Chris Young of Union Tube & Transistor, Exile and Spoon River

I’ve been curious about Chris Young, and his co-owned pedal company Union Tube & Transistor for a long time, and finally got around to talking with him. Based in Vancouver, Chris is also the co-owner of Exile music store and contributes the low-end in the awesome band Spoon River

CT: Tell me about your background playing music.

C: I grew up in Vancouver and started playing music in my early 20s. I was touring with bands, involved in music and wondered, “Why am I not playing?” And I started playing right afterwards. To name a few, I was in Lashback, Formula 977, Slowmobile, The Rentalmen and Bocephus King (me and everyone else).

CT: Has bass always been your primary instrument?

C: No, when I was in my second band, The Rosenbergs, I started playing bass. About month before our first gig, they had booted their bass player and said, “You’re the new bass player,” That was that.

CT: Growing up, what music most influenced you?

C: In high school there was a lot of hard rock and punk. In my teen years, I worked in a big chain music store with people who were keen to turn me onto different things. I remember my boss at the time told me about The Replacements coming to town and that I needed to see them. I was like, “Who?” It ended up being their final tour until their recent reunion. That blew me away.

Canadian bands like the Rheostatics (self-described as “Canadian Shield art rock”) and Copyright were really big inspirations to me too. I remember buying a guitar really similar to what one of the Rheostatics guys was playing. I also can’t say enough about artists like Art Bergmann, who I used to go see religiously, and Huevos Rancheros – I even drove from Vancouver to Winnipeg to see them one time! Look up that drive. They were hugely influential as well and are now using Union pedals, which is quite humbling.

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CT: Let’s talk about your company Union Tube & Transistor? I know you have a partner named Kirk Elliot how did you guys get started?

C: I worked at a shop in Vancouver for about 12 years called Not Just Another Music Shop. It was the cool independent shop. We ran some build-your-own-pedal workshops together there, and we really hit it off and realized we had something together. My background is industrial design, and he studied electrical engineering.

Kirk is really the driving force behind how things work, where I’m more about what we’re going to do. I’ll come up with an idea and he’ll design it. I’m aesthetics, assembly and sales and he’s the mad genius behind the curtain. He’s really on the next level; he can listen to someone’s sound and then draw the circuit based on how he hears it.

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CT: Wow, that’s crazy. Your pedals are gorgeous, tell me a little bit about the design?

C: Initially, we were just taking Hammond enclosures and having them engraved at trophy shops. I like the way that they looked but I wanted to create something with a little bit more of an emotional connection.

CT: How has the business developed over time?

Our initial idea was to build the name without investing a ton of money, so we started making t-shirts and dropping them off at thrift shops. At one point, we had made and sold more t-shirts than pedals. But eventually word got out and orders came in, despite the fact we experimented with not being online. (That lasted about four years.)

When we changed our brand and moved away from the engraved stuff, we started sending pedals to people we really admired. But since we were superstitious about the number 13, we made a 13th model and replaced the serial number with an artist’s name and then tried to get that pedal to the artist. And we were pretty successful! There’ve only been one or two who got our pedals and didn’t try it out. And some artists we just couldn’t reach – the secretive ones with passionate fans.

Like Jack White. But, lucky for us, he got our More Pedal and used it on Blunderbuss. He even mentioned our name in a magazine article. That was the moment we knew we had finally had to get online because I got a new customer call on my cell phone, so I knew it was going to get wacky. So, yeah, two years ago, the same week that we launched the product with Third Man records, we went online to let people know we existed.

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CT: What was your Third Man experience like?

C: Early on, they just asked us to do a bit of work here and there. Then we finally said, “We can just make you guys something.” So, we went down to Nashville and brought some stuff we had in production, as well as a couple of things that we didn’t have in production. In a very quick meeting they told us, “We like the sound of that one and we like the look of that one but we want to make one with our own branding.” We agreed and two years later our collaborative end product hit the streets.

We worked with Third Man’s interior graphics design company and designer Rob Jones for the limited edition run. It was a couple years of secrecy and pretending we didn’t know what was going on, when we really knew what was going on. They sold about 200 in the first three days on the market. It was insane.

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CT: What has inspired some of your other pedals?

C: I started thinking about wanting my own product on my pedal board and the three classics you’d want to have: an overdrive, a distortion and a fuzz. From there, we looked at ‘60s fuzz pedals to find “the one.” We listened to early Jimmy Page stuff, where – to me – it sounds like he’s running a fuzz pedal the whole time. We looked at what he was using and wondered how we could improve it. We looked at the similarities between and fuzz face circuit and a tone bender circuit; we liked the sweet spot in between the two. I mean, everybody loves a fuzz face but… everybody loves a tone bender… “Let’s make it a perfect meld of both, and fix the issues.” We also thought about how much extra gain would be enough to make someone go, “Oh shit.” We wanted to give it the wow factor that we like. I pulled adding 20db of gain out of my hat. This became the Sone Bender.

