It’s a sunny autumnal morning in Portland, Oregon. Sat in the window of Black Book Guitars, clad in his trademark black jacket and grey fedora, is Peter Holmström, lead guitarist for The Dandy Warhols and brainchild of high-flying neo-psych side-project Pete International Airport (PIA). When he’s not squirrelled away in the studio or leaving everything on the stage, this is Holmström’s hangout, a boutique vintage-guitar shop on historic Mississippi Avenue. But he’s not shopping. Here, Holmström engages in the kind of work that many of his peers would be happy to leave to their techs.
“It’s a small store so everybody does everything here,” he says, with a grin. “I prefer doing the tech stuff. It’s fun. I’m learning a lot that I should have learnt a long time ago.
“It’s a great place to do it. You don’t always learn when you start out yourself. I used to be scared to death of the truss rod. I always thought to myself, ‘You’re not going near that thing – you could screw up your guitar!’ But it’s actually common sense stuff. It’s really simple.”
From SG to SC
Speak to anyone in Portland who knows Peter and they’ll likely tell you he has a keen eye for guitars. Over the years, he’s accumulated an eclectic collection that features some rare pieces, including the 1971 Gibson SG Deluxe that was the mainstay of his touring rig until a couple of years ago; a ‘creamsicle’ 1972 Fender Thinline Telecaster modded to include a vintage Wide Range humbucker in the bridge, as well as a Bigsby; a 1960s Gibson acoustic; a black 1973 Telecaster Deluxe; a 1963 Fender Bass VI; and a Gibson EB.
From his treasure trove of beautiful guitars, however, one recent addition has quickly become a firm favourite.
“I had a guitar made by Saul Koll a while ago, which ended up being a baritone,” says Holmström. “I didn’t realise that’s what I was asking for but it’s a cool guitar and I used it a lot. I then had this idea of him replacing my main SG, which I played for 20 years, so I asked him to remake it. For some reason it was taking a while. During that time, he released the Super Cub and, when I saw it, I was like, ‘Never mind, I want one of those!’ He got it to me within a couple of months. It’s amazing. I want him to make me three more, with slightly different pickup variations, and I’ve already ordered a Bass VI version.
“I’m interested in guitars from boutique builders. I’ve picked up a bunch of them in different shops but I’ve mostly been disappointed. The exceptions being Tao Guitars from Belgium. I have one of their T-Bucket guitars and I wish I could afford the big hand-carved archtop things they do, which are works of art. I also like Harvester guitars from Melbourne. But Saul’s are by far my favourite.”
Listen to the last PIA album, Safer With The Wolves, and The Dandy Warhols’ most recent record, Why You So Crazy, and you’ll hear that Holmström’s sound is taking on a more electro-synth influence, a departure from the retro tones typically associated with the alt-rock bohemians.
This transformation was inspired by a gift from Josh Holley, co-founder of Portland-based boutique effects brand Malekko Heavy Industry Corporation. “I’d been trying, or rather wanting to try, and emulate certain synth sounds,” says Holmström. “I was interested in arpeggiators or sequencers, that kind of thing, but trying to do it with a guitar. Josh gave me an original Goatkeeper pedal and it really changed my approach to recording because with that pedal you can create beats that have notes. Everything I’ve done since, it’s on there – it’s incredible. Malekko released a new version of it, which is possibly better. It doesn’t do everything that the other one did but it does more things that the other one didn’t. I find myself grabbing that one more [than the original] these days.”
Album sales don’t make much money for musicians anymore. Today it’s the tour part of the album-release cycle that generates the most income. As a result, if you’re in a touring band that isn’t The Rolling Stones, you have to think sensibly about what gear you take on the road. For guitarists, this can mean having to sacrifice the mission-control-style pedalboard in favour of something more compact – a situation with which Holmström is painfully familiar.
“It’s a constant battle,” he says, with a sigh. “With the Dandys, there has to be something resembling a Big Muff and some form of overdrive and distortion. I need those three flavours. Then various reverbs, delays, some modulation – and there has to be a wah pedal and a volume pedal. On the last record, I use the Boss SY-300 guitar-synth pedal on Forever. We’ve been opening the set with Forever and that pedal is how I get that sound, so that has to be there as well. Although I now use it to get other sounds during the set.
“With PIA, I rely heavily on Death By Audio’s Echo Dream 2 and their reverb pedal. They do stuff that I can’t get out of other delays and reverbs. I have to have those. I use versions of Spaceman’s Titan Fuzz and its Voyager pedal on that board, they’re essential. There are certain things that for some reason I can’t emulate with other pedals. I just got the Zoia by Empress Effects and that comes close with some of the tremolo things because you can do so much with it. Essentially, it’s a synthesiser and a giant effects rack on its own.
With the release of the Dandys’ Earth To The Dandy Warhols in 2008 came a curious tradition. For that album and every one since, the band have collaborated with a Portland manufacturer to create a limited-edition pedal that emulates a sound from the LP they’ve just recorded. So far they’ve released the Mission Control with Death By Audio, the Wow Signal with Spaceman, and the Distortland with Malekko.
It was while working with Malekko on the Distortland that the idea for Holmström’s own signature pedal came about. “We reached out to Malekko to do the Distortland pedal but it didn’t end up happening right away,” he says. “I became friends with Josh, Paul and Rico, and pretty much everybody there. Becoming part of the Malekko band was really fun. Josh said to me, ‘Let’s do a signature pedal. What do you want to do?’ There was an Eventide Harmonizer patch that I really liked. It was a random-stutter. I said, ‘Let’s do a pedal that does that.’ Besides the artwork, that was my contribution – they did the rest. It was so much fun.
“It’s a little unpredictable but that’s what I wanted. I wanted the randomness. If I was to do it again, I would insist on being able to clock it in some way but it’s great, and goes on tour with me. I have to have it there.”
Clean tone problems and resolutions
As you’ve probably realised, Holmström likes gear made in Portland. Luckily for him, the city has an array of interesting manufacturers that specialise in spellbinding equipment.
One such example is Brian Sours of Soursound, who’s been repairing Holmström’s Vox AC30 amps for years, as well as building his own 150-watt power amps.
In 2018, Sours made his first 15-watt combo amp, the SS15. Holmström instantly switched out his AC30s and replaced them with two SS15s. “I’d had my AC30s modded by Brian with master volumes, because the Dandys play pretty quiet on stage,” says the lead guitarist. “My clean tone before that was awful, because I wasn’t able to turn the amps up loud enough. With the master volumes, they got better but it still wasn’t great. That’s what I wanted from Brian. He had some other people bugging him about making a smaller amp too – they were also AC30 users. I’m sure that had an impact on how the SS15 came out.
“There are aspects of the AC30s that I miss. It’s a funny one: I miss how muddy my sound was, because it was this big full thing and now it’s clear and I have to play better,” says Holmström, laughing. “The SS15s aren’t as forgiving as my AC30s but sound-wise they’re phenomenal. Unfortunately, I can’t bring them to other parts of the world. It just doesn’t make financial sense and our sound guy’s always disappointed when I end up with the AC30s.”
Time for take-off
Despite having recently come off the end of a year celebrating The Dandy Warhols’ 25th anniversary, Holmström isn’t planning on resting. “I’m well on the way with the next PIA record. I’m just wrangling singers – and then we have to make everything,” he says. “That’s when a lot of the fun happens, fitting in all the detailed stuff. But the basic tracks are probably 90 per cent done. We’ve got a couple of songs that I haven’t quite found the direction for yet. There’s going to be a bunch of Dandys things as well, which will hopefully make their way over to Europe.”