Wednesday, 23 July 2014

"Professionally Hostile": An Interview with King Buzzo

Mackie Osbourne (C)

            An increasing number of people are beginning to recognize Melvins frontman, Buzz Osborne, as one of the most entertaining musicians on the Internet. In any given day on my social media feeds I’ll come across one of his side splitting road diaries or videos from his current solo tour where he’s telling a hilarious, semi-offensive story about a former colleague or a trainwreck celebrity, (the Dave Grohl story was an instant classic).  For the show I attended, where Buzz had an entire audience of North Carolinians mesmerized with his psychotic acoustic renditions of Melvins classics like “Boris” and “Hooch,” I was convinced he could hold court without even picking up his guitar.  Not only is Buzz Osborne an incredibly funny man, he is a naturally gifted storyteller with a vicious sense of humor who pulls no punches.  In North Carolina we were treated to anecdotes regarding the time he witnessed Iggy Pop refuse to play to a festival audience of 40,000 because Iggster had to follow a band he despised, (that band being Weezer,) or the “one” time he saw David Yow not drunk, or how he finds himself praying to a god he doesn’t believe in for bad things to happen to Courtney Love.  Naturally, the latter brought down the house.

When you speak with Buzz Osborne you are speaking to a very self aware man who has a very learned outlook on life, but who also realizes the importance of maintaining a whimsical view on the hypocrisies and frustrations everyone encounters throughout their day to day. He’s a proud professional who favors America to other countries in the world, but not in a Sarah Palin/Ted Nugent kind of way.  “In Europe they have dryers that don’t dry. Can you imagine that here?  No one would put up with that!” He also enjoys simple things like a good baseball game, (he’s a Dodgers man), or a game of golf, (he’s quick to point out how easy it is to miss a short putt,) or simply reading on his Kindle in the hotel room after a show.  In short, Buzz is a very intelligent guy who takes what he does very seriously and has no end in sight for any of it.  It was a pleasure to speak with him. - Erik Sugg

ES: So I know you’ve toured a lot over the years, but this is your first acoustic tour.  Is that right?

Buzz: Yes, it is.  Well, I did a little one in March, so this is the second.

ES: I’ve talked to a lot of guys in heavy bands and they seem to like the idea of doing acoustic tours as well.  I don’t know if they’re thinking of themselves as troubadours or if it’s just getting the opportunity to have more of a one on one experience with the listeners.  Have you noticed a real significant difference with people at these shows then at the Melvins’?  Do you feel like it’s more intimate?

Buzz: Well, by its very nature it is.  On paper it doesn’t look like it would work, you know? Most acoustic stuff is pretty atrocious and I’m trying not to do that.  I think that once people see what I’m doing they’re a little surprised.

ES: Yeah, that was a question I actually asked some folks not too long ago–when you see a heavy artist doing an acoustic show, do you think it’s cool or do you think its whack?  And I guess it just all depends on the music.

Buzz: I haven’t really seen anyone do it that I thought was good.  I mean, I don’t know who. Maybe you have.

ES: Wino comes to mind. He’s done some good acoustic stuff.

Buzz: Yeah, I have seen that. But I can’t sit down and play.  I don’t know what he does. Does he sit down when he plays acoustic?

ES: Not exactly.

Buzz: Yeah, I can’t make that work.

ES: Yeah, I think that’s when people get turned off with that whole, “an intimate evening with”-vibe.

Buzz: Yeah, it’s horrendous mostly.

ES: So this has been a pretty long tour for you it seems, and it’s something completely new for you.  Has there been a city that’s “gotten it” the best?  Has there been a “best town” on this tour?

Buzz: Well, what happens with this kind of stuff–and it hasn’t happened too often–but once in awhile you’ll have a big crowd and they’re loud.  They’re talking and, you know, they’re kind of ruining it, but there’s assholes everywhere you go.  There were a few particular shows that were bad, like Bellingham. Lots of people, they were appreciative, but it was just loud the whole show.  Which, you know, whatever. I don’t tell people to shut up. They can do whatever they want.  It just makes it a little difficult to concentrate.  There are some shows where the audience is really interested in what you’re doing, and that makes it a lot easier.  It’s my job to keep them interested, but in some towns it’s just not working.

ES: You may have actually answered my next question.  I was going to say I’ve seen Grant Hart of Husker Du play a couple acoustic shows before, and the ones I saw were pretty much like you just described.  He had a hell of a time with people talking loud, the whole drinking atmosphere.  He got really flustered and pissed off about it.

Buzz: I’m not going to let that happen.  Even though I am internally pissed off I’m not going to let people know it’s getting to me.  I’m just going to act like it doesn’t exist. That’s the best way to do it. But, by and large, there’s been more really good ones than bad ones. Every now and then you’ll have some yahoo freaking out, but whatever. It’s not really different than the Melvin’s stuff.  I know which cities we’ve worked good in, and those are the ones I’ll go back to. I’d say 95% of them have been fine.

ES: That’s good to hear.  Another problem Grant seemed to have trouble with was people not seeming interested in the material he was touring in support of at the time.  When they did acknowledge him, they were yelling out Husker Du’s greatest hits, things like that.

Buzz: Well, did he do any Husker Du songs?

ES: He did, yeah. Do you get a lot people yelling out Melvins tunes?

Buzz: No, not really. I mean, a little. It’s about half and half. I think they’re pretty accepting of my solo material.  It’s my job to make them like it, you know?  I haven’t had any trouble, really.  I think people are pretty accepting and it’s working.  We’ll see next time I come back, how many people are here.

