Pro Spotlight: Jeff McKee

Jeff Mckee Pro Spotlight April 2012 | Photo Bryan Soderlind

Words: Shawn Perry Photos:Bryan Soderlind

Jeff McKee just wants to have fun. Now, that may seem like a real carefree ethos to live by, but believe it or not, McKee has an extensive, strategic plan to ensure he has fun for the rest of his life. Sound ridiculous? Well, in some ways it is, but if you think about it, he’s actually spot on. After all, every goal-driven person sets his sights on something. For some, it’s monetary success. For others, family is their focus. Regardless of their motivation, they all have a plan. So why shouldn’t a free-loving, enjoy-life’s-little-pleasures guy like McKee have a game plan for a lifetime of good times? Taking it as it comes is one thing, but McKee’s mantra is a little more vigilant. He’s working hard for his fun. In order to keep up a lifestyle as good as a pro wakeboarder residing in Winter Park, Florida, McKee must remain one step ahead of the pack, constantly staying at the forefront of what’s cool. As a result, sitting down with a guy like McKee can be a real eye-opener. His outlook on the sport is different from most, but his approach to life in general is even more original.

For this interview, how about we skip the "how you got into riding" and all that. For sure. I'm saving that for my autobiography anyway.

That said, your professional career has been pretty unique. How have you approached it? Well, the fun part for me is that it has always been more than just wakeboarding. I was always doing articles for the magazines and being involved with companies like Slingshot a bunch too. They are almost like distractions in a sense, and that keeps my riding fresh. When it's time for me to actually hit the water, I can finally clear my head of deadlines and genius marketing ideas and just focus on the moves.

There are a lot of facets to wakeboarding for you beyond riding, then. Yeah, I've always tried to think beyond being just a rider. I mean, there are a million wakeboarders, and they can all do every single trick, so if you don't have something to offer off the water, you become very disposable. It's almost not even about the tricks as much as it is about the personality or being some sort of standout character in wakeboarding. Personally, I'm not going to be the technical guy who does every spin and flip, but I want to be known for the things I do and be the best at doing them.

Do you take it less seriously? I don't know. I like to make fun of wakeboarding a lot. In the grand scheme of things, we're still a really small sport, and if we take ourselves too seriously people will think we're a bunch of clowns. But if we can joke about things in our sport and laugh at ourselves, we stand a way better chance of really "making it" in the mainstream.

So just have more fun? Exactly. Then people on the outside will understand it and think, "These guys are just as goofy as us — they just happen to live in the middle of the state so they wakeboard instead of surf or snowboard or whatever else." It's awesome to look at other sports and try to get inspiration. I would rather go out and do some sort of different variation of a 180 or something new on that level than be the 12th guy to land an un-grabbed 1080 that just looks hectic.

Well, from the outside looking in, it’s easy to make fun of someone who takes something too seriously, but nobody hates on someone for having fun. Exactly. I’ve never wanted to be that guy who is just a hard ass and takes everything way too seriously. Obviously, there are times when I probably should have taken things more seriously just to keep up. But I’d rather film and make video parts where I can try different things and do whatever I want as opposed to making a trick list to win a contest and not be able to express myself and do the things I think make wakeboarding look most attractive. That’s not what it’s about to me.

What made you decide to live in Winter Park? Well, originally I moved here to go to school at Rollins College. It's right on the lake with a beach out back, and I met my wife Katy there as well.

You actually rode for its club team too, right? Yeah, there was a wakeboard club that I was a part of, but it was sort of a disaster at the time trying to find funding, organize events, etc. I moved over here for school originally, and I guess I just became a huge snob for nice beer, nice restaurants and nice lakes. There are no gators over here because all the rich housewives have them removed, and for the most part the lakes are empty because everyone's out working trying to pay for their lakefront mortgages. And then there's me who lives a mile away from the water and am out every day, loving their beautiful backyards as backdrops. I can escape from the scene when I need to as well, which is great. I don't have to talk and think about wakeboarding all day, every day if I don't want to, which helps keep me from feeling burnt out.

