In Search Of Tone: Zach Amster Of Abrams

Abrams have been on my radar since discovering the massive lineup Small Stone Records has to offer. The band fits perfectly with the likes of Irata, Shun, Pale Grey Horse, Lo-Pan and Wo Fat. In The Dark, their current album, is fantastic front to back. If you haven’t heard it by now, I’m here to lift the rock from over you and share this incredible long player that you will have on repeat.

Zach Amster / Abrams - Photo by Bearded Gonzo
Zach Amster / Abrams – Photo by Bearded Gonzo

I was fortunate to interview Zach Amster a while back and we had a fantastic conversation about all things music. He’s an incredible musician and couldn’t be a nicer guy. He shares some phenomenal insight to the creation of In The Dark and even went above and beyond with his answers helping me with my constant struggle on off days.

Thank you Zach for meeting with me. I’m a music nerd and this interview series is my way of talking to my favorite musicians about gear and creating music. I look forward to hearing what you have to share.

Thank you. I love talking about gear in general, so this should be fun.

What’s your current amp set up?

I’m constantly changing stuff but, I have two main amps that I’m currently using. I don’t run them at the same time. I wish I could, but it’s just too much gear to lug around.

My main baby is an early ‘80s Hiwatt 50 watt custom head, it’s the loudest amp I own, and I own a lot of amps [laughs]. It has a huge amount of headroom so you can really crank it and it’s a great pedal platform. I recently started running an attenuator with it and makes it more manageable in live settings. It’s a cool amp and it’s the Biacrown era.

My main baby is an early ‘80s Hiwatt 50 watt custom head, it’s the loudest amp I own, and I own a lot of amps…

It’s not the most sought after era and there are a lot of Hiwatt aficionados out there. I believe this era was when they were shifting ownership and these amps were more Marshall like. It’s a two-input channel with only five knobs. Less knobs are better for me, I can’t do Mesa Boogie because I don’t even know where to star [laughs]. I got it in a trade too. It was too loud for his bedroom, so I traded him a Fender combo and some cash. I’m not sure he knew what he had but I am stoked with it.

More recently, I picked up a Benson 30 watt head. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Benson.

I’ve recently heard of them but not too familiar.

They’re a boutique company out of Portland. I think the owner used to work with Verellen and he branched out to do his own thing. But it’s a 30 watt head called the Chimera. There’s like an insane waitlist to get them, but I got it off Reverb for I don’t even want to tell you how much money [laughs]. It’s a great amp dude. It’s only three knobs, again the perfect amount [laughs]. It’s small but still pretty loud and breaks up a little bit quicker being 30 watts. That’s my main live setup. I have a bunch of little combo amps that I just record demos with. That covers amps, want me to talk about pedals now?

Zach Amster / Abrams - Amp Rig
Zach Amster / Abrams – Amp Rig

Let’s get on to guitars because I’m very interested in your pedalboard but I could talk about that for a long time [laughs]

Yeah, me too! For guitars, I’ve recently made some acquisitions. I used to spend all my money on pedals and that stopped. It’s time to start spending some on guitars again. When I first started the band, I was a Gibson Les Paul guy. I had an early 2000s ’59 custom (or standard I can’t remember) Les Paul. It’s a great guitar and I still have it but then I shifted to being a Fender guy. I started playing with a Telecaster that I beefed up a little bit with Billy Gibbons pickups.

Then I have a really awesome Jazzmaster. I went to a guitar center for some strings and left with the Jazzmaster because it was staring at me [laughs]. It’s a cool green color and I played it for more than thirty minutes and had to buy it. It’s still one of my favorite guitars. Most of the recording on In The Dark was with it. What I love about Fenders is that they’re just super dynamic. I don’t want pristine cleans. I want just a little dirt to my base tone, and I think the P90 pickups are exactly what I need.

I went to a guitar center for some strings and left with the Jazzmaster because it was staring at me…

Within the last two months I got two new guitars. I got a non-reverse Gibson Custom Shop Firebird which is probably the nicest guitar I own. Then, I was at my brother’s after I bought the Firebird, his buddy was actually selling a Dan Armstrong. I’ve always wanted one and I thought how do I make this work? I wasn’t planning on buying a guitar but it was the right place at the right time and it was a good deal so I made it happen [laughs].

** Apparently, I can talk about guitars just as much as pedals and what followed was a long tangent of Jazzmaster nerding out **

Now on to the big topic of the pedalboard. What’s on your board currently?

It’s honestly been pretty standard. I switch out a couple of things every once in a while. What’s funny is Patrick [Alberts – Guitar] and I have similar pedalboards. One thing that we both use and is somewhat new is the Earthquaker Devices Swiss Things.

Zach Amster / Abrams - Guitar & Amp Rig
Zach Amster / Abrams – Guitar & Amp Rig

I’ve seen it but haven’t used any switch pedals yet.

It’s cool. It has two loops with a boost option. I run all my distortion through Loop #1 and then my modulation through Loop #2. It’s nice because I can turn on multiple pedals and can turn them all off at once, or I can use it as a kill switch. It also has a nice boost on it. One neat feature is it has a separate plug in for the tuner and volume pedal. It’s a great utility pedal and helps with noise reduction as well. This is the first time I’ve used something like this. I’ve always plugged my guitar into the pedals and straight into the amp, but I feel I have a lot more control now and there is less buzz.

For the rest of my pedals, right now I’m using a bass wah. It’s the Dunlop Mini Crybaby Bass and what I love about it is you don’t have to press it to turn it on. Once you engage the wah it starts up. If I’m hammered, I’ll be thinking ‘What is wrong with my tone’ and realize I’ve had the wah on the whole time, this solves it [laughs]. But seriously it’s got great control and tone. There are frequency and volume controls on the side to get that really cool J. Mascis fuzzy wah sound and it almost acts as a boost top that I use as a cheat with my solos.

I run that through my main distortion, which is the God City BJR or Brutalist JR. It’s a Kurt Ballou pedal from Converge and God City Studios. I always have it on, and I use it with the distortion set all the way down. It’s great. It’s almost like it’s pretty much my ‘always on’ pedal. I kind of use it with the distortion all the way down and the volume right below 12 o’clock. This way it gives me that nice clean sound that’s a little bit overdriven. It works great with the two fuzz pedals I run.

I stack the distortion pedal into two fuzz pedals that I’m subbing in and out all the time…

So, I stack the distortion pedal into two fuzz pedals that I’m subbing in and out all the time. The first is a Boss FZ-1W Waza Craft Fuzz. I’ve always wanted a FZ-2 for that Electric Wizard sound but this one is great too. It sounds great with the Dan Armstrong. My second fuzz that I am really loving is the Stomp Under Foot Ram’s Head. It’s the Ram’s Head version of the Big Muff and I believe it’s the purple one from the ‘80s. I keep on saying J Mascis, but I think he uses this. Not this one, but the Big Muff version.

Very interesting how you stack the distortion. I’ve been experimenting with some pedals doing that for the first time. It’s a lot of fun. I also love modulation though. What do you have running after the distortion?

I also love modulation. I have two Strymon pedals. One is the BlueSky which is a really nice reverb but it’s digital, so it fucks with the distortion a little. Sometimes the changes bother me but for the most part, it sounds great. I use it for holding out chords in between songs and creating atmosphere. Then I have the Strymon Deco which is a fantastic pedal. I use it for the really quick slap back that has a great boost for a lead or solo. It also has an almost flanger wobble to it. From there, I have my favorite delay pedal that I’ve had forever, the EarthQuaker Devices Avalanche Run.

Zach Amster / Abrams - Pedalboard
Zach Amster / Abrams – Pedalboard

Oh, I want one of those real bad. I have the Dispatch Master, but I want to upgrade to the Avalanche Run.

Do it. I can’t find anything that I like better. There are so many little tricks you can do with it. I’ve had many different delay pedals over the years, but nothing touches the Avalanche Run. I have so many pedals that are collecting dust, it’s sad. I won’t throw anything out though even if it’s broken because it looks cool [laughs].

** Tangent 2 about all my gear I keep changing around. After a few minutes of listening, I’m wondering who is interviewing who? Thanks Zach for listening **

We wrote the record mostly during the pandemic and we were all isolated, it was that weird time when no one knew what the hell was going on…

Moving on to Song Writing. Tell me how the phenomenal album In The Dark was written and did it change much from writing previous records?

Yeah, it was very different. We wrote the record mostly during the pandemic and we were all isolated, it was that weird time when no one knew what the hell was going on. I took the time to beef up the home studio, and we would demo complete songs this time around. This approach, I think, really helped our songwriting, for me specifically, because I could hear everything coming through the speakers and could critique more as a listener. Due to writing during isolation, when we finally entered the studio, we had thirty complete songs to work out.

Once we were comfortable meeting up in person and play these songs, it was interesting because my ‘complete’ song would change. Patrick would add a sick lead and Taylor [Iversen] would add a better bass part than I had. The drums were just MIDI grooves I created at home so when Ryan [DeWitt] played drums, it completely changed the song. It was really cool, like starting it from my desk, to seeing the songs evolve and then taking them to the studio with Dave Otero, our engineering producer who put that last finishing touch on the songs. It was a great way for us to write an album and we will continue writing this way.

Abrams 'In The Dark' Artwork
Abrams ‘In The Dark’ Artwork

Well, I think the writing style paid off because In The Dark is fantastic.

Thank you, I appreciate that.

We discussed how well the writing process worked for you, but what if you’re having an off day? How do you get inspired to play again?

That’s such a good question because I have a lot of off days [laughs]. I mean, we all do. If we didn’t, we’d be writing sick songs all the time. That doesn’t happen. I find I’m writing my most interesting and most captivating riffs, or songs for that matter, when I’m in a good mood. When I’m down in the dumps, I can’t really get inspired to write. I try not to force it, but sometimes I will [laughs]. I’ll put on a beat and force myself to write riffs to see what crap comes out as the good stuff will come out naturally 99% of the time.

I consistently have to play, even if I’m not writing, I’ll maybe take a few days off but to be a functioning member of society, I need to play the guitar…

Writer’s block is definitely a thing, I’ve had long spurts where I can’t write anything cool. That’s where you mess around with your gear a little bit. I consistently have to play, even if I’m not writing, I’ll maybe take a few days off but to be a functioning member of society, I need to play the guitar [laughs]. I try and get inspired by new sounds by moving or changing pedals. Sometimes I’m at a slump and Patrick is coming in with great riffs. I can attend to that riff and become inspired by his song ideas. Just kind of stay flexible and don’t tell yourself that you suck because you know you don’t.

It’s definitely frustrating

Do you take a break from guitar when you get discouraged?

Yeah, for a few days at least. I find myself playing about ten to twenty minutes a day. I don’t play that much. The day goes by so fast with family and work. I’ll pick up the guitar and I’ll play some sort of riff and think that was cool. Then I’ll go back and listen to it or play it again and say ‘Why did I think that was cool?’ [laughs]. Then the guitar collects dust for a few days.

You bring up an interesting point. I go through that a lot, where I question ‘Is this cool?’ At first, you think this is cool, then when listening back you second guess yourself and think ‘do I really want to share this?’ You get a little self-conscious. That’s what we do.

When we write music, or any art really, we are putting our whole self out there and it’s vulnerable. There are a couple of songs on the record that I didn’t want to go into the studio with but they turned out to be some of our most popular songs. In the Clouds almost didn’t get recorded and it’s got the most streams. It taught me to share what I have and maybe it will turn out great. I’m very self-conscious though, especially with singing a lot more now.

Abrams - Photo by Kim Denver
Abrams – Photo by Kim Denver

Oh yeah, that’s crazy to sing on stage because I don’t even want to sing at a concert where no one can hear me [laughs].

That’s hilarious [laughs]. Yeah, that’s a whole other level of vulnerability.

We’re all music fans, so what do you listen to for enjoyment?

I always go back to Mark Lanegan, he’s my favorite vocalist of all time and with his recent passing, I’ve revisited his stuff again as he has an insane amount of material. I love everything he has put out. Whether it’s Screaming Trees, his solo records, Gutter Twins, Queens of the Stone Age. He seemed to have lived a really interesting life too. I’m trying to think of some new stuff that came out.

I always go back to Mark Lanegan…

Everyone hypes on the Cave In record and that was really good. The Hellacopters came out with one recently that was great. I love them. I see your Clutch poster in the back, and I’m always a Clutch guy. I saw Quicksand recently with Clutch. That was fantastic. Quicksand came out with a really sick record. What about you man? What have you been listening to lately? I always need some new stuff!

Zach didn’t realize the Pandora Box he opened asking that question. We finished out the interview sharing many bands and discussing our mutual love for the stoner rock scene. Thanks Zach for the absolutely amazing chat!

In The Dark, the eleven-track gunge heavy rocker by Denver’s Abrams, is out now via Small Stone Records.

Label: Small Stone Records
Band Links: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Interviewed by: Josh Schneider