GearMusic

AFROPUNK INTERVIEW: GEAR TALK WITH DOGMAN DEVICES’ LANCE GILES

August 26, 2021

Despite the enduring legacy that black musicians have had in the music industry, they have not received the same recognition on the technical side. When you look at the number of guitar builders, audio companies and effects makers, black creators are few and very far between. We spoke with one of these entrepreneurs, Lance Giles, the owner of the Ohio boutique pedal maker Dogman Devices. Lance creates an impressive variety of devices, including fuzz and distortion, that he designs and builds by hand. We spoke to him about pedals, his process, and the outlook of Black business in that space.

What made you want to get into pedals?   

Getting into post-rock when I was a junior in high school got me into pedals. Specifically, the band Pg.lost, and the track “Yes I Am” really blew me away. I had been into Pink Floyd and stuff like that before, but something about that song, in particular, made me want to start playing the electric guitar and use pedals. I listened to it over and over and couldn’t understand how they sounded like that. Since it was 2007, I mostly heard about music from a forum on Myspace (The Skramz Forum), and some people told me about effect pedals. Somehow, I had never really encountered them before that – I thought people just got their tone directly from their fingers, guitar, and amp before then, and it seems silly in hindsight.

 

What was the first pedal you owned?

After hearing about pedals in that Myspace forum, I looked into what kinds of effects there were and decided I wanted a multi-effects thing and loop pedal. So I got a DigiTech RP150 and Boss RC-2 loop station, pretty much because they were what at the store. I got my first electric guitar and amp with them. That’s how I spent my 17th birthday. It wasn’t until I moved to Japan after college that I started looking more into what else was out there – I was really happy with those two pedals for a long time. I still use the loop pedal a lot, and RP150 still comes up sometimes. It has some cool modulation effects and a ring modulator on it.

 

How did you start building pedals? How did you learn?

I met some noise musicians while I was living in Japan, and some of them made instruments and pedals and articulated to me those were skills they learned on the internet and built stuff in their apartments. Before that, I figured you needed to have a degree in engineering (mine is in Japanese) and a factory in China. After that, I didn’t actually have a chance to get started building things until I moved back to America, but I got really into watching stuff about electronics and pedals on Youtube. After I was sort of settled in America and had some money, I started getting tools and DIY kits. I got a little bored of kits after a while – it started to feel like building a Lego set when I was more interested in making my own designs. To kind of bridge between designing my own things and building kits, I started making stuff on stripboard – there are a lot of layouts available online that explain how to build them and everything. But after a while, I decided to get a solderless breadboard and start trying to design stuff. It wasn’t until much later that I started to really dive into the subject academically, but the cool thing about effects vs other electronic devices is that your ears are the testing equipment. I think the academic side of electronics is interesting and doesn’t hurt to know, but I’m also the sort of person who would say that about calculus, and one of the most interesting things to me about the study of electronics is that it’s a practical use of all this math I’ve studied and never had much use for. A lot of unrelated rabbit holes I’ve gone down kind of tie together in pedals, both academically and artistically.

 

What was the first one you built?

The first kit I built was a Build Your Own Clone Russian Li’l Beaver, which is a clone of the EHX Russian Big Muff in a little enclosure.

Where does the name Dogman Devices come from?

In college, one of my buddies and I grew tired of constantly addressing everyone as “man” or “dog” and started saying “dogman” and “mandog” and after a while, I was calling everyone dogman, and a lot of people called me that. When I was first coming up with company names, most of the ones I thought of just seemed like they were taking themselves too seriously, so I decided to go with what I felt was a more overtly goofy name to represent more accurately myself.

 

What goes into your creative process? How do you start designing a pedal? Is it catching a sound you hear or something you want to explore? 

It depends!

With the stuff in my Elemental series, I had a few things in mind. At the time, I was using a daisy-chain with five slots as a power supply, and a loop pedal is pretty much a must for the sort of stuff I like to do, so I wanted to build a series of four pedals that would essentially be my desert-island pedalboard along with the daisy chain and loop pedal. At the same time, I didn’t want any of them to be too ambitious or complicated since they would be my earliest designs, I wanted to spend a lot of time on R&D with them so that both the finished pedals and the ideas that lead to them could be used as building blocks for complex or weird things down the line, and I wanted them to be visually united around a theme. I had a basic idea of what four kinds of effects I’d want to use, but I didn’t get into specifics until I landed on the classical element theme, which I chose because it just seemed to represent all the things I was trying to do. Once I had the theme, that leads to a sound I wanted to make. Then, I tried to see if I could find anything that sounded like what I was thinking on the market already, and if so, see if I could find a schematic or something to get an idea of how different designers had gotten to it and see if there was anything in common among them. That part is hit and miss.  Sometimes what I’m thinking of doesn’t seem to be anywhere else, and I’ll have to figure it out by trying stuff based on what I assume would give me the sound I’m thinking of. And sometimes, things that sound kind of similar are completely different internally. Now that I’m wrapping this series up, I’m mostly thinking about other themes to explore rather than specific sounds, but those sounds do come up on their own sometimes.

