How former Black Keys tour manager Jamie Stillman went from hanging with Dan Auerback to reverse-engineering an old pedal and founding one of the most creative and futuristically retro stompbox outfits in the biz.
EarthQuaker HQ: (L to R) Gavin Smith, Ben Veehorn (circuit builder), Mike Stangelo (PCB population, wires, assembly), Steve Clements (circuit builder), Jamie Stillman (founder/pedal designer), Julie Robbins (business manager), Elsa (support), Justin Seeker (senior circuit builder) Jeff France (production manager), Brad Thorla (assembly). Photo by Stephanie Falk
“Affordable” is not a word often associated with boutique effect pedals. Nor is Akron, Ohio, normally associated with bands that fill Madison Square Garden. But while Akron’s Jamie Stillman was road managing just such a band—the Black Keys—he was simultaneously starting a line of great-sounding, handwired boutique pedals that would retail for little more than those of the mass-produced variety.
Despite boasting some deliciously cryptic names (Grand Orbiter, anyone?), Stillman’s effects often tend toward the meat-andpotatoes variety—boost/EQ, delay/reverb, fuzz, modulation, octave, and overdrive. But Stillman certainly has his own take on these stalwarts, often pushing the limits of their parameters on both ends.
Inspired by Electro-Harmonix founder Mike Matthews’ screw-the-noise-if-it-sounds-great MO, Stillman has likewise proven his mettle as both a designer and manufacturer: His EarthQuaker Devices stompboxes are as appealing to junkies on pedal forums as they are to those more worried about how their purchase will affect their pocketbooks. His is a classic entrepreneurial success story, with worthwhile lessons about carefully monitoring growth while staying true to your vision.
How did you get started
Around 2004, I had a DOD Overdrive/Preamp 250 that I loved. When the volume pot broke, I decided I would just replace it. I opened it up and discovered there was nothing much in it. I found the schematic online and, for some reason, it just made total sense to me—so I decided to build a new one. During my search for the schematic, I found websites like geofx.com and generalguitargadgets.com and got obsessed. I would stay up for days reading about electronics— I was constantly going to forums to learn as much as possible.
Did you have any technical
None, but I am able to understand schematics like any electrical engineer. Put me in front of a microwave oven, and I doubt I could rebuild it. But put me in front of an effect, and I can work on it. I can also work on some amps and guitars. I have been a tinkerer my entire life. My folks have photos of me taking apart an abandoned car in the backyard when I was in kindergarten. I was always dismantling things around my grandparents’ house.
What’s your musical
I have been a musician forever. I started on drums when I was 5 or 6, and I started playing guitar when I was 10 or 11—about 20 years ago. Until about two years ago, I had spent pretty much my entire life touring in indie-rock bands— from age 17 until 33. I played drums in Harriet the Spy, and guitar in Party of Helicopters. More recently, I was in a band called Teeth of the Hydra, and a band called Drummer with Pat Carney from the Black Keys. I am currently in a band called Relaxer. I also worked as a freelance graphic designer and as tour manager for the Black Keys from 2004 to 2010—but any spare second was spent learning about electronics as they relate to musical instruments.
Were you working on Dan
Auerbach’s equipment when
you were with the Black Keys?
I was not a true guitar tech—I didn’t string guitars or anything like that—but I helped set up the equipment and handled emergencies. I also built tons of pedals for Dan. The EarthQuaker Hoof Fuzz is based on his green Russian Big Muff.
What was your next project
after the DOD clone?
I then started with the standards. I built a Fuzz Face clone, but I had to build that one 50 times to get it to work right [laughs]—[it was, like] “The first one was so easy, why is this one so hard?” That taught me a lot about transistor biasing and how something so simple can be such a pain in the ass.
Fuzz pedals are notoriously
difficult to get right—even
for experienced builders.
From the sound of the Dream
Crusher, it seems like you
eventually nailed it.
When you get them right, they are awesome. The Dream Crusher was my version of the Fuzz Face. I try to get as much range as possible out of the fuzz and dirt pedals we make, and while I’m in there I end up cleaning them up. They are not as gritty as a lot of other distortion pedals, and I like that.
After that, I started building all kinds of things. I took pieces from one circuit and attached them to another—all the weird, mad-scientist things everyone who gets into this kind of stuff does. I spent about a year messing with different circuits, and out of those came the three pedals I used to start EarthQuaker Devices. One was the Spectre Overdrive, which was basically a couple of JFET [junction gate field-effect transistor] boosters driving each other … it didn’t work out so well.
