Q&A: LEE MCALILLY FROM ORIGINAL FUZZPublished Jul 11 by Daniel Moss.
Original Fuzz began when Lee McAlilly and Zach Lever met in
college and started playing in bands together. Zach would carry his pedals
around in a pharmaceutical ad covered gym bag and the two of them had an idea
to upgrade this bag into something more practical for musicians. Since the
initial bag idea the company has grown to build a wide range of camera and
guitar straps from unique textiles from around the world and they are being
used by artists such as Built To Spill, Kurt Vile, Angel Olsen, Ty Segall, Real
Estate, Parquet Courts and countless others. Their ethos has been to make
inspired gear for creative pioneers and their pursuit has led them from
Brooklyn, NY via Jacksonville, FL to Nashville, TN where they
currently call home. We recently had a chat with Lee about what goes on behind
the scenes at Original Fuzz, what it's like working and living in Nashville and
a heap more.
Hi Lee, thanks for having a chat to us! I think a good place to start is right at the beginning. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started with music?
There are two things in life that seemed magical to me when I was kid. One was soccer and the other was music. I'll never forget being hypnotized the first time I heard the lick to "Day Tripper" or had Led Zeppelin II in some headphones. I was lucky to grow up in a house where my parents played good music. Around the time I was 12 or 13 I found an old acoustic guitar in the attic. It had two strings on it, but that was enough to figure out the riff to "Sunshine of Your Love." I formed my first neighborhood band a couple weeks after that and never looked back.
For those unfamiliar with Original Fuzz, can you give us a bit of a run-down on what you're all about?
Original Fuzz believes it's not just what you do but how you do it. Right now we're known for our guitar straps and camera straps, but it's our goal to outfit you in all of your creative endeavors. We believe that if the gear you use makes you feel good and inspires you, you'll be more creative, and you'll come up with cooler ideas. Just ask anyone who's picked up a guitar that makes them feel badass if this is true. For me, the first time I had this experience that the tools you use are not just fashion, they actually affect what you make, when I got a Mac at my first job out of college. It was my first experience not on a Windows PC and it truly changed my life. The tools you use matter.
Also, creativity is the only hope we have for not destroying ourselves and this planet, and our goal is to outfit you for creativity. We're always putting out new stuff. The best place to see what we're up to is on our website, originalfuzz.com.
Can you explain the process of an Original Fuzz strap from idea to completion?
At this point we've got a pretty solid strap design but we're constantly iterating on it. The process of finding new techniques, materials, and textiles that make tiny improvements is really satisfying. A lot of the ideas for new straps come from experimenting with and exploring new ways of making textiles. Our latest experiments are our silkscreen prints on canvas. On one hand, we can design whatever we want, but there are also natural limitations with that process that we have to embrace. It's fun working with and around the limits of different materials.
What lead to your approach of using sourced materials from places such as Peru, India Thailand etc? Are there other areas you would like to look to in the future?
I owe this all to my co-Founder Zach. He took a trip with a buddy to Peru and found the fabric that we use in our "Cusco"strap. He spotted it at a market in the town of Cusco and he thought it would make a killer guitar strap, so he bought some of the fabric home. That's the reason we started making guitar straps. We just found these incredible fabrics in Peru that no one else was using to make straps. It really started the whole company. We don't dictate the designs to our Peruvian artisans. They are all traditional Peruvian woven patterns that have been in the culture for a long time. They are typically used as belts.
As for new places to look, we have a long list of stuff we want to explore. A big thing I want to do more of is mudcloths from Africa. Those are really cool. Textiles, like anything, just get more interesting the more you learn.
All of your straps that used sourced materials adhere to fair trade guidelines and high labor practices. Can you tell us a bit about what this entails?
We do our absolute best to make our entire supply chain as sustainable and fair as possible. It's really about treating people, no matter where they are in the world, how you'd want to be treated and paid how you'd expect to be paid if you were on the other end of the deal. Most of our Peruvian fabric is Fair Trade certified, but that is a very specific government certification. For our Indian fabrics, it doesn't have the government certification, but we work directly with a small co-op, so there is a lot of transparency with how it's made. We know who we're dealing with and that their working conditions are ok and they are paid fairly.
