THE CUT RATE: I WANT TO GO BEYOND
photography by ward robinson
Oliver Jones of The Cut-Rate is quite the interesting fellow. He built insane imports. Then he bought a motorcycle, and never built a car again. His first motorcycle—he brought it home, rode it around for a few hours, then stripped it all the way down to the frame to build an incredible custom. He’s a Born Free invited builder with an incredible eye for detail and a style all his own. Saying he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty is an understatement. Let’s see what our friend has up his sleeve for this year! This interview by Frankie Alvaro.
When did you get your first motorcycle?
Oliver Jones: I guess I got my first motorcycle in 2007 or 2008? Not that long ago. It was actually the first bike I ever got or built. I didn’t get into riding bikes as a kid or have a dad that rode bikes or any of that. I lived in Japan for quite a while, and saw a lot of the bike stuff going on there, and I fully wanted to build a bike when I got back to the states when I had the means and the space to do it. I had always done car stuff as well, so I was mechanically inclined but had never owned a bike. When I finally moved back to the states and got a garage and was more settled, I figured it was time. I went out and bought a bike—having never even ridden one before. I went out that night, bought it, and rode it home. I winged it! Rode it around all night, then came home and stripped it all the way down to the frame. It just started from there.
What kind of bike was it?
Oliver Jones: It was a Yamaha TW-200, a lame trail bike almost. At the time when I lived in Japan, there were a million of those things—custom—everywhere. The way licensing works there, you start out on a 50cc, then up to a 200, then a 500 and so on. So 200s were just everywhere. People built them kind of like street trackers, or extended swing arms—almost hill climb-looking bikes, and they came with fat knobby tires. They’re aesthetically … not Mad Max, but very crazy looking. And the ones I saw there at the time, I thought they were just the coolest things. I ended up building mine almost from scratch. I literally did everything on it—frame, tank, you name it. The only thing that was stock were the tires and the motor. I think I went way over board on the first build.
Was that from being inspired by everything you saw in Japan?
Oliver Jones: Yeah—I always had a thing for cars. I liked bikes but from like 16 to 20 I was so immersed in the car thing I didn’t have any money to buy a bike. It was just cars-cars-cars. Then I moved to Japan when I was 21 and sold my car—I sold everything—then it was back to skateboards and BMX bikes. I reverted back to that. So having seen all those bikes there, and wanting one naturally anyway … they were just weird. I’d never seen one before. The style they have doesn’t exist here. I’m used to seeing Harleys or sport bikes. So that really blew my mind. And given this weirdly aggressive but 200cc stance, stretched out with knobby tires, looks like you can climb up a mountain with it or something … it just looked so gnarly. And I thought, ‘I want to build that.’
So it’s a Japanese hill climber?
Oliver Jones: It looks very hill climb-y. I have pictures I can show you! It looks like … not a chopper but it’s chopped. I used a Frisco Sporty tank, and parts off an SR400, and parts off of this ‘n’ that, and just mashed it all together. There’s a salvage place back home I used to always go to—Baltimore Cycle Salvage—and I became friendly with the guy and he would say, ‘Go ahead, take whatever you want.’ I wouldn’t know where parts came from—they were just cool-looking! I didn’t know anything about any of this shit. I had friends who were into bikes or getting into building bikes, so we all just winged it. I hadn’t even finished building this bike before I was thinking of starting another bike. It all just snowballed.
With 200ccs, you must have not been able to keep up with the Sportsters and other American bikes
Oliver Jones: Oh no—not at all. Before I even finished building that, I realized I almost wanted to build that as an art project. I had that in mind for the last seven or eight years before I even had one. I built it because it was something I had always wanted to do. Before I had even finished it, I went out and got another XS650—that was a street tracker kind of a deal. It was almost halfway there when I went out and got it. I did a bunch of stuff to that to get it rideable, then I went out and got something else. You know how it goes. It never ends.
How did you end up in Japan?
Oliver Jones: I was in college for graphic design—graphics were my major. I was also doing the car thing full time. I had my own side business. I would do car stuff for people. I went to Japan for a car show to begin with. I figured I’m getting all these car parts from Japan—I want to go there to see it. And this car show is the biggest thing there is. I went and two days later I thought, ‘Well, I have to move here now.’ It was just too crazy. I went there for this show, it blew my mind, and everything else blew my mind, too. I hated school and wanted to get out of Baltimore, so I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to sell my shit and move.’ I was there for about 3 years.
That’s a long time. At least a significant amount of time.
Oliver Jones: The first time I went was January ‘99. I was living there by June. I dropped out of college, sold everything and just moved. And through a series of odd twists and turns, I was able to get a job, a place to stay, was able to design for people. I just made it happen. I think about it now and I’m amazed that it worked.
Were people welcoming?
