Bandit9 made a huge splash in the custom motorcycle world with his latest build – the Nero. In this interview Daryl Villanueva tell us about life & work in Beijing, his inspiration behind the Nero, and why he wants the world to see “Made in China” as a sign of excellence.
I’m a 27-year-old advertising creative director who loves photography, art and design, music, writing, films, fashion, traveling, video games, motorcycles and buying cheap stuff.
I’m originally from the Philippines, raised in Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia. I studied graphic design and worked in Los Angeles. I’ve also worked in Dubai and Saigon and now I’m here in Beijing where I’ve opened up my own motorcycle design shop – Bandit9.
How did you get interested in building bikes?
Ever since I was a kid, I loved motorcycles. There’s just something about them that’s beautiful. I used to see these guys on their bikes and it just looked like a lot of fun to drive. But my mom would never agree to me riding one. I had to wait till I was in my 20s and away from home before I bought my very first motorized two-wheeler.
I remember the feeling. It was like tasting freedom for the first time. Life was good.
What specific motorcycles were you inspired by?
I started young and I’m a bit of a nerd. The one that really stuck with me (and still does) is the red bike from Akira. Seeing Kaneda speeding down the streets of Neo Tokyo on his red bike still gives me goose bumps.
Nearly 25 years later, it’s still one of the most iconic bikes ever. It breaks all the rules of motorcycle design and it’s timeless. I like that. And I hope I can create at least one custom bike like that in my lifetime.
What’s your process for building bikes – strict pre-planning or going making it up as you go?
There’s very little planning in what we do. I have a rough design in my head and I don’t even put that down on paper. I just do it. Ideas are so fragile. I need to protect the original vision. But things don’t always work according to plan. We have to adapt constantly and that’s part of the process. The bike almost builds itself and we’re just discovering it. Whenever I try to force myself to design something, it never looks good. Sometimes it’s good to step away from the build and let the idea come to you.
You relocated from Saigon to Beijing to start Bandit9 Motorcycle Design. What was the reason behind wanting to build your bikes in Beijing?
I moved to Beijing because of my advertising career. After spending what felt like an eternity looking for the right builder or bike, I gave up and decided to build my own. Building my first bike felt so good, I knew what I had to do – start my own shop. It was the best decision I ever made.
There are talented builders here but most of the customizations never reached beyond the paint job. Most of their decisions were motivated by money. This kind of thinking constricts a lot of design opportunities and what I saw on the streets of Beijing was a lot of the same bikes in different colors. There was no personality, no integrity in the design.
Something needed to change.
You’ve said, “For us, ‘good enough’ is never good enough.” Can you elaborate on this?
It’s an attitude that’s been fused into my DNA ever since art school. Never be satisfied with ” just okay”. Being content with “good enough” is like admitting defeat and I really hate to lose. I’m not afraid to scrap entire bikes if it’s not working out, and yes; I’ve done this before at a very late stage of the build.
You have to give your work the respect it deserves. It’s a real reflection of who you are so give it all you got.
The Nero has been getting a lot of press lately. What’s the story behind the Nero, and what were you going for look wise?
I had this idea of building an organic machine. It had to be aggressive, robust and heavy while still fast and agile. I prepared myself mentally for what was to be a grueling 6 month build.
The tank and fenders were all made by hand and it took 3 months to complete. After scrapping what felt like 100 different attempts, we finally got it. The result was a long, narrow hexagonal tank that continues its razor sharp edges to the rear fender.
The thinking behind the seat was that it’s designed to disappear when the rider sits on it – like the rider is floating. It has its own suspension system, an idea retained from the original Chang Jiang. The fork and handlebars are one piece – no more chaos of nuts, clamps and screws that serve only one purpose. It was a real minimalist approach to the design and engineering.
We created our own blend of colors and material to get that matte black as dark as possible with a subtle grain texture. It looks great and it feels great to the touch.
H.R. Giger, the man who designed the creature from Ridley Scott’s Alien, was a great source of inspiration for us. Nero had to look like it was a breathing machine so we purposefully left some of the engine wiring hanging and integrated curvatures in the exhausts, which really give the feeling that ever nut, bolt and wire serves to keep Nero’s heart pumping. It’s like Nero exhales when you see the spit-fire from the pipes.
Nero is Bandit9’s most innovative bike yet. Instinct drove the design. Rather than an exercise purely in engineering, Nero was more of an emotional and experimental build. And that suits well with the Bandit9 style.
And you use Chang Jiang bikes as a foundation for your bikes…
Chang Jiangs are Chinese military bikes with an engine configuration like classic BMWs. As one of our fans beautifully put, “they’re the AK-47s of the motorcycle world.” These things just don’t give up. They’re made to survive war, rain, snow, mud, extreme heat, the Chang Jiang keeps kicking.
