It All Happens In The Air!

It smells like a rock concert. Mullets mingle with spiky hairdos at San Francisco’s SBC Park. The hum of 40,000 people grows to a roar as the house lights go down. Fireworks explode into smoke. Green lasers slice the night sky. Concussion blasts force me to fumble through my pockets for earplugs. It’s beginning to feel like a rock concert.

Moments later, the sounds shift. All eyes fixate on the 20 brightly uniformed men on large metal contraptions gathered at the starting gate in a rare moment of calm. The rest before the onslaught of the chorus. The adrenaline is palpable.

Suddenly, in a mixture of speed and pure violence, the mechanical steeds rip through the dirt, jockeying for a front-running position heading into the first hairpin turn. Before you know it, the riders are acrobatically flying above the earth, defying Newton and buzzing like a swarm of furious bees. Only these aren’t bees, and this is no rock concert. Where in the name of all that is good and holy am I? I don’t think this is what Freddie Gruber meant when he said ..."

The Punk Rock Team. The event is the THQ World Supercross 2005, a motocross tour that stretches from Toronto to Daytona Beach, Florida, to Houston, Texas, to this rather brisk evening in San Francisco, California. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. This is a drumming magazine, right? Well, it turns out that some drummers don’t just subsist on a steady diet of wood and alloy – a few notable ones include Strung Out’s Jordan Burns, Erik Sandin of NOFX, Byron McMackin of Pennywise, and Rory Koff of No Use For A Name. The drummers/bike junkies ride in the celebrity Suzuki Crossover Challenge for team Moto XXX, a company originally started by Burns, Sandin, and snowboard videographer Kurt Haller to film motocross events because, as Burns quips, “There were some really cheesy motocross videos out.” 1995’s Moto XXX surprisingly sold over 40,000 copies. Sequels followed, and before they knew it, professional riders were approaching to form a motocross team.

“Here we were,” Burns explains, “three guys from outside the industry, and we took all of our money that we made from the motocross videos and started up this race team. We were definitely the punk rock team. The industry and the promoters – everyone hated us, but the fans loved us. We were sponsored by Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph, and we would get CDs from the labels and throw them out at all the races. We’d get in trouble almost every week. A lot of teams have come and gone while we’ve been in this, and the promoters thought we weren’t going to last. But we really surpassed the expectations of anyone in the industry. Our team is now called the most successful privateer team, ever. Which is huge. Our team has won a 125cc Supercross race, and we’ve won a 125cc outdoor national. For a small independent team to do that, it’s big time.”

The Strung Out drummer’s face beams with pride when the phrase “successful privateer team” passes his lips; “privateer” meaning the team lacks the comprehensive corporate sponsorship that the superstar riders (like famous champion racers Ricky Carmichael or Chad Reed) have. The rock-and-roll attitude permeates Moto XXX’s professional riders as well, and played a large part in catapulting the team into the “big time.”

“Brian Deegan really helped to put us on the map when he won the 125cc Supercross in 1996,” Burns smirks, “because he ghost-rode his bike across the finish line. That made it a special win. When he crossed the finish-line jump, he let his bike go and jumped off the bike, so the bike went across the line by itself. The promoters freaked, we got fined, but it made history. It got in all the magazines. If he hadn’t done that, it would have been written off as a one-time win.”

Live To Ride, Live To Drum. The actual Supercross event – the professional races, celebrity Crossover Challenge, and junior exhibition that has riders as young as seven years old – starts around 7:00 p.m., but from noon on, race-goers are walking through the parking lot “pit area,” visiting various corporate-factory and privateer teams, ogling the bikes, and collecting autographs from their favorite riders, the biggest of which enjoy rock-star-royalty status. Admittedly, it’s a bit strange to hear Burns, who is known for his blisteringly heavy and precise drumming style with Strung Out, speak with such reverence of Moto XXX’s current top dog, Kyle Lewis. “He basically runs the team, with Kurt. Erik and I are just drummers. We’re on the sidelines.”

Erik Sandin had aspirations of racing motorcycles long before he picked up sticks, and even longer before the Glendale, California native started his two-decade-plus adventure with legendary punkers NOFX. “My family didn’t have a lot of money,” Sandin explains, “and motorcycles weren’t cheap, so riding was more of a fantasy at the time, growing up. But I was really passionate about it, and then when I got little older and made a little money, the first thing I did – I bought a bike. My father and mom were also really passionate about music, so when I grew up my two things were: I wanted to race motorcycles, or I wanted to play music. But motorcycles were my number-one thing.

