Funny Little Boxes
Our first guest writer is Andy Llgunas, owner of the awesome pedal store Funny Little Boxes
Is his first gig so go easy on him and his brilliant story of the history of his lil shop! Its a bit late in coming but deadlines and shit are moveable ya know... he missed one, I missed two and their my own! I know I should fire myself but then who else would produce this crap?
Read on and enjoy as I did!
Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost
The disaster isn’t coming, it’s already arrived I am so lucky, I think that I’ve survived” Manic Street Preachers; Auto - intoxication
Ok first up I need to give a massive shout out to John for asking me to write this; I really get a lot of pleasure out of subjecting others to the thoughts I’ve spewed out of my head onto (digital) paper. Alongside that I need to offer my sincerest apologies for the fact that it is ridiculously overdue! My recent breakdown co-incided with the original deadline for this piece and John has been a true gent and shown a huge amount of patience with me. Anyway, emotional bullshit out of the way, let’s get on with things.
Loss. This single word; perhaps more than any other, defines the past year that we’ve all lived through. I doubt there’s a person in the world who hasn’t experienced it on some level and for many it has been life changing; sadly, usually for the worse.
Before the Covid crisis was fully recognised and lockdown announced, loss entered my world in a big way; I found myself unexpectedly unemployed and staring penury and ruin square in the eyes from an uncomfortably close range. Many more have found themselves in this same position and many of them not as lucky as me in the sense of having a passion that they could easily turn into an income stream. Sadly, many have lost far more than a job.
In mid April of 2020, in a still pre - Funny Little Boxes world, while perusing Facebook I came across a picture of an old friend from school alongside a comment which required a double take. After a second read of the comment it dawned on me that he had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. I hadn’t seen this particular friend in fifteen years. In a pre-Facebook era I’m not even sure this would count as being friends still. But I felt the sting of his passing as keenly as if we had last seen each other only the day before. The older you get I think the more you realise that the saying “Don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” is a painfully true statement. It took the knowledge of his death for me to realise the impact my old friend had on me; not just as an adolescent while we were at school together, but long term, to this very day and almost certainly for longer into the future from here; to understand that we need to go back a few years…
“the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail…”
M. Atwood; The Handmaid’s Tale
I've been playing guitar since I was fourteen. I started as a bassist, not out of any passion or aptitude for the instrument but out of chronic insecurity and a desire for acceptance. In my head I was lead singer material, whereas, in reality I was classic bullying material. I was 6 foot tall with a waistline equivalent to the circumference of the millennium dome; I had a shit haircut, worse dress sense (these days turning up on non - school uniform day in a mickey mouse t shirt would be the height of retro cool and I'd be an Instagram sensation; less so in 1998) protruding front teeth, a plummy accent and was impeccably well spoken (although foul mouthed at the same time). Worst of all I was a geek and didn't do a very good job of hiding it. I used big words that my classmates had never heard of (my dad was an English teacher, they were normal to me), I enjoyed history and actually knowing about stuff and I read books for fun. In short, I pretty much had a target painted on my back from day one and fuck me did the bullseye get hit a few times. However, I am nothing if not resilient and I worked out that if I laughed at myself before anyone else could, then there was nothing for anyone else to laugh at. Amazingly this resulted in me turning all the things that made me a target into reasons for people to like me and somehow, by around year 10 I had managed to negotiate the turbulent waters of secondary school peer relationships well enough that I had gained a level of acceptance from and come to be friends with, against all the odds, the cool kids in the class.
Rather than make me feel comfortable at last, this scared the living shit out of me. I was without a doubt the cat among the pigeons in this group. They all had good haircuts and trim figures, no fat belly or double chin to contend with. They had a healthy disregard for authority while I was scared shitless of it. They could not only balance on a skateboard but could do tricks; I was on my arse within seconds and they even trounced me on virtual skateboards as although I loved it, I was woefully shit at Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2 (oh the hours lost to that game). They had girlfriends, or had had them in the past, or at least had prospects of having one sometime in the future. I didn't even bother fancying girls in my teenage years; rejection being such a sure and certain fate that it just made sense not to invest any hope into such an obviously fruitless endeavour.
