Back in the Garage with Jesse James

Enjoy this free sample, exclusively from the Gnarly Magazine Mobile App.

By Jeff Alexander

After a lengthy absence, master fabricator and kustom builder Jesse James returns to Discovery+ to relaunch Monster Garage.

James has been a mainstay in kustom kulture since launching West Coast Choppers and was further propelled into stardom thanks to the reality-based show Motorcycle Mania in 2000. James has been the subject of numerous programs produced by Discovery Channel and the lengthy partnership created international, mainstream visibility for kustom kulture. Discovery+ is the platform for James’ Monster Garage reboot and Austin is James’ new headquarters. 

“It’s really a razor’s edge because the audience still has certain expectations, but I don’t want to lean into nostalgia too much. I still want to push myself and raise the bar because there are things I still want to try and share but I also look at it like an old shirt; it may be familiar, but it fits really well,” laughed James.

No stranger to competition, James is very familiar with seeing reality-based programming featuring tight building deadlines, scripted drama, and niche audiences that may be skeptical of Monster Garage’s return. James has weathered storms before, from the debuts and endings of shows such as Jesse James Is a Dead Man and Jesse James: Outlaw Garage which only ran one season but despite some programs running shorter than planned, James continued to earn a loyal audience no matter the medium or title.

“I feel people know that with me there’s a level of authenticity. I don’t believe it’s necessary to have drama or fake scripted bullshit that always makes its way into reality-based shows. I feel it’s a distraction and doesn’t elevate anything. Things obviously break but you have to just roll with it and not let it stall you. I’m not going to be the guy that makes a big deal over the trivial,” stated James.

Hailing from California, James was surrounded with kustom kulture but he cites his parents as giving him an appreciation for vintage, and thanks to their antique business, James learned how contrasting classic craftsmanship was from modern manufacturing.

“I was very lucky to learn about DIY business as my parents were antique dealers. I was around vintage and classic all the time and really had an appreciation for it, the lines, styles, craftsmanship. My uncle was a pinstriper and I did get to meet Ed Roth when I was 15 but remembering, nobody was really into Rat Fink back then at the level people are today,” said James. 

As lowbrow artists earned iconic status over the years, James further embraced the subculture and worked on customizing bicycles before even learning to drive. California had many offshoots of kustom kulture and James was fortunate to be exposed to many builders, as well as artists that became future trailblazers and icons.

“I really loved the art aspect, and I would have some of my stuff painted by Tom Kelly, a well-respected painter. It was a learning experience just to be around him. Now, Von Dutch actually lived in Kelly’s parking lot in his bus and was not legendary just yet, but a lot of people knew his work. I was only 17 at the time and Dutch walked in while I was at the shop to grab a beer. He ended up painting a one-off custom design with a Maltese cross on the fridge right then and there! I actually have that fridge and yes, it still works,” laughed James.

Often called a savvy entrepreneur, James recalled the humble beginnings of West Coast Choppers in 1993. Designing apparel and building bikes in his mother’s garage, James worked to address what he saw was a lack of attention to the fabrication aspect of kustom bikes. James reflected on the start-up.

“I was broke and working to learn on my own, tanks, frames, welding. It took a lot of patience and of course, I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. Evolution takes time but I got there. In regards to kustom choppers, I’m all for rideability and function. Many can be ridden to shows and that’s fine, but those same bikes cannot be ridden for long and don’t handle well. There are a good percentage of builds that can achieve both and I think that’s great!”

James worked to elevate the craft of welding and fabrication and ultimately caught Discovery Channel’s attention, which led to their initial partnership in 2000. Motorcycle Mania was a gamble as viewers can be fickle and given the premise of a show dedicated to the daily life of a motorcycle builder, nobody could predict its reception. The widespread support of his West Coast Choppers apparel was only a glimpse of things to come.

“I was certainly grateful for all the support West Coast Choppers received and I don’t think anybody could foresee just how much Motorcycle Mania would blow up! For me, I felt it was just me doing what I always did and being myself while doing it. Building bikes, working under deadlines, and just doing it as best as I felt I could. I never viewed it as some chance to be a celebrity or whatever,” said James.

Motorcycle Mania catapulted James to stardom and the program became Discovery Channel’s highest-rated show. Celebrity came to James thanks to his high-profile marriage to award-winning actress Sandra Bullock in 2005. The marriage did not last, with drama playing out within the media and the court of public opinion condemned James but ultimately, his relationship with Discovery Channel was unscathed. James penned his autobiography in 2011 offering some details while discussing his difficult upbringing. He commented on his lengthy, positive relationship with Discovery, a relationship he continues to value. 

“I consider myself lucky to have positive, enduring relationships. I continue learning just how important it is. Discovery ran additional Motorcycle Mania installments, which was a good experience. I was also lucky to work with another network (Spike TV) on Jesse James Is A Dead Man where I got to do various stunts and other crazy shit. One time I broke the top of my pelvis, not fun but overall, I enjoyed doing the show and it’s amazing to think of all the crazy things a person will do when offered the right amount of cash,” laughed James. 

With the subsequent spin-off shows, some not lasting longer than anticipated, one could argue James was oversaturating himself, but the loyal fan support proved otherwise. James’ enduring success still comes from Monster Garage and the reboot will certainly come with lofty expectations.

“It’s funny thinking that we’ve been working together for like 21 years yet it’s still hard for me to convince executives of some of my ideas. I know it’s their job to nitpick but at times, it makes me laugh since we’ve had such a long partnership; ‘You just have to trust me.’ I’m really looking forward to new build challenges and getting back to it all,” concluded James.

Instagram: @popeofwelding

West Coast Choppers

Jesse James Firearms Unlimited

Photos courtesy of Discovery+

Leave a comment