Chris Pfanner's "Propeller" Interview

By Michael Burnett

Tell me the story from your Thrasher cover last year—this crazy double-set kickflip in Zagreb.
The crazy double set? It started a long, long time ago. Ten years ago I was there with my friend, Mookie, who I used to skate with back in the days from my hometown. We were on a trip down there and we stumbled upon this double set and we had had a few drinks already. I guess I had my mouth a bit too full because I was like, “Yeah, yeah. Let’s come here tomorrow! I got this! I’m going to ollie it and kickflip it and everything,” and he was like, “Alright. Let’s see.” So the next morning he dragged me over there all hungover and he was all, “Okay, let’s see this! I’ve got breakfast for you, let’s see it!” I tried to ollie it and I couldn’t even clear the whole set! I landed on the last two steps. So that was the first attempt at it. Then when we started filming this Vans video this was the first trip we did for it five years ago. We ended up back at the double set and I had the power finally. I cleared it with the ollie and then a few days later I came back and backside ollied it. But I still had one thing left from my original claim and that was the kickflip. So luckily we went back on that trip together and I was like, “Okay. I started already. I might as well live up to it.” Somehow it worked out! The first day wasn’t too successful. Then a few days relaxing, went back and managed to roll away.

The ten-year gap. What happened in those ten years that made you a Superman?
I don’t know. Just kept jumping down stuff until I finally had the confidence I guess. Nothing changed really! I was even doubting it more the last time. You get older and what they say is you get weaker, but somehow it worked out.

Dreams coming true in Zagreb / Photo: Burnett

What went through your head when you finally landed it?
Phew! So many things. The first thing was the song that was blaring out at the spot at that point. That got me so juiced. Seeing everyone how they were psyched and everything—it was pretty overwhelming.
I was doubting it at some points. I didn’t think it was even possible. I broke two boards on it, just from the impact. I didn’t even think I would make it. And then Chima set up that last board for me like, “C’mon man, you got it.” I was like, “Okay, if you say so.” I decided to give it one last shot and that was the one.

What was the song? I don’t remember.
What was it? “Tupac’s Back?”

Oh yeah!
The one we blared in that train station. We bombed an indoor double set and then posted up in this train station bar. Where was it? Slovenia? Sat in that cafe, blasting “Tupac’s Back,” drinking beer and having fun on that double set.

Pure ollie power, Backside 180 / Photo: Smith

That was hilarious. Have you ever been embarrassed by your American friends overseas?
No, not at all. Why would I be embarrassed? These are the friends I love and these are the people I love hanging out with. What’s to be embarrassed about? We get a bit loose, but nothing to be embarrassed about. We don’t hurt anyone and we don’t step on anyone’s toes. It’s all in good fun.

Tell me about your family history.
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. My dad is Austrian and he was down there working, setting up embroidery machines. And my mom’s from Ghana. She was down there working too and that was how they got to meet each other. At that point my dad—I don’t know if I’m going to say this, but it’s true, it’s his history, he stands behind it—he was gambling pretty heavily at that moment and he pretty much gambled his life away. And that’s how he met my mother. My mom kind of saved his life and got him back on the right path and one thing led to another and they fell in love and got me and that’s how the whole history started.

Where did you live as a kid?
I started in Lagos, Nigeria in Lagos City until I was ten years old and then my family decided to move because the country and the situation there wasn’t too good. Our parents thought that moving us to Austria would provide us with a better life, better education and some kind of perspective for the future. The way things were moving in Nigeria, it wasn’t really favoring us. At the age of ten I moved to Austria, first on my own, because my family didn’t have the means to move us all at once. In order for me not to lose years in school my parents kind of dumped me into the cold water. They were like, “Yep, you go there and figure this out. When we are ready we’re going to come over there.” So I spent the first four years in the boarding school. On the weekends I would go to my parents’ friends or my grandmom’s. That’s how it all started and then four years later the rest of my family—my mom, my younger brother and my younger sister, moved over as well.

