Whirlwind: An Interview with Colt Westbrook from Walrus Audio
"I mean — who doesn't have an affinity for marine mammals with tusks, right?"
These were first words out of the mouth of Colt Westbrook, primary helmsman of Walrus Audio, based in Norman, Oklahoma. I had asked him about the significance of the company name and the response caught me off guard. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“There really isn’t a logical explanation,” he continued. “It just kind of happened and then it stuck. The next thing you know, our good friend from OKC, Chris Castro, designed the logo and we never went back.”
That was back in 2011, he told me, back when a handful of talented musicians, circuit benders and artists from the more populous regions of Oklahoma came together with a goal of making intentionally designed pedals that they not only could use, but also be inspired by.
“The team has always been a group of friends — some who are local, some who live out-of-state and some who work remotely from their laptops while on tour — but it all started with circuit bending. Mixing and matching different circuits until we arrived at something that stood apart and was both functional and dynamic.”
And it’s this approach, built from a foundation of inspired innovation that’s helped Walrus Audio create some of the most sonically — and visually — appealing pedals available today.
Of course, Norman is in the heart of tornado alley.
“They come every year and it’s inevitable,” Colt says.
He calls the local TV weatherpeople "demi-gods" and says they can usually offer fair warning a few days out — but things get scary.
“We don’t all walk around in fear from April to July, but when it happens, it’s literally all we talk about.”
Everybody he knows knows someone who has lost a home — or worse — he says, and recalls the times he’s had to shut the shop down early, only to head home, crack open a few beers, watch the storm chaser feeds and wait on whatever comes next.
And yet, even with the potential for chaos lurking in every springtime storm cloud, Walrus Audio is as much a part of Oklahoma as Oklahoma is a part of it.
Perhaps it's an innate Sooner-state stubbornness that keeps the tight-knit team of circuit bending friends together. Or maybe some kind of Midwest-meets-Southwest creative energy that keeps them going — but they've got the process down pat.
“The majority of the time, our product development process is laying out different modules of a circuit onto a breadboard and then mixing and matching those modules, changing out the order placement of certain parts and then increasing or decreasing values of those parts. That’s what keeps it exciting. With analog circuitry, you just never quite know what is going to happen when you change out a part. Things that don’t even make sense on paper can turn into masterpieces and things that do make sense can sound beyond terrible.”
And once the circuits are laid out on breadboards with jumper wires running everywhere, they’re sent off to be tested in the fires of the studio.
“We send them over to let session players play with them and give us feedback. Lots of revisions, lots of tweaking and quite a few scrapped circuits that didn’t make the cut, but in the end we get pedals that we really like and use on our own rigs and studios. It’s a tiring but absolutely worthwhile process.”
But don’t expect to see a cheesy mission statement on the wall of the office lobby, reminding the Walrus team that they’re supposed to be excellent and what they do.
“I think perfection is sort of a myth, so that’s not what Walrus is trying to achieve. Our design process is somewhat experimental, somewhat intentional and occasionally accidental. I mean, not too many people get to experiment with guitar gear every day and we don’t take that for granted.”
One of the keys to their success — ability and aspiration notwithstanding — is that the Walrus crew is always asking, 'How can the pedals get better?' And 'How can we get more intentional at running a smooth and efficient business?'
“Rest assured,” Colt jokes, “I have it all figured out and we haven’t made a mistake in years.”
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Ask what makes any of their projects or the company itself unique and Colt will hit you with something like — 'Yeah, that’s a good question' or ‘We’re still trying to figure that out.’ Press him a little though and the you might get to peek under all that humility.
“Some stuff is strategic — like, 'Hey, there aren’t a lot of octave pedals, let’s make the Luminary.' And some of it is spawned from messing around — like the 385 and the Julia. Most of it really comes from listening to music. We hear certain tones and get very fixated on them. They show up in our dreams. Then we start listening to our wives recap their day and we are making eye contact with them but all we can hear is that bit crush sound from Annie Clark that you can’t get out of your head. That’s when you know you have a worthy project ahead of you.”
But the goal is still as simple as ever.
“We try and make things that our friends would use, paying respects to classic sounds but giving them modern tweakability — wherever that fits, that’s where we want to be.”
Somewhat experimental, somewhat intentional and occasionally accidental — this is the Walrus Audio way.
For more with Walrus Audio, go to walrusaudio.com
Note: Similar interviews were originally featured in Tone Report Weekly