Perhaps the widest chasm between my friends and I was in musical tastes. As in, my friends, from the word go seemed to have a pretty passionate interest in the alternative bands of the day whereas I was still happily spinning my Dad’s old LP of The Visitors by Abba (again I know that would probably make me fucking cool now, but in 1998 it really didn’t!) I was quite oblivious and ambivalent to music in general if I’m honest; apart from a choice couple of acts (Queen, Manic Street Preachers and Levellers) that I didn’t dare speak of after being outed for my ABBA liking (Ed: you didn't ell me this!).
Here’s where my now departed friend comes in. His name is Joe, to see us together you’d definitely be surprised we were friends. I’ve already described my school age self; Joe was completely the opposite. He looked like Kurt Cobain, played guitar, had no fear of authority, could skate and do tricks on a BMX. He was immersed in the coolest music and was outright disgusted at my complete and utter lack of knowledge about the bands he listened to. As such, he arrived at school one morning, sat down next to me and presented me with a cassette tape. On side 1; the Insomniac album by Green Day. On side 2; the newly released Holy Wood album by Marilyn Manson, well as much of it as could fit on one side of a standard cassette. I’d recently seen an advert for that album in a newspaper I was delivering; the picture of Manson as a rotting Christ figure nailed to a cross had scared and fascinated me from the off. I dove into it with wild abandon and found within those two albums something I latched onto immediately and have never let go of. Do not ask me to define it or give it a name because I can’t; but it was there in that cassette and it’s within me still.
After that first tape many more were to follow; Rage Against The Machine; At The Drive In; Red Hot Chilli Peppers and The Offspring just to name a few. My passion for music was well and truly awakened and this lead me down the path of being satisfied with listening to music, to being thirsty to create my own.
When out of school I lived a pretty solitary existence. I didn’t get on with the other kids on my estate particularly well and had no interest in wasting my evenings hanging around in a piss stinking bus shelter, gathered around a single cigarette and hoping to get off with one of the local girls who only fancied older boys from the next town. I was quite happy with my own company, reading books, listening to music, playing PS2 and perhaps above all these things, dreaming of becoming a rock star.
The social insecurity I mentioned earlier was without a doubt the biggest single factor in starting me off upon my guitar playing journey. When gathered en masse with my friends I stuck out like a sore thumb and I knew it. I lived in constant fear that it would all fall apart and I'd be ousted, left to quietly languish in the dark corners of social obscurity; reading ancient philosophy; wanking into a sock and crying myself to sleep before waking to another grey morning and repeating the miserable process over and over again. Oddly enough, my plan to cement my position within the "crew" was playing the bass. An odd strategy you might think seeing as bassist was without a doubt seen as the least appealing position to occupy in the circles I moved in the early 2000's. Some of my friends were talking about forming a band, the singer and guitarist positions were filled instantly; Joe being the obvious choice for guitar player, and a drummer was seen as a lesser concern; but nobody wanted to play bass. Nobody. So I volunteered. I'd been playing piano for seven years and was pretty sure I could work out how to bash out some bass notes. I'd expected resistance but was immediately accepted, I was in!
I started saving my paper round wages and within a few weeks found myself in One Man Band in Banbury handing over £250 for a Squier affinity P Bass, and practise amp. Despite my confidence that I'd be able to learn to play it in no time, I remember spending more time looking at it thinking "It looks really cool, but how the fuck do I play it" and "Christ this thing's heavy" than I did actually playing it.
My ineptitude turned out not to matter however as the band thing didn't really take off. We had a couple of practises, Joe patiently taught me to play Come As You Are by Nirvana and I managed to learn Brain Stew by Green Day all by myself (sarcastic clapping). It really didn't matter that nothing came of it, I was happy and had actually caught the guitar playing bug if you like; social security was no longer the driving force behind me playing, I actually enjoyed it. I also accepted that I was a shite bass player and wanted to play the guitar; no point in denying it, I wanted to be like Joe!
