STILL A U2 FAN: The Taj Mihelich Interview

(This first appeared in issue 50 of Dig BMX Magazine, about a year and a half ago. I still like it.)

Around the time that Taj Mihelich was featured in issue 1 of Dig BMX Magazine, he was only starting to receive recognition for his powerful and aggressive riding style. We should all know the story from there: boy leaves Michigan for Austin, starts Terrible One with Joe Rich, gets multiple signature shoes from Etnies, takes up bass playing and befriends a dog named Roscoe, all the while still developing his skills on a bike. Naturally, there’s a lot more to the Taj Mihelich story than meets the eye, but Taj’s quiet and self-effacing manner tries not to draw too much attention to himself. Still though, people want to know about Taj Mihelich….
By chance, Taj was interviewed in the first issue of Dig. He just so happened to be riding at a place called Twin Palms in Southern California when Will [Smyth], Ian [Morris], and Nick [Coombes] turned up. They automatically recognized Taj’s riding from an early Baco video, and arranged to do an interview with Taj on that very day. (At the time, the interview was slated to appear in ‘BMX Now,’ which Will worked for.) As luck would have it, BMX Now went under not long after and Will began planning out the first issue of Dig, around an interview he had done with a quiet kid from Michigan named Taj. In the interview, Taj was referred to as having a “weird second name like an Indian restaurant,” and had to fend off questions about smoking cigarettes and breaking his Standard frame.
It’s been a long time since that first interview with Taj, and though he’s become an almost integral part of the magazine, he’s somehow managed to avoid a follow-up interview, until now. I caught up with Taj late in November of 2005 over iChat and forced him to answer questions about his life, his perspective and of course, his affinity for U2.
Taj Mihelich is a big part of the reason why Dig is the way it is, and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for simply picking up a bike and doing things his own way. Thanks Taj….

So do you still like U2?
Taj: I knew that was coming. I like the same albums I liked back then, yes… ‘War’ and ‘Boy’ are still good to dig out once in a while.

So what were your feelings about being interviewed in the first issue of Dig?
Taj: At the time, it was sort of overwhelming. It happened during my first ever visit to California and I had gone out there for an interview in Ride US. I would have never guessed that anyone would have wanted to interview me riding my bike back in Michigan (or that someone from Northern Ireland would have any idea who I was). When the interview came out it looked like I was such a rock star. There was literlally big stars in the headline.

Does coverage freak you out then?
Taj: No, not really. I’m sort of used to it now. I’ve kind of come to terms with how it is to be “in the media” if that makes sense. People can’t see the “real” you from little snippets of interviews or whatever, so you just have to take it all with a grain of salt. Back then though, it was a lot. It was all unexpected. I just had my head down riding, no idea what was going on in the industry of BMX. All of a sudden things started dropping into my lap (sponsors, coverage, travel). It was a fun rush.

So you didn’t read magazines or watch videos then?
Taj: Oh yeah, I read and watched everything I could, I just never saw any relationship to the pros and riders in those things to myself. I never imagined that I would be there someday. To me, the stuff in mags and videos were unreal and beyond my ability.

And what level did you think you were at?
Taj: That’s what I guess I didn’t think about much. You know, I just rode and rode and rode. I didn’t really think of comparing myself to everyone else. I just
wanted to learn things. Stuff I saw other people do, or stuff I made up. Whatever I could do on my bike was interesting to me.

Going back a little, you said that people can’t see the ‘real you’ from coverage, but do you also think that the real you can come through in your riding?
Taj: I do if they are open to it. I have always thought that is what makes a great rider great. They find a way to put themselves into their riding… express themselves in a way. Not super literally of course, like you can’t really tell what Mikey Atiken’s politcal beliefs are by how he rides. I think the good riders can put some unique spin on everything they do that comes from who they are and how they think. I could go on all night philosophizing on this one…

Feel free to philosophize some more if you want to then…. How do you think your perspective towards BMX has changed from your first Dig interview to now?
Taj: Of course, some people can’t see this and only see tricks or whatever. But if you’ve ridden a while and you are aware of what’s going on, you can identify the guys with something special going on compared to the ones who are just ticking off mechanical tricks.