ES: I’ve been reading online that you do the Alice Cooper song in the set.  That’s one thing I always really liked about the Melvins, is that you guys do really good covers of good songs, like the MC5 song, “Rocket Reducer.”  I’m a huge MC5 and I thought you guys just killed it.

Buzz: Thank you. Yeah, that’s a good one. Everybody likes the MC5.

ES: Do ever feel like there’s expectations for you to play covers?  Do you ever get sick of playing any of them?

Buzz: Well, there will be songs, even our own songs, that we’ll put away for awhile. We’ve got so many songs.  It’s difficult to get too sick of them. If we don’t play them for awhile while it’ll be fine. As far as covers go, I don’t think people freak out one way or another about that kind of stuff.  Most of it’s fine, but I’m not overly concerned with what the audience wants. It’s my job to do the best I can and decide on what I think is best, and if they don’t like it then they just don’t like what I do!

ES: That’s good. A very uncompromising stance to take.

Buzz: Definitely. I mean, the shows on this tour.  If people don’t like it, they just don’t like what I do. It’s certainly not my fault, you know?

ES: Another thing I was going to bring up about your tour is your road stories that you publish.  They’re a constant source of enjoyment for people.  I really love how you chronicle the frustrations that a lot of touring musicians experience.

Buzz: Oh, you mean the diary?

ES: Yeah. Like when you talked about the San Francisco traffic jam, or just that downtime before gigs, that kind of thing.  You still seem like you keep some good humor with pretty much everything you do.

Buzz: Oh, yeah. Of course!

ES: Do you ever feel like you’re just at your wit’s end completely?  And if that does happen, where you’re just having a day where it’s totally frustrating, what gets you in a good mood again?

Buzz: Well, you know, I’m a professional. That’s what I do for a living. I’m a pro musician, and with that comes the ups and downs of touring, but it’s not unlike any other job, although it is an artistic job. It still is work.  I’m doing a job tonight, you know?  I come here and I take this seriously and I have a job to do and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. Some nights are better than others.  It’s just part of the deal. If you have problems with this sort of thing then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.  I don’t know anyone who has a working situation where they’re completely satisfied. I’ve never heard of that.  Sometimes nights are more frustrating than others, but I stay focused on what I’m out here to do. I’m here to work. I’m here to do my job.  That’s it.  The rest of the stuff, if you have expectations of being happy or whatever, that’s not going to happen.  As far as the traffic stuff, things like that that are frustrating, I’m speaking for everyone in that department.  I firmly believe that kind of stuff. I believe those situations are conspiracy, you know?  It’s unnecessary and stupid.

ES: Well, we definitely get some funny stories out of it.

Buzz: That’s good!  I’ve got another coming out that’s going to be about me fantasizing killing everyone in Portland!  Portland, Maine.

ES: Ha! I look forward to that one.  A couple of things about the current record.  I think it’s–well, for one I think it’s an excellent record.

Buzz: Thank you. First try!

ES: It’s got a lot of the musical trademarks that people love about the Melvins.  It’s got the intense rhythms and the cold stops, but one thing I think is really striking about it–and I didn’t have any reason to think it wouldn’t be like this–is that it still sounds heavy.  It’s an acoustic record and it’s heavy.

Buzz: Yeah, I didn’t want it to sound like “Stairway to Heaven.”

ES: Yeah, and to me it doesn’t sound like you just doing a record minus the Melvins being there, you know?  It’s kind of its own beast.  Is that what you were shooting for?

Buzz: Yeah, kind of. It’s going to be hard to not sound like the Melvins because I write most of the material, you know?  Unless I’m going to make a fucking country album, which I’m not going to do. I mean I love country music, but almost everyone does that kind of thing too, you know? They’ll go do their “Nashville Skyline” record.  I just have no interest.  It’s not me.  I could do that kind of stuff.  I could easily do that. I could totally do a whole album of Hank Williams songs.  Maybe at some point I will, but for my first endeavour into this, that wouldn’t have been right for me. I wouldn’t have felt right about it. I need to make this work. I’ve proved to everybody that it’s the Indian not the arrow, you know?  You can go online and see Pete Townshend and the Secret Policeman's Ball on an acoustic guitar and it’s good.  It works just as well as it does with the whole band.  HE wrote good songs.

ES: Yeah, you had mentioned Pete in a recent interview.

Buzz: Yeah, he’s a big hero of mine.

ES: I’ve actually got friend out in L.A. who met you once and said you guys had a conversation about the Kinks and that you were a big Ray Davies fan.

Buzz: Sure. Oh, absolutely. But see, I’m a fan of the late ‘70s Kinks stuff. Unlike everybody else.

ES: Yeah, you have the “You Really Got Me” folks and the “Village Green” folks, and so forth.

Buzz: Yeah, I’m a “Low Budget” guy. That’s their album that I think is the best.  I saw them on the “One for the Road” tour and it was really, really fucking great.  Nobody ever talks about the Kinks in relation to us.  I don’t know why.  But that’s why we did that covers album.  It was all music that was a big influence on us that maybe people hadn’t thought of.

ES: Yeah, there was definitely some stuff on there I was surprised to hear, but just like every cover I’ve heard the Melvins do, you guys made it your own.

Buzz: Yeah, thank you.  And once you see, “Oh, that’s where that kind of thing comes from,” whether it’s the Fuggs or whoever it may be, people don’t appreciate that to some degree.  I don’t know why.  I mean, we make a lot of records.  There’s no end to that.  I think it was Pitchfork who said bands do that kind of thing when they’re done.  I think I’ve put out two albums since then and one in the can, haha.

