I was lucky enough to walk into a Club a couple of weeks ago and catch AJ DUNNING and his Band “The CONES”. Featuring former members of The Verve Pipe, (AJ), and PAPA VEGAS, (Scott Stefanski and Joel Ferguson), along with “The Glue” Deezal Christianson, these guys are all world class players,with multiple projects going at any given time, and a cool band they can get out and gig with. “The CONES” are always a joy to see/hear.

Between sets, AJ and I spoke about his newest project, “CIRCUS FREAK MUSIC”. It took us a few e-mails back and forth to finish our conversation, but here it is.

Q- Aj, You know I’ve always enjoyed watching you play. You’re what I call “A Player’s Player”…a great guitarist that’s really fun to watch! The way you utilize your pedals is like watching a methodical dance. In the CONES, you pride yourselves on exactly replicated cover songs, down to exact Guitar tones. How/when did you start utilizing pedals to get the sounds you want?

Thanks, Fred. I’ve been a lifelong user of stomp boxes (a.k.a., “toe bombs”, “talent boxes”). Although, like a lot of people when they first start out, I was pretty clueless about ’em. I remember asking a sales guy at Marshall Music in Lansing, way back when they were still in downtown, if a wah pedal would give me an upper octave sound. And I can’t tell you how many times I blew up my stereo because I’d patched my Cry Baby Fuzz/Wah thru it. It’s all about the learning curve 😉 But seriously, I’ve always been into effects- from the traditional stomp boxes, to the rack mount stuff that everyone used back in the 80’s, to a combination of both for larger rigs I’ve used. I’ve always kind of viewed it as part of the job of being in a cover band, trying to get the parts & the tones at least somewhat in the ballpark. And even touring with TVP, especially for the self titled album (a.k.a., The Frog Record), I always tried to replicate that stuff to best of my ability.

Q-I know (U2 Guitarist) Edge says he’s not that great a Guitar Player, but he really knows how to use his pedals and he uses something like 75 of them! How many do you use during a show?

Well, I’m always hunting for different sounds, so my pedal board rig usually changes monthly! But, not including the three Circus Freak prototype boxes I currently have on my board, it’s pretty basic. a compressor, a couple of overdrives, a fuzz (with a graphic eq), some modulation stuff & and a couple of delays. Rest of the stuff on the board would be a volume pedal (can’t play a gig without one, just like a compressor for me), a real time control volume pedal for modulation effects, a tuner, and a channel switcher for the amp.

Q- Tell me about “CIRCUS FREAK MUSIC”, You’re designing your own pedals for the retail market now?

Yeah, really excited about it. I was approached about a year ago by my now business partner, Shannon Near, with the idea of starting an amplifier company called Reactor. But what we’re looking to do with that amp wasn’t/isn’t going to be a quick venture, and during the process of talking about accessory items for the Reactor line we hit upon the idea of effect pedals. In order not to have the amplifier seem like an afterthought after releasing pedals, we opted for an entirely different company and name — one that Shannon had floating around for awhile: Circus Freak Music.

Q-Are they available to the Public yet? How does one buy a “Circus Freaks” pedal?

Currently we’re towards the end of pre-production on our first four boxes, which we’ll have available prior to Xmas 2012. Initially, we’ll be selling them through our website (circusfreakmusic.com), prior to approaching brick and mortar retailers & Internet based outlets.

Q-How many different pedals are you coming out with? What are they? What do they do? What makes “Circus Freak Pedals” unique? Who’s coming up with these crazy names? Huh? Huh? Huh?

The initial line consists of eight pedals:

The Lion Tamer-Compressor
The Tattooed Lady-Overdrive
The Pickled Punk-Distortion

The Bearded Lady-Fuzz
The Juggler Analog-Delay
The Fiji Mermaid-Chorus
The Three Legged Man-Tremolo
The Human Cannonball-Delay & Boost

The first four to be released will be the Compressor, Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz pedals, with the delay soon to follow… As for what makes CF unique? Well, in one sense, it’s tough to reinvent the wheel, and that’s certainly not what we’re trying to do. So I’d say that aside from the “sales pitch”- high quality builds with high quality components- our boxes not only sound different than a lot of what’s currently available in the marketplace, but also look different too, right down to the packaging and enclosures.