Like myself, just kidding.
Taj: No, you’re special! My perspective on BMX…. give me a minute on that one. I’ve gotten older and that has changed my perspective. Not just in years because I don’t think that means anything, but my mind has grown in a lot of ways (and I hope good ways). When I got my first interview, I was utterly consumed with BMX. That was all there was in my life. Nothing else had any hold on me. You know, I would meet a girl and the first thing I would tell her was that BMX was my first priority and not to expect anything from me.
Now, the things that are important to me have changed. BMX is still up there and still a huge part of all my thoughts. However, I have over the last 10 years grown to value other things in my life. Relationships with friends and family are no longer pushed to the background. I’ve allowed my focus to expand to include things like a bike company, playing bass, having a dog and generally having a life outside of BMX. It’s weird to me sometimes to think about how single-minded I was for so long. Opening up my life to other things has been great for me personally and made me happier for sure.

Does that also motivate you to still ride now you think? I don’t think I would still be riding if I didn’t have other outlets in my life over the past 10 years…
Taj: I think it’s made riding funner for me. Or maybe, it’s kept it fun is a better way to say it. I’ve found ways to get my mind and creativity going and it’s a challange to apply it to riding. Spending some time in the studio playing music gets me psyched to ride for sure (and vice versa). How long has it been since that first interview?

12 years
Taj: I’m 32!

I’m 31
Good question there though, what we do isn’t normal for the average person in our age range. How do you explain yourself and your lifestyle if asked by someone that’s not into BMX?
Taj: If it’s the casual “What do you do,” I always say I ride bikes around and do tricks. If the conversation goes deeper then that, I end up with a long-winded explanation about following what I enjoyed, being lucky, and having it work out.

Do you ever feel strange being your age and still doing what you do?
Taj: Not really, but then again, I live in Austin and being 32 on a little bike isn’t at all out of place. I’m sure how comfortable this place is for BMXers is a big part of why I love it here.

Do you ever see yourself living anywhere else?
Yes. Probably not while riding is still on top. Someday, I’ll move somewhere else just for a change, but I don’t know when. I think sometimes that after riding (whenever that is) I’d like to live in the woods with snow and stuff and go to school. Get out of the city.

Sandy says that the city freaks you out sometimes.
Taj: Big cities like New York can be way too much for me sometimes. I get a little anxiety being in crowds sometimes. I’ve been working a lot on that though (it’s a confidence thing for sure) and I’m doing better. Still though, every time I go out camping or say out to Woodward and just have a quiet night looking at the stars, it makes me think that I need to get back to enjoying simpler things. Sometimes emails and gadgets and DVDs and random crap absorbs me to the point where I forget how nice it is to just sit on a porch and watch animals creep around in the woods.

Did you recently take a step back from working fulltime at T-1 to focus more on riding?
Taj: This one is a can of worms. It’ll take me a while to explain it all, but here is comes…. This summer I decided to take a leave from T-1. I find that I’m not very good at stopping work when the work day is over. It would get to the point where I was working all day at T-1 and then taking my laptop home and working all night, ignoring everything else in my life. With the support of Joe and the guys here, I have stepped back for a while to enjoy riding and just being a lazy BMXer bum for a while. Its quite nice!

Speaking of T-1 though, did you ever think it would become the entity it now is?
Taj: I think I always did see it being this way. I see so much more for it too, but we’ll have to see what happens. It’s just so personal for us, you know, it’s just an extension of us.

From Tom at Empire: Taj, if you had to quantify the significance of Stella Artois to the BMX hiearchy, given the current state of GWB’s monetary policy (i.e. what me worry?), would you estimate the qualifications of pedophile wheelbuilders at approximately 4.20% of GDP per capita of 69 units of douchebaggery?
Taj: As for Tom’s question tell him to stay in the Tight Setup section. Tina is messaging me on another window telling me to join Myspace to meet ladies. (Editor’s note: Taj took up Tina’s advice and set up a Myspace account, but got completely embarassed and self-conscious about it before deleting it 24 hours later.)

Sorry, I just told Tom what I was doing and he demanded your screenname. Don’t worry, he’s not on often, only when he’s drunk usually. Anyway, are you afraid of flying?
Taj: Not so much anymore. I’ve kind of dealt with it. I had this girlfriend for a while who was deathly afraid of flying. After flying a few times with her and having her freaking out at every bump it kind of rubbed off. My thing though is that I don’t like being so completely at the will of fate with a bunch of assholes in an uncomfortable seat. I’ve been flying a lot lately and getting bumped up to first class. When I’m in first class in a big comfortable seat, I’m ready to die and I don’t even sweat it!