“When I was about 14 or so, some friends who were about 17 were starting a band. Typical thing, they said, ‘We need a drummer – do you want to play drums?’ It could have just as easily been the harmonica, or keyboard. I said, ‘Okay,’ and bought an old Rogers piece-of-crap, beat-up drum set for like $175. And it just went from there, it was something that I picked up kind of quickly.”

Sandin picked up drums quickly enough to put the motocross aspirations on the backburner for a while, although it wasn’t as if he was a book-learner on the kit. “I have never taken a lesson,” he rues. “Not once. And that’s something that I’m really regretting now, because I feel that I’m limited because of it. I never learned any other outside styles of music. I’m totally self-taught. Taught myself punk rock, and it’s all I really know how to play. When I was a kid, when punk rock was first starting, I guess it wasn’t cool [to play other styles]. Back then you had to be punk rock, and that was about it.”

Burns’ story is similar, although his bike lust may even run deeper than Sandin’s. “I always wanted a dirt bike,” he remembers. “When I was a little kid, all I used to do was draw dirt bikes. My parents would never let me have one, so I got my first motorcycle when I was 20. It was an ’84 Honda XL350. I still have that bike. Now I have tons of motorcycles. I was probably 15 when I started drumming, and the first time I ever sat down on a drum set, I could play a beat, right off the bat. Drumming came kind of naturally for me. It’s funny, the older I’m getting, the less natural it’s coming. I need to really start cracking down and getting in shape for my music.”

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It’s All About Rhythm. You’ve got to be in shape for drumming and riding motocross, and surprisingly, there are some definite links between the two activities, as both Burns and Sandin attest.

“Timing,” Sandin emphasizes. “Motocross is all about rhythm and timing, it really is. Timing in the sense of knowing there’s a part coming up, get ready … now … and then flowing with it, and then … now. And you know when you’re drumming and you set a groove, you find your pace, and you kind of stay there? Riding is the same. If you’re riding good you get into a groove, a rhythm. There’s movement and fluidity to it, as opposed to chopping and hacking your way through it, starting and stopping, slowing down and speeding up. You want to get into a groove and flow.” And as for having good or bad days, “It’s like anything else. There are days when you don’t have to think; it just comes out. And there are other days, like on drums, just doing a basic beat, and it’s, ‘Man, I just suck today.’ Same thing with riding.”

Likewise, Burns sees similarities between drumming and riding, particularly from the physical standpoint. “I get a lot of motocross people coming to the Strung Out shows,” he says, “and I always say before I’m about to go on stage, ‘I’m about to go ride an hour moto.’ Because I really relate the way my forearms pump during a race, and when I drum. My style of drumming is really strenuous on my forearms. It’s very similar. So the things that you can do that loosen you up for drumming are the same things that will help you out when riding a motorcycle. For people that don’t know, riding motorcycles works every single muscle in your body. They say it’s one of the most strenuous sports that you can do, but it’s been the sport I’ve always enjoyed. I was never into baseball, football, basketball, or any of the so-called ‘jock’ sports. I grew up skateboarding, did a little surfing and snowboarding, but motocross has always been my thing.

“Considering I’ve barely learned how to ride a motorcycle, it’s hard to compare them,” Burns continues, trying to explain the comparative learning curves between dirt traversing and skin bashing. “Drumming came naturally for me, but riding a motorcycle is so difficult. We get out here and watch these pros and see how they do it, see how fast they go for 20 laps, and it blows our minds. You definitely have to learn to flow on the motorcycle.”

Down The Stretch They Come! We’ve made it through some preliminary heats with the big boys (phew!), and now it’s intermission, and time for the drummers to step up to the starting line for the celebrity Suzuki Crossover Challenge. Twenty-four extreme-sports athletes from skateboarding, BMX, surfing, snowboarding, and more join Burns (wearing #178), Koff (#701), and “Smelly” Sandin (#111) – due to Pennywise commitments, Byron McMackin was not at the event – for five laps around the track on Suzuki DRZ110 bikes, which are considerably smaller than what the professionals are riding. “They’re basically made for a nine-year old,” Sandin laughs. “I’m 38, and the seat height is about two feet. It’s like clowns getting into that car at the circus, but motorcycle style.”

