November 10, 1995

The Daily Northwestern

Chicago inventor crafts new designs
Musician, guitar craftsman and shrimp printing innovator, Ian Schneller refuses to rest with the status quo.
by Bret Begun

In the rear of the workshop/warehouse of Specimen Products stands a dresser that carries 20 different rusty cans of lacquer. A table with a half-carved pumpkin, an empty 40 of Old Style and wasted candles sits nearby, and across the room hangs a rack of extensive and some half-open spices.

In the corner lies Ian Schneller’s unmade bed. Separated by a thin “wall,” the bed just avoids the deluge of half-finished guitar prototypes and indefinable quantities of miscellaneous tools, hardware, and machinery that have helped Schneller make and sell about 60 guitars that defy traditional designs. Sandwiched between the bed and sink stands a discreet night table. On it, under a film of dust and next to several clumps of wax there is a Caller I.D. box.

“Yeah, it works,” Schneller says lighting a cigarette before he examines the fruits of his current experiment: a guitar with a hollowed body and banjo tuners, not 10 feet from his bed. Although the clutter might inhibit his ability to vacuum, Schneller said he can’t imagine not living with his work. “I haven’t been able to relax in someone’s living room in years,” the 33-year-old says.

Yet Schneller has found solace for the last two years in his not-so-weatherproof lab on 1728 W. Division, “feeling around for sound” and doing between 30 and 100 guitar repairs to fund research.

Schneller started Specimen Products to take marketable goods, like the guitar, and make them more entertaining. “I’m itching to find other avenues, not necessarily to improve, but to come up with variations of the same trick ponys,” he says, removing his thick-rimmed glasses.

He says responses to his unique lifestyle range from “One-man freakshow” to “Lots of luck, hope you’ll pull it off, buddy” and “You must be out of your mind.” It doesn’t phase him, though. Ian an orange plaid blazer and black jeans, he trots the length of Specimen and takes a framed print off the back wall. It’s a print on homemade paper of a snake composed of brine shrimp.

Schneller invented “artemia printing” as a way of using brine shrimp as photographic emulsions, bodies that are attracted to light. It works, more of less, on the same premise as bugs to bug lights. Before he lost interest, Schneller tried to build a boat that would travel the Great Lakes to take billboard size artemia prints but failed to find subsidizing. “Everyone thought I was joking,” Schneller says.

In honor of the futile process, he formed the renowned Chicago band Shrimp Boat, the predecessor to Falstaff formed shortly after Shrimp Boat’s demise three years ago and since has played about 75 shows.

Falstaff, named so after Verdi’s operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, is on the Specimen label, as are two Shrimp Boat albums. Schneller (“I guess I sing and play guitar, to some extent.”) and band members Mitch Straeffer (bass, piano) and Tom Jasek (drums, percussion) used their own money putting out Falstaff, their first album together.

Reaching into myriad boxes to put together a CD case, Schneller says Falstaff recorded and produced the album themselves to avoid middleman bureaucracy. Scoffing, Schneller adds that it once took two years to produce a Shrimp Boat album. “It puts everyone in a bad mood,” Schneller says about record companies. “We spent $11,000 putting this together three cents at a time. We got to finish it correctly.” (“Correctly meant making the liner notes a beer coaster.)

A friend described Falstaff as Mr. Bungle meets Primus, but they cover much more territory. The sound is a compilation of orchestral and folk elements mixed with a country twinge. Schneller, originally from Memphis, describes Falstaff as “insecure white boys twitchin’ their behinds.”

“It’s good for the student,” Schneller says of Falstaff’s musical diversity. “It gest the mind working. (There’s) never a dull moment.”

The guitars, which he has sold to bands such as Red Red Meat, The Sea and Cake and The Coctails, have appeared in video’s like Ministry’s “New World Order.” They take him one to six months to design, build and sell, and go for between $1,000 to $2,000 each.

Schneller admits his creations are not for everyone, although he said an indefinable range of people tour Specimen. At one point, a teenager enters Specimen in a t-shirt and cut-off army pants and asks Schneller if he’s ready to sell a Stratocaster in the window. He’s not. But he says he has no lingering resentment for people who come to Specimen for Stratocasters and not originals. “Most modern music acts perpetuate traditions of the Stratocaster,” Schneller says. “There are a few people who are sick of that crap.”

Schneller sees his research on improving the guitar’s sound as the next logical step toward musical individualism. His main gripe is that musicians leave their instruments alone, without trying to improve them. “If this ruse of individualism is for real, then why do so many bands want to wear the same clothes and play the same instruments,” Schneller says, nearly preaching with his legs folded on a stool.

Living in Chicago’s hipville, Wicker Park, however, has aided his business by giving Specimen’s home national scope. “It’s swell for these kids, ” he jokes. “People are pulling instruments out of attics everywhere. It’s amazing what you can come up with when you vary traditional themes.”

He motions to a few wooden guitar bodies behind him. “Hey, everybody, look,” he adds, contemplatively. “Anything’s possible.”

photos/Callie Lipkin