I was on Instagram the other day and noticed my “discover” feed consisted of a couple things: the latest and greatest in reckless goonery on MX Fails, Carson Brown rode some sort of bike in his backyard again, Ronnie Mac stuck a dildo on his radiator shroud and Larry Enticer told me he slept with my mom. All hilarious things… well, for the most part. While you can’t help but enjoy the occasional “WORST MOTOCROSS CRASHES EVER 2018” compilation, at some point there needs to be a little bit of nuance in a sport packed with kids holding up the Shocker on the starting line before finishing mid-pack in 250 C. It’s important to have characters that poke fun, and we should never be caught taking ourselves too seriously, but we simply can’t afford to continually sell ourselves short.
Motocross and motorcycles in general are a beautiful thing and deserve to be presented in a manner that reflects that. High level commentary, abstract ideas and art that portray what it means to ride. Compelling stories about legends come and gone that go beyond their life on a race track. Photos with such detail that they could be blown up in a museum. Videos fit for the big screen.
In an arena starved for depth, Ben Giese and the team at META are out to drown us in it.
Discussion includes: Introduction to the industry as a designer with Answer Racing, thoughts on higher level education, developing your style as an artist, his time at DC Shoes, starting / maintaining META, and more…
(Ed. note: META is now VAHNA.)
World of Echo: I know you’re a busy guy, so thanks for taking the time out to do this interview.
Ben Giese: Yeah, no problem. Can you remind me of your website again?
Yeah, it’s called World of Echo.
I’ve met a number of motocross filmmakers over the years and my being a fan of skateboarding, I wanted to emulate their coverage of photographers and filmmakers.
Oh, cool! Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t really consider myself a video guy or a photographer. I do a little bit of both, but mostly I direct everything creative at META. I’m more of a creative director that comes up with concepts and ideas… the design of it all. So I do have my hands in everything on the creative side of things, but yeah, I’m down to talk.
I actually have the first issue of META with me right now. I have it opened to your Chasing Brightness article.
[laughs] That’s so old! That’s awesome. Do you have other copies as well?
I only have the first two, admittedly.
That’s awesome. It’s funny to see the product from five years ago now, and to see the magazine today it’s ten times better, obviously. I always laugh when people talk about volume one because it was our first attempt at creating a magazine. I mean looking back now, I don’t think it’s very good compared to what we’re doing now, but it’s cool that you have it!
I remember when it came out I was very struck by it. It was definitely something new, something fresh. It was very interesting that you guys were even coming out with a print publication in a world that was being obliterated by digital media. I honestly didn’t even think it was that long ago, but now that you mention it, it has been almost five years since volume one. Spring 2014 or something like that?
It’s not that long [ago], but I guess being in the middle of it and producing the stories for each issue, volume one seems like ancient history. It’s kind of funny.
I remember the magazine being bi-annual, but now you guys put one of these out every four months?
Originally it was twice a year. It was a product that was published under Vurbmoto and we only put out those two. We were only with Vurb for the first year before we kind of separated, but after that we transitioned into three issues a year because it made more sense. We never wanted to be a monthly magazine, someone who’s producing content for the sake of quantity over quality. It’s always just been about telling really great, powerful stories and presenting them in a powerful way. You can’t really do that in a month. So, we felt like two issues a year was a bit too long of a gap. People lose interest pretty quick. Three issues a year every four months is enough time to build anticipation, so people don’t lose interest, but still deliver a quality product. That’s where we’re at now.
Like I mentioned earlier, I only have the first two issues, so I was surprised to find out that if you subscribe to the META email list you can get online access to every volume for free. I was on there for hours!
That’s so cool!
I had no idea!