There’s tons of great stompboxes out there- and while I get why companies tend to use pre-existing “Hammond” style boxes, we didn’t want to travel down that road. So the design of the enclosures, they variable ways they can mounted to a board, even down to the knobs we’re using (our own molds), are all intrinsically ours. Just a way to help us stand out in a fairly glutted arena… And as for the names, we just kind of threw some stuff around. Morgan May Moallemian , (Creative Director & third partner), came up with the premise & name for the Human Cannonball.

Q-What’s your process for developing pedals?

To be certain, much of it is experience. As a recovering gear whore of many years, I’ve owned tons of stuff and what I didn’t own, I probably played though at some point. Just like anything else, certain things tend to stick with you. Take the Bearded Lady Fuzz, for instance. One of my all time fave fuzz boxes is the Sola Sound Tonebender, the three knob version. When we first started talking about putting out a line of effects pedals, this one found it’s way to the top of my list rather quickly! The problem with trying to duplicate, or even improve upon these former designs usually comes down to availability of vintage components. And with fuzz boxes, finding enough good quality germanium transistors for a production run can be pretty daunting. While I won’t go into too much detail here, let’s just say I know a guy from whom we’re purchasing military grade spec’d vintage transistors. I believe the first batch
of 1000 I tested I ran across one bad transistor. For vintage germanium, that’s almost unheard of…

So in the attempt to “marry the old with the new”, we approached a local company called Custom Electronics Inc. to do the dirty work of design. As this is their first venture into music related items, it’s refreshing that they’re not stricken with any sort of mindset of what can or can’t be done. We decided early on that we wanted to look to the past for the tonality of these products, and incorporate a modern esthetic in regards to the builds and their quality. Hence, old meets new. However, one thing we’re not doing that many other builders are these days, is building “surface mount”. All of these first eight boxes, as well as future builds, are being done in the older “through hole” fashion.

So, after I cull all my research, decide how the controls on the box should be laid out, and after an initial prototype is built, I’ll spend a good deal of time at CEI playing through it, making suggestions on what it needs or doesn’t need sonically. And sometimes, there’s a fair amount of beer involved.

Q-In TVP, you toured all over the world, opening for KISS and other notable acts as well as headlining your own shows. Who were your Guitar influences?

Too many to list, honestly. But people who really hit me early on (and a few later, too) would be George Harrison, Billy Gibbons, Hendrix, Page, Wes Montgomery, Adrian Belew, Eric Johnson, Michael Hedges, Zappa, Johnny Marr, Danny Gatton, and anything Motown…

Q- What’s your current rig look like?

Well, aside from the description of my pedalboard rig earlier- I’ve been using my Zinky Mofo as my go-to amp for well over ten years now. Great, great amp- built by Bruce Zinky, the man behind the Fender Custom Shop amps like the Tonemaster, VibroKing, and the Dual Showman released in the early/mid 90’s, as well as the Smokey Amp (9V, 1 watt amp in a ciggie pack, can run a 4×12 cab…). Really simple, versatile, and I’ve never had a bit of trouble with it. 50 watts, two channel- clean channel with a single Tone knob, and a dirty channel with a three band tone stack (Bass, Middle, Treble), pre & master volumes, and the pre knob pulls out to boost the amp into a hotter gain stage. When TVP were recording the “Underneath” record (our last for RCA), I brought, as I always did, a shit ton of amps with me for the session. Probably used the Mofo on 85% of the record! And can’t say enough good things about Bruce, who is now involved with reissued Supro line of amps & guitars.

Q-Well Aj, sounds to me like you and your partners might be one NAMM show away from following in Bruce’s footsteps! Best of luck to you! BTW, I used to call my son Jason, “Elmo the Monkey Boy”, I’m thinking that’s a good name for a pedal!

Um…..No Fred.

Q- Come on! Really? Well Shoot, I thought for sure you’d want to use that one……..How about “Fat Lady on a Trapeze”? Or…..”Two Ballerina’s and a Cup”?

See ya Fred….

For more information regarding CIRCUS FREAK MUSIC, like them on Facebook at: https:// www.facebook.com/Circusfreakmusic?fref=ts
Or Go to their Website at: http://circusfreakmusic.com/ Audio Clips are available at: http://soundcloud.com/circus-freak-music

Or contact AJ Dunning direct at: aj@reactormusic.com

A. J. Dunning brings to Reactor Amplification a level of experience and diversity unmatched in his field. As a guitarist, Dunning has thrilled audience and won over critics.  His current project is the aclaimed band, The Cones.