Boardslide drop in Greece / Photo: Brook

That’s like the background of every Disney story but it really happened to you! What was it like to get sent away from your parents at ten? Could you speak the language?
No, that was the thing, too. In Nigeria we spoke English. Nigeria was an English colony and English was the business language so yeah, my dad never spoke German to me. Only if he was mad! That’s not really a good foundation to learn the language! But you know, it was a hard decision for them too—sending your ten-year-old kid away and hoping for the best. I look back on it now and it was the best thing that ever happened to me, but at the time I was a bit confused. I was like, “Yep. Ten years old. I don’t speak the language but I have to start school even though I didn’t speak a word of German.” It was hard but it was for the best. When I look back on it I’m really proud of my parents for taking that bold move. It’s not easy.

Do you remember your first breakthrough learning German and actually understanding it?
Yeah, I mean, I had no choice! From day one I had to figure it out like, “Okay, what’s going on here?” The first few weeks were kind of harsh. I got this Rosetta Stone “How to Learn German” thing the summer we came over and my father spoke German a little with me but it wasn’t nearly enough. But at that age with kids you pick up really quick. After half a year I could understand and pick up on what people were saying. It still took a year or two with fist fights to get my way through because I misunderstood a lot of stuff. I wasn’t that solid in the language yet, but I needed some toughing up as well.

Were you the only dark-skinned kid in that town?
Yeah and I was at the Christian boarding school as well. It was a little different. It wasn’t easy, especially when kids make jokes about your skin color. I had to respond somehow. I couldn’t use my words properly so I had to stick with my fists. The first year I got into a lot of trouble for that. They thought that I had some problems. But in the end everything worked out fine.

Flat bar grind, end to end / Photo: Hammeke

If the dudes didn’t like you, were the girls at least interested?
Yeah, definitely. That was the only part that kept me above water! That was also the one thing that helped my whole school career. That was the only reason that I wanted to go—the girls.

So how did you get into skateboarding at a boarding school in Austria?
A few kids around the boarding school would always come over to skate out front. At that time I was riding my bike and had some ramps set up. They’d always come over and skate on our stuff and it got us so mad and we’d get into arguments with them and everything. So one time I was like, “C’mon, let me try that thing! That’s so easy! Everyone can do it!” The guy was like, “Okay, you try and do an ollie.” I borrowed the board and tried all day and when the guy came back in the evening I managed to ollie a board. I was all, “See. It’s easy.” But from that moment on I got hooked. This was really fun! I needed to figure out a way to get a board. My dad came over for a visit for my confirmation at that time and all the kids I remember got watches and everything for their confirmation gift and I told my dad, “Dad. I want a skateboard. That’s what I want to have.” He was all, “Don’t you want something that you can remember, like a watch like all the other kids?” And I said, “No, I want a skateboard.” And that’s how it all started.

Tell me the story when you backside 180’d the universe in Copenhagen in the middle of the night like a viking?
That was pretty good. I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t even trying to skate that day. We were at Camp Keebler on our Beauty and the Beast trip and we’re just on that field all day drinking and that was all we did.

20-foot death drop. 5-0 on the edge / Photo: Broach

That’s when they dropped you at a rave for a week with no food, only beer?
Yeah. That was funny, man. Yeah, “Beauty and the Beast in Europe. These guys are hooking it up,” and then they drive us out onto a field in Sweden next to a little skatepark and just around the corner they were setting up a little carnival so the carnies were also hanging out over there doing their stuff. Then once in awhile they would drop off a bunch of beers for us and food and then leave again. For the first few days we skated that skatepark and if we wanted to go someplace else they would drive a van over, pack everybody into it, and drive us there. For the Burning of the Witch thing that’s what happened. One night the van came over, we all got stuffed in there and drove over to that skate contest. We got out there and it was this crazy madness. I didn’t even grab my board or anything. I just walked up there to see what was going on. I was pretty sauced by that time. We were just sitting in that field drinking beer all day. And then Phelper is teasing me the whole time, like, “Ughh, you gonna man up to this! You gonna handle this?” just giving me all kinds of shit in the Phelper manner. The only way to stop this guy from getting on my nerves is just to step up to this and try right now. Robbie ran back to the van and grabbed me a board and the next thing you know I’m throwing myself down a huge flight of stairs. It’s a few minutes before midnight and a lot of people are standing around and I’m thinking, “Wow.” So somehow, I don’t know, maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the people, maybe it was the time, but everything turned out fine and I rolled away from that one, too. It was a great feeling, man! I got a bunch of money. I got back into the van. Had to stop somewhere. Bought some more alcohol and went back out to the field.

