Olympic Mountain Thunder: Verellen Amplifiers- By Bernie Romanowski Of Cable

October 21, 2010 by Chris Grosso

I don’t vote. Never have, and probably never will. I don’t do politics, and yet I consider myself a very political person. I don’t buy food from large supermarkets. I don’t eat at chain restaurants. I buy bicycles from independent companies and buy record albums from small record labels. These are my politics. My money is my vote. We all work too hard in life to just piss away our money to companies that don’t care about our well-being. Trust me, Chili’s or Outback Steakhouse don’t care if you live or die (in fact, I could make an argument that they’re trying to kill you). It’s important to me that farmers can stay in business and that small record labels can release my music.  Independent businesses are the heart and soul of our world.  These businesses foster vibrancy and creativity in an otherwise robotic world of Wal-Mart soccer moms.  Homogenization is the enemy. 

And then there are guitar amplifiers… From the wild, wet, and scary land of the Pacific Northwest comes Verellen Amplifiers. The land of big bears, big timber and big beards.  A land where rivers flow thick with fallen lumber and those fish that dare come to the surface of the water are often met with quick deaths at the claws of the Olympic Black Bear.   A land where guitar amplifiers are being made by real men with very large forearms. 

Ben Verellen makes amplifiers and he is proud enough to bestow upon them his surname. So proud, in fact, he has literally burned said surname into the grainy fibers of their wooden enclosures. He does not use circuit boards. He does not use plastics or tolex. He does not use mass-production to maximize his profits. But these details are less important than what Ben Verellen DOES do: Small-batch amplifier production that is informed by his vast knowledge of electronics and his love of loudness. Amplifiers producing sounds and tones that don’t “move” air, but rather amplifiers that face-rape the air with a hug on the back-side.  Amplifiers that are hand-built to maximize overall awesomeness with high face-melting capabilities.  Amplifiers that combine tried and true technology with a lumberjack’s sensibility. 

Making amplifiers that are sturdy, loud, unique, and hand-built is not a smart or cheap endeavor. In fact, beside starting a search engine to compete with Google, starting an amplifier company might be the second most risky business ventures a man can embark upon.  Ben is not a rich man, but he is a passionate, talented and intelligent one.  He is educated about nerdy electronics and he has a long history of making and playing music that destroys humans.  We live in a world flooded with Guitar Center’s mass-produced, generic amplifiers. This is also a world where vintage amplifiers are readily available to any doom/sludge hipster fanboy with access to mommy’s Paypal account and her Ebay password. Somehow, some way, Verellen Amplifiers is emerging as one of the newest and more-successful boutique amplifier companies in America.  And I mean “boutique” in a good way. 

One year ago, I sold all my guitar amplifiers and purchased a Verellen Loucks amp. It has changed and simplified my philosophies on guitar amplification. I spent my money with someone who is a musical peer and a talented (and handsome) gentleman. I feel good about that decision. I sleep well at night. Please support small American companies.  The United States might suck at the money, car and war businesses but at least we can build some quality goddamn amplifiers.

Ladies and gentlemen: Benjamin Verellen speaks with the Indie Spiritualist.

The Ben Verellen Interview

TIS: I’d like to start out by having you tell me a little about your history in the Pacific Northwest, particularly with your bands Helms Alee & Harkonen.

I grew up around the Botch guys (my brother, Dave, sang in that band), so I got wrapped up in hardcore music real early on, like age 13.  Me and some buddies started a band called Harkonen at around that age, and that carried through for about 10 years.  Seattle/Tacoma is a real isolated tight scene, so it was real easy to be in front of a lot of really inspiring music growing up.  Most recently I’ve been doing a band called Helms Alee that borrows from a lot of that northwest stuff we grew up on.

TIS: How has the Pacific Northwest influenced your style regarding choice in materials for the amplifiers, the sound of the amplifiers and the visual aesthetic for the amps themselves. 

Verellen – Loucks

Sonically I was inspired early on by a lot of sounds that aren’t typically considered “pleasing”.  Bands like Karp, Godheadsilo, Enymine, Engine Kid, etc… used distortion in a really interesting way.  I remember those bands throwing together these really jerry-rigged setups using lots of the cheaper vintage gear (sunn’s, acoustic’s, and obscure tube amps…) with lots of cool fucked up sounding pedals to come up with really thick unique tones, especially for bass.  I always thought it would be rad if someone built something that could reliably achieve those sounds all in one box.

There’s definitely a very Pacific Northwest-y thing about the amp’s aesthetic, which seemed appropriate.  Part of that comes from my partner, Mike Erdman, who also grew up here playing in noisy rock bands.  Turns out he’s a brilliant woodworker with really rustic taste, and that yielded the dovetailed Baltic birch cabinetry with the branded logo.  The chassis are silk screened by hand with white on black which kind of harkens back to all the cut-and-paste punk flyers and t-shirt art from back in the day.  We’ve talked about how much more efficient it would be to have them printed out of the shop, but we always eventually decide not to stray from that aesthetic.  I feel like it adds a unique touch and shows care.

TIS: Can you tell me about the history of the names of your amps (Meatsmoke, Spaldo, Loucks, etc)? They are both clever and awesome.