For my next birthday my mum bought me a red Encore strat copy from the Argos catalogue. It was shit and I was shit at playing it, but I loved it. I faced a lot more snobbery when I started learning to play the six string; it was a saturated market within my social circle and most of the "established players" didn't care for my efforts. I got a lot of stick but I stuck with it and Joe was supportive and helped a lot by teaching me the odd song here and there so that within a few months I'd become a pretty acceptable player that could knock out a couple of decent tunes.
I realised, pretty quickly that I didn't have much of an appetite for learning covers; as useful as it was to learn other people's songs in terms of developing skills, I knew I wanted to write my own songs. I also knew that I did not want to write the hideous, acoustic Damien Rice and Tom McCrae ballad rip offs that my peers were coming out with. Awful, whinging, lumpen drivel with shite lyrics. It was at this point in my playing journey that I worked out the difference between a musician and a songwriter. Many a good guitarist seems to have fallen foul of the belief that by virtue of their exceptional 'chops' they must be able to craft a song like Springsteen; sadly what usually ensues is a tasteful but vacuous ballad with an undeniably awesome guitar solo, meaningless, pining lyrics and not much else to recommend it.
After a year of clattering away on my Encore I upgraded to a Fender Mexican Telecaster with a maple neck and tidepool finish. It was and still is my dream guitar, I've played other more expensive and technically "better" guitars but this one just feels like home to me; I remember having a go on a mates £2000 PRS and being so intimidated by how expensive it was that it was impossible to enjoy.
Not long after acquiring my beautiful new telecaster I happened into my first proper band. None of us could really play brilliantly; the drummer didn't have the best sense of rhythm and it took a while for the bassist and I to work out what it meant to play in the same key as each other... less said the better really when it comes to the singer but he definitely looked the part if nothing else. Around this time I bought a new amp in order that we could actually gig; for all practices I had either been borrowing the school music departments amplifier; which was pretty good but very often broken; or bringing my 10 watt BB Blaster amp from home. Somehow I managed to make that thing heard above the drummer but it frequently sounded like it was about to explode. I sold the Encore strat to the singer in the band, the plan being for him to eventually take on rhythm guitar duties as well as vocals and the Kustom bass amp got sold too. Added to some savings from various jobs I managed to scrape together enough to by a 30 watt Behringer Vintager GM110. It was a modelling amp, but I didn't really know what that meant, it just happened to be the only affordable amp out there at the time that had some good reviews to its name. I loved it, paired with my tele it sounded great and it was fucking loud! which was all that really mattered at the time.
That tele and amp combo was my whole rig for years until the amp met an untimely end at the hands of an over excited 5 year old with learning difficulties that I was trying to give a lesson to. He became obsessed with the on/off switch and instead of flicking it from side to side tried to push it in like a button. I saw a few sparks and the glow from the standby light fade away... and that was that. I kept the dead shell of the amp for a couple of years, determined that I would somehow get the cash to repair it. Eventually I gave up on it. I was moving to a new flat and had enough stuff to lug around without taking a broken amp with me. Not really knowing what to do with it I put it out by the communal bins. It sat there for a couple of days looking sad and I got a note through the door saying the bin men wouldn't take it and I needed to arrange for the council to collect it which would cost me £25 I didn't have. Instead I put a note on it saying "Going cheap £10; post money to flat 4". The next morning it was gone. Amazing how quick people are to steal something the second they think it might be worth something.
But I digress..
We played our first gig at a friends birthday in a remote village hall just outside the town we all went to school in. The party in general can only be described as carnage; everything got broken, the least of them being one of my strings during rehearsal. Not being clever enough to have brought some spare meant ditching the telecaster and utilising the encore which the singer had brought along as a backup. The gig actually went pretty well and we got a good reception; so much so that the singer got carried away and decided to take the Encore out into the middle of the floor and obliterate it. In the moment it seemed like the coolest thing in the world but the next morning I was a bit gutted. I had only sold it because I trusted the singer and thought it would get looked after by him.
That red plank of wood had mattered to me; there was a lot of my time invested in it and it made me sad that it had mattered so little to someone else. I managed to salvage a few of the pieces and when my mum saw them, the disappointment in her face that something she'd bought me as a gift had ended up in bits was a bit hard to stomach with a screaming hangover.
