Earlier this month, we sat down with Theo Katzman, the drummer, guitarist, and vocalist of Vulfpeck. The conversation lasted two hours and varied from all things music, food, and inspiration. We ran the first portion of the interview, Then & Now: Theo Katzman Discusses What It Means To Be Vulfpeck, and saved the rest for now.
On Friday, Theo launched a Kickstarter campaign to support his upcoming solo record Heartbreak Hits, coming out in January of 2017. Listen to the first single “Hard Work” right here.
Before Vulfpeck, Theo already had his life well on the track of a performing artist. A graduate of the University of Michigan’s Jazz & Contemplative Studies programs, Katzman released his debut solo album Romance Without Finance in 2011 between playing in dance-punk band My Dear Disco and touring as Darren Criss’s opening act, drummer, and musical director on his Listen Up! Tour. With Vulfpeck’s fame taking a gigantic leap forward over the last year, Theo is ready to introduce his new solo album Heartbreak Hits in January 2017.
The second part of Theo’s interview with Live For Live Music focuses on the inspirations behind this album and what we can expect from it musically. Ahead of his tour with frequent Vulf-collaborator Joey Dosik, it’s the perfect time to get to know Theo’s music if you haven’t already. Catch them if you can!
Picking back up from where we left off….
Live For Live Music: Will we recognize any of the contributors, instrumentally, on Heartbreak Hits?
Theo Katzman: Yes, you definitely will. Joe Dart on the Fender bass. Joe plays on every track. It’s mixed quite differently than a Vulfpeck album. In Vulfpeck, Joe is sort of like the lead singer, in a way. The bass is mixed to be very forward, and it’s a stylistic thing. It’s funk music, so that’s a big part of the sound. Heartbreak Hits is a collection of songs with lyrics, and I guess you could say it’s a singer-songwriter thing, although I don’t love turning the term singer-songwriter into a genre, because really singer-songwriter just means that the artist is singing his or her own original songs, like Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, but we would categorize them all pretty differently in terms of musical genre. Woody Goss plays all the acoustic piano on the album, so any time you hear a piano, it’s Woody. It’s cool, because this is Woody playing very differently than he does with Vulf. Woody is one of the most emotive, beautiful pianists around, and you get to hear some of that on this album. He also plays one song on Wurlitzer.
My friend Lee Pardini, who plays keyboards in the band Dawes, plays all the other Wurlitzer on the record. He’s on 5 of the tracks. Woody and Lee are my two favorite keys players (tied with Joey Dosik). Those are probably the only people you’d recognize, I think, if you’re a Vulf fan, but then there’s Mike G and Laura Mace, who are among my favorite singers in L.A. They sing most of the background vocals on the album. My friend Brett Farkas plays on one track. He’s an amazing guitar player. Drew Howard, who is a legend in my mind, and in Michigan’s mind, plays pedal steel on three of the tracks.
It’s a different thing, my solo project. In a way, I never expected Vulf to take off, with all the effort I was putting elsewhere, but I’m really glad it did. I was sort of focused on being this other guy, a singer-songwriter and a writer-producer, and I just did the Vulf thing for fun. It’s not surprising that because it was just for fun, it ended up actually being fun, and really catching on and becoming something great.
I’ve definitely learned that you have to make sure that whatever you’re doing, you’re having fun with it. The funny part is, there’s not necessarily any stylistic similarities from Vulf to my solo music. It’s not a sure bet that Vulf fans will like my songs, truly. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s honest, highly cared-for music, so I think there will be a good amount of crossover because I think Vulf fans are fans of music, but my record is definitely not a funk record. There are definitely funky moments, but it’s more about the songs and the lyrics as the main focus, to me anyway. There’s also some pretty rock stuff that almost has a Weezer energy. Then there’s some stuff that comes from more of a Paul McCartney or Nick Lowe place. I got heavy into Nick Lowe while writing this album. There’s also one that’s basically a country song.
L4LM: It must be satisfying for you, as someone who has been surrounded by so much music in your life, to have these multiple outlets of creative expression.
