It was during New York Fashion week this past September when I met Zeb Powell to do this interview. It was further than I might normally fly to do such a thing, but Zeb’s very presence at such an event was just the type of meteoric rise I was attempting to quantify for this interview.
Born in North Carolina and adopted at five weeks old, Zeb has grown to find himself in the mix of mainstream America—the likes of which I don’t think we’ve ever seen from a non-Olympic snowboarder.
Zeb has made an all-too-common practice of showing up at events and making them his own. A nostalgic play in the days of old, when the lore of what happened at a small contest was what carried our beloved pastime.
From Knuckle Huck, to Street Jam, Peace Park and beyond, Zeb Powell’s genuine and unrelenting energy and dedication to being an absolute nut on a snowboard has landed him in the hearts and homes of people across the world.
We touch base with Zeb to discuss his mentality surrounding his recent push into snowboarding’s elite, from his mindset while riding, to pressure from the public, and beyond.
Stan: So I would like to start from the beginning. Where were you born?
Zeb Powell: I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina.
And can you tell me about your family?
My siblings are Jessie, Scout, Dylan, and Tyler. So four, and with me, yeah, five. And I’m adopted of course.
What age were you adopted?
I was adopted at five weeks old.
And your parents live in what part of North Carolina?
Waynesville, North Carolina. Right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 20 minutes from Asheville.
When does young Zeb first find out about snowboarding?
I first found out about it, I think, when I was seven. I think it was Thanksgiving, and we were going to go snowboarding on a family trip. We have a mountain 30 minutes away from us—Cataloochee—and I remember not liking the outfit that my parents picked for me.
Do your parents snowboard?
My mom was actually from Colorado, but her whole family skis. She tried it untill she was 40 and then gave up because she she claimed herself to be too uncoordinated to keep going. And my dad was pretty good at skiing when he was younger. But yeah, I remember my family picking out the hand me downs and shit. It was actually funny, I think I was only down once they told me where the hand me downs supposedly came from. They told me that a pro won a competition or something in them, so I was like, "Oh, cool."
My parents told me once they got me one of Pele's soccer balls, and it wasn't until I was like 20 that I realized that they were just fucking lying about that.
Yeah, I think they were lying just to get me more excited.
So how does Stratton Mountain School come into the picture? How do you end up there?
So I went to Woodward at Copper, which is where I started really getting into it. I just started doing it every day and began to realize what snowboarding was. Especially what it was outside of my hometown. Right? Understanding there's a whole community. Even the fact that there was a camp dedicated to snowboarding was a realization. I'd never been to a place like that, so I just went all out. It was my first time seeing the barn—I think they had just built it and there were tons of kids bouncing off the walls, driving go-karts and snowboarding in the summer at these dope parks that actually had super legit and rails and jumps. But I still hadn’t thought to myself, "Can you actually do this for a living?"
They started calling me “The boss” because I was just smashing off the walls, doing what I do, but as a less developed, kid version. Chad Otterstrom was my coach. I don't think I realized what I was doing, but I gave that same kind of awe factor, and I think the coaches were even kind of like, "What the fuck?"
So I ended up winning a ton of random little contests...Getting a ton of prizes, little stuff. I was just going as a daycamper, so I'd come back to my parents apartment with new shit every day. "I won a snowboard, I won a skateboard, I won a sticker,” whatever. I went back the next year and the year after that. Little did I know that all along they were telling my mom, "You should think about sending him to a snowboard school." It was Chad Otterstrom who was expressing this. I guess he got a read of my situation––that I was able to really break out, but not really knowing what was possible. So my parents ended up asking me, "If you want to really do this, we need to go check out the school." I didn't really know what to say, I was just like, "Okay. I guess so." It was a crazy transition because It wasn't like I was winning competitions, it wasn't like I had an idol or role model I was looking to follow. I was just having fun snowboarding with my friends. Going every day because it was so much fun. So it was very much like, " Whoa. I guess we're actually doing this." And so we flew up to Vermont, a place I'd never been, and it basically felt like tryouts. So fucking bizarre. I had never seen a mountain that big.
No. I rode up to Mt. Snow first. They had a halfpipe there—a whole-ass halfpipe. And I was like, "What the fuck?" This is shit out of video games I play on my phone. I remember seeing the lift go up and out, just disappearing over the hump. I was like, "This goes so fast." I remember just riding that day and being tripped out. But yeah, then I ended up at SMS.