Was that the biggest thing you’ve ever flown down?
Yeah, probably.

What part of skating are you the worst at?
Oh, patience for manuals. That’s not me at all. I have so much respect for it and I try and try but I just can’t get up the patience for it. I’m not too great on it. I’d rather just ollie over something. I just want to stay in motion and keep pushing. I want to do what I feel comfortable with and keep going. That’s what I have fun doing.

Massive 180 at the Burning of the Witch / Photo: Stratton

What was harder, trying to fit in with the kids at the Christian boarding school, or fitting in with the 1-8 crew?
Oh, man! Maybe the boarding school was harder! That was definitely harder! After I fit in at my boarding school I met my first crew from Yama skateboards; the people I started skating with. It was a perfect transition from Yama skateboards to Antihero. It wasn’t anything different. We always hopped into a van, enjoy drinking beer, talking shit and skating. I met the 1-8 crew and it was all the same so I felt at home pretty quick.

I ask because there’s a lot of guys, I think maybe they call them prospects, they get tried out but they never end up getting jumped into the gang.
It happens. There’s been a few. I don’t know. I never really pushed for it or thought, “Oh, this is my goal.” It all just happened. I met Julien in Barcelona and he introduced himself to me. I wasn’t even thinking that far. It’s like, “Okay, it’s Julien and we go skating and he seemed to be a nice guy,” and it wasn’t until Dustin told me, “Oh yeah, that guy’s Julien Stranger!” that I even realized who he was. There was no talks on the trip. Afterwards he wrote me an email and says he would like to have me on the team. I made a trip and hung out in the city and everyone was stoked and then I was on.

Was there any initiation? Did you have to get burned with a fork or anything?
Hah! Fuck no! Nothing of that sort. Not at all, man. I had known Tony already from the Vans trips and I had met John. Everyone seemed down for it. I don’t know what else I’d be doing anyway if I wasn’t riding for Antihero. It was the perfect match. I’m stoked where I am, that I’m part of the crew and they accept me as I am. I don’t know what else I’d be doing. For real.

Caballerial, Autumn in New York City / Photo: Mehring

What’s Andy Roy like one-on-one?
Andy is a sweetheart, man. Everything I’ve had to do with Andy I like him. I like him as a person. You know, he’s had his past and he wilds out and all of that but his heart is in the right place and that’s what’s important. That’s what’s important for me in a person.

You went with him on King of the Road, right?
Yeah, my King of the Road history is not too good. I was supposed to go with Vans the year before, but I went to the Maloof first and the first day in Washington I flipped a bike and fractured my hip and flew back home two days later. So I couldn’t go on King of the Road with Vans. And then two years later I went with the 1-8 crew and I was so hyped, so juiced that I tried to grind a 39-stair rail on the first day and wrecked my ankle! I guess that’s what I get trying to go for the kill right away. I was just so amped. I was seeing points! I got wrecked!

What were some of your favorite memories of that trip?
The whole thing was amazing, man, I was just bummed I couldn’t contribute more. I was just hyped hanging out with the whole crew. The whole spirit the King of the Road thing has is just so good. You see people trying things they would never try at all. Yeah, it’s just one more on top of a skate trip that gets people going; gets them so amped. It’s amazing. I was just so bummed that I couldn’t even survive the whole day.

Cops are here! Frontside 180 / Photo: Burnett

So are you done filming for this Vans video? That was five years of filming for one thing! What’s going through your mind right now?
To tell you the truth, I’m nervous. I hope it lives up to the expectations. I know for the last five years any trip that I got to go on and any opportunity I had I gave my 110 percent, so I hope that’s what you’re supposed to do to have a proper video part. This is actually my first big video part I’ve ever worked on, you know? To be honest, I’m really nervous about the whole thing and I hope it can be seen, what I’ve done so far. I’m really excited about it. I’m scared, excited—there’s such mixed feelings about it. It’s definitely going to be good. I’m more excited to see what the other guys did than what I did.

Who do you feel like you know the least about what their part is gonna be?

