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Dusky Electronics: Chris Rossi

Dusky Electronics: Chris Rossi

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.

 

Chris Rossi at work. CREDIT: Laura Busse

Chris Rossi at work. CREDIT: Laura Busse

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.  

mandorla_black.jpg

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.  

octomotron_black_bg.jpg

 

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.

Dusky has just released the  Hypatia , a distortion box capable of blown out fuzz to ragged overdrive. This box has been making the rounds at trade shows and has already generated a bit of buzz for itself, with astonished players asking, "Wow, when does this come out?!" Well, the answer is - now!

Dusky has just released the Hypatia, a distortion box capable of blown out fuzz to ragged overdrive. This box has been making the rounds at trade shows and has already generated a bit of buzz for itself, with astonished players asking, "Wow, when does this come out?!" Well, the answer is - now!

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 TIMESTHE MOSCOW TIMESPITCHFORKVICE SPORTSCOMPLEXPIGEONS & PLANES, AND THE INDEPENDENT WEEKLY. HIS MUSIC CAN BE FOUND HERE AND HERE

Horizontal Hold

Horizontal Hold

Horizontal Hold make enthusiastic off-kilter noise-pop that carries the flame of the great indie-rock outfits of North Carolina of the 1990s. Which makes sense when you consider the band is made up of NC music scene veterans of bands like Analogue, Shiny Beast, Wembley, In the Year of the Pig, and Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan.

Their new album The Silence was recently released on PotLuck. The Durham-based band sat down with Pedal Fuzz over a few beers before a show at Monstercade in Winston-Salem, NC. While a small dog nipped at their heels, they poked fun at each other in the way that only friends of many years can effortlessly pull off. The following excerpts have been condensed and edited.

Pedal Fuzz: Your music feels like part of that North Carolina indie rock lineage, but there are also a lot of different things going on. How did you arrive at your sound?

Dave Cantwell: We didn't have an aesthetic deliberately in mind. We just play the way that we know how to play. I play guitar in the band (ed.note Cantwell is known for playing drums), but I can only play in the way that I play in this band. We all come from rock bands and that background, so we kind of generally knew what it would be like. The band started because Kim Walker and I wanted to do something together musically and we weren't quite sure what. And I think that she wanted me to play the drums initially, but that's not what I wanted to do. So we started playing with me on guitar and her on bass, and then Kerry Cantwell (keyboards) came then Elizabeth Hammond (drums). We never said, “here's what it’s going to sound like,” we just kind of had some jams and they wound up sounding like we do.

PF: Your songs seem to be about really particular, very specific things. Another one of the unique things about you guys. No one really writes lyrics like Kerry does.

Kerry Cantwell: I write the lyrics after the whole song is finished. Our songwriting process is very, very organic. There's not a songwriter, so the way we kind of build the songs is Kim and/or Dave comes up with some kind of riff and brings it to the group and we all build upon it and then once we have it all set the way it's going to be then I'll write lyrics that fit into the individual pieces of the song. So the songs are not written to be sung over. The singing is more just frosting.

PF: One song that really stands out from your first record is “All In A Day's Work,” where you're talking about a student asking to borrow a pencil. That's when I first noticed how unique your lyrics are.

Kerry Cantwell: I'm a community college instructor. And it is hard, poorly paid work. And so that song is just kind of about what my day is like. Oh there's so much content in the classroom. You could write really sad songs, really sweet funny songs, or really traumatic songs [about it].

PF: How important are particular instruments and pieces of gear to you in the writing process?

Dave Cantwell:  When I'm working on music it's always electric, and it's usually at my house. I just like the sound of my electric guitar amplified loudly. That's a way for me to test to see if things are going to sound cool at all. When songs are in their genesis it's often Kim and I bouncing ideas off each other. I don't think we pay a whole lot of mind to the instruments themselves; it's just more the parts and how they sound. And I think that we tend to write lines that kind of meander around each other and complement each other, but at the same time sort of crooked sometimes. And I guess that has something to do with the sound of them, but I don't know if it's that conscious. I mean, I put a lot of thought and time into how my guitar sounds. Like a lot of folks I am obsessed about that sort of thing. But once it comes time to actually play and write a song maybe not thinking about it quite as much.

