Artist in Exile: The Russell Mitchell Interview

Russell Mitchell. Photo by Christian Holzknecht.

 

Expat, ex-vet, ex-model and one time ‘Mr Wonderful’; we ask Russell Mitchell about his colourful life and how he put together Exile Cycles, building the baddest custom motorcycles on the planet. . .

Russell Mitchell has become quite a celebrity in the custom motorcycle world. Instantly recognisable by his shock of blonde hair, often shaved in a Mohican, his full-body Japanese tattoos and his still-recognisable West Country English accent, he is one of a number of US based custom bike builders who have taken the industry and reality TV by storm over the last ten years. Sometimes outrageous, often outspoken and controversial, he has championed a tough, minimalist, industrial style which he has very much made his own with his company Exile Cycles. By his own admission, Russell has brought his unique style of custom motorcycle to the United States ‘whether they want it or not’.

But there is much more to Russell than the TV image, and his journey from the village of Frampton, England to Hollywood, California is equally unorthodox and fascinating, and has taken in some surprising twists and turns along the way. We caught up with Russell at Exile’s LA workshop, to ask him about his journey and his unique, uncompromising motorcycle art.

TBU: Qualified veterinary surgeon to custom motorcycle builder – how did that happen?

RM: Well it was a slightly strange transition. I’ve always been into customising bikes. When I was 16 I bought a Vespa scooter off the local vicar, and within a few weeks I was playing around with that, pulling parts off and bolting bits on, that kind of thing. Very rapidly in the course of about a year or so I went from tinkering around with whatever I had at the time, to full-on, ground-up builds – at that time Vespas and Lambrettas – which was what I was into with all my buddies. By the time I turned I think it must have been about 21, I got into big bikes and was customising straight-4 Japs; and got my first Harley when I was about 23 or 24 and did a ground-up rigid custom build on that. So my hobby has always been customising bikes.

Whilst I was practising (as a vet) in London, they happened to be running the first Telethon (TV fundraiser) and as part of that London Television was hosting a kind of tongue-in-cheek ‘male beauty pageant’ if you want to call it that; it was called ‘Mr Wonderful’. My girlfriend at that time thought it would be a good idea to enter me in it behind my back, and I happened to win it. The guy who came second was about 70; so it will give you an idea just how tongue-in-cheek it was! But each ITV region hosted their own contest and I won the London one, and went on to the finals. I came second in the finals, but that’s kind of irrelevant; as part of this whole Mr Wonderful thing, I happened to be doing a Radio Show – an interview with a few other people – and one of the people there was Elizabeth Emanuel, Princess Diana’s wedding dress designer. We got chatting and she asked if I would be down for doing a charity fashion show that she was working on. I did that, and she sort of championed me and pulled a few strings and got me in with some London model agencies. I started a sort of twilight career if you like, modelling on the side whilst still being a vet. In the very late 80’s and early 90’s, when our (UK) economy was in the doldrums that time, when mortgage rates were hitting 17-18%, I was struggling. I had probably the best veterinary job of anybody who came out of my year in university in terms of how much I was getting paid, and I was still struggling:  I had a ‘rat’ Kawasaki on the road, a Ford Fiesta, and a little one bedroom flat in Tottenham.

TBU: But presumably at that point in time, that was what you were going to do to make a living: you were going to be a Veterinary Surgeon, and you had no serious aspirations to be able to do any of these other things?

RM: No – certainly not the bike thing. The model thing was lucrative when you worked, and hopeless when you didn’t; but still very tempting when you’re going out to audition for a job which may be 3 hours work for £2000; or you can clock in at the practice for a month (to earn the same). So that was fun and the rewards were theoretically there. But anyway – long story short – through the modelling blurb I got a chance to come for a few months to LA on a contract with LA Models, and like every other English guy, I took one look at the weather and the women, and sort of said ‘screw England’ (laughs).

TBU: I can understand that! So at what point did you realise that you were going to be able to stay; that you weren’t going to come back to England and for instance that you weren’t going to go back to what had been ‘the day job’ essentially?