Then we told with Adam of War on Drugs that we were making a germanium pedal, and asked if him if he wanted to check it out. He said, “I don’t use germanium fuzzes, they’re not stable enough for the road.” We asked, “Well, what do you like?” And he said he liked silicon pedals. A light bulb went off for me! Why not do a silicon fuzz? That’s the Tour Bender. A pedal that’s made for touring. It can put up with all the heat and stuff.

The Swindle is our little tip of the hat to the Sex Pistols. The distortion had to be a little bit unnatural – an overdrive that’s not a fuzz, but it cleans up when you roll off your volume. (Which all 3 of these pedals will do if you play with the guitar dynamics; you’re going to get different characters.)

The Tone Druid came from two things: first, someone trash-talking us in a forum after the Third Man product released, asking “Why is it so expensive? Is it made by Canadian tone druids?” (laughs). So the name came first. And second, we modified the More circuit, and a simulated 12AX7 circuit, which I don’t think anyone has ever done like this before. (The More pedal for me is the ultimate overdrive but some people don’t get it because the sound is clean. It won’t distort but it’ll make your amp distort.)

With a master volume after it, The Tone Druid sounds very, very amp like. It’s really, really, really, really smooth. It was a two-year process from the Tone Druid being just a sparkle in our eye to getting it out the door. Each Tone Druid is custom so it’s got a specified part set for each pedal that involves a bit of measuring. I don’t think anything really compares to it. 

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CT: By the way, what reminded me to reach out was I recently picked up a Sub Buzz and I have to say it’s pretty solid.

C: I made a fuzz for a bass player friend of mine and he was saying when he kicks in a fuzz it takes away the low end. I told him about this studio trick where you run a fuzz in parallel and boost the clean signal. I was thinking, “Well, if you just put that in one pedal it would probably be a real homerun for bass players.”

CT: Are there any other pedals that you’d recommend for bass players?

C: For my personal set-up, I use a tuner and a Sub Buzz. I also have to say that when we were developing the Tone Druid, we tested it on bass, guitar, keyboards and a drum machine, and it sounds pretty good for all of them. Another cool trick for bass players is to use the Boss Line Selector. You take one of those and throw any guitar pedal that you want into its loop. Basically, it becomes a parallel mixer, similar to what we did when we were developing the Sub Buzz. Just a parallel clean part where you can re-introduce your original bass tone so you don’t completely lose it. Using the Line Selector with any pedal is the best and cheapest trick that I know.

Hmm, I don’t know what else? An old Garnet amp (laughs).

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CT: You recently mentioned the randomatic pedal in an article, which I’d never heard of. Anything else that has caught your attention?

C: I like the Moog Clusterflux and Delay, which they just discontinued. Those both had a hidden soft sample and hold waveform that you could only access via midi. That’s really interesting. It’s a shame that they didn’t put it on the front because it’s such an unusual thing.

Ibanez made a bunch of Autofilter stuff. It draws really heavily and people would try and use them on batteries and it would sound bad, but if you used an adaptor it would sound amazing. Those have always been interesting to me.

Early on, my first Lexicon 8 seconds Jam Man opened up a lot of doors. I remember thinking, “Oh wow, I can record for 8 seconds. This is huge.” I’ve been collecting loopers ever since because I think they’re very unusual.

The Whammy pedal. They could’ve created that pedal using a really complex set-up but they did it with a simple pedal form, which was unexpected.

Molten Voltage. What he’s doing is super interesting: adding arpeggiators in the midi control.

For sequenced effects, the Seek Trem and Seek Wah from Zvex. I thought those were both really great when they came out.

The TC Electronics D2 was an inexpensive rack delay, but you could tap rhythm into it.

When I tried the first Empress Tremolo I thought, “This guy Steve is a genius.” They’re on a whole other level.

I don’t know who the guy is… but there’s someone programming stuff for Electro- Harmonix. Apparently a bunch of the stuff is programmed around a single chip. With the Super Ego and those types of pedals, there’s some next level stuff going on there for sure.

CT: I’ve always had such a soft spot for Electro-Harmonix, I had an early Small Stone and Muff Fuzz, that hung off the guitar jack. Those got a ton of 7th grade basement jam time.

C: Even some of the reissue stuff they have been doing like the 16 second delay. I also do some ambient stuff and using their pedals on that front is just fantastic.

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CT: Are you impressed by any of the younger builders?

C: I don’t know how old he is but Joel from Chase Bliss is a mad genius. The Warped Vinyl and the Wombtone, the Gravitas and the Flanger too. I think everything he does is spectacular. The workmanship and what he’s cramming into those boxes. Our tendency is to go the opposite route, where we like to give ourselves lots or room. People get down on us for making big boxes with one knob. What he’s cramming into something barely larger than a boss footprint, with 122 presets and full midi integration…. yeah, he’s someone to watch!

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CT: Let’s talk about Exile.

C: Whenever someone I know is headed to Seattle, Portland or even New York, I recommend a few good places to check out. But locally, we didn’t have a shop. So we imagined a place where you could see all of the weird stuff: the Third Man stylophones or old Harmophones. Any oddball kind of thing that other stores don’t want, we wanted to carry it. We also have a good pedal selection and guitars from local makers. For me, Exile is a joy. I love to hang out and shoot the shit about gear. It’s been good for us, too. We just passed one year and it’s feeling like we’ve turned the corner a bit.

