Text: Tim Davies
Photo: Max Threlfall
With their Gorilla Punch in 2008 the WRENCHMONKEES finally catapulted themselves into the European Customizer olympic. While many rebuilders rely on flashy aspects, the Danes are known for their reserved style. During our visit to the Copenhagen workshop, Nicholas Bech and Per Nielsen tell us why we never get a wrenchmonkee bike with chrome.
The Danes are different. They take honesty very seriously and dislike phoniness and artificiality. The Danish film movement Dogma excluded the use of special effects or elaborate technology. Dogma directors avoided using artificial lighting, added music or even mentioning the director's name in the credits. The idea was to return to the simple basic values of film making. Replace the word 'film' with 'motorcycle' and I wondered if this could be the design philosophy of the Wrenchmonkees. Their style is unmistakable. It is the motorcycle manifestation of Scandinavian minimalism - monochrome, masculine, understated. The bikes have clear lines and tough surfaces. Adding to the Monkees iconic status, they've been around since the beginning of the new wave of custom bikes. That's 8 years – more than twice as long as the Sex Pistols and nearly as long as the Beatles. Wrenchmonkee #11 Gorilla Punch is in a museum. We went to their workshop in Copenhagen to find out how they do it.
Craftrad - There are a lot of new custom builders and quite a few of them have copied you. It is harder to get noticed with a new build? When you look at El Solitario with his theatrical bikes or the art deco, sci-fi style of Shinya Kimura or even Roland Sands who makes sport custom bikes with a sprinkling of good ol' California bling, don't you feel some pressure to produce a something dramatic or outrageous?
Nicholas - no
Per - no
Craftrad - that doesn't interest you? Nicholas - It's interesting when they do it. We understand David's bikes, they express his personality, his style, his drama and Roland Sand's bikes are like that because he comes from the LA custom scene where the sun is shining all the time. Nobody would believe us if we did that.
Per - The best builders show their character in their bikes.
Nihcolas - if you made a line of custom bikes not knowing who built them and then met the builders you could usually say who built which bike.
Per - There are lots of little custom shops in Europe trying to break into the scene, but if they don't have an attitude, a conviction, about what they are doing, then they will end up as followers. They will be chasing trends. It's not that we think we are leaders, but we are being true to our character.
Craftrad - So how would you describe your character?
Nicholas - In some ways we are really Danish. We don't like to stand out too much. Danish furniture design is not showy. We were a nation of farmers, everybody made their own furniture – a chair should be a chair not a pedestal, it should be good to sit on – sit down, shut up and eat your dinner and should last and look good for the next 50 years. Our bikes and our Wrenchmonkees clothing should be like this – they reflect our world. Consistency and honesty are important. Apparel design is a good example – if you buy well designed work clothes, or gloves they will always look good. We don't want to follow fashion. Of course we are changing but we are doing it in very small steps and you can jump on our train and see where we're coming from and we want to take you with us in the future.
Per - we may have taken some side roads now and then, but the idea was always the same. We are even darker and more monochrome than we've ever been before – not as a statement – this is how we are, this is what we really like. It doesn't have to be black or matte black but we like to play with subtle colours because we see the bike as a whole and we don't want one element, like say the tank, to dominate. We want them to be timeless.
Nicholas - They have clear, simple lines, but you have to put in a lot of thought to create a minimal motorcycle. We have been refining our design all the time.
Per - It's not about finding new ideas, but more about refining our initial ideas. We've got better at solving problems. not all of our early bikes was really well made. It was kind of ironic, but the first version of Gorilla Punch, the bike that put us on the map, looked really good on the pictures but it drove like shit. The handling was awful, the engine didn't run properly, the electrics were useless. When we built it we were a 2 year old shop. We had no money. Before that we had been doing 3000€ builds. Our client was a museum and we wanted to make a statement. We put 12000€ into the project and the bike was sponsored by our bike parts dealer who gave us the frame, engine and stuff. Before we handed it over to the client we had to rebuild it completely.
Craftrad - For many people that would be your most iconic design.
Per - Yes it was strange for us. Pictures of the bike appeared on T-shirts and posters and lots of people built their own version. It felt like our fame, if you want to call it that, overtook where we really were. We didn't thing we were building the best bikes. We didn't have the time or the money to sit around in the work shop planning the perfect bike. We had to work fast to get enough money just to live. So although we we were pleased that everyone liked what we built, we weren't in the position to enjoy the success. It was very stressful. We felt that the bike was really not good enough.
Craftrad – the pictures and the reality were two different worlds?
Per – yes because Nicholas took the photos he could really show what we were trying to do, but if the bike had been tested by a magazine they would have been horrified.
Nicholas – we were suprised by our own success. We hadn't done it to be famous, we build each bike as well as we can, so that someone will pay us so we can build the next one.
Per – Nicolas loves being behind the camera, not in front of it. We got quite annoyed by all the journalists asking questions about us, it takes so much time and it's not about us for god's sake, it's about the bikes, They always wanted to know about our design philosophy as though we had a big plan. It didn't happen like that. We had no money. We couldn't even plan for six months ahead. We depended on someone coming in to order a bike or buy a fender to pay the next months rent.