They might not get as much air as the pros, but there’s no doubt they’re serious as they speed through the turbulent moguls and hit the gas over the jumps. When asked about how he stacks up as a rider against the pros, even though he’s been doing it for 12 years, Sandin doesn’t pull any punches.

“Terrible,” he shrugs. “In the last couple years I haven’t really done all that much. I’m horrible. We have a good time, and I used to race quite a bit with Jordan ten years ago or so, and back then for the class we raced in, I was okay. We raced nationals, which is like everybody from the country, the fastest amateurs, get together, and the best I ever did was I finished 12th out of 40 guys. Jordan’s gotten a fifth and seventh.”

For all the honesty, and the fact that they’re not riding the faster bikes, it doesn’t mean that the potential for serious injury isn’t there. They’ve all had their share, and for Burns, he took his first trip to the hospital only a couple of months into riding.

“My first injury ever was around 1989,” he remembers. “I was watching a friend of mine do this jump over a hill, and when I did it, I didn’t realize that you barely needed any speed to go across the top. Anyways, I’ll try to explain it – I didn’t let off the gas, I just held the gas going over the top of the hill. It had to be a good 100 feet to the bottom, or whatever, but I cleared the whole hill and flatlanded. I broke my ankle, blew my knee out, tore all the tendons and ligaments, and fractured my tibia bone. I was just wasted. I was in the hospital for seven days, had full-blown surgery, and was out of it for a good six months. That was probably the worst.”

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Thankfully the drumming riders go through the SBC Park track without a hitch, and finish third as a team in the celebrity-rider pack. However, far more important is the fact that “Smelly” Sandin takes the first place drummer trophy. Okay, so there’s no first place drummer trophy, but at least he’s got bragging rights over Burns and Koff on this day.

Gnarly! Following the celebrity Crossover Challenge, the drummers join me in the press box (behind where home plate would be for San Francisco Giants games), and after wiping the sweat from their faces, and locking the huge folding Plexiglas windows into the ceiling for that open-air ambiance, proceed to scream like kids as they watch world-famous riders like Ricky Carmichael do what they do best.

“Whoa!” Burns howls as a rider makes a particularly daring move to bolt into the lead, “Did you see that? That was so gnarly – that was sick!” To my left, Sandin speaks of Carmichael like most of you speak of Travis Barker or Mike Portnoy. “Watch how low he goes on that jump,” he didactically points out. “He levels his bike in the air so it doesn’t go as high.” A trailing rider follows over the same jump in a more traditional fashion, getting much more air under him, and more importantly losing valuable seconds in the process. In this particular qualifying race, Carmichael suffers a less-than-perfect start, and early on trails towards the middle of the pack. Then, in pure Michael Jordan fashion, flips some ineffable switch and proceeds to decimate the rest of the field, passing competitors left and right with surgical precision, with Burns, Sandin, and Koff shaking their heads in admiration. Carmichael would eventually win the Supercross championship for the 250cc class in the final race of the evening.

After filing out of SBC Park with the other 40,000 spectators, Burns and I find ourselves back at the Moto XXX truck, talking drums, talking motorcycles. With ears still ringing from the races, I find myself feeling the same adrenaline rush that I felt after encountering Burns at a particularly ripping Strung Out gig at The Edge in Palo Alto a couple years prior [Live Action Report, November/December 2003]. Turns out, he gets the same adrenaline rush from both activities as well.

“Motocross has always been my passion,” he concludes. “If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting right here. We wouldn’t have the Moto XXX team. I wouldn’t be riding in the Crossover race every year they’ve had it. There’s definitely a huge drive to be riding dirt bikes. It’s the same with drums. It’s performing and creating music, it’s very special, and Strung Out is fortunate to be able to do it and have so many people that enjoy it. I don’t know, both things create an amazing vibe. I think I’m lucky to be involved with both.”

Name: Jordan Burns (#178)
Birthplace: Los Angeles, CA
Band: Strung Out
Motocross Influences: Ricky Carmichael, Kyle Lewis
The Ride: Honda CR125
Years Riding: 16

Name: Erik Sandin (#111)
Birthplace: Glendale, CA
Band: NOFX
Motocross Influences: Damon Bradshaw
The Ride: Honda CR250
Years Riding: 16

Name: Rory Koff (#701)
Birthplace: Birmingham, PA
Band: No Use For A Name
Motocross Influences: Mike LaRocco, Travis Pastrana, Carey Hart
The Ride: Yamaha 426
Years Riding: 16