It's not like you're too far from everything, though. No, not at all. I mean, if I lived on the lake it would be sweet because right before dark I could go fish or take a real quick set, but then you're just always home. I like to leave home to go out and get shit done. It's like getting up and going to work in the morning — OK, sometimes it's more like noon — and taking care of business like a real adult, except my office is way more exciting.

It's like people who work out at a gym rather than at home. Yeah, if you were at home you would probably just take one set and be super lazy because you would just say, "Oh, I'll go out later or tomorrow" or whatever. When you're leaving your house to wakeboard, you're putting a bit of effort in so you want to accomplish things and make real progress when you're out there.

You're also into a lot of other stuff. Tell me about your band. We've been kind of slow lately, but last winter we charged it really hard and we're back doing some stuff this winter too. It kind of turns into an offseason thing, because we all get so busy in the summer. But music is awesome because you're never too old to rock. You can go out and see some 70-year-old dude playing at the bar who is still ripping and thinks the ladies love him. One day I'll get there.

So, your music career is in no rush? No, it's endless. The days of wakeboarding are limited physically, you know? Music is something I plan to do forever. I have friends in bands who I've played with before who are now signed and touring and they've mentioned to me about playing with them, so hopefully somewhere down the road there will be opportunities.

Would you pursue it? If that opportunity does present itself, I think that would be rad. Yeah, I would. I actually think my sponsors would be stoked. I'm going to bail and play on the road for a couple months and get back into it after that. I don't know; it's good to be diverse with whatever you're into. I'll always have my drums. There's nothing better than hearing your own music after making a recording. To have Danny Hampson and Aaron Reed use our songs in Washed Up (Before We Were Has Beens) was really sick, and seeing it in the movie was really cool. Then, I was at Surf Expo this year and I kept hearing our band on the setup day when everyone was putting up their booths.

Where was it coming from? I don't know. Someone must have been playing the Devise and Conquer videos or something. And I said to one of the Slingshot dudes, "You hear that, man? That's my band." It was an awesome feeling.

Let's talk about Slingshot. You've played a big part in growing that team and brand. The whole Slingshot thing started right when I graduated college and I was riding for Gator Boards. I was making a paycheck at Gator and everything, but the opportunity with Slingshot really just came at a perfect time for me. If they didn't approach me and I didn't say yes, I might be out of the sport completely just from being fed up with the bullshit of chasing money. It was definitely a risk, you know? Slingshot didn't have any reputation and no one knew what to think. When the president, Jeff Logosz, called me, he just blew me away. He was talking about all the possibilities, and with his passion and the way it builds products, it was enough for me to go out on a limb. It was a chance a lot of riders may never get, so I would have been stupid not to take it. It was risky, and it was a make-or-break-type of decision, but it was also a chance to step into the spotlight as a pioneer of something new that would hopefully change the way the industry thinks. The first time I rode the board was one of the most exciting moments in my 15 years on the water. It was when I knew for sure the decision was right. Finally, someone was pushing boards in the right direction. Up until the arrival of Slingshot, everyone had been making the same shit for forever, and everyone was changing their product just for the sake of changing it. I felt like product design was going backward. People were starting to do things to their wakeboards that was just so ridiculous and unnecessary — molded fins out the wazoo and molded flame designs on the tops. Looking at this gear, all I could think was, "This is why we look like bozos to the rest of the action-sports world." Boards were nothing but another piece of foam wrapped in fiberglass and no innovation. So yeah, as you can tell I'm obviously passionate about the choice I made with Slingshot and now I'm doing everything I can to put them in the spotlight.

Did that rejuvenate you in terms of riding? Totally, but the first time I rode the board I ate shit. I literally got bucked into the air, landed and caught my back edge and was like, "Oh my God." It was crazy, though. Before it was always you and the wake and your board reacting was never a factor. It used to be that your board was just a stiff platform you stood on and now with the flex it added a third factor into the equation. It actually has energy and reacts more to what you're doing. Yeah, I fell on the first jump, but I was smiling ear to ear because it was actually working. At first, no one believed the boards could be any good because they didn't understand how the flex worked. But after the first time I rode one, my goal was to ride the board as best I could to prove these were legit boards. They were not just for rails, and they were not just a fad.

