Katie Ballou

Katie Ballou is often underestimated. With heart-shaped sunglasses in one pocket of her leopard print bomber jacket and candy and treats in the other, customers occasionally glance past her, looking for an authoritative man to answer their gear questions. But Katie knows the basics, she knows the complexities, she can build what you’re trying to buy, she can shred with the best of them, and she can, as a matter-of-fact, fly a plane. We pulled up sturdy amps to sit on at Webb’s Bywater Music, where she apprentices, and discussed being a student, a teacher, a bandmate in Torture Garden, a bandlead in Special Meat and (formerly) Pussywolf, as well as discovering that anything can be done if you just follow all the steps (and get good at soldering).

Have you always been a tinkerer?

Going way back, I will say that I was in a lot of trouble, as a child, for taking apart VCRs and having no idea how to put them back together. I was fascinated by them but didn’t know what I was doing and they were quite expensive at the time. This was ‘94, ‘95. You didn’t want to break the only VCR in the house, but that was the first beginnings of me showing interest in how things worked, wanting to know what was going on inside of there. I still don’t have any idea how they work—that was not something that I grew up and figured out.

VCRs are still a mystery but you’ve built some pretty complex things since then.

I went to SUNY Purchase for recording, engineering, and studio production and quickly realized I hated working as an engineer, but this was kinda the biggest thing that got me into teching: There was this really disgruntled technician in a studio that I was working at as an engineer. He was doing a repair and I had never seen a board with the channel strip pulled out, with ribbon connectors. He was testing it, so I started to ask him a couple questions, which was bold for me, and he was so mean. But something just made me keep asking him. He eventually realized I was retaining what he was telling me and it made an impression on him. He had just fired a tech, which was not surprising, ‘cause he was a very difficult person to work with, and he was like, “Do you want to come work with me?” And I said, “Yeah. I would love to learn about this.” He had grown up living and working with Les Paul. His name is Carl Farrugia. He sadly just passed away. I learned the bulk of what I know from working with him. That’s how I cut my teeth, just assisting him, doing the tedious parts that he needed an extra set of hands to do: stripping and tinning cables, which is the foundation of having a finesse for soldering. (Working on boards is more delicate because you don’t want to burn traces off—the wire’s a lot more forgiving.) Eventually I started doing cabling for studios and then not-entirely-legal Neve 1073 builds using my partner at the time’s B&H discount on parts.

Where did your musical journey begin?

My first instrument was actually the trumpet, which I did in school. As you know, there’s nothing electronic about it whatsoever. I loved playing music but was never in love with trumpet, because it felt like one small part of a larger piece. When I was 12 years old, I got my first guitar. It sat untouched for an entire year because it was before YouTube and I had no idea what to do with it. It was a really cheap brand called a Premier. It was the cheapest guitar they had in the shop. My parents were reluctant to get it for me because they didn’t think I would stick with it. But a year later, on the next birthday, I started guitar lessons and I became absolutely obsessed. I didn’t put it down. I couldn’t wait to have calluses on my fingers. I would sit there squeezing the strings, thinking, “Maybe this will make it happen faster?” I progressed really quickly and loved it. I could finally accompany myself and play music I liked and it sounded like the song; it wasn’t just a little piece of it.

So you found an inspiring teacher?

I ended up going back to take lessons from the shop where that guitar came from [Castellano’s House of Music] and it became a significant part of my life. Laine Thompson, one of my teachers there, became a father figure to me—he once gave me a guitar that I treasure and will be buried with. I started working there to pay off my lessons and pretty much spent all day, every day in the shop. It’s quite a place: super Italian-American Staten Island vibes, for sure. I worked there for years, eventually teaching. It was also where I learned the very basics of guitar repair, really simple things like how to straighten a neck, change strings, a lot of tightening and adjusting. But I still had never soldered or done anything beyond what you can see from the outside.

What did the shop sell a lot of?

Fender was really popular there: Strats and Teles. Les Pauls were also big ones. When we became a Gibson dealer, there was this poster we hung up that I would pass by every day and I would seethe with rage every time. It bothered me for years. It was Gibson advertising a Flying V with a woman from the waist down, in high heels, in short shorts, standing like this [Ballou jumps up and plants her feet wide apart in an exaggerated “V” position]. I’ve always considered Flying Vs the most hideous and impractical of guitars. I grew up playing Telecasters. My main guitar throughout early adulthood was an American Fender Tele, then a blue [Special Edition Custom] Fender FMT. It’s a really weird series that they put out. FMT stands for “flame maple top.” It was a Tele with double humbuckers, which was really unusual and gave it a really thick sound. It was a neck through body, all one piece, also a very thin, flat neck, which is atypical for a Telecaster, and there was a push/pull tone knob that split the pickups. It was a way to play heavier music on a Telecaster. I left my confirmation party with the cards full of money and went straight to the guitar shop in my dress and everything to buy it. I brought it back to the party, plugged it in, and played a Frank Zappa song called “Catholic Girls.”

