All Aboard the Hype Train: An Interview with Matthew Hoopes from 1981 Inventions
It was 2012 and Matthew Hoopes was on tour with Relient K, the band he’d co-founded in high school 14 years prior and named after his car.
Minutes before soundcheck, his amp went out. So he scrambled and called a friend to try and get a backup, but to no avail — the friend was out of town. However, the friend knew a local who had some amps and might be able to help: Jon Ashley.
“It was pretty cool that he would lend me his amp as a favor,” Matthew says. “He came out to the show and asked if I would try his pedal. I was immediately interested, conceptually, and when I plugged it in I just loved it — a version of the Sick As hasn’t left my board since.”
Over time, the two formed a friendship. So much so, in fact, that Matthew eventually approached Jon about the idea of creating a specific drive pedal for him to use on the road, having struggled with boutique pedals in the past.
“I originally thought that it would be best to release it under his company, Bondi Effects, but he very much encouraged me to create my own brand.”
Fast forward a few years and things have changed for Hoopes. He’s not touring anymore, so finding the right balance in life is a new challenge.
"Launching this company was one of the most unexpected and exciting things I have ever done."
Of course, this company is 1981 Inventions — an homage to the year he was born and, he notes, a nod to the beginning of the era of guitar effects.
“An early 1981 Tube Screamer was initially very inspiring in my obsession with slightly vintage gear. I started collecting BOSS pedals and anything odd that I could get my hands on," he says. "I just think about the types of things that were coming out at this time — basically the dawn of overdrive and distortion — and many of the circuits from that era hold up to today’s standards. And while pedals now can do more, I think there is something to the simplicity of a vintage pedal.”
And it was with that straightforward approach that Matthew and Jon set off toward making what would become 1981’s flagship pedal, the DRV.
“We worked on and off for about two years, between my touring and Jon building a ton of Sick As pedals — but ultimately we felt like we didn’t come up with anything good enough during that time,” Matthew says. “When Jon decided to move to Australia, we put the project on hold. Sometime later, I picked up a vintage Whiteface RAT and did everything I could to try to find the magic in it. I tried to recreate it and felt like my efforts were good, but not great.”
After continued tweaking, Matthew “finished” his RAT design, but felt it suffered from the same limitations as the original circuit — that it only sounded great at very specific settings. Consultation with Jon resulted in a novel solution: rather than recreate, reinvent. Start over. And do it better.
“I am quick to point out that Jon is mostly responsible for how good the DRV sounds — and how well designed it is,” Matthew says. “He has one of the best and most articulate sets of ears that I have ever known. He also has such a commitment to excellence and the bigger picture — which is inspiring — and has not only helped shape my approach, but has added to it immeasurably. He helped me in every way — taught me and encouraged me and challenged me to push through when things got difficult. Early on it felt so tough to keep things clean and consistent — I honestly had a lot of anxiety about it. But as I put in more and more time, things started coming together.”
The process of transitioning from a tinkerer to a full-fledged brand was slow, however.
“I have always loved tweaking and tinkering with pedals, but production is a different thing altogether,” he says. “I started working in a makeshift shop area in our basement living space, then took over all of that space and moved to the garage. I have since moved to a shop outside my house, but it is a difficult thing to balance life, and work, and everything else. The manual labor side of things was quite a life switch for me — and I am so thankful for it. I love every single part of building pedals and most days, I just wish that I had more time in the day.”
But for however challenging the process of building the business may have been, success came much more quickly.
“Having made the pedal for myself, I was hoping that maybe a few other people would find it useful or desirable, and that maybe a few fans of our band’s earlier work would buy one,” he says. ”I had started an email signup and had been documenting my progress on Instagram for almost 2 years before I finally released a pedal — so I knew that at least a few people would be interested to see where it all landed. But I didn’t expect anything like what happened.”
After building everything by hand — two or three at a time — Matthew officially launched the DRV with 200 pedals, a painstakingly impossible task, he felt, having vastly underestimated the time each one would take. The day he finished the last one, he worked late into the night to even get a website up and running.
When he got up the next morning, all the pedals had sold.
“It felt like, in some ways, I was validated for all the hard work and over-thinking that I had put in,” he says with a laugh. “Seriously, even small details like the shade of grey and the knobs, to each resistor and part — it felt exhausting, but also energetic in a way. I think there is a subtle energy underneath all of this, just in the way that I love doing this, and I think that comes across. It’s like, you can read all the marketing strategies, but you can’t fake passion and meaning and energy.”
But, you know — the internet is fickle.
“I was very aware of the skeptics,” Matthew says, “so I tried to brace myself for the obvious fact that some people are going to hate what I do.”
Even though he had read the online chatter and attempted to prepare himself, Matthew admits that separating himself from the criticism was more difficult than he expected.
“I totally understand that all gear is not for all people, but I think because I put so much of myself into doing this and into my approach overall that it bothered me when someone would choose to go out of their way to talk negatively about something they only had a perception of. It got to me a bit early on, but it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. I read a really encouraging book about how not only is everything not for everyone, but that there is actually value in someone saying that something isn’t their style, is too expensive, too hype or whatever. I feel encouraged by that thought.”
Today, Matthew sees himself as a “regular guy” who was fortunate enough to tour with a band he started for nearly two decades, who moved from Ohio to Tennessee about 15 years ago and who started a company that says ‘I really love this and care about this industry.’
And he’s looking forward to whatever lies ahead.
“I have two pedals in development right now and I’m really excited about where to go next,” he says. “I know I run the risk of people falling off the hype train — but it’s just gonna happen when it does. It sort of proves that hype isn’t the most important thing to me. I understand that it’s possible for anything else I release to have a different cultural arc than the DRV, but my plan is to try to follow the excitement that I have about pedals and to see where that leads.”