Nicholas – some people love the idea of being famous, iconic bike builders, we prefer our bikes to be shown, it's not about us personally. I would just like to hide.
Per – or wear masks so they can't recognise us.
Craftrad - that sounds very northern European – like Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, first become famous and then hide away. As though it were almost embarrassing being famous.
Per – We have the Danish Janteloven - the rule that you are not to think you are anything special, it's more about the community than the individual, having a big car or trying to be the center of attention is not cool in Denmark.
Nicolas – it's not that we think of that conciously, but it's in our DNA.
Per – And it gets into the design too - we don't want our bikes or our Wrenchmonkees clothing to shout „look at me“. Craftrad – that's a very strong statement for a custom builder – a lot of people would probably think that grabbing attention was the whole point of building a bike.
Per – Sure we want people to find our bikes beautiful, but we don't want them to scream for attention. Remember, attracting attention can get you in trouble. If people are watching you all the time, you lose your freedom. If your bike is covered in bling bling and has a pink tank the police notice you. You have to ride more carefully, your bike has to be legal. As long as you are like the dark knight, you can slip through the shadows and disappear.
Nicholas – I've done that several times.
Craftrad – you don't have many shiny bits on your bikes – is that to avoid attracting attention?
Per – yes we like to stay under the radar. And we like a bike to have a complete look. If one part is shiny it it doesn't blend in, it looks bolted on. So we attack the shiny surfaces with Scotchbrite, sand blasting, paint. And we don't like chrome it's too cold. Polished stainless steel is warmer – we like our bikes to be warm, we want to embrace our bikes (laughing). Chrome is like ice. We want our bikes to have some fire. We use brass details because that also has warmth without being flashy.
Nicolas – Brass ages well, it has a dull glow. Chrome is just flashy.
Per - There is something girly about chrome - it's like jewelry Craftrad – Yes, your bikes are quite masculine.
Per – Because we are so feminine (laughs). It's not about masculine or feminine. It's about chrome being fake. It has no function.
Nicholas – Flashy is almost too easy, you can paint a tank a bright colour and it seems to change the look of the bike, but it's just a trick. I think it is a challenge to make something subtle into something special. Our bikes don't look very different, but they do look different – what's the secret?
Per – People say to us, „you've just changed the seat.“ Yes.... and the wheels and the exhaust and the suspension and the lights...Sometimes they try to copy our work but they don't understand the details and they think if they change the tank and the tires it will look like a Wrenchmonkee. People who really understand bikes see what we do and appreciate it. And people who take their time and really get close enough and really look can discover the secrets, but it's never one factor that makes the design – it's the way all the elements work together, so it's one integrated design.
Nicolas – that is the trouble with CNC parts. We like their strength and functionality, but they look too perfect, they look cold and alien on an old bike. We sell our own CNC made engine cases but after they've been machined the edges are too sharp and shiny, so we sandblast them to make them smooth and round.
Craftrad – I really like your fork yokes - they have a simple pure old school look. How do you make them?
Per – They are CNC parts that we sand blast and sometimes paint, and they have TÜV. They are actually really modern high-end parts. And they are expensive.
Nicholas – the problem is that we have to find the right clients who want to buy something this expensive, but that doesn't look this expensive.
Per – Customers like that don't buy our parts to show off – they do it for themselves because they like it. But there aren't many customers like that. So it is hard for us to sell a bike for 30,000€ and that is how much a bike would cost if we could build it exactly how we wanted without any compromises. It would be easier to sell at that price if our bikes had more bling, were more showy. But like we said before, that just isn't interesting and it isn't our style. Nicholas -This is where Yamaha comes in. Shun Miyazawa got us involved in the Yard build project. Yamaha pay us enough money to make a beautiful build and they don't try and influence the design process. They want us to make a real Monkee bikes. The XJR 1300 fitted perfectly into our style – we like Japanese muscle bikes. They also encourage us to make bolt-on parts for the standard bike. When it's finished, they show it to journalists, make an online video and take it to shows around the world. It helps us to reach a far wider public. The Yardbuild project is really good for us and for other builders, It allows us to plan ahead and we can produce the bike we want without worrying if it's street legal in France or Switzerland.
I was going to ask them more questions about their expanding clothing line (check it out www.wrenchmonkees.com), but Nicolas and Per are not really salesmen and I could see that they were getting bored with the interview process. We'd already talked about taking some riding photos and amazingly in the middle of February in Copenhagen the sun came out and the energy in the room shot up. The Monkeeboys got the big Monkeefist warmed up and Per threw on his riding gear – naturally all WM branded kit. Nicolas drove us down to the water with Per gassing past us while Max the cameraman hung out of the window trying to catch the moment. Seeing Per, the Dark Rider on the monumental Yardbuild Yammy doing a rolling burn-out, and hearing every one of its 130 something horses snorting through the stubby Spark cans as they try to deconstruct the rear tire, you are very aware of two things: one that it's all about riding and two that understatement is relative. Who was it who founded Dogma?
Yes, Lars von Trier, another quiet, understated Dane.