Emanual Ellinas is what you might call an Avondale guy these days: young, counterculture-friendly, and DIY-minded. Two of his three businesses – music studio Magnetic Audio and guitar pedal company Sitori Sonics – have been based out of the neighborhood for three years, while his newest venture, retail store Feedback Music, just turned three weeks old.
An Atlanta native, Ellinas moved to Birmingham because it was where his wife’s family lived, then worked at Highland Music for several years. Soon to reach the end of his first decade in the Magic City, Ellinas said with a laugh, “now I’m kind of…embedded, you know?” As for Avondale, “it’s the coolest place for the kind of thing we do.”
Ellinas made his name with Sitori Sonics, where he’s proven to be something of a prodigy when it comes to designing guitar pedals. His approach to his craft is typically low-key, but enthusiastic: “Everybody tweaks the circuits how they like to hear it, and really, there’s only so many ways of making the electrons jump through the hoops. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants in terms of being pedal makers. All the basic circuits are out there, so at this point, we’re just making really badass ones.”
His take on pedal-making has won him some very noteworthy fans. In addition to being Ellinas’ favorite guitarist working today, Annie Clark – better known by her nom de plume St. Vincent – is a satisfied customer; so are Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, known for their intricate sonic textures; so are Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, perhaps the most influential indie rock band in history.
They certainly influenced Ellinas, who has a Sonic Youth poster taking up prime real estate on one of his walls. “I’ve been listening to Sonic Youth since I was like, fourteen or something,” he said. “When they started using my stuff, it was a thing. … It’s pretty cool knowing that the stuff I’m making is inspiring the people who inspired me in the first place.”
Though Feedback Music has done surprisingly good business – “It’s not just my loser friends,” Ellinas joked – Sitori Sonics provides enough income to pay for the space’s modest overhead. This financial flexibility didn’t just happen by accident; it’s part of a strategy not unlike the “jamming econo” ethos of thrift that characterized the Minutemen, the legendary California punk outfit.
“The point of this place,” Ellinas said, “is to make it cheap enough to where it can actually be seen as a resource, as opposed to just a store. It’s about as DIY as a retail outlet can get. … Obviously, I want to make money and support my family, but it’s not like I have to talk someone into buying something to keep the place open.”
This ties into one of Ellinas’ central visions for Feedback Music: being a neighborhood music store. “It’s not some kind of community service,” he was careful to note, but he wants Feedback to be an asset to young, cash-strapped Birmingham musicians. “There’s definitely a need for a store where you can get and learn about gear, where you can get honest advice. It’s almost like having a guitar teacher—someone’s gotta teach you about gear, or you’ll make bad mistakes and buy crappy stuff and not know when it’s working right.”
“People need to be able to go and get gear, know what they’re getting, and have it be affordable,” he continued. “I would way rather be able to connect a person with the exact thing they need than make an extra fifty bucks selling this other thing I might have. Maybe in the short run you make a couple more bucks, but in the long run you lose a kid. I would rather help them find exactly what they need – the cheapest one I’ve got – the cheapest way to sound great.”
Having clearly had plenty of experience in their shoes, Ellinas sympathized with the young musicians who are routinely taken advantage of by bigger music stores and pawn shops. “Instead of taking it where they’re gonna try and beat you down, I just want to put it on consignment and get a decent deal,” he said. “It’s a way for kids to learn about the business end of it.” Sometimes, even jamming econo takes a little bit of guidance – guidance Ellinas is happy to provide.
“It’s one more thing that makes Birmingham a little cooler,” Ellinas says of his work. “There’s so much cool stuff here; there’s a lot more musicians around the country that know about Birmingham now than five or ten years ago.”
And in its own subtle, meaningful way, Birmingham has grown on Ellinas, to the point where contributing to its renaissance would make him proud. “The Atlanta I grew up in is long gone,” he said with wistful finality, “but this reminds me of Atlanta back then. It’s definitely my home now. I can’t think of anywhere else I would move. I never thought in a million years I’d move to Birmingham, but I love it. My kid’s from here, you know what I mean?”
It doesn’t matter if Birmingham’s apparent rebirth is genuine or not. Whether you look at the shop as a guitar and pedal store or as a community resource, Feedback Music is making the Magic City just a little bit cooler place to live.
Feedback Music is located at 408 41st Street S. For more information on the store, contact Emanual Ellinas at (205) 440-1838.