[interview] Nine Volt Nirvana: Joe Gagan

Here's FXDB's interview with Joe Gagan of Nine Volt Nirvana:

How did Nine Volt Nirvana start?

I grew up in rural northern New Mexico, a lefthanded guitar player with very little reference material to find lefty guitars, so my lefty brother Tim and I modded and built our own bodies starting at age 13. Working on amps and pedals followed naturally. I took apart an Electro-Harmonix Screaming Tree and wrecked it in '75. Not a good beginning.

In 1978 while on vacation in Mexico, a 2nd story apartment gorgeous older lady fortune teller gave me a prediction, not requested by me, that I would someday be famous "por electronicos por la guitarra" - I laughed at her and said I had no desire to do electronics.

Fast forward, '99, my brother Tim and I were once again regional touring and playing live around 150 nights a year, I modded a Dunlop Fuzz Face reissue to get it to work well for me onstage with a loud drummer. Enter the internet. Interesting fun-fact: Zach Vex, Jacques and I were all born on the exact same day in June 1960.

With the help of Analog Mike, Stuart Castledine, Geoffrey Teese, Marc Alfs, Ken Fischer, Aaron Nelson, RG Keen, Zach Vex, Gus Smalley, Jack Orman, Doug Hammond, Bill Bergman, Craig Anderton and dozens of others I was able to get to a point of designing early on, actually too inexperienced to be designing, but I could not stop it.

There was a pioneering spirit in the late 90s to to now where thousands of people build and explore the craft of making / designing pedals. Alluring.

Even after modding my fuzzface and some TS types I did not feel any strong urgency to actually build pedals commercially until I visited Make'n Music in Chicago in 2000. Prior, I had never seen a Z. Vex pedal before, the whole idea of it turned me on so much, visually and sonically. I plugged in a Woolly Mammoth and for the first time heard a bunch of sounds I had heard in my head all my life. I was hooked, mesmerized from that point on. Overall, Zach Vex is the largest single reason I got into the business.

Where do the name and logo come from?

I was trading ideas online with Brad from Sonic Flux, I put the name 'Nine Volt Nirvana Designs' on the bottom of a proposed pedal idea, he emailed back and told me I should name the company Nine Volt Nirvana. Where is Brad, anyway?

I designed the logo to be an artistic rendering of the letters NVN. Luckily, V and N are two of the most gorgeous letters in the alphabet. There is a little bit of electricity arcing across the V, to evoke juice, power, tone.

What sets Nine Volt Nirvana apart from other builders?

I am proud of the unique look we had when entering the market. Time has also been very kind to my durability standards.

Sonically, I designed a lot of high end response into my pedals with the belief that a pedal must cut to be heard. This was a double edged thing, it bit me in the ass with bedroom players and others with bright setups. I made the stuff to sound good onstage for me with a loud drummer, which it does very well.

I believed in high gain with the ability to play nice when dialed down. I like strong fuzz and radical sounds, the Bronto Boost and Dinosaur Fuzz are still unique in the market in tone after all these years.

Finally, my involvement with the DIY community is my greatest achievement. I have always believed that a strong community of DIY guys have been quietly but heavily influencing the entire industry. Giving back to this community is not only my duty, but my great joy. I did not invent anything new, but I did see the possibilty of implementing circuit ideas into tools that musicians could find useful and toneful. A few examples:

  • My use of the input cap blend (sometimes called "Gagan input cap blend") was a Jack Orman idea that had also been discussed online by Gus Smalley in the mid 90s. I was turned onto it, and was the first to present it in such wide use in both DIY and commercial products. It has since shown up in dozens or hundreds of products.
  • I was touting the beauty of a silicon/germanium Fuzzface when it was rarely talked about in this way prior to 99. This layout has also since become the cornerstone of many a fuzz product. I am sure this would have become common without my help, but I think I pushed it along.
  • I also have received feedback that the NVN designs influenced the looks of subsequent pedals. Just this week, I saw a new pedal released with a faceplate like we used to do. Cool!

How do you start on a new pedal?

I think about a sound that will be fun. I play a pedal and wonder what it would be like if it was deeper, wilder, smoother, etc etc. - including my own existing designs.

We took the Dinosaur Fuzzz from design/prototpye to finished product in around 6 weeks, Bronto Boost was the same.

How do you name your pedals?

I like dinosaurs. One of my first modded Fuzzfaces had real toy dinosaurs epoxied to the knobs. I have no pics of it, the pedal sold in 2000, wish I could see it now, it was pretty funny. You didn't know whether to laugh or kiss your grandma.

In the past few years I try to get away from psychedelia as a theme because I think it is whored out now. But my stuff will always be colorful- it is my curse. I am leaning toward a cleaner, ital design influenced clean look but still with passion in the lines.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

I went with a local assembly house early on at the suggestion of Gerald Weber, who urged me on the phone to get on the ball and pre-sell the remaining 40 of the 100 first run. It went something like this:

Me: "I need to find somebody to build my first 60 pedals, I already have an order for 50" (Musictoyz' initial order).

Weber: "Well , you've gotta get busy selling that other 40 for a 100 run, nobody wants to build 50 of something!"

Me: OK!!

