Theo Katzman is one-fourth of Vulfpeck, a band that utilizes their cult-like following to play tricks on the Internet, make music for nerds, and win over industry leaders with a live performance so strong they’d be willing to book you for seven nights in two intercontinental cities within a ten day time period. But there is obviously no collective Vulf without it’s individual parts. After our birdwatching adventure with keyboardist Woody Goss, we had to sit down with drummer/guitarist/singer/songwriter Theo Katzman next. It’s an exciting time in Theo’s career, with his upcoming solo record Heartbreak Hits coming out in January of 2017. Listen to the first single “Hard Work” right here.
Just a few days after their show at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, we caught up with Theo to discuss all things Vulf, Heartbreak, and everything in between. The conversation lasted nearly two hours, so we decided that it would be best to release this interview in a two-part series for all to enjoy.
With The Beautiful Game now available, Part I explores the origins of Vulfpeck and the band’s recent accomplishments, how they play a part in the life of a multi-instrumentalist from Long Island, New York, and the diversity of influences that got Theo where he is today.
Part I: Vulfpeck, Then & Now
Live For Live Music: There is something extremely special about the band Vulfpeck, and the fact that the four of you have consistently produced original music together for the last six years. Can you tell us about the moment the you, Jack, Joe, and Woody clicked and decided to become a real band?
Theo Katzman: Well, I don’t know that I know the actual moment. We did the first album [Mit Peck] basically for a friend’s senior thesis project. He was a student in the University of Michigan Music School recording program, and wanted a band to come in, so we just came in and did some of Jack’s tunes. At that point, we had all played together a lot in different configurations over the years, but we were never like a band, per se.
After that record, it was just fun. It was like, “Hey, let’s do it again!” We did another one, then I moved to New York and Jack moved to, I think, San Francisco or Berkeley or something. Then, we weren’t living in Ann Arbor together anymore, and Woody moved to Austin or something, but it was like, “Hey, let’s just go to New York,” where I had a little bit of a studio set up in my apartment, and I was like, “Let’s just do it again, let’s just do another session or whatever, but this time let’s book a show. Why not? We’ll get some friends to come out,” and we played Rockwood and people came out and helped pay for the plane ticket, and it was just something.
I know I recognized that it was a cool and fun thing, so it was like, “Let’s just do this,” you know? If we’re getting together once or twice a year and just making art, making music, we’re making a record that is mostly based on our live studio performances, so that it’s not something that is going to take a year and a half of slaving over, you know? It was like, let’s just get together.
For me, maybe Sleepify was when it sort of solidified, because it was like, “Whoa, this is a thing! Everybody’s heard about it now!” It already is what it is, but now everybody’s heard about it, so there’s an opportunity there to go perform for them, which we had never even considered doing!
The last year has totally changed the reality of Vulfpeck for us. I feel like maybe we had played 4 shows before that, or something, you know … 5, 6, and then it was like, bam, festivals, and all this stuff.
Jack really had this vision of it being an Internet thing, which, at its core, I know we all want to make sure that we keep that what it is, because it’s a part of why we don’t tour all year, because it takes time being home, and being able to work in the studio, and make all the stuff that we make, and the stuff that Jack makes takes a lot of work.
L4LM: It’s been a heck of a year for you guys, playing Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Lockn’, Fool’s Paradise, among other headlining sets across the world. You’ve had fans long before 2015 though. Were the offers coming in before, too, or was there a noticeable increase of industry interest this past year?
TK: I am not the best person to answer that. Jack would be able to give you a real, actual, specific answer, but, to my knowledge, it was when Madison House got involved that we started seeing offers for things. When somebody reaches out, that’s usually when you know you’re doing something that’s connecting. When a booking agent, or several, reach out to you, you’re like, “Oh, there’s an opportunity to book shows,” because somebody who does this for a living is now reaching out to us and saying, “Hey, this is cool, can we help you?”
Jack has all the details, I must admit, that’s Jack’s thing in bulk. He is the manager of the band, for sure. I’m tired of saying we don’t have a manager. The answer is, we do, it’s Jack Stratton. He’s an amazing manager. If he weren’t such a good musician, he’d probably be a music manager. [Laughs]
L4LM: Well, he really does have it figured it out on so many levels. He’s figured out how to minimize and maximize all at once, and it’s pretty brilliant.
