The workshop of Paradox Effects looks a lot like what you might picture when you imagine “Tijuana do-it-yourself boutique guitar pedals.” The low-ceiling warehouse overlooks TJ’s affluent Hipódromo neighborhood from the lower-class residential hillside of Empleado Postal. Inside, a beat-up truck is parked next to a few couches gathered around a TV and video-game console, where Efren, Fernando, and Rogelio relax amid preparing an order for National City’s Pitbull Audio. A Frankenstein contraption built from a streetlight hood, a broken heater, old speakers, and ribbed vacuum hoses stares from the concrete floor.
“That’s our robot,” says Fernando Servin, Paradox’s visual artist. He shows me to the next room, a small chamber with bits of printed circuit board and soldering irons strewn about a table and demonstrates with a bass guitar how the robot will light up with LEDs in real-time at his band’s (Sociedad Secreta Del Vacío) album-release show in a few days. Beyond that is another closet where pedal boxes get powder-coated and silkscreened.
Next door is the practice space, where circuit designer Efren Castro is building a custom amp cabinet out of refurbished components. Efren and fellow electrical engineer Rogelio Gutiérrez (circuit finalizer Daniel Zamudio isn’t in shop today) also like to build arcade-game cabinets and are experimenting with an effects console that takes interchangeable cartridges inspired by old Nintendo games. It’s just what you’d expect from a handful of punk artists and engineers who insist on doing things their way in a city that has historically had the bulk of its manufacturing dictated by foreign corporations.
Childhood friends Fernando and Efren teamed up with Rogelio and Daniel as students at the nearby Universidad Autónoma de Baja California and formed Paradox Effects in fall of 2013. Circuits are designed at Paradox headquarters and then sent to be printed by batch manufacturers OSH Park near Portland, Oregon. Paradox Effects have since ended up in the hands of Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, producer Steve Levine (the Clash, Beach Boys, Motörhead), and international bands playing everything from powerviolence to shoegaze to psych rock.
Efren: “We feel like the creative process is more important than technical knowledge. It’s not important that Rogelio and I are electrical engineers and Fernando is a visual artist. It’s about the common purpose of creating something. For me, it was kind of strange because I was learning electronics in school and at the same time trying to build a fuzz pedal. It’s two different worlds. They tell you that these classes are for a certain purpose because it’s Tijuana, and Tijuana is a maquila [large manufacturing plant] town. All the study plans are focused on that.”
Fernando: “As with anywhere, they are focused on the jobs that are available. Tijuana and Mexico in general don’t have jobs in designing effects or amplifiers.”
Efren: “We felt about four years ago that Mexico was really slow with pedal effects, or at least in TJ. In the United States, the boutique effects industry is really big. It has a lot of culture. So you can have friends who have a company and you can talk to them. There is a community. They hang out together. In TJ, I was lost. Like, who makes these? Early on, people said, ‘You can’t make effects pedals here.’”
Fernando: “I think it’s the notion among people here in Mexico that you can’t build an electronic without it coming from a maquila. You need a whole corporation to do it. It’s a weird concept that people can build electronics without that. So even teachers at school said, ‘All right, sure.’ They didn’t think it was possible.”
Since then, many more boutique companies have sprouted up around Mexico and friends in Tijuana have begun making their own pedals, but the Paradox dudes hesitate to call it a community when held next to pioneers such as Death by Audio, a now-defunct Brooklyn collective that operated as an underground venue, pedal-maker, and artist warehouse.
Efren: “We’re working on it. It’s kind of ironic, but I’m now giving classes and seminars at the university. It’s popping out more and more kids with an interest in doing electronics in music. I was talking to some guys the other day who were working on keyboards and MIDI controllers, so it’s not only pedals. It’s a whole world of electronics and hardware that is starting to develop in TJ.”