So yeah, you could see the evolution in our content a little bit. You can see that from volume one, to… we’re working on volume twelve now, you can see the evolution in the design, the photography, and the writing. I guess in the nature of what we do, we kind of came across as a moto-specific publication [at first]. That was our background, that’s what we love. But we’ve come to love motorcycles as a whole, and we’ve been embracing the idea of blurring the lines between street and off-road, motocross and adventure-riding, kind of just all different genres of motorcycling. Really anything we love. It’s kind of cool to introduce the street element to all of the moto guys, and vice a versa. It’s cool to have a wide demographic like that.
I think even just by looking at the covers you can see that evolution from a moto-specific publication, to one that’s dedicated to all aspects of two wheels.
It kind of evolved from a high-quality / artistic take on a motocross magazine. It was more of an outlet for motorcycle culture. It’s been interesting as we’ve developed our business and refined our vision that we’ve come across this concept called, “A life well ridden.” That’s become our tagline. I think our content isn’t about race results and bike tests, it’s more about the feeling of riding a motorcycle and the places it can take you. We believe the motorcycle can be a tool for a better life, whether it’s something you’re passionate about or the community behind it. I think your motorcycle can make your life better. That’s where our tagline comes from now and that’s what feeds our inspiration.
That’s something that I highlighted in my notes for this interview, that META seems aimed at the culture of riding as opposed to the actual act of riding. Again, going back to issue one you have the curated music selections, full-page, glossy images from the beginnings of the sport to now. It goes beyond what other publications currently offer.
It’s not about having Ryan Dungey doing a big whip on the cover, it’s more about having something that can speak to you whether you ride motorcycles or not. You’ll see the mag in Barnes & Noble and have the cover pique your curiosity because the image said something other than the fact that it’s a famous rider. There’s a little bit more depth to the storytelling. I think that’s something that’s unique.
I’ve got some questions here if you’re ready to dive in?
Yeah, let’s do it!
Like I’ve already mentioned again and again. META, volume one. In your article from volume one you mention you got your first motorcycle in southern Illinois, correct?
Yeah! So when you told me that you live in Indiana I was gonna tell you that I have family that live near Evansville. A couple hours away from you probably. My Grandma lived out there, so my family would visit her once or twice a year. It was my tenth birthday that my Dad surprised me with a new motorcycle while we were visiting Grandma. It was an old pink-and-white YZ 80, about ten years old. It was too big for me to ride, but it was my first bike so I was really excited. I went to a little field down the street by the school [to ride]. It was a small town so there were no people or cops to harass you, so you could just ride in the fields. I guess that was a day that changed my life. It started my obsession with motorcycles and motocross. My family and I were at the track every weekend racing motocross year after year. It’s opened up all of the relationships and opportunities in my life, both professionally and personally. It’s cool to be able to trace it all back to one single moment, a surprise present on my birthday.
What were some of the places you frequented when you started racing? Lincoln Trail… Paradise MX in Duqoin?
Well, I have ridden a few in that area for Loretta’s qualifiers, but I live in Denver, Colorado. We had a local series here in Colorado that we would race pretty much every weekend. That evolved into doing some amateur nationals and stuff. Ponca City, World Mini’s, Loretta Lynn’s-type stuff. One of my area qualifiers was at Lincoln Trail, I think. That all eventually evolved into getting my pro license and chasing the outdoor nationals as a privateer for a year or two. I wasn’t good enough to do anything really, but it was just a fun experience getting to travel the country as a seventeen year-old. Being out on my own, in a van, driving from race to race was a cool life experience that I’ll never forget.
Just to even have a pro card is quite the accomplishment, even if you were non-competitive.
Exactly. After so many injuries [though], I decided that I needed to grow up and move on to the next thing. Racing’s been fun, but… I don’t know. I’ve always been super creative. When I was hurt I would either be shooting photos of my friends at the track or designing t-shirts to sell at the races. There was all kinds of stuff that I’d put together, just doing something creative that also applies to what I love. I wanted to still be involved with motocross, but also be able to make a living.
You attended MSU, right? Digital Arts major?
Did you ever feel pressured to go to college? Or during attendance have moments of doubt about the experience?