RM: Yeah – well I don’t want to sound ungrateful – and a great day job it is, and many people work very hard to get that day job, and I do feel a little bit guilty having walked away from what is in effect a very nice job: but it didn’t really gel with me I have to say and I wasn’t really that fulfilled. When I came to The States I basically just decided ‘I wanna live here’. As an English vet I was eligible to take the American exams. I could have wandered in and taken their exams and if I’d passed I would have got my American degree; but to do that I would have had to re-learn all the farm animal stuff that I didn’t really want to learn in the first place because I only ever really aspired to being a ‘pet’ (domestic) vet as it were, and I just wasn’t prepared to undergo that sort of re-education just 6 or 7 years after qualifying the first time.

So I continued with the modelling, which inevitably led into being the struggling actor; because if you’re in Hollywood and you’re a model, then the next logical thing is bit acting parts; and you know – very much enjoyed it. I took some acting lessons and survived for a good few years. I was one of the few actors that I knew who never tended bar or waited tables. So I made a living doing that, but I wasn’t necessarily setting the world on fire.

Anyway I happened to do a Marlboro commercial and I had some money in my pocket as a result of that gig. My buddy in England was looking to buy a Harley about that time, so I said ‘screw that – I’ll build us a couple of custom bikes’ and that was the point when I really got involved in designing parts and learning how to machine and weld and everything it takes to create a unique bike from the ground up as it were.

TBU: So I guess that being in The States at this point gave you an opportunity to pursue that as a career that you wouldn’t have had if you had still been in England possibly?

RM: Yeah I’m sure location was a big factor: basically what happened was I spent about a year building these bikes; really went over the top, and the first night I took one of the bikes out for a run I went to the local bike night, and ran into the editor of Easyriders magazine. He asked if they could feature the bike in Easyriders – to which I replied ‘of course’. When he phoned up for the interview I had created this somewhat fictitious backstory about this bike shop that I owned. I swiped a pager from my buddy who was importing 501’s from The States at that time, used his pager number, and told Easyriders this tale about Exile Cycles, my bike shop, and how we would happily build you a bike just like it if you want. Obviously Easyriders was about the best publicity you could get and on the strength of that we sold a bike to a plastic surgeon in South Africa, and that bike got in another magazine, and that sort of started the ball rolling. It started off as a part-time make-a-few-parts-for-friends deal and very quickly it took off and became full-time and my focus; and that was 17-18 years ago now.

TBU: And I’m guessing that this is where your passion lies? The whole being a vet thing was the ‘Steady Eddie’ option; the sensible way to make a living. You wouldn’t have had any serious aspirations for instance of making a living fabricating custom motorcycle parts when you started out in the UK?

RM: No I don’t think so. I mean the climate wasn’t there at that time. When it went crazy here in The States in the early 2000s I know it took off in the UK and all over the world too, and lots of people were surviving building custom bikes; and the good ones or the smart ones or the business-savvy ones, whichever it might be, were doing quite nicely doing it. But it has to be said it certainly helps being in a country with 350 million people or whatever the hell it is; all of them with tons of disposable income, at that time anyway.

TBU: And I guess it’s very much where that whole culture started; whereas it’s possibly more of a niche thing in the UK and in other parts of Europe perhaps?

RM: Yeah – I don’t know how much truth there is in that: custom bikes are sort of an underground scene really wherever you go. The whole TV nonsense, and Jesse (James) and OCC (Orange County Choppers) and the Biker Build-Offs have kind of mainstreamed it a bit; and whilst the economy was booming and everybody was able to get credit to buy anything they wanted, a custom chopper in your garage was a necessary piece of the success puzzle as it were. But definitely the whole mentality in The States is much more recreation oriented; ordinary people aspire to having a boat for instance, and that sort of thing. These things just aren’t out of your reach here the way that they were when I was growing up inEngland.

TBU: I guess the fact that you can go out most weekends and ride without standing a fair chance of getting a soaking is another factor!