ES: Haha, yeah.  Not quite done yet!  Another thing I wanted bring up–kind of going back to the acoustic record that still sounds heavy.  I once read an interview with John Paul Jones where he said one of the heaviest songs on Led Zeppelin I was, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” which was a pretty intense song for an acoustic track.

Buzz: I wonder who they stole that from?  I wonder who’s song that could be?  I don’t know.  It could be, but with the artist you never know where they’re coming from and you have to trust their judgment as far as that goes. I don’t know. He’s looking at it through different eyes.

ES: Exactly.  And even with the Melvins records, there are songs like “Shevil” off of “Stoner Witch.”  A very mellow song, but I always thought it was very intense and heavy.

Buzz: Totally.

ES: Is that what you were going for with this record?  Just having that vibe, that it could be mellow and understated, but still could have the intensity of heavy music?

Buzz: Well, sure.  There’s no question to that.  Definitely.

ES: And another thing I wanted to ask–and I promise that I’m trying to sound like too much of a brown noser here–but you’re a really kickass rock and roll singer.

Buzz: Thank you.  You’re very nice.

ES: Well, the reason I wanted to bring it up is because I realized when people talk about bands who are heavy they’re talking about the sound and the instrumentation, and when you have a good singer like yourself, who’s good at coming up with good vocal melodies, it’s not mentioned.

Buzz: Yeah, it rarely is.

ES: Yeah, and I always felt guys like you, John Garcia, and Jus Oborn from Electric Wizard were great rock singers.  You can definitely hear the Kiss-type vocal style, or Alice Cooper. Any other vocal influences for you when you write your music?

Buzz: Thank you.  Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Howling Wolf.  Maybe–oh, I don’t know who else.  I always thought it was a good idea to sing with a cartoon voice.

ES: Well, I remember there was the one record you guys put out in the late ‘90s.  I can’t remember what the title of the song was, but it had the caption, “Before Britpop became shit-pop.”

Buzz: Haha.  Oh, god. I can’t remember what that was.  I know what you mean though.

ES: I remember that was kind of a cartoony style of singing.

Buzz: Sure, sure.  I don’t know if that was me?

ES: Was that not you singing?

Buzz: It might have been Dale or Mark.  But yeah, I mean I’ve really worked hard on singing.  I’ve never had lessons or anything, but you know, you’ve got to practice what you’re doing.  If you want to sing you just have to practice singing.  You can’t get around it.  Sing things you like. Sing along with things that are easy for you to sing.  Get good at those things and then you can try harder stuff.  I only write songs that I CAN sing.

ES: I play music myself and learned that it’s important to keep it within the realistic bounds.

Buzz: Oh, of course.

ES: I can’t go out there and shriek like Rob Halford. I’ll sound horrible.

Buzz: You could try it, but I’m not capable of doing that stuff so I wouldn’t even venture there.  You know, there’s people who are like, “I can’t play guitar and sing at the same time,” and I go, “Well, write songs that you can!”  Haha…

ES:  Right. You might be surprised at how good your music is if you keep it within what you can do.

Buzz: Right. Write a song that you CAN sing and play at the same time.

ES: When you’re writing a song what comes the first?  The riffing or the vocal melody?

Buzz: The music always.  The vocals are always inspired by the music.  In rare cases, I don’t know.  Maybe Dylan did that, wrote lyrics first, and maybe Townshend did to some degree.  That’s a rarity to me.

ES: It’s the literary guys who create the music around what they want the lyrics to be?

Buzz: You’d like to think, but I’d be hard pressed to understand what the fuck Dylan was talking about most of the time.  People always talk about his message.  I go, “I’d like to know what the fuck it was.”  I can’t figure it out, you know?  “It’s all right, mom, I’m only bleeding.”  I mean, what the hell is that about, you know?  Or “Like a Rolling Stone?”  I mean, what the hell are you talking about?  I have no idea. Or even the Stones. Great lyrics, but I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

ES: Yeah. I’ve always been one of those listeners who never really paid too much attention to that. Maybe that’s why I always got into heavy music, because the message was really all about the rhythm and melody, and the intensity of the music itself, you know?

Buzz: Yeah, sometimes.  I never knew what Captain Beefheart was talking about, but I liked it anyway.

ES: There was a great interview you did recently where you mentioned some non musical influences like Flannery O’Connor, Francis Bacon, and John Huston.  Do you ever have any books that you like to bring on tour, like any quintessential road reads you like to keep with you?

Buzz: I’ve been reading lots of John Fante on this tour. I like that stuff a whole lot. And I’ll bring my Kindle, which has tons and tons of stuff, but I don’t have any particular books. Movies, I bring a lot of movies with me. I don’t really have a lot of time to read. I drive all the time. I’m not really comfortable with somebody else driving, so I drive all the time.  But then at night, or in the day if we happen to go to the hotel before the gig I might have some time to read, but usually what I’ll do is that I just have it on my iPad or something like that and then I won’t have to bring a ton of books with me. But, you know, Jack Black, Hubert Selby Jr., maybe some Thomas Sewell books, stuff like that.

ES: Yeah, the economics guy you mentioned in the interview.

Buzz: Yeah, he’s amazing. I think he’s the greatest philosopher of our time. People don’t have any idea who he is. It’s a shame. I read his books for a long time before I ever knew he was a black guy, and I was pretty impressed with that. That had never occurred to me, you know? My mind doesn’t work that way.

ES: Yeah, it’s always a surprise.