We only ended up playing 3 gigs and broke up acrimoniously, but it was great while it lasted.
I’m going to stop with the reverie here and return to the present. I promise I will pull all these disparate strands together; just bear with me.
If you’re aware of who I am and what I do already then apologies for this bit as it’s covering well trodden ground, but for those unfamiliar with me; My name is Andy and I run an independent online pedal shop called Funny Little Boxes,
I specialise in UK made boutique gear as well as second hand oddball pedals that you don’t really see popping up elsewhere. I never charge more than £100 for any pedal as I want things to be accessible to all and understand only too well how prohibitive guitar gear prices can be. Obviously setting this £100 limit means there are limitations to the kind of things I can stock (sorry guys but you’re not going to find any Strymon’s in stock at FLB) it also means every time I approach a new builder to try and get them on the books that I run the risk of coming across like I’m undervaluing their work and end up pissing them off and ruining any chance I had of working with them. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a cross word between myself and a builder yet and whereas not everyone I’ve approached has ended up agreeing to work with me and come on the FLB books; it has always been a respectful and usually enjoyable exchange which if nothing else means I have had a chance to chat with cool people I wouldn’t otherwise have met.
Where there is a serious hole in the affordable UK market is in the realms of modulation, reverb and delay pedals. I hunt these furiously! It is worth noting here that there are two amazing UK builders I work with who do some brilliant pedals of these type for under £100; Raygun Fx, Gojira Fx and Fairydance Creations. Both of them create some truly inspiring pedals which are a joy to play; the Fairydance Recurring Dream distorted reverb pedal is a box of madness that’s so insane it’s pure genius! It is also worth mentioning that I’m defining “affordable” as £100 or less as that’s the realm I work in, however there are UK builders producing great pedals of this type for not much more than £100 which represent fantastic value for what you get. The Gojira Fx Reverie reverb and Ritual Devices Rainmaker tremolo being notable examples.
It is my constant search for affordable UK made circuits of this type that have lead me to the next major milestone in Funny Little Boxes’ short but jam packed history; and one I’m particularly proud of. While trawling the endless nightmare that is Facebook Marketplace in search of any interesting second hand bargains or hidden gems I happened across a pedal going under the name of Burford Electronics. It was an unassuming looking pedal in a pretty plain enclosure and was some kind of fuzz pedal. I didn’t snap it up as I was not looking for any more fuzz pedals; I’m pretty covered in that respect at FLB HQ however my interest was piqued, more than anything by the name. I grew up not far from a quintessentially English village called Burford in north Oxfordshire and I was intrigued really just to see if they were made there and that’s where the name came from. Thus began my descent into the rabbit hole of gathering as much information as I could about Burford Electronics. As I dug deeper, I came no closer to discovering if they are made in Burford (I’m pretty sure they’re not so the origin of the name is a total mystery to me still) but did discover that Burford was a long running series of pedals created by one Alan Exley. I then found out that the hallmark of Burford Electronics were modulation circuits and really wacky ones such as ring modulators and sitar simulators. To say I was a little bit excited to have happened across these was something of an understatement, but it was nothing in comparison to the dismay I felt when I found Alan’s website which contained loads of information about the Burford line, including the horrible admission that he had discontinued the line in 2019 for the reason below
“due to the saturation of the general pedal market & with that many imports from the far east, I don’t think they have a huge sales potential anymore.”
In a word; Fuck!
Here I am, having happened across a veritable treasure trove of affordable, UK made modulation circuits only to find that I’m a year too late to get my hands on them…
Now I could have just stopped there; felt bitter at my misfortune and then moved on. But I just couldn’t let it lie. Something about these pedals meant they had lodged themselves in all four corners of my mind and I just couldn’t shake them…
So I found myself emailing their creator, Alan, to introduce myself; explain about FLB and its underpinning philosophy and to ask if he had any backstock he wanted shot of that I could purchase from him. I figured it was a long shot but knew I wouldn’t be satisfied if I didn’t at least try. I expected to get a polite but firm rejection of my advances at best, so was pretty chuffed when Alan’s response came through and he gave every impression of being genuinely interested. Alas though, after a few emails he told me he didn’t thing it was something that would go anywhere and wished me all the best.
