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Q&A: Jamie Stillman from Earthquaker Devices

Saturday 5th of March 2016

The year 2004, what an eventful year it was. George W. Bush was re-elected into his second term as American President, Massachusetts becomes the first US state to legalize gay marriage, in Australia Jetstar Airlines takes it’s maiden flight, and we also saw the birth of both Facebook and Gmail. We lost the lives of Hubert Selby Jr, Dimebag Darrell, Russ Meyers, Estée Lauder, Ray Charles, Ronald Reagan, Marlon Brando, Rodney Dangerfield, John Peel, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Yasser Arafat and Johnny Ramone among countless others. In the musical world we saw debut albums from both Arcade Fire and Kanye West as well as some of the decade’s most unique records from Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom and The Fiery Furnaces. All the while this was happening, a guy by the name of Jamie Stillman started building some guitar effects in a basement in Akron, Ohio with no real plan.

Fast forward 12 years, and the US have the only presidential candidate more ominous than George W. Bush, Arcade Fire and Kanye West are the biggest artists of their generation in their respective fields, gay marriage is still not legalized in majority of the world (including Australia) and Jetstar Flights still rarely run on their designated departure time. Jamie Stillman has also built Earthquaker Devices into a company of over 40 people and one of the boutique pedal worlds trendsetters and most well known and respected companies, being used by countless artists all over the world. We had a chat to Jamie after NAMM 2016 to get a bit more detail on the Earthquaker Devices story.

Jamie, thanks for taking the time to have a chat with us. I imagine NAMM was a pretty busy time as you guys just announced 8 new pedals and an amp! How did everything go out west in sunny Anaheim?

We had a great NAMM this year! It was the first time we had 2 booths going and had loads of different demo artists performing every day!

Can you give us a quick background on your past musical endeavors and how that led you to the pedal building world?

I’ve been a musician as long as I can remember! I got my first drum set when I was 5 and I think I started my first real band when I was 11 or 12. I ran a punk rock record label called Donut Friends Records when from age 15 until I was about 25 or 26.  I toured from 1995-2004 as a guitar player in a band called The Party of Helicopters and played drums in the bands Teeth of the Hydra, Houseguest, “new” Terror Class and Harriet the Spy all through out that time as well. I gave up touring as a musician in 2004 and began tour managing the Black Keys which lasted until around 2012. During that time, I started a short-lived band called “Drummer” (which featured a bunch of drummers from Akron Ohio, including Patrick Carney, playing different instruments) and that eventually lead to my current band, Relaxer. Relaxer is somewhat of an EQD house band as it features myself and builders Brad Thorla and Steve Clements. We released one LP that is available on the EQD site.

And how did this side lead into pedal building side of things? 

All the gear I used while touring in the POH was fairly cheap and had seen better days. One of my favourites was an old a DOD250 overdrive that stopped working and that repair led to my obsession with building gear.

Like a lot of builders, you have a lot of versions and modified versions of classic designs. What was the first circuit you felt was quite removed from anything that had come before it?

The second pedal I put out was the Disaster Transport Delay. It really had nothing to do with anything that came before it. The delay section was built from the app note in the data sheet but everything else was fairly unique.

There are a lot of old pedal designs that aren’t widely manufactured in modern designs and cost an exorbitant amount for the vintage original. I feel that Earthquaker Devices have made some of these circuits accessible, especially in the fuzz world (Companion Fuzz, Ace Tone Fuzz Master etc). Are there any other vintage circuits you feel you would like to have a crack at?

Yeah, I have a bunch of old weirdos that I would love to clone if time and money allowed. Ludwig Phase II, Kimberley Fuzz Box and Volume Expander, Roland Jet Phaser, Roland X911, Korg Synthe-Wah to name a few.

Roland Jet PhaserIt’s hard to narrow down to one but do you have a favourite pedal design?

I think it would be a tie between the Fuzz Face and the Maestro FSH-1. The Maestro has the lead, no one has been able to come close to the sound of that envelope filter.

Most boutique pedal companies are quite a small operation of just a few people, but I’ve seen your staff photos and it seems like there’s 30+ people working for EQD. How do you manage to keep this sustainable and how did it grow to this point?

We currently employ just over 40 people. Almost all of them are builders, not a common occurrence in a company of our size. Most people stop hand populating boards once they start building more than 400-500 pedals a week, we just kept hiring more people, lol! We grew organically and little by little over time, it is a conscious decision to keep it all in house for as long as we possibly can. The Avalanche Run is the first time we had to outsource boards but we are using a local company that is located right down the street. It’s important to us to manufacture everything as locally as possible.

And I read that you guys offer health insurance for your staff? Being from Australia we take things like this for granted but that’s a pretty great thing to be able to do for your employees.

Yeah, my wife Julie really whipped EQD into shape. She has more of a business background and knows more about setting up a legit business than I could ever hope to. We have all the insurance you can handle, 401k, etc
We got really lucky!

Jamie-and-JulieHaving started as one dude building pedals in his basement, was there a definable moment where momentum started to shift and it started to feel like an ongoing business venture? 

Around 2008 I finally had enough business that I felt I could quit my graphic design job. I actually had the thought “if I can sell about 5 hoofs a day, I’ll be set”, LOL! I surpassed that goal and decided to give it a try and it has been growing steadily ever since.

