What would the opening riff to "Barracuda" be without that flange effect? Not as good. My Bloody Valentine without fuzz? Weird. "The Star Spangled Banner" without distortion? Patriotic. Musicians, to make use of these beloved textures, and to create their own signature walls of sound, need pedals — those things you see guitar and bass players stomping on while on stage, or fiddling with in the studio.
Like much of rock, and the world, the pedal business is dominated by dudes, with a few fearless women in the mix. Fran Blanche, creator of Frantone Electronics, is one of them. Since 1994, Fran has designed and hand-built more than twenty models of indestructible, candy-colored boxes for discerning guitar heroes. From the sea-foam HepCat (an overdrive pedal) to her lemon-lime Vibutron (an enchanting vintage tremolo effect), Fran's pedals are legendary, collectible, and very beautiful.
After a prolonged hiatus, she's revived the company and — thanks to successful crowdfunding campaigns — rereleased two of her classic fuzz boxes, the Cream Puff and the Peach Fuzz. She plans to have two more pedals back in production by September, and another five or six in 2017.
While "boutique manufacturing" sounds glamorous, Fran's success — as an artist, a self-taught engineer, a working-class entrepreneur, and a trans woman in the man's world of geekery and sexist merchandising — has been hard-won. Long hours, grueling physical labor, financial setbacks, and online abuse have come along with her success and cult standing. Her evolution as an inventor and a businesswoman is inspiring; so is her personal story. Fran is a behind-the-scenes type who has reluctantly made peace with life in the public eye — at least to some degree. In an economic climate where microbusinesses are social-media-fueled, and marketing your product means marketing yourself, Fran has carved out her own place.
As I researched her in preparation for this interview, I discovered, in her videos and writings, a wealth of wisdom and technical information. Restless creativity, self-effacing charm, and generous candor set the tone for her dispatches — see her refreshingly straightforward product demos (which feature Fran herself on "the shredcam"), and her electronics tutorials and vlog posts about trans issues. Over Skype (I was in New York; Fran was in Philadelphia, where she lives and works), we talked about entrepreneurship, sexism, gentrification, and survival.
Johanna Fateman: Tell me about the very beginning. How did you start your own business as a young person?
Fran Blanche: There was no plan. I didn't grow up dreaming of building guitar pedals. I had a string of dead-end retail jobs in Central Pennsylvania; I bounced from one assistant-manager position to another every six months, it seemed. I made lateral moves for microscopic gains — like, I quit the shoe store to work at the video store so I could get that 20 percent discount on video rentals. I was going nowhere.
JF: I love your anecdote about wanting a Big Muff [an iconic distortion pedal made by Electro-Harmonix] for yourself, for your own band, in the early '90s, but not being able to afford it. So you figured out how to make your own! I've often picked up skills not because I wanted them per se, but because I was trying to achieve a certain thing artistically. Was it hard to do?
FB: I had been repairing and restoring antique radios for a while and learning electronics on my own in my spare time, so it wasn't incredibly daunting. I used a Radio Shack enclosure and parts, and the designs were pretty straightforward and simple. I just worked it out on paper and then built it. A few years later, I wound up in New York working for Electro-Harmonix, and strangely, amazingly, designing the 2000 Big Muff for them. All because I couldn't afford one!