RM: Well that’s certainly the case here in California, not necessarily in other parts of The States.

TBU: And as an expat Brit, how have you found it, looking back; as a guy from the West Country making your way on the west coast of America so to speak. Any regrets?

RM: I have no regrets I wouldn’t say. Obviously my family’s a long way away; and like anyone wherever you’re from I think that your real, solid lifelong friendships are the ones that form in your late teens and twenties when life’s about living and before responsibilities start to weigh you down; so the people I used to hang out with back then are still really close friends and it’s a shame that they’re so far away. But I try to get back once, preferably twice a year and catch up with everybody. So other than the distance from those people that I care about; and there are certain aspects of the English way of life that I do miss: you know I miss the sense of humour, and the banter and the sarcasm a little bit. That’s a little hard to find over here – especially I think on the west coast – the east coast folks are a little more ready with the rapier wit than the west coast folks. But no serious regrets. The bottom line is whatever nostalgic vibe might go on in the back of your head from time to time, you’ve got ask yourself ‘That sounds great, but would you want to be doing it in the pouring rain?’

TBU: You have to ask yourself realistically what would have been if you hadn’t made the move?

RM: Right. We can all look back through rose-tinted glasses and say wouldn’t it have been nice if I had bought the manor on the green and blah, blah, blah – but that was never gonna happen, and long story short I just love sunshine. If the sun’s out I’m happy and if it’s not I’m not happy; it’s that simple. So you do the math – are you going to go and live somewhere where the sun is shining 340 days a year or are you going to sit in Frampton?

TBU: And have you been well received in the US; has there been any kind of culture clash for you over the years living in America, do they take you as they find you; or do you not give them any option in that respect?

RM: No actually I’ve never really come up against a negative vibe or that kind of thing. They’re all very accepting and what they are which I think maybe is a little different to what we are as a population in England, is that they’re rooting for you. You know, whoever you are; if you’re doing well, instead of being jealous and saying ‘Look at that git driving his Ferrari’ they’re like ‘Well done son you started your firm and now you’ve got yourself a Ferrari!’ Not that I have a Ferrari I’d like to point out; but you know what I mean – if I did – they’re more ready to pat you on the back than to stab you in the back on the whole. Which translates I think to being fairly well accepted; plus I think Americans regard the English on the whole as being a fairly smart people, so it doesn’t hurt. I think that the English accent gives you that appearance of being smart, educated and civilised – which doesn’t hurt in business.

TBU: There is this impression sometimes that people in America expect everybody from England to talk like Hugh Grant and don’t really know much about England outside of London?

RM: Sure there is sometimes that thing you get like ‘You must know my buddy Bill Smith’ – like everybody in England drinks in the same pub. But that’s just a lack of knowledge of England, and you have to accept that England is a small country with a tiny population, 4000 miles away from here. America’s a big country and there’s a lot of geography to learn in 50 states just for Americans to understand they’re own country; so there’s no reason to assume that they should know any more about England than say we know about cities in Iceland.

TBU: In terms of the bikes and the whole Exile aesthetic; it’s a very tough, minimalist, industrial look – the black paint, clean lines, hidden controls etc – I know you’re not into bright custom paint, billet and bling. Is this a style that you’ve always had within you to a degree; has it evolved over time, or did you make a conscious decision at some point that this is what you were going to do, this was going to be your ‘thing’ to set you apart from other builders?

RM: It wasn’t a conscious business decision; it wasn’t a case of ‘here’s a niche let’s grab that’. It developed. My early bikes weren’t all black, but I like to think they were clean and there was a little bit of intelligent engineering went into hiding away the things that you don’t need to see; but they weren’t necessarily all black or un-adorned as it were. So that aspect has developed over the years. I think about the time I started Exile and really started to think more about design, and not just walking into Custom Fasteners in Redditch and picking a gas tank up off the shelf for example; once I started to question what I liked and why I liked it, at that point I realised that what I am is a minimalist and it’s the simplicity that appeals to me. And once I realised that, it naturally became the starting point of any kind of design venture. So it was a slow burn towards minimalism, but once it was recognised then it was fully embraced.

