot. Right now he is really focused on skating, which you can see. He’s been killing it lately. I don’t think he’s been thinking of anything else other than skating. And I feel like I was the same when I was younger. I only thought about skating. Everything was skating. I didn’t care about anything else. But now it’s a bit different since I started surfing.

Who inspired you growing up?

Me and my brother had one or two VHS tapes as they were pretty rare back home. I remember Rodney Mullen vs Daewon Song Part 1 – that was really sick! But apart from that, it was pretty hard to get your hands on some videos. The main inspiration at first came from my brother and his friends, who were way better at the time. They were doing high ollies and it was cool because I was able to learn from them. Then I started going to the skate shop and I had access to more videos. I remember “Flip stories”, the “DC video”, and then “A Time to Shine” with Chad Tim Tim and Dylan Rieder. That one was sick! Then in Belgium there were a few guys that I really looked up to, like Hans Claessens, legendary Belgium skater, Julian Dykmans, Geoffrey Van Hove and Davy Van Leare. I feel like Julian and especially Davy really helped me grow, y’know, because I first shot photos with him when I was like, eighteen. He’s a special character too, it’s insane. Like if you meet him, you’re gonna know. I mean he’s 44 now, but he was one of the first Belgian pro skateboarders ever, had his own Belgian magazine and he knows a lot of people. So thanks to him, I started getting in touch with a lot of people, which was great. He was with us in Russia actually and we hadn’t been shooting for a while together, so it was really fun.

We know you’re working on a video of your own…

Correct. We recently went on a trip to Bilbao. I was kind of managing the trip, booking the Airbnbs, driving, but also filming… it was pretty intense.

How did the whole Jacky thing start?

I first hurt my foot and I ended up not skating for a year, which I didn’t expect at the time. I had already filmed in the past, so after my surgery I decided to film with Jarne at home since I couldn’t really skate. That winter we tried to film everyday when it wasn’t raining. Then all of our friends joined us and that’s how Jacky was made.

Why are the clips in black and white?

Good question! Jarne and I tried it in black and white and we thought it look good. Plus, I don’t really know about colours and stuff… so it ended up being in black and white. Well let me show you all the tapes and the cameras we filmed the video with!

At this point, Phil opens up a shoebox full of tapes, compiling all the footage he’s been stacking for the new Jacky video.

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This is it! That’s my video right here! Wait, let me count… 31! No hard-drives, nothing else but this box right here.

 He then opens the weapon box, where he stores his two VX cameras.

 There’s two VX1000s for fisheye, and one VX2100 for long-lens.

Let me tell you the story behind the fisheye. I bought it from America for $850 with shipping costs, and it arrived at the post office around the corner, in Guéthary. My friend went to pick it up and they asked him for €200 to collect it, which I said no to… but when I came back and wanted to go to the post office to see what the score was, they’d shipped it back to America! So what happened is when I was in America, I asked them to ship it to my US address, and saved myself €200… so it turned out kind of well (laughs).

 He’s now showing us his other cameras, and the only thing he talks about is his new purchase: a tiny mini-dv camera. Basically the stuff that your uncle would have bought to film a wedding 15 years ago.

I just got this one when I was in Russia – I’m psyched! Look at how small it is! You can literally put it in your pocket! It’s the best thing to film random stuff at parties or when you’re travelling... It’s also nice because when you’re holding a huge camera I feel like people are acting differently. I ordered a waterproof case for it. That’s what I’m gonna film my new surf movie with (laughs)! But yeah, most of the filming I did for the Jacky video was done with the VXs.

Did you edit the video yourself?

Yeah, I’ve been editing the video on Final Cut. My friend Willem helped me with colour correction, because you still have to do a few tweaks on the black and white footage… But if you see me editing you’re going to think it’s a joke (laughs). I only know the basics. But at the end of the day that’s what I want it to look like… like back in the day. Home-style.

When is the new one dropping?

In 2018 hopefully! Everything is pretty much filmed. Between all my skating trips, I took some time to film for this video, and I ended up filming pretty much everything. It’s funny because I showed Jarne the footage, and he was like: “I need to have a part! We’re not dropping this until I have a part!” He’s that motivated these days.

So I was going on a trip to the US for an upcoming part for Nike and Monster, and Jarne tagged along so he could film with me and Guillaume (Périmony). I was filming HD, Guillaume filmed VX and gave me the footage, so we’re gonna mix the two.

When are you dropping your new part?

I’m not sure yet. We went to Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso – and it was just me and him. Nobody else! Just me and him, doing photos and video. We didn’t skate with the locals, we found all the spots ourselves or online… it was really hard at the end of these three weeks. I really get on with Guillaume so it wasn’t a problem, but on the second trip I asked a few people if they wanted to join us, and that’s how Val ended up coming. Jarne joined us halfway through, so I wasn’t the only one to skate, which was cool.

What about iPhone videos?

I use iMovie whenever I do Instagram edits. It’s crazy because nowadays you can make amazing edits on your phone. I feel like the last two years, pretty much everybody who has a good Instagram account is pretty good at editing, unless they don’t do it themselves. Back in the day, nobody knew how to edit a video… now everybody is kind of good at it.