Buzz: Well, I was really happy about all that because he’s not writing with that sort of thing in mind. He doesn’t have an agenda along those lines. THAT is progressive. Within the first five minutes of reading some of these books, whether they’re black or white, if you know what race they are, that’s fucking crazy. It happens all the time, especially with black writers. They make sure that you understand that immediately. That’s just fucked up and stupid to me. That means they have an agenda that has nothing do with anything other than massive racism. I am not interested in racism, whether it’s forward or backwards. It is what it is.  Two wrongs don’t make a right. So, whatever. That’s about as much of a social statement as I’ll make along those lines. I have little or no time for that kind of thing. I don’t believe there is any political party that speaks for me. I certainly am both. I go both ways very hardcore, you know?

ES: You always struck me as someone who was very nonpolitical.

Buzz: Certainly in public. My politics would be more along the lines of someone like Thomas Sewell, but I really don’t talk about it much. I think it’s really a bad idea for someone to take political beliefs from someone who’s an entertainer.

Andreas Koesler (C) 
ES: Haha, well I feel like there are just so many more interesting things you could talk about with someone like yourself.

Buzz: Well, there is. But entertainers, actors, musicians, they always run their mouths off about all that stuff. I think it’s a bad idea because they usually don’t practice what they preach, and they paint the whole entire scenario under a bad light and I think that’s a mistake, you know? I think it’s irresponsible and stupid, and generally if I don’t like their work why would I believe that their opinion politically would make a difference to anyone?  Plus, they’re actors!

ES: Yeah, you definitely see actors doing it.

Buzz: Or musicians, like really famous musicians like Bono. Here’s a guy who wouldn’t work two months for two million dollars. If you offered him two months of shows for two million dollars he wouldn’t do it. So what exactly can people like us learn from him? Nothing!

ES: He does seem to have a very brow view of things, but doesn’t seem to be very “of” the people he’s trying to represent.

Buzz: He has no idea how people think. No idea. If you have an actor, you know, an actor like Brad Pitt or someone like that who wants to speak out politically about Africa. If you offered him two million dollars for two months of work he would not do it. Therefore, I can learn no lesson from that guy. Nothing.

ES: It’s important to see that realistic side of it.

Buzz: Well, the thing is–one thing you’re never going to hear from guys like that is, “I’m going to work. I have enough money. I’m going to work from now on. Every dollar I make is solely going to go towards whatever political or philanthropy type of situation for whatever I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m going to bust my ass and I’m going to do it!” That’s never going to happen because they’re liberal with other people’s money, not their own.  So fuck that. Fuck you guys. I’m not taken by that crap, you know? You wanna do that stuff then do it silently and not with a big press crew around you.

Paul Milne (C)

ES: Yeah, putting on the whole presentation.

Buzz: That’s it! And they fool everyone, and they’re absolute, total bastards. They think that this is going to make up for it. I don’t buy it. I’m not fooled. As a matter of fact I’m offended by it.

ES: That’s why I always tend to be drawn towards to artists and musicians who keep politics the fuck out of everything.

Buzz: They should, because they don’t know how to talk about it, haha.

ES: Speaking of artists, Brian Walsby is touring with you, and he comes up with some really hilarious art work. I’ve seen him depict you as Tesco Vee, Bob Dylan, the characters on Black Flag records. I was just curious if there was ever a piece of his art that brought you into total gut-busting laughter, that just really cracked you up?

Buzz: I think the “Police Story” Black Flag ones, the “Make me cum, faggot” ones. Those are always good, whether it’s Charlie Brown, or me, or Kiss, or Gene Simmons with a gun in their mouth.  That, I thought was funny!

ES: Yeah, I always thought the original Flag piece was hilarious, so of course Brian’s spin on it is sheer hilarity.

Buzz: Well, you have to understand, people like me and Brian, we grew up with Mad Magazine.  That’s where that sense of humor comes from.  Mad Magazine pulled no punches and that’s kind of how that is, but it’s humor. It’s funny. If it’s not funny it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t matter how brutal it is.  If it isn’t funny it doesn’t work.

ES: There is definitely some brutal humor that comes out of it.  I was a Mad Magazine fan myself.

Buzz: Yes, especially ‘70s Mad. That’s how we think about that stuff.

ES: I even bought the “Up the Academy” soundtrack when I was record shopping once, which was a shitty movie that the Mad Magazine guys put out. Killer soundtrack, though.

Buzz: That was a long time ago, yeah.

ES: Pretty generic question, but since the somewhat subject of this interview is your acoustic tour, did you ever have a favorite all-acoustic record?

Buzz: Probably Bob Dylan’s stuff.  Although lot of his stuff wasn’t all acoustic. Probably the Townshend “Secret Policeman’s Ball” soundtrack, the songs he did on there.  That’s probably about it. Nothing else really comes to mind.

ES: You had mentioned Hank Williams earlier.

Buzz: Sure, I love Hank Williams. You have to love Hank Williams. How could you not? But most of his stuff wasn’t just acoustic. Maybe some of the “Luke the Drifter” stuff might have been, but I can’t remember.

ES: I think that’s pretty much all I wanted to cover with you, man. Is there anything else you wanted to say about the record or the Melvins? You said the Melvins have a record coming out in October?

Buzz: Yes, we do. I’m really looking forward to it.  It’s already done, mastered and finished. The whole thing. So that will be great.

ES: And being the road dog you are, do you have any other tours on the horizon once this one winds up?

Buzz: Yeah, I’m going to Australia and Europe doing this, and then when I come home we’re going to do some shows in the U.S., but not a ton of them because we don’t really want to travel in the winter.  We’ll be back next year and we’ll have a whole lot of things to say then.