We have a new woven line that is woven by a friend of ours in Louisville, KY and our new silkscreen is printed in our building by our neighbors Grand Palace Silkscreen. You have to be really careful about where your textiles come from, and we do our best to work directly with the people weaving or printing them.
We do all of the leatherwork, sewing, and assembly in our workshop in Nashville, so we have control over that. Our leather comes from Horween in Chicago, one of the oldest, most-admired tanneries in the US.
We try to have a fair, equitable, and environmentally-friendly supply chain, but this is a process we have to always work on and continuously improve on. There is no destination. You can always do more.
Original Fuzz have always seemed to have a close relationship with a number of current musicians and until recently a lot your strap designs were known by artist names. Was there a reason behind moving away from this? And can you tell us a bit about the thought of naming your straps this way?
Well, this started because we gave the first prototype strap we ever made to Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. He was a hero of ours and we just knocked on his tour bus and handed the manager some straps. We really didn't expect anything to happen, but he ended up using the strap at the show that night and then never took it off his guitar! So, we started referring to it as the "Doug Martsch."
They came back and played another show about a year later and we snuck into the soundcheck to try and talk to him. We told Doug that we had been using his name on our website and we wanted to know if he had a problem with it. He said, "Let me check with my wife. You'll hear from me if I have a problem with it." We still haven't heard from him, so I guess it's cool.
Naming straps after people is just a way for us to showcase artists we admire. Everyone you see on our site now is someone from whom we've gotten their blessing. Our latest release is a design collaboration with Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. He's on fire right now so we were really stoked about that one.
You started the company with your friend from college Zach Lever. What were you both studying when you met and can you explain how your friendship led to starting Original Fuzz?
We met our freshman year at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC and quickly became friends and roommates. I was an English major and he studied Economics. Our friendship was initially musical. He was the best guitar player I had ever heard, so I managed to weasel my way into a band with him. I was the bass player that had to move from guitar to bass because the other guitar players hovering around the band were way better. I've been "the bass player" ever since and have grown to love it.
We had a lot of fun summers playing all over bars in Charleston, SC. After graduating we moved to Nashville, TN to chase our music dreams for a year before Zach left for law school. That broke the band up for a while, but we teamed up later to start Original Fuzz.
You have a background in web development and digital marketing. Do you think that influenced the way Zach and yourself approached starting a business?
For sure. I moved to New York shortly after my band with Zach in Nashville ended. My job there was as the first employee for a digital marketing company that was on the forefront of using social media and music to market brands. (For instance, we were the company running 50 Cent and Mandy Moore's Myspace page in 2006.) So that's what started it for me. I just went deeper and deeper into that world, and I see Fuzz as just the next step in that progression.
The company has expanded beyond the two of you to include Brit Hessler and Desmond Smith. Can you explain each of your roles in the operation? How many people are now working for you?
Well we've changed a lot since we started. Zach, Brit and Desmond have moved on. Zach left the company to start a family but he played a critical role in helping us get off the ground. For that I will always owe him. Startup life is not the easiest place to be if you're about to start a family.
We're still going full force and have a team of eight (counting me) that help us in Nashville now. Nashville has been a great move for us and is a natural place for our business. It's enabled us to attract a really talented and smart team. Everyone does their own creative projects outside of Fuzz. Here's a rundown of our current team:
Liz Earle - Liz is our creative director and editor of our magazine. Outside of Original Fuzz Liz designs her own line of clothes with her label Electric Thread.
Emily Quirk - Emily is a really talented, young photographer here in town who also works on our production team.
Tyler Davis - Tyler is a really talented sewer and leather worker that also fronts the local band Chrome Pony. They are killer. Check them out.
Laura Paulk - Laura manages our wholesale accounts. She works from home and raises her daughter Iris. She has all kinds of creative projects burning. She once kayaked across the entire state of Alabama.
