Zachary Vex from Zvex pedals talks cars , gear and indoor leopards
Interview : Zvex's Zachary Vex
Interview by Chris Camm
MGS: Mr. Vex, thanks so much for taking the time to sit and chat with us.
With NAMM just behind us, another one on the horizon, and the new
products coming out from ZVex Effects, I'm sure you're a busy guy.
Vex: I try. 8^)
MGS: So give us some background, if you will. Born and raised where? Was
music prominent in your family as you grew up?
Vex: Born and raised right here in Minneapolis. My brothers both played
guitar and were influenced very heavily by the Beatles, CSNY, Neil
Young, Zeppelin, the Stones... I used to listen to them play and sing
late into the night. Blackbird was one of my favorites... they could
play it just right, with all of the harmonies. My brother Jim had a
rock band in the 70's and I think that was my main influence in getting
into electric guitar. My cousins had Gibsons and a little practice
amp, and the first effect I was exposed to, which sounded intensely
exciting... it was a Jordan Bosstone. stuck out of the guitar, had
little cracked controls in a bakelite housing. I thought it was the
coolest thing ever. My Uncle would play his ES-335 and the kids would
play along on a red SG...
MGS: Did you ever play in any bands? Was guitar the instrument you picked
Vex: Yes, I had a band called Fauna in Minneapolis for a few years in the
90's. We put out two records, very noisy pop. About the time I
started the pedal business I started another recording project called
Ova which used a lot of the effects (plus some prototype devices that
eventually were adapted into things like the seek-wah.) That material
MGS: And so what triggered this desire to fiddle and mess around with a
Vex: I think that Jordan Bosstone really got me going. I ran into someone
who had one of those re-housed when I was in 10th grade, and it
inspired me to build a guitar pedal, so I went to the library and got a
schematic from a Popular Electronics magazine and built one up in an
old plastic fishing tackle box that was about 8 inches long. The thing
was completely haywire and didn't work right, but when it did, it
really screamed. The guy who owned the Jordan Bosstone bought it from
me. I wonder if he still has it? 8^)
I could hear guitar effects all over the music I liked... I guess I
always wanted to be a part of rock and roll somehow, so with my
electronics hobby it just seemed to fit.
MGS: Do you have any hobbies outside of music?
Vex: Yes, I collect old 16mm movie gear, physics demonstration equipment
like Wimshurst machines (high-voltage static machines), and build
magnetic levitation devices. I have a Moviola, an old-school Star Trek
communicator replica (that works), a Tricorder, and I have a bunch of
original paintings by people I know and love. I'm an avid fan of sushi
and other fine food, so I try to hunt down great restaurants wherever I
travel. Man, I sound like a real nerd!
MGS: What kind of car or cars do you drive?
Vex: The company car is actually a Cooper Mini with the John Cooper engine
package. I need to put another 600 miles on it before I can really
open it up though... dang. I don't even know how much acceleration it
has because I was warned not to take it over 4K RPM until 1200 miles.
MGS: Any pets?
Vex: I have two gorgeous Egyptian Maus. One is a few months old, and he's a
silver. The other is a bronze, and I've had him for a few years. They
have the highest land-speed of any domesticated cat (30MPH) and can
run up a full-sized Oak tree to the very top in about 5 seconds. I let
the older one go outside, and he brings me full-grown bunnies (as big
as he is) and flying squirrels, which I didn't even know we had here.
It's like having a miniature leopard in the house. They're the only
naturally-spotted breed, so they look like leopards too.
MGS: I've read the AnalogMan Guide to Vintage Effects, where Tom touches
on the boutique builders a little, and I did chuckle reading the part
about you painting in the alley and the old lady yelling at you. Did
you ever think it would become what it has? Did you tell all your
family and friends you would end up making a living producing this
tiny little noise makers?
Vex: Absolutely not. I never thought it would last... I always warned my
painter and assembler that the business might just go away someday...
now they're trying to figure out how to keep up with it all. I feel
very lucky. I guess it was a matter of very good timing. After trying
so hard to get signed with my bands and trying to make it as a
recording engineer/producer, this seems too easy... I guess it's the
thing I must be good at.
MGS: I love the videos on the website. They are not too serious, yet they
show interaction with the knobs and give us a really good idea of what
a particular box can do. What prompted the videos?
Vex: Amada, my long-time administrative assistant and sales person told me
one day that we really needed video demonstrations of the pedals so she
wouldn't have to explain what they did and how to use them over the
phone, which is pretty brilliant, really. I owe that all to her. I
guess I'm a natural joker, and I find the videos entertaining to make.