ES: I think that’s about it. Thanks!

Buzz: All right, man!  Thank you. It’s a pleasure

Words and Interview by: Erik Sugg

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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A look inside the mind of Hovercraft Amps: An Interview with Nial McGaughey

If you play guitar or bass, you need to know about Hovercraft. Why you ask. Well if you like to play overpriced shit that was made by someone that does not know the difference between a Celestion Vintage 30 speaker and a Radial snow tire, go ahead  do not learn about Hovercraft. But if you want to be educated  about a place that is ran by musicians, that will actually converse with  you about the gear  you are inquiring about, then this is a must read for you. Oprah has just put this on her best musical gear reading list. Simply put, Hovercraft is a musicians dream.

If Hovercraft is Oz then the man with the very golden plan would be Nial McGaughey. Enjoy yourself as I take a walk down the road of golden amps and cabs.

Gaff- How did you get into this type of work?

Nial- Well, I actually started a business called Solid Cables in Pasadena, about 13-14 years ago, while I was doing that company I met Dan who owned an amp company, I actually did modifications on amps for him, music manufacturing is small so you get to know other people, ended up doing pedals, and what not, long story short I ended up falling into doing amps on the side. When I moved to Portland I said what the hell I will start making an amp under my name and it snowballed pretty quickly, I made an amp on my couch basically by hand, then started building other ones, and it started going, going, going.  I am a bit of a scavenger, a garage sale guy, so I figured out that I can take other parts of broken amps or perform modifications on other amps and get the part way cheaper than if I was to purchase the part brand new from a supplier and build amps that way.  Also, looking to keep the price down, realized this is a great way to make an amp, a really good sounding amp for not much money. I realized there was a big gap between the 150 dollar tube amps you can buy all day long by the pallet at Guitar Center and the 3 grand boutique amps, there wasn’t anything in the middle that was like really good sounding or well made. Shit I could do that and the results speak for themselves, and it grew organically. There is an appetite or market for them, so I hired a few guys to make guitar cables. They are guitar makers and musicians interested in other aspects so let’s try doing other stuff, so we ended up being a soup to nuts shop, where we can be working on motorcycles one day, amps, pedals, or whatever, anything that is interesting or weird that has something to do with music gear, we have taken it on or built it.

Gaff- How did you get into working on motorcycles, are you guys doing fabrication and electronics work?

Nial-  Yup, a lot of the hand fabrication, the motorcycle thing is like Hovercraft, finding used bikes that don’t go for a lot of money and are reliable good motorcycles and I looked at the way they design the bikes, I like old motorcycles and really cool designs, I look at the bones and re-architect the way it looks and sometimes I can find off the shelf parts but a lot of the times I have to hand fabricate the stuff, the electronics, the lighting, the appearance is all done in the house, using a hacksaw, bench vice, grinder and a drill press built fender support or whatever.

Gaff-That is insane. How long have you been in Portland doing this type of thing?

Nial- I lived here twice, once in the early 90’s, met a lot of people when I was playing in bands, and then I moved back in 2009. I got a job doing game software testing for a company that did contracting work for Microsoft. So in a kind of roundabout way, that was my escape hatch to get the hell out of LA.

Gaff- Are there favorite types of amps that you like to work on, say a Sunn Model T as opposed to a Plexi?

Nial- Actually, I am the type of person that if everyone likes the color blue, I like yellow. Wherever the crowd goes is where I am not. Working with 65 amps and knowing a lot of other boutique builders, and doing a lot of other amp stuff, I kept seeing the same thing over and over again. This is a Marshall clone, a Plexi clone, everyone had their hamburger, French fries and milkshake stuff, what about the other amps that people want?

There are a lot of people out there looking for Matamps, Sunn T’s. Amps that are kind of rare. There is a lot of stuff that no one has tried to make, there are examples but they are 3 grand. So I actually built the hamburger and fries amp first to get a background, then started researching the oddball amps, and listening to those because I couldn’t find a real one. Like Jimmy Page had a custom Hiwatt made for him that had distortion and gain and channel switching that other Hiwatt’s did not have and there was only one. So I made one to sit with and hear it. By doing this it actually gave me a background to know what circuits do. I guess the third phase of my evolution was that I can take all these diff flavors and turn them into something unique; like hybridize them or blend certain parts of that, build other bits, an example would be Hiwatt tone controls are amazing, but the power circuit is incredibly stiff and almost everyone I know that has played would say, where is the gain?

Oh well you have to turn it up until your eyeballs are rattling out of your head to get a crunch, that is ridiculous. I had to do a bit of problem solving.  So that is how it has evolved. Some are uniquely designed, some are pretty by the letter, but usually those are a request for someone that lives in a foreign country and wants a Model T and they aren’t available for any price in their country and always wanted one. Alright I will build them one of those, but I do other stuff that is really awesome and stuff that is dumb but it has been a learning experience the whole time.

Gaff- Are there instances when you will get a request for something that really isn’t up your alley?

Nial- Yeah, perfect example, couple guys crawl out of the woodwork, and say there is one boutique amp that is being made for 5 grand and will you make me one? My initial response is no, I do not want to rip off another company and just make something that is already being made, cloning a boutique amp, the person is alive and the amp is still available. I do not feel good about making the amp and I won’t. I don’t think it is right to do that. I have had other people request stuff, I don’t know if it is their experience level with amps is there, or they are asking for stuff that is crazy. An example, I had a guy ask me to make two amps in one, with 2 sets of power tubes and transformers, and all this other stuff. Just because they had an idea that they want an amp that is two amps in all this other stuff, engineering stuff that is kind of ridiculous, by ridiculous I mean using a 10 pound sledge hammer to kill an ant. Just buy two amps.