Chum and Bolt just kind of just happened. I got the idea for everything about Bolt in an instant basically – that’s why it’s called Bolt – but some of these don’t go as I imagine them. Like, with Bolt, I had engraved Ouroboros stuff on powder-coated enclosures, but the powder coating on the Bolt enclosures was a lot thicker than I was expecting, and they ended up being much harder to do than I was expecting. And Chum came up when I was working on a completely different idea. I had an idea for some weird blending controls, but the circuit I was testing it in was also with chips I hadn’t really used and just an overall circuit topology I wasn’t used to. So I replaced that with the simplest fuzz thing I could think of to focus on how those controls worked, and then that sounded so good that I decided to put that overdrive project on the back burner, noted that the weird controls I was thinking of left exactly one sweet spot, so I just hardwired those controls. The graphics process for that has been an ongoing experiment – the first batch turned out alright, but the second was basically a catastrophe, so I’m still in the process of stripping the paint off of them to give it another swing.

A lot of the time, when I’m thinking of pedal ideas, I think about symbols and concepts and how they would translate into an effect. When I don’t, a lot of the stuff I think of just doesn’t seem all that original – it’s just like, another cool-sounding fuzz, but I can realistically only sell a handful of them. Especially since I have the elements just about completed, I’m more interested in making harder-to-categorize effects. Things that kind of blur the lines between one effect and another or that add up into something more than the sum of that parts, and it makes more sense for me to think of the overall theme and then think of what that theme is made of.

Do you create pedals for yourself or for others?

A bit of both! At first, I was mostly making things for myself, but as my audience has expanded and people have told me their ideas and things they want to see and what is important to them, I’ve had those things in mind. And not to toot my own horn too much, but I really feel like I accomplished building my desert-island pedalboard with my elemental series, and it’s messed with my desire to get more pedals. I’ve been getting into playing the drums to expand my one-man-band ( https://mountaincloud.bandcamp.com/ ) instead, but I still want to design and build more pedals, so it seems like building for others is going to be playing a more prominent role unless I can figure out how to cast cymbals from home. I am still going to try to out-do the Elemental series, but I think I’ll have to pull some inspiration from other people’s desert-island boards to do it. I don’t want to just tweak what I already have, haha.

 

Why do you think pedals are still such a part of guitar culture?

Basically, they’re fun and an easy way to change up your sound. It’s usually more expensive to have a bunch of guitars and amps, and you can’t plug all your guitars in at once or layer them in novel ways. Some pedals inspire you to play differently. Some let you make sounds that you can’t find many other places. Interacting with software doesn’t have the same sensation as twisting knobs and flicking switches, for me at least, so even though I record music, I don’t usually add many effects to things in the recording software – I’d rather have a reverb pedal than use a plugin, if for nothing but what my own experience using them will be like.

 

There are very few on the building side, be it luthiers, effects builders, etc… Why do you think that is?

I think the reason you don’t see a lot of BIPOC builders/companies in the industry is basically the same reason you don’t see them represented in business in general. To start a business, you basically need to be able to lose as much money as possible, and if you’re a person of color, it is unlikely that you have access to any inter-generational wealth, less likely to be taken seriously by someone giving out loans, more likely to just straight up not be able to afford to fail for any amount of time. I have definitely had opportunities and access to privileges that a lot of people of color haven’t had, and I am still mostly managing it by living in less than ideal conditions that I couldn’t blame other would-be builders for being unwilling to accept.

How have the products been received?