Holly Schudlt - Holly is an excellent sewer who works as a freelance designer and pattern maker. Holly also designs her own line of clothing.
Billy Bennett - Billy is an incredible local audio engineer and producer that also teaches at Belmont and works at the Bomb Shelter, a tape studio in East Nashville. Billy has a bunch of credits to his name, including the first Whigs album and the second MGMT album. He was the live sound engineer for MGMT for a long time. He wanted to learn how to sew so we brought him onto the team.
Anna deWitt - Anna is the newest addition to our production team. Not only has she become an adept sewer really quickly, she is also a founder of the Nashville Psych Alliance and has a liquid light show called Silver Cord Cinema.
So the cool thing about our team is that everyone doing the day-to-day work is constantly involved in other creative endeavors.
You're currently located in Nashville but Original Fuzz has roots in Brooklyn, New York and then via Jacksonville Florida. Do you think your geography has influenced the business? And why have you settled in Nashville?
Well, I'm really a Mississippian. I grew up in Tupelo, MS and the metro areas within a reasonable distance are Memphis, Nashville, and Birmingham. Nashville is by far the best of those options, so I guess I've been drawn here a long time.
I went to college in South Carolina and moved to Nashville right after I graduated. I did a 5-year stint in Brooklyn, NY. The Jacksonville period was just when we were starting Original Fuzz. That's where Zach grew up. It was just a place to go to work on Fuzz and get it off the ground.
I always assumed Brooklyn would just be an adventure and I'd land back in the South. If you're like me and want to be around music where in the South do you go besides Nashville? Maybe New Orleans, maybe Memphis or Atlanta, but Nashville is really the best place to be for music. I mean, they recorded Blonde on Blonde here. Anyone you'd want to see on a tour will come here within the course of a year. Plus it's relatively close to my family in Mississippi, and the perfect place for Fuzz to be headquartered, so here I am.
What do you find exciting and inspiring about working out of Nashville? Any local music from there we should be paying attention to?
Oh, so many bands are happening right now! We're actually doing a show Saturday, July 8 featuring 14 of them. Come on out,originalfuzz.com/fuzzfest. Some of my favorite local bands though are Music Band, Ron Gallo, Deslondes, Daddy Issues, Steelism, Erin Rae & The Meanwhiles. There are a bunch. When I first moved back to town I saw Those Darlins and was real impressed. It's a bummer they couldn't carry on.
Can you tell us a little bit about your magazine 'The Fuzz Guide'?
Well, we changed the name to just "Original Fuzz." The ultimate goal is to turn it into a print magazine that we mail to people for free. Rather than selling a bunch of ads, they support it by supporting our brand. We write about is the creative process. What makes creative people tick?
We don't just cover music, but visual arts, writing, anything or anyone creative. It will make more sense in the coming years as we make more products for other types of our artists-chefs, photographers, writers, designers, entrepreneurs, etc. As our brand evolves we'll expand the topics that we cover and the scope of the magazine. Right now I think our guitar player audience is a little confused about why we do all this, but we're just laying the foundation.
Also, it started as an excuse for us to get access to people we want to interview. If we say we have a magazine, rather than just a blog or website, people seem to give us more access. Just last week our secret plan worked! We got to interview Buzz from the Melvins about their new album.
Also, you have a podcast! Who's involved with that and what's the general topic of conversation?
This is more of my personal passion project. It started with me and Desmond just talking about guitars, but he didn't have the attention span to keep at it, so now it's just me and I changed the format of the show in his absence.
I just love talking about music and talking to interesting people about music. I also think that oral history is such a direct way to document things. So by doing the podcast we're building this tiny little archive. Our own little oral history, which I think is cool. If everything at Fuzz went way tomorrow I'd still do the podcast.
Lastly, what's in store for the rest of 2017? Any new lines you want to give us the scoop on?
Stay tuned and look out for updates on originalfuzz.com!
Thanks so much to y'all for being a customer and for caring enough to ask us questions. We appreciate every single person that supports us in this journey. It is way bigger than just me. We're just hoping to pay it forward.
Check out our range of Original Fuzz straps here!
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