TK: Yeah, it really is. In a way it was unexpected, but in another way it makes total sense, because I’ve always been involved with multiple projects at once. I was really compelled to make music with Jack, Joe, and Woody in this certain way that just felt fresh and wild and different for me, so it was like, “Let’s keep doing this!” I was definitely a big advocate of that. Once we were post geographic, and we were living in different parts of the country, I was definitely a voice of, “Let’s get together, let’s just do it! What is it, a plane ticket? Let’s do it!” None of us had money, but we were trying to make it happen. It’s been great to have that outlet. The only part that is unexpected about Vulf in my life is that none of us had planned in on it getting as big as it’s gotten. I guess I would have thought it was too weird, you know?
Once we started to see that it was catching on, the thinking was, “Well, I guess we’ll just keep being weird,” and the weirder we get, the more people seem to like us, so it’s awesome!
L4LM: I think that’s why the jam scene likes you.
TK: It’s been a lesson to just do your thing. Do your thing because it’s rewarding to do your thing, and because you get better at it, and whoever likes it is going to love it. Whoever doesn’t like it wasn’t going to like it anyway, so who cares? Whoever likes it is really IN, because they can see how much of a risk you took by just doing it the way you wanted to do it. I think that’s bold, and that’s what you want at the end of the day. It’s like, “Dammit, do your thing. The end.” Whoever is in is IN, man. Whoever isn’t, isn’t. That’s all. It’s liberating to realize that.
I’m sure there are casual Vulf fans, but I just mean the core fan base of Vulfpeck is really committed. They’re really into it, and it’s really inspiring. I was just like, “Wow.” To me, it was so exciting that it was so weird and different, but I’m weird and different, so it works. Also, we’re all song writers, so even though there are elements of it that are left of center, the intention is definitely great composition and hooks, and all the elements of great pop record making are definitely what we go for.
L4LM: Totally. Speaking of doing your thing, would you say that you prefer writing your own music over your other various projects?
TK: The thing about my project is that it’ll always be me. It’s not that it’s always going to be the same. It will change, but that’s just my personal outlet as an artist, so I guess those are tied, if that makes sense. Vulfpeck has definitely been the best [non-solo project]. When I was trying to break into the music industry as a songwriter, I released my first record, Romance Without Finance and a few people reached out to me in the music industry saying, “Hey man, this is really good, would you ever want to write for other people?”
And I thought, “that sounds cool, I’m gonna go for that.” I was fully ready to write for other artists, thinking, “Yeah man, this is me. This is my thing!” Knowing what I know now about the music industry, I totally understand why the opportunities that came to me were, “Hey, you’re talented, you produce records, you can play four instruments, and you can write and sing. Maybe you’re a record producer. Maybe you should get into the room with people in Hollywood and try to write some hits.” I thought, “Oh, okay, yeah, yeah, I’ll do that.”
I went in for a couple years doing that and I’m glad I did, because I learned a lot, and I also learned a lot about what I don’t want to do, and it’s that! I don’t want to do that. I was largely unsuccessful in terms of a lot of what I wrote or co-wrote. Most of it never saw the light of day, but it kept getting better, and it still wasn’t seeing the light of day. I just thought, “Man, this is such a tough game to crack into.” I got disillusioned with it. I started to feel like, “it doesn’t even matter how good the song is, I can’t get it across the finish line within the label system.” I couldn’t figure it out.
Ultimately, it was draining me, so I quit doing it. But I got better as a songwriter, and I started to really understand what I wanted actually to do with my time out here on the planet. During that whole process, the Vulf thing started catching on, so kind of right when I decided “I can’t do the Hollywood writing thing anymore, I’m done with it,” that was exactly when Jack called and said, “Man, Vulf is happening,” and I was like, “Wow! All right. Great!”
That’s the irony of it. It’s the thing that was the most carefree and fun, and it’s also been the most successful. When people ask me about how to do it in the music business now, I’m just say, “I think you should just do what’s really kicking ass for you on a personal level that feels rewarding, and just take a bet on that,” you know? Go IN on that and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but I feel like the chances of it working are better, actually, than trying to crack into the corporate system. That advice is not for everyone, perhaps, but that’s been my experience.
