Alex Barton-Holme, real name ‘Fathead’ picks me up around midday and we make plans to drink a coffee from a little wood stained independent in the Northern end of town and then make our way into the city to get a few riding photos. First I have to remove my bars so my bike can fit in the back seat of his all white 1992 Mercedes Benz with pine wood-dashed interior. I say seats; the rears ones have been removed revealing most of the cars chassis.
After the coffee we search out some local alleyways, nooks or crannies that might present us with something ‘rugged looking’ but we come away empty handed. An hour or two later and we arrive at the University of Leeds. We find a tall odd looking handrail, I shoot a photo of a tire slide and then we sit down with a can each of Dales Pale Ale; an expensive imported beer that comes with a post-diminutive kick due to its percentage. The interview starts around 3pm.
The first question I ask is associated to being misunderstood, because it stems from hanging around with Fathead for the best part of 10 years and understanding what he is really like as a person and what others think of him. I ask him about what he personally thinks everyone else’s perception is of him. “The perception of Fathead is a loud mouth, a wind up merchant but none of it is meant in malice,” he says referring to himself in the third person. He understands that BMX – in its truest form – is full of character, that’s the best part of riding for him and he just doesn’t see enough comedy in BMX, people maybe need to drop their shoulders and relax a bit he believes.
I ask if BMX is stale to him and he goes on to talk about how he directly grew up with BMX. It was at a time when DIY contests and movements were peaking, FBM were throwing these crazy jams abroad and the U.K was a promising epicentre for a ‘no fucks given’ attitude to crafting proper BMX events. “I remember being at these DIY jams and I’d see people like Matt Wakefield in the corner with no top on just jumping into people and I thought to myself – I can probably do that too and it looks like fun”. So in part, maybe Fathead just kept the party going on the mainstream side of things after most of it died out, that’s at least one way to look at it.
“Time has changed though”, he goes on, “Its all part of the evolution of BMX I guess, back then the big PRO’s were the loud and brash guys and now its all flipped upside down, the PRO riders are quiet and reserved”. Obviously he is generalizing here, he mentions riders like Dan Paley who doesn’t hold back when it comes to being loud but he describes this as their character and how that’s part and parcel of a marketable element in BMX. Take Alex Kennedy for example, he is a quiet rider but that’s also what people buy into, that’s what people like about him. “You buy into a character, not into tricks,” he says while rolling a cigarette on the car park floor.
I start to ask about what attracted Fathead to BMX in the first place, what was that first spark that made him want to pursue it further. He never did any team sports, confessing he was just too lazy (I know this first hand as once he played five aside football with me and started to roll a fag half way through the game) and by choosing the path of BMX he thought he was leaving the crowd to do something different.
Back before BMX he was living in a place called Bilton in Harrogate with his father. “I used to hang around with loads of chav kids back then, we used to climb roof tops and throw bin bags off them or just egg people,” he says. “Then one day, as we were probably terrorizing some old people we saw this guy ride past us on a pristine white BMX with all black parts. He stopped and did a foot jam tail whip and it just blew my mind right there”. This moment sounds like it was some kind of spur for what was to come, as if the switch had come down and all he could think about was BMX from that point on. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” he laughs.
After getting a half decent BMX from swapping parts with posh kids he then started to ride with a group of friends pretty regularly. “I somehow got ousted from my riding crew, I think one of the older guys knew I was good and turned everyone against me so that’s when I started to take the train to Leeds on my own”. This is also where I remember Fathead, a small kid with an oversized cranium who could do whoppers with way too much ease. “I was riding Leeds one night and heading to the station to go home where I saw a bunch of guys on bikes” he goes on, “I just asked you (us) all what you were doing and you said you were going to find a rail” he says with a laugh looking back on that naive feeling you had as a kid riding BMX and searching to belong. “This was the time when you went over and introduced yourself as a BMX rider, you didn’t just ride past”. That night he sat twenty feet away from the riders and just watched what they were doing until he got his last train home.
Fatheads first view of conventional BMX was something he coins as “Channel 5 Riding” which is basically mainstream BMX, riders like Jerry Bagley and Stephan Murray riding trails. “I would try to ride like that, like everyone who saw something cool I guess, then I saw the first Animal video and that all went out of the window”. I talk a little about his style of riding, and how that was associated from watching those animal videos. “I don’t know, I just like doing bunny hops and manuals,” he says as he downs the last of the Dales (I should have bought more than two cans).