I think in society there’s a natural pressure to follow the formula. Go to high school, go to college, get a job. All those things. I think I would’ve been fine not going to college. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to college, but honestly I didn’t learn much that would apply to what I do in my career. I learned more through experience, trial and error. I feel like everything I know as a creative I’ve learned from immersing myself in it, either by working or trying new things. Looking back on the early days of trying to be a designer, I was not very good. I’m sure I’ll think the same thing ten years from now, looking back going, “Man, what was I thinking?”
That’s just progression, though.
That’s been a common theme among subjects from previous interviews. That progression can only be seen looking backwards, it’s something you can’t see happen in real time. It can take years to notice.
It can take years, yeah. I think it really comes full circle when you’re learning and trying new things, and through that you’ll eventually develop your own style. Whatever it is you’re doing, whether it’s photography, design, or whatever. I think once you develop your own style, people can see a piece of work without your name but they know you did it. To me that’s when you’ve become a professional.
You forge that style by not giving in or giving up.
Mmhmm. By developing your style based on your own intuition and not trying to look towards what other people are doing. But I also think that’s part of learning, that’s part of the process, looking at what other people are doing and copying that. You will eventually develop your own take on your art, though. When that becomes recognizable I think that’s cool.
In a creative sense, everybody has their influences. It’s important to learn what makes those influences good though, and learn what it is about them that draws you in. Once you have that understanding you can build off that and create your own. So you did the college route and ended up getting a gig with Answer?
I was at home. I lived at home during school to try and save money. I was on Vital MX and I saw a posting that said, “Answer Racing seeking a graphic designer.”
I thought, “Oh, cool!”
I figured it was a long shot, but I spent the whole weekend making a nice resume and sent it in. The whole time I thought I wouldn’t be picked. They ended up giving me a call asking for an interview, so I flew out to California and interviewed with them. I was super nervous. I really didn’t think I’d get the job, because I had no experience. They called me back after the interview and said they’d hire me after a trial run. I worked for several weeks as a temp to kind of prove myself. I ended up doing a good job and got hired.
Dang… that worked out well!
Yeah! I was able to start making connections there, too. My work progressed as well. Just by doing [the job] my work got better and better, which helped me get some recognition with the right people that would eventually land me at my next job.
But it’s funny, one of my first tasks at Answer was to create the 2012 catalog. I got in there and they go, “Alright, we’re working on our catalog for next year and we need you to design the catalog and put it together with InDesign.” I had never even opened InDesign, let alone knew how to use it. I just started messing around with it, secretly Googling how to do certain things. I figured it out, though. Got it done. I think that kind of alludes to my point earlier – learning more by experience than through school.
Trial by fire!
Yeah, that was the thing was I had to do it. I couldn’t just say, “Oh, no. I don’t know how to do that.” I have to do this! If I want to get this job I have to do this. It’s now or never, make it happen! [laughs]
What was your first impressions of Answer?
When I started there, I was a kid obsessed with motocross. I was star-struck by all of the riders. Working with James Stewart and Kevin Windham… Kevin was at MSR, but they were in the same building. Working with all of these high level athletes as a young guy starting his career was really exciting. I kind of miss being that excited about what I’m doing. [laughs]
I forgot Stewart was with Answer at that time, before Seven.
Right when he switched to Answer was when I started there. It’s funny too, because when he left Answer to start Seven was also when I left to start working at DC.
What have you learned from being a designer in the motocross world? I wonder if you draw more inspiration from the artistic side of things, more of the art world, or more from moto?