‘The Chopper’ by Exile Cycles. Photo by Gianatsis Design.

TBU: It seems that aesthetic is probably a bonus for Exile and works in your favour in the market; it sets you apart as the rest of the industry seems to tend to go the other way?

RM: There have been advantages to it over the years certainly. We’ve been on that particular soapbox and it’s kept us in the public eye a bit; plus for instance we don’t have to re-design our parts every year because there’s been a change in industry fashion. It’s never been a case of ‘swoopy fenders are in this year, we’ve got to get rid of last year’s stock and get some swoopy fenders’. It’s a case of ‘screw what’s in this year, we’re doing what we did last year’; what we did ten years ago, and what we’re probably going to do ten years from now. Clean, simple, perfect-geometry fenders, that’s what we’re about! So yeah, it has been useful, and when I first got into it over here I was very much out on a limb. Our aesthetic was virtually unheard of, especially in The States and especially on the west coast. It was at the height of the whole ‘paint it yellow and lime green and carve skulls into every surface’ thing, and basically . . . make it as gaudy as possible. So that helped us gain a little underground, ‘bad-boy’ reputation to start with. Now the whole bike scene has kind of come around somewhat and half the bikes on the Harley showroom floor look like we designed them here. They have their own flat black range, and I think the taste of the bike world has somewhat moved in the direction of our flavour. I don’t know if that’s a sign of maturing, or it’s just that fashion goes in waves and they’ll all be gaudy again next month; I really don’t know.

TBU: Or perhaps even an element of jumping on the bandwagon?

RM: Well maybe; perhaps we might have been part of opening their eyes to something better than just painting skulls every which-where.

TBU: It seems to be a look that hopefully will help you ride out the vagaries of fashion and the economy: Exile bikes don’t seem to be bikes that you’re likely to look back on in ten years time and say ‘that bike looks so old-fashioned now’?

RM: Right, I think that’s exactly where we are. We’re not building fashion statements, we’re building classics. We’ve got a bike we’re finishing up right now for a guy in Hawaii: we could have built it fifteen years ago. It’s so similar to that very first bike in Easyriders, it’s 95% the same. There are a few tweaks and changes, and the parts are certainly a lot more refined now, but the style and the design aesthetic is almost identical; and I strongly suspect in 15 years time the same will be true on another bike. I like to think that they are a classic style that won’t go out of fashion.

Hot Rod Knuckle by Exile Cycles. Photo by Gianatsis Design.

TBU: So in terms of your future projects and plans is it simply a case of continuing in much the same vein? I know you’ve just done an Exile ‘makeover’ on a Softail Harley?

RM: Yes – we’ve developed a line of parts that are bolt-on parts for stock Harley’s; mainly the Softail range although some of them apply to the Dyna’s as well, and they allow the customer at home to turn their stock Harley into a pretty tough looking Exile-style machine. Maybe a hair less hardcore than our ground-up bikes, but importantly for them still with a Harley title and insurance and warranty. So they’re a little more user-friendly, and in some countries where it’s extremely difficult to register a ground-up bike build and our bike kits are out of the question, then people can still change their handlebars and so on. So we now have a very broad arsenal of parts that can be used on the Harley Softail. The bike you’re referring to is our ‘Tough Deluxe’, a 2009 Softail that we basically tore down to the frame, tossed most of the HD parts, and rebuilt it with almost our full range of Exile bolt-on parts. But the end result is a bike that goes shoulder to shoulder with any one-off custom we’ve ever built.

Exile’s Tough Deluxe based on a stock 2009 Harley Davidson Softail. Photo by Gianatsis Design.

TBU: That has to be a smart move from a business perspective; so even guys who can’t live with a full-blown custom bike, a hardtail or whatever else, can still buy into the Exile aesthetic – bringing more customers and different types of customers into the business?