L4LM: That makes a lot of sense on a universal level… To surrender to your own flow, as you will, and to always put your best foot forward, be the best version of yourself, with the certainty that everything happens as it’s supposed to so long as you stay true to your own being.
TK: Yeah, exactly. I was living in New York at the time and I was flying out to L.A. monthly, sometimes twice a month. I put a ton of effort into trying to be a writer-producer for hire, like a guy who was going to write pop records, like a Dr. Luke type, or something. I ran myself ragged. I was absolutely not my best self by the end of it. I had to go through that, and I’m really proud of that time now because I learned a lot and I also have 10 new songs! Some of the songs on the record are about me losing my mind in Hollywood, which was a great thing to write about.
L4LM: I know that Brooklyn influenced your first album, Romance Without Finance. Does this mean that Hollywood and your move to L.A. inspired Heartbreak Hits?
TK: Well, it was inspired by a couple things. I haven’t really figured out how to talk about all this in an elegant way, so I’ll just talk about it in an honest way.
In 2013, I did this tour with Darren Criss. He was one of the actors that starred on Glee, and also a college friend of mine. I had been working on this record with him for a long time, and eventually we were going to do this big tour and I was the opening act, so I did 17 shows with him. They were all sold out. It was all in 1,500 to 3,000 capacity rooms. Screaming fans, amazing fun. I was playing drums in his band and I was opening as Theo Katzman, and my band was Jack Stratton on drums, Joe Dart on bass, Tomek Miernowski on guitar, and Tyler Duncan on keyboards. Tyler records the Vulf stuff, by the way. He does engineering for us, and he also produced my record. Woody was not in the band for Darren, but it was basically Vulfpeck, plus our friend Tomek.
We did this huge tour at the end of 2013. My career is going up, and up, and up. They’re talking about the record I had written with Darren, and it’s got all these songs on it that are going to come out. I’d co-written a bunch of songs, I’m going to have this huge hit record, we sold out 17 shows, super on top of the world, then my dad died.
He was an older guy. He was 85 years old at the time, but he had always been in great health, so it was a shock in a way. Even if it’s inevitable, I don’t think you’re ever prepared to lose somebody you love. It was intense. I got back from the tour and I got this phone call, and my mom’s like, “Dad’s in the hospital,” and I got on a plane the next day and went out there. Luckily, I got to be with him for the last three weeks of his life, but it was really intense.
So I lost my dad, and at the same time I had a romantic relationship of four years come to an end, and then I found out that the Darren record wasn’t coming out, and then I had to move out of New York. It was just this insane shit storm of circumstance that happened within two months time. Everything just turned completely around from where it had been, and it threw me off my horse.
I moved back to Michigan, I crashed on my buddy’s floor for eight months, rent-free (thank you). During that time we made a Vulf album in Michigan. It’s the one with “Christmas in L.A.” instrumental on it, and it’s before Thrill of the Arts, and I can’t remember what it’s called! What is it called?
L4LM: Fugue State.
TK: Yes. I basically stopped writing, I quit everything, kind of. I just needed to get my head together because I was having such a hard time emotionally, and I became pretty afraid to do my thing, actually, and it was bizarre. I had never experienced anything like that, but it was kind of just this grief overload, going through the breakup, the death, and the moving, and the loss of my identity as the hit writer and producer that I had put so much pressure on myself to be.
I eventually moved to L.A., and I was like, “I’m just going to go for it. I’m moving to L.A., but it’s not for the same reasons I once thought I had to live in L.A. I don’t want to be a writer-producer anymore, I just want to be an artist. I’ve got some great homies in L.A., the weather’s nice, Jack’s out there, we always have a great time, Vulf is doing some stuff.” At that point Vulf wasn’t totally popping off yet, but there was momentum there, so I was like, “I’m going out to L.A.”