So as long as you’re comfortable, it doesn’t matter….
Taj: When there’s some fat dude bleeding into my seat on the left, and some screaming baby looking over the seat at me, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

Are you a people-phobe then?
Taj: No, I just get a little shy around new people sometimes. I always prefer to deal with people one on one.

What’s an average day for you now like compared with you at the time of your first Dig interview?
Taj: I can’t even remember what I was doing back then. Working at Albes I think… Back then it was work enough to live and then ride any chance I got outside of that. For a while I lived in Michigan then and there really wasn’t hardly anything to ride there. Lots of driving and looking forward to any trip to go to some place to ride. Nowadays, it’s ride around Austin, hit up 9th street and T-1. Especially lately being on break from T-1, I’ve been just cruising around a lot. Riding stuff, riding around, stopping here and there. Really, really, relaxed lately.

What was it like growing up where you did? I know you moved out pretty early from home, right?
Taj: Yeah, I moved out pretty early. Looking back it was pretty rough on me I think. I find I’m still occasionally dealing with things from back then. Kind of had a rough time with a step-father who wasn’t always too kind to me. We moved around a lot and even though it was all in the same general area of Michigan, it might as well have been different countries to a little kid. Riding is what kept me alive really. It was the only thing that could get me away from home and the shit I had to deal with there. I stayed to myself a lot and I’m sure that’s where I learned to be shy. It shaped me and pushed me into my wholehearted focus on riding and that has lead me down some great paths, so I won’t knock it much. Michigan sure has a lot more to ride then it did when I lived there though!

What’s your favorite part of riding now compared with 12 years ago?
Taj: Hmmm…. I like… I don’t know. I like just riding I guess. I’m seriosuly happy just riding around town or wherever. I love riding T-1 and the ramp never gets old to me. Riding the jumps is always a good time too.

Do you appreciate your time riding now more than before?
Taj: Put me rolling down the street on my beach cruiser or my BMX and I’m happy.

Or your moped?
Taj: Yeah! That thing is a smile machine… I appreciate riding in different ways for sure. I just signed another Etnies contract that will end when I’m 34. I feel like that may be the last sort of “pro” contract I ever sign. I’m trying hard to enjoy what I do and make the most of it too.

Did you ever think that your dog would end up getting as much coverage as he does?
Taj: Man, he’s got a lot of personality. He brings more of it on himself then people realize. I for sure appreciate him funding me with his shoe sales.

How obsessive are you over your bike setup?
Taj: Not too bad. I have a real good idea of what I like and it’s easy for me to keep it that way. (like where the bars are, how the brakes should feel, how bent I’ll let me wheels get, etc). I like trying new stuff though, so I’m always changing things and testing them out. I think my bikes are always pretty consistent though and I guess I like to paint them a lot.

Are you still rocking the orange bike then?
Taj: No, that was 3 or 4 colors ago. It’s flat camo green now with turquoise bars. but it won’t be for long. I think my rear hub has 13 coats of paint on it or something…

And do you take your bike apart everytime you paint it? Aren’t you ever worried about the excess paint’s weight?
Taj: No, tape stuff off sometimes… brakes work terrible on painted rims. no worries about weight!