In terms of sound or sales?
It sounded pretty good, but at the time I really didn’t know what I was doing. We built four of them and they all went to friends, but the JFETs ended up frying each other—I wasn’t treating them properly. Looking back, I see every stupid mistake I made. The second pedal, the discontinued Tusk Fuzz, ended up being part of our line. It wasn’t really based on any other pedal. The third was the Hoof Fuzz, and that really set it all off in 2005. I launched the company on breaks from Black Keys tours. I basically put a bunch of pedals up on eBay and sold mostly the Hoofs. It got around on the forums that the Hoof sounded good, and then people found out I was working with the Black Keys and that didn’t hurt.
1. EarthQuaker Devices Founder Jamie Stillman works on a pedal bread board. Stillman does all of the pedal designing and screenprinting for his stompboxes. (Photo by Stephanie Falk) 2. Ben Veehorn works on early stages of pedal building in the circuitboard workstation. (Photo by Jeff France) 3. Senior Circuit Builder Justin Seeker working on Earthquaker Devices circuitboards. (Photo by Jeff France) 4. Brad Thorla works with circuitboards and pedal assembly. (Photo by Jeff France)
When you started the company,
what did you feel you
could offer players that was
missing in pedals already on
When I started building, I had no idea there was a world of people online talking about boutique pedals. I had always used pedals but was never happy with them. I heard sounds made by other bands and didn’t know how to get them: I didn’t know that there was a difference between the sound of a Marshall JCM900 and a Marshall Super Lead, or a Boss Overdrive versus a Big Muff. I was unhappy that I wasn’t getting the sound on Led Zeppelin records, without realizing I wasn’t using anything close to the same gear. Once I started building pedals, I realized these are those sounds!
As I started experimenting with effects, I began adding things that I wanted, like more low end or more clarity, while still having the pedal sound like an amp on the verge of blowing up. Modern effects were clean, pristine, noise-free—sterile. My goal was to make things that sounded old and kind of [expletive] up. Noise was part of those old pedals, like Echoplexes and old fuzz pedals—they didn’t work right, and that’s what sounds so good. Over time, I realized I was trying to mix old and new to come up with the sound that I had in my head. It turned out other people were into that sound, too. I read the Analog Man book interview with Mike Matthews of Electro- Harmonix, and a lot of his philosophies fall right in line with mine. If it does its job but there is some noise—[expletive] it.
You used to work as a graphic
designer—did you design the
The octopus skull? No, I wish I did. I redrew it a bit. The octopus skull was a piece of clip art that I cut out of this ’90s punk-rock magazine called Crap Hound, thinking I would use it some day. When I started making EarthQuaker Devices, I put it on there and it became recognizable. Still, I wish I had come up with something of my own. I ran across a guy who had a tattoo of it—but not because of us. He came across it on his own.
What’s your shop like?
I used to work alone out of my basement, but by March of this year we had seven people working in 300 square feet. I am an organization freak, so we had things going up the walls and stored on the ceiling. We had used every square inch of my basement, and it was time to move. Now we have a shop downtown with 2,000 square feet that’s five minutes from my house. We are in a couple of rooms in a warehouse—with windows [laughs]. It is a bombproof fortress, most of it owned by an Akron company that builds bionic limbs. We have run out of room there already.
Compared to other handwired
boutique pedals, your prices
are pretty affordable—almost
in line with mass-produced
effects. How do you do it?
Volume—we sell a lot of pedals, mostly through stores and distributors. At any given point, we sell from one to five percent direct. The pricing has always worked out—from the time I was doing it myself up until now, with nine people and a ton of expenses. The volume kept increasing, and we’ve done everything at the right time to maintain that pricing. That is not to say we don’t lose money on some pedals. Some are not making a profit, but I love them so much I won’t get rid of them.
LEFT: Steve Clements tends to the fi ner details, in the saudering of PCB population into pedals. Photo by Jeff France. CENTER: Pedals in the wiring stage at EarthQuaker headquarters. Photo by Jeff France. RIGHT: Mike Stangelo drills stomp switch holes into EarthQuaker Device pedals. Photo by Jeff France.