I say I can do that but the amount of money it is going to cost you is not worth it. It would be like a guy buying a Ferrari to go to the corner store to buy groceries; just walk! I treat it like it is a learning opportunity for both of us and I explain why. I just don’t come out and say no. I will also get guys that will change their minds 2 or 3 times thru the build process, I want a fender blackface, now I want a high power gain, so I will usually stop and ask the person what are they really looking for, what do you want? What type of music do you play and do you want pedals and what kind of band is it? Hopefully I have a good suggestion for them and maybe it is a problem solving thing where it is almost like talking to a doctor or a therapist, ok well if you only use this one effect once, you probably do not need to add an effects loop and I can save you some money. So that is usually how that is solved.

Gaff- Do people get pretty wacky with the electronic requests they make?

Nial- That is a pretty typical thing, a lot of people read stuff on the internet and they take it as gospel, and then they get a thing in their head and if that thing is not in, they are not happy.

Gaff- I would imagine that people ask if I put a switch on an amp will it do this or that. Do you have to be incredibly patient or do you deal with more people that are amp savvy?

Nial- There are examples, some get it right away, again I try to explain it as well as I can and I try to be as neutral as I can, I get frustrated if someone is, shall we say challenging, I have to go back and forth, and then take a break from the conversation because I am tearing the hair that is left on my head out. I am not here to be an educator I am here to make amps, and I don’t wanna be a dick and tell them to search on Google and get back to me. I try my best but yes, some people just do not get it.

Gaff- I think that there are a lot of false impressions or people may watch too much television when it comes to sound of an instrument?

Nial-One of my favorites is when they read an article from a Guitar Player magazine; Eddie Van Halen, is a perfect example, he would purposely mislead people that were trying to copy his sound, he would say stuff like, “ I put parts from a drill inside my guitar.” Just wacky whatever stuff and people take it as gospel and they are saying to themselves, “Well I need to put drill parts into my guitar now.” Or they will say I wanna get the sound just like it is on that album and I know the player used a Hiwatt. Well, he also used Hiwatt and about 50 pedals and post processing, you are hearing a chain.

Gaff- So now you are based in Portland, you have the amps, cabs, pedals, motorcycles, how many people do you have working with you these days?

Nial- Well that depends who is on tour at the time,  I would say 8, right now I have 4 guys out on tour so we are pretty small right now, depending on the days, between 3 and 4. A couple of the guys that work for me play in a band, Witch Mountain. They just got back from tour.

Gaff- I was really lucky, I worked with Alyssa Herrman and she was amazing; she answered every question I had and was so easy to work with. It must be nice to have such solid people working for you.

Nial- It very much is.

Gaff- I see that you are making a head for Scott Reeder-

Nial- Yeah, I am launching a new bass amp company, partnering with Doug that owns Jet City amplifiers. We are doing a bass amp only company, high end designs under this company Bison, amps for Scott Reeder, Abbey Travis, we will be doing more bass amps in the future. Those amps will be higher priced partly because of the wattage and the iron that is involved. We use Mercury Magnetics custom transformers, we will be using higher end components, so they will be a different price range and they will be really custom, custom stuff. We are trying to push the boundaries on Tube bass amps. We are working with a specific genre of music doing these things.

Part of it is mad scientist; like I wonder what a sextet of KT 150’s would sound like, doing shit that no one else has done. Basically I am scratching an itch that is out there. I do not know of anyone using a sextet of KT 150’s. I also over the years have gotten people as friends such as Scott Reeder, and he will say to me, “Goddam is there a better bass amp out there than blah, blah, blah.” I keep hearing that, I guess if there isn’t then I should see what I can do because I know I can build a better mouse trap.

Gaff- Reeder is the one that actually turned me on to you guys. I bought the Burnt Orange v1 faceplate Head.

Nial- There is a lot of history with that thing. Billy brought that with him from SF, we were able to get 3 face plates out of it. He was remodeling his studio, and said, “Man I know you used wood for stuff, do you want the desktop?” I was like are you fucking kidding me, hell yeah. That was really awesome of him.

Gaff- Is their one of your amps that is the best selling?

Nial- The Dwarvenaut is the best seller by far, partly because of the price and it is quite a loud amp for 20 watts, also some of the look of the amp and the versatility, not everyone gigs out, so playing at home with a cool head and cab, the Dwarvenaut makes sense. Kylesa tours with a 20 watt Dwarvenaut through a 4x12. Another nice thing is that it doesn’t weigh much. It is a good all round amp. Next would be the Falcon, then whatever else weirdo shit we are doing. The Elder Giant bass amps have started becoming really popular but we haven’t made a lot of them partially because fewer bass players are using tube amps and they are a little more expensive.

Gaff- Do you foresee more bass players, because of the warmth of tubes or players in general enjoy using your heads because there is room to run pedals?

Nial- To be honest with you I was a guitar to cord to amp guy when I was gigging, not much else. If an amp comes out of the shop, I want it to sound amazing without pedals, and that actually has become a technical issue with some amps because I actually push the gain itself very high, which does things for fidelity, and response, overtones, all the cool shit that people want out of a tube amp. The unfortunate thing, because I am running the levels so high within the amp, that if you pound the shit out of it with certain pedals you can damage the amp. An example, when I was prototyping our fuzz pedal, I had a Plexi  KT66 kit amp and it was sounding glorious through testing, until the point when then KT66 power tube blew, too much signal going through. It sounded amazing; it was rattling the internal organs through my body. The amp was set at about 5, and then I hit a huge open chord and it went, pop, then I ran my numbers, oops. I probably should not be doing this.

