Eau Claire pedal house eyes community growth

IN JANUARY of this year, the effects wizards at Dwarfcraft Devices celebrated their 10th anniversary — a decade of over-the-top distortion, mind-blending oscillation and things that go bloop and bleep in the night. The anniversary loomed large during our visit to the company’s current digs, which was at the rear of a building currently housing an art collective of sorts. The shop is split into two sections — one houses the main workstation area while the other holds offices and musical equipment for both testing pedals and play time.

For the first two years of its existence, Dwarfcraft was Ben Hinz, in his basement… alone. He would toil away on builds while his wife Louise attended college then landed a job at a local law firm. It wasn’t long however until she was pulled into the business.

“He got in way over his head,” says Louise Hinz. “He was drowning in emails. So I just started by answering a few emails here and there. Then I started sending invoices. As things got more official I was doing business, backend stuff. I quit the law firm and have had one other job for like a year and a half where we could get health insurance and all of that regular stuff that grown ups do, and that was just a nightmare so I quit after about 18 months there and came back full time and I’ve been back for 2.5 years full time now.”

Check out the rest of our shop tour with Dwarfcraft Devices here
Check out the Dwarfcraft website here

Former Brother Cane frontman finds comfort in guitar

Damon Johnson is in a good mood. In fact, he’s thrilled. His day began with the news that Black Star Riders’ new album, Heavy Fire, is No. 6 on the UK charts across all formats, comfortably positioned between Ed Sheeran and Adele. “None of us could have envisioned it,” he says, speaking for himself and his bandmates: vocalist Ricky Warwick, bassist Robbie Crane, drummer Jimmy DeGrasso, and guitarist Scott Gorham. “It’s a real pleasure, and it reminds me of how grateful I am to be a part of this. We’re very grateful to our fans and to our team at Nuclear Blast. This is the highest chart position they’ve ever had with any act, and they’ve been around a while, so it’s a good day. It’s a goal and a priority for us to help some of that translate to the States.”

Black Star Riders came together in late 2012, building on Johnson, Warwick, and Gorham’s working relationship and friendship in Thin Lizzy. Although easily assumed to be an offshoot or side project, BSR was formed as a new, original band, one that Johnson had longed for since the dissolution of his 1990s group, Brother Cane.

Johnson’s musical resume is lengthy. He grew up in Alabama, where he played in bands, attended concerts, collected albums, and honed his chops by practicing to his idols’ recordings. With equal parts talent and determination, he worked his way up the old-fashioned way, making his first mark recording and touring with Witness, then forming Brother Cane, with whom he recorded three albums and developed a strong fan base. He also became an in-demand session musician and songwriter. In 2004, he joined Alice Cooper’s band, then became a member of Thin Lizzy, which paved the way for Black Star Riders.

At home in Nashville, Johnson was still reeling from the morning’s news when he spoke with Gearphoria.

GEARPHORIA: Black Star Riders have released three albums in four years. While many artists are releasing a song or two at a time, why have you chosen to release full-length projects?

DAMON: I am the one proponent in our band who wants to treat releasing music in a little more modern or contemporary fashion. We put out these albums because we’re older rock musicians who grew up buying full-length albums. It was always ten or twelve songs, hold the album in your hand, so we’re a bit retro in that respect. I’d like to see us make the transition to two or three songs at a time. I see artists doing that and I’m OK with it. That’s how you should do it, because the majority of people are streaming, not buying physical products. So the short answer is because we’re old and we’re accustomed to doing it that way!

Check out the rest of our chat with Damon here
Check out his official website here

Curt Malouin is at home amongst the code

IN THE CASS Corridor section of Detroit, Michigan, you will find a bit of vibrance in a city that has been short on that commodity for several years. The financial crash of the late 2000s saw an immense amount of strain put on the city’s manufacturing jobs, chiefly in the automotive industry. Many of those jobs left town, and did not return, leaving the city in a sort of paralysis. Stories of mass foreclosures and homes on the auction block for as little as one dollar started spreading. It was not the best of times. Today, things are better in the Motor City, but there are still pockets that have yet to bounce back. Cass Corridor has a rich art and music history. It acted as a sort of epicenter for hippies and folk rock in the 1960s. The White Stripes played their first concert there. There is a university nearby — Wayne State University, and a proliferation of small boutiques and eateries thrive in the area.