How has it been since? The last couple of years have been awesome because I've been able to help shape the team and our overall direction as the team manager. I see the guys who will help us the most and who we want to have on our team in a perfect world, then we go after them. It's funny because there are people who used to see me coming down to the dock with a "flex board" and were like, "What the hell is that?" Now I get calls from those same people wondering if there's room on our team because their sponsors aren't treating them right. It's funny to see how attitudes and opinions have evolved.

Is this the first year they put your name on the Response? Last year was. Yeah, once we picked up an entire team, no one was riding it. Since I was so hooked on the flex thing above anything else, I figured I'd try to give it some love. I just carved for three whole passes the first time I rode it, basically until my legs were shaking and couldn't take any more. I became hooked on it, and I was the only one riding it on the team for a couple years, so it just kind of became my board. It's been cool. I got to design the graphics last year and this year and while I was working with the art director I was like, "Yeah, and just throw my name on there" (laughs). They did it and were cool with it.

What's up with you being naked a bunch recently? You know, I did that ad for Slingshot and I really didn't think it was that big of a deal and so many people were just like, "What are you thinking?" I got texts from different riders wondering if I'd lost it. I thought it was funny because it's obviously a joke. I've always had a lighthearted attitude toward the sport, so when we were coming up with that graphic for the Response I thought it would be fun to have tasks that people should do just to make their summer more fun. The ad was just one of those put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is-type deals.

So the graphic is like a scavenger hunt? Yeah, and riding naked is the ultimate goal. I think it was Scotty Roberts who people always talked about barefooting naked and all those old-school dudes partying too hard and then riding naked back in the day. I thought to myself how I've never wakeboarded naked and just felt like it should definitely be on the bucket list. I mean, it takes some serious guts to do it, especially during the daytime like I did. And after putting it on the graphic there was no way I could stand on top of the board without doing it myself. When we were doing that shoot for the ad, I knew it was a joke, but the rest of the people on the lake were not in on it. There were a couple fishing boats on the water, and as the boat was turning around I'm just covering my junk with my hands thinking to myself, "I don't ever want to come to this lake again."

Aaron Katen's story from that shoot was pretty funny. Well, I didn't tell him what he was going to be shooting, and he invited Jack Blodgett's sister-in-law to come out on the shoot. She was shadowing Katen to become a photographer or whatever. I didn't want to freak him out and tell him I'd be naked at first because he probably wouldn't have come to the shoot. Then she showed up to assist and it was super awkward. I had to explain that this isn't normal and she probably doesn't want to hang around. It was hilarious.

It wasn't in Winter Park, huh? No, I went to the other side of town so no one would recognize me. Plus, I didn't want to taint my own waters. But, I don't know, I guess it was just a way to portray my attitude toward the sport. Some people land a new trick and give the "I'm the king of the world" look to the camera. Some people are just way too focused on being the shit. You see it in videos a lot, and it's just annoying when people think they're such badasses. When people watch me wakeboard, I'd rather them be entertained and feel that I had a good time. Maybe I won't do every trick, but what I do and the way I react to doing it will hopefully make them want to wakeboard too.

That's the difference. I think people are less inclined to get into a sport if they think they're never going to be able to do something, so why even try? If it just looks like fun, they'll want to do it. I don't want people to look at wakeboarding and think, "These guys think they're way too cool and they do crazy shit and I don't even want to try it."

I think the majority of riders are more self-conscious about their peers and the industry. It seems like you are more self-conscious about the outsiders looking at the sport. Well, for me the only thing our sport is is fun. If you take it too seriously then what's the point? Then it's just your job. Like when someone has good style and makes riding look easy it makes you want to ride, versus some guy hucking something that looks strenuous and straining.