RM: Absolutely. We’re working on a new catalogue for the end of the year which basically pulls together everything we offer from the ground-up stuff to the Harley stuff; because a lot of the newer parts we have developed we haven’t really had any opportunity to market at all, so we’re way overdue for a new catalogue, an ad campaign and a bit of a shot in the arm in that respect. And wouldn’t it be nice if that coincided with a bit of an upturn in the economy!

TBU: So is there still any TV stuff going on at Exile at the moment?

RM: Nothing we’re involved with right now. We get the occasional call from a production company who are trying to put together a new speed-head show, and need a host or what have you. All the Biker Build-Off stuff kind of died a death, overdosed itself, and it went off into tattoo shows and cupcakes and whatever. It all goes in waves. Whether it’ll ever come back like it did; I doubt it’ll ever be quite so crazy.

TBU: How did that work for you, in terms of balancing that with the business; was it a necessary evil, was it something you enjoyed, or was it just a good way to promote the brand and promote what you were doing?

RM: It was all of the above really. It was publicity you couldn’t buy, and that can’t be sniffed at. It wasn’t immediately lucrative in terms of cold hard cash; basically they didn’t pay us to do any of the shows, the time and the bikes we put together was all out of our pocket, as was a lot of the travel and so on and so forth. It was a big commitment to pull your guys off whatever they were working on for two weeks to build a ground-up bike out of nowhere for the TV cameras just because. But at the same time those shows are still airing all over the world. They definitely helped give us a reputation that has improved our market place and definitely assisted our longevity and our ability to ride through this economic storm right now. We were doing very well thank you due to the economic boom prior to the TV stuff, so whether they actually affected the bottom line while we were working on them, I’m not sure. But I enjoyed it and it’s fun, and having come from that sort of acting background, I had been part of all that nonsense back in the day. I was the TV vet on London Weekend Television for a while, so I’ve been in front of the camera, on and off, for the best part of my adult life. I’m comfortable there and I enjoy it and it’s kind of nice to have a platform to get your product in front of people; and your aesthetic. My bikes for me are sort of my art you know, and it’s nice to have a vehicle to bring that to so many more people.

The Trike by Exile Cycles, was originally built for one of the Biker Build-Off reality TV shows, and is a great example of Russell’s ability to think outside the box and plough his own furrow. The raw, satin, Scotch-Brighted metal is an Exile trademark. Photo by Gianatsis Design.

TBU: So currently the focus is on the business and building the bikes, and it’s not an issue that there isn’t any TV work on the go at the moment, other than the fact it helped to keep the Exile name in the mainstream a bit?

RM: The TV work was always the cherry on top if you like; it was never the main business goal. It wasn’t directly paying the bills. I’ll put in a little leg work if someone calls up and says ‘Hey I want to shoot a pilot for a new TV show; we think you’d be great, you won’t get paid and it might not air but we want you involved’; I will put in some spade work to try and move something like that along. I would like to see it happen again, but it’s not on my mind necessarily. If it comes along great, if not that’s fine too.

TBU: So it would have to be some sort of stellar gig to make you walk away from the business, forget about building bikes and just go off and do TV stuff?

RM: Well it would certainly have to be financially viable to do that; I have a wife and a kid, and maybe more on the way God willing. I’m trying to build a house and so on. So of course it would have to pay. But if somebody came in right now and offered me enough money would I sell Exile cycles and walk away? Sure. Would I continue to build custom bikes on the side, would that be my hobby? Of course! So I’m never going to get a gig where I’m not going to be able to build bikes and get my fix. Sometimes there’s so much office work involved in running a business though, large or small, I wish that some smart business entity or person would come along, buy the company and run it like a proper business would (laughs) because I’m often flying by the seat of my pants here; and I’m sure there’s probably more that could be made of it. We have a great product line, but marketing and media and what the hell is Facebook and all that; I’m sure we’re not the smartest when it comes to marketing or selling or growing a brand. So if somebody wants to come along and take over the day to day business and keep me on as figurehead, designer and mechanic – hey ho! – it would be lovely to get fully back into the workshop instead of spending half the day in front of the computer balancing the books!