MGS: If you could go back in time to any date and could change something
what would it be and why?
Vex: I'd go back to my early teens and nerd out more. I dunno, that
question doesn't make any sense to someone who knows it's not possible.
MGS: I rarely hear anyone say a Wah Probe or Fuzz Factory was just
"Okay." People either LOVE them or HATE them. Why do you think there
is such passion involved with ZVex Effects?
Vex: Probably because they're so weird! The interfaces, the textures, the
look... I try to be very different. I think I've succeeded with some
of the products. In some ways, I'm trying to carry on the work of one
of my favorite instructors from the University of Minnesota, Bruce
Eaton, who designed the physics lab experiements in the deep
sub-basement of the Physics Building. If I could put high-voltage arcs
and levitating magnets in my pedals, I would. 8^)
MGS: It did take me three tries with the Fuzz Factory, but I finally got
it right! Its amazing how many fuzzes really are in there. I had to
sit and learn that pedal.
Vex: Me too! Just when I think I've heard them all, someone records
something new with it.
MGS: And you don't rest on your laurels..NAMM brought the new Ringtone
(sequenced ring modulator) and the Tremorama (sequenced tremolo with
random switch), a sneak peek at the Box Of Rocks too, which I can't
wait to try. You've got a great new artist in Laura Bennett, and the
Vexter Fuzz Factory selling like hotcakes.
Is it still fun or has the business end taken alot out of your daily routine?
Vex: It's a blast! I love making pedals. I'm always working on solving some little . production problem. Today I spent a few hours in front of a drill press trying
to make a perfect prototype and then duplicate it. My business is like a
hobby where I get paid to be as weird as possible!
MGS: I see you shared a booth with Mike Fuller from Fulltone recently. Are
you guys friends?
Vex: I don't know what you mean... was that in Frankfurt? I didn't go
there, and I doubt Mike did either, but I might be wrong. Perhaps
someone who sells our stuff put both brands in the same booth or
something... let me know where you saw it so I know too. 8^)
I talk to Mike from time to time about what's going on in the world of
pedals. His company is twice as big as mine, as far as I know, so he's
a lot busier with production. I do know that he only works 4 days a
week and they're closed Fridays (which is an exceedingly good idea if
you can afford to do it), and he's changed some things about his
business recently, like he doesn't sell direct anymore.
MGS: Have you ever gotten starstruck when an artist talks to you about
Vex: Billy Gibbons, a little. He was so personable that I felt pretty
comfortable, though. Even the biggest stars typically are very amiable
when it comes to gear. They just turn into regular guys who have
questions about batteries and settings and ideas for new pedals like
anybody else. And they like to eat good food and drink beer, which is
pretty normal... Usually I get over the star-struck feeling pretty quickly.
MGS: Have you ever had to take a competitior or copy cat to court or close
Vex: There was a guy in Japan making hand-painted copies of the SHO and
selling them to my dealers there. When we found out who he was, a
resident alien from the UK, we threatened to inform Interpol that he
was forging artwork... he had the audacity to sign Jason Myrold's name!
What an idiot. He stopped making them immediately, and he would have
had to anyway because we warned all of the dealers about him.
No, I haven't had to get involved with court stuff. I did call up Line
6 and yell at their president for using my name and Jason's art in
their promotional materials for the FM-2 pedal. Their ripoff of the
Seek-Wah is idiotic... you can't adjust any of the settings! They
completely missed the point. His response was "well, our lawyers tell
us what we're doing is perfectly legal" blah blah blah blah. Screw
that. Bad karma for those dudes.
Basically, nobody in their right mind would copy my stuff in the US or
Europe because they know I'd tell any dealer carrying their products
that they can't sell mine, and I have 20 pretty interesting pieces that
a lot of dealers would miss if I dropped their dealership. I've seen
copies of things in places where I have no penetration, like Brazil,
but remarkably they've copied products that I sell very few of anyway,
which makes no sense to me! Why someone would go to such lengths to
sell a handful of pedals is beyond me, when they could just do
something original and actually get some interest, reviews in
magazines, and find some real brick-and-mortar dealers!
When I first got started I contacted every dealer that carried Fulltone
and asked if they were interested in even more unusual boutique pedals,
and let them know who was carrying my stuff already. That's the way to
make money... get into the dealers with legitimate new products. Not
hide in the bushes in some far-off country and sell a handful of crappy
knock-offs to unsuspecting victims. Where's the fun in that?
