published at 12.02.2016, 17:06
Heritage

Jeff Wright: a man of the Church… of Choppers

Any man who describes himself as “smoky, grouchy, artistic, tough and loyal” is worth taking note of. Not from the fact that, on description alone, Jeff Wright resembles a fictitious paperback detective putting wrongs to right, but because he simply sounds more interesting than an ‘everyday kinda guy’. Add to this the knowledge that this 50-year-old male is the owner, brains and mechanic behind legendary custom bike shop Church of Choppers (CHVRCH), it somehow makes it all the more imperative to discover more about exactly who this guy is and what he does.

Home for the Wright household is in Des Moines, capital city of the state of Iowa, USA. Because his wife works the day shift, Jeff freely admits to being a “Day Dad”. The tag is underlined with having to sort out their three children every morning, who all go to different schools and have done for the past 14 years. Then, later in the day, after making dinner for five, Jeff relaxes before either going to his main workplace – Church of Choppers – or sitting at the drawing board, where he works on his clothing brand.

So yes, Jeff has another equally successful business, FTWCO, which he runs with a partner. It’s a clothing brand that involves designing and printing fashionable and exclusive T-shirts, hoodies and other gear suited to today’s motorcycle life. Church of Choppers shares space with the clothing side so he can take care of both within a 279 sq. metres brick and concrete building. He apologises for any clothing gear that gets delivered with a slight smell of petrol and smoke.

He works until a not-so-normal 2am. And if that isn’t enough, he then goes to the two taverns (Kung Fu Tap & Taco and GT Race Car Bar) he owns with a business partner to count the takings and close them for the night. Bed time is usually around the 4am mark. That’s a long day.

It’s interesting to note that despite the huge workload sitting on his shoulders, his children have never had to go to a baby sitter, as they have spent a great amount of time at the taverns and bike shop. Jeff says “they’re well rounded”, meaning they possibly have a great understanding of life and its inhabitants while being loved for who they are.

Talking of love, Jeff’s greatest loves are family and bikes. Add to this his favourite intake of meat, mash potatoes, corn and beer, and, hell, you just can’t fault the man.

Today the clothing and bike businesses are his main working life. The taverns can be classed as pastimes because he’s been there and done that for 30 years. “Out of art school, at age 20, I opened my first bar – you couldn’t work there unless you rode a motorcycle,” says Jeff. “After that I went on to own around 10 different taverns, bars, and live music clubs. In 1992 I opened a music venue and throughout its 20 years, I booked over 5,000 bands. The club held around 400 people. In its day we had the Smashing Pumpkins, Monster Magnet, Mudhoney, Slipknot, X, Clutch, Fu Manchu, etc. We were located in the middle of the US, so we would get all the touring bands. The heyday was in the grunge years when we were very well known. Hairy Marys was the name of the venue. In a magazine interview, I made mention that nobody should be booking bands at 40 years of age. So when I turned 40 I quit and sold the club, and started building bikes full time. Rather than spend my time promoting the next show, I now spend time promoting FTWCO.”

Jeff’s first foray into bike building was in 1993 when he took a 1984 Honda XR 500 and custom built it to compete in 500 mile race in the desert from Vegas to Reno. Two years later he hit another level in awesome style with a custom ground-up build featuring a Harley Evolution-powered Pat Kennedy-framed chopper. This bike featured in National Magazine, and Church of Choppers took off in a rapid way.

Today’s Church of Choppers is located in an out-of-the-way space and is very hard to find, mainly because Jeff likes solitude, and is “very suspicious of outsiders wanting to steal my tools and bikes”, he says, laughing.

“I recently purchased a building 15 minutes from my city, in a very small village. It is an old hall / community centre with brick walls and tall ceilings. I have been working on this building for around six months and plan to move into it shortly. I am very excited by the fact I will never have to move again, or pay rent to a landlord. Oh yeah, also the thought of a new sound system. I like music while wielding tools, pencils and stuff.”

Past bike projects have been plentiful. Take a look on the Church of Choppers website to get a taster of what Jeff has built. He has worked his magic on all makes of bike and has produced just about every genre of bike – race, scrambler, flat track and more. To Jeff, different bikes are different tools. He only builds what he wants – and he doesn’t take orders from customers. Actually, he doesn’t have customers. “I tell people: if you like something I have done, make me an offer. I will not build a bike for someone else. It’s always just for me.”

Bizarrely, Jeff’s builds have never featured an older BMW motorcycle, today’s popular basis for café racers and urban trackers. Come to that, not even a modern day equivalent BMW had passed through his doors – until the autumn of 2015, when he received a text from Ola Stenegard of BMW Motorrad. For anyone not in the know, Ola is Creative Director Heritage / Head of Vehicle Design BMW Motorrad, and the principle designer of some funky BMW bikes, including the ‘must have’ R nineT.

Ola Stenegard is also renowned as chief instigator of BMW Motorrad’s Soulfuel custom R nineT projects, where famous customisers produce their own versions of the R nineT. So when Jeff got a text from Ola it was first contact on the subject of Church of Choppers getting involved with a R9T project. “I received the text from Ola while I was driving a custom bike to NYC. I texted back saying ‘yes’ immediately... while driving at 90mph with my knees!”

Phone calls followed between the two custom enthusiasts and an R nineT was then shipped from BMW Motorrad North America to Des Moines, Iowa and the workshop of Jeff Wright, c/o Church of Choppers.

The end result is a R9T project bike that is stunning in every sense of the word. Stripped and rebuilt with first and foremost a serious slimming exercise, the bike can easily be redefined as a ‘kick-ass’ bike. It is, for want of a better description, a signature bike from Church of Choppers. “If it does not make it stop or go, off with it. I wanted to lighten it up,” says Jeff.

This R nineT project is minimal – in chassis weight and size. It also doesn’t have a name, which is a surprise because most custom houses like to tag a bike, but not here. However, Jeff does listen to certain music in conjunction with what he’s building. For this project he got into listening to an online station (IWAYHIGH.NET) that predominantly plays a mix of dub/electro/chill/reggae. “Back in the day,” says a smiling Jeff. “I’d sell a bike and would include a CD burned with some of the music I was listening to at that time. I sold a bike to Brad Pitt once, and included a Clutch mix.”

So there you have Jeff Wright. In the twilight of day / early morning he’s a drinking-hole owner, bike builder, clothing design artist and mastermind of Church of Choppers. More importantly he’s a loving father, even though it’s hard to believe he has time for the role of ‘Day Dad’.