So at that point, who were the peers around you that influenced you? Was this when you started to picture what being a pro snowboarder could be for you?
My first influences were in North Carolina. The park guys were kind of raising me, because at first I would just go up there alone. My parents would just drop me off. But we had a little park crew, and they would go up to App. Ski Mountain and judge the competitions. So they were in the scene, and they took me under their wing, and taught me a little bit. They were putting people like Halldor Helgason in front of me. And then from that, I found the Nike Never Not movie. I don't think I really knew any names, except for Halldor.
You do kind of have a Halldor energy on the snowboard. Halldor is another one of those riders where you're like, "How the fuck did you do that?"
Yeah. I don't even know if I was trying to embody him, but that's just the only person I really knew at first.
Have you met him?
Yeah. at X Games.
Right, and this would probably be your quantifiable “big break.” that first Knuckle Huck you did. And you and I have spoken in interviews about this before. Not only that first X Games win, but how that started to change your perception of what it meant to be, well, black in snowboarding.
I mean, I grew up in a diverse family. Tyler is Korean. Scout is black, Native American, and Korean. Dylan is bi-racial—black and white. Then my other sister, Jessie, is white and biological to my parents, who are white. So from a young age, I wasn't correlating my friends to the color of my skin. I guess it's because of my family. Same thing with snowboarding, I was just like, "My friends are going snowboarding? I'm going to go with them." And it just never really...I never processed it.
So you don’t feel like you were singled out as a kid, being a snowboarder who is black.
I don't know if it's just the energy I gave off or if I just am clueless and don't care. I don't know, because I was just that little kid, everyone knew me on the mountain, I was just running around with a smile on my face flipping and everything, spinning off of everything. I just feel like that’s first and foremost how people saw me.
And then you won Knuckle Huck, it was sort of this questioned afterthought, like, "Wait, was that just the first winter X Games Gold to be awarded to a black snowboarder?"
Yeah, I mean that's when I really kind of started to understand this “race factor,” so to say. I started getting an overwhelming amount of DMs, like, "Yo, I didn't know Black people could snowboard like this, I didn't know this was a thing.”
And it just all set in from there, it was like, "Okay." To me, it kind of felt like I beat the game ya know? Like, you win the competitions, you get the sponsors, you make it to the X Games, you win X Games, and then it's like boom: you beat the game and can free roam and do whatever now that everything’s unlocked.
All right, now I can take a step back—and what's the next step? Giving back to the community. And that's kind of what we've been getting into now. A lot of people have been helping me. Becky Murdy at Red Bull was the one that actually set it in, she was dumbfounded that no one really claimed it. she was like, "First black athlete to win gold at winter X Games! Why aren’t more people talking about this achievement?"
Do you think that Knuckle Huck is a good addition to X Games? Some people are confused by it.
Some fuck with it. Some people don't. I think it's cool that it's getting people more excited about snowboarding again. From what I've seen, people are fucking with that more. I think it's just more consumable.
I think that when the average person watches halfpipe or slopestyle, it's really hard for them to comprehend what’s happening in the same way a veteran does. Whereas Knuckle Huck, even the announcers are unsure what to call the tricks. Just the fact that everyone, the average viewers and the industry alike, are kind of watching this thing with no idea what will play out is enticing. I also feel like that event helped you tremendously in your social following.
I remember I screenshotted it before and after, it went from around 30K to like 60, 65K. Which is a trip now, because we're almost at 400K.
Yes. From an outside perspective, things have really taken off for you in the last couple of years. You've gotten to this point of international acclaim and recognition. With that comes a certain amount of nay-saying, if you will, from the core kids. Is that something that you feel like you experience as you get to do all these cool opportunities?
I feel like once you actually hang out with me and see what I'm about, you realize I'm not trying to be “the guy” or whatever. I'm certainly not thinking I'm better than the core kids—or anyone for that matter. Nah, they got some stuff down way better than I do. Be it trick wise or vision wise with editing and stuff like it. Everyone's got their shit in snowboarding and I try to respect all of it. I don't care if you don't respect my shit. I’m gonna do my shit, I'm still going to pay respect where it’s due. Everyone can get respect in some way or another in my book regardless of if we're cool or not. Like, Shaun White. Not everyone fucks with Shaun White, but you got to respect his grind, what he's done for the sport and everything.