Detail on your motorcycles that you spend the most time refining?
Most of my time is spent coming up with concepts for the bike. Once I have the basic idea of what I want, we just rock and roll with the build. Our biggest challenge is we don’t have the machines to build things quickly so most of what we do is done by hand. But it’s nice to build things with your hand. You feel much closer to the project. It’s a really intimate process.
Your motto is “It’s more fun to be a pirate than a sailor.” How so?
Our name comes from the idea that bandits, pirates and outlaws are the kings of innovation and individualism. They’re not afraid to try and fail. They’re not afraid to be outcasts. I like to think that each build is an experiment. If I’m not afraid of failing during a build, an alarm in my brain goes off telling me that I’m not pushing myself.
Woody Allen once said, “If you’re not failing every now and then, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” Fall on your face. Pick yourself up. Conquer what you thought was insurmountable.
Most inspirational bike you’ve ever seen and or rode? What about it made it so special?
The most inspirational bike was my 50cc Honda Cub. It was my first bike, my first love. It was mine. It was the first time I felt that connection between man and machine; something cars have completely lost.
My first “custom” job was to paint my Cub solid white. During the process, something just clicked inside and I fell in love. That’s where all of this custom motorcycle madness started.
Most memorable compliment you’ve ever received about one of your motorcycles?
An editor of a really popular custom motorcycle site said “[Nero] looks like it came straight from the labs of Lucius Fox.” Lucius Fox is the man that designs all of Batman’s toys including the Tumbler and the awesome Batpod.
Everybody knows how much I love Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. I even flew to Hong Kong for the premiere. If Bandit9 is mentioned on the same sentence as Batman, we must be doing something right.
What’s it like living and working in Beijing?
I love China. Everything here feels so grand. It’s such a beautiful country. How can you beat riding your bike on a winding road side by side to the Great Wall of China? Sometimes you just pass by buildings that are over 500 years old; you feel the history in your bones. It’s humbling.
There’s a language barrier, which makes working here incredibly difficult and frustrating but it’s not something that we can’t overcome. There are a lot of people here with incredible craft and we try to utilize these talents to help us build our bikes. It’s a lot of fun.
Biggest misconception about Beijing?
People will always be unhappy about something. A lot of foreigners complain about the living conditions here. It’s too polluted. It’s over-populated. It’s so dry or humid here. If you stop and really open your eyes for a moment, you’ll realize how luck you are to be in this city. There’s so much culture and knowledge in this city, I don’t understand how you can get bored in a city like this.
City in the world you most enjoy riding a motorcycle?
I had a lot of fun riding around Saigon. It’s a scooter city; there are only a handful of cars. During the day, the roads are packed with scooters and motorcycles. If you’re looking from a heightened view, the roads look like a complex network of streams. The traffic just flows. It’s quite a beautiful sight and it feels great to be on the road with the Vietnamese people, shoulder to shoulder.
I used to take midnight rides along a road next to where I used to live. It’s a really quiet neighborhood. There are stretches where I’d be driving next to a still lake reflecting the streetlights. It’s like meditation. Nothing else matters. For a moment, I’m Zen.
Phrase you use most around the shop?
“Hmm…It’s not there yet.” I’m really anal about the work.
What music/band are usually playing in you shop?
I love all sorts of music but if I had to narrow it down, I’m a big fan of the Strokes, Blur, and Radiohead. But sometimes you’ll catch me putting on some 80s…maybe some of the Cure.
What do you like to do when you’re not building bikes?
When I have time away from my advertising life and Bandit9, I like to empty my brain. It needs to recharge. So you’d probably find me watching a cheesy action movie that doesn’t use any brainpower.
I like photography as well. All our Bandit9 bikes are shot by me (another one of the many things I’m psycho about). I’ve finally gotten back into the habit of bringing my camera around and shooting some black and white street shots.
If you could build a bike for anyone it would be…
Batman, obviously. Bruce Wayne, second. But someone real, I’d say Steve McQueen. He’s just a cool cat.
Who or what inspires you nowadays?
There isn’t one source of inspiration for me. A new design for a chair might inspire me to create a new design for a tank. Something as simple as elegant candy packaging might inspire me for a unique color combination. I just try to keep my eyes open and observe.
What’s next for Bandit9?
I don’t want Bandit9 to be seen as just another custom garage. I want it to be a design powerhouse and I believe we’re going in the right direction but there’s still a lot of work to be done to hammer our name amongst the greats.
On a larger scale, I really want to show China that it’s capable of producing great things and that they don’t need to look to the west as a standard of what’s “good” or “fashionable.” I want to show the world that China isn’t just a nation of copycats. “Made in China” will one day no longer have a stigma attached to it; I want Bandit9 to be a part of that change.
+ Source: Bandit9