The exhaust popped with the sputtering compression of an old panhead as the Volkswagen Vanagon climbed the hill between two rows of low-slung houses. “This is it right here. This is my aunt and uncle’s place,” Alric Ljunghager said as the tailpipe backfired with a shot that chased him out the sliding door and across the snowy lawn with several large bags of photography gear in tow. Denizens of the quiet Östersund neighborhood thronged their front windows for a glimpse of our graffiti-covered van, Doris: mascot and transport laureate of The Bunch.
Doris may not be the “soul of this band” in the way that her Almost Famous namesake was for Stillwater, but a spray-painted hippie bus is nothing less than a symbol of civil disobedience in Sweden—a place marked by a rigid moral code that seems at odds with The Bunch’s avant-garde ski films, which combine elements of the psychedelic with a playful, bouncy ski style that has no precedent in winter sport. In fact, a great deal about The Bunch could be called unprecedented. I’ve known the majority of these kids for almost four years, yet after following them around their home soil for two weeks, the gap between what I knew about this crew and the comparatively little that I understood had only grown wider.
“Swedes are modest, quiet people,” one of the boys had told me when I first arrived. “This is not the kind of place where you want to draw attention to yourself.” But this advice proved hard to follow. It didn’t matter that The Bunch could pass for a group of mild-mannered art school students in any major city on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard; we’d been regarded like an alpine chapter of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club in every small town and rope-tow ski resort we had come to. The problem was one of numbers—as many as twenty long-haired kids draped in every shade of black, communicating by means of a Swenglish lingua franca, and a set of nicknames that seemed to belong to some Nordic variant of the seven dwarves: Toyben, Dojben, Muybien, Gursken, Peyben and so on. Despite the stares that had followed us around like a bad smell, it wasn’t until Doris limped into Östersund that I realized—if the horrified faces in every window were any barometer of Swedish public opinion—that we represented a criminal element to these people. “What are they scared of?” I asked Maxi Smith as Doris lurched over a speed bump.
“I dunno if they scared,” he answered in his bastard English, (which sounds something like Scooby-Doo when Maxi hits his stride). “You see, for Swedish people it’s all a question of freedom versus safety. They not willing to give up their safety to be more free.” The difference between The Bunch’s worldview and that of their countrymen had been the hardest thing for me to reconcile—the self-evident freedoms of a group of ski bums that live in an 18-person canvas tent seemed out of place in a country where police are mandated to disturb and annoy anyone they so much as suspect of marijuana use.
The idea that The Bunch’s act is a form of subversion—both of normative ski forms and of the closed society in which they grew up—had seemed, for a while at least, like the only way of explaining their weirdness. At first, I had envisioned a narrative where The Bunch moved from one town to another like a hippie Viking scourge, spreading libertarian ideas (by force when necessary) and saving the sport of skiing along the way. Or, at very least, a tame version of Tom Wolfe’s ode to Kesey and the Pranksters.
But the more I saw The Bunch in their own element, the more apparent it became that they had neither need nor desire to rebel. Even their own public ostracism was received with a kind of guarded amusement. If they were ever getting kicked out of an urban feature or yelled at by some uniformed civil servant, they simply sent Pär Hägglund into the fracas as their shit-grinning emissary, and before long the angry person would be scratching his head and apologetically trying to shake everyone’s hand.
Still, The Bunch didn’t seem bent on changing anyone’s mind or even all that interested in what kind of impact they were making on the ski world. In fact, most of the boys were leery to tie themselves to any kind of politics, as I’d learned a week earlier in the Hotel Funäsdalen where a number of us had sat down around an oaken table with the good All-American aim of having an argument. Finally, I remember thinking, a chance to draw them out of their shells and get down to brass tacks. Filmmaker Ante Olafsson had even recorded the conversation for posterity on a sponge-covered mic that metered the ambient noise in red and green bars like the readout on Darth Vader’s respirator.
The discussion had started off with a consensus that the future of ski films was in the hands of a few fringe groups: The Bunch, The Big Picture and one or two other vertically integrated film crews that had maintained creative control through some combination of willful poverty and dumb luck. But the prospect of an argument had me champing at the bit, and it wasn’t long before I began pontificating wildly and pacing around the lobby in a state of distraction that made the guests on the other side of the room avert their eyes. The gist of my screed was that it was up to The Bunch to keep freeskiing cool before it goes the way of the buffalo like mogul skiing, or worse, rollerblading. We need to instate a set of rules for those in the know, I maintained, like the unspoken laws that govern skateboarding’s body politic. Where would skateboarding be without Jay Adams and John Cardiel to provide the radness quotient that kept the underground alive when bloodsuckers like Tony Hawk tried to sell their sport down the river?
“But we can’t make rules,” Ante weighed in after I had calmed down. “Making rules is what the Olympics and X Games have done, saying that you have to ski a certain way. Look at the Creation Nation [a contest that The Bunch had hosted a few days prior]. There was judging, but the best kind of judging: You don’t take one thing and put it against another thing. You just say this is also dope.” It was the philosophy of acceptance, and while it ran counter to the take no prisoners, take no shit ideal that I had espoused ever since meeting Jimbo Morgan and the rest of the aging punk-rock-skier bund, it made a lot of sense for The Bunch. By accepting all styles of skiing, they themselves have avoided being pigeonholed, with the understanding that definitions only paint the artist into a corner.
