I’ve known Chris Rossi for at least 18 years: He lived with several of my former bandmates in a large house in Durham, where he built a small recording studio and a workshop. From time to time, I would enter that house and hear strange sounds coming from his side of the house — he was always experimenting with noise.
In 2013, Chris decided to turn his hobby into a business, and Dusky Electronics was born. Amps were the first venture, but he has created a line of pedals that hold their own in the world of boutique tone. I talked to him after trying a few of them out, including the brand new fuzz pedal, Hypatia. I quickly became enamored. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Pedal Fuzz: I know you had been dabbling in recording and building electronics for a long time, but what made you decide to jump into the world of boutique pedals?
Chris Rossi: When I started Dusky Electronics, my focus was on amplifiers — specifically the D₂O Amplifier. I also started designing pedals around this time; I designed the Toasted Drive and the Octomotron, but those were really just for my own use and edification. But, as soon as I built them, I showed them to our friend, Zeke [Graves], and he was like, “How much?” So then I got the idea that maybe I should sell pedals too. The R&D cycle on the pedals was much faster than on the amplifiers, so I could get a couple of pedal designs ready for production while waiting on other things to happen for the amplifiers. I figured having something I could offer at a lower price point than the amps couldn’t hurt, too. People are far more likely to take a chance on a $175 pedal than a $1500 amp. But, really, still, the impetus is I get interested in something for my own use. I get it to where I like it, and then I invite other people to use it.
PF: What type of hurdles were there to getting your pedals heard in a fairly saturated market for sonic manipulation? Especially when you aren’t offering the type of things that a company like EarthQuaker is — was it a challenge to get your pedals into the hands of people who might help sell them?
CR: Yes, it still is. I think I’ve given myself an uphill battle for a couple of reasons: 1) I’m not offering pedals that do really wild things — they just sound good and are musically useful. So I can say, “Here’s this overdrive — it sounds really good,” and that’s a hard sell, because there are tons of overdrives. 2) I’m not basing designs on already known reference points. I’m not interested in making a tweaked Tubescreamer or a Klon clone, but when you can give people a familiar point of reference, it can be a lot easier to market. Add to this the fact that I got into this because I was good at designing circuits, not because I know anything about marketing a product, and yeah, it’s been difficult. I’m still trying to figure it out, but I’m getting better. I’ve done a much better job of launching the Mandorla, for example, than I have for any of my earlier pedals, and I’m seeing better sales as a result. At the end of the day it still has to sound really good and give people a tool they can actually use, but you have to figure out how to tell people about it as well, and that’s been a steep learning curve for me.
PF: How have you figured out how to tell people about it?
CR: Ha, well, that makes it sounds like I have it figured out. One thing that really helped, was Jon Levy, the publisher of Premier Guitar Magazine, called me out of the blue one day. I assume he does this to any new builder he notices. And what he did was he walked me through some things that in his world are very obvious: how and when to write a press release and send it out, how to solicit reviews, etc. It was an extremely kind gesture, to recognize someone who was making an interesting product but who probably didn’t have any idea what they were doing on the marketing side, and to reach out and have a conversation and lay down some knowledge.
One of the lessons learned is to coordinate a marketing push with the release of a product. When I started, I put up a website, started selling stuff, and then, very slowly, tried to figure out marketing. By the time I was reaching out to folks and asking for reviews, I’d been selling some of this stuff for a year, which in their world is way too old. Never mind that it would still be brand new to the vast majority of their audience — it was still old news. The Mandorla, in a way, has been my first opportunity to put some of these lessons into practice — I sent out a real press release, I submitted solicitations for reviews, I got them to video demo people, all right before actually putting the thing out for sale, so there was a much more coordinated effort that wound up having a much bigger impact. It’s still very much small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but it’s improvement and it’s growth, so I’m happy.
PF: Have you thought about making pedals that “do really wild things”? At least, beyond the Octomotron, which, in my experience using it, does some really wild things? (How does it do those wild things?)
CR: Yes, I do have some wild ideas, actually. When and if they pan out, I’ll let you know what they are.
I actually made a video about how the Octomotron works. The short answer is, it rectifies the audio signal. This isn’t a new idea, and is the same basic principle as the Octavia of Jimi Hendrix fame, although the implementation is different.
