Opening a boutique-style guitar amplifier business is a risky proposition in any economy, but 29-year old Ben Verellen is defying the odds. In the last year, he's moved out of his bedroom workshop and into a commercial warehouse space on Aurora Avenue, steadily building an impressive client list of people who share his appreciation for design inspired by the warmth of old-school tube technology but informed by the needs of modern rock players who prefer their sound elephantine and bracingly loud. In addition to his online business, his amps are sold in more than half a dozen music stores around Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Portland.
"I'm a lifer at this point, I don't have any choice," says Verellen over a late-afternoon "lunch" at the Buckaroo in upper Fremont. The biker-friendly bar (which serves no food) is a stone's throw from Verellen Amplifiers and a logical meeting place to discuss his plans for scratching out a living in the music industry.
He's achieved lifer status after growing up in Tacoma and playing bass in the punk-minded, distortion-driven band Harkonen. A burgeoning interest in sound engineering became a full-fledged academic affliction, and Verellen eventually transferred from community college in Tacoma to the University of Washington's electrical engineering department.
While honing his niche interest in the dying art of vintage tube amplification technology, he started Helms Alee, a sonically gleaming, monstrous power trio that almost instantly garnered a following upon its inception in 2006. Anchored by Verellen's unmistakable, thunderous guitar and commanding voice and buoyed by the vibrant drumming of Hozoji Matheson-Margullis and strikingly steady bass tones of Dana James, Helms Alee quickly gained a reputation as the sort of wildly original and dynamic live band not to be missed by rock fans who appreciate the Pixies as much as the Melvins. Night Terror, the band's late-2008 release for progressive metal label Hydra Head Records, was widely embraced by local critics and fans.
Helms Alee is halfway through the writing process for their next record and hopes to return to the studio later this fall or winter, so Verellen is focusing on growing his stable of loyal customers, including guitar and bass players from local bands These Arms Are Snakes, Akimbo, and Minus the Bear as well as musicians from around the country he's never met. "There was this one guy from the Midwest who sent me about a dozen e-mails with these long explanationsâ€"'I want it to sound like rushing water...and a volcano exploding!'" Verellen recalls with a laugh. "How am I supposed to make any sense out of that? I was gearing up for a disaster. But we finished it, mailed it off to him, and he was thrilled. I felt like I had won the lotto."
Verellen also plans to streamline his products and be a little less customized, to free up time to learn more about building even the smallest amplifier elements. "We're finally simplifying our operation quite a bit and trying to rein in the different models we do and just make a couple," he explains. "We want to dive deeper into the technical end of it, and learn how to do all the calculations and all the engineeringâ€"just two steps further than what we've been doing. Right now everything's inspired by other designs. But I hope we someday come up with something outlandishly new."â€"Hannah Levin