Matt Majendie talks to Jesse G James about how an obsession with motorbikes has helped him avoid a life of crime.
Beating a different drum
Motorbikes have taken Jesse G James from life as a bodyguard through nearly a decade of reality TV to war in Iraq and into the arms of a Hollywood A-lister wife with a few other side turns along the way. And the former bad boy, who turned 40 this year, cannot quite believe his luck.
James admits "I never thought I could make a living from bikes," but two wheels just so happened to be his saving grace in the early 1990s when he opened West Coast Choppers from his mum's garage. To date, the business has built 200 custom-made bikes for a host of wealthy and celebrity buyers, including basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and actor Keanu Reeves, enough for James to have moved out of his mum's garage and into state-of-the-art headquarters in Long Beach, California, some time ago.
For the father of three, it marks a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. The first to admit he was no success at school, he was more concerned with "trying to be a tough guy" rather than anything else and has previously acted as a bodyguard for a string of heavy metal bands. "To start with, it was all pretty cool as I was just 18 years old and on the road with a rock band," he recalled, "but it got really old after just a year. And I went from wanting to protect the band to wanting to kill these guys myself. I'd had enough."
Hating his job, he wracked his brain for ways to earn a new living and his only option was the one thing he was good at at school - metal work. "I've no idea why but from a young age I've always been good at working with my hands, and metal work has just come naturally," he says. "I realised pretty early that it was something I was good at and it was pretty much the only thing that kept me in school.
"But that department got shut down at school for political reasons and, rather than giving up on it, it made me even more determined to succeed. And in time, making bikes became my first love." James admits that motorbikes probably became the obsession as his parents were so against it. His father had a passion for motoring but loved hot rods, not bikes, although his path occasionally crossed with members of the Hell's Angels.
A young and impressionable James was hooked immediately and, by the age of 15, had managed to get his first motorbike, a Harley- Davidson 46. From that point on, he got increasingly keen on building his own bikes, a passion he did not properly realise until quitting his role as a bodyguard in his early twenties. "I never had any great ambitions from building bikes, I just thought it was cool making stuff," he says, "and I still do. I've done it for 18 years, seven days a week and I love it. It's given me so many rewards."
The first custom bike to come out of West County Choppers is still etched on the mind of its creator and he has spent the last few months trying to track it down but, so far, unsuccessfully. He denies it is his favourite bike. "My favourite is always the one I'm working on at the time, and usually my least favourite as well!" But there is clearly a major case of sentimentality for West Coast Choppers' original.
"I sold it to a collector from Japan but haven't heard anything about it since," he says. "If someone reads this who knows its whereabouts, I'd love to know. It's a great bike." Without motorbikes, James says he is clueless to imagine where he might be. He was strongly down a path of crime, which included stealing the Porsche of Olympic figure skating gold medallist Scott Hamilton when he was in his teens.
James has since apologised to the former skater when the pair teamed up on American reality TV show The Apprentice earlier this year and is repentant for his past misdemeanours, but refuses to go into any more detail. "The Scott Hamilton thing was bad and that was the reason I did The Apprentice, so I could say sorry," he says, "but unfortunately it's not the worst thing I've ever done. It's probably about eighth on the ten worst things I've ever done list, but I'm not about to go it details about the seven above it before you ask.
"I'm not proud of those things and I've tried to make amends with the opportunities I've been given since." Those opportunities include a raft of television shows, including The Apprentice, Motorcycle Mania, Monster Garage, Iraq Confidential and, most recently, Jesse James is a Dead Man, in which he performed a series of death-defying stunts on camera. Despite his TV commitments, he says his work time is split "60-40, 60 per cent building bikes and 40 per cent with other stuff, and it will always be that way as the bikes just come first for me".
When it comes to ideas for those bikes, West Coast Choppers' founder likes to take inspiration from pretty much everything he can. "I find I'm absorbing stuff all the time and thinking about new ideas from anything I look at," he says. "But there are times when you just can't get inspired, a bit like writer's block or builder's block or something like that. "And that's a scary place to be, as when it happens it feels like you're never going to figure it out, but I always seem to get there in the end.
"When it comes to finishing the bike, I'm always happy to hand it over, as I've usually put so much into it. I guess I've never produced the perfect bike and that's the way it should be. It always feels like I've left something off which is important as you don't want to squeeze too much onto a bike." One person that has helped inspire James is his wife, the actress Sandra Bullock, and the couple's 2005 marriage can also be credited to James' passion for motorbikes.
While working on Monster Garage, Bullock arranged a tour for herself and her ten-year-old godson during filming, and the pair immediately hit it off. Bad boy James and the clean-cut Bullock might seem an unlikely match, but James insists they're the perfect combination. "She's my dream girl and I don't see her like this big celebrity," he says. "I'm lucky I've met her and we've got a lot in common - we ride out on our bikes together when we can. Life's pretty sweet."
Other inspiration is even more varied. James recently returned from Israel where he worked with an ageing blacksmith revered as one of the best in the business in a bid to further fine-tune his metal work skills. "It was pretty humbling really," he says. "This was just an old dude who didn't have a clue who I was, nor did he care, but the way he worked with his hands was incredible. He made me feel like an absolute amateur - like I've still got a lot to learn."
James has been using his newly learnt techniques to work on West Coast Choppers' latest creations. But for him, the overriding factor of building a bike, each one of which takes between six months and three years, is getting into the psyche of the client, whether it's a star or an unheard-of customer willing to stump up the five-plus-figure sum for the handiwork. "I really try to get an idea of what a guy wants from the word go and then I'm afraid I turn into a bit of a stalker," he says. "I keep on sending e-mails about this and that to make sure I get it just right, which is the aim. Then there's the great feeling at the end of it to see their faces when I unveil the bike. That's such a buzz."
James' bikes could soon be seen in the Middle East with recent approaches from buyers in Bahrain and Dubai. "I've not done a bike for any guys out there yet but it looks like it might happen," he says. "There was talk of opening a franchise out in Dubai but that's not really my thing. It's about doing the perfect bike for the individual and hopefully I'll be able to do that for someone out in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or wherever as long as they can buy into what we're doing."
James also has plans to take his welding skills around the rest of the globe, with the Sudan being a surprise first choice on his places to visit. He has already been given White House clearance to travel there, where he aims to "in some part, help people out there". "I'm not like Malcolm Forbes that I don't have to work, but I like the idea that I've been lucky enough to be able to help some people," he says. "I'm not sure how much I can do, but they have bridges made of steel out there that are rusted to pieces which is the only way to get food and water to communities out there. And thankfully I can weld anything so hopefully I can head out there and help."
The heavily built James is likely to get some strange looks while out in Africa, but the idea of the unusual and standing out from the crowd still drives the motorbike nut. "I think most of what I've done has been to prove people that I can do things they say I can't," he says, "whether that was metal work at school, riding bikes or travelling out to the Sudan." Monster Garage, starring Jesse James, is shown on MBC Action firstname.lastname@example.org