All right, let's get a little uncomfortable. Do you see the fact that you work for a wake publication and you're also a pro rider as a conflict of interest? I mean, yes, I get paid by a wake publication, but beyond me submitting my own articles and trying to do things to entertain the industry, I'm pretty minimally involved. Put it this way: The big decisions don't come from me.

So just because you're on the masthead doesn't mean you're at the helm? Exactly. It's not like I'm at the office. To be honest, it's me at home sitting at my computer thinking of funny stuff we can do with wakeboarders. What would be something to entertain and bring everyone together in a fun way? Let the riders interact without it being a "cool" competition and just have fun being wakeboarders. I don't know, maybe in the public eye it seems like I get more love because of my relationship with the magazine, but the whole sport is based on relationships. I will be completely honest; I was a little surprised when you wanted to do this interview because I thought my ties were too strong for TransWorld to want to support me. At the end of the day, I'm just a wakeboarder trying to make it work and keep doing what I love. It's a small sport, and there isn't a ton of money, so if I can make some freelance cash and have fun with it I'm going to do it. You do what you have to do.

Let's talk about your relationship with your brother, Billy McKee. He's not wakeboarding as a career now. He got out fairly young. He was like 21 or so. It's funny because, yeah, my brother is definitely the reason I got into wakeboarding. He was doing it with his friends, and he is the one who pushed me originally. He was getting good and I landed a few inverts, but I used to get scared of some things. He would be in the boat saying stuff like, "If you don't try a whirly bird today, I'll make you swim in from the middle of the lake."

Really? Yeah, he put a lot of pressure on me because he knew I had potential to be good and in typical older brother style, he would make me sack up and try things. He was always a real business-type guy. At the time he got out of wakeboarding, it wasn't anything like it is now. It was really small, and it was hard to make it work. I think he just got sick of chasing sponsors to try to get money and continue to try to be a pro. Then he went to Utah for a semester to snowboard for a bit, met his wife and that was it. He snowboards and wakeboards still and has a really good business out there. He's always been motivated by success.

What made you stick with it after he left? I don't know, the fact that I was getting better than him; I was pretty excited about that (laughs). And then, once the Slingshot opportunity came along for me it was a little different.

Was that about the same time? Well, there were a few years in between that I stuck with it and then the opportunity arose with Slingshot around the time I graduated and got to the point where it was like, "Get a real job or make this your real job."

If you get hurt too much or there's not enough magazine or contest success, you can become really disposable in this sport. There are certain guys out there who are on top of the tour, but if they were to get injured two years in a row they could go from being heroes to sitting on the curb. So, yeah, I stayed in it because I saw the thing with Slingshot as a career move that was beyond me just being an athlete. I see it as somewhere I can be when I'm done riding and use all my experience and knowledge to help their brand.

It seems like you work that way with Body Glove too. Yeah, Body Glove has been amazing. I think I've been with them for something like 12 years now.

Holy crap. Yeah, I think when I was like 14 was when they first started sending me stuff and talking to us. It's been a long-ass time. We have a close and great relationship, and I think they realize I've seen wakeboarding grow and change for a lot longer than most people who are in it now, which is funny because I like to think I'm still young. People think I'm old because I've been a wakeboarder for so long, but I'm only 26. I'm not that old, but in wakeboarding knowledge and experience, I'm pretty old, I guess.

Where do you want to see your career go? You've kind of taken team manager-type roles already. Well, yes and no. With Body Glove, the whole thing is like one big family in each division, no matter what. Technically, they have a team manager, but if there's a new kid they are thinking about taking on, everyone on the team has input. I've been recommending some younger kids who I think would be really awesome, but everyone has input, and it's never on just one person. Obviously, they have more experience in diving and surfing, so they weigh heavily on us as the wake team to help steer the ship in the right direction. We convinced them to do the video Slick City, which was huge. They had a blast shooting it. It was funny because it was just a bunch of surfers shooting wakeboarding. We would go out and do a butter slide on the wake and they would be like, "Oh, that was sick!" To them it's like a floater on a surfboard or something. It was really fun and refreshing filming with them. As far as where my career goes, I definitely want to keep the ideas flowing. I pioneered the idea of doing the Slingshot video Lipsmack that we're doing. I think it's finally time we do it. I've been putting a lot of my time into that, making sure it's a success. For me, I'd really like to have tricks in there that no one's seen me do and really just charge it. I want to make people think "holy shit." I really want to knock it out of the park with that and then from there, who knows?