Oliver Jones: Yeah—I think in the past 15 years, things have changed a bit. It’s way more open than it used to be, in terms of being an international tourist destination. Since then everyone I know has been there—but before no one I knew had ever been there. It was a different vibe. When I go back now there’s wifi and internet and all of these things that make life so much easier. Especially when you don’t know the language or culture. When I think back on it now, when I went there, you were just thrown into this mix of craziness.
Were they open to American culture then as much as they are now?
Oliver Jones: Absolutely—I don’t think that will ever be any different.
They do always step it up a notch.
Oliver Jones: Absolutely. I think part of my move was I was doing this car thing, and … granted Baltimore isn’t New York or L.A., but I was frustrated with the level the people I was dealing with wanted to do things. ‘I kind of want to do it, but not really …’ I’ve always been, ‘If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it—full commitment, to the utmost best I can do.’ I want to go beyond that. So everyone I was dealing with was lazy, and going there and seeing the level they commit at, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is a good fit for me.’ How over the top, and how crazy everything is there.
What were you doing for work in Japan?
Oliver Jones: When I first moved there, I was doing nothing. I was living off savings I had generated with selling my stuff, which lasted me about three weeks, and I had a three month ticket! So I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ Long story short, I didn’t have a place to stay for about a month and a half. I crashed random places, I stayed out until the morning every day then found a place to crash, or went to a buddy’s place and took a shower or cleaned myself up—did whatever I had to do. Eventually I was able to get an apartment, and again through a series of ridiculous circumstances—which when I look back now would never happen again—I was able to pull that off. After three months I was able to pull off a job at a Navy base in Tokyo as a gas station attendant. I worked at this place, stocked shelves, pumped gas, rented videos.
A Japanese base?
Oliver Jones: It was American in Japan. The irony is I was hired as a civilian through the military, and they have this thing were they have to hire a certain amount of Japanese employees as well to offset it and make it fair I guess. So my pay was 700 a month, and my rent was 690 a month, and these other people that were hired by the Japanese government made 15 bucks an hour or something like that. At the same time I had met a lot of people via skateboarding or whatever that were in the clothing industry. They worked at a shop, and that shop had their own line and I was able to get some freelance work. Keep in mind this is on a Japanese keyboard—a Mac where I couldn’t read designs. I was able to get enough work to limp along. So I was able to quit my job and do odd jobs, extra work in commercials, whatever I could do.
What kind of cars were you into?
Oliver Jones: I was doing import stuff, Hondas, Acuras.
Oliver Jones: ‘VTech is kickin’ in, bro!’ A lot of my friends were into European cars: VW, Audis, that kind of stuff. Its weird—I know that was big in California, but I guess we didn’t have that much of a hot rod scene. I mean—it’s there and always has been, but it’s not as ingrained as it is into the So Cal lifestyle. Everything with me snowballs out of control. It went from, ‘Hey, I’m going to tint my windows!’ to ‘I’m going to be the sole importer of this engine and do everyone’s engine swaps and have my own line of mufflers.’
How did you figure out how to do all of that? Swapping out an engine in a Honda isn’t like swapping out a Chevy 350.
Oliver Jones: I don’t really know, to be honest with you. I guess I just jumped in. It was all happening at the time. There were resources that there aren’t today. Not to mention that was very early stages of that. Its not like you just call Jegs and you order the swap harness and you get the motor mount kit. That stuff was just starting to become available and there was a lot of trial and error. Information was vague at best. You just did it and tried it. I had a friend who was better at wiring than I was, so we traded, and you did as much research as you could with what was available at the time.
I’ve been through that pre-internet—calling Germany for parts when I don’t speak German and they don’t speak English.
Oliver Jones: Totally! But then I was peaking, making all of these contacts and getting everything in line and boom—I moved to Japan and it’s over. Like … I am still into cars, but going there, there’s no way I can have a car there. Couldn’t afford it. So it went from the peak to nothing to do with cars whatsoever: ‘What’s a car? I take the train, I ride a skateboard …’
So when you built that first motorcycle, after that there were no more cars—just straight into motorcycles.
Oliver Jones: Yeah—I still like cars. I’ve had several cars since then. Not import type tuner cars.
You just had those Kimtab wheels made for your cop car!
Oliver Jones: Ha—yeah! I’m still very much into car stuff and doing car stuff. And I’ve customized some cars since then—not in a ground-up build kind of way. Just tinkering. But I still have a total interest in it. When I find some free time I’d love to get back into it. But after all of these years working on bikes, I’ve developed a whole different skill set. Now I can weld, fabricate … imagine if I tried to build a car from the ground up? Imagine what I could do.
What was the first year you were invited to build for Born Free?