About a year or so ago we ran an in-store EQD clinic with Juan Alderete showcasing your pedals. EQD are the only pedal company I know that do things like this to help grow not only your brand but guitar effects across the world. Do you have other people or other initiatives to expand on this in the future?

We do clinics and trade shows all the time. It’s actually really common maybe just not in the “boutique” world. Juan is great at what he does, we were really lucky to meet him and have him on our team. We have used a lot of other artists over the years like Nick Reinhart, Jonathan Hischke, Jimmy Carbonetti as well as a lot of the guys who build in our shop. We recently started setting up backstage at different music festivals and that has been really successful as well. We plan to keep doing as much promotion as possible, it’s fun and it does nothing but good.

I know from selling EQD in store that we’ll have phases where certain pedals of yours are in vogue. Dispatch Master, Afterneath, Organizer, Rainbow Machine, Hoof being the obvious ones. Do you find that your pedals popularity trends are usually global? Or have certain effects been more popular in certain regions?

I tend to not pay any attention to stuff like that unless I absolutely have to. I know the mainstay big sellers but that’s about it. It seems like everyone I meet has a different favorite pedal though. There are some people who swear the black eye clean boost is the best pedal ever and there are those who would never even think of buying a clean boost. It’s all relative as far as I’m concerned.

We often have people perplexed as to what one of your pedals does based on its name. I’ve read a few interesting stories on how you came up with the names for some of your pedals. Are there a few favorite names you can give us a background on?

Yeah, some people get scared or even angry when things aren’t the “boss standard”. We have had people who are like “this ones blue, it must be a chorus and this one is orange so it must be an overdrive” LOL! I just like them to have interesting names and good graphics. The names come from all over, sometimes it’ll just come to me other times we’ll open it up to shop opinion. My favorites are the Rainbow Machine, which my daughter Sylvia named, Afterneath, which came from me talking too fast at a NAMM show and Tone Job, just because I like to hear people say “you need a Tone Job”.

EQD-HQSo you’ve just announced 8 new pedals and an amplifier at NAMM! Can you give us a really quick rundown on each of these and what the inspiration was?

Since the descriptions are now available on our site, I’ll give you some fun facts about each pedal.

Acapulco Gold: This was initially designed as a promotional item for the “Psycho de Mayo” stoner rock festival an was intended to be limited to 150. Once pro guitar shop began selling them it became apparent that we needed to keep it around
Avalanche Run: Avalanche Run is the first name of the Disaster Transport roller coaster at Cedar Point, a local amusement park. It is also where the name Dispatch Master came from.
Bellows: This is a very simple design that had been sitting around in a junk drawer at my house for years. It has turned into one of my favorite dirt boxes ever.
Bows: This is another pedal that had been sitting around in my junk drawer for a while. While it’s a simple germanium booster, it had a voice that I found unique and I kept pulling it out when I would play at home.
Gray Channel: This pedal is based on the pedal that got me started building pedals and, coincidentally, it was released on the 10th anniversary of EQD. I actually built it for myself and had no intention of turning it into a product until I realized how useful it is.
Night Wire: I thought this up after trying to figure out how to turn on the Grand Orbiter and Hummingbird at the same time for one part in a Relaxer song.
Spatial Delivery: I have designed no less than 5 different envelope filters since the start of EQD but none of them have ever made it into development. This one stuck with me for a while, mostly do to the Sample and Hold setting, and I finally decided to release it.
Spires: Came from my need to have a Silicon Fuzz Face and my vintage Rosac Nu Fuzz on my pedalboard without taking up all the space.

EQD-Namm-New-PedalsDo you have a usual process with new designs? Is there a general way of starting things and what’s the usual procedure in the final parts of completion? 

Usually I’ll think of a sound I want and I’ll do a bit of research to see what it’ll take to achieve it. Then I’ll start working on the breadboard and see where it goes from there. Sometimes it happens really quick, the Bit Commander and Acapulco Gold both came together in an afternoon. Other times it’ll stretch out over a year or morph into multiple different products from the initial idea. My favorites are the ones that come together as a “happy accident” like the Afterneath.

Lastly, there seems to be a new pedal manufacturer every other week these days. Where do you think EQD’s unique place in the whole big picture is?

At this point, we have been around a while and have become somewhat of a trend setter. I feel stupid saying that but people tell me that all the time and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice it. A lot of stuff I did 4 or 5 years ago; whether it’s the artwork, branding or designing on the FV-1 platform, is just now being capitalized on by newer builders. I definitely owe a lot to companies like EHX, DOD, Way Huge and D*A*M so it’s very flattering to be in that position now.

As for our future, we aren’t afraid to not follow the market and just do what we like to do. I’ll always have an interest in both old standards as well as unique noise makers and/or doing wrong things with digital signal processing. I feel confident enough to say that we have a thing that people like and I hope that they will remain interested as long as it’s still inspiring them to make music.

Thanks so much for taking the time to have a chat. Dealing with Julie and yourself is always an absolute pleasure and you’re consistently one of the easiest and nicest companies to deal with so its really satisfying from our end seeing something succeed from good people. All the best!

Thanks! I really appreciate it!

Check out the full range from Earthquaker Devices here!
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