Verellen – Meatsmoke

Thanks!  MEATSMOKE is a nickname for my brother, Dave.  From some story about him teasing the vegetarians at a bbq, “ are you worried about the MEATSMOKE from my steak getting on your boca burger?” or something.  Just thought it was part metal, and part hilarious, which seemed fitting. 

The Spaldo is named after John Spalding who played in awesome northwest bands like Raft of Dead Monkeys, 90 lb Wuss, and Loveland before he died from cancer in 2008.  I did some engineering on John’s last record, and he was such a kind inspired guy.  He’d show up to the studio hooked up to this drug and oxygen apparatus in his last months and then he’d scream his heart out.  He was an incredible human being.  He helped me work out the circuit concept for the SPALDO.  He wanted the simplest possible little combo that could do Beatles or Van Halen via only Volume and Tone controls.

When the business first moved from the house into a proper shop, the spot we chose turned out to be a recording studio once upon a time where the house engineer, David Loucks, was murdered in a robbery.  The robbers apparently made off with a couple of crappy ADAT machines and a Mackie board or something.  Super sad, so we decided to pay tribute.

TIS: What’s your view on the current state of boutique amps? Do the others have any credibility or are they trying to cash in on a trend?

There’s lots of good stuff out there, but most boutique amps are definitely geared more towards the “rich guy with a low wattage combo in his living room” thing.  We’re trying to do a different thing; high powered amps that can be toured hard and look and sound great as well.

TIS: Can you share your thoughts about the fanaticism about “doom” and “sludge” bands collecting old amps (Orange, Sunn, Ampeg, etc…)?  Are some bands placing too much emphasis on having the “right” vintage gear vs. actually writing good songs?  Is that trivializing some of our music? 

Verellen – Spaldo

I can’t criticize too hard, because I’m definitely a big fan of some products  from those companies myself.  But I do think there are lots of ways to put together a cool sound.  And I don’t think that a wall of revered vintage amps is going to make a band write cool music.  On the other hand, sometimes you’ll see a band and think, “man they were awesome, but what a crappy guitar sound!  I wish they would replace that dual rectifier with something else.  (Not that that amp doesn’t have its place:)

TIS: It’s seems that you’ve established a credible foothold on the boutique market and are able to charge what your amps are worth now, compared to when you were just starting out. Can you talk a little about Verellen’s growth?

There are lots of ways to make a living, and building amps is definitely not the easiest one.  There’s been such a massive amount of help.  We built the first 50 amps out of my house which means I had awesome roommates, I also had buddy musicians willing to take a chance on them, I also had people coming by to help out with this or that.  Just so much help.  We started building amps for cost of parts, just to get a foothold.  Then we got a shop and had illusions about getting away with real low prices so that we could gear towards working musicians like ourselves (not a wealthy group), and we’ve learned that it just can’t function like that, no matter how lean the operation.  The quality has definitely improved as prices have gone up.  Our prices are still competitive with mass produced guitar center stuff made cheaply overseas, and everything we do is hand-wired from top quality components and our amps come with a lifetime warranty.  We’re trying to make it worth it for a working musician to invest in something they can rely on for the rest of their life.

TIS: I recently saw Nate Mendel of Sunny Day Real Estate using a Verellen during Sunny Day’s performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. How cool was that for you? Do you know if he uses it for the Foo Fighters stuff too?

Not sure how much I’m allowed to talk about this.  It was really cool that Nate used the amp on that tour and on the Jimmy Fallon show.  I’ve heard rumors that he used it to record a yet to be released Sunny Day record, but I can’t say if that’s true or not.  Not sure on Foo Fighters stuff, fingers are fully crossed for that.

 TIS: What other musicians are rocking Verellen Amps?

Andrew from Against Me!, Dave and Corey from Minus the Bear, Brian from Russian Circles, Jon from Akimbo, Evan from Young Widows, Ryan from Coliseum, Kurt Ballou from GodCity/Converge has a couple things from real early on, Bernie from Cable, Matt Bayles (producer for Mastodon, Botch, Isis, Pearl Jam, etc..) has several things, Trap Them, Ladder Devils, Ghost Away, Heather Duby, Throne of Bone, The Yuzh, Destruction Island, 27, Integrity, Grey Ghost, Qui, NRWS, Unbroken, Elphaba, Book of Black Earth, Pharmacy, Masakari, Black Sleep of Kali, Divinity of Truth, Castles in the Sky, Point no Point, Hide Your Daughters, Elder Mason, Mico De Noche, La Fin du Monde,  etc….

The list goes on and on, I should really organize it sometime.  We’ve got over 200 amps floating around and most all of them belong to touring bands.

TIS: What’s Verellen’s plan for 2011 and beyond?

2011 is going to be an intense year.  We’re going into full scale production of the MEATSMOKE amp.  They’ll be available in dealerships across the world.  People will be able to try out our stuff  in a local store which is really exciting.  We’ll also have amps on hand ready for order, eliminating turnaround time on standard products.  It’ll be a lot easier for customers to buy Verellen amps.  Custom work will still be available, as always.  That’s the most fun of this whole thing, talking out a player’s vision with them and developing something special and unique.

Visit Verellen Amps Website Here!

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Horror Movie Q&A With Jeff Caxide Of Isis

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.
  1. […] The Indie Spiritualist Interviews Ben Verellen of Verellen Amplifiers […]

  2. Travis says:

    Cool stuff. Wish I wasn’t poor, otherwise I’d be all over this.