Well in the beginning I was a motocross kid and that’s all I knew. My job at Answer, I think I did a good job, but I was still learning. My background was motocross, so my influence naturally ended up being motocross. I would look in the industry to see what people were doing and designing for other riders. When I got the opportunity to go to DC Shoes, it went from this really small, family atmosphere with heavy motocross vibes, to this giant corporate office in Huntington Beach with a focus on skateboarding. It was a total shift in what I [had known]. Both with my experience and with my thought process. At Answer, even though I was learning, I think it was fairly easy to be a good designer there because the expectations weren’t as high. Not to talk down on Answer, but when you get to DC and you’re working with a team of the best designers with huge talent… yeah. It was a huge learning experience working with DC, because there’s a lot of pressure to produce good work. I think the people at DC had a trained eye. They could distinguish good work from bad work easier. That brand has a very strong vision, but ultimately working there was what really opened up my vision for what’s next with META.
We’ll definitely dive back into META later on, but I’m still curious about DC. Were you around when the Defy Convention campaign started?
Yeah, I was around then but I was also around a year or two before that when we were running “Defined By DC.” That campaign was developed by our creative director Deven Stephens. I was the creative lead for the moto division of DC, so any creative process that came in that was moto-related, I would be the guy designing and managing what was happening. When I started, that “Defined By” campaign was just launching so our first trip was out to Ocotillo Wells. We were shooting with Jeremy McGrath and all of these guys on DC. It was pretty surreal to be camping with them, working with them. We had this super talented film team with all of this equipment [that] captured some assets for the first ad. That was my first experience at DC. Throughout the rest of the year I designed different ads for that campaign, for each month.
Wasn’t there like a twenty minute video that came out for that campaign? The video from Ocotillo.
I don’t know if it was that long… it might’ve been ten or fifteen minutes.
It was ten, my bad. I remember watching this, though.
It was just our team video for that year. That was really my first experience on the job. It was my first day, actually. That night they said, “Alright, pack up, you’re going out to the desert.”
We spent a couple days shooting with the team. It was cool to have some creative input and work with these high level video guys creating all of the marketing material, titles, etc. On my team I was really the only one with a moto background, though. There were a lot of skateboard, snowboard, and surf guys that would look to me for advice on the moto projects when it came to video or photography. It was kind of cool to be that guy.
I feel like you have to have a good understanding of the sport you’re capturing.
You gotta know the sport, but I also think it’s cool working with people from outside the industry to have a fresh perspective. When we were at Answer we’d just use what’s expected. We’d just do the motocross formula. You do what’s been done or what’s popular. But coming from a surf or skate photographer you start to see a little bit different approach. To me it’s refreshing.
You probably had a good team of people that weren’t going to “kook it,” in a sense. They didn’t come from motocross, but they could probably understand certain elements of the sport and relate it back to surf or skate. It’s not like you were working with people who had no clue.
The main film guy, Justin Smith, he’s super talented. He left DC around the same time I did and went on to Brain Farm. He produced the latest Travis Rice video and stuff like that. He’d always tell me that he loved shooting moto. It’s not his background, but it was like his favorite. He’d say it was similar to shooting snowboarding. I thought that was interesting.
I wanted to talk to you about gear a little bit. I noticed you designed the gear Robbie Maddison wore when he rode the wave for that DC video. Was that your first foray into gear design?
When I was at Answer, we were such a small team that the designers did a little bit of everything. It’s not a company like Fox where there’s a team for every aspect of design. Catalogs, gear, products, apparel. So I designed gear at Answer when I was starting out, and to me that was one of the most exciting parts because you could see this product you designed, then six months later you see it out there on the supercross track. For me, when I saw James Stewart wearing my gear for the first time at Hangtown going 1-1… He had on some pretty flashy gear that I think turned some heads. That was the coolest part of my job there.
Seeing your design out in the wild…
Yeah! As a kid growing up racing you have all of these guys you idolize, and then they’re wearing the gear you designed. Even years later… I was at the Tampa SX this year and I saw people in the stands wearing jerseys I designed. That’s awesome.
I imagine you bumping into some guy at the concessions line and go, “Ay, I made that.” [laughs]
I mainly keep quiet. I’ll be with my girlfriend and have a laugh. “I designed that so long ago!”
I’m curious, when you went to DC did you have a hand in the gear Maddo wore in 2014? It was black, yellow, and blue with his autograph in purple across the shoulder.