Do you watch surf videos?

I feel like I’m quite far from knowing surfing well. It’s the opposite of skateboarding where I’m kind of a nerd, watching all the edits (laughs). I mean, I like Kelly Slater, Dane Reynolds and also this European guy, Nic Von Rupp that I met because he’s on Monster. I also bought John John’s new movie on iTunes, which is pretty gnarly.

I’ve been to a few surf film premieres recently and the thing that tripped me out is that they put a lot of un-landed tricks in there… most of this stuff is insane of course, but in skateboarding you can’t do that. If somebody uses a trick that I didn’t land in a magazine or a video, I would be super pissed off. It happened in the past actually. This magazine published an article of me, and included a shot of an un-landed trick. So I had to go back to the spot, just to prove to myself that I landed the trick, and that it wasn’t a lie! I have this mind-set… for me, un-landed tricks in magazines are a complete no-go. I’ve been hearing stories, but I want to have the belief that what I see in a skate magazine is landed, and especially these days with video kind of ruling the game. Nowadays, if it’s an insane trick that nobody has ever seen, everybody wants to have the video proof of the make! 

But I feel like with surfing it’s it’s a little bit different. But then again I understand that it’s harder to shoot specific tricks in surfing because you never get the same wave. If I’m shooting a kickflip down 10 stairs, I’m not going to suddenly try a frontside flip… you can really plan what you shoot. But you can’t really do this in surfing, which is hard for the surfers and photographers.

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How did you end up turning vegan?

Because of Rob Smith. He really inspired me. I was staying with him about two years ago and he turned vegan at the time. He showed me a bunch of documentaries that made me think a lot. He’s a really good cook and he was cooking for me at that time and loving what he was doing, so I decided to give it a go and stopped eating meat.

At first I tried to preach it to everybody. I really wanted to show people that it could be a good thing for them, which is the absolute wrong way to go!

It’s been quite an insane change, to be travelling a lot and being committed to not eating meat: it’s quite complicated. I recently travelled with Mike Anderson, who is a pretty strict vegan and when you have someone else with you who’s on the same program, it’s way easier. But finding the places to eat and all that stuff actually takes a lot of time, especially when you’re in a country with a different culture such as China.

Future-wise, what are your plans?

I don’t really know. I want to do so much… I’ve got a lot of ideas, but I’m missing out on a lot of them because the opportunity to skate now is way bigger than all of them. And I’m really happy about this. I feel like after skating there’s so much you can do…

I like filming, I like taking photos, a lot of people are taking the team manager hat these days… I mean, there are a lot of opportunities after a skate career in my opinion. I’m not really worried to be honest, because I worked before. I know how a full time job is: having to go there every single day – and I feel like most skaters haven’t experienced that. I think it’s important to do so before getting paid from skateboarding. But it’s hard, because now kids are good enough to make a living from it at 10 years old! I was lucky that my mother taught me the values of work ethic, earning money and handling it in the right way…

But I’m not planning on quitting now – haha! I have a few injuries, so I hope my body will allow me to skate a few more years. I had toe surgery, and then later ankle surgery, but I’ve been taking care of it lately, doing a lot of exercises, stretches, going to the physio etc. I have a few physiotherapists around, and at some point after my surgery, I ended up in a place called CERS in Capbreton, where I was training for 8 hours a day… 8 hours a day! Can you imagine? I’m a skateboarder, not a football player! I’ve never trained like that in my life! But being with all these athletes was really good, because it pushed me.

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Also Nike help us out a lot with this, which I think is really smart of them, because the healthier skaters are, the better they’re gonna do, and I think it’s great that they’re putting effort into it. And I’m also super grateful that, during this period, none of my sponsors dropped me, because this was a one-year period, and you hear some crazy stories about these situations. I’m actually super happy and proud to say that all of them had my back. It was really great.

Do you feel like skateboarding and surfing have different consequences for the athletes’ physical form?

Definitely. Surfing is way different from skating. I think that a lot of skaters don’t pay attention to their diet and health, because you can eat shit, smoke, drink, whatever, and you can still skate… probably not at 100% of your ability, but you can still do it. Most of skateboarding is about how you are on the board, what image you have, which tricks you do, instead of strict athletic performance. But in the water, you need to be fit in order to catch waves, especially if it’s big. I think that once you’re on the wave, it’s less important, and becomes a bit like skateboarding. But to paddle around, duck dive and catch waves, you have to be really on form. With skating I feel like it’s a bit different, in regard to this aspect. Because you don’t even need to jump 20 stairs to have a career these days. You can skate ledges or even slappies and flat ground. I feel like surfers are more aware of the fact that they need to take care of their bodies, compared to skaters, as most of them don’t care at all. And also I think that surfing is better training than skateboarding in itself. When you’re skating, you’re training your legs a little bit I guess, but you’re destroying yourself more than you’re gaining muscle. If you surf everyday, you feel like a beast (laughs). If if you skate everyday, you don’t feel like a beast at all. You feel destroyed. But it’s all for the love, so you don’t care about being destroyed!