Horizontal Hold playing live. Also, dog. CREDIT: Mimi McLaughlin

Horizontal Hold playing live. Also, dog. CREDIT: Mimi McLaughlin

 

Horizontal Hold Gear

Dave --Brian-Haran-assembled "Frankencaster" Tele-style gutar with Mojotone pickups and Harmony neck.  (Pink!)

--mid-'60s Custom Kraft "Ambassador" (single DeArmond pickup, sorta-SG-looking)

--others as needed at live shows (mainly a Daisy Rock "Tom Boy" with TV Jones and Mojotone pickups--and another Haran-assembled Frankencaster based on the 1980 Fender "Bullet".)

--mid '60s Silvertone 1484 "Twin Twelve" piggyback (2x12) amp with Celestion speakers

--Custom Kraft "Fireball" combo (only for recording)

--Radial "Tone Bone"--always on (used as a pre-amp, really)

--MXR "Micro Amp"

--on-board tremolo (in the Silvertone amp)

Kim --early '80s Japanese-made Squier Precision Bass (These are in a weird "medium scale" that's longer than short scale but shorter than a standard P-Bass.)

--early '80s Fender "Bassman 135" tube head with homemade, EV-loaded 1x15 cab

(although she recorded The Silence with the Fidelitorium's Ampeg "SVT".)

--Boss "Bass Overdrive" pedal (the yellow one)

Kerry --Early '80s Crumar "Performer" (mostly used for recording since she got the Casio below)

--Modern Casio XW-P1 "Performance Synthesizer" (mostly used live)

--Kustom "Commander" 2x12 combo (solid state, tuck 'n' roll)

--Digitech "Turbo Flange"

--on-board amp reverb and tremolo+vibrato (the Kustom has both trem and vibrato...it's weird.)

Elizabeth --late-'60s Ludwig 4-piece kit in gold sparkle w/ ‘60s Ludwig Supraphonic snare drum

--various Zildjian cymbals.

PF: So when you're obsessing over it what are you adjusting, what are you changing?

Dave Cantwell: I have this sort of paradoxical notion of where I want it to be very simple on the one hand - I don't use a lot of effects, I don't have any tone knobs on my guitars, I want my guitars to have basically one sound - but then I want that sound to be adjustable by how I play. Basically the dynamics. So if I play harder it sounds more aggressive, if I play lighter it's quieter of course. And I spent a lot of time trying to get that sweet spot where I can sound a little bit overdriven if I need to and still be heard if I'm playing quietly. So I spend a lot time dealing with that. I like the sound of a Telecaster through a tube amp. I’m trying to find the definitive version of that. It's a good tool because I can control how I sound, but I don't use a lot of effects or anything really.

PF: What was working at The Fidelitorium with Missy Thangs like? Was she offering guidance during the recording process?

Elizabeth Hammond:  I would say that Missy was so good at just trying to make us feel comfortable there. And she's a really great manager of people, which I think is a huge job of anybody who's engineering in a studio. And also she was really good at giving us really graceful feedback.

Kim Walker: It was like the therapist model. As in, "Do you think that that was your best take? Well how do you feel about the take?" Rather than, "That take is great," or whatever. Her approach for giving her opinions was really more about facilitating. She was more concerned with us getting what we wanted out of the process, and letting us fix our own problems if there were any.

*Look & listen for our full and laugh-filled interview with Horizontal Hold in an upcoming episode of the Pedal Fuzz podcast.

EDDIE GARCIA PLAYS GUITAR AND ALL THE PEDALS AS 1970S FILM STOCK. YOU CAN ALSO HEAR HIM REPORTING ON NPR AFFILIATE 88.5 WFDD IN WINSTON-SALEM, NC. IN THE WEE HOURS HE RUNS PEDAL FUZZ, WHICH IS A PROUD RECIPIENT OF A GRANT FROM THE ARTS ENTERPRISE LAB / KENAN INSTITUTE FOR THE ARTS.