The guy that had the job before me started that design, so it was unfinished when I came on and I had to finish it. We were working with three athletes at the time: Jeremy McGrath, Nate Adams, and Robbie Maddison. Each one had their own signature design. It was tough because the DC apparel team had already designed a line of apparel for each athlete, so the gear needed to be cohesive with the apparel. For instance, if you look at the Jeremy McGrath stuff it was red on one side and blue on the other. That’s how his t-shirts looked, his hats, all of that stuff. The gear had to match the apparel so that limited [the designers] a bit. With Robbie’s gear, he was really adamant on what he liked and the apparel guys already had these designs in place. I was stuck in the middle, between Maddo and my creative director, who was my boss. I agreed with my boss on a lot of things but Maddo was really adamant about other things and disagreeing with what the creative director wanted, so I was just stranded in the middle. But it was fun, everyone ended up happy and the gear looked nice. It’s a little bit flashy for my taste but it looks good on the bike.
That’s funny. I still run that gear to this day. [laughs]
Oh, nice! That’s so cool!
It’s still holding up!
I forgot that that was the year you could buy gear from DC. That was really the only year you could actually buy their gear.
I thought it looked great when it came out. I was like, “I need that!” [laughs]
That’s awesome. You wear gear that I designed!
I was curious when I saw an Instagram post you made about designing Maddo’s gear for the wave shoot. I wondered, “Maybe he did the gear I wear now? I gotta ask him.” Jumping ahead a bit, you were at Answer, bounced to DC, had some time at Vurb, and eventually ended up where you are now with META. I want to talk about META more because that’s obviously a big part of your life now. The first time I saw META it really reminded me of Inside Motocross. It was short lived in its day, but I wonder if that provided any inspiration for META?
It’s funny because so many people have told me it reminds them of Inside Motocross, but I’ve never even seen Inside Motocross. I don’t even really know what it is. I think the inspiration for META came from my time at DC, seeing the lifestyle components of surfing and skateboarding, and the idea how those people seem to be a bit more creative and care more about quality. Seeing all of the speciality publications that were coming out of those industries had a hand in it too. Publications like Monster Children… there’s a surf magazine called What Youth. Titles like that that were just really cool. I always had them on my coffee table and always looked at them for design inspiration. I’d always think, “Why does motocross not have anything like this?”
So that’s where the idea came from. It was time to leave DC and move on to something new. I wanted to do something for myself and I thought creating a magazine would be a nice creative outlet and fun to work on. We could also produce something new in the motorcycle world and have a product that is around forever, a physical product. A lot of times your work as a designer is nameless. You don’t get credit. You put it out, you’re done, on to the next thing. It’s an endless machine. Creating a physical product is something that will always be there. Like you, you have volume one right now. It’s still around. We’re still talking about it.
You say your goals are to create something that lasts, and I feel like the trajectory META seems to be on would prove you’re accomplishing that. It’s not disposable.
And we live a world that is more disposable than ever right now. You go on Instagram and there’s so many amazing quality videos and photos that took so much time and effort to produce. You see it, you consume it, and you forget about it in five seconds. So having something [quality] on your coffee table, something that you can come back to and flip through time and time again, it seems like a better use of the hard work.
How do you balance the need for social media in today’s digital landscape with the need to make great, long-lasting content? I’ve held disdain in some form for social media for a long time because of its fleetingness. It’s all very ephemeral.
I think social media is a great tool for someone running their own business. It’s a free marketing tool and it’s super powerful. You have so much access to so many people that I think without social media, our life would be a lot harder publishing this magazine. But I think you’re right, I think a lot of frustration can come from producing content that is so quickly consumed and forgotten. I guess I’m not too upset about it because ultimately we’re producing this content for the magazine and it’s repurposed for social media. Once it’s published in the book it’s there forever, which is great. We can use it on social media to sell more magazines and get our content we worked so hard to produce in front of more eyeballs. I think social media is mostly positive when it comes to marketing your business, but it can have a negative impact on a person’s life if you become obsessed with it. For a business it’s a powerful tool.