TK: Yes! He’s a brilliant, brilliant guy. My friendship with him has been such a big part of my life. Not just Vulfpeck, but all the years before that, and just all the stuff I’ve learned from him and the way he thinks about the world and art and making a business, and life is cool. I’m definitely grateful to that guy.
L4LM: You say, jokingly, if he wasn’t a musician he might be a music manager. What about you? If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
TK: I would definitely be getting slammed in the restaurant business. I would be on the hero’s journey of food, and I’m not sure where I’d end up. I definitely worked a little bit in restaurants as a food runner, I was a server-ish once or twice. I worked for my friend’s catering company, learning how to prep, in college. I would have probably gone down that path, and like I said, I don’t know where I would end up. I’m not sure I’d be in the kitchen. I’m probably more a front of house guy. I like people, but I love food.
I like people, yeah, so I feel like my connection to music is through people, and that’s why I like being a singer. You’re in front and you’re connecting directly with people. I don’t know. Good question. I hadn’t thought much about it. I think the answer is something with food.
L4LM: That makes sense. As far as energy and shared experiences, it’s all relative. Both food and music are soul-satisfying.
TK: Yeah, I would be trying to bring people together, in a way, and I think I’d be doing it with food. It would have been fun to see me stumble and fall on that path. I wonder how crazy I would have gotten in a kitchen.
L4LM: True. I suppose it’s hard to imagine that your life might’ve been different since I know you’ve been surrounded by music your whole life. You grew up in Long Island with your dad being a jazz trumpet player, taking you to rehearsals and everything. Can you tell us about your early influences?
TK: Yes. Well, my dad was definitely an influence. My dad did take me to rehearsals as a little kid, but then he largely retired and was basically a full-time dad and my mom worked as a graphic designer. My dad had been a musician his whole life, and a very successful one in the studios of Los Angeles, but by the time I was 7 or 8 years old he was mostly retired.
My dad was a very big influence musically because he had all the soul and spirit of an old jazz guy, because that’s what he was! I feel like he greatly impacted my understanding of music, and the love for it was so powerful and palpable, that I learned to appreciate it that way.
My mom was a big influence on me, too, because even though she doesn’t realize it, she’s a great singer and I loved her voice. I would sing with her. She also had a great record collection. My dad only listened to jazz, classical music, and Cuban and Puerto Rican music. My mom loved all that, but she also had a great rock & roll collection, so I got into her records and that’s where I discovered The Beatles, The Band, The Rolling Stones, and stuff like that, which ended up being what really got me. Then I discovered Zeppelin, and that totally got me and made me want to play drums.
I had previously been playing clarinet in the elementary school band, and I remember being 12, and I felt like the band was slowing down. The whole ensemble was slowing down and it was aggravating me, and I was like, “Why are we slowing down,” and I remember telling my dad about it, and he was like, “Well, the drums, man! If you want to keep everything together you’ve got to play the drums!” I was like, “All right,” and I switched to drums. I got really deep into the drums.
That’s actually around the same time that I heard Soulive. A couple years later, when I was 14 or 15, my drum teacher gave me a cassette tape of one of the first Soulive albums. My drumming teacher was a guy on the New York scene and he was like, “Oh, yeah, this group is cool! Check it out!” I totally lost it. Freaked. I was just playing along with Soulive records and Zeppelin records, and The Meters, and Dave Matthews Band, Crash, every day, after school. Maybe some combination of that equals Vulfpeck for me. I don’t know!
L4LM: I have to ask. I know you also grew up attending Phish concerts, sometimes even covering their music with your high school band. What is it about that band that you were into, compared to the rest?
TK: Well, Phish was such a scene, you know? Everybody was into Phish. Again, I love people, and I wanted to see what it was all about. It was sort of like a place where we could all get together. Somehow, we were allowed to go to concerts. I could take the train into Manhattan and see concerts at a certain point, by myself, which was incredible. It was totally amazing. I had to get my own bearings with responsibility, you know, with that. At first it was just the scene. It was like, “You’ve got to check out Phish,” and then being a songwriter and a record guy, I bought a couple of the albums, and I remember really liking Billy Breathes and also Farmhouse. My high school band was playing covers, and people were into Phish, so we learned a bunch of Phish tunes. There were definitely an influence in high school.