I enquire a little about his comfort zone, because to me it always looks like he’s 100% in control of his riding but he explains that’s its quite the opposite. “It looks from the outside like I’m in my comfort zone, I’m not though, I’m just enjoying the feel of a hop, the calm of riding I guess. A big 360 or a barspin is great but for me, there’s no better feeling than just tucking your bike”. He goes on to elaborate “I guess that with age you get more comfortable about your bike, it becomes more a part of you, your back end feels connected to you somehow”. I know what he means but I’m still not convinced and I ask him to expand a bit on it. “So if you do a wallride when you are younger then it’s just a wall ride, but as you get older you can make that wallride your own, you can only do that with age”. It’s a simple outlook but it makes sense, he’s talking about pushing the boundaries of even the simplest of tricks, to see what’s reachable within its realms.
From riding with Fathead over many years I’ve noticed that he rarely falls off or lets say he doesn’t seem to go through major injuries like most of us. I ask him about this and if it’s connected to the ‘comfort zone’ theory. “Not being big headed (pun?) but I feel like I mastered a lot of stuff really early on” he says, “I’d spend a lot of time doing the same things, riding rails, riding curbs or hips and I’d just repeat and repeat everything until it became automatic”. He finds the more simplistic things the most pleasing and that reflects his life and how he lives it.
At 27 Fathead has experienced different levels of the BMX industry but never once has he been able to leave a job and ride for a sponsor. In some ways he believes that being a pro can dismantle the fun elements of riding BMX. “I guess if you are being paid to do something then you are going to feel the strain at some point” he says as if its just plain and simple common sense. “Say you go on a trip with all these big time pro’s and that pressure gets to you, then you start to want to ride like them because you think that’s what’s going to work for everyone else so it becomes hard and you sort of forget who you are”. Fathead soon found out that it’s not about keeping up with every rider out there but in fact it’s important to think about the end result and how your style of riding will have an impact when the final piece of content is released. “If the crew is all doing whips then just avoid doing whips, because when the video comes out and you look at the all the footage combined, it will be you who stands out”.
Fathead is probably fitter and healthier than he has ever been, the vegan-ish lifestyle probably none of you knew about seems to be helping him carry on his daily riding routine into his late 20’s with momentum. Age has also had an important influence on his outlook on his own riding as well. “When you start riding you look at a set of steps and just want to do a 360 down them, then when you get older you learn to look at the steps differently, maybe you approach them in a different way, bump up them, dip into them as part of a line, just make it more interesting” he says while making the hand gesture that implies visually the above statement. “As long as you can keep in control of your own BMX evolution then its fine. It's when you start to second guess yourself”.
The conversation drifts to work, something Fathead has done a variety of over his time and due to him owning his own house and paying for a mortgage its not as if he can afford to not work. “Window cleaner right now, I’ve never settled though, never had a job longer than a year, I just like to float about” he says. At one point he was doing three jobs at once and he preferred it as every job was different, maybe because he knows he wont stay long means he can look at it in a different way. Some people tend to look at jobs as prison sentences but all that’s going to do is depress you. “My dad said to me when I was younger, I don’t care what you do as long as you do it right, you can be a bin man for all I care, just do it right”. It was good stable advice from his dad, who used to remove him from school to go sell things round Harrogate, letting him drive the car home and giving him that life experience that you cant get from school.
The cans are gone and the suns dropped behind the buildings that surround us, and I really wanted to know about why his style of riding has changed over the more recent years. “About a year ago I felt my riding was really stale so I took my pegs off, then I couldn’t stand the look of my bike so I put them back on” he says laughing “Then I watched the Geoff Slattery ‘Still United’ Section and I was like - oh right well that’s done really well”. A lot of riders remove their pegs but not that many do it so they can intensify the whole learning curve of riding, I think Fathead didn’t know at first but as time moved on he has learnt more about how to ride than ever before. It’s not for everyone but those who do it well certainly express there true creative aptitudes. “I’m doing it now and that’s that, not sure what will happen later” he says as if to gesture that maybe one day his mind will change again.
“I’ve done all the rail tricks anyway,” he says. He is literally just about to name them and I start to laugh… “Yeah, I’m not going to list them right now”.
We all know Fathead doesn’t mince his words, he doesn’t care if his opinions are printed in forty foot high letters for all to see so I ask him about the general direction of the BMX industry, just to see what he thinks. “I think we have a lot of voices coming from outside BMX, these big name vloggers that young riders are listening to. I think they should be listening to the voices of the riders instead though”. He pauses, takes a drag and then raises his finger. “BMX is being penetrated by those guys but it should be left for the riders to decide how things go. If we go down this whole vlogging route permanently then it will just diminish BMX and things will start to crumble, then everyone will stress about the downfall of BMX. In time it will grow legs and flourish again. It takes some time to wash out all the shit though, its like washing your hair after being on a building site, it takes at least 3 washes to get it clean again”.
Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood - The Fathead Interview is taken from Black & Blue Zine Issue 2 available from the DIG BMX Online Store.