My thinking was, I should plan to go big right away, I had some momentum and I already had 5 products in the pipeline that I thought would be easy to get into production. It isn't so easy. You get so caught up in trying to get out the existing orders and fixing problems, it leaves very little time for R&D if you are the master plate spinner. My subcontractor was doing his best but it was all a little out of his normal business, he mainly made radiation testing equip and some talking alarm clocks and scales for blind people. I had to take over more and more of the roles his people were supposed to be doing to get the quality right. Out of the first 25 dinosaur fuzzes, I think maybe 5 of them worked right away. It came down to me to fix all that stuff before it went out. I personally tuned and inspected every single unit that ever shipped. I still advise people to enter into manufacturing arrangements, just be prepared to be thorough in crafting the deal and then assuring things are done well. Quality is a time consuming process, and essential.

My construction and design background allowed me to design robustness into the product. Having repaired a lot of my own gear over the years, durability was a prime concern. I also utilized my graphics and art background to design a unique look, from the logo to the mechanicals to the online marketing. A lot of things we see as commonplace now were not around in 2001. For example, if you wanted powdercoated enclosures, you generally had a choice of black or white. And so on.

I wanted a one-off look to each of my pedals, inspired by the cool painting of Jason Myrold and the overall Z. Vex approach. I saw the boutique market as an opportunity to start with a blank canvas in terms of aesthetics. The faceplate design was a way to easily make bolt-on artwork similar to a bolt on neck in the early fender years. The logos were built in Corel Draw to allow laser etching of the plates, giving a more high dollar look with very little cost. I sculpted and painted every faceplate that ever went on an NVN pedal. The dinos had unique shapes for each pedal faceplate, while the brontoboost plates were all more or less the same outline with different detailing.

Mechanical design was simple and strong. True metal standoffs screwed through the top (hidden by faceplate), switchcraft open jacks, through hole plating on the commercial style PCBs. 24 ga. stranded wire where possible. 28 ga. wires necessitated by the clip connector were all shrinkwrapped for durability. Actual screws holding rubber feet, no glue or sticky stuff. Pots were all offboard, as were dpdts and later 3pdts. I even shipped all my pedals with NVN logo batteries, with labels designed, printed and applied by yours truly.

The boxes were Hammond, bought black or powdercoated locally in the case of the Brontos. All faceplate painting was done by hand using industrial enamel and/or signpainter's oneshot enamel. A few of them got a little glitter, ha ha.

How important is the look of your pedals?

If not for the art aspect of these pedals, I would not care about making pedals. Which is funny because I spend more time designing the electronics.

Is parts selection important?

I like old parts. I love surplus places. I would like to use US made components from the past as much as possible. If Europeans want a pedal made by me, someone will have to smuggle it in, because while I agree with ROHS, except that it is enforced on small makers who make virtually no impact. I disagree with pedalmakers having to adhere to standards that are not common sense based.

We still have many NOS parts sitting in warehouses, and thanks to the internet, the people who own this stuff will continue to market it to guys like me for along time to come.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

Skyripper. It was my first complex design, it had a lot of problems, but it still stands as one of the most fun and tunable fuzz and noisemakers on the planet. I only ever built two of them, they are still in my town, but dozens or hundreds have been built by DIYers. The skyripper is truly a product of the great online brotherhood, and is a cool example of what this community offers.

I don't have permission to mention the famous users who used or have used NVN pedals.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The one I'm making with Proximity Electronics.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

Brontoboost. It can be an unruly bastard, but it epitomizes my philosophy of giving the player more control of the stuff that designers usually try to put off-limits to the user.A lso, it has a quality look and feel.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I always design for the live player or the studio pro. If my stuff happens to make a home-only type player happy, I am also happy but my first obligations are to my road and studio warrior peers.

Billy Gibbons will one day have a dream about one of my pedals floating around the dashboard of a 1960 Chevy Lowrider.

I used to try and please everyone. Now I am designing with a young guru, Zac Zagar and have gotten an old guy attitude, I will make the pedal I think sounds good, and either it works for you or it doesn't. I used to live in fear of a bad review on the net, now after all I've been through I don't care what people say about my stuff.

What does the future of Nine Volt Nirvana look like?

After the roaring launch of the Dinosaur, plans were in place to release the Brontoboost followed by the Skyripper. By september 2002 the demand for the Dino had dropped off, Bronto preorders were lagging and I had trouble paying my supplier/assembly contractor. He put my products on hold and allowed me to go to his facility and finish the pedals myself, he was no longer going to put any capital into labor. There were approx 250 pedals in various states of completion. Personal finances required that I go back to construction during the day while building the pedals at night. Eventually this was unsustainable. In the intervening years, I have used my construction income to pay back the customers rather than walking away from the obligations.

The upside is that 400 pedals are out in the world, they were built to a very high standard and continue to give their owners great tone.

Are you working on any new products?

I am working with Zac Zagar of Proximity Electronics. We currently have a half dozen pedals in the works, including a one knob fuzz that has the Bugatti Veyron as its inspiration. The cost will be upwards of a thousand dollars, and can only be purchased or heard by invitation, no internet pics or soundclips allowed. We also are planning some pedals priced at one fifth the price of the "Proximity One". Upcoming products include "Death by Treble" fuzzed wah, a series of small runs of custom wahs, along with several OD and fuzzes that are in the works.

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