When George Floyd was murdered by a police officer on May 25, 2020, large swathes of the country who had never really been engaged in social justice before activated, and things changed.
But while your neighbor was busy putting black squares on their Instagram, Kaden Valdivieso had a different idea for how he could contribute. He’d been building guitar effects pedals as a hobby for his friends, family, and the occasional customer out of his Salem, Massachusetts spare bedroom already, but what if he took things to the next level as a way to donate money to the causes he wanted to support in fighting social injustice?
While he’d technically been using the name “Black Mass Electronics” for his hobbyist pedal-building already, it wasn’t until that moment when the boutique company now used by artists around the world truly began. Valdivieso launched the 1312 (the numeric equivalent of “ACAB”) — a guitar pedal based on the classic RAT distortion and complete with the image of a flipped and burning police car on the front of it — and everything exploded from there.
“I had one prototype board that I had just ordered, where I was going to try to do an 8-moded RAT, which is what the 1312 is,” Valdivieso tells SPIN on a Zoom call from his basement workshop. “I was just like ‘Oh, I have a board that works. I’ve built it. I’ve confirmed it. I’m going to put them out to my 350 followers or whatever, and if anybody wants one, they can buy it. I came up with the artwork and came up with the name, and I was going to donate all of the money from them. I had planned to do a max of 10… And they just kind of took off. I was building them full-time outside of my job. I would work all day, and then any free time I had just went into building 1312s.”
Valdivieso estimates he sold a couple of hundred 1312s in 2020, which was roughly the maximum he could handle without turning Black Mass Electronics into a full-time endeavor. Then things bumped up yet again as word got out, and he received another 200-ish orders in January and February 2021 alone. Despite having gone to school for graphic design/digital media and having primarily worked desk jobs in tech, insurance, and various other unrelated fields, Valdivieso realized that his future was in pedals, so he quit his day job to focus on them just to meet the increased demand.
Once he caught up on 1312 production, Valdivieso began expanding Black Mass Electronics’ offerings. These days, the company offers four different distortion pedals (the 1312 alongside three varieties of fuzz pedals), each with its own unique tones, modifications, and artwork you won’t see on anything at Guitar Center. For instance, The First Herald is based on the founder’s dad’s 1973 Ram’s Head Big Muff guitar pedal and features an almost Frank Miller-like design born out of a photo that Valdivieso’s fiancée of one of the headstones in a Salem cemetery. Of course, as he’s learned the ins and outs of pedal-building as a business, there’ve also been some revisions to fan-favorite products — hence why the 1312 is now on its third version (still with a burning cop car) and the Missionary Fuzz is on its second.
“The 1312 would probably have better artwork if I had taken more time with it, but I wanted to get it out fast,” Valdivieso says. “And now there’s a guiltiness about changing it, because people love it. I don’t really want to mess with that, because it makes people happy. So I’ve just left it, but I think the other [pedals’ artwork] is really cool because it’s very different from how I would typically work, artistically. I’ve always done very clean, very simple, minimalistic designs, but with the name being Black Mass, I think there’s a certain level of aggression coming out of me and into the products. There’s a lot of crap going on in the world. There’s a lot of things going on in my personal life. So making things that are dark and grungy or whatever has felt really good. I’m feeling grungy right now, so I like things that look a little dirty and sound a little dirty. It brings a little extra to it. I’m not a big fan of pedals like the ones I’d see growing up that were just a one-color box with the name of the pedal on it.”
In addition to getting out his own rage while making some of the meanest-sounding guitar pedals on the market, Valdivieso has also seen a bit of a community form around Black Mass Electronics over the past few years. He went from struggling to sell 20 pedals (the smallest number of enclosures he could order) in all of 2019 to now raising over $50,000 for leftist organizations with the 1312. But perhaps even more importantly, his most popular product also serves as a conversation starter and measuring stick for who should be part of the Black Mass family. If you’re not comfortable with flaming police cruisers, you should probably find yourself another effects pedal brand. Or as the webpage for the 1312 states in bold letters “Black Lives Matter. Trans Rights are Human Rights. If you disagree, our pedals are not for you.”
“For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m finally doing something that I’m proud of,” Valdivieso says. “I get some weird looks when I tell family members that my job is building pedals in the basement, but there’s a lot of joy that comes with it. I love talking to people in the community about it. The 1312 is great, because it is most people’s first experience with Black Mass. They see the 1312, and it does a great job of filtering out people who don’t necessarily share my beliefs — which has done an amazing job of helping me build a community of like-minded, kind and empathetic people. A lot of people tell me that they “appreciate feeling like I care,” which I do! I just want people to have happy and healthy lives. I’ve made so many friends just from constantly talking to people within our community all day on Instagram and Twitter. I feel like it’s a big group hug all the time.”
Since the George Floyd protests, Valdivieso has seen his sales grow exponentially and his online community grow tenfold. He’s got dozens of fellow pedal-builders who he considers friends (many of whom exchange tips, tricks, and information via Discord), and feels a sense of pride every time an artist sends him a track or album featuring one of his products. Hell, there’s even a subsect of Black Mass fans who just like the artwork so much that they’re walking around wearing 1312 pins and hoodies or giving away pedals as gifts just to support the cause. Despite its modest boutique size, it’s the kind of devoted following and connection with his customer base that plenty of larger brands would love to have — and it all stems from the punk rock mentality of a kid who learned to build pedals from YouTube videos so he didn’t have to risk breaking his dad’s $1000 relic.
“I’ll do everything I can to make sure that you’re satisfied with your pedal,” Valdivieso says. “My pedals have a lifetime warranty, and the lifetime warranty is my lifetime. If I’m alive, I’ll fix it. If it says Black Mass on it — or at some other time in history, it ever said Black Mass on it — I’ll fix it. I’m just trying to provide a reasonable service to people and take care of musicians and the DIY community. I try to provide something of value and service from beginning to end, whether it’s the design, the product, or donating to charity.
“I spent my whole youth involved in punk rock and skateboarding and getting into trouble at shows with my friends, and I feel lucky that I’ve been able to turn that into something that’s a realistic venture — even though it’s just me in my basement building pedals,” Valdivieso continues. “It’s not Amazon. It’s not a big factory. It’s me. I tried to bring all of that DIY ethos and participation in your community stuff into what is, essentially, a business. I don’t like to think of it that way, because I don’t make that much money — just barely enough to pay the bills, usually. But there are a lot of people who take advantage of others in the pedal world, and I don’t want to be part of that. I just like to help people and give them good value.”