TBU: So really your passion is very much in building the bikes, but of course you have to work at making it pay the bills as well. You mentioned Tattoos. I guess bikers and tattoos seem to go hand in hand, but you seem to have taken that to a whole other level too. I read that you were well on your way to becoming the proverbial ‘tattooed man’. Is that something you are still pursuing?

RM: Well I’m all done now. I have a full Japanese body suit. I did have one little flower under one armpit left to do for a while; just to remind myself how painful it is and hopefully stop myself from diving in and getting my hands or face tattooed; but even that little patch is done now.

TBU: So was that purely a personal expression thing, or a particular love of the art, or did the love of the art come through gradually getting more tattoos?

RM: A big part of it early on of course was the typical ‘fuck you’ to your parents routine; I hate to say it (laughs) because I love my parents; but they were somewhat Victorian in my upbringing and as such every aspect of rebellion appealed to me: you know – stupid hair cuts, riding motorcycles, ripped jeans and tattoos being a big part of that. That was the initial appeal. I got a tattoo when I was 21 and I loved it. I knew I wanted to go bigger, but being a perfectionist I wanted to do it right. As much as I have a love of great tattoo art, I have a huge disdain of crappy tattoo ‘art’. For every person who has a breathtaking ‘Oh my God what a great piece of art to be walking around with’ there are 500 where you think ‘what a dip – what have you got that scrawled on your arm for?’ It is rare that I would see somebody with a tattoo that I would even think of having on me; and every day I see people with tattoos I wouldn’t dream of having for all the tea in China.

TBU: So did you use one particular artist for all of this work?

RM: Yes – all the same guy. His name is Greg James (formerly of Sunset Strip Tattoo). He’s very well known for larger than life Japanese stuff; specifically body suits. He’s got probably a dozen guys walking around completed suited up. That’s his niche; large, long-term Japanese pieces.

TBU: That’s an interesting choice, the Japanese work. Again something pretty classic and timeless; you’re not going to look back in ten years time and say that was a particular fad or fashion that was around at a specific time?

RM: Yeah – that was really where I wanted to go; I wanted something big and I wanted something timeless; something bold that wouldn’t really age physically or in terms of style. I didn’t want something I was going to be embarrassed by in ten years time. I decided a dragon would be perfect. I didn’t want anything too demonic. I’m not into skulls with swords through them; that’s not attractive to me and why you would want that on you I’m not entirely sure but I know plenty of people that do. So I went with the dragon but never expected it to grow into a body suit. I don’t think many people walk in with clean skin and say ‘I’m going for a full body suit’. That always seems to grow organically. That was the case here. Started off with the dragon, then you think well might as well sleeve the whole arm. Then two years later the other arm felt unbalanced, so I did that. Then two years later again you think well might as well join them up with a back piece; and once that was done, you think ‘well – might as well finish the job!’

So I wasn’t originally expecting to go quite so hardcore; and it’s sometimes ironic that now I’m the most brightly coloured person in the world (laughs), but I build these monochromatic motorcycles. I don’t really look at it that way; I look at it as a classic tattoo style. It could have been done in black and grey I guess, but in the classic Japanese body suit, the colour is all part of it.

Russell and Exile chopper. Photo by Steve Kelly Photography.

So this is the conundrum that is Russell Mitchell. The Englishman abroad. The colourful guy who builds tough, monochromatic, minimalist motorcycles. A man who knows what he likes and sticks to his guns; and despite his outspoken, uncompromising, bad-boy image, a smart, educated and intelligent designer. Moreover, in our experience at least, a nice, friendly, helpful guy. Just don’t ask him to paint your motorcycle lime green . . .

For more on Russell, news about Exile Cycles and of course their full product line of turn-key bikes, bike kits and custom parts and accessories visit www.exilecycles.com.

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