However, lady luck intervened and I was able to procure one of his UFO Tremolo pedals and sell it quickly. I decided to have one last crack at Alan to see if the response to and quick sale of the UFO might convince him to take a punt on giving the pedal game a go. When he responded with
“Maybe we can do some business.”
I was walking on air! When he then got in touch a couple of weeks later to say he was putting a whole new line of pedals under the moniker “Burford Psychedelia” into production I was bowled over.
In a tiny way I feel like I’ve altered musical history by having a art to play in getting recognition for the amazing work Alan has done in the past as well as ensuring that work is available to a whole host of new players. This may have sounded like the point of this was to feather my own nest by ensuring I had UK made modulation circuits on tap so let me clarify; the reason I drove so hard to make this happen was Alan questioning that there was an audience for his work due to saturation in the pedal market. For sure, the pedal market is saturated, but there’s still plenty of room for the little guy to get his work out there and it was the fact that I could list buyers off the top of my head that I knew would jump at the chance to snap one of Alan’s wacky circuits up and go away and make fantastically insane sounds with it that spurred me on.
I often bemoan the music of today with its processed beats at ever increasing speeds sung by a scantily clad young lady and guesting this rapper and featuring that producer. I’m not alone in this and yeah, even though I’m only thirty three, feel free to go ahead and say “Ok Boomer” at me. Call me a miserable old fart or whatever, I really don’t care. It’s not the music itself that bothers me. Older generations are meant to be bewildered by and afraid of the music of those younger than them; and I think that’s the problem. I’m not bewildered by, or scared of it, because there’s no substance to it to be afraid of. Just a yawning chasm of disconnect. Music literally reduced to a sugary product to be consumed as quickly and easily as possible. And I hate that. Even chart topping pop acts presented a challenge to the listener when I was growing up and parents were right to fear the challenge it brought to their status quo. Now, challenging music has gone deeper underground than ever before, and I’m chuffed to bits to know that a vast number of the pedals I’ve sold have gone to sonic adventurers merrily beavering away to create bizarre noises, fuelled by the discomfort of their own minds in bedrooms and basements all over the place. That’s why it’s so important to me that the Burford line of pedals continues, because those funny little boxes are genuine fuel for creativity; something that (I think, at least) is sadly lacking in the music of today.
So, how to pull this altogether into something cohesive that hopefully means you don’t feel you’ve wasted part of your life by reading this.
I suppose the whole point I’m trying to make is writ large in the title. Everything not saved, will be lost. Life is never going to be the same as it was pre-covid; it might be almost the same, but it will always be set just apart and the reason for that is loss. We couldn’t save everything that Covid took from us; we weren’t prepared for or expecting a viscious, life sucking bitch of a virus to come along and pull the rug from under us and the fact is that most of what’s been lost can never be recovered; at least not entirely. With irrevocable change surely must come a refocusing of perspective and for me it’s been to see that something as simple as a crazy, quacky sound; contained within a box is as worth saving as anything else; and I want to save it. Creativity and the arts have never been less valued by society than in the past few years, and yet throughout the pandemic they’ve been the thing that so many people have turned to in order to get them through. Be it their own or someone else’s, that creative spirit leaves traces in the form of the art it spawns. My creative spark got fired up years ago by a friend I’ll never see again, passing me a cassette tape. I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling sad that Joe has left this world; but it’s a comfort to know he’s left traces. So if ever there was a time to go out and support your local poet, painter, band, potter, glassblower, luthier, pedal builder, troubadour or whatever you fancy; it’s now. If you’ve been wondering whether you need another fuzz pedal to add to your existing six then stop wondering, buy it and worry about whether you needed it later. If it brings you some joy, if it helps you create a sound that makes you want to bang your head or punch the air or dance like nobody’s watching then that’s a good thing and you should have as many good things in your life as you can because you just don’t know when they’re going to get ripped away from you. Everything not saved will be lost; so do your bit to leave as many traces of what you love as you can.
“In the end we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptiness mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn't name.”
J. Eugenides; The Virgin Suicides