Towards the north end of the neighborhood is Green Garage. Built in the 1920s it was originally occupied by a company that built cars based on Model T chassis. Later, it was a warehouse for a company that built shoe repair supplies. Today, Green Garage is a co-working space, inhabited by about 50 small businesses. Most are just renting desks and doing computer-based work, but back in one of the three workshop areas of the building is the current home of Red Panda Lab — Curt Malouin’s pedal lair.

The 700-square foot space hosts little manufacturing itself. Most of Red Panda’s products come into the shop ready for assembly and testing prior to shipping.

Check out the rest of our shop tour with Red Panda Lab here
Check out the Red Panda website here

Metal guitars from north of the Motor City

A STUDENT OF Roberto Venn’s school of luthiery in Arizona and veteran of guitar-makers Huss & Dalton in Virginia, Matt Eich never expected to end up back in Saginaw. He moved to Chicago in the mid-2000s to be closer to ailing family members. Not long after that, his father was diagnosed with cancer, so the stay was longer than anticipated. He had a warehouse job that he subsequently lost in the economic downturn of 2008. He decided to move back to Michigan to figure out his next move. It was a concert by Kelly Joe Phelps in Traverse City that would be Eich’s light of inspiration.

“He was playing a National and he made a joke about it blinding the audience because it was chrome-plated,” recalls Eich. “I wasn’t building guitars at the time, but I knew how to from my time at Huss & Dalton. I left wondering if I could make one look like the natural material, the steel… I’m a guitar player. I like old guitars that looked beat up, and look like the wood. I knew about part, but I didn’t know anything about the metal working. So I was trying to figure out how to cut the metal, what type of metal to use, thickness and all of that. I got kind of obsessed with figuring out how to do it. Once I had it down the wheels really started turning.”

Check out the rest of our shop tour with Mule Resophonics here
Check out the Mule website here

Builder reigns in consulting, re-focuses on his products

Jon Cusack has a reputation in boutique pedal circles as the ‘go-to’ guy to assist with fixing a stubborn problem. He’s done it countless times, saving the bacon of his competition without fan fare… or many times compensation. But these selfless acts have come with a price — the growth and health of his own brand. That, he says, has to change…

“SOMEWHERE UNDER these floors is a drain,” says Cusack Music owner Jon Cusack pointing down. “I think it’s right there.”

The multi-building complex that is Cusack world headquarters near Holland, Michigan, has a lot of history, including a run as a hardware store, mechanic’s garage and an antique mall. The particular building we found ourselves in that moment did a fair span… as a mortuary. In the rafters above is where caskets would be stored. He invites us to take a look at the drain in a crawl space under the floor. We politely decline.

Today, the buildings are sprinkled with selective solder machines, substrate printers, pick-and-place machines, drill presses — basically all the equipment needed to not only manufacture his own pedal brands (Cusack and Mojo Hand), but more than enough hardware to handle a healthy crop of OEM work from other effects companies. Cusack, a twin by birth and an engineer/volunteer fireman by training, has built pedals for a wide swath of effects companies in the boutique business. Of course, as a condition of the contracts for the work, he is not at liberty to say just who he builds for, but suffice it to say most stomp box geeks have likely heard of them.

While the OEM work has allowed Cusack to keep a good workflow through the operation, it has also come with a price. Working with others, and sometimes consulting for others, has put a noticeable strain on the growth of his own brand. A few recent set-backs, including the loss of a top OEM client and a big chunk of cash to a consulting deal gone south, has prompted the pedal veteran to step back and reassess the way forward. While he genuinely enjoys coming to aid of others, he has come to realize it has hurt more than helped.

Check out the rest of our shop tour with Cusack Music here
Check out the Cusack website here
Check out the Mojo Hand website here

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