But perhaps The Bunch was simply a thing beyond my ken—a piece of art itself that, no matter how hard one tried to understand it, would always be just out of reach.
The Bunch’s only statement, beyond the off-beat travelogues in their films, is their skiing. Their skiing is philosophy and vice versa—the invisible thread that connects them in the swooping, swerving style aesthetic of surfers riding an ever-changing wave. I was searching for a distillation of this strange ski collective, some lens through which I could see the crew as a whole. But perhaps The Bunch was simply a thing beyond my ken—a piece of art itself that, no matter how hard one tried to understand it, would always be just out of reach.
Which relates, in a way, to a Nick Cave quote from the final scene in 20,000 Days on Earth. The quote appears in my notes from the trip, probably because we watched the scene on YouTube about 50 times: “In the end, I am not interested in that which I fully understand. The words I have written over the years are just a veneer. There are truths that lie beneath the surface of the words. Truths that rise up without warning like the humps of a sea monster, and then disappear.” While I can’t say that Cave’s pseudo-documentary about a day in the twilight of a rock career answered all my questions about The Bunch, it stood as a reminder that all true art is exploratory. That art seeks out those things that exceed definition and celebrates their very inexplicability.
Doris would be staying in Östersund for a new muffler, so I dragged my gear across the dimly lit lot to Pär’s EuroVan, battening down the ratchet straps on his trailer as a final precaution before the 1,000-klick push to Kiruna. After that would come Riksgränsen, a place that (despite silly monikers like Rik’s Grandson and Rick Skransens) loomed large as a kind of Valhalla in my imagination—the sublime landscape of the midnight sun that had brought to fruition JP Auclair, Terje Håkonsen and all those immortals of my childhood.
Laughter spilled out into the damp spring night as I opened the door to the apartment that The Bunch had borrowed from Douglas Källsbo’s brother. The lot of them were sprawled out on the laminate wood floor in various states of repose. “Five meeses and a reindeer!” someone riffed about a social media typo that Gustav Cavallin had made, as rebuttals echoed around the small room in a pattering chorus of “Djävla!” and “Helevete!” The heckling reminded me of a simpler time when the boys used to get drunk and play elimination games of Kluns (rock-paper-scissors to the layperson), where the loser was made to balance for hours in the rafters of their Breckenridge rental house until the rest took pity and told them to come down.
Hell, I even illegally insured a ’94 Suburban at their behest. What are friends for?
I’d first met these characters by way of Lucas Stål-Madison, where they had taken up residence in a condo that overlooked the drab, wintry sweep of Lake Dillon, CO. I knew right away that I liked them despite, or perhaps because of, the ocean of cultural and age difference that separated us. For the next two winters, I acted as their stateside liaison, facilitating maiden chemical voyages and teaching them how to shotgun beers with a thumbnail. Hell, I even illegally insured a ’94 Suburban at their behest. What are friends for? The years between had been the genesis of the juggernaut known as The Bunch, and although I’d long ago given up my front row seat to the action, I’d followed their rise with the eye of a high school coach who is still vaguely convinced that he taught more than a few pros everything they know.
We said our goodbyes to the rest of the crew (who would be following us to Kiruna in the morning) as five of us packed into the van with the hangdog air of men shipping out to parts unknown. Soon the city was behind us. The headlights cut through the half-light like the beam of a submarine crawling along the ocean floor as we skirted vast forests of scrub pine dotted with lakes, upon which the moon shimmered in long isosceles reflections. Two-lane roads gave way without warning to singletrack construction zones with neither man nor beast in sight…sudden drops from tarmac to dirt with no witness save the stars. Alric drove. Then I. Then Pär.
At one point when we’d all climbed out of the van to piss, Linus Tornberg pointed out the shimmer of the Aurora Borealis against the firmament ahead. It was not the neon glow of a sunset as I’d expected but flickering coronas that illumined the sky for a moment like a shooting star in one’s periphery, disappearing before the mind could be certain of what it had seen. “You can hear them sometimes,” Pär said, “the Northern Lights. Not very often, but sometimes you can hear a sound like crackling in the sky.”
“Far out,” said Jeremie Veilleux.
I’m not sure if Jeremie realized it at the time, but Far Out is the name of The Bunch’s first film. It is a fitting name, and I remembered the pride I’d felt when I first read the description underneath the web host window. The movie had been dedicated to the first weird excursions I’d led the boys on in the moonlit glens beneath Bald Mountain, those fireside rites and shotgunned Schlitz and cosmic leaps of faith that, once made, could never be taken back.
The Bunch has come a long way in the years since, but they’ve stayed strange as ever. Which raises the question: Will these kooks ever get the credit they deserve? It’s hard to say whether they even want that kind of recognition. In a sense, I suspect they all understand that the pressure of being skiing’s main act would only force them to kowtow to the powers that be in the same way that relative obscurity has given them carte blanche.
In many ways this trip to Sweden had taught me less about what The Bunch is than what they are not. There is a tendency, when observing people in the place they were raised, to seek out the things that shaped them as if each person were merely a product thereof. The illusion is that we either accept our origins as birthright or spend our lives trying to get out from under them. In reality, things are rarely so simple…they’re a lot more weird than that.