Danny MacAskill Interview
His meteoric rise made him the most famous mountain biker in the world. But as he tells Mpora, Danny MacAskill is still learning to enjoy his rock star status...
It would be fair to say that trials bike rider Danny MacAskill is in a pretty good place right now. Literally. “I’m actually sat outside the hotel in a pretty ritzy part of Monaco," he says down the phone. “It’s crazy".
He’s spending the weekend on the Riviera at the invitation of his major sponsor, Red Bull, who have flown him out for the Monaco Grand Prix for the premiere of his latest video Epecuén.
“I did a show thing and Daniel Ricciardo was there when I was warming up. He had a go on my bike. He’s actually quite handy on it eh!"
Listening to him talk excitedly about meeting the formula one driver, it would be easy to forget that this unassuming Scotsman is a huge global star in his own right.
His various Youtube videos have racked up a staggering 100 million views. 60,000 Twitter followers hang on his every word and he has 550,000 fans on Facebook – more than three times as many as Ricciardo.
"Danny's racked up a staggering 100 million Youtube views. 60,000 Twitter followers hang on his every word and he has 550,000 fans on Facebook."
Surely he’s getting used to being a part of big events like the Grand Prix these days, I ask? “Naw, it’s all still very new to me, stuff like this," he says, his Scottish accent crackling down the line. “It’s quite surreal."
But then again perhaps it’s not surprising he doesn’t feel entirely at home. The international jet-set world of formula one is a far cry from the tight-knit trials bike scene MacAskill came from.
And Monaco, the playground of the rich and famous, couldn’t be further away from where his journey began in the tiny town of Dunvegan, on the far west of the Isle of Skye.
From the West Coast to the World
It was there, at a very early age, that Danny first got into bikes. “I must’ve been maybe four years old and I can vividly remember trying to do skids and wheelies on my garden path on a bike my dad got me out of the back of a skip."
"I don’t know where the inspiration came from to try tricks ‘cos I don’t remember seeing anything like ET on TV, but I still have vivid memories of falling off the whole time and crashing into my garden gate."
The remoteness of the landscape around him (Skye has a total population of about 10,000, spread over more than 1,600 square kilometres) meant that once he’d learned to ride, the young MacAskill naturally got into mountain biking.
“Then I think I first saw trials properly with Martyn Ashton and Martin Hawes in MBUK and I thought ‘that’s what I want to be doing!’ So I started kind of modifying my mountain bike and slowly got into it."
Danny’s willingness to get himself into things and plough his own furrow is something that’s helped to define his career since. He had “a few friends [who] got into trials together" at high school, but from the outset he enjoyed riding by himself.
"Very few people knew what Danny was capable of."
“Going riding with friends is definitely an amazing time," he says, “but I used to ride a lot by myself in Dunvegan during the week." He admits that some people might find that strange, “but you get so much more done. You’re not stopping and yacking the whole time."
This solitary pursuit of progression had two consequences. Firstly, he learned tricks and ways of doing things that were different to what anyone else was doing.
As he explains: “I feel like riding by myself is a big part of why I ride the way that I do. Because you’re not influenced by other people, you’re thinking up your own ways to do stuff."
Secondly, very few people – even in the small, close-knit trials scene - knew what Danny was capable of.
So when the first proper length video of him riding dropped on Youtube in 2009, the reaction was one of total amazement. For his part Danny could have had no idea what was coming next.
[part title="The Perfect Debut"]
Filmed in Edinburgh over a period of six months by his flatmate, BMX filmer Dave Sowerby (who Danny has worked with subsequently on several projects, including Epecuén) it’s no exaggeration to say that the video redefined the realms of what was possible on a trials bike.
The riding was incredible, the soundtrack (the Band of Horses song The Funeral) suited it perfectly and Sowerby’s filming and editing were excellent.
But what made the whole thing even more incredible was that Danny was still working in his local bike shop in Edinburgh at the time, and was almost a complete unknown.
"Imagine if Jimi Hendrix had put out Are You Experienced? while still working at his local guitar shop and you’ll have some idea of what it was like."
Imagine if Jimi Hendrix had put out Are You Experienced? while still working at his local guitar shop and you’ll have some idea of what it was like. It’s a comparison Danny appreciates given his own love of music, but he’s far too modest to let it slide.
“Naw," he says, laughing. “I mean Dave and I were happy with the way it turned out. But the only thing I was bothered about at the time was that the trials world liked it. It didn’t even cross my mind what people outside that would think!"
So he honestly had no idea that what they’d created was ground-breaking? “No, not at all. It was a strange one. We had a little premiere over at the flat, with a few close friends around."
"It had been quite a big thing for us and we were excited. So we watched it twice and then we were like “oh, it’s done now". And we switched back over to Family Guy. It was a bit of an anti-climax."
"We watched that first video and then we switched back over to Family Guy. It was a bit of an anti-climax. Then I was woken up the next day by the BBC News..."
“Then I was woken up the next day by the BBC News asking about the video. And you know, from then on things changed a bit." Danny chuckles again. It must be the understatement of the century.
The video went viral, earning millions of Youtube views in its first few weeks online and changing his life in the process.
Soon Red Bull came knocking, offering a full-time contract and with it the chance to leave the bike shop and focus solely on riding.