Well what I find interesting is you're kind of on some Shaun White shit. I don't know how else to say it. I've traveled with a lot of snowboarders and I've never seen the amount of people that come up to you for autographs and selfies. Maybe Halldor, funnily enough. You've really been visible to a massive number of people. And with that comes a lot of pressure, comes a lot of people having opinions. Is that a pressure to you or are you doing your best to block it?
People are going to talk, have their opinions, and I can't really change that, so I don't know why I would dwell on that. Having people come up to me? Yes, sometimes it's too much. Honestly, sometimes it has gotten to the point where I'm like, "Oh this person is about to come up to me and ask for an autograph or a photo," and then they're just a normal person, not looking to talk to me at all. I'm like, "Oh, now I just feel stupid." But I don't know, really it's part of the game. All I can do is just keep my head down and keep to my values. If you're down, want to come with me, welcome. But if not, whatever.
From your point of view, was there a moment where you thought, "Okay, my career is changing."?
I think throughout the last year more or less, as well as just now in this last summer. Before that, the basic schedule was to go hard starting in October all the way through the spring, and summer was finally the break. But summer's not my break anymore. I'm learning to adjust to just finding little windows of a week to two as breaks for myself. It's not like I'm banking on the summer anymore. I'm just constantly going now. And the other big change is probably that I just have more people involved in what I do, what I post, all that stuff.
Right. More pieces.
Yeah, there's just more moving pieces, moving parts. Literally needing people to help manage my shit because there's so much stuff coming in.
Totally. You've got a little bit of an entourage right now.
And I know that looks ridiculous too, but I truly think I need them because I would definitely go crazy, or I just would not be able to manage my shit alone. Maybe some people can do it on their own, but I need people to help me with organizing everything because it’s A LOT to deal with.
And having that understanding is just as smart as being able to do it yourself, frankly.
That's another side of it too on social media, responding to people is getting harder. I'm starting to have trouble deciphering business conversations from friend conversations. I am overwhelmed with taking friend conversations over to business and vice versa. I'm a lot more selective with who I talk to in-depth now, just because the way my life is right now.
Well there's also probably a lot of people that want something from you.
Yeah. Or I have so much going on. I'll be in the same city as someone that I'm actually tight with, and sometimes I just don't even hit them up because I know I'm going to need time for myself, plus whatever I am there for. That part does suck. I just know I need to cut out a little time for myself now.
Do you feel like you get burnt out?
Yeah, definitely experience burnout sometimes. It sounds ridiculous but with six sponsors, that's a lot to manage or keep up with, a lot of weight and just stress. It's like, "Oh do I need to talk to this person? Do I need to do this? Oh, I have to put this out," and all of that. Plus talking about new shit. Sometimes I don't even want to talk, I just want to sit in my hotel room and listen to music, relax, and sleep. Should I just fuck off from the world? I find myself saying that more and more..
Your personal happiness is important though because I think that's part of your brand. Part of your appeal is how hyped you actually are.
To continue this Shaun White narrative. Shaun relied on big contests as the moments he really had to “show up.” But you on the other hand, who is known for just being a general psychopath on your snowboard at any given time, do you feel pressure when you're just riding any resort like, "Oh I got to be Zeb Powell out here, I’ve got to be busting?”
A little pressure, but I can usually filter all that out unless I’m at a full on park mountain where literally everyone knows me. There was one time where it was really crazy though. I did a Bear shoot for my first boot and clothing line and so many people were gathering up to watch that they had to get mountain safety to herd them along. It was a constant, "Yo what's up Zeb? Hey Zeb, can I get a photo Zeb?" And when that wasn’t happening I had people with phones out behind me waiting for me to do something. It got so bad that day, I shit you not, I ended up with two mountain safety by my side. It was insane—I remember tripping over that. So for the most part, yeah I’m usually ok and can filter it out/deal with that pressure on my own. But when there’s people around blatantly watching, waiting for me to do something, I certainly feel it sometimes more than others.
Another pretty hectic time. It was the week we did the Burton mystery series and we were gonna do a check-in video at Highland Hills. I walked to the lodge because we heard there was food on the other end of the building, some sort of taco pop-up shop. We go over there and it feels like there are a ton of kids staring at me, but no one’s really engaging. And then once we realized there was no food, we walked around the building. I didn’t realize, but there was a huge crowd of kids mobbing towards me, so we started walking inside and turn the corner, and there was a mob coming from the other direction. It almost turned into a boy-band-style freak out. Kids were swarming me. And anytime I stopped at the bottom and spoke with even just one kid. The swarm would start again.
Have you signed a baby yet?
[laughs]I haven’t signed a baby yet.
But, I am curious about your headspace in more “pressure-filled” situations where you continue to shine. Like, that Peace Park wall ride session at Mt. Bachelor. You just outrode everybody. You were the only person to get to the top and you did it a few times. You were the star of the session. And that has become commonplace when you show up to something. Were you just in the zone that day? Were you feeling pressure because there were cameras? How did that day unfold?
I truly just really wanted to get to the top of the wall. I remember the day before we looked at it and I thought, "Holy shit, I don't know if anyone can get to the top of this." But then the day came and I was riding it and I was like, "Oh yeah, I can get to the top of this." I think I kind of warmed up for it throughout the season unintentionally. I had the session on the Mammoth wall ride then I had the quarterpipe at Last Call. Through both of those I was figuring out how to go higher, straight line, and not hit speed checks. Because that's the hardest part honestly, just shutting your brain off, the fight or flight or the natural instinct to slow down. So once I was in it, I was like, "Okay, well I want to get to the top of this and I think I can. so I'm just going to keep figuring it out."
Are you fueled by people's reactions to it or is it more internal?
It's more internal.
I believe that.
I'm not like, "Oh my god this crowd, I have to do it for them." I mean sometimes it definitely hypes me up—but it's not like I'm fueled by it.
Do you think that you're getting better at snowboarding every day? I was watching some of your Mt. Hood clips from two summers ago, when you were on big pink and wearing the pink shirt. I feel like that was one of your key moments in viral history. But when you watch those clips, with all due respect, you look sketchier than you do now. You do. You are stronger on your snowboard now than you were then.
I think it's just natural. I feel like it's really a mind thing, like the more time goes on and the more I learn snowboarding (or not)… I’m always getting better in some way, shape, or form. It doesn’t make much sense but I swear I can go a month or two without snowboarding and come back better than I was with new tricks and all. I feel like it’s gotta be that whole brain development thing everyone talks about, haha.
Do you feel like that over the last couple years you've been breaking out of your shell, so to say, even socially and stuff? I felt even another big change that I've seen in you over the last four years is I think you were a lot quieter and a lot more reserved a couple years ago.
Yeah. Well I think I'm just more comfortable with it now. I think it's just, I look back at what I've done and I'm like, "Okay, wow, I'm really doing this." So I feel better about just being myself. Also I think I give less of a fuck what people think regardless. I honestly still feel like I'm trying to get better at talking. I think I just suck at talking in general.
Do you have a perception of what you think your most viral moment is?
I guess I'd say the fall where I spring back up at X Games, or last year at Ethan Morgan’s Street Jam in Austria.
The whole Austria trip, really. Jumping through the posts that got you the METHOD cover, the rail on fire. Just another one of those times where it's like “Zeb Powell is here and everything else that anyone else does is irrelevant.” I want to talk about Slide-In Tour and how that came to be.
So the Slide-In Tour has always been about bringing life back to the East Coast. I feel like most Red Bull riders do competitions and that’s how they get exposure. But I don’t do many contests. So I think this was a way to work with Red Bull and get my name out there, as well as to shed light on the East Coast. I don’t think we realized it was going to get to be that big either, but we had so much fun connecting with the kids and it actually felt like we made an impact. The kid’s response after was very much, “We can’t wait for next year.” So it really felt like we had something growing. And then I won X Games and I feel like it really blew up after that.
I thought the first one was after X Games? You were wearing the heart glasses?
No, there was one that basically never came out. It was with Cole Navin, and Jake Durham filmed it (they both filmed it). It was sick. And the footage never went anywhere. I think I made an Instagram a year later to promote the one you’re thinking of.
Damn. I didn’t realize. This year it really feels like you expanded. You brought producer Tweet Tune, 27Delly came to a spot—It feels like you are crafting events that cater to your style. Like you brought a little bit of culture shifters to The Slide-In tour.
Yea, Definitely. I think it just taught me how to do events, or how I can help make events impactful in my way. And this year there’s more planning to do because we are hoping to take the tour nationally, not just the East Coast.
I want to talk more about that East Coast thing. You may be the only mega-pro I can think of that lives on the East Coast. Not counting French Canada. What keeps you there?
Honestly, I keep thinking about other places and I'm like, "No." I think also with the way my schedule is and everything, I like to check in with different groups of homies. It's not like I'm with the same people all the time. I like being able to see all of the homies in North Carolina. The East Coast just feels homey. But also because I couldn’t give a fuck about where I ride conditions-wise, so the East Coast really doesn't scare me either way. I have fun riding there. I also feel like there's no one trying to be better than anyone, or whatever. Like it doesn’t feel as competitive among people as it does on the West Coast.
