In the '70s, Erik Buell was an AMA superbike racer. In the '80s, he added Harley-Davidson engineer and Buell Motorcycles founder to his resume. Now, the Buell chairman and chief technical officer is fronting the Thunderbolts rock band and designing a line of guitars. In both fields, he says, it's all about making people feel good.
Question: How does a motorcycle designer end up fronting a rock band?
Answer: I had dropped out of college to play in a band for a few years and realized the error of my ways, and went to night school and got my engineering degree. About seven years ago, I was with some Buell owners in Daytona Beach, [Fla.], and I said, 'I'll sit with you, but let's talk about something other than motorcycles,' and we started talking about music. A few months later, a couple of those guys gave me a guitar, and so I started fooling around with it. There were a couple guys at work with me who were playing and we put the band together. It's been a number of different guys. There's three guys from Buell and one guy who has a machine shop that makes a lot of parts for Harley who's the bass player.
Q: You also sing?
A: Yep. When we're all sitting around playing, it's like, 'Do you want to sing?' It's last man standing. Since I was the weakest musician at the time, they made me the singer.
Q: How would you describe your sound?
A: Recently, we've been doing more rock 'n' roll stuff. It partly comes from getting more confident. The thing that's the most fun of all -- besides playing -- is the crowd reaction, so we keep working more toward things people like to hear and dance to. When they can't stay in their seat, that's when it really feels good. With the motorcycles, I always want to make really cool motorcycles that make people feel good, and with music, I want them to hear music that makes them feel good and reach them emotionally. As I get older, there's a lot of things I want to say that you get a chance to do in music.
Q: The lyrics to "Alive" [an original song of the band's] are about a few motorcyclists who were killed. How did that song come to be?
A: That song I wrote because there were a couple guys who were motorcyclists who were killed in freak accidents, which just happens. And I was thinking about that, and we were talking about it at a Buell owners' group rally, and the people were just celebrating how fun these guys were, how many friends they had, how they put a smile on everybody's face, and it became a big celebration, kind of like an Irish wake, so then I wrote the song about that. It's got a little bit of anger in it, but it's toward the people who are always trying to repress people who just want to enjoy their lives.
Q: Why did you name the band the Thunderbolts?
A: It's one of the motorcycle models we're not making anymore. The first one we did with Buell and Harley was a Thunderbolt. The band was doing mostly blues at the time, and we were talking about the Fabulous Thunderbirds and I said, "Maybe we should be the Not Half Bad Thunderbolts."
Q: Now, you have a bunch of bikes called Lightning. What's your obsession with thunder and lightning?
A: They're just very elemental forces. When you ride a lot, when you see a storm, it's not necessarily a bad thing. You see it coming and you can feel the energy in the air and the air feels different. When you're on a motorcycle, you feel all those senses you don't get in a car. . The Pegasus symbol we use for Buell is an old family crest. Pegasus was the winged horse and he was battling using thunderbolts and lightning.
Q: Where do the Thunderbolts play?
A: Milwaukee, Chicago and the Midwest. We play some of the local clubs and at Harley-Davidson dealerships.
Q: How did you start designing guitars?
A: That started a couple years ago. My friend Mike Stone (of Queensryche), he was talking to me and said, 'I love my Buell motorcycle. Why don't you make a guitar?' I said. 'I did build a couple for myself,' but they were kind of crude. He asked me to do a modern Les Paul -- the shape of a Les Paul but modern. I agonized over that. It's got to be more comfortable and get rid of the sharp edges and have a single cutaway like a Les Paul. Guitars are the shape of women.
I was looking for pictures of classic women and I ran across some Vargas pictures on the Internet, and there was one with a woman looking over her shoulder and her body's twisted. I thought that's cool because it's dynamic, it's got that motion, not that classic hourglass shape, so I wound up making this guitar that's twisted a little bit. It's offset, and then I carved the shape of it so it would be comfortable everywhere you touched it. We just had some meetings with a major U.S. guitar company that's going to make it and a new design I just finished.
Q: What are the guitars called?
A: I sound like I have only one name. The one guitar, we started calling the Thunderbolt. Stone calls it the Thunder Paul. It's like a Les Paul, but it's even bigger sounding. The other one, we call it the Interstellar guitar. They're just going to be Erik Buell-Mike Stone signature guitars. It's fun to design stuff like this. It's a chance to clear my mind and get a fresh perspective. I love motorcycles, but it's really fun to do something different.