Were you ever? I was until I put ti bolts into my stem and realized that I wasn’t any better of a bike rider…
Taj: I’ve always been weight conscious. Even back 12 years ago, I would run race wheels when I could. However, back then, there just wasn’t the technology for your bike to be too light. You couldn’t even buy a double-walled 36 holed rim. The race wheels I would use would last a week or two. Strength and keeping your bike from breaking took priority over weight. Nowadays, it’s really the same for me. I keep my bike as strong and safe as I can, but I also try to not have any unneeded excess weight. I weigh 210 so I can’t have it be too sketchy and flimsy.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the BMX industry, and additionally the new technology available today?
Taj: In general I think it’s great. I believe that it’s allowed for a whole new generation of younger riders to get really good. When bikes all weighed 40 pounds plus, a younger rider couldn’t do crap on them until he got older and strong enough to move the bike around. Knocking 10 pounds of a bike is a huge deal and now you see a lot more young dudes shredding. I think the tech side of it is dangerous too because it can get really expensive. The price of a BMX bike is a really important factor in who can start riding. I like the idea and I’m a strong supporter of bikes being loosely standardized. A skateboard is a plank of wood with some trucks and wheels. Almost any brand is fine for any level skater. BMX could either stay in that realm (a simple chromoly frame with 3 pc cranks and decent wheels) or it could get crazy tech and be increasingly more and more expensive (using exotic metals and costly technologies). To me, it’s a balance of what you need for the sake of riding and cost. Not just to you personally, but to the average rider. You know, I experimented with that Ti bike, but I was happy when it didn’t work out. It would be awful if it was really beneficial to have a $3000 BMX frame and then only some people could afford it (and the ones who couldn’t would be missing out on some new level of riding). Luckily, it flexed like crazy and sucked and good old steel is still king.

Can I ask you about the decision you made concerning drinking alcohol, or would you rather not talk about that?
Taj: Growing up there were lots of people close to me getting really screwed up on drugs and alchohol. I could see nothing good in them. I avoided them almost altogether. I’ve never smoked weed or anything like that, never touched a cigarette. I tasted alcohol, but never got drunk or had more then part of a beer. Probably last year was the first time I ever really drank more then 2 beers. I got really dizzy and fell asleep. Lately I’ve been more relaxed about it and I’ve realized that by having one beer or glass of wine here and there I probably won’t instantly turn into a raging alcoholic. Truthfully I believe that a little alcohol is probably good for you health wise, but it can be awfully abused by a lot of people.
Additionally, my mom was always really open with drugs and alcohol. She had tried a lot of it and would talk about it as a fact of life. I think that helped me too, it didn’t seem cool to me because it wasn’t taboo, it was out in the open.

Are you happy with how your life around BMX has transpired? Or are there any things you would’ve done different?
Taj: Yes. I am happy. No regrets at all. I appreciate how lucky I am all the time. Ending up with a less than ordinary perspective on life is incredible.

How do you think your perspective differs from that of the average person?
Taj: Well, it’s too difficult to nail down what the average person is, but for sure, most people haven’t had the chance to take what they loved doing as a child into their adult life (and be paid for it, and travel all over the world, and meet people from everywhere, and test and push themselves all the time).

What have been some motivating factors that helped get you to where you are today?
Taj: Support from the people around me for sure. Friends, family, and riders. I’ve had incredible sponsors who have always helped me so much, but always allowed me to follow my idea of what riding was. I can’t say thanks enough to all of them for that. It takes a lot of faith for a sponsor to send a rider product and money and then be cool with the rider basically just doing whatever he wants. Sticking to my ideals about keeping riding from becoming a “job” that I have to do has always helped too. It’s kept it fun and something that I want to do. Other riders input and support has always been great for me too.

You’ve never felt pressure like you have to ride then if you’re not feeling it?
Taj: Very rarely. I got it just a bit after doing months of shows for Hoffman. I just stopped doing shows though. Otherwise, its been cool. None of my sponsors have every demanded that I do anything (as in competing or whatever).

By the way, I just got a new pair of Roscoes and I keep getting shocks from touching everything metal in my room.
Taj: Put them over your hands.

I won’t be able to masturbate then.
Taj: Good enough for BMX, but not that huh?

I’ve never tried actually. OK, I need to wrap this up, can I ask you a magazine question?
Taj: Yeah, final thoughts always suck to come up with.

What does Dig represent to you?
Taj: I’ve said it before in that one intro I wrote for Dig, but Dig is why I ride. It’s always been the closest to my riding heart so to speak. For me riding has always been so much more then the mechanical action of cycling. It is a lifestyle and it gets in your blood. It changes everything you do, why you do it, and how you see the world. Dig has always tried to tap into that idea and show riding as more then simple mechanics. Lots of times in Dig you see riders who can’t do the craziest tricks in the world and its because there’s so much more to it then that. From the quality of the photo, to the style of the trick, to the character of the person riding it all matters…. Anyway, I think Dig is more than a magazine just like riding is more than pedaling.

Thanks so much for talking.
Taj: Thanks a ton. It’s been good. Have a good night and good night….

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