We’ve also started getting into Eurorack stuff. There’s a company here in Vancouver called Intellijel, and they’re doing amazing stuff including a very unusual sequencer called the Metropolis. We’re also stoked about the Moog Mother 32 and Roland stuff.

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CT: When customers come in to test guitars, what riff makes you cringe the most?

C: I’ve thrown shit at people for “Stairway” (laughs), mostly because no one does the solo! That’s bullshit. I mean, you just do the opening riff. You don’t play the solo, c’mon. I’m pretty patient though.

At a store I used to work at, this kid came in, scratched his chin, picked up a guitar, and played “Sunshine of your Love.” [hums the tune] Then he put the guitar back on the wall, scratched his chin again, picked up the next guitar… [hums the tune] I swear to god, he picked up every guitar in the store and played that riff over and over. It was amazing. You kept thinking, “He’s not going to do it again,” and he did it again and again and again! Every guitar in the store is getting that riff. It was more funny than anything else.

CT: What is your favorite guitar?

C: Telecaster in any of its variations. Humbucker, Single Coil, Bigsby. I’ve got a weak spot for a black Telecaster. It’s hard for me to walk by one without picking it up.

CT: Has there ever been a musician you were really excited to meet?

C: I’ve met a lot of different people that I think highly of, but the one that caught me off guard was Tom Waits. It was when I worked at the (now closed) Not Just Another Music Shop. A driver came in one day and said, “I’m working for…” and flashed me a sign that said Tom Waits. He said, “I’m wondering if there’s anything here that he might be interested in?” I was like, “How the fuck could I pretend to know what Tom Waits is into?” So I thought of a few things and wrote down a list. The driver asked if Tom, if he wanted to come in, could enter from the back door. I wasn’t sure if he was serious and said, “If you bring him back with you, he can come through the roof if he wants to!” Anyways, he ended up coming in and we chatted briefly. I think he was in Vancouver doing the Terry Gilliam film.

CT: What stuff did he check out?

C: The owner used to have this amazing collection up on the wall that wasn’t for sale. People constantly came in and asked about it, which was a point of contention obviously, since it wasn’t for sale. Tom asked about one of those pieces and I said we sometimes rent them out and he said, [Chris imitating Waits], “Well, can I rent that out for a few years?” (laughs) He also looked at some of the old resonators.

 

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CT: Let’s talk about your band Spoon River. I heard it started in Montreal by a couple named Tavis and Rachel?

C: They actually lived in Vancouver, moved to Montreal, and moved back. While they were in Montreal, Tavis was in a band without Rachel. Tavis is probably one of the most prolific songwriters I’ve ever met. When I first met him we were talking about music we liked and he mentioned that he had this record, which he gave to me. I thought it was really good. It almost got to the point where I had to play it for other people just to see if I was wrong. Tavis had never released any his recorded music. He had three other records, including new material. He’d write songs, form a band, record, and then he was done. He didn’t put anything out.

When he moved back to Vancouver, I helped him form a band (in which I play bass) and find a label. I even helped him finance the record. He’s had various people playing on the last two records: Kingdom of the Burned is compared to The Band and the latest one, New Sun Ahhhh Hotel, is more on the psych-garage tip. One even got shortlisted for an award in B.C., but we didn’t end up winning. Regardless, we’re all very excited to have the vinyl in hand for the first time.

CT: Have you ever had a near-death experience?

C: In the late ‘90s, while I was on tour as a guitar tech, I contracted a very rare, viral bacterial blood infection. The chances, they said, were 0.5 in a million! Before antibiotics, you’d just die, but after antibiotics you’re just very, very sick for a long time. I was hospitalized for about a month and then on antibiotics for months thereafter. While lying there, thinking I could die, I reflected on all the things I hadn’t done in my life that I wish I had done. I’d never gone to post-secondary, and wondered about what I might like to do if I did. That’s how I decided to study industrial design.

CT: My wife is Canadian so I asked her to provide a special list of Canadiana questions. Here goes:

Bob or Doug? Bob

Pancakes or Shreddies? Shreddies

Coffee Crisp or Caramilk? Coffee Crisp

Moose or Beaver? Beaver

Lobster or Salmon? Salmon

French or English? English

C: Okay so best burrito in SF?

CT: El Toro.

C: I’m a Cancún man. 

CT: Man, the guys I’ve interviewed from the south (Pinkus, Brad, Nick) talk shit about our burritos.

C: Oh man, why?

CT: “Too many ingredients.”

C: That’s crazy.

CT: I knew I liked you Chris.

C: That reminds me. I was in San Francisco in the early ‘90s, when I was on tour with Huevos Rancheros. We stayed with a friend who gave us a house key when we went out for burritos. When we got back, the keys didn’t work on the lock, so we ended up sleeping in the van. Later in the night, we heard sirens. It turned out, we were parked outside of an antique store and one of the lamps inside caught on fire. The whole place went up in flames! We couldn’t get out in time and ended up getting boxed in by police cars and fire engines. We were so worried they’d blame the whole thing on us. (laughs)

CT: Mr. Chris, thanks a million!