I see where you’re coming from. It’s easier for you to justify the use of social media when your producing a physical product. [In relation to the fact that content on social media is easily disposable]. I find it harder to justify with my work, because video is certainly not a physical medium anymore. Especially these days. On the other hand, I think video in the digital age can be very inspiring. I probably wouldn’t even be interested in video if it wasn’t for YouTube, but I find myself wondering if I’ll be able to keep making stuff that has staying power. Stuff that people want to come back to. Feeding the Instagram machine seems like the antithesis to my belief of creating meaningful content.
I think it’s different for me because we’re producing this physical product that exists in the world, in addition to publishing on our website and the internet. For us [Instagram and digital content] is just a bonus, and gives it a larger reach.
Do you think that print publications in the industry see declining readership because they aren’t innovating?
I think print is “dying” because of the digital… I don’t even know the word for it. Like, the digital “world” that we live in. All of the information is distributed so easily through our phones, our computers. Nobody’s buying physical magazines. I mean, people do, but… [pause] it’s apparent when we go to sell advertising every year. Budgets are cut more and more for print. It’s harder and harder to get our supporters to be on board even though we’re growing. People I know at other motorcycle magazines are struggling. It’s a pretty common thread that the magazine industry has a lot of challenges right now in the digital world. I think at times you can adapt to it, and we’re trying to do that by complementing our print stories with video components and publishing them digitally. So we can have this beautiful print product but also, when we’re talking to advertisers, we can tell them that this will be seen by our online audience as well. We have a video to compliment the story, the complete package. I think that’s how we’re evolving to meet that change.
I noticed from the beginning you guys have had a hand in video. Mind Wide Open by Dylan Wineland comes to mind, the mag’s first upload on Vimeo. Came out around the time volume one dropped.
It’s funny that you mention that, because we just put out another video with Dylan today [Note – at the time of this interview] on our website.
Yeah. Yeah, it’s cool. Mind Wide Open wasn’t based on editorial, but I think our first video that accompanied a story was when we took a trip to Bali, Indonesia with Deus Ex Machina. It was a cool little video documenting our trip. That’s what really kind of set off the video presence in META, and since then we’ve been doing one or two videos with each issue. Whether it’s one of our adventures, or about a personality. We just did a video with Tyler Bereman, actually. That’s cool to tie the editorial component like that with the visual, something we can share on our website. If you have time you should cruise to our Vimeo and check out our latest videos.
I think I actually already follow you guys on there, but I probably have some catching up to do anyways.
If you’re a video guy you should watch some of our stuff. You should be pumped.
I remember watching Indigo Child, that’s another old one. I believe Tom Journet did that one.
What do you guys plan on doing to keep innovating as the years go by? I notice there’s three digits on the cover of every issue. What does META look like at one-hundred? Or do you not even look that far ahead?
[laughs] I don’t necessarily look that far ahead. Time changes so fast, and if you’re planning ahead that far… I mean you could do that. I don’t know. I could see META evolving organically. Our goal has always been quality over quantity. I could see META potentially evolving into a hardcover coffee table book of some sort. Who knows what that would entail? A beautiful, once-a-year, hardcover coffee table book. That would be cool and would separate us from a lot of people. I think META was very easy [to produce] when it came out. I don’t even think volume one was that good, but it was still unique when it came out. But now, I think a lot of people have tried emulating META’s style. That’s a good question. How do we stay unique? How do we stay progressive? No matter what you do, if you do it well people will try to replicate it. Those are just some ideas, I don’t really know what the future holds. We’re so busy we just take it day by day.
You’re just in it for the ride.
Yeah, we’re surviving. It’s just a wild ride, everyday. It’s hard to think so far into the future. We need to, but right now we’re just thinking about the next issue.