Where man and machine are one
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2016)
Every man dreams of fingering his own oily motorbike in order to make it his own custom machine. Imagine a cool garage somewhere at a beach where the sun shines and waves crash on the sand, and where the surfboard leans against the wall as it only waits to be attached to the motorbike to drive off to the next ideal surf spot.
For Deus Ex Machina, this is not a dream. The legendary custom bike brand’s locations are any motorbike fan’s mecca. These are no workshops hidden away in dark courtyards - on the contrary. It is at some of the world’s most beautiful spots where Deus Ex Machina upgrades - inspired by Japanese classics - modern motorcycles to highly individual dream bikes and handmade café racers. Its flagship locations in Australia, Bali, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Milan are hip motorcycle manufacturers with illustrious names such as ‘House of Simple Pleasures’ and often have a café, restaurant, shop, gallery or design studio attached. They have long become most popular hangouts for enthusiastic petrol heads, surfers, celebrities and hipsters of any kind alike.
Dare Jennings founded Deus Ex Machina in Sidney in 2005 after he had already changed Australian surf culture with Mambo, his surfing company whose t-shirts became must-have fashion items worldwide. At the peak of Mambo’s success, when even the Australian athletes wore their t-shirts at the 2000 Olympics, Jennings sold his brand and devoted himself to his passion for motorcycles which have turned into global cult objects by now as well. In conversation with Dare Jennings, we too were able to indulge in our gusto for legendary motorcycle brands.
Dare, you had two major successful businesses with Mambo and Deus Ex Machina. What do you think, was it intuition, luck or being in the right place at the right time?
I would say that what I’ve always done is stick with things that I know and care about. Perhaps that’s why those two things have worked out quite well.
What makes Deus Ex Machina motorcycles so very special?
I think people relate to it because there’s a strong sense of passion and enthusiasm in what it is. Because we are a very inclusive company, we’re not exclusive, and we encourage people to come and learn about new things that they might not have known about. And I think this comes from the fact that in the sixties the way I was brought up was quite different to the way people are brought up now, and it was a matter of course that you fix things like cars and motorbikes and things, whereas now, this is not a given and people need to come and learn about it. People want to learn how to fix and make things, everything is so easy and simple now, the idea of fixing something is to just buy a new part and bolt it on, whereas this is trying to work with things and understand how things actually function. Also because, while we are ostensibly a motorcycle company, we’re also actually a surf and a bicycle company - we have a great passion for art, for food, for clothing, all these things. I think people also like us because we’re a sum of the parts sort of company, all the pieces come together to create a sum of the whole.
Deus Ex Machina is combining the romantic era of old school motorcycling and surfing with a bit of new age cool. Is it all about nostalgia? How do you keep your brand in the here and now?
Being in my sixties, I’m shit scared of nostalgia, however, what we’re actually referencing is a time when things were simpler and things were more accessible and easier to work with. It isn’t about nostalgia and just trying to remember the past. This all comes from when I first went to Japan, and I saw young Japanese guys, very stylish Japanese guys, who were fixing old motorbikes or referencing 50s and 60s motorcycling. And how it struck me it wasn’t sad old guys reminiscing, it was young guys doing things in a very contemporary manner although they were dealing with old school references, but the combination of the two made it contemporary. Referencing the past but doing it in a way that is now.
How many average hours of craftsmanship work are put in a regular motorbike to transform it into a Deus Ex Machina bike?
This is one of those things that is how long is a piece of string? Some things are very simple and some things are very complex, and again we’re not trying to build the most complicated motorbike in the world; for me, a kid with an old CB250 who wants to put on some new handlebars and a muffler is just as interesting as somebody who spends 100 grand on building some kind of extraordinary thing. It’s all ok, it’s all cool.
Deus Ex Machina is not the only company in the world selling expensive bikes. But I have read the only one losing money on it. Can’t you make money with customised bikes unique like that?
What I have discovered is that it's pretty much impossible to make money out of customising motorbikes unless you’re selling to an incredibly high-end person, and even if you’re selling incredibly high-end, you still have to put a whole lot of work into it. But we do it more out of enthusiasm and we’ve created other businesses around customising motorcycles with more accessible cash flow like apparel which helps us support the whole idea. When you can go and buy a brand new Ducati for 25 grand, and if you’re going to do any work to a motorbike, you will end up spending a couple of weeks which will end up being 100 hours, and in reality, a commercial workshop has to invoice its time out a $100 an hour, so you can do the maths. It just adds up so quickly, let alone the bike, let alone the parts, let alone making a profit. I figured this out a long time ago. Look, if it’s one guy working in a shed by himself, then he can justify the time he’s spent doing it. The only way you can streamline it is to make models and build five at a time and all that. To me, it’s about art as much as it's about mechanics, it's where both fields make a happy relationship.
Today Deus Ex Machina runs different locations all over the world. Why does the idea work globally, what do you think?