When we started, the low prices turned some of the boutique buyers off because they assumed low price meant crap workmanship. But it is important to me to keep the effects affordable and keep making them by hand. Otherwise, what is unique about them? I think some boutique pedal buyers search out the most expensive pedals they can find, whereas we have crossed over to the general purchaser who walks into your average music store in the middle of Minnesota and says, “I want an overdrive pedal that does such and such.” The salesman shows them one of ours, and they go, “Oh, cool.” They might have come in looking for a Boss overdrive and they end up with one of our pedals. Then again, some of those people think our prices are a little high.
Do you take custom orders?
We used to, but we just can’t keep up with it—I’m the only one who can do custom stuff. Most of the people who work here do it like paint by numbers: They get a build sheet and they only know how to build our pedals. If someone wanted a purple Organizer [an EarthQuaker pedal that produces organ-like effects] with a boost function, I would be the only one who could do that— and I don’t have the time.
We have hired more and more people, so actually building pedals has been out of my hands for a year, if not longer. My daily routine involves answering a ton of emails and fielding questions from everyone in the shop. My final hands-on thing with the pedals is hand-screening them and doing all the repairs. Sometimes we do custom colors for people because they happened to write us just when I was about to order enclosures, so I can throw in a one-off color. But in terms of fully custom pedals, I just don’t have the time— which sucks for me, because I like doing stuff like that. Occasionally, I will do a limited run of fuzz pedals because I like doing them.
Are you working on any new
pedal designs right now?
I haven’t had time lately to design anything new, but I had a lot of free time last year so I have a backlog of ideas and prototypes for new pedals.
Why EarthQuaker “Devices,”
rather than “Effects” or
It is my obsession with old things—it sounds like an old Japanese pedal company. It’s the same reason I use “machine” on the end of some of the pedal names. I always thought the old Foxx Tone Machine name was really cool, or the Hornby-Skewes Zonk Machine, which is my favorite name for a pedal—ever.
What kind of pedal was that?
I believe it was a treble booster into a Fuzz Face. I’ve never seen one, though.
Some EarthQuaker nomenclature
can be a little vague.
For example, is there any bit
reduction going on in the Bit
Commander synth pedal?
No—that confused everyone at first. I was thinking in terms of 8-bit sound as opposed to a bit crusher. Maybe I should have saved the name Bit Commander for a bit crusher pedal! [Laughs.]
Lastly, Production Manager Jeff France places knobs on the various pedals. Photo by Stephanie Falk
Is the Attack knob on the
Ghost Echo a predelay?
Yes. That is another one of those confusing things that makes total sense to me, but when we first put it out people were like, “What is this?” I like to hover in the space somewhere between reality and being totally cryptic. About 50 percent of our pedals don’t have instructions for that very reason. Just plug it in and mess around with it and you will figure it out.
Was the White Light Overdrive
a reference to Lou Reed’s
“White Light, White Heat”?
No, I wish I were cool enough to say it was—not that I was unfamiliar with that song. I seem to go through phases when naming pedals. I was coming off an animal phase and moving into a short-lived color phase with that pedal.
Why would you call an amazingsounding
fuzz Dream Crusher?
My wife named that.
Because you spent time
designing it instead of taking
her to dinner?
Yeah, right. I think I had the graphic before we had the name. It is based on the skull inside the dream catcher.
It seems a little pessimistic to
call your delays—the Disaster
Transport and Disaster
Dispatch Master [reverb/delay] and Disaster Transport are both Ohio references. Disaster Transport is the name of a roller coaster here at Cedar Point [amusement park in Sandusky]. It was called Dispatch Master Transport, but after an explosion knocked off some of the letters it read “Dis … aster Transport.” Coincidentally, that ride just shut down.
Tell us about the new
It is an overdrive that goes from totally clean to full-on distortion, with a fully active boost EQ and a presence knob to tame that last bit of high end. It really covers a lot of ground—it does a lot more than most overdrive pedals I’ve played. I’m really happy with it, and it takes a lot for me to be happy with an overdrive. I went through eight completely different circuits. Ironically, the end result was the easiest circuit to work with.
How much of any given
design is based on customer
Not a lot. You can’t please everybody. I will sometimes listen to our production manager, Jeff France. He will come up with ideas for additions and subtractions, and he will bluntly tell me if an idea sucks. Ninety-five percent of the time I go with my ideas, and five percent will be his suggestions. We get emails with suggestions, but everyone who works here— especially my wife—will tell you I am very set in my ways and usually use only my own ideas [laughs].