I had really put my own project on the back burner because I had thought that I wanted to be a writer-producer, and then I got out to L.A. and I got a sublet, and 2 dogs living with me, and I started cooking again, and running everyday, and I just got into writing again, and I wrote an album. Then Vulf just catapulted. All these good things were happening now.
Heartbreak Hits is basically a concept album about heartbreak. It was my first time really feeling that in my life, and it was these multiple things. There was the heartbreak of the relationship, but there was also losing my dad, and my dreams of being this particular success of a writer-producer guy, and all these circumstances, so I really feel like I got somewhere with the record. I don’t want that to sound like a sob story, but who knows? Maybe it will, but the point is, I did have a bunch of personal struggle that went into these songs. I also kind of found a way to make them fun. I can’t totally explain it. I’ll have to just send you the record. There’s some stuff on it that is the deepest I’ve ever gotten towards expressing some of my dark feelings, and then there’s also some stuff where I’m just straight up laughing at some of my dark feelings, and there’s some stuff where I’m being really sarcastic about them. There’s some stuff where I’m totally serious and sincere, and I just feel really loving about it. It’s pretty manic in a great way, I think, and it’s all rock & roll to me.
I’m excited for people to hear it. It’s a combination of real life meets songwriting, which is to say it’s not like it’s an auto-biographical record. It’s more like my experience channeled into song craft, where I thought… “What could that be? It’s a murder mystery. Oh! There we go!” Then I wrote that. That’s one of the songs on the record, “My Heart is Dead.” I think it’s rad, it’s rock, it’s just like, “ahhhhhh!!”, in a cool way. But it’s also fun and creative!
That’s Heartbreak Hits. It’s just all those experiences channeled into this blob of rock & roll and me exploring that. I’m just really excited to put it out there. I think the songs are great and I’m hoping a lot of people will like it, because I want to be able to express that part of myself, and that’s kind of what I feel like I really am at my core.
Of course, what I also am is this guy in Vulfpeck, so it’s the ideal situation. I’ve got 2 really cool outlets, and the beautiful thing about Vulf is, like you said, from the nature of the way we’ve structured it, it’s always been about us collaborating and Jack being the puppet master, so that does leave me with time to focus on my own writing and stuff, which is going to be great. I’m going to try and put out an album a year for a couple years and just grow my project into something which will certainly be different from Vulf, but I’m hoping it can be a complement. It certainly is for me, personally. To be able to go out and play funk drums and then pick up a guitar and play some kind of folk rock, pop song thing, that’s the real me, man! Meaning, I’m both of those things. And I want to do all of it!
L4LM: Yeah, absolutely. That makes a world of sense. Listening to the diversity in all of your projects, I know how excited fans are to experience this upcoming solo version of you. You have a lot of suits, and they are all so distinctly you – but we’re all still getting to know you as an individual. This is especially important for fans who only know Vulf’s Theo, or My Dear Disco’s Theo, because those seem to be pretty different from Theo’s Theo.
TK: Yeah. My whole life I’ve sort of struggled with that, like “I’m never going to be as good at this if I’m doing both things,” and my Dad was very good about noticing what I had going on. He was like, “Come on man, do it all! If you want to do it all, do it all, man,” so that was really good advice from my dad, and I definitely have taken that to heart. It’s certainly a challenge at times, but it’s really rewarding.
I kind of like that people have no idea what my deal is! It’s kind of fun. This happened once, my friend texted me one day and he asks, “Dude, are you in Vulfpeck?!” and I say, “Yes,” and he’s says, “What do you play in the band Vulfpeck,” and I say “Drums and guitar,” and he says, “What are you playing in the ‘Christmas in L.A.’ video,” and I say, “Drums,” and he says, “That’s you playing drums in the video?” He was literally looking at me on screen and didn’t know it was me, because he just didn’t know I played drums. I had only met him on a gig as a guitar player.
L4LM: What you see and hear can be two totally different things.
TK: It’s kind of funny, yeah. I kind of like that element. Do you know the band Stay Human on the Colbert Show? There’s this guy, Louis Cato – I just don’t even know what to say about Louis. Without question, he has got to be one of the greatest musicians living right now, and he’s also just a phenomenal human. I love Louis. Seeing Louis really inspires me, because he’s another multi instrumentalist, and he plays drums for Marcus Miller, Bobby McFerrin, I think he played upright bass for Q-Tip, and he plays guitar on the Colbert Show, and he had a college scholarship offer to study classical tuba, so it’s like, come on man, if this guy can do all of those things, then I can probably figure out how to play funky drums and also have a songwriter project, you know what I mean?
Also, seeing Eric Krasno doing his thing has been inspiring. He’s putting out a record as a singer and a songwriter, and he’s a great singer. It’s like, “Hell yeah, dude!” Then you see him playing bass with Derek Trucks. It’s just like… That’s it. Trying to have the most fun, really doing it on a new level, really connecting with people, and getting those opportunities was always my dream. So yeah, it’s totally happening and it’s amazing.
L4LM: That it is… Theo, I’ve got a few questions from your fans that I’m going to go through now to tie some things together. Starting with which late musician you would like to bring back to life to have one final jam session with.
TK: John Bonham. He is definitely the reason that I play drums. I heard Zeppelin when I was 12 and I totally freaked out. I heard “The Ocean”, and I lost it.
L4LM: How did “The Ocean” land in your hands?
TK: I was at a friend’s house and his Dad had the record, and he just played it for me one day, and I remember totally freaking out. Just totally feeling electrified to the core of my being. Lightening bolt. It was the most exciting thing I had ever heard in my life. The music that I really come from, that I connected to as a kid, was that rock thing, and The Beatles. The Beatles and Zeppelin, that was it. More of the later Beatles, just really spoke to me as a kid. I had a lot of energy. I was a happy kid, but I had a lot of energy, so I would beat the shit out of the drums. I would play for hours along with Zeppelin records, then I would just go off and play my own stuff, and I remember I would end the practice sessions by hitting the cymbals as hard as I could, and then letting go of the sticks, and they would just fly around the room.
I’m a very quiet drummer now with most of the Vulf stuff. I kind of pride myself on being able to play soft. If could play with anybody, it would probably be playing a rock gig with John Bonham on drums. It would be a real thrill.
L4LM: Somebody else wanted to know who your favorite Beatle is?
TK: Oh, gosh. Another completely impossible question to answer. Do I get to answer it with who I relate to the most instead? Because the truth is I actually love Ringo as a drummer. I think this whole stink about, “Well, he wasn’t that great of a drummer,” is total garbage. I can’t even get into that conversation. Ringo is totally the bomb, and The Beatles would absolutely not be The Beatles without Ringo, so I love Ringo. I love George. I think in some ways I probably have some of his leanings, from what you can tell from his as a person. I can relate to him. I also love his guitar playing, his song writing, and his singing. I love John Lennon. The older I get, the more I feel like understand, John Lennon. His spirit was so intense, and I can really relate to that. Paul McCartney was the person that I feel like I am most similar to in The Beatles because Paul’s a multi instrumentalist, and very comprehensive, all-around musician. His melodic sense is something that I really relate to. I’m probably the most like Paul, I feel like, if I had to say, of all of them. I felt like, in high school, it was cooler to like John. People would be like, “Oh, Paul’s so singsong-y,” and I remember being like, “Shit. I’m kind of that guy.” But now I’m like, “Hell yeah, I’m that guy! That dude writes great songs that people love! I want to be like that!”
L4LM: Here’s another weird question. Historically speaking, if you could choose to play any instrument from any time, as in the nicest Stradivarius violin, or Moses’ shofar, or Little Walter’s harmonica, etc, what would it be?
TK: I would definitely love to play Hendrix’s Strat, because it would be great to know what it felt like, and then to do the math from there of like, wow, that’s how that guy did this shit on this axe. In general, I feel that with guitar players. I always wonder how hard is it to play their instrument? What’s their set up like? What gauge strings are they using? I could probably find that information out about Hendrix, but still, I would love to feel it … I’ve been really surprised at times. I’ve played certain peoples’ guitars that sound like butter, and then I