TIM MARCUS OF MILKMAN SOUND

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).

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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.

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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.

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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?

TIM: Satellite Amps in San Diego, I like his stuff a lot. Also Nick Greer, his amps are cool but he hasn’t been building as many amps lately.

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.

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DEAF NEPHEWS

I had the distinct pleasure to chat with the production team of Toshi Kasai and Dale Crover better known as Deaf Nephews. Toshi also produces bands independently and Dale is the hugely innovative drummer from Melvins. They are also both multi-instrumentalist songwriters always involved in many different projects. Full disclosure, they are also bandmates in Altamont with the author.

Cordtangler: What are some of your best practical jokes you’ve played in the studio?

Dale: Toshi, you have some good ones.

Toshi: I have a recording of a cell phone ringing that I’ve played while the band was setting up. Everyone was going crazy trying to figure out who’s phone was ringing. When Dale saw me laughing, he figured it out and punched me in the arm.

D: Toshi, what about the analog tape trick?

T: Oh yeah, when the band asked if I was ready to go, “I played my tape re-winding track and told them I just needed a minute to rewind the tape.”

CT: How long did it take them to catch-on that it was a digital recording?

T: I think about a minute. Or, when people have asked me if they can hear a playback of the end of the song. I’ll play just the last drum hit.[laughs]

D: Yeah, there is definitely a fair amount of joking around. A band will ask if they can hear a take back and we’ll reply, “listen to what”? We’ll record a really good take and then when it’s done say, “hey, did you guys want us to record that?” There is also playing a track of low-level feedback and acting like we can’t figure out where it is coming from.

CT: Speaking of Analog. Analog vs. digital. There so much talk about sound but what is your take on the way that digital has affected the process?

D: I think digital has made things much easier and has opened the door to way more possibilities. I mean, it depended on the machine, but you used to have to always think about how many tracks you had. These days, if we were recording 24 tracks with our two-drummer line-up, it wouldn’t sound the same. We’d have to think about the tracks and really think about the miking. Now you don’t even have to think about it. Now it’s like, “I want to do another vocal here, and hell “I want to do another vocal” and so on. I think it does really allow you to be more creative.

T: I’d compare it to early Beatles and later Beatles. In the beginning, it was minimal tracks to 8-tracks and the 16-tracks. I think it’s similar but on a different scale. Although, we aren’t saying that everyone shouldn’t spend a couple months working out your writing and crafting good songs.

D: It’s funny people think that digital is some sort of cheating. I mean all the tricks that Toshi is capable of are based on things that you could achieve when you were analog. It’s just easier, I mean when you would edit you’d just physically cut the tape unless you got the beat wrong and then you’d have to rifle through the garbage for the piece you just threw away. We certainly heard of a fair amount of people doing that. I remember recording that song “the bit” on that record, Stag. I remember I didn’t get into the right groove until the last half of the song and the producer said listen to this part of the song and keep playing. A little splicing, and boom it’s done. So people were always doing that sort of stuff, it’s not like a computer made editing possible for the first time. Now you just have more than one chance.

Q: Do you guys think that bands come in less prepared these days?

T: It depends.

D: Yeah, we just worked with that band, Qui and those guys came in super prepared with no problems. Those guys were actually the only underground band that I’ve ever seen come in and do vocal warm-ups before recording. I mean they sat down at a piano and did scales. Actually, Jello (Biafra) would come in and do these crazy warm-up vocals and exercises.

T: When I worked at bigger studios, major label singers would come in with a vocal coach but I sure didn’t expect Qui to do that.

D: Part of producing is sometimes holding someone’s hand through stuff. Giving people confidence, so they don’t get freaked out while recording is the big thing.

T: Many people are very insecure. They can be a great player but they don’t believe it themselves. Then you have to encourage them and really open them up. Melvins are always easy. They know what they are doing.

D: That wasn’t always true. We have been doing it a while and when we started, we didn’t have a bunch of time to spend so we got used to working quickly. These days, it’s feels like a luxury. We no longer have a clock ticking so that pressure is off. Recording used to be so expensive and now it’s so much cheaper. You don’t have to pay 300 bucks for a roll of tape. Sure, there are still studios that are analog but I don’t think it really matters anymore.

CT: What do you think about the sound comparison between digital and analog?

D: We have been mastering with John Golden for years and he paid us a pretty nice compliment recently. On our last record, he said, “you guys still record on tape, right?” We were like, “well, no.” We have to say if he can’t tell, nobody will be able to tell. Seriously, nobody could tell, there is no way.

