Interview with James Hammarhead: Intersecting neuroscience and motorcycle building

Ben Weinlick of  Think Jar Collective interviews James Hammarhead about his creative process

I was really stoked to be able to interview James Hammarhead of Hammarhead Industries last week.  James is a neuroscientist turned motorcycle builder whose designs have received big praise and are sought after by bike enthusiasts all around the world.  A couple of years ago, after seeing one of Hammarhead’s bikes called the Jack Pine, I was hooked on his minimalist design style.  I was really grateful he took time from his busy schedule to talk about bikes, science and creativity.

 

ThinkJar Collective: To give you a sense of who we are, we’re a collective of people from diverse backgrounds that come together to explore what creativity and innovation is, and how we can help  spark more of it.  Innovation is a cheesy word these days, but we’re really passionate about how we can get our own and others minds unstuck from the status quo in order to foster creative, quality outcomes. Particularly we are interested in learning from many diverse disciplines in order to bring about fresh thinking. Often it’s through intersecting diverse fields and ideas that bright innovations emerge.

James Hammarhead: Yeah, I like the concept. I think you’ll find my group also comes from a diverse background and it has allowed us to be not ahead of the curve or behind the curve in custom motorcycles, but allowed us to be off in left field doing our own thing.  It allows us view the process as creative and not competitive.

TJ: As a bike fan, I’ve been following your designs for a while and been super impressed. Seeing that you have a neuroscience background I thought it was interesting and wanted to hear if you draw on any ideas from your science background when designing bikes? That’s kind of what Think Jar is about, I mean bringing together ideas from diverse fields and seeing how that often sparks a new insight and possible innovation.  There are lots of examples in history, like Richard Feynman finding one of his Nobel winning physics insights through watching students spin plates in the cafeteria at Cornell University.

Hammarhead Industries design called The Woodsman

JH: Yeah, well I think that the history of science is the erosion of mainstream thought from a fringe, where often the biggest ideas come from outside the discipline.  Certainly behaviorism was overturned by cognitive psychology spearhead by Noam Chomksy, who was on the outside. We see this over and over again that a long steady progression is important, but it’s most important in terms of fleshing out an idea that came from a flash of insight. That kind of stuff is cool.  For me, scientific research is a creative process. Neuroimaging, the type of research I have focused on in my career, is big science requiring expensive equipment and large grants supporting clinical research. Because of that, there are often two competing impulses, one is to really go large, because if you don’t you’re never going to make the breakthrough, but to really be successful you have to take a conservative angle, because you need to be funded and you’re not going to be funded if you seem like a wacko. During that whole process the tension was there to bring the most creativity possible to the tightest perspective and experimental design.

TJ: So, what would be an example of something that was creative or ‘out of the box’ in this kind of conservative arena?

Neuroscientist/Motorcycle builder

JH: Well, I wouldn’t claim to have done anything really that was a breakthrough. I was successful in neuroscience and received funding and publishing because ultimately I was more conservative and maybe humble in terms of what I thought could be accomplished. Doing small steps well was the foundation of my career and I think that is what we do at Hammarhead Industries. What we want to do is have a very modest approach.  We don’t want to do a custom build that is going to cost $30,000 -$40,000 and build it one time. We think there is a place for that, but those kinds of builders have different business models. With my science research there needs to be good thought around how the research will be sustainable. I have to ask, how will I deliver what I promise? How am I going to do it for 5 years on a budget? And in the end is it more important to incrementally improve the patient care?  To me that was the bottom line of the science I did. If the funding was getting me the clinical research then we should try to at least move the ball for the patients experience and get the bigger picture of what’s happening. From my neuroscience research experience I learned that if you have a good team, your goals are realistic and there is the potential for your outcomes to really turn things upside down, then great things can happen.  When I started Hammarhead Industries (HHI) I really started it in isolation and didn’t know anything about the custom bike-building world.  I think this helped a lot, because it kept me from second guessing the designs. I was also really busy when I started HHI. I was immersed in neuroscience for the first ten years of my career, just building towards a faculty position. Kind of hard to do and very competitive.  Not much time to keep up with the bike building world.

TJ:  Did you find your ideas and designs that you came up with for your bikes were a collaborative process? Or was it on your own in the shop trying stuff?

James working on a build

JH: I built them all in isolation with a couple people that I bounced ideas off of.  My younger brother certainly was influential in customizing a Triumph. In fact he said, I don’t know what you should build, but you have to build a big bike for the American market.  There are people I rely on for a reality check, but all the prototypes are built on my own without a lot of iteration. Usually I have it all worked out and then there are some details that have to be fabricated a couple of times to get it right.  Overall the planning process begins with the question, what is the problem we are trying to solve? Each bike is addressing a problem I see in the market place or I wouldn’t build it… it wouldn’t make sense to build it.

TJ: That’s interesting, what sparks the ideas for you bikes is not about trying to create a really unique, different, creative bike, it’s about solving problems you see. As you were talking, your approach reminded me of a science perspective, in terms of inquiring about what doesn’t work and then solving the problems.

