Interview with Jamie Stillman of EarthQuaker Devices

  • By Nick Rambo @tonereport
  • October 20, 2014

Tone Report: Alright Jamie—where did the name EarthQuaker Devices come from?

Jamie Stillman: Some old friends of mine in a band from West Virginia called “The Minus Tide” always talked about starting a fake metal band called EarthQuaker. I kinda stole it and added just added Devices because…we make devices.

TR: That’s awesome. According to your website, EQD was founded a decade ago. How’d you get started?

JS: In 2004 I was just building a handful of pedals for friends around town while I was learning the ins and outs of electronics. I think I put my first run of pedals up on eBay in 2006, but they didn’t really sell. I was travelling a lot with The Black Keys at the time and I had no intention of starting a pedal company, so I kind of abandoned it until we had a break in touring.

TR: Yeah, I was going to ask about that. What’s your connection to The Black Keys?

JS: I’ve known Pat Carney (Black Keys drummer) since he was 17. He used to come see all our bands play in Kent, Ohio. The Black Keys really started to take off as my band was starting to wind down, so I began working for them around 2004—first as a gear driver and eventually as their tour manager and shitty tech. I held that position until about 2011.

TR: Very cool. So how and when did EQD really get rolling?

JS: Somewhere around late 2006–early 2007 I started back up with the Hoof, Tusk and the Disaster Transport Delay. I started posting on the Harmony Central message boards and some people decided to take a chance on those. Then everything started to spread by word of mouth. By 2008, I had about eight or nine pedals in the line and was doing it pretty much full time. I hired my first employee, Jeff France, in 2010 and he is still with us today as production manager. We hired our second employee, Justin Seeker, about a year later. (You may know him as our staff Instagrammer under the handle @eqdevices.) After that, we started adding new builders every six months or so until we outgrew my basement in 2012 and moved to our current location in an old glass factory near downtown Akron.

TR: What’s it like being a midwestern pedal company?

JS: I grew up in Ohio and really have no desire to leave. Akron is cool. We are located about eight hours or less from every major city on the east coast, rent is cheap, people are cool and the cost of living is right.

TR: As a fellow midwesterner, I get the appeal. Snow sucks though—but I digress. Who is EQD today?

JS: EQD today is an ever-growing cast of builders, packers, assemblers, artists and office workers crammed into just over 1000 square feet of space. We currently employ 17 people and are in the process of adding a few more as we expand our shop. I am still the sole designer of all the devices, but I took myself out of building and business about a year ago. All of our builders are excellent, responsible and detail oriented, so I feel confident in leaving all the building to them. Julie Robbins (my wife) and Karl Vorndran (my wife’s wife) handle the day-to-day business. They are responsible for keeping EQD afloat.

TR: What’s the creative dynamic around the shop like?

JS: We try to keep as much of our stuff in house as possible. Our extremely talented resident artist Matt Horak has done a lot of the art on our recent pedals. All our videos are shot and edited by Jeff France and a few of us take turns playing on them. They are recorded and filmed at Tangerine sound, a studio in Akron owned by EQD builder Ben Vehorn. Julie’s uncle, Jim Martin, does all of our product shots. All the circuit boards are populated by hand in-house and all the wiring, assembly, testing and repairs are done here, too. It’s basically a very elaborate version of when it was just me, soldering all day and night in my pajamas.

TR: Sounds like a fun group. Switching gears a bit, you’ve currently got 35 different pedals on the market right now—a significant library. Where do you get the inspiration for all those designs?

JS: Most of them are things that I personally want for a specific use. I’ve been lucky that other people have the same tastes. I like a lot of old effects, noise and all. I try to make everything we do have at least some worn in (lo-fi) characteristic. 

TR: Right on. What’s the development process like for each one?

JS: I usually start out with a rough idea and tinker around on the breadboard until it becomes fully realized. Most pedals will be in development for at least 3 months or so—some longer and some much shorter. I spent almost 2 years working on what eventually became the Disaster Transport SR. In contrast, I spent about 3 days working on the Bit Commander. Some things just feel finished right away and I have nothing to add or take away.

TR: Have any of them surprised you?

JS: The Rainbow Machine was the biggest surprise. I let it sit on breadboard for almost a year because I didn’t think anyone would want it. Now it’s one of the most popular pedals we make. It’s been very cool to hear it pop up on recordings. It’s got a very distinctive sound that’s pretty to easy to spot.

TR: What’s your most popular pedal?

JS: The Dispatch Master has been the top seller since it was introduced in 2010, but the Afterneath might just knock it out of its position.

TR: Ah yes, one of your newer pedals. Tell me about that one.

JS: The Afterneath was one of my “happy accident” pedals. I usually work with a programmer for all our digital pedals, but the Afterneath was my first shot at working on code myself. I started playing around with a reverb code and eventually hit what is now the Afterneath. I’m still not 100% sure what I did, but I’m happy I did it!

TR: A lot of people seem happy that you finally came out with a Tube Screamer. In fact, in a recent issue of TRW, we called the Palisades the “end-all, be-all Tube Screamer multi-tool.” What’s your take on that statement? And why did you finally decide to build a TS-inspired pedal?

JS: That’s very flattering! I finally caved in after the millionth request for an EQD Tube Screamer. Julie kept asking me about one after each tradeshow where people inevitably would come up to the booth and ask for our Tube Screamer. When she said we didn’t have one, they’d just walk away.  It was bizarre. I didn’t really like the TS circuit that much so it was kind of a fun challenge to turn it into something I would use and create something different than the other TS derived pedals on the market.  We have a few TS aficionados in the shop so I knew when I pleased them it was worth putting in production.

TR: Your pedals feature interesting names like the Arpanoid and Terminal—how do you come up with those?

JS: Thanks! A lot of the names usually come from brain storming around the shop. I usually come up with most of them and bounce them off Julie or Jeff. For instance, the Afterneath came from me speaking too fast and jumbling my words together.  Mason Stoops heard me say it and texted me immediately, “Dude you just said Afterneath” so I kept it around for a pedal name. Seems fitting for what it is.

TR: That’s awesome. A few last questions here as we wrap up. Most of your pedals are pretty accessibly priced for most users. Why is that an important part of your business approach? 

JS: We try to keep them as affordable as we can while still leaving room to pay our employees well, offer them benefits, maintain the business and turn a small profit. Julie now handles most of this balancing act by factoring in all the costs and pricing the pedals accordingly. We buy all our parts in large quantities to get the best possible pricing and only manufacture in small batches on a week-to-week basis.

TR: Smart. There are a more builders out there today than ever before. What’s your niche? How do you stay relevant?

JS: I don’t really worry about it all that much. I’m not trying to out-do anyone, I’m just making things that I think are cool. We have succeeded thus far based on all my whims—I don’t want to jinx it now. I still pay attention to what is going on in the gear world, so some of my wants and ideas are certainly influenced by what is happening now, but I try not to worry too much about creating something just to stay relevant.

TR: What’s upcoming for EQD?

JS: I have a lot of ideas swirling around and quite a few designs waiting on the shelves. We’ll be busy as long as people are interested and that seems to be growing at a healthy rate every day. It’s really amazing that we have gotten this far and I really appreciate everyone that supports us!

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  1. hauspro

    this is really cool, you guys should interview the SoldGold FX guys in Canada. Keep up the good work!