Johnny Thrash is a Coast Mountain legend. As a ski bum, climber, punk rocker, perennial nudist, writer and media personality, Thrash has a knack for finding the best times, the coolest people, and the most fun to be had in any situation, on-hill or off. And if there’s no fun to be had, he creates his own. Originally from the prairies, Thrash has fished commercially in the rough seas of the North Coast and worked high in the rigs on the frozen wind-blasted Saskatchewan oil fields. But the tug of his climbing rope and the glide of his skis always draws him home to the mountains of Squamish and Whistler for another adventure, an equally adventurous après, and one more night to remember. He also fronts an epic punk band called The Harpoons. They wail.
Interview: Ben Osborne
Welcome to the show. What will your presentation be about?
What if I say it’s top secret and I can’t tell you? Just kidding—I’m totally fucking with you. It has been interesting, because I took this on, and, yeah—I know I could talk up a storm, but putting this together, it’s been a bit of a challenge. I was having feelings of doing it on my old punk rock band, The Harpoons, and talking about the good ol’ punk rock days in Whistler: me diving off the stage, wearing fishnet stockings, high heels and a cocktail dress. But after thinking about it more, I settled on talking about my involvement in the old movie Ski Bums. We shot it in Whistler in 1999-2000.
Ski Bums. Tell us about it.
It is a National Film Board production, masterminded by myself and one of Canada’s greatest documentary filmmakers, John Zaritsky, who is also an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. We got together on the premise that I would be involved in a film about Whistler. We set about filming and came around to the idea of ski bums in Whistler. A lot of my friends were living out of vans, living on the fringes of society. We made a movie which chronicles 10 characters living in Whistler and doing whatever it takes to live the lifestyle.
I’m sure you are aware of the ongoing ‘Van Life’ epidemic in Whistler. Do you see a huge difference between them and your crowd?
Well, that’s what we will touch on. There we were, chronicling these local people who now are upstanding members of society in Whistler, but still hold true to those old ski bum values. They may have a $950,000 house in Pemberton, but they are still out there skiing, rock climbing, mountain biking every day. It’s the same today—those kids living out of their vans are starting out on an epic journey that will take them the rest of their lives.
Any of the original Ski Bums we might know?
Yeah, the maker of Foon Skis, John Chilton. He was one of the cast members and his wife Lisa Korthals. Troy Jungen—one of the first people to ski Mount Robson—he’s still an epic dirtbag skier in his own right. Christian Begin, who was our principal action cinematographer, he became a subject. Now he’s running Bella Coola Heli Sports. One of the greatest cast members of Ski Bums unfortunately passed away about 5 or 6 years ago—Crucial Mike [Mike Jefferies]. He was the epitome of ski bum at the time. He was in the command seat of dirtbag-ism and classic ski bumming. Living out of a van, showering at Base 2, hitting the runs at the end of the season to pick up the ‘Charlift Booty’. All of the cast members have a connection to it all still. What I’d like to touch on with the film is to ask the question: was the film representative of what was going on at the time, and to what is still going on today?
I heard you like to get naked, specifically in public.
I had a penchant for nudity, yes. Unfortunately, now, if I were to partake in such activities, it would probably land me in the slammer for a considerable amount of time. So, for the closing of Cittas (currently the Beacon in Whistler), they asked me if I could come and take my clothes off. I went to the RCMP and introduced myself—they knew exactly what I wanted to do. They basically said to me: “We know exactly who you are, we know exactly what you want to do—you want to get naked at Citta’s closing night. This is how it’s gonna go—from 9:00-10:00 we are gonna turn our heads. A minute after, we’ll have the cold steel on your wrists and you’re going to jail.” You can see in pictures of that event, there are 3-to-4 RCMP officers making sure I don’t infringe upon any of the personal freedoms or rights or upset any of the tourists. Thankfully, it was all successful—I didn’t go to jail.
“This is how it’s gonna go—from 9:00-10:00 we are gonna turn our heads. A minute after, we’ll have the cold steel on your wrists and you’re going to jail.”
Where does the “Thrash” come from?
I have a multitude of nicknames from back in the ’80s. When you hang out in groups, it’s usual for people who have a common name. I was one of the many Johnnies. First it was Johnny Liquid Speed, then it was Johnny Rock, Johnny Hendrix, Johnny Never Kissed Me In The Morning, then it evolved to Johnny Thrash ’cause I played in the band The Harpoons and I was always sort of thrashing about, playing my guitar, and banging my head.
When did you move to Whistler?
I grew up just outside of Edmonton, Alberta in Fort Saskatchewan. I came out pretty much right after high school and was planning to get away, find myself for a year—then I got sucked in to the time warp that is Whistler, and I’ve been here ever since. The vortex sucked me in. I live in Squamish now—I can’t really handle the fervour and pace of Whistler these days. I left Whistler in 2008 for good. I was in the oil patch for 5 or 6 years as well in Saskatchewan.
The music scene in Whistler has changed a lot. Tell me about the punk rock scene in your day.
There were some great bands—there was Husqvarna, Heavy Petting Zoo, Creekside Phil had a Slayer cover band, Stole My Beer was another—there were some good bands going out there. I was lucky because I had connections with the west coast hardcore bands like DNA, who were good buddies of mine. They would come up to Whistler, we would do shows together, we’d set them up like royalty at our place; the band would move in for the week. We had a metal night at Tommy Africa’s called Thrashers’ Thursday. Motorama, The Piss Queens, Slave—it was a good scene back then. If we could have kept going at it, it would have been amazing. Unfortunately, because of personnel, we had to fold.
What was it like going from being a ski bum with a punk rock band, to helping produce a movie for the National Film Board?
Well, all roads go through my buddy Johnny Amsterdam who I met at a party in Vancouver through the girl I was dating at the time. He was a friends of friends, and he knew people in the film industry. I already had affiliations with the industry. I worked as a camera operator, a camera rigger, for about 5 or 6 years down in Vancouver. Then I met Johnny. He floated the idea that we should work together, so just by meeting John Zaritsky was the impetus for us creating Ski Bums. John moved up to Whistler, moved me in with him, and for the next two years we proceeded to make Ski Bums.
Tell me about the craziness of making the movie.
The making of Ski Bums would have been 10 times more popular than the actual film! For a while, a lot of people didn’t realize what we were doing. Everyone always says they’re gonna go film, and I don’t think anyone took it seriously. We went quietly about it when we first started doing it, we rented a place together in Alta Vista, set up a shop, and the film board sent us cameras and sound equipment. John Zaritsky said to me when we started, “Johnny, I haven’t got a fuckin clue what I’m doing.” We didn’t know we wanted Whistler. They gave us a pre-production budget, and we had to put the demo together. But when he first started out, we didn’t really know how we were gonna go about it, what it was gonna look like. We were definitely driving blind in a Ferrari going down Highway 99 in a way. We could’ve crashed at any minute—but we made it, and the rest is history.
When you put together that demo and sent it to the National Film Board—were you a bit nervous?
Well, you have to realize we were dealing with Toronto suits. They armchair produce; what we had going for us was that I don’t think they could comprehend. I knew good visuals, I had a shooting background. You could shoot fuckin’ anything on toilet paper, as long as you had good story. We had a good story, and good characters. That got us through the initial stages. Once they started seeing the hilarious anecdotes, it was easy for them to get on board. We weren’t quaking in our boots, because we knew we had something awesome—we just had to let them know. With Johnny [Zaritsky], he had been in the industry for years, he had the skills. I had no idea, I worked in film, second unit filming stunts. I had no experience interviewing people, getting characters, so it was a bit of a roll of the dice, but I think we had great characters, great backdrop, and great pictures, so it was a winner whether we realized it or not.
“We were definitely driving blind in a Ferrari going down Highway 99 in a way. We could’ve crashed at any minute—but we made it, and the rest is history.”
Anything you had in the movie that the film board denied?
We made this movie and pitched a wonderful ski bum character named Johnny Thrash. Because of my previous experience and ability to run a camera, and because I knew all the people involved, I became the production manager (as well as the main character). So, the film board had no idea that the manager of their $500,000 budget, John Hunt, was actually me, Johnny Thrash. For almost a year, it was kept secret that their production manager was actually Johnny Thrash. That was the biggest surprise when it came out of the woodworks. Finally they just put two and two together—they would hear the voiceover of Johnny Thrash, and had heard me on the phone, that’s when they were like, “OK, Johnny, we have a question for you. Are you Johnny Thrash?” The cat was out of the bag. That was a pretty interesting experience. Aside from that, of course there was a lot of nudity, a lot of coarse language, smoking pot on screen. It was okay, though, because it was all about the ski bum culture—Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll—and some skiing.
Anything to tell the audience to prepare them for your show?
Pack up your family, quit your job, head to the mountains, and become a ski bum. Because you know what? You owe it to yourself. Life is too hard. Throw chance to the wind and dedicate your life to skiing.
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