Gaff- I would say that because of the way the amps sound that if you are in the first row, it is like being punched in the face. The Hovercraft amps have a 1-2-7 combo, they hit you face, then the gut, then the face.

Which leads me to cabs; did that happen because the cabs you were playing, you were not digging?

Nial- It is mostly because I have customer requests. I have been there where I have this matching head and wouldn’t it be cool to have the matching cab? I was really thinking about stupid shit like that. There are limitations to the cabs that are out there. So, I knew that this was something else I could push this direction or that direction. I can get more articulation, or get more bass or have a clean clinical sound. The cab is an intregal part but my god, the speakers are so important. Usually unless someone is local, I try and match someone with a good cab suggestion to try out to get started with, because of shipping. I ship cabs all over the place and they get the shit kicked out of them, and the shipping cost these days is outrageous. Sometimes, I will say look, you can get a great sound out a Marshall JCM 900 loaded with real English Celestions and you can probably get one on Craigslist locally for 400 bucks. The knowledge and the learning have opened my eyes to what is possible. I have heard 2x12’s sound better than 4x12’s because of the cab dimensions with speakers. Again it is part of the process of what sound are you going for, do you have an example of the sound? There are a lot of sacred cows out there, your cab has to be made out of this or 24 carat gold plated wire, or you won’t get that sound, well that is a bunch of shit. I have heard so many cabs blow away other cabs because of the dimensions or the speakers, or wiring or grille cloth.

Gaff- Do you ever have people that want you to make crazy cabs?

Nial- I get people requesting a 6x15, requesting all kind of stuff, I guess just doing it for the giggle, I love being able to do stuff like that. Generally speaking, I don’t have the time, but yeah, 10x10 bass cab would be kind of fun to make, what the hell, why not. The thing that is funky about cabs is that there is so much labor involved that after you pay for the all the pieces, the wood, the parts, assuming you are scratch building something and designing it, after all that is said and done, we basically lose money on every cab we make, and that is pretty common among amp makers, you will hear that from everybody. I have seen some cabs out there that are stained hardwood it is beautiful and then there are other ones that are just plywood and vinyl tolex and standard off the wall speakers; why the hell is it 1500 bucks for a 4x12, that is crazy.

Gaff- Do most people do their homework before talking to you about cabs?

Nial- Usually when someone is inquiring about a cab, there is a Japanese chef term called Omakase, which means ‘trust the chef’. So, basically they are trusting me to give them a good recommendation, and again that deals with what type of music, do you have recorded examples, and usually I can get things pretty quickly. Also, the genre of sound is pretty narrow; I do not get some guy saying I need to play High on Fire and then Chicken Picking. It makes it a lot easier and I when I know, and I have sat in front of these speakers, it’s pretty easy to put the recipe together, and then it boils down to how much weight do you need, how loud or not, 90 percent of the time I can come up with a good mix. If you are playing with a shit ton of gain or fuzz, you have got a larger amount of selection available then if you are playing an ES 335 for jazz. It is quality, quantity and in between.

Gaff- When I had emailed you, you had told me exactly what to get which was great and made it a very easy process. I think talking to the builder is key. It seems with you all, you will actually spend the time and the fact that you get involved, from a musicians standpoint is rather huge. You will read that some builders will not budge, it is what it is. What is your thought on that?

Nial-  Well usually my first question is what is your budget, if a guy says sky is the limit, that actually makes things harder, but if a guy has about 300 bucks and needs a 4x12, I can figure something out. Also, hopefully their expectations are fairly realistic. That is usually how I handle it. The nice thing is because I can get fairly some pretty good deals on used gear around here, or broken or empty stuff, I can look at the cab and assess what materials are out of it, and this cab is going to soak up a lot of treble, so we need to put in some fairly bright speakers and some fairly thin grille cloth material, and then this one has a massive air box size, I can tailor things as best as possible. Really on cabs it comes down to what is the person’s budget, and what is the application? If you are playing at home, a good 2x12 would do all you need to do. You really do not need a 4x12 to play alone, or is it for studio recording?

Gaff- You have so much shit going on, talk to me about Hover Fest and when did that first hit you?

Nial- Well, the Portland music community is pretty small. I do not know everyone but I know a lot of people, and Nathan and Todd, my de-facto partners in the festival, they have put on a couple of festivals’ over the years here in Portland previously. This summer, for the outdoor concert season, whatever you wanna call it, I don’t know what happened, there are no heavy bands, not even any hard rock guitar bands performing at any of the outdoor shows and I thought that was ridiculous. I have had a few bands ask me if I had thought of putting together a festival. So hanging out with Nathan and Todd I brought it up and they said, “We could do this.” I was like; let’s do it and the pieces kind of fell into place. If it wasn’t for those 2 guys there is no way in hell this would have happened. I would have lost my mind a long time ago. They are both, this isn’t their first rodeo. Nathan is a booking agent and has done festivals all by himself. Todd has the facilities, he does the nuts and bolts  kind of stuff to making one of these happen, and it fell into place and everybody that is on the bill has been a band that has been  interested in doing something like this anyways so it was a perfect time and opportunity, so we hit the go button.

Gaff- In terms of bands, are you all friendly with the ones on the festival? Also, in terms of gear, is it all Hovercraft gear?