I would like to think that it works globally because the idea of dicking around with things is a global idea. For us, we’re in the developing worlds of Indonesia and Thailand, we see that people are just as enthusiastic as people in California, Australia or Europe. It is just doing what you can with what you’ve got. We do our event called the Bike Build Off where we encourage people to do the most with least. That’s really important to the business.
After Australia, Bali, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Milan – what is the next location where we will find a Deus Ex Machina flagship store?
Hopefully, there will be more, we’re working on a place in Bangkok at the moment. This city has a great motorcycle culture, a great fashion culture, a great food culture, so that should be the next one. We have offers from all over the place, South Africa is another one that is close to being accepted. But we just have to be careful because the world is a big place, and once you start wandering around, trying to look at all these things, it takes up a lot of time.
Motorcycles and surfboards are only one part of the Deus Ex Machina brand. You have bicycles, shops, restaurants, books, films, clothing and accessories, art pieces. Is this a kind of holistic approach?
The approach that we take is that it’s our business, and if we’re excited about it, we’ll do it. We don’t want to be told what we’re allowed to do, what we can and can’t do. When we first started, we did motorbikes, and people said ‘nah no-one wants to buy those kind of motorbikes’, but they did. Then we started to build bicycles, and everyone said ‘no, bicycles and motorcycles don’t work together’, and I said ‘well they do because we like them’, and we did it and now, of course, it’s natural for it to happen. And we started bringing surf in because we’re Australians and we go surfing, and everyone said ‘they’re two independent cultures, they do not coexist’, but of course we proved that point and now we can do it. We’re now working with these guys in California called “Luftgekühlt”, and we do these events with air cooled porches. So basically, if we want to do it, we’ll do it, and we don’t need to ask permission. We trust our instincts, we don’t need to do market research to see if it’s ok.
You’ve already launched several books in Germany together with “Gestalten” (‘The Ride 2nd Gear’, ‘Surf Odyssey’). And a few months ago, your new film ‘South to Sian’ came out. Do the books and the film present what the “soul” of Deus Ex Machina is?
‘South to Sian’ was a great project because it was about guys in an old Land Rover with some motorbike and surfboards driving through the archipelago of Indonesia. We made it because we have our place in Bali, we’re very close to all of that. It certainly does present the soul of Deus, but it’s not the only manifestation of it, it is one of the manifestations, and a great one. But it doesn’t totally define who we are, and we reserve the right to go off in other directions if we feel like it. It was the soul of Deus in that it is about adventure, it’s about old school surfing, it’s about old school motorbikes and all those things coming together in the most extraordinarily exotic location. It’s an adventure film. I always liked to say it’s like a hip version of National Geographic.
You had the Mambo business, now running an iconic motorcycle and surf brand, and once you had even opened a record company – what was your biggest and most satisfying business success personally?
It’s really a generational thing, at the time, Mambo was pretty good that was a very original business, it was very successful - so well done on that score. But then again, Deus came into another era and drew on different sorts of ideas and different inputs, and it’s been incredibly satisfying over the 10 years to watch Deus build up and be appreciated around the world. They’re like all your children, you don’t have a favourite one, you’re sort of proud of them all, for whatever they are. Even Phantom Records which was this kind of silly independent label in Sydney we started in the late 70s and in the 80s, you know, it was great fun, we put out some independent records with some really great bands. It was a simple time when it was easier to make it, there was not so much competition. That was pretty cool as well, but they’re all things that relate to the time that you’re in, and times change, so your attitudes and expectations have to change.
You said that the best businesses are the ones where people have followed their passions and intuitions and where money is almost an embarrassing by-product. Is that how you run your business?
That’s a little bit - what’s the word I’m looking for - “glib” because businesses have to be run properly as businesses, and there is a sort of weird sweet spot where a properly run business and a great passion can come together, and that’s the idea. If the business people take over, they will probably crush the passion; if people are way too passionate, the business probably won’t work. But when the two things come together, there is a sweet spot there, that is what you’ve got to work for.
Is there a bike you ever wanted to ride? What would be really fun for you?
For some reason, I always wished I could have had a proper Manx Norton and had a track to ride it on, because they’re pretty hard bikes to ride, but they’re such an evocative motorbike - I think that’s probably one of things I would have liked.
My first business partner in this was a guy who was in the motorcycle industry and he said to me ‘there is always another motorbike’, and as I’m not much of a collector, they tend to come and go, and there is always another motorbike. I actually do believe that you shouldn’t have too many motorbikes and that you should love the one you’re with and learn to ride it and learn what it is. If you’re just jumping from one to the other, you tend to not really appreciate any of them, but you sort of should have one and ride it and enjoy it and get to know it. Like surfboards, like bicycles, like all those things. You could have a whole garage full, but in the end, you can only ride one.
Picture credits © Nic Walker