MGS: Tell us a little about Laura too please. Amazing color and detail,
yet quite different from Jason Myrold (who has painted what 15,000
pedals now?). How did you get her aboard? What does Jason paint now?
Vex: I think Jason Myrold is up around 25,000. Laura has probably painted
about 1000 pedals so far. She's just getting up to speed... Jason
didn't paint that many in the first two years we worked together, but
we're making about 5000 units per year now.
MGS: What will summer NAMM bring for ZVex, besides more robes?
Vex: I don't do summer NAMM. I don't think we'll be doing the pajama theme
again. It was completely silly, and those robes are way too hot.
People kept asking me if I'd locked myself out of my hotel room, or if
I was okay.
MGS: Where do you see the state on the industry headed? 20 years ago you
could only get gear in stores, then the internet hit and that
exploded. Now it seems that folks want to bring it back to the stores.
Vex: I think more and more major companies are going to attempt to develop
boutique lines and probably miss the mark, like usual... I hope. 8^)
I haven't signed up any internet-only stores for years now. I only
open brick-and-mortar dealers because they are where people can try
things in person. Internet stores are fine if you know exactly what
you want already... but that's pretty hard to decide from watching a
video, I think.
MGS: What are your long term goals for Zvex?
Vex: Yes, but if I say that stuff out loud it never comes true! The same
thing about new pedal designs I'm still working on... if i talk about
it, it jinxes it somehow and slows down or kills my progress. I'm a
very secretive person when it comes to the future. 8^) It helps keep
people from being disappointed, I hope... I personally hate vaporware
and equipment that is advertised for months before it hits the market!
Even the NAMM show causes trouble for me... I showed three prototypes
there this year and the phone rang off the hook for 2 months before we
could get two of them shipping regularly. I don't like causing trouble
for myself and my coworkers, so I have to keep it "close to the vest."
Or, "close to the Vex" if you will.
MGS: How about a quick YES/NO to send us off:
Do you eat breakfast?
Vex: Sometimes. I eat lunch sometimes, and I always eat dinner.
MGS: Do you have your own pedalboard? If, YES..what's on it?
Vex: You've seen the pedalboards I use for the NAMM show. There's pictures
on the site. I don't wish to discuss my personal gear. 8^) It's... personal.
MGS: Do the older Fuzz Factories that you made sound different to you than
the ones coming out today?
Vex: Some people think so. They all sound a little different to me...
every single fuzz factory has a slightly different set of knob
positions to get similar sounds, so at the extremes they all sound
slightly different from each other.
The early "spam can" fuzz factories used a transistor that was custom
made for a Minneapolis company back in the 50's. Only 100 or so
transistors were made, and I used all of them up during the first few
years making it... I think I ran out in 1997. Those earliest units had
a slightly "fluffier" tone. The new ones are more edgy and cut through
better, I think.
MGS: Will we see anymore Vexter models coming out?
Vex: Yes, the next one is the Box of Rock coming out this year. I think
I'll release a hand-painted version of that first... Amada is insisting
that we need one.
MGS: Will we see a ZVex delay pedal in the future?
Vex: I'm not sure. I like delays, but so far my ideas for making one have
been too insane. I hate to even describe what I'm thinking about
because it will reveal the technology to anyone smart enough to
understand... but it involves technology from the 20's mixed with some
from the 50's.
MGS: Will the DRIP Guitar ever be re-released?
Vex: Not if I have any say in the matter! I wasn't cut out to make guitars,
I don't think.
MGS: What effect are YOU most pleased with?
Vex: I'm not satisfied yet. I want to make something so remarkably weird
but usable that it raises eyebrows just looking at it. The nano is
close, and the iMP is pretty cool, and as far as sounds go, I love the
lo-fi loop junky and the machine.
MGS: Will I someday have a ZVex Home Stereo System to go with my Nano and
Vex: Like turntables and stuff? I don't think so. Maybe an attenuator box
and a headphone breakout box. Not cd players or anything.
MGS: Does ZVex Effects have a day job I can do from my home here in CO?
Vex: Hah! We just got our first intern... that's a sign that we need more
help but can't afford to pay anybody! 8^)
MGS: Thanks again Mr. Vex, for your time. Its been a real treat picking
your brain and hearing about the history and future of ZVex Effects.
All the best wishes in the future
Vex: Sure! Anytime at all... zack