CT: Why?

D: I mean we are using analog gear so it’s just the source material. I think people are sometimes listening with their eyes rather than their ears. I mean does it sound good? It sounds good to me. I was listening this 80’s band in the car the other day and I was thinking, “Wow, those drums don’t sound that great and tape sure isn’t making them sound any better.” I’m sure the band was going for that sound but man.

CT: Who’s your dream client?

D: Hmmm, this band called the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

T: We always like to work with new bands, anyone that is cool and experimental.

CT: Who’s the most memorable character you’ve worked with?

D: Wow, hmmm, I guess Jello. Doing those records with him was really fun. I would definitely say he is a character, I really like him.

T: Don’t forget about Buzz (King Buzzo). He is weird! [Laughs.] Man, there are so many.

D: Yeah, musicians are a weird breed. We’ve always said that artists are all crazy to a certain degree. That’s why artists create such great art, they are all a little bit insane.

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CT: Toshi, let’s talk about pedals.

T: Man, I’ve been collecting pedals since I was a kid. Actually, when I started recording, I starting using them just as much as rack units. I mean rack stuff is cool and quiet but often lack character. Analog pedals also have their drawbacks but I do really like to use the when I’m mixing. That’s actually why I made my pedal patch bay when we put the studio together.

CT: I have to ask, what is your opinion of the Klon?

T: Awww, man, if I’m going to spend that kind of money, I’d rather buy like 300 pedals.

D: What the hell is a Klon?

T: Yes, it’s crazy, the Akai bass synth used to be like 80 bucks and now it’s going for 600 bucks. I don’t get it.

D: For what people are paying for pedals, I’d really have to want it. I don’t need to add more stuff to the collection that I already don’t use enough.

T: Yeah, those original ADA pedals are going for a bunch as well but I really don’t see much difference in the reissues.

D: Some of my favorite stuff was some of the old stuff that I found at garage sales. I still have an early Small Stone that I picked up for 5 bucks. There are those occasional scores that you can’t pass up. I remember that when we used to go through Portland, Maine there were a couple of great shops. I got my Sunn Beta Combo there for 125 bucks. That used to be the going price but now they are easily 500 and up. In Portland, I also got an original Fuzz Face and a Morley power wah. I saw those pedals we just sitting in an old cardboard box and I was like how much? The guy is like hmmm, 40 for that one and 50 for that one. I said, sold.

CT: Do you guys know that Morley Oil Can?

T: Oh yeah, that pedal is really cool. I had client that brought one in once that we ended up using. Those old Morley’s are cool, they also had the Pik-A-Wah. Yeah, it’s crazy, it has a metallic pick attached to the pedal via a wire. Look it up.

CT: Dale, what’s your favorite pedal?

D: Hell, I always switch the around. I’ve really simplified, it’s now an old Rat, a Wah and a Boss delay.

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CT: Let’s talk about guitars. Some cool ones people have overlooked?

T: I think it’s really just looking out for nice wood and craftsmanship.

D: Well, actually we use a bunch of cheap guitars. It all depends on what we are looking for. Some guitars are also great for songwriting as well. I’ve got this old Hagstrom, that sits in my front room, that I always write on. For some reason that guitar is great for that kind of stuff. For recording, and especially overdubs, Toshi has this great old weird Italian Eko. I guess people know about them but they are cheaply made and there is something really cool about them. Also, Buzz has some of those Electrical guitars and those are really cool. The maker, Kevin will make you whatever you want. He can do a telecaster or his own custom design, based on a Travis Bean. Those guitars are amazing, they’re all aluminum and can freak out guitar players that are so accustomed wood. Also, with the neck being all aluminum it doesn’t have to be tapered which is also a new feel. Once you get used them though, most people love them. I don’t have one but Buzz had quite a few and I really like them. Buzz just got this bass that it has no knobs on the body but one hidden in the top.

T: I’ve been recording this band that has one of those short-scale, Kramer basses with the Travis Bean style neck. That’s really cool as well. The neck also has two strips of thin wood incorporated into the back. Oh, Buzz also just got that reissue Fender VI.

D: Yeah, that thing is great! Even the cheaper Squire version is cool. That’s a good one. We also have a left-handed strat. Buzz strung up left-handed to do the Jimi Hendrix. We did have a bunch of stuff but realized that we never had many Fenders. Toshi, also has an old tele. but I think we are now covered on Fenders.