That was another huge influence on me: my high school band. It wasn’t until I was probably 15 or 16 that I started playing with some guys in my high school. My dad being the musician that he was, people started asking us to play at their house. We were getting pretty good and my dad was like, “You’ve got to charge for this. You don’t play this much time for less than $1,000.” All of the sudden we’re making a couple hundred bucks each for gigs, like private parties. We played Claudio’s Clam Bar out on the end of Long Island, probably 8 hours, and made $500 or something. But it was cool! That kind of stuff was great. I was learning covers and trying to figure out how to read the audience. At the high school parties, people really liked Phish, but at Claudio’s Clam Bar, they wanted more of the classic rock thing. You start to learn songs, which was fun, because that’s all I did anyway, listen to songs.
That was probably my biggest influence, actually, playing with my friends in high school, now that I think about it. I wasn’t sitting at home transcribing records all day. I was playing the records all day, but I wasn’t necessarily figuring out the exact parts. I’d listen to a Zeppelin record and I’d play along with it, which I think is a great way to train, because you’re actually learning how to groove with some of the greatest musicians on record by playing along with them. So I would do that. Once I came to the gigs, it was like now I actually have to learn these songs. It’s funny, because now that I can play better than I could in high school, I’m like, “Wait, I don’t even know how to play some of these songs!” I need to get my shit together, you know?
L4LM: It’s crazy! You’re talking about playing along with these badass musicians when you were younger, and earlier this summer you were in the Bonnaroo SuperJam and got to play next to some of them in real life. You just turned 30, so that’s a lot to have accomplished in 15 years!
TK: Yeah, that’s the weird thing then, I guess. Sometimes it feels like, “Oh, you’re 30.” I thought, when I was in my 20s, “Man, you’ve got to smash it before you’re 30. Hendrix died when he was 27, ahhh!” But, actually, 30 for me is when I’m a little more aware of what I want to do and it feels like, “Oh, great! Yeah, this is great!”
L4LM: Yeah, they really are! Considering the success that you’ve had just in this year alone, what musical goals have you been able to accomplish since your high school lifetime? What are the standout moments for you? Between the late-night television, sold-out stages, and festival appearances, etc..
TK: Yeah, those things. I guess I never really thought about those specific kind of things. I think my goals were just to be always doing it, so some of the stuff has just felt like icing on the cake, you know what I mean? Some of it has felt particularly surreal. Playing on TV was surreal, and I hadn’t had that specific goal, but what came out of it was amazing. Not only did a bunch of people hear about Vulfpeck, but I also have become really good friends with most of the Colbert band, so I just love those guys now and I feel like I have these great relationships, so that’s the kind of stuff that really gets me off. Just the people.
Playing with the guys in Lettuce was definitely like a dream come true for me, because that was my scene that I was into, the New York, Soulive, Lettuce, Krasno, Deitch, all those guys. I really looked up to them as a kid. It was fun to meet them, and they’re all so cool, and I was just like, “Oh, is this happening now? Are we just on the level now?” It took me a day to adjust to that. I was like, “Krasno,” and he was like, “Hey man,” and I’m like, “Aw, geez, I love your shit, man,” and he’s like, “Yeah,” and I was like, “Oh, this is great!”
L4LM: Your relationship with Eric Krasno has come a long way, considering you performed twice at Lettuce’s inaugural festival, Fool’s Paradise, and shared multiple stages throughout the weekend, then went on to open for Lettuce at Tipitina’s, then play the Bonnaroo SuperJam together, and then the Eric Krasno Band even opened for Vulfpeck at the Central Park SummerStage.
TK: Yeah, he’s a great guy, and he was definitely an influence. I was playing drums along to the Soulive stuff so much. I was becoming a guitar player in my mind at that time. I wasn’t really playing guitar that much yet, but I really wanted to, so yeah, he was an influence. All those cats were an influence. Those are some of my standout moments. Really, just every time you get to play for people and they scream back at you in excitement and joy, and they’re really getting something out of it, that’s the goal. I’m not trying to be overly humble with that. I really mean it. I think anyone will tell you that. Playing for people and having it actually connect is not something that always happens, and I know that because I’ve been doing it for 15 years or whatever.
Everyone in Vulfpeck, we’re all pretty blown away by that. Fool’s Paradise was less than 8 months ago, right? It was 6 months ago.
L4LM: It was April 1st. [Watch their performances here.]
TK: It’s crazy for me to think about, but Fool’s Paradise was the first time that we played a festival, and didn’t know if it was going to work. I thought, “Are we going to work outdoors? There are no walls! There’s going to be nothing for this shtick to bounce off of. It’s too big of a stage. What if Jack runs in a circle? Is anybody going to get it?” I have no idea.
But, it totally came off, and then I felt the same way for Bonnaroo. I was like, “Man, is this going to work? I don’t know. Here we go,” and it totally worked. It was so crazy. Yes, definitely Bonnaroo, the big-name festivals, of course as a kid you grow up being like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to play there, you know?”
Then when you’re there, it becomes, “Okay, we’ve got to do a show now. Is this going to work?” When it works, that’s when you’re like, “Wow, this is great. We’re doing something.” Musicians will come up to me sometimes and be like, “Man, like, you guys are connecting,” and we all get it. We all know what that means. It’s unusual in some way. Even when the band gets huge, you still need to connect, and it can be difficult. Sometimes it’s the wrong slot and people are tired or they’ve been out in the sun for 48 hours, if that’s even possible.
L4LM: You guys went from playing basically no shows to five festivals this summer, which is crazy, and it takes bands years to make it there. You mentioned wondering if it’s going to work, and some questioned whether or not it did. What was your takeaway message from giving it such an extensive test run?
TK: Yeah, well, first of all, I’m glad that you perceived it as an extensive test run, because once we started getting the offers in to play, it took us a while to be like, “Well, what do we want to do,” in terms of live shows. We were like, “Well, some bands play 300 days a year.” Not that any of us wanted to do that, but I remember being like, “I don’t want to do that,” because I got super burnt out in other bands where we just tried to go on the road, and it just was too taxing. For where I’m at in my life, I really want to be writing songs and being in the studio as well as playing, so we had to come up with a plan. We did hit it pretty hard, and I’m really glad we did, for sure.
From my perspective, it was great. It was great to see that it worked, and I also think at certain festivals you really do connect with a lot of people. I was also really impressed to see how many real music fans there were at Bonnaroo, for example, and Outside Lands, and some of these bigger festivals. Because I had never been to either, I would have thought maybe they were going to be a little too corporate, or I didn’t know what the vibe was going to be like. But it was hardcore fans of all genres, it seemed. People being like, “Oh, I loved your set, man, I’m going to go see Lucius now.” It’s like, “Wow, that’s so cool! I love Lucius.” It’s pretty sweet that these fans are accepting of all these different kinds of music, and really into it, you know?
For me, doing the festivals was really fun and cool. I think, again, Jack is really the guy with the most information on everything, but I do think we’re talking about doing more of the Vulf show kind of stuff in towns we haven’t been to next year. It’s sort of the plan as of now. We definitely want to do some great club shows now, because that is a totally different scene. When we do 3 nights at Brooklyn Bowl, it’s really special, and there’s something different about a club show than a festival show. I do think at its core, we are more of a club band, but I think the festivals worked great for us.
L4LM: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. The festival run was a good opportunity for more people to explore the music of Vulfpeck in a live setting, with less touring involved for the band. Having those larger festival crowds definitely increased your demographic markets, so hitting “towns [you] haven’t been to” next year won’t be as risky. It’s obvious that Jack thought this through.
TK: Yeah, there’s a certain energy you can get when it’s your show. It’s like cheating, you know? You’re like, “Hey, I have an idea. Let’s only ask the people who love us if they want to come,” and it’s like, “Oh my God, they loved it!” It’s cheating! At a festival it’s like, “I don’t know who these people are,” maybe there’s 10 fans, maybe there’s 100, even if there’s 1,000, there are 5,000 people standing here, so you’ve really got to make something happen. I like all those challenges, but there’s nothing better than really having a whole room singing with you and really feeling like you can take them somewhere because they want to go there, you know?
L4LM: Vulfpeck, while seemingly taking over the world right now, is just a part-time thing for you. Is it difficult to split time between your songwriting while being part of Vulf, among your other projects? I know you just released “Hard Work” last week, which is awesome, and we have a full album coming out soon…
TK: It’s been a while since I’ve released my own music, so I wanted to put a single out just to give people a taste of what’s to come. I’m gonna be launching a Kickstarter in a few weeks, and then more music will follow. Vulf just drops the album, and then follows with videos, which is a great way to do it, but I…
L4LM: Well, today they released “Dean Town”…
TK: I’m so glad that this happened in the interview, and I really hope you’ll print this. I hear about every Vulf release from either Joe’s mom, my mom, somebody forwarding an email … I never know! Jack is the absolute master of the internet. People go, “Dude, I love the new thing,” and I’m like, “Oh, can I see it?” and they’re like, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
L4LM: That’s why it works.
TK: That’s why it works. Exactly. We do our thing, and he does his thing, and there are places where it’s totally collaborative, and then there’s places where it’s just Jack getting to be the genius that he is, and this is one of those places, so I’m excited to see what it is.
L4LM: It’s really great. It’s a studio video of you guys doing “Dean Town” and it’s the first studio track that has been released from The Beautiful Game, so people are kind of freaking out.
TK: Awesome! I literally haven’t seen the video. I remember the session, and it was good, so I’m sure that’s really good, but I haven’t seen it yet.
L4LM: It’s great, you are playing a lampshade. Of course, which begs the question… What can you tell us about the recording process with Vulfpeck?
TK: We’re really comfortable with each other in the studio, so it’s just getting better, you know? It’s been getting better and better, and that’s a fun feeling, to just be able to play really low volume, couple takes. There’s one song that I think we did that was so complicated lyrically, and we kept trying a new form each time. We did maybe 12 takes of it, but it was getting better each time. This band, and part of it just has to do with Jack’s leadership, I would say is very good at not letting stagnation overcome us in the studio. It’s very much like full-take mentality with the performances, so we go in with that mindset. In a way, it’s like recording takes, but we’re doing it digitally, and we have the spiritual guideline of full takes. We wonder, “Was that it, or do we need to do another one,” or, “Do we need to throw all these in the trash and start over?” It’s that attitude.
L4LM: I’m curious to know what the song writing process is for you guys. You all have your own tunes but you don’t live in the same city, so how do you know what’s going to happen when you go into the studio, and how do you choose what songs make it on the record?
TK: Good question. We set aside time to get together with the expectation that we’re going to create half the album. So, let’s say we get together for a week and we’re going to do a week of recording, and everybody knows that means come with ideas. A lot of times those will just be sent out, emailed out in advance as they get written, or if somebody has something that they’ve been thinking about for a while. And then, we send them to Jack, and then if Jack gives the “Hell yeah” then we kind of go with that. As the year approaches the time to get together to record, we just look at how many we have that feel right, that are great. If it’s like, “Okay, these are 10 great ones,” then it’s like, “Done! Let’s get together and make it!” Then everybody learns that tune. Once you’re in the studio, something might happen, change, or we might go, “Hey, what if we tried this?” For the most part, I feel like it’s pretty natural once we get into the studio.
The lyrical stuff we’ve done has been a different process. That has either been Jack writing the lyrics, giving them to Antwaun [Stanley] the day of the session, and then he, being the freak that he is, makes it into a very compelling melody. That would have been the case for “Wait for the Moment” and “1612.” Then, for “Christmas in L.A.”, we had an instrumental, and Jack was like, “I’m hearing like na-na-nana-nana-da-da-da-dee-dada-da Christmas!” and I remember being like, “Aw man, that’s just like a steady stream of 16th notes. That’s just so many words. I don’t know if I can do that. Whatever.” Then I forgot about it and it came to me one day, and I was like, “All the little children and all the big children, it’s Christmas!” Anyway, that was a collaborative thing, and then I wrote the verses for that one ahead of time. I guess they’re all a little bit different, each process, but the basic gist is that we’ll send seeds out, or full songs out, and then we’ll get together and record them. Everybody learns the thing, but Jack does curate it.
Which is good, because this project is very much about Jack being at the helm and mixing it, doing whatever weird music production stuff he wants to do, and doing the design. That’s the stuff that you see that you’re like, “Wow, this is so glued together!” That’s why, and because it’s this crew of people, of course, but definitely that was the understanding from day 1, like, “This is how the flow will be,” and that’s cool, and that makes a great thing, so let’s keep doing it.
L4LM: It seems like that kind of process, having Jack do his thing while you guys keep it musical, opens up more time for you to focus on your solo work.
TK: It does, yeah! It’s definitely part of the reason that I don’t know that things are getting released today, but not really, because even when I try to find out from Jack what’s going on, I kind of can’t. That’s why when people are like, “Hey man, can you get Jack X, Y, or Z,” I’m like, “No, I actually can’t.” I actually can’t. If anybody could, it would be me, but I can’t, so good luck.
Which is wonderful, and I mean that in the most loving way.
L4LM: Yeah, absolutely. Back to Heartbreak Hits …
To be continued!