When I was around 23, I started a band called Pussywolf. It was a stoner rock, heavy blues sounding band, very much in the vein of early Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple. My bandmates were twin sisters who played bass and drums. It was a three-piece. I sang lead but all of us sang. That was my main band in New York. We gigged a lot, a lot. We played so many places that don’t exist anymore… but to finish the story from earlier, I now exclusively play Flying Vs and I own that poster.

What converted you?!

There was a famous shop on Staten Island called Mandolin Brothers. There was a luthier there named Gil Rosado. He moved to Vegas to start his own shop but he had built a custom Flying V, using all Gibson parts, and there was a company (I can’t say the name) that had made a run of Eddie Van Halen pickups and decided not to continue them, so they just made 10 of them, and got rid of the rest and one of those is in that guitar. The guitar is extremely hot and prone to feeding back but I love the way it sounds.

I’d imagine you’ve got to be careful with backline, when gigging then.

I always bring my own stuff, at least for guitar, because I don’t use a ton of gear, so it’s important to me to have the amp sound I’m used to and want, whereas maybe someone who uses a bunch of different effects would have a little bit more leeway to use a different amp. I play a BlackStar HT Club 40 (BlackStar is the original engineers from Marshall who split from the company). I love it ‘cause it has this really dry, crunchy sound that’s close to the distortion on an Orange [amp] but it also has this really wet Vox sound. I started using that amp with Pussywolf and I still use it. It’s my main thing and I’m really happy with the sound, especially with what I’m playing, which is bluesy, raw, less is more. That’s my outlook on guitar setups, in general, with the exception of if you’re going for a really specific sound. I’m also a big fan of the idea that less can go wrong the less you have.

Torture Garden at Portside Lounge (Photo by Beau Patrick Coulon)

So, what else do you have?

I have a tuning pedal, a ZVex Mastotron fuzz pedal, and a Memory Boy Electro-Harmonix delay. ZVex is a super cool company with a bunch of weird pedals. They have another one called a Fuzz Factory that I still don’t know how to control. It’s really wild sounding. All of my pedals are from pretty mainstream companies, nothing too crazy. I keep that sound pretty raw. With Torture Garden I’ve changed amps and pedals a bit for the sound because the band existed before I joined, so I accommodate their sound because they already had an idea of what they wanted. My band, Special Meat, where I write all the stuff, was something where I had to develop the sound and decide what we wanted, which is where I keep it really raw and gritty sounding.

Let’s switch over to the amp you’ve been making from scratch—I’ve never seen the inside of a partially built tube amp before. What are we looking at?

Different types of components that do different things: resistors, capacitors, all having a different function. This is the order in which they work to come all together and make the sound that you hear coming out of the amp. Basically, the power is going and you’re choosing how much each of these components is coming through. For example, when there’s a knob or a switch, you’re sending the sound down another path of resistance. This was just the board. Paul [Webb] showed me how to map out, before we put anything in. We hammered out these eyelets, following what we were going to need here, then placed all the components in, populated it, soldered them in, and now I’m at the stage of wiring, so that’s going to be the really difficult, tedious part. There’s no shortcut for it. It’s all just chipping away at it. It’s a learning experience for me. I’ve built pedals before but never an amp, which is a much bigger, more involved build. Paul really knows what the fuck he’s doing and has been generous enough to allow me to apprentice with him. I am super grateful for that information being shared with me. It really helps having someone like Paul who says, “No. Don’t do that. You don’t want to be putting that there.” It saves you the pain, many times over, of learning that thing that they already learned.

Photo by Sabrina Stone

What is the amp going to sound like when it’s done?

It’s a Marshall JCM800 build, so think Black Sabbath.

It seems you’ve been lucky in finding great teachers throughout your life and you’ve already begun paying it forward by teaching here and there.

I was really fortunate to get to teach a soldering class for Girls Rock New Orleans recently. It was ages 9 to 15 and every single student successfully stripped and tinned and prepped a cable without issue. I was definitely nervous about having small children handling soldering irons but I think it’s important for everyone to be exposed to those things. I didn’t receive encouragement in working with electronics or gear in general, growing up. I had to fight my way through. At SUNY Purchase I was one of four women in all four years of the program and now the program is more than half female, just in those few years. I’m a really, really firm believer that women have just as much aptitude to work in these areas if they’re encouraged to do it.

Last question, because it’s too cool not to ask about—you’re currently getting your pilot’s license?

I am! Flying is challenging in a really healthy way. I need to keep my mind busy—that’s probably my biggest drive to do any of this. The plane that I’m learning in and that I fly regularly, as a student, is a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Flying is basically a combination of feel and knowledge: understanding your surroundings, looking around you, and reading your instruments. I’ve doubted myself and questioned myself with a lot of technical knowledge. My instructors all say I’m too cautious but I never would have been encouraged to be a pilot. The aviation industry is [overwhelmingly] male but once again, it’s a field where, if you’re applying yourself and being taught and pushing, anyone can learn.

Photo courtesy Katie Ballou

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Top photo by Sabrina Stone

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