I had the pleasure of speaking to celebrated musician and amp builder, Tim Marcus.
Tim hails from a long line of milkmen, which inspired the name of his amp company, Milkman Sound.
I can’t tell you how nice of a guy Tim is. At the end of our interview, we were joined by a comedy podcaster/aspiring pedal steel player, Mark McConville (impressive laugh and beautiful teeth), and Nick from Prisma guitars. We all geeked out with Tim for about 4 hours: different dudes brought together on a sunny afternoon, talking about bridges and the pedal steel underground scene. It doesn’t get much better than that.
CORDTANGLER: Tim, thank you. It’s a real pleasure to meet you. Tell me about how and when you started getting into music.
TIM: Well, I had always wanted to play guitar when I was really little. My parents got divorced when I was pretty young. My mom wanted to move to another town and I didn’t want to go. She was like, “If you come with me, there’s a music store there and they offer guitar lessons.” So, I was like “sold.” Yeah, I was 10 and it was 1989. I then took lessons and I played guitar and didn’t do anything else. I didn’t do school work or homework. All the way through college, all I did was play.
CT: So you’ve never stopped?
TIM: I’ve always been in bands. When I first moved to San Francisco, I answered a craigslist ad and joined a band called Or the Whale. I was in that band like 6 years or so. We were busy, toured a lot, made records, practiced twice a week, the full deal. We got pretty far: we had management, a label, a booking agent and then it quickly fell apart.
Then Kelly McFarling was there to pick-up the pieces. She had me in her band immediately so it was a pretty smooth transition. People would also hire me to do session work and play a couple shows with them, here and there. Oh, I’ve also been playing with Elliot Randall, pretty much since I moved here. Even when in Or the Whale, I would still play with Elliot on the side, when I could. Actually, we were busy for a while and then Elliot fell off the face of the earth.
There have been a fair amount of people for a while, Leah Rose is one and a guy named, Tom Rhodes. I’m also in a super group called The Ponies, with Heather Combs, Elliot, Kevin White, James Deprato, and Ezriah Lipp plays drums – it’s really good.
CT: What is your favorite dipping cookie?
TIM: I’m a chocolate chip cookie guy with whole milk. My dairy recommendation for Northern California is definitely Straus. I mean whole milk, glass bottle… I mean you gotta chug that shit! It’s so good, you scoop the cream out of the top and you can just smear that on top of the cookie. It’s unbelievable milk, but it makes your breath terrible. For a week. It’s like milk that is so good it’s like when you breath out you can taste hay. I’m not kidding, it’s like grass and hay and that is fresh milk. That’s the best milk that I’ve had in my life. So if you know anyone there that wants to collaborate, I’m into that.
CT: A Straus Amp?
TIM: Maybe the CEO plays guitar or something (laughs).
CT: So what was your first nice amp?
TIM: When I was 16, I saved up all summer and there was this awesome store in Danbury, CT, and it’s still there. It’s called the Music Guild. It’s a vintage store and they pretty much have everything. I bought an Ampeg V2 head with a 4-12 cabinet with Celestion vintage speakers, back when they made them in England. Man, I never should have sold that cabinet. That thing was amazing.
So, I had that and it was really nice. I also bought a Fender Vibratone, which is like a Leslie speaker. I just saw it and was like “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” So, even when I was 16 or 17, I had an eye for gear.
CT: Tell me about how you got into building gear?
TIM: After graduating college, I started working at this place doing TV and stereo repair. A lot of instruments would also come through. It was kind of like a Salvation Army place, but with technicians who would fix everything, warranty it, make it nice and then sell it. There was a guy that would stop by the shop and say, “If you have any old tube stuff come through, give me a call and I’ll take it off your hands.”
He knew that I didn’t know anything. At the time, I said, I’ll let you know when tube stuff come in if you’ll help me figure out how the tube stuff works. He explained how tubes worked and it mostly just flew right over my head but over time, it started making sense. His name was Vince Reh, and he has since become a friend and mentor over the years. He also had bins and bins of scrap parts and stuff. He was an old ham radio guy and knew every kind of tube and part. He knew why things were good and bad and a lot of that stuff stuck.
CT: I assume Vince must be getting up there?
TIM: I think he is slightly older than me, maybe like 50. He does though have Japanese blood so he could be like 70 and look 40. (Laughs)
CT: Is there anyone else who has helped you?
TIM: There is this other great old amp guy in Vermont called Bill Carruth. He’s a legendary amp tech. He worked on the amplifiers that the band Phish used and everybody knows him now. He’s kind of a recluse, crazy mountain man type guy. My friend Max worked with Bill and learned how to build amps. Max showed me and that’s how I started building amps too. Basically, Max just told me to do it and I was like “Well, okay”. I mean, I was pretty good with electronics so it came pretty easy to me. Max knew how to build an amplifier but didn’t realize how it works. I knew how it worked but didn’t know how to build it. The combination of the two ended up being perfect. I had a day job when I started and building amps on the side until early last year (2014), when I made the jump.
CT: Have you mentored or taught anyone?
TIM: Hmmm, not really, although, I’ll give people free advice on forums. There is an amp builder forum called Amp Garage. Which is really good. Every once in awhile someone will say, “My Princeton is doing this” and I’ll know exactly why and I’ll let them know.
CT: Who is a typical Milkman customer?
TIM: I actually have no idea. I don’t know how people find me. It’s just like magic. It could be like that Todd Margaret show, with David Cross, where it’s one guy controlling this guy’s life. Maybe, it’s just one guy and I have no idea. I mean, the orders come and everybody seems really happy about everything and it’s going really well.