Yeah. He’s very secretive.
Yeah, Gilbert. Like I’ve seen one or two things here but I know that was just goofing around for him. I want to see what his more serious stuff looks like, when he really got down.

Lengthy feeble 180 / Photo: Burnett

You’re a pro skater but live in Nuremberg, Germany. When you go home are you off the clock? Do you ever feel like you’re missing out?
I don’t think I’m missing out or anything but it’s definitely harder for me when I’m out here. It’s not as easy to do stuff if you’re used to the way things work in sunny California. It’s more of a hassle to get stuff done out here. It’s crazy but I’m someone who really loves the balance. If I was surrounded by it 24-7 I think that would make me go crazy. Sometimes just having the distance is where I gain some motivation and I can focus on it way more, rather than be surrounded by it all the time. So it works out pretty good for me. It better work out, because this is what the Vans video is gonna show—whether it worked out or not!

What if at the premier everyone walks out on your part?
Imagine that! Or people start yawning or something. Hopefully not.

Was there any skater you really looked up to as a kid?
Just the people I had around me. These were the people I looked up to. But then I got to see more things as I got older. The first demo I got to see was Goodtimes and Adrenalin. They came to my hometown. My friend who was doing the skate shop also did a little distribution for them and they came out and did a demo. That was a huge thing for me. Miner was on that, when he was still skating. Joe Pino. He was one of the people who got me really, really stoked because of his ollies. Wow! That branded me so hard. There was this railing around the vert ramp at our park and Pino came up and just casually ollied over that thing. I was like, “No way! That’s possible?” and from then on that was my goal. Then there was Chris Senn. I got to hang out with him a little bit because he came out for the contest in Prague. I was 18 so that was 2003 or something. After the contest somehow he ended up in Vienna with me and a few friends and he stayed with us for a little bit. Yeah, that was rad. I got to hang out with Chris Senn and skate with him. That was a great experience.

Gap to lip, through the gate / Photo: Broach

Have you ever gotten to skate hills in SF with Gerwer?
With Gerwer? I’ve skated a little bit but not those gnarly hills! Fuck! That’s too scary. When you see what he rides down—that’s suicide! And the crustiest street as well, too. You just have to fly over all that stuff, I guess. I can’t get my head wrapped around that stuff. It’s just too gnarly. I like doing hills but that’s a different category of hills. It’s from a different planet!

What do you look for on the streets?
My stuff is more around spots. I’m not the guy with the hugest bag of tricks or whatever. I just look for stuff that’s weird in its own way. I’ll say I like to go for the shit that nobody wants. If nobody wants to skate it, that’s what I’ll skate. Weird-ass spots. Just things that are not too inviting most of the time. Often I find things and people are, like, “We’ve walked past this for years. That’s not even a spot!” But I think it’s a spot, so yeah, that’s how I can explain it. I just like the things nobody wants, I guess.

Tell me about your VW Bug.
It was my wife’s granny’s Volkswagen. She had it in her garage for 30 years just parked there. When I moved here with my wife I helped her do some garden work and clean the garage and I stumbled across the Volkswagen. I was like, “Wow! What’s this doing here?” and she’s, like, “It’s been parked there for 30 years. It probably doesn’t work. We should get rid of it.” I was thinking, “No!” I got the oil changed and changed the sparks and the first time I flipped the key over that thing was running! It’s almost brand new! It’s in its original state and it’s a 1962 and it’s just amazing. She’s, like, “You can just get rid of it.” I’m, like, “We’re not going to just get rid of it. You know what this thing is worth?” So I cleaned it up and had it serviced and everything and it’s running like brand new. It’s got 35,000 kilometers on it. I always bring it out in the summers from April until September. It’s the good-weather ride, you know? The feeling of sitting in that and cruising is so good.

Grecian nosegrind / Photo: Brook

You’re a proper German now.
Hell yeah! I live in Germany. My wife’s from Germany. My kids are German. I’m German, too, I guess!

So you’re about to birth a video part. Your wife’s about to birth your second child. You’ve got a lot of good things happening right now.
And it’s not ending, man! Onto the next project already. Lots of stuff happening.
I can’t think of anything better at the moment. I’m happy.