So you're kind of the driving force behind Lipsmack?It's been my idea for them to do a video for a while. Really, since we started, but I wanted to make sure we had the right squad of guys before diving into it. I feel like every brand should show their support and commitment to the industry and be proud of their team and want to show everyone what their vibe is. You don't get that out of Web videos. They have such a quick shelf life, and you almost never rewatch them. Obviously, we want to showcase that our boards are good for everything, but we also want everyone to see how creative a team we have. The Shredtown guys do the craziest stuff that has never been seen before, and for the video it's going to be very jib heavy with a lot of rails and stuff. We also have Oli Derome, who is great on rails and super-good off the wake. Lately, as we've been filming, he's blown our minds on some of the park-type stuff. We went to the Philippines and he decided he wanted to land a double flip, so he went out and landed a double flip. It's just cool he's pushing it hard. It's been awesome riding with the entire team and just to be able to travel so much. We've done the Philippines, Canada a couple times, Germany, Texas, the San Juans, Tennessee, Florida and more.

What's the vibe? Does everyone have a part? No parts — team vibe all the way through. There's kind of wake sections and rail sections and sections focused on style-oriented stuff and tech stuff. It's been nice to have the motivation to shoot for a movie and set goals for myself. Hitting different and fun stuff — things people are afraid to hit because people may think they're stupid, like the camel back rail. I say, "Screw it; it's fun!" That's been my main goal: Showcase everyone's personalities. We want people to watch our video and think, "Those dudes are raunchy and weird and I want to hang out with them." We're not trying to make our guys look like untouchable gods, you know? We're just trying to make wakeboarding look fun.

I've always thought the best videos are the ones where you wished you were there during the sessions or on the trips. Yeah, we don't want to make wakeboarding seem like something it's not. It's fun and it's full of characters. We're definitely not going to have a voiceover in our movie describing what wakeboarding means to each of us.

It's kind of a loaded question, but what in wakeboarding frustrates you? The youth in wakeboarding frustrates me right now. I feel like the next generation of riders is being brought up with the wrong goals. They see Harley Clifford doing every trick known to man and that's all they want to do, but their mistake is they move too fast and pay no attention to detail. When they land a 720, they think, "Sweet, now I'm going to do a 900." Instead, they should focus on trying to grab that 720 and bend their knees so they don't look like a taco behind the boat with straight legs and folded in half at the waist. Then there are kids who work with coaches who encourage things like two-handed tantrums and whirlybirds so you have a better chance of landing the ugliest trick of all time. They think it's only about landing the trick, but that's all wrong. It's about what happens in the air, which as of lately seems to be total chaos. If you want an example of someone who is coming up and doing things right, Josh Twelker is my suggestion. Kudos, my friend.

Do you see yourself in the industry after you're done riding? Yes, but not just wakeboarding. I have my eyes on the entire action-sports realm. Whether it be marketing, television stuff or being that one guy who no one knows who he works for and how he makes a living. I'll be there in some way, shape and form. I also have some things on the horizon that will help showcase the art that comes from action sports. It's a business Jeff Logosz and I are in the process of launching called Art of Action.

You basically want to dabble in everything. Yeah, I just want to have a hand everywhere. It's definitely going to be related to things like "How can I go to Hawaii and turn it into business trip?" I've had some really lucky opportunities, and I just want to figure out how to keep this lifestyle rolling.

Do you have any last words? Ride naked before you're done riding.

Put a sock over it. Yeah (laughs).

How many times do you think we said fun in this interview? There's no such thing as too much fun.