Every once is awhile, a guy that I’ve heard of will email me and I’ll be like, “Oh wow, that’s pretty cool.” That happened with John Mayer. My first customer was Greg Leisz, who is like a top call steel player for all the LA and Nashville gigs right now. I think he heard of me through a mutual friend, but still, that was my first customer. He played my amp on a Bill Frisell record and I was like “Wow, that’s pretty cool… okay, I’m definitely in it, this amp business can take me far.”
I guess it has, I don’t really know who people are. It’s usually people that find me through Instagram and stuff. People save up and then order them. Now though, I have dealers and they have customers so it’s out of control.
CT: Do you feel like there is a vintage amp that’s an undiscovered gem or one that never got the attention it deserved?
TIM: I don’t know, I’m actually kind of anti-vintage amp. I really like the technology but the way they were built was so bad, and then you add in 40 or 50 years of time. I mean every vintage amp I’ve ever had has been like a constant headache. It’s part of the reason that I started building them myself. I wanted to make an amp with as few weak points as possible. I mean, those old Fenders, if you find a good one, they sound great.
There are lots of people with lots of stories about all the lemons they had but those lemons are long gone. The only ones that are left now are the good ones. It’s like old people. The only ones still alive are the healthy ones (laughs). It’s like “My grandmother is great” but it’s because all the grandmothers with issues are gone.
So, that’s how I think about Fender amps. They can sound great but if you breathe some new life into the ideas of the vintage ideas they can be so much more reliable. Also, electronics are so much better than they were back then. There are some capacitors in my amps that didn’t even exist back then. And the power supplies were leaking all this white, toxic paste over everything and eating away at things. They can be really noisy, hummy and hissy and that stuff drives me nuts.
There are also tons of new production amps that also drive me nuts but I guess I’m one of those people that like his way of doing things. I mean if you’re building something by hand you might as well throw the kitchen sink at it and go crazy.
At the same time, I’m not really competing and having to worry about selling millions of amps. I guess, I don’t know what that old sleeper vintage amp is but aside from the Fender tweeds, I have always liked the early 60’s old browns.
If I was ever going to buy a vintage amp again, I’d probably by an old brown-face super because they’re all kind of wacky and have a crazy vibrato circuit that’s so bizarre. Or the old Magnatone stuff if pretty cool.
TV repairmen are long gone and car mechanics are starting to slow down but the amp repair guys are always going to be in business with all those old vintage amps.
CT: What other amp makers are you liking?
CT: Isn’t Greer building pedals now?
TIM: Yeah, he’s a friend of mine and he told me that pedals are a lot easier to do. You can ship a pedal to England but it’s not easy to ship an amp. Making amps can be a really tough business; pedals are much easier.
You can also build a hundred pedals and they will sound exactly the same. Two of my amps can be built exactly the same but they’ll still be a little different and that’s what I like about them. It’s far from McDonalds.
CT: Do you agree that there seems to be this young generation of boutique builders out there? I feel like I’ve been around for awhile. A year or so ago, I started poking around online and was blown away by all the people building new stuff.
TIM: I think it’s just happened the same way it happened with me. Like Daniel, who does the Salvage Custom stuff. He liked woodworking and he likes playing music and figured out a way to integrate the two things. No one had been making an oiled walnut pedalboard with canvas and leather. His nameplate says Salvage Custom on a beautiful bronze nameplate and no one did that. He just stumbled into it and now he’s the guy that invented the 800 dollar pedalboard. You don’t need that but they are so freakin’ gorgeous.
There are lots of people that just want nice things because they’re nice. I mean, that’s why people drive nice cars. Everyone can be driving a Ford Focus around or Smart cars but someone will want a Ferrari or a Tesla because they’re cool and way more interesting.
There are big pedal companies like Boss, but there are these guys out there that will take those classic circuits and make them a little sexier and do more things. Like Josh Scott, with JHS pedals. He’ll do something like take a pedal that’s old, get inspired and then put an effects loop in it. It’s fucking cool. Or he’ll take another pedal and run it through another pedal. People just haven’t been doing that sort of thing enough.
CT: JHS does great stuff.
TIM: Yeah, I just did a trade with Josh for an Emperor pedal.
CT: Are there any mass production pedal companies that you like?
TIM: JHS now, they sold like 20,000 pedals last year.
CT: What about folks like Boss or MXR?
TIM: MXR is owned by Dunlop and they are locals. Their pedals are awesome.
CT: What’s the most memorable show you’ve ever played?
TIM: Playing with Boz Skaggs, without question. It was in Golden Gate Park, Bluegrass Festival, and there had to be at least 20,000 people there. Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Vaughn, Steve Earle and Dave Alvin. That was the band – and me! It was because of Greg Leisz. They asked Greg and he was going to be out of town, so he asked me.
The pay was pretty good, we rehearsed for a week at a really nice recording studio, I met Boz’s whole crew and it was catered. It was kind of like high school for the first time. There were all these long tables and I went over and sat alone. Then Boz sat down next to me and was like “Hey, I’ve checked out your website and stuff.”
That was pretty early on, when I only had two amps, so it was pretty exciting. At the show, it was so much fun. I thought I was going to be nervous but there were so many people it was like a joke. It was like a blur of pale skin.
CT: Is there a musician that you were really excited to meet?
TIM: Greg Leisz was one. Jeff Tweedy, when I was a music intern at a club in Vermont. I asked, “Do you need anything?” I ended up building him an amp but haven’t had a chance to really hang out with him.
I’m building him another amp now, so hopefully when he comes through town again it will be the time that we can maybe hang for like a second. He’s a very interesting personality. Kind of serious, but he’s one of the most important people making music now. In 1998 he was a just a guy figuring out how to play electric guitar, and now he’s found his place in the rock paradigm.
CT: Tim, thanks so much for your time.