Nial- Basically how I am looking at this whole thing; is that it is a friends and family thing; that just happens to have live music. Everybody that is playing I would go to see anyway because I love their damn bands. As far as gear is concerned, I don’t care what you play. I understand that you need things to get your sound, I am not gonna stand in your way, that is completely ridiculous. Artistically, it is almost insane. It is like being a professionally bike rider and here, use these roller skates and do just as well. The deal with the bands is we will have more than enough Hovercraft backline, to keep things simple for change over but I do not care if they use their own stuff. I do not care if anyone doesn’t use our equipment; that is not the point. The point is to have fun and make some noise.

We make some cool things but we can’t be all things to all people, I get that. Far be it from me from standing in front of anyone for getting their sound. I have been there when the backline sucks ass, I can’t get any of my sounds, and it turns into a horrible gig.

Gaff- Do you see yourself putting on anymore shows?

Nial- The festival is a try it this year and see what happens type of thing. Obviously it would have to be in the summer because of the weather.  I would love to have another one, but let’s see what happens this year. Obviously if it goes really well I would not say no.

Gaff- You guys send your own cables with your heads. Have you always done this?

Nial- I have always included our cables with the amps mainly because I know how a lot of musicians are.  They have had the same crappy piles of cables for a long time and they don’t really work. You plug something in and it sounds weak and crappy and you realize it is a bad cable. So for me, it is deadly important to make sure that when someone un-boxes the amp, plugs it in for the first time that they are getting the best possible experience with the very first chord they get out of their guitar. I have seen some of the cords that come with some of these amps and scratch my head and said why the hell didn’t you just spend the extra dollar instead of using this piece of crap cable that will break and will cause a failure, or possibly a warranty because they used this piece of shit cable. It is mind boggling what happens from a business perspective when a company short changes their gear; we have this amazing $2,500 head that comes with a five cent cable, well that is not going to sound good. I don’t believe on short changing things that are simple to make and will sound better. So many things with gear, I have told people that if you just changed the wiring in that 4x12 cab, it would sound so much better, people do not believe that, and I have witnessed that happen.

Gaff- If a lot more people sent cables of this quality, you would have much happier musicians. Speaking of musicians are there any that you get excited about that use your gear?

Nial- When I heard Kylesa was using our gear, I got some tingles, Tad Doyle used our gear. It is the music itself that I hear that I really get excited by, I hear the music coming out of the monitors, I am like that is my amp making that sound. That is really what I get really happy about.

Gaff- Did I read that you guys are going to start making guitars?

Nial- We have made a few, a couple have been rebuilt, recycled out of existing guitars. We usually will take something boring and putting a cool paint finish on it, replacing the pickups. Cutting a piece out of plywood, let’s see what happens. I can make a great amp, can I make a great guitar from scratch? I’m not sure yet.  The question is can I design something that is really cool that I would want to play? That is the impetus of it.

Gaff- In terms of the straight up builds and the everyday aspects of Hovercraft, from wiring, tolexing, packaging, do you have people say interns ever come into the shop to help out at all.

Nial- It depends on what my time looks like. I am doing the books, the graphic design, the marketing, the emails, web site, all that shit and then I will be like, oh wait, I have to wire up the heaters or fabricate this thing. The answer is it depends. If the trash needs to go out, then I bring out the trash.  There are times when I will over a weekend work from soup to nuts get a whole piece done.

Gaff- So everything that goes out of the shop has your approval.

Nial- Yup, nothing leaves that doesn’t sound good. Multiple people listen to the amps before they go out. If it sounds goofy, it is not going in the box. I learned from working at a record label; first impressions mean everything. The first note you hear is everything. If someone takes out an amp and it sucks, that is awful. My nightmare is something was messed up in shipping and if I would be on the other side, I would be pissed. It is really hard to get back from that moment, kind of ruins it for you.

Gaff- The thing that I am hoping is that you guys blow up. Every person that I have spoken to about your gear is crazy about it and has nothing but the best things to say. Also, working with Alyssa, she made everything so easy and smooth that you can tell people stand behind your project and dig working there. In this day and age you cannot say that about every place.

Nial- I have to look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day and ask myself if I did the best I could; I sleep well at night. If it has my name on it, it is going to be good. If I cannot keep it fun or keep a handle on it, then fuck it. The shit that comes out of my shop has to be awesome. People that are using my gear to create things need to be inspired by it. It may not happen every time; who knows, but I want people to be inspired and make great music. In a weird existentialist kind of way, if I am improving the quality of music and art through the shit I do, then I am making the world a better place. To me it is very important.

I really want to Thank Nial, Cat Jones for setting this up, and Alyssa Herrman for helping me very much with my own dealings with Hovercraft. You all have been so incredibly willing and helpful. That is not a trait that is shared by all in this business of letting the rock roll.

If you truly want to see art at its finest, then look at the artist and what is included in the portfolio they have accumulated over the years. It is the end product that we as a culture judge the artist by. It is rare to find an artist smiling brighter when his piece of work has enabled others to find their true calling by using the artist work to truly fulfill their goals.

I would say Nial is a complete artist in every being of the word.

Eat a peach, Gaff

Hoverfest Info

We are proud to announce the final lineup of the first annual HOVERFEST, happening on August 23rd at noon in the alleyway behind Cravedog, Inc. in North Portland:Yob
Acid King
Witch Mountain
Eight Bells
Wounded Giant
Holy Grove
Mountain God
Tickets are $15 in advance and can be found HERE:
Only 500 tickets will be sold, so get yours ASAP.

See you there.

For more information: