By Andrew Poulsen
Excerpted from The Akron Anthology, out this October from Belt.
On a balmy Friday afternoon, I’m nervously careening through downtown Akron without my GPS, trying to prove I haven’t lost my touch since leaving the “330.” While craning my neck left and right down Main Street, I take in the living slideshow of industrial decay that is the city’s downtown outskirts. Buildings by the score flank each side of the drag, each somehow more hollow and indistinct than the last. The only businesses with any signage or vestiges of a customer base are the handful of seedy strip clubs where even the most dimly lit corners of your mind couldn’t brace you for the sad shenanigans that go on between their walls. This is the Akron I inherited, and its shell is tougher and coarser than ever.
I’m fifteen minutes early when I pull into an industrial park at the corner of West Bowery Street and Wooster Avenue. From the exterior, the building is just as faceless as the rest of the old brick warehouses that encircle downtown Akron. Pulling into the parking lot, I see a man sitting alone on a single wood pallet taking a drag from a cigarette, swirling the icy remains of a cold brew and staring at his iPhone, clad in slim-fit Levi’s and a red V-neck T-shirt.
Most people passing by would assume this man to be a slightly aging barista trying to wind down on his fifteen. But to the inner-circle of the Akron music scene and to an endless horde of guitar nerds everywhere, I’m crashing the smoke break of Jamie Stillman. A part of many musical ventures, Jamie is best known as the founder of EarthQuaker Devices, a company that manufactures guitar effects pedals by hand and is quickly becoming one of the most ubiquitous names in the industry.
What started as Jamie’s solo basement hobby has exponentially evolved into a full-scale enterprise with more than thirty workers who help sell upwards of one hundred pedals a day all around the world.
For non-guitar-nerds, an effect pedal, or “stomp box,” is a little device that alters the signal of an instrument to produce a particular sound effect. Pedals can work in a variety of ways — manipulating the sound wave of the instrument’s signal, compressing it, or adding delays or speech variations. The use of stomp boxes first became popular in the mid-1960s, in the distorted, fuzzy guitar tones of the Who’s “My Generation,” and Rolling Stones hits like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
While there’s a sizable number of guitar purists who rely solely on their amplifiers to shape their tone, thousands of guitar players utilize effect pedals to create nearly every sound imaginable. And while a hundred pedals a day sounds minuscule when you consider the number of guitarists and pedal builders out in the world, Stillman is easily considered one of the leaders of the handmade, or “boutique,” pedal movement of the past decade.
“I don’t know QuickBooks, and I’m terrible at keeping receipts,” Jamie says. “I don’t really like talking on the phone. There was a time where I did everything, and I did it very DIY. I was always really good about emails. I got a reputation for answering emails at 3 a.m., because I would barely sleep. I just got so overwhelmed. It has totally outgrown me.”
Hardly your everyday tycoon, Jamie puts out what’s left of his American Spirit, greets me warmly and makes small talk as he prepares to show me the company’s brand new, 15,000-square-foot facility. While he seems ecstatic with what he and his team have created over the past decade, he often carries an air that might best be described as an emotional cocktail of bewilderment, nervousness, and teetering optimism, like a recent lottery winner holding a huge cardboard check on the evening news.
“I’ve just always had low expectations,” Jamie says. “By that, I mean that nothing I’ve ever done was meant to be something that would make me rich. I’ve always just pursued things I like doing and figured I would learn how to live off that.”
Inside the warehouse at EarthQuaker’s headquarters, stacks of boxes, unfamiliar equipment, and a small library’s worth of files give away nothing about the sonically groundbreaking products made just one wall away. Jamie proudly pats the top of a CNC machine in excitement. While it might seem bizarre to see an Akron punk veteran so hyped up showing off a manufacturing tool, the computerized numerical control machine allows EarthQuaker to produce the pedals’ enclosures, or housing, in-factory for the first time in its history, making the blank circuit boards the only pieces outsourced by the company.
As an almost lifelong guitarist, I had always imagined the production floor of a pedal company to be a messy and overwhelming cavalcade of noise, similar to a Sonic Youth record, or much worse, the Times Square Guitar Center, a dissonant audio orgy of teenagers and wannabes trading sloppy classic riffs on guitars and amps well out of their price range. But EarthQuaker’s workshop is no different than any other in Akron’s manufacturing district—it’s polite and tidy, part code-abiding shop floor and part marketing agency. About a dozen employees stand quietly at their stations, zapping and soldering complex arrangements of transistors and switches—or “lady bits” as they’re known around the factory. The electronics are then enclosed in aluminum casing. After a pedal is built, each device is brought over to a long table and tested, as an employee plucks notes on a Gibson Les Paul running through a Fender Twin Reverb tube amplifier, to make sure each setting and modulation is up to Jamie’s standards. From there, each pedal is boxed by hand and sent off to one of the countless distributors and dealers across the globe.
On the second floor of the building are a small number of pristine, freshly painted offices, most of which are still unfurnished from their move only a few weeks prior to my visit, in August of 2015. As Jamie leads me through each room, that air of the nervous lottery winner returns; we both seem to be pondering just how far this all seems from Jamie’s days cutting his teeth in Kent’s and Akron’s DIY punk scenes.
Although the human element of EarthQuaker’s building process is a source of pride for Jamie and others in the “boutique” (a term he uses begrudgingly) pedal market, it’s the idea of putting friends to work and the unique sense of chemistry that comes from that camaraderie that Jamie believes defines the ethos of the company.
“It doesn’t matter that much to me if something I buy was made by a human,” says Jamie. “I just want to own a business where I can be a good employer and provide things like health insurance to people who wouldn’t have it otherwise. Everyone who works here treats the business like they own it. They have a respect for the vision and the freedom to take it somewhere. Every one of us could be a representative of this company.”
Born and raised in Kent, Jamie has always been a tinkerer. As we shared a seat on the wood pallet outside, he recalled memories of being five years old in his grandparents’ backyard, dismantling an old jalopy or taking apart worn-out dining room furniture. It was around the same time that Jamie first discovered his love for music. He began as a drummer and eventually learned how to play guitar, which ultimately became his passion. Despite his lifelong obsession with music and understanding how things work, Jamie’s modest nature allows him to dismiss himself as an armchair enthusiast of these crafts.
“I had this thing where I refused to really learn about the shit I was into,” Jamie jokes. “I can pick up things quick, but as soon as I have to start reading about something, I’m bored to death. I can play guitar well and build a pedal, but I could never teach anyone those things or tell them exactly what I’m doing.”
In his early teens, Jamie discovered punk rock, and he quickly became entrenched in the Kent and Akron DIY scenes, sneaking into shows and bars often with the likes of another notable Akron boy, Pat Carney, drummer for the Black Keys. Jamie laughs, thinking about how strange it is seeing his friend clad in a leather jacket on the cover of Rolling Stone when, in his memories, Jamie still sees the drummer as a 17 year old, whose lanky frame and thick glasses reflected less a rock-and-roll sex symbol and more Martin Starr’s character, Bill Haverchuck, on Freaks and Geeks.
Throughout high school and into his 20s, Jamie played in a number of different punk bands and ran his own record label, Donut Friends. In the early 2000s, Rolling Stone gave the Black Keys a four-star review, which sparked a short-lived movement in the music industry where Akron had the major labels’ attention in a way comparable to Nirvana-era Seattle. Jamie’s own band, the Party of Helicopters, got a record deal that included an 18-month tour. But by his return, Jamie felt burned out on the band, which had already released six albums. In 2004, he took a job as a guitar technician for the Black Keys. It was around this time that he began tinkering with his own pedals and mastering the prototype that would become EarthQuaker’s flagship product, the Hoof, a fuzz pedal derivative of the Sovtek Russian Green Big Muff which had become a key element in Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach’s highly sought-after tone. The Sovtek was known for its massive, roaring capabilities, but also for its smoothness and clarity. A prime example is the sludgy opening riff off the band’s 2003 single, “Thickfreakness.”
Jamie watched his friends go from playing small clubs to basketball stadiums, but quit in 2011. The job had afforded him the time to develop his craft, letting him lay the foundation for what became EarthQuaker Devices. After photos appeared of Auerbach using Jamie’s Hoof Fuzz on his pedal board on the guitar message boards online, Jamie’s hobby began to turn into a business. Although Jamie was only known to the most esoteric of gear heads, Auerbach’s subtle endorsement was hugely responsible for EarthQuaker’s early sales.
“Pat and Dan have for sure had a hand in making this possible and giving me the time,” Jamie says. He almost winces before he clarifies, “They’re more important for the back end than being just a band that used our pedals. I didn’t tell people for years that I was working for the Black Keys, because it’s more validating that not everyone bought something just because I worked for them.”
In 2008, Jamie quit his “real” job as a graphic designer to pursue EarthQuaker as a full-time endeavor. Jamie’s wife Julie, a financial planner, gradually stepped in as the company’s Vice President and took over running the business side of things, as it became apparent that Jamie’s DIY accounting methods were less and less reasonable as the company boomed. EarthQuaker’s product line continued to expand with another major staple in its fleet, the Disaster Transport, a delay pedal that emulates the vintage tape echo sounds of ‘60s and ‘70s psychedelic records, such as Pink Floyd’s Echoes. The pedal sold so well that Jamie briefly discontinued it because he couldn’t build them fast enough.
In 2010, Jamie finally hired his first employee, Jeff France, who is still the company’s production manager. After France, the company began to add more builders—still working out of Jamie’s basement.
In 2012, EarthQuaker moved into its first production facility in an old glass factory in downtown Akron. But Jamie and company quickly outgrew that space, too. They now manufacture almost forty different pedals—from obnoxious, blown-out speaker fuzz boxes, to unholy church-organ simulators, to straight-up dad-rock overdrive, and hundreds of sonic possibilities in between. The company began hiring builders, designers, and operations team members nearly every six weeks. In the summer of 2015, Jamie and his staff of more than thirty workers moved into their current space not far from EarthQuaker’s previous location, facing the University of Akron’s campus.
“It’s fun for me to experiment,” Jamie says. “I’m fucking around until I find the thing that works. I was doing things with no real formal training, so it all sounded different and looked cooler than most things out there.”
Today, Jamie is no longer fielding every email, call, and order like he did only a few years ago. When we sit to chat, he’s visibly exhausted, having just returned from nearly a month on the road, visiting shops, making appearances at trade shows, and toting the brand to music gear elite. His role today resembles that of a visionary, or a disruptive business “wildcard,” as Jamie would rather put it. I’d say he’s like Steve Jobs on Xanax. While he is still always making his rounds across the shop floor, Jamie’s staff covers many of the day-to-day operations, which affords him time to design pedals. Even with a fleet of stomp boxes that can emulate nearly any guitar tone imaginable, Jamie has a mental backlog of seven or eight models ready to be unleashed as soon as he can find the time.
To Jamie, the success of it all harkens back to the golden years of industry in the early twentieth century, when prosperity could happen almost overnight with the right amount of luck.
“Sometimes this all gets lost on me,” Jamie says. “This kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore. It feels like the ‘40s or ‘50s or something.
With the record label and the band, I always operated on the idea that people would find me. But it never panned out until now.”
Despite its ubiquity in the music community, EarthQuaker still hews to the DIY punk aesthetic on which Jamie was raised. Until 2012, Jamie was responsible for all the artwork on EarthQuaker pedals—nearly as famous as the sounds they produce. Much of that early artwork was inspired by the clip art found on punk zines, album artwork and show posters with its juxtaposed and often vulgar images and offset type.
“This all comes from being the graphic designer that I was,” Jamie says. “I wasn’t an illustrator, but I knew how to lay things out. Naming and designing the artwork used to be my favorite part about the process.”
Each pedal’s design aesthetic is very much the product of Jamie’s racing mind. Some designs are geometric, like the Arpanoid, which transforms whatever you play into an arpeggiated scale like a synthesizer. Some are named after animals, such as the Hummingbird, a device which replicates the fluttery, stuttering tremolo effect heard on songs like “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells, and represents the frenetic and manic nature of the eponymous bird.
“I like limitation,” Jamie says. “I like to know the parameters. Almost to a fault, I like pedals to be tamed, but with the ability to be opened up. I like things to be taken far, but they always remain musical.”
But it was the pedals that show Jamie’s Ohio roots that resonated with me when I first discovered the company. Several EarthQuaker names derive from various Ohio landmarks. The Terminal Fuzz bears an outline of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower and delivers a gritty, blown-speaker tone that most would believe captures the city’s coarse and industrial aesthetic. The aforementioned Disaster Transport is named after the classic Cedar Point indoor roller coaster my brother and I flocked to because it never had a line and they always pumped the air conditioning. Some references are more personal. The Palisades is named after a street on Akron’s west side, near Highland Square, where Jamie and his wife used to live.
As far as advertising and self-promotion, Jamie tore a page from the book of his idols Led Zeppelin, whom many forget built their commercial success without the support of radio play. “I like the idea of building a mystique,” Jamie says, half-jokingly. Most of EarthQuaker’s early success relied on word-of-mouth and online forums.
The company didn’t pay for its first magazine ad until 2012, after the company had already entered the conversation among top boutique pedal builders. Even so, its advertisements are very minimal, revealing only the name of the pedal and the city in which it is built. Whereas most music equipment companies heavily rely on pimping out the big name artists who use their gear, plastering them on every ad and landing page, Jamie has always felt uneasy about trumpeting the artists who use his pedals. Besides the Black Keys, EarthQuaker Devices have been used by musical heavyweights from Modest Mouse to Coldplay to Brad Paisley to the Mars Volta—Jamie stopped keeping track long ago. Taking another long drag of a cigarette, he mentions a time he built a custom fuzz pedal for Bruno Mars, an artist about whom he knew nothing until seeing his face on a magazine while on a flight.
“I just always thought it was kind of gross to see a guy in an ad that’s like, ‘So and so uses this product to get the best tone,’” Jamie says, in an affected ad-man voice. “I would never do something like that.”
Jamie’s resistance to aggressive, superfluous ads and endorsements isn’t just about adhering to his punk rock convictions. Companies like EarthQuaker work in a very saturated market, where they can easily get pigeonholed by customers who believe their products only serve a certain genre or sound. A major part of EarthQuaker’s success has come from its broad appeal and tonal accessibility. Artists like Bruno Mars can use a Hoof Fuzz to replicate the crunch of ‘70s rock and roll, while the Mars Volta might use a more extreme effect to evoke space ships or an industrial breakdown. There are plenty of innovative and experimental companies that make pedals more raucous and dissonant than anything EarthQuaker would ever put to market, but they often only find success among the most esoteric noisemakers.
Trying to define what EarthQuaker is about from a tonal standpoint is almost like trying to define what music itself is about. From these little metal boxes come sounds for practically every player.
“I don’t want anyone coming with any preconceived notions about us,” Jamie says. “It’s an insult to those who make more experimental noise pedals and take it seriously. We would never put out something that you couldn’t tame.”
The success of EarthQuaker Devices is both symbolic and paradoxical.
Aside from a certain St. Vincent-St. Mary High School small forward, what have been the two most significant exports the city has produced?
The first is undoubtedly industry. Rubber put food on the table for many of my ancestors, and thousands upon thousands of other Akronites can say the same. Schools and streets bear the names of the men who gave the city its power, leaving their exhausted scraps collapsed and broken all around the city.
The second most important export is a little more up for debate, but most would agree that Akron has pumped out an exceptional number of talented musicians for its relatively small size. Along with Akron’s current favorite sons, the Black Keys, art rock heroes Devo, groundbreaking front woman Chrissie Hynde, and even the late Jani Lane who penned the 1990 hair metal smash, “Cherry Pie,” all entered superstardom by way of the Rubber City.
So, what happened?
Well, let’s put it this way: I’m 23 years old and the very thing that gave this city an identity has turned its nickname into a twodecade-old misnomer. As far as the rock stars it’s delivered, all packed up for bigger markets. Chrissie Hynde dropped out of Kent State’s art school and found fame overseas when she formed the Pretenders in London. The Black Keys famously moved to Nashville in 2011 as they made their push towards becoming the stadium-filling, cover-modeling, blues-rock outfit we know them as now.
So, what’s left when the lapdogs of industry fetch another bone and another rising slugger in the minors gets called up to The Show? On the surface, it’s a lot of empty, depressing buildings and even more depressing stories of “I saw them when…” But such is the circle of life. And death and decay can often make ground more fertile for rebirth.
“People always ask me to describe Akron,” Jamie says. “I think it’s a dead city trying to come back, and it’s getting to a point where it’s getting a focus.”
Jamie’s vision has glued together the broken bones of these two factors that once made Akron great. Without getting too hyperbolic, EarthQuaker is a proverbial phoenix, operating literally in the decay of a dead factory. And Jamie’s pedals have made him an unintentional ambassador and evangelist amongst musicians the world over for a city he never thought would’ve been so critical in his success.
“Bands come here now because they know that EarthQuaker is here,” Jamie says. “They end up really liking it here, which surprises me, because I’ve been here my whole life, so my mind isn’t blown driving to a national park in ten minutes.”
But the Akron hype and curiosity isn’t a total accident. Whereas many pedal companies downplay where they’re headquartered, each EarthQuaker box, advertisement and instruction manual bears the city’s name, often in the form of a cheeky phrase like “Made in the gilded cloud of Akron, Ohio.” For Jamie, the Akron appreciation has grown over time. Looking back on the success he’s achieving, he and his team know they’re in a pretty lonely winner’s circle for producers in any industry, let alone among companies making handmade goods.
“There’s hardly anything in our industry that has been as successful as we have that still does stuff here,” Jamie says. “I don’t think the city recognizes just how widespread our stuff is or how successful we are.”
Jamie doesn’t blame artists or businesspeople for skipping town to pursue bigger dreams in bigger cities, and he admits that EarthQuaker on paper is probably better suited for New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville. But despite the number of signs indicating that EarthQuaker could one day outgrow Akron as it has outgrown Jamie’s basement, he assures me that that he doesn’t see the company ever leaving the city.
“Akron makes this possible,” Jamie says. “We could never afford to do this in those larger cities. Julie and I really like living here and the community we have here. Plus, all the people who work here live here—and we couldn’t survive without them.”
Even with all the talk of enterprise, expansion, distribution, and recognition, Jamie still has a Midwestern earnestness and sincerity that harken back to a guy soldering circuit boards in his boxers a decade ago.
EarthQuaker needs Akron, but Akron also needs EarthQuaker.
In a city that’s always been the launch pad and never the stratosphere, it’s rare to find a company painstakingly pushing itself to its creative and production limits without leaving home.
It’s almost five o’clock, and nearly the entire company has gone home. Wrapping up our interview, Jamie leans forward, grinding the ash of his last cigarette into the asphalt. His workday isn’t over, and despite no longer carrying the entire load, I see the “answers emails at 3 a.m.” Jamie – he seems anxious to get back to work. We shake hands, name drop a few fellow Akronites, and Jamie sends me off with one final laugh that solidifies how seriously he takes himself as a musical magnate.
“I’m almost forty, and I’ve been living off the assumption that I’m still fifteen years old. I don’t think much has changed. I just did something that finally worked…and I got fatter.”
Driving home, I keep thinking about Jamie’s comment. What did I expect? Did I think that instead of sharing Akron tales on a wood pallet I’d be across some reclaimed oak desk, while some megalomaniac visionary strokes his ego while simultaneously browbeating a cowardly assistant into fetching us two iced mochas? Of course not. After all, Jamie arranged this interview personally, no assistant necessary.
But it seems uncommon to meet someone so popular in his business with so much humility. So much caution. Sure, EarthQuaker Devices makes boutique effect pedals. To the world at large that doesn’t mean much. Jamie’s not putting planes in the sky or helping lonely singles find “love” by swiping their thumbs across their phone. But whether the world knows it, it has heard the fruits of Jamie’s labor. On recordings heard by millions and at live shows witnessed by thousands, the sonic alchemy of EarthQuaker Devices has rung in the ears of so many, at the hands of some of music’s biggest stars. That kind of impact might actually warrant a little ego-stroking and assistant-browbeating.
However, as I take in a last eyeful of Akron’s beige and gray downtown, a question dawns on me: is there a place more fertile for traits of humility and caution than this city? If history has taught Akron anything, it’s that success guarantees nothing and the well of good fortune can run dry at any moment. Growing up surrounded by so many boarded-up factories and storefronts gives Akronites an inherent humility. A whiff of mortality.
Jamie isn’t naive about his commercial success or the resumes of his customers. His punk rock roots and Midwest upbringing just allow him to see it differently. Success isn’t a goal, but a means. A means to still get to rock out in dirty bars with your buddies on the weekends while comfortably providing for a family. A means to explore your creative vision and take it as far as you can, while being able to share it with those who cared long before you had them on your payroll.
Maybe going corporate wasn’t the worst thing to happen to this Akron punk.
Excerpted from The Akron Anthology, out from Belt Publishing this October. For more information and to preorder a copy see our online store.
Andrew Poulsen is a writer from Akron, Ohio, who is currently based in Cleveland. He has contributed to Billboard, Cleveland Magazine, Ohio Magazine and Fresh Water Cleveland.