Niels Bennett – Heroes / Helden
Filmed and edited by Chris Mulhern and Torsten Frank.
Words by Arthur Derrien (for 🔴 46).
Last night I spent close to two hours staring at a pixelated Niels drinking cans of Grolsch at his grandma’s, in Germany, and as far as this interview is concerned I think I can safely say that the call was a waste of time. What was pretty interesting though, was seeing someone you usually cannot shut up in a real-life pub scenario so paralysed by the thought of being recorded in this virtual pub setting, constantly second-guessing how what he was about to say might come across. ‘It’s like every time I answer I can see the words being printed in front of me, ready to be misinterpreted’. Although maybe it’s just that my questions were a bit shit? I thought he loved Tom Penny’s rapping!
Either way, this is why today what you’re going to get is my experience of him, working backwards from the last time we were together in London. I can’t promise you, Niels, that what I’m saying won’t be misinterpreted, nor can I even promise you, the reader, that my words will be a perfectly accurate representation of his true character, but at least by the end of it everyone will be as equipped as I am at understanding this very unusual breed of American pro skater. One that can recite every trick in Eleventh Hour off the top of his head, and could rock up at your local shop unannounced at any point no matter where you are, cheeky grin, backpack, skateboard and absolutely no plan whatsoever.
Sunday 9th of October 2022
It’s time to peel Niels off the couch and head to the establishment that’ll be cooking him his first-ever Sunday Roast. Last night’s a bit of a blur but I do remember him giving his full setup to Ralph (the 11-year-old child that for some reason seems to be in The Nags Head most Friday evenings). So yeah, I guess skating is definitely off the cards. I’m having flashes of him telling Guy Jones about trying to convince Rick Howard and Mike Carroll to let him send a couple of Girl boards into space by weather balloon… I also remember him discovering for the first time that certain humans do ketamine recreationally in this country, and it bringing back some traumatic memories for him. Apparently the last time he was given some for a dislocated elbow he found himself in a K-Hole repeatedly yelling Bobby Puleo’s name to a room full of confused nurses… But I digress.
It’s his last day in London. As the first pints hit the table he tells us he’s gutted to be leaving, but that he’s been in Europe for so long now that he kinda knows the time has come. Plus given the mission it’s been for him to get his hands on an emergency American passport, it’s nice to know he actually can go home now. Since Niels started travelling as a sponsored skater he’s always done everything he could to stick around for a bit in the city where his trips would end (in this case it was The Sky Ain’t Falling adidas tour), and/or rock up a few days early wherever they’d start. I don’t think I’ve ever met another skater so fascinated by discovering new skate scenes. And he’ll go about it in a way that’s extremely conscious of respecting their little eco-systems, usually doing a couple of drive-bys at the plaza without his board, just to observe its specific set of codes. I’ve tried to understand where this unquenchable thirst for travelling comes from… I know he mentioned his parents being backpackers, and I’m sure regularly visiting family in Germany probably played a part in this too, but also, like why? Why is he so enthralled by these unpredictable solo adventures, no matter where they take him? Because just to be clear, it’s not just the obviously enjoyable experiences he’s here for, like this delicious roast we’re about to session the sun, it’s all of it. When he laughs about how you’ve got to love the shitty times too, and how there’s nothing quite like being sat on your skateboard in the rain unsure about where to go from there, I honestly think he means it. Or at least you’d better hope so given what comes later in this story.
Chris Jones, Kyron Davis and a few others join throughout the day and are greeted by Niels telling them how much of a fan of their work he is. It’s pretty endearing; he’s a massive skate nerd. He’s watched and remembers anything worth watching, and makes educated decisions on what he’s going to film accordingly. If it seems like he always manages to come up with the trick for the spot, it’s because he already has the back catalogue of what’s been done there downloaded in his head. His move at the Royal Albert Hall spot is the ultimate example for me, especially in wider the context of Mark Suciu – a skater Internet neeks rinsed Niels for being too similar to when his footage first started doing the rounds – saying in some Jenkem thing that backside 5-0 back 180 wasn’t a ‘good trick’.
By about a quarter to five enough beverages have been consumed for everyone to collectively give in to the age-old boozy Sunday illusion that weekends in fact do not actually need to end, and just when we start joking about how we all plan on staying right here doing exactly what we’re currently doing for all eternity, Niels pipes up and says: ‘yeah maybe I’ll just go to Route One in the morning’. Confused as to why anyone would want to go to Route One in Covent Garden at any time of the day I press him on the matter, and it turns out that this emergency passport that he’d so desperately needed to get a hold of, had been left there for safe-keeping, because right after getting it done he’d gone for beers in that zone with it still on him. So just to be recap, we’re in a situation where Niels is already a bit pissed, and the one precious document he needs to fly home after weeks and weeks of being on the road is nicely sat in the safe of a shop that’s located on the other side of London, and which of course was closing in just over an hour. Oh, and obviously his flight the next day was way too early for him to stand a chance of catching it if he was to do the mission in the morning, that goes without saying. We alert him of how imminently he’s about to massively blow it, and after a bit more angst- inducing hesitation, we finally say our goodbyes, and off he goes, visibly devastated by the thought of not being ‘allowed’ to stay for just one more pint.
The next time I’d hear from him would be three days later with a text saying that it was a ‘crazy story’ but that yeah, he’d just about made it home in one piece. After a bit of digging around it transpired that after retrieving this emergency passport, rather than heading back to the skate house where he was staying in east London to pack, he’d gone for a few at a pub around the corner from the shop where he knew a skater worked behind the bar, a few turned into quite a few, and he ended up falling asleep not too far from it… And getting his phone and wallet robbed. Never a dull moment.
Now just to be clear, the purpose of me telling this story is not to point fingers at his mashman tendencies, as I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Instead, I’d like to praise the resilience needed to not only come back from that and make it to the airport on time (I’m lost without my phone the second I cross the Thames and I live in London), but also the drive you’d need to have to sort your shit out as soon as you get home, and almost instantly start thinking about the next trip. So, it’s not just ‘why?’, it’s also ‘how?’. But as confusing as I may find his ways, the one thing I have learnt is that you don’t need to understand him to enjoy him. He might convince you that doing a shot of rum before going down to breakfast is a good idea on a skate trip, which it definitely isn’t when you’ve barely slept and you have to have normal adult conversations with sober people who just want to enjoy their croissants, but then he also might, without saying a word, get up and pay the bill for a table full of people he’s essentially just met, simply because of how grateful he is to have been invited to a birthday dinner in a town which isn’t his own. I think his explanation for that last one was something along the lines of ‘I don’t know I just had a really nice evening…’ As I said, never a dull moment. And I’m not going to pretend it’s always easy to keep up with, but I guarantee you’ll miss him the second he’s gone.