Nicholas Harris, founder of Catalinbread Specialized Mechanisms of Music, engineers the Super Chile Picoso Clean Boost and the Teaser Stallion Distortion/Chaos Effect Pedals. His pedals are hand-built, hand-painted, and hand-upholstered in small batches, ensuring attention to detail. In this interview, Nicholas shares some of his influences and designs for Catalinbread.
Get to Know the Teaser Stallion
SSS: How did you get started designing guitar pedals? What training or education did you have?
Nicholas: I started messing with electronics when I was a kid, like 12 or so, taking apart TVs. My logic consisted of “it’s not plugged in…I won’t get shocked”. I learned that to be a fallacy pretty quickly! In my teens I started playing guitar because the energy of Nirvana, MBV, RFTC and other such bands hit that angst chord. My interest in building gear took off from that point. I spent more time with my bass – in pieces, refinishing and modifying – than I did playing. Then I discovered Anderton, Lancaster and Torres books. I spent a lot of time in the library scouring electronics books for schematics. I was a military brat in Japan. In 1995 or so we got the internet where I discovered the gurus R.G. Keen and Jack Orman and the Ampage forums. I’ve also been a non-active member of the Commonsound Collective. I eventually left home and studied electronics. I took a ride in the internet bubble did a lot of cool stuff designing processes and experiments etc. The entire time with that company I had very little time to do more than dream of pedal and amp designs and mods. I think that they may own these ideas since I thought them up on their time. Crap. Interview over!
SSS: What era of music had the biggest impact on your life? How did it affect you?
Nicholas:The music that had the biggest impact in my life was probably The Who. My father weaned me on that. When my mom wasn’t around he’d play his old Doors records for me too because Mom hated them! Music I discovered on my own or through friends that had a huge impact were Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine which established my focus on interesting chord voicings and orchestration. High energy and rock impact came from bands like Fugazi and Rocket From the Crypt.
SSS: Which guitar players have influenced your life the most? What is it about them that has influenced you so much?
Nicholas: Kevin Shields, J Mascis, Pete Townshend. LOUD ROCK! I saw Dinosaur Jr. in ’95 at Shinjuku’s Liquid Room, a venue only about 6 times bigger than my small apartment on like the 7th floor of a building in Shinjuku. J had 3 full Marshall stacks dimed and a 2X12 Marshall combo on the side of the stage – to circulate more air I guess. I had noise hangover for a week. I haven’t been to a show as loud since. Well, maybe Turbonegro or Inflames.
SSS: Your website takes on the Anime-style art and is very catchy. Tell us about your site and the kid on the intro page. What future plans do you have for your site?
Nicholas: The site was designed by my good friend Derek at Pixels of Fire. I let him run with it. I dunno about the kid sorta an Emo Anime rocker kid. I like him very much, though I don’t think any of my customers look like him. I haven’t seen Flash work on the caliber that Derek does.
SSS: Tell us about your designs…
Nicholas: I like designs that are high quality, lots of fun and provide A LOT of utility to players. My goal is to make stuff that is more than a one trick pony. I want my pedals to ALWAYS be on player’s pedal boards.
SSS: How do you name your pedals?
Nicholas: In the tradition of all whacked pedal builders something artistic, sexual, and/or frustrated.
SSS:The Teaser Stallion seems to be a dual channel dirt box. The first channel being a conventional gain channel, and the second channel taking the tone to extremes. Tell us about the possibilities of the two channels and how they are integrated with one another.
Nicholas: The first channel is a more traditional late ’70’s overdrive sound with even order harmonics, that we all love, being stressed. The second channel engages a classic feedback loop circuit which turns that pleasing overdrive into a VERY interactive oscillator for synth sounds. Your guitar’s volume knobs change the frequency of the oscillation as do volume pedals. Each guitar will react differently with it, in spite of that I think it is extremely controllable, with a small investment of time it is very intuitive and easily repeatable. The designs of some strange sounding pedals make it so hard to get the same sound twice; the Stallion is very easy.
SSS: The Super Chili Picoso seems to be another boost pedal to add to the world of guitar effects. What makes this boost different from other boost pedals?
Nicholas: Yeah, the boost is a great place to start. Simple designs, low parts counts and market demand has made it a great starting point for a lot of new builders. Sorta like the Fuzz Face variations that earlier boutique builders used as a springboard. The advantage of the SCP design is that it has a great starting point, thanks to the design available from the pedal Jack Orman (anybody can build it!). After that I don’t like the thought of my gear breaking down on my customers so my pedals have a lifetime warrantee and I will repair them free of charge if anything happens.
SSS: What genres of music do your effects work best for?
Nicholas: I have blues guys happily using my stuff. Several metal players too. There is a cool “Noise Rock” (as they describe themselves. I think they are very melodic and interesting, sorta like Blonde Redhead) band from Italy called “Aptek” that uses them. I use them and my band has a lot of D.C. influence from groups like Fugazi and Q and not U. I don’t think of things in regards to genre when designing, because musically I love lotsa stuff, from Hot Country Hellecaster type players to artsy audio collages from groups like Stereolab. Although I secretly imagined Josh Homme ripping through the Teaser Stallion when I was tuning it on my breadboard!
SSS: What’s the biggest challenge that you face in creating your designs, and effects in general.