Fame, fortune and music
In the years since, MacAskill’s life has been not unlike that of a rock star. With the support of his major sponsor, he’s put out a succession of videos on Youtube, each of which has focused on a different concept, theme or location – kind of like albums.
In the periods between he promotes them with media appearances and (injuries permitting) tours the world doing live shows, performing tricks in front of adoring crowds.
Given the similarities, it seems somehow appropriate that Danny sees music as central to what he does. “Music is a huge part of my motivation to go riding," he says, something that comes back to his habit of riding alone. “I go out with my headphones on and I ride for two or three hours every night."
“When I listen to a good new tune, even if I’m hitting a spot I’ve ridden hundreds of times, it’s almost like hitting it for the first time again. Sometimes something will click and you’ll see the spot in a completely different light or you’ll see something totally different."
"When I listen to a good new tune, even if I’m hitting a spot I’ve ridden hundreds of times, it’s almost like hitting it for the first time again."
And if it’s important for his personal riding, music is even more important for his public videos. He explains: “Since the Inspired video [his 2009 debut] came out, I really think about things quite differently."
"Rather than thinking just about new things to do with my bike I’m thinking: ‘What’s going to make a good edit?’ and music is a massive part of that. Like the way the Band of Horses went with that video, they worked completely perfectly with each other."
Of course it’s not just the music, or even the tricks, that make Danny’s videos so popular. It’s the concepts too. And that’s something he spends a lot of time considering as well.
“I’m always thinking, ‘what’s going to be an amazing place to make a film?’" he says, “I like to have complete creative control over my projects and I’m very into the film side of things." It’s his creative eye that lead him to Epecuén.
[part title="Epecuen - The Latest Release"]
The Argentinian town (from which his latest video takes its name) was flooded in 1985 when the nearby lake burst its banks, only to re-emerge from the water 20 years later as a ghostly ruin.
“I think I saw it on a blog about two years ago," Danny says. “I spend my time looking at strange things online" he laughs. “You get loads of it off Facebook now, you know ‘10 most amazing places in the world’ or whatever."
"Anyway I read a bit more about the town and I was like: ‘How has no-one been here and made an amazing time-lapse video of the place?’"
"I spend my time looking at strange things online"
After his previous video Imaginate, a project which he says “became so huge it almost drove all of us mad," Danny was keen to do something a bit simpler. To make a return to his garage rock roots following that high-budget concept album as it were.
And in Epecuén he thought he’d found the perfect place.
“I know from previous experience that it’s much easier to go to one location and focus all your attention on one place. I felt like Epecuén definitely justified being the centre of one video."
So he teamed up once again with Dave Sowerby (a man who “likes to keep things as simple as possible") and headed out with just a small team, of six friends.
“It was," he says “by far the best filming trip I’ve ever been on in my life. The place is just so crazy and we had so much fun."
This shines through in the finished video, which although it contains its fair share of ground-breaking riding is as much about the town itself and its incredible landscape.
"I’d always wanted to try a bump frontflip."
“I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to make a better film than previous stuff," he says. “Going to Epecuén I wanted to keep it as chilled as possible."
"Riding wise I had a few things in mind, like I’d always wanted to try a bump frontflip. But mostly I wanted to just make a really cool-feeling video that kind of captured the place."
By the sounds of things, this return to his roots reaped rewards not just in terms of the finished product (which despite being the punk rock to Imaginate’s prog is still highly polished) but also in terms of the whole experience.
He tells the story of the old man who features in the trailer and the introduction as an example.
"You’d see him drinking his mate, smoking a pipe, and he’s got this Mad Max style jeep that he cuts about in. You couldn't make him up!"
“From reading on these blogs I found out that the only resident of Epecuén was Pablo Novak. And we kind of thought ‘how cool would it be to get him involved in the film in some way?’ Then we got there and he was so cool. Like you couldn’t make him up."
“He’s 85 years old living there with his dog. You’d see him in the morning sitting by the side of the road drinking his mate, smoking a pipe."
"He’s got this Mad Max style jeep that he cuts about in. And his bike, we didn’t show it, but you should’ve seen the way it stops. He’s got no brakes so he’d actually do a foot jam to stop!" He laughs again.
So having finished this latest big project, what’s next for this unassuming rock star rider? Having been plagued by injury in the past (including a long-term back issue) he’s happy to be fit and healthy at the moment.
“In the last five years I’ve been off my bike for three of them, which is quite frustrating. But at the moment I’m feeling stronger than ever."
But before he embarks on another major project, he’s heading off on tour.
“I’m putting together this new team called Drop and Roll," he explains. “We’ll be going to music festivals or things like the Formula One to do shows, and I really want to have a full-time filmer involved and be producing loads of smaller, kind of fun videos."
"Before he embarks on another major project, he’s heading off on tour."
It sounds like a pretty good way to spend the summer, I say. “Aye it’ll be good fun to be on the road with friends making fun videos and having a good time."
“But our first show is in Baden on June 1st, so while I’m out here sunning myself in Monaco my friends are slaving away in rainy Scotland trying to get the rig together.
So I feel a bit guilty about that," he adds, self-effacing as ever.
I’m sure they can’t be too resentful, I tell him as I sign off.
After all, it’s his years of hard work (not to mention his mercurial talent) that have created all these opportunities in the first place. Surely no one would begrudge him his time in the sun?