The Austin Chronicle

Harmonic Distortion

Malekko Heavy Industry's pedal to the mettle

By Darcie Stevens, December 21, 2007, Music

Just north of the Austin city limits, in a nondescript warehouse, Josh Holley and Dwayne Dassing are hunched over in their makeshift laboratory. Electrical wiring snakes across a small table as a lit-up Virgin Mary blesses the mechanical mess. The smell of solder wafts among the posters of Kraftwerk and the Clash. An amp awaits the experimental cycle. Welcome to Malekko Heavy Industry, River City's boutique guitar-pedal manufacturer.

Echoing Brass

This is a story of Austin kismet. Some three years ago, Holley and Dassing, both synthesizer geeks, wanted to start a band. So Holley rang up former local Paul Barker of Ministry fame to play bass. After securing a rehearsal space, the trio laid the foundation of Malekko.

"[Paul] pulled out his secret weapon in Ministry, which was the Maestro Brassmaster," explains Holley. "I didn't know him really well, but I thought, 'Wow. That's the gayest pedal in the world.'"

Picture this: an inverted orange triangle set atop a black box with a knob labeled "sensitivity." Despite its appearance, the Brassmaster's effect is anything but precious; it's gritty and rough with an enormous sound Barker made his own.

"We were trying to think of a band name," Holley continues, "and I was watching a program about Mark Chapman, the guy that killed Lennon. He told his wife that he had to go to New York to write a book called Malekko the Gecko.

"I called Paul the following day and said, 'Hey, what do you think about Malekko?' And he, being the biggest nerd on the planet, said, 'Hmmm, Malekko – mal in Latin is bad, and echo, of course, is a sound, so it's like bad sound.'

"It was fitting for the band and the effects-pedal company."

The band only lasted a year, but it was the impetus behind Malekko Heavy Industry. Barker asked if Holley's engineer father could clone his rare and expensive Brassmaster. After months of reverse engineering, Holley presented the first Barker Assmaster to its namesake, complete with pink inverted triangle, pretty cursive lettering, and flowers adorning that aforementioned "sensitivity" knob.

Malekko calls it a "harmonic octave analog distortion pedal," but in a world of Big Muffs and Black Cats, the Assmaster is a nuclear bomb heading straight for the low end of the Thunderdome. Obviously reminiscent of Maestro's Bass Brassmaster, the sound is harsher and raw, like sparks flying off shredded sheet metal. It's just nasty, and guitar and bass players alike are jonesing for the gizmo. (See for proof.)

And because this is an Austin concern, the hard-hat pedal comes with an instruction sheet written in broken English, a random letter affixed to the back of every pedal, and false teeth hidden inside.

"We try to add an element of humor to any of our pedals," Holley says. "Every analog delay I've ever seen is a Japanese company trying to look as American as possible."

Malekko's bright-green, 600-millisecond analog delay, the Echo 600, is labeled in Japanese, but it's no joke. "I always wanted to do an analog delay pedal because they sound great," beams Holley. "The quirkiness of analog delays is great, and, you know, quirky is awesome."

So Holley tracked down some bucket-brigade chips, the out-of-production delay-line mechanisms necessary to make analog delays; made a milelong list of requirements; and went back and forth with his dad. The result is a tight package of long delay. The Echo 600 was such a hit that Malekko is making a stripped-down version, the Echo 300, which should be out for 2008.

In response to those who wanted to replace a beat-up Brassmaster, Malekko began engineering a second version of the Assmaster using germanium components instead of the silicone used in the original. It's the same box, but the germanium gives the pedal a smoother, more vintage sound. Throw a bone to hardcore collectors.

Holley Erectus

With a head of tangled dreads, earlobes stretched to his chin, and neck-to-toe tattoos, Josh Holley's a bit intimidating – until he starts cracking jokes about the Brassmaster, working in Williamson County, and the company he keeps. He's childlike in nature and a welcoming presence.

That instant comfort served him well for 15 years in the tattoo industry. He helped open True Blue Tattoo with his best friend Vanessa Alvarez, who passed away last fall. Her death and the continuing mallification of the industry were enough to close that chapter. Last January, Holley traded in the tattoo gun for the soldering iron and began expanding the Malekko line with his dad, a retired U.S. Navy engineer, doctoring every metal box from his garage in Ohio, and Barker touting the Malekko name from L.A.

"He's the brains behind the operation," Holley laughs of his dad. "I'm the beauty."

After only a year and with one full-time contractor (Dwayne Dassing) and a part-timer (Dassing's brother Gary), Malekko is sending out about 100 handmade, gag-filled pedals a month. By January, Holley hopes to have three more rollouts on the market: the Echo 300; an out-of-house designed sequencer; and the holy grail of synthesizer dynamics, the Holley Erectus.

"Holley Erectus is my pedal," Holley states proudly. "I was a synth player; I like lots of noise. Whenever I program a sound, it's usually pretty dirty or sample-and-holdy. I just combined two things that I really like and put it into a pedal. I love Trans Ams, so there's a big Trans Am bird on it. The pedal is going to glow in the dark, because my favorite colors are glow-in-the-dark, clear, pink, and gray. It's also quite a feat to do, because there are a few things in there that have never been done."

The technical aspect of sample and hold is mind-boggling, so suffice it to say this monster is made for noise. Two pedals baited and switched on to become one and a low-frequency oscillation that transforms sound waves.

"As much as I want to say we're multi-instrument, 90 percent of sales are going to come from guitarists, which I'm not," admits Holley. "I was messing with a guitar whenever I got the first prototype of the Holley Erectus that my father sent me; I couldn't put it down. It's actually more fun to play a guitar or a stringed instrument through it than a keyboard."

Malekko is irreverent without being snarky, from its origins as a killer's hallucination to its modern-day boutique. Both Holley and Barker are married with children, still in the music scene, and just a bit wiser. From this little room in Round Rock, the dream remains: originality, creativity, and fun.

"We're never going to put out just a standard pedal," Holley promises. "That will never happen."  

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