Nicholas: Making something that provides a lot of utility and also inspires new sounds and approaches from players. In envision my pedals enveloping the gear that players already use. I want them to provide great traditional rock tones but, more importantly, sounds that haven’t been recorded. Anything revolutionary that has happened in rock music, from a cranked Fender Champ to Page using a bow to Morrello coaxing scratching sounds of vinyl, has come from somebody approaching the instrument from a different angle. It’s this forward motion that I want my pedals to inspire.
SSS: Do you have any other designs in the works for future products?
Nicholas: Oh yeah. I can’t say much about them until I know that they are gonna be the sort of devices that do the things I have mentioned above.
SSS: What is your motivation in this particular business?
Nicholas: I am most happy when I am soldering and putting things together. I really love getting great feedback from my customers. I love my customers; they are the main motivation.
SSS: Is Catalinbread a full time job for you? Do you have any help?
Nicholas: More or less full time. I invest a lot of my time in my band too. I live a very simple life. I hire my graphics/industrial design friends to help me come up with solutions that I’d rather not concern myself with like epoxies, Flash animations, etc. I do maintain a day job. I also keep my eyes peeled for great deals on things like vintage instruments of all sorts. This helps me support my gear purchasing habit!
SSS: Where do you hope to take the company in the future?
Nicholas: As long as I feel like this is not real work, and make and keep my customers happy I will do this. I’d like to be in a few cool stores too.
SSS: Where do you see guitar gear headed in the future? Digital? Analog? Simplicity? Complexity?…etc.
Nicholas: I think modeling has proven to be a strong force so far. I do think that our brains are obviously more complex than the current code can offer. In time they will fine tune modeling with more complex code and better processors so that it will be VERY intuitive and convincing for experienced ears. They will always be halfway there, taking steps half the distance at a time. Because of this, modeling gear has proven to be a bit immature in regard to how it interacts with other gear and players. I sold my POD when it would not interact like my Super Reverb does with my Fuzz Factory. The potential is there, just not yet. I really wanna see a good hardware based mic modeler, like that Antares software. I guess I wanna see things that are more tools for recording than attempted recreations of full stacks or tweeds.
That said I think analog will always have its place, especially as the old stuff breaks down. I think that is why folks looking for a Fuzz Face that is consistent will grab something like a Fulltone instead of weeding through 20 thirty year old $400 collectibles. There is also a lot of potential for analog stuff that is indeed new sounding.
SSS: What is your relationship with other designers?
Nicholas: I own some Zvex stuff. I really like Zachary Vex’s work. And he is a good guy. Effector 13 blows my mind. Tim has a really great eye for design. I have wanted to see stuff like his for a long time! In general there is a very protective aura in the DIY/builder community. There is a hard balance to strike; from an outsider perspective comments at forums can seem hostile. I try to steer clear of it. Or at least approach it with a sense of humor, a lot of builders don’t, though.
SSS: What is some of your favorite vintage gear? What’s your favorite modern gear?
Nicholas: Favorite vintage gear… I really like old Tube PA’s a lot. My favorite and most used old pedal is my MXR Distortion II. I have been looking for an old Hiwatt, too. I also collect obscure pedals of Eastern European/Soviet pedigree. Modern gear… Large diaphragm condenser mics. I bought a Rode NT-1 which I love. I wanna get these mics from a place here in Seattle called Pacific Pro Audio; $99 for a NT-1-like mic and less than $300 for a tube mic with selectable patterns. Seem like steals!
SSS: What is the greatest guitar tone that you have ever heard?
Nicholas: Pete Townsend Gibsons into Hiwatts. Just huge! And that is just coming from my experience of The Kids Are Alright DVD! I also like guys and gals who get some great clean sounds with Tele’s and Fenders. A friend of mine let me play his ES-335 into his tweed Fender Deluxe and I am still in awe. I like raw sounds, not too squashed nor polished. I have been completely turned off by polished albums that would otherwise sound amazing. Frank Black and the Catholics record live in the studio and sound great! The Beatles Anthology has takes that blow away the album production stuff. SRV of course had the definitive Strat tone. I can’t roll back the tone knob on a neck humbucker without thinking of Slash. These are just descriptions of the essence of electric guitar tones without a whole lot of effects and the most important starting point in putting together a great pedal. I think the whole point of effects is to use them in ways they weren’t initially meant to be used. An example of this is The Cure getting a lot of cool sounds such as the feeding back flanger, and they rarely stray from Boss pedals!
SSS: What is the greatest guitar playing that you have ever heard?
Nicholas: I have never been super into technical players. Of course Hendrix footage will always blow me away. I like Junior Brown a lot. I am more impressed by how a band as a unit sounds live. The best, as in TIGHT and LOUD but CLEAR, and full of energy I have ever seen was Fugazi. I never realized a band could play that tight and for a 30 song set! So I am more into how the band sounds overall more than any particular superstar.
SSS: Ok, now for the serious question. You are alone in the Playboy Mansion, with a Playboy Bunny at your side. She wants you to play her one song, and if you win her over, she’s yours for the night. What song do you play?
Nicholas: Man. I dunno. I pretend to be a selected member of the anointed class with too much money and a couple of cars with alphanumeric model numbers? I would also have to pretend that I didn’t care that she might be dumb. Seems like more work than it is worth, but at least I wouldn’t have to bother playing a song for her! 😉
For more information, please visit the website for Catalinbread Guitar Effects.