Things changed big time last summer. Before that, I had only sold a handful of pedals, and mostly to people I knew. Jason Isbell mentioned my company in a Tweet responding to the stuff Fulltone said, and I sold my whole inventory overnight, and things have been steady enough for it to be the main thing I do since then. Before then, I had actually quit my job in Minneapolis and moved back to Ohio with the intention to finish a pedal design (Earth) and novel ( published under my middle name because I’m kind of self-conscious about it https://www.amazon.com/When-Clouds-Appear-As-Mountains/dp/173493140Xv ) and then I was going to go back to doing this stuff on the side. The pandemic had already derailed that plan, but honestly, that Tweet changed my business trajectory from “I’ll be completely out of money by the end of the summer, so I’m only making five of these pedals” to “I can do this full time,” and despite my efforts, I don’t know if Jason Isbell knows how grateful I am for that. It is hard to imagine that I would have been in the Reverb Pedal Movie or that my pedals would be available on Guitar Center’s website without that tweet, as they weren’t members of my 13-person following before that.

But that was a year ago, I only had like two effects out, and I was just getting started engraving. I wouldn’t say everything is still flowing from that initial burst of attention. I think people are liking what I’m doing. I’ve had sort of a lot of guys tell me it’s the first pedal they’ve got that their wives liked, and one of the most common things I hear about Air is that they’ve never heard anything like it. I’ve received some negative comments about prices, but frankly, I don’t do cheap work. Engraving stuff by hand is hard. I am thinking of ways I can build things that maintain the aesthetic I’m going for without the 50-gallon drum of elbow grease, but I’m still figuring that out.  When I decided to start engraving pedals, I was going to build like 20 of each and discontinue them and move onto the next design. It seems like they have been received a little too well to follow that path, but it’s a problem I’m happy to have. Overall, I’m still stunned that this is what I get to do every day, so I really can’t complain about how they have been received.

 

How is it being a black creator in the space? Is it welcoming?

Yeah, everyone I’ve talked to has been really cool. When I first started the business, I didn’t really think much about advertising that it’s a black-owned company because it didn’t seem like anyone else was – it wasn’t until the George Floyd murder that it actually came to my attention that no one else was mentioning how they were a black-owned business because there just weren’t any that were. Generally speaking, I don’t think there are so few black people building because the community actively doesn’t want them. It’s a matter of access and exposure. The only music scene I’d say I personally felt welcomed to was in my little town in Japan, I can’t really say that was a race thing, but I wasn’t aware of it being an option to me until I was in Japan, where I actually was treated better than white people. No kids stared slack-jawed at me because my skin tone isn’t that different from theirs, you know? But yeah, other than an article saying I should have been pissed at Isbell (because that makes sense?), I haven’t felt pandered to, and no one has said any racist stuff to me. People have been cool.

I can’t say that I’m not still expecting something like that to happen, though. I live in the US, after all.

 

Where do you see the future of effects going?

I think things are going digital. As much as people love their tube amps, germanium transistors, and bucket-brigade devices, those things are pretty much only useful for guitar pedals and amps these days, as solid-state technology is just plain superior when it comes to other industries, and so those components are drying up. I use some germanium diodes that are a bit less rare than transistors, but otherwise, I already avoid vintage-inspired stuff for that reason. And honestly, I’m a bit more inspired by the people who were building those classic circuits than the circuits themselves. And those people were using components that were the ones readily available at the time and trying to come up with new things. There are already some chips that are difficult or impossible to find in through-hole packaging (which is easy to hand solder) and instead are mostly surface-mount, which is a lot easier to automate, and things are way smaller. Improvements in technology are already making a lot of the reasons why people used to dislike digital effects irrelevant. I’d also say that is a general trend in society – more and more things are based around computers and software, and unless society collapses, I imagine that trend will continue. The technology in analog effects is ancient, and even a lot of the digital things in the effects world aren’t really the cutting edge. Water is based around a digital chip, the FV-1, which has certainly been around for a while and is super accessible for a DSP chip, and I imagine more and more DSP chips like that will trickle into the industry. I also think that as more builders get their feet wet with DSP using the FV-1 and similar stuff, they might also get interested in other DSP chips, especially since I imagine the population, in general, will become less and less averse to coding. Strymon and Source Audio are already in that world of cutting-edge technology, but I also think some of those people used to literally be in the semiconductor industry. I imagine that things like that are going to become more accessible. I think people will still hold onto the old stuff, too. Digital stuff is already at a point where it can replicate a lot of that stuff accurately, but people still love their tube amps, and I don’t think that will go away until those parts are physically all gone and the methods of how to make those archaic components are lost to the sands of time.

In terms of actual effects, I think some new, wild stuff is on the way. People have been playing around with the same kinds of effects for a long time, and as more people get into DSP, the limitations that old designs are built around will wither away, and a new sonic palette will come up that is bounded more by the imagination than physics, and it’s hard to imagine what that stuff will be like.

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