That’s interesting. I think it's less professionally competitive because there's less people that really have a chance of making it big if they haven’t already left by their 20s. Whereas in Utah for example, it can feel like people are competing for the same chance, basically. And it can get pretty toxic.
I most definitely don't want to move to Utah, haha. I would never—I'd way rather stay in Vermont. Utah, straight up feels like a high school. There's different crews, different cliques, different drama over here, drama over there. It's like, "Fuck all that." I hate that drama shit. I don't know. I really just want to be a real ass person, hanging with real ass people. I'd rather just go there for a fun shoot or whatever, fly under the radar, hang with the real homies of mine, and then go.
How do you stay humble?
I can't even spin over 1080, haha. I'm not the best, I definitely don't have the cleanest rail tricks at times—I have fun with them—but they're not the cleanest. But people still fuck with them for some reason, so there's that. But I don't know, I haven't put out a full street part that I’m truly hyped on yet, there's still a lot to do. So I would never claim I am the best. Also my dad—me and my mom think he's got a crazy sixth sense—he knew that I would get here today back when I started. So all throughout growing up, after I would win a comp or pass a little snowboard milestone, he'd look at me in the eyes and be like, "Always be humble. Stay humble.” Both of my parents just really helped keep me in line and not be a little shithead.
I know in our history of talking, you're a very big advocate of, "I want my riding to speak for itself,” but you have to acknowledge on some level as we all strive towards inclusivity in the industry—what a big part of that you are actively playing.
Yeah, well it's kind of crazy. I feel like I always acknowledge it but then I run into someone random that will really remind me. I was in LA at our friend Basil’s DJ set and at the end of the party, the lights turn on and this homie looked right and sees me. He is like, "Yo, I bought a snowboard because of you. You're sick." I'm just like, "Holy shit. There it is." And that happens time and time again. There was another time with Selema. We were talking in Venice and talking about this topic exactly; he is a voice of wisdom for me. And this black waiter homie comes up and he is like, "Yo, what you are doing is amazing. My mom showed me your Instagram. There's no one looking like us out on the snowboard."
It's happening on a more grassroots level with the waiters and with the random people that you're meeting, but then you've also got literal celebrities telling you the same shit. Could you give me the sparknotes of how you met Travis Scott?
Yeah. I was in Miami at F1 with Red Bull, And Jake [Canter] told me Travis was playing in Miami that night. So I'm like, "Oh word? I'll see what's good." Pretty much went there around 2 or 3 AM. Travis finished playing and everyone is outside. My friends had just gone to the bathroom and I saw Travis standing behind a red, official type rope. So I was like, "You know what, fuck it. Crazier things have happened." I walk over there and he's got his two security guards and I'm like, "Yo Travis." Expecting that happens all the time. But he looks over and his eyes get wide and he starts freaking out, straight up fan-girling. Pulls me over and we talk for 20 minutes about what I'm doing and snowboarding. I'm just tripping because I'm like, "Wait a second, the table just turned so fucking hard. I'm not the goat. You're the goat. What the fuck?" So I gave him my number because, why wouldn't I give him my number? Didn't get his number back because I just was still tripping I think. Maybe I was delirious from the last few days. All that shit. It's like 6 in the morning also. Then we took this hard photo. Literally I remember looking at it and being like, "Oh my god this is the dopest thing ever. Wow." Didn't ask for the photo either. Then we say goodbyes and they dip. And then my friends come out of the bathroom.
You've gotten to kick it with ASAP Ferg, Skizzy Mars, Travis Scott, the list goes on. If you had to choose somebody you would get to meet and kind of hang with that you haven't gotten to meet yet, who would it be?
I think right now, just because ... I don't know, I really like the show loiter squad. So probably Tyler the Creator. I love that shit, him and his crew are my type of funny. Also skate background—I have that kind of influence from skating, and then also having music, rapping, and being influential like that in fashion…all that shit is so cool to me. And honestly, I don't know how the fuck it would happen, but I say this all the time, nothing feels farfetched. After ASAP, nothing feels farfetched anymore. Not even a brag, it's just fucking true. You know?
Yeah. Honestly, I can't think of a more perfect sentiment to end this interview on. For you Zeb, I’d have to agree that nothing is farfetched anymore.