PF: Have you gone back into any of the designs you’ve made for these pedals and tweaked them, knowing what you know now about how people use them and how they sound? Or would you want to?
CR: I haven’t, yet, but it’s likely that in the near future I’ll look at updating the Toasted Drive and maybe the Octomotron. I do have some new ideas and a little more experience under my belt at this point.
PF: Are there any pedal companies around today that you are fond of or inspired by? Are there any musicians pushing sound forward that you feel the same about?
CR: When Electro-Harmonix came back in the early ‘00s and started doing new pedals again, that was pretty exciting. My next pedal company crush was Catalinbread. Before I ever designed anything of my own, I built a few Catalinbread clones from schematics I found online of reverse engineered pedals. I had a lot of respect for their tacit support of the DIY community around their pedals, which wasn’t something you saw a lot of universally. Recently, the people that used to work there all left, so I’m not sure what’s in store for the company. I have a definite nerd crush on their former chief designer, Howard Gee, though, and I look forward to seeing what he gets into next. Earthquaker is awe inspiring for the sheer number of really good sounding and innovative pedals they make. Lately, Old Blood Noise Endeavours and Chase Bliss Audio are both really interesting companies doing really cool things.
As far as musicians, I’ve been a huge fan of everything Nels Cline for a long time. First saw him when he came through on a tour with Mike Watt, I don’t know, close to 20 years ago now, probably. I’ve been a big fan of Deerhoof for a long time, too. The common thread, there, I guess is taking the fabric of rock and roll and making something new out of it, something inspired, and something unexpected. Technology, like pedals, plays a role, but at the end of the day it’s their genius that’s really moving things forward, not the tools themselves they use to do it. I’ve also, more recently, been taken by Nick Reinhardt and his work in Tera Melos, not to mention Big Walnuts Yonder, just to bring everything full circle again, with Nels and Watt. Juan Alderete is an interesting figure--you don’t normally see people applying that much technology to the bass, but he takes it and runs with it. I’m a big fan of most everything Dan the Automator does, and most of his collaborators. In terms of just blazing new trails with regards to the organization and manipulation of sound, I think the contribution of hip-hop is often underappreciated by the rockist crowd — some of the most innovative and forward-thinking people in music today are working in hip-hop. Adrian Younge is a more recent musical crush for me — like a lot of people, the Luke Cage series on Netflix introduced me to his work, but I just love what he’s doing with his amalgam of hip-hop, soul, funk, spaghetti western, etc. And all the elements sound great, too — I’d love to be a fly on the wall to see how he gets his drum, bass and guitar sounds.
PF: I agree with what you’re saying about technology vs. genius, but there’s also something to be said for the epic shifts in music just in the last decade as a result of technology. The tools do become an extension of the musician at a certain point, and sometimes genius doesn’t have the ability to think up the types of sonic worlds that effects can produce.
CR: Yep, true enough. Take Nick Reinhardt, for example. It’s not like he could compose a piece of music, then go, hey, the Earthquaker Rainbow Machine will let me do that. He had to already be using that pedal to even compose that music. By the same token, few people take these pedals and do something half as interesting with it. I guess we’re both right.
PF: How was Moogfest for you as a marketplace vendor?
CR: I’ve been to few enough of these trade shows so far, that it’s hard for me to compare. I think it went well. I was sharing a booth with another Durham-based pedal builder, Rabbit Hole FX. For what was essentially a synth expo, there were a shocking a number of folks that came through and tried out our guitar focused gear, so that’s pretty cool, really. It was fun to get to know some of the other vendors — everyone I spoke to was very kind and it felt like a really supportive community. It was four eight hour days in a row on my feet and pretending to be an extrovert, so it was pretty exhausting, but fun exhausting.
FINN COHEN IS A WRITER AND MUSICIAN BASED IN RALEIGH, NC. HIS WORK HAS APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE MOSCOW TIMES, PITCHFORK, VICE SPORTS, COMPLEX, PIGEONS & PLANES, AND THE INDEPENDENT WEEKLY. HIS MUSIC CAN BE FOUND HERE AND HERE.