On a dark, secluded corner of Gravois Park, near the hipster hustle of Cherokee and Jefferson, Mills Custom Music Company is generating some noise. A lot of it, apparently, as evidenced by the rows of handmade bass and guitar amplifiers lining the walls of the tiny, chaotic shop.
"We didn't set out to start a company," insists co-owner Jared Scheurer. "We set out to create an amplifier."
Scheurer is tall and lanky, with large ear gauges and an easy demeanor. Sure, he's eager to talk about his company, but you get the sense he would happily sit down and chat with just about anyone. He's excited to share some of the hard work that he and his business partners, Justin Mills and Lexy Baron, have been doing the past year. In keeping, he's become the official mouthpiece for Mills Custom, as well as his metal band Staghorn and a side business, Leave Your Mark Print Shop.
It's a lot to focus on simultaneously, but the group has found a remarkable stride. "We work nonstop all day 'til late at night, sometimes until 4 a.m.," Baron says.
Last spring, the Florida natives loaded up a caravan of U-Hauls and headed for greener pastures in St. Louis. Mills calls the move one of the greatest decisions he's ever made.
"I thought it was a good idea to move the company to the Midwest," he says. "We do a lot of local business, but a majority of our sales are nationwide. And I like the aesthetics of this city. We went to a couple of local shows and thought there was a really great music scene, great weather. I fell in love with it in a week."
Scheurer and Baron are quick to agree. "We call it home now," Baron says.
The decision to move was validated when the trio was almost immediately invited to participate in the first Tritone Expo, a locally based family-friendly music showcase now in its second year. The event is primarily for gear-heads and recording aficionados, but it's open to anyone with an interest in high-quality musical equipment.
Last year, the trio earned so much positive feedback for its amplifiers that the company was invited to come back to this year's expo. "I went hoarse by the end of the day, just talking to everyone," Scheuer reminisces.
Mills looks back on the experience with astonishment. "The look of our stuff kind of stands out. We had these huge rigs with completely poplar sides — it was very eye-catching," he says.
At this year's expo, to be held on April 2 and 3 at the @4240 building on the Cortex Innovation Community campus, Mills Custom will show off even more guitar and bass amplifiers and amp heads, letting musicians from across the region hear the difference for themselves.
As the bootstrapped operation has been running at full steam, the music community has been showing love every step of the way.
"We've been backlining shows with our amplifiers lately," Scheurer says. "We backlined for An Under Cover Weekend at Firebird, the Foxing record release and Bruiser Queen's '12 Bassists of Christmas' show," he says. Even up-and-coming Atlanta rockers O'Brother use the custom gear.
Mills Custom prides itself on being a 100 percent local business, practicing sustainability models rarely found in competing companies in similar markets. "We use real saddle leather for the handles so we're not sourcing a synthetic product or something made in China," Scheurer explains. The cabinets are fashioned from locally sourced hardwoods, and all three partners take turns at woodworking and overall design. For some of the company's signature collections, Sump Coffee donated burlap coffee sacks, which Mills Custom uses for the tolex covers on the speakers. The effect is one of rustic allure and striking uniqueness.
"We did a lot of experimentation before coming up with what we have now," Baron says, "We had some really cool designs in the beginning — we were just trying to do something different from everyone else. And we still are."
Asked what it would take to really stand out from the crowd, Mills comes to life. "A lot of amps are the exact same designs they've been selling for 50 years," he laments. "It's expensive to do R&D, but even boutique companies do the same thing. They're just trying to sell you the same amplifier in a prettier enclosure. And I refuse to do that. Everything I make is original design from the ground up."
An audio engineer by trade, Mills is the mad genius behind the integral sound quality. His depth of knowledge seems unparalleled, but even he admits it's a labor of love.
"We use vacuum tubes, but inside is a lot of modern technology that makes those tubes sound bigger, louder, better," he explains. "From the transformers that we use to the smaller components inside, we really try to push the envelope on what modern technology can do to improve a vacuum tube's functionality. There's not a lot of companies that are trying that approach. I'm not saying they make a bad product, but it's just that everything is starting to sound the same. I want to offer a different avenue, and I think that's really what the next step is — more options, not less or more of the same."
"We need more inventors in this space," Scheurer adds, "rather than clones."