Oliver Jones: Just this past year. The first year I went to Born Free was number four. I already knew Grant and Harpoon from Japan and different shows and going to California several times before for vacation and bike stuff and business. I’d heard about Born Free in Long Beach but didn’t go—it was far or out of my way—and as it got bigger and bigger I thought, ‘I should go.’ It was awesome as a spectator—Born Free 5, I had just moved here and I didn’t really have a bike that was ready. I had a panhead as a roller in my booth, just as an ‘I’m here—this bike is coming soon!’ Three years later, it’s still sitting untouched. The bike I built for Born Free 6 ironically came with me from Baltimore. I had it as a roller halfway built. I planned on having it in my booth, but I didn’t bring it with me cuz the gas tank didn’t get finished and some other stuff. So I thought … whatever, I won’t bring it unfinished. You can’t have a bike without a gas tank. Then Grant saw the bike and said, ‘I want you to finish this for next Born Free as an invited builder.’
So the black bike you built—no name, just ‘the black bike.’ The motor on it is just a fucking monster, and that goes back to what you were saying earlier: you doing design and you doing these art projects seems to be leaking into your motorcycles. Was the black bike built to ride or built as an art piece?
Oliver Jones: I was originally building it to ride for myself, and as it became a Born Free deal, I went back and started thinking, ‘Well, this isn’t good enough, and I have to change this … It’s good enough for me to ride but it’s not good enough for the show.’ I went back and started rebuilding and redoing the parts. I don’t know if I got caught up in it being a crazy show bike or something … I mean, it’s rideable. I’ve ridden it! I wouldn’t want to ride it every day, but it’s for sure rideable!
Why wouldn’t you ride it every day?
Oliver Jones: The way the suspension is set up. It’s ultra-stiff and pretty tight. Everything is pretty tight. It’s a kick-only high compression bike. If I was going to build a bike that was my daily rider, that’s not the bike I would build, but—that is the bike I love! You know what I mean? I was going to build a bike with a no-holds-barred attitude. I went into the build thinking, ‘I don’t want to limit on this thing.’ I knew I’d get to the show and wish I had done this or that. So I just did it to the extent that I thought it should be done.
Can you tell me what you did to that motor—for people who haven’t seen it?
Oliver Jones: The motor visually is crazier looking than it really is. In my eyes, anyway. I think the one I’m building this year is way crazier. But to the black bike I added a dual Karata magneto set up, which is pretty in your face. The motor is completely black, which is a big no-no to a lot of people. The rocker boxes are one of the most striking parts. They’re from Japan—a company called Hot Dock. I’ve always wanted a set. I just couldn’t justify the cost and the craziness of them for something that wasn’t a show bike. So as soon as I got invited, I knew what I was gonna get. They don’t fit in the stock frame—you have to do a lot of modification just to be able to use those. And on top of that they’re all black. The carb is black—everything is black. I didn’t want to go over the top, but I wanted to do something most people wouldn’t do.
So it’s more of an art piece?
Oliver Jones: Kind of—I know what the norm was, and I just wanted to go past that. In a sea of a million bikes, it’s very easy for a bike to get lost.
It for sure was very eye catching. Not to mention there’s 10,000 of the coolest bikes you’ve ever seen, so pretty quickly you get overwhelmed.
Oliver Jones: Exactly—there’s a lot of glitter paint jobs and chrome, and I wanted this to be a black void in a sea of shine. I primarily build all of my bikes black but I wanted this one extra black. It’s going to be next to a thirteen-color lowrider paint job. I wanted something opposite that would stick out so hard next to it.
What are you building this year?
Oliver Jones: I realized last year that bike was built purely with parts that I wanted to use, and I knew what I wanted it to look like. I didn’t care how it competed or how it looked with other bikes in the show. I knew I was going to be the odd man out. I’m going to have some weird monstrosity that most people aren’t going to get. Surprisingly, it was way better received than I had planned. Even people who I thought wouldn’t like it at all received it well. The only thing—and it’s not a bad thing—is that it was unclassifiable. It’s not a chopper, it’s not a real race bike, it’s not a tracker. It’s got aspects of all three, which makes it harder for most people to digest. They like it but compared to a chopper at the Born Free chopper show, it was just a format most people are unfamiliar with. So this year what I want to do is take the same idea— parts I absolutely want to use, a style that I absolutely like, familiar colors and contrasts that I like to do—but do it in a chopper silhouette. I want this thing to be very undeniably chopper. It’s a chopper, you know what I mean? It has the tell-tale body lines of a chopper. But within that, it’s super high performance. More than last year. Crazier parts than last year. Way more involved and way more over the top than last year—in terms of the actual motor and performance. But all in a chopper shell. From twenty feet away, ‘Oh, hey, that thing sits really well. It’s a traditonal skinny 70s chopper.’ But when you get up to it, it’s all high-tech drag-race shit. This is ultra-new high-tech modern stuff. That’s the concept for this year.
VISIT OLIVER JONES AND THE CUT-RATE AT THECUTRATE.COM.