The rock band Relaxer may not be a household-name in Akron, but its members are. Founder Jamie Stillman has been playing in bands for decades, and owns EarthQuaker Devices. The Akron company sells hand-made guitar pedals that are popular with musicians around the world.
For this week’s Shuffle, Stillman and band mates Joe Scott, Corey Haren and Brad Thorla talked about being in business together, growing older and defining passive progressive rock.
Jamie Stillman has been playing in bands since he was in high school in Kent. Then, in 2005, a broken guitar pedal changed everything.
"I fixed it and I thought it was cool, so I started fixing some pedals for friends. I put some up on eBay and it accidentally turned into a business."
It turned into a big business -- EarthQuaker Devices, located in a 15,000-square-foot building west of downtown Akron. Last year, EarthQuaker generated $4 million in revenues.
"We didn’t hire our first employee until 2010 and now we have 50-plus employees," Stillman says. "We sell them all over the place, shipping about 1,000 pedals a week."
Customers include some big names in music, like The Black Keys, Coldplay and the Eagles.
Employees as band mates
Three out of the four members of Relaxer work at EarthQuaker, but Stillman says he didn't hire most of them.
“I like to stay out of the business side of things," he says.
On what it's like to work and play together, Stillman says, “We don’t really work in the same areas. I work upstairs; Brad does a lot of inventory management and Corey does QC so he’s kind of downstairs building [pedals] all the time.
"The only time it’s going to get awkward is if we break up in a horrible fist fight and we have to see each other. Then maybe I’ll just fire them,” he says, prompting laughter from the group.
Relaxer comes together
Stillman says Relaxer formed from the remains of other bands he's been in, like Drummer and The Party of Helicopters. Then, he says the band was complete when he met singer Joe Scott -- the one member who doesn't currently work at EarthQuaker Devices.
“I was, and still am, in a band called White Pines," Scott says. "It was very folky, but I used to be in hard core metal bands in the ‘90s, so I was like, super pumped [to sing] loud, super-distorted guitar again."
Relaxer got a big break five years ago this month, when they were asked to open for The Shins at Kent State University’s MACC Center.
Reflecting on that experience draws sighs from the group, who joke that they're starting to feel old.
“Sometimes I feel like when we play with bands that are much younger than us , I’m always like, ‘Maybe I am way out of touch.’ But people still come to see us, so it’s probably fine," Stillman says.
New album, delayed
Last month, Relaxer released a new, guitar-heavy album, Unreal/Cities, recorded in 2016. There was a delay when Stillman says the pressing plant lost the record. “By April, I was like, ‘Where is this record?’ It was an ordeal."
Defining a sound
The band describes its sound as passive progressive rock, a term they acknowledge is difficult to define.
"It’s a mixture of passive aggression and progressive rock," Scott says.
"I do think that it kind of sums up that we’re sort of prog-y, and we’re also sort of lazy,” Stillman jokes.
Still having fun
Despite sometimes feeling out of touch with the local music scene, Stillman and his band mates agree they're still having fun.
"I’ve tried to stop playing music before and it makes me insane," Stillman says.
"I have a terrible feeling I’ll still be doing this when I’m like 60-years-old. I’ll still be loading into Annabell’s and talking about my band that like, 30 people like. Like, ‘Yeah! I’m still doing it!’