JH: Yeah, maybe it is.  I didn’t have a motorcycle in Phily for a while, I had a bicycle.  Every time I traveled I would rent a different motorcycle and often I would ask myself, what is missing? what is it that I would like? What would be better at solving a problem than the bike I was on? Yeah, asking those questions is kind of where the style of our bikes came from.  Our bikes have a comfortable riding position and you’d easily recognize them from bikes of the ’50’s and ’60’s. That was our jumping off point.  We see other problems out there that we’d like to address, but it takes a little bit of time to convince people that we can expand the circle.  I don’t want to be pegged as a company that only builds custom Scramblers. That’s why, one of the first 3 bikes was a lithium ion (battery) powered cafe racer bike.  We really wanted to put our stamp on something outside the dirt bike world.

The Volta: Fully electric cafe racer motorcycle designed by James Hammarhead

TJ: That’s the bike you call the ‘Volta’? Do people want battery-powered motorcycles these days?

JH: I’m building another for a customer in California.  I’m pretty happy at this point that the biggest demand has been for the Triumph Jack Pine and the Solo X (cross) bike. Because those bikes really are versatile and useful and easy to produce. The Volta (battery powered bike) really is leading edge development.  We saw that from the get go but were trying to stake out some territory and ideas.  I felt some pressure to build that bike, because it seemed like it was only a matter of time before someone built a retro mod that is fully electric.  The press that we got with the Volta was outstanding; we were on wired.com right away after that build.  But then at the same time, we had the Jack Pine tearing it up in mainstream motorcycle blogs and there was little we could do to promote it or slow it down.  There was a time where we asked ourselves, do we really want to build constantly? We wondered if it was something we could sustain.  The way the Triumph (Jack Pine) was driving us it was clear we were going to have a production problem if we did not scale up considerably. The Wired press was geared towards the Volta and I’m hoping that a new iteration will be a collaboration with an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) company. We have a little more clout now to be able to do stuff like that.

TJ: Some researches into creativity say that in order for something to be deemed creative, it has to be accepted by its domain and by the critics. Obviously your bikes meet those criteria with all the world wide praise and articles in motorcycle magazines, Wired etc. What is interesting to me is how your bikes from my perspective are more minimalist in their style, stripped down like you say and this is a big part of what makes your bikes creative designs the critics like. It is interesting because I think there is a societal assumption that often something is considered new and creative because it is something more complex. Like more complexity equals more creative.  I see that assumptions run rampant in the chopper scene and all those biker build off shows. Your bikes kind of ‘jar’ that status quo assumption and are great examples of less is more.  It’s like you’re getting to the essence of a great functioning, and aesthetically cool bike.

JH: From my perspective, one thing that relates science and art is simplicity.  Often it is only at the minimum that either the theory or the mechanism is clear.  Whereas with complex systems, it is very hard to not only comprehend them but also to test them.  The simple bikes we build can’t be done broadly, and the reason is because you can’t please everyone with a spare design.  Do you know the text “The Long Tail”? It was written by Chris Anderson editor-in–chief of Wired.  I recall that the central thesis is this: in this information age if you have a sealed unplayed KISS album and you want to sell it but there are only 5 people that care about it, you can now reach them at zero cost.  This is critical to Hammarhead’s success.   If we have a product that only appeals to a small audience that really appreciates the aesthetic, we can reach those people.  When I read the book, I thought we would have a grassroots approach to reach customers. But the truth is, we are really going after people with a shotgun, not only do we reach customers, but small blogs and social media can reach people, network these people and create a firestorm of interest in the product very quickly and for very low cost.

TJ: One of the things on your Facebook page is that I often see you post photos of old John Deer tractors, vintage cars, and other objects under the heading, “vehicles that inspire”. Any thoughts on how you draw influence for example from a John Deer tractor for your designs?

Tractor

JH: Early on in this process, a good friend said to me “you’ve got the right aesthetic and a brand that is authentic –and that authenticity will be the hardest thing to maintain.”  He warned me not to think too much.  Our “vehicles that inspire” is a great reminder of that lesson. When we think too much –curate too much– we get nothing back.  We put up pictures of stuff we like, stuff that touches our creative process from left field.  Like looking at a vintage tractor.  We’re planning to take “vehicles that inspire” even further.  On a monthly basis we’re going to bring in a physical vehicle into our shop and use it as a center piece for an event.  We may post it with original photography.  That’s just fun, we’ll be able to pull together a crazy collection of vintage cars, trucks, motorcycle or whatever inspires us and we can share it with the broader community.

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James really hit on some key aspects to a successful creative process and business endeavor.  Below were the takeaways I learned from our conversation:

– Ask the right questions to start the creative process
– Learn from others but don’t get hampered by old outside perspectives
– Creativity is not always about getting more complex
– Less is more
– Beware of getting caught in the trap of over thinking
– Don’t hesitate to draw inspiration and creativity from unlikely places (e.g. HHI vehicles that inspire)
– Set achievable goals
– Balance going big with your ideas while maintaining feasibility
I’m excited to see where Hammarhead Industries goes in the coming years and I hope we can figure out a way to bring one of his designs to a Think Jar Collective event in the near future.

Check out the great mini doc below on James and his craft.

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