T: Yeah, we are definitely not Slash and need a couple hundred Les Pauls. We like all kinds of stuff.

D: I also have to mention drums, I’ve got a bunch of drum stuff but have to mention an amazing old Gretsch broadcaster kit from the late 40’s that I’ve used for recording for years.

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CT: Amps. What do you guys think of tube versus transistor?

D: I mean those Sunns sound pretty good and I don’t honestly always notice a huge difference. We do have all sorts of amps. I also have a mid-70’s, 50 watt, jmp marshall. It pretty much has one sound but it’s a hell of a cool sound. Toshi has a 59’ 6161 Gretsch amp that is great and a Vox AC15. I also have a Vox American-made Cambridge with a pretty nice reverb. It’s a tube that was made for only about a year before they went transistor. A nice Fender super lead. We also got this new amp called a vaporizer, it’s made by Fender, it has this vaporizer pedal with it and if you hit it, it turns everything full blast. I have a great Roland JC (just chorus) 120. We also have a few Emperor heads and cabinets around. We use a special bass cabinet that they built for Trevor (Dunn) for stand up bass but it works well with any bass. Buzz also has about 3 of their cabinets and a couple of heads. That stuff is great and nicely made. The guy, Shawn that runs the place is really cool and has always been really helpful. He always helped us out with gear on the road and stuff like that. Great amps. Actually Shawn split off and is doing his own thing now called Dictator.

CT: What? Like Decatur, as in Decatur, Illinois?

D: No, Dictator. Not corn, like Hitler.

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CT: Toshi, what kind of board are you using?

T: A Yamaha PM1000, my old boss sold me one. It’s a 16-channel and it sounds great.

D: Yeah, first time recorded drums through it, I was like wow. Sounds amazing!

CT: What is the weirdest show you’ve ever played?

D: Hmmm, we’ve certainly played some weird places.

T: What about that Altamont show in San Diego with the huge crowd of gay lesbians? Yeah, when I looked out I was like wow, that’s a lot of chics.[laughs]

D: That was pretty good, they came for the opening band and then left the second we started playing.

T: Yeah, that was one weird show, the opening band also sounded like Coldplay.

D: Oldplay.

CT: What are you guys up to right now. I know you both have some separate things going on?

T: Man, I’ve go so many right now. Indian Handcrafts, that’s one of my favorite bands. I recently recorded a band called Leeches of Lore from New Mexico, they are pretty funny and talented guys. I’ve also been playing with Nate from the Foo Fighters new band called Lieutenant. Originally, our friend Joe Plummer recommended me as the producer for his record. We started about two years ago. On the record, I ended up playing some guitar, banjo and keyboards. After that, he asked me to play keyboard in the band and we have been playing shows this Spring. Man, so many. Oh and we are about to record Melvins.

D: Yeah, we are finishing a project that we started about 15 years ago with Mike, the bass player in Godhead Silo. Yeah, we recorded it in Tim Green’s old house, on the hill in San Francisco. Mike brought it home to do the vocals and never finished it for whatever reason. He then got sick with what he told us was whooping cough and was unable to sing for years. Then out of the blue, we got a message from him saying that he wants to finish that record. We are working on new Melvins stuff as well, as you know, there is a new release from us every 5 minutes. We have a new single split we did with the Hard-ons and a few other singles coming out. We recently did a local in-store for a special Tom Hazelmeyer release. I played on this Tama cocktail drum kit. It’s a new version of an old idea where you have a small drum set that you can play in a cocktail lounge. You can also play it standing up. I just recorded with the cocktail kit as well and it was pretty cool. I also ran into a friend that is working with Ty Segall and I mentioned that I really like his latest record. We will see if it comes out but I just went down and played a cover song of the Equals. They were recording to tape and recorded my drums old style with 3 mikes. 8 track machine, mono drums. Oh, and Melvins are going out on tour in June. And the old Boner Records stuff has been re-released, I still haven’t received my copies!!!

Always love recording and playing with other people.

CT: Hamburgers or hot dogs?

D: Hamburgers for sure! Unless, I’m at Dodger stadium and then it’s a hot dog. A delicious “Dodger Dog!”

T: Dodger’s stadium is only time I have hot dogs. Although now there’s a new place in the Noho district called Vicious Dogs and that’s pretty good!

D: Actually that’s right around the corner from a studio that we like to work at call Entourage. Melvins did part of Stag there and Bride Screams Murder with Toshi there. Cool little place.

CT: Thanks, I really appreciate you guys taking the time.

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