When Luis Etscheid and Caleb Henning launched their boutique effects-pedal company, Mantic Conceptual, in spring 2013, they had a great deal more curiosity than experience. Fortunately, the Denver-based musicians are pretty good at experimentation, and in their first year, they found an impressive list of clients. Etscheid sent Adrian Belew, formerly of King Crimson and Nine Inch Nails, the Master Flex synth-fuzz pedal, and Belew started using it at shows. Ikey Owens of Jack White's touring band had Mantic build him a custom delay called the Isaiah. And Ed Rodriguez of Deerhoof used the Proverb reverb pedal during his last tour.
Etscheid and Henning discovered their unique approach to manipulating sounds in their own band, Holophrase. When they started the group with Malgosia Stacha in 2007, Etscheid had never picked up a guitar. "I didn't know how to play at all," he says. "So I just started immediately plugging stuff in, trying to compensate for not being able to play properly with the use of software and, of course, effects pedals." The two began taking apart their gear, eventually learning how to create their own effects. The music they create in Holophrase is electronically driven yet expressive, partly because of Stacha's haunting vocals and partly because of all that tinkering. A few years later, the two decided to start making their own equipment, and effects pedals were the logical option.
"Luis got me Nicolas Collins's Handmade Electronic Music book," Henning says. "After that and all those projects, we just went through and made a few fuzz pedals." At the time, Etscheid and Henning were trying to scrape by with their music, and a somewhat amateur effects-pedal company held little promise of security. Still, Etscheid remembers, they wanted to keep making pedals.
"It seemed like when the idea hit me, it was something that we could do, because we're passionate about it," Etscheid says. "We were already knowledgeable, we had a little bit of experience, we had good ideas and we're hard workers. It's all I really had left to believe in at the time. And the planets kind of aligned for us."
Under the Mantic Conceptual name, Etscheid and Henning began working on their first pedal: an updated and modified take on DOD Electronics' rare subharmonic bass-booster pedal originally called Meat Box. They decided to christen their pedal Density Hulk. After plenty of positive feedback, they organized an Indiegogo campaign and raised more than $4,000 to make enough pedals to build up an inventory and start their business.
Their ability to attract big-name customers is about more than the actual pedals, though. "Usually, we click with these [artists]," Etscheid says. "They like that we're not just these forty-something salesmen who've never heard their music, insisting they throw these generic effects on their board. We're more about artistic collaboration; we just try to keep it more personable."
In addition to national artists, Mantic has worked with plenty of Colorado musicians. Fort Collins band Wire Faces purchased pedals from the company early on, as did Denver electronica mastermind ManCub, and others followed. Word spread quickly about the pedals online, thanks in part to some well-aimed marketing by Etscheid and Henning.
One of their more successful efforts was a contest to win a Vitriol distortion pedal, which required entrants to grow, draw or borrow a gnarly mullet and send in a picture. "Distortion is kind of like trash; it's the junk you throw in there," Etscheid says. "I felt like it was appropriate for the Vitriol pedal. We wanted to give one away and let people know that we're working on a distortion we're proud of. And at the same time, we wanted to give people a way to embarrass themselves, get involved and win something cool."
They also gave away a Density Hulk to the person who could grow, draw or borrow the best Hulk Hogan-style mustache. This July, they'll run that contest again, but this time the prize pedal will be signed by the wrestler himself.
"The market is completely oversaturated now with boutique [pedal] builders," Etscheid says. "A lot of them will clone one as cheaply as possible and throw their name out there, while fifty other companies are making something that's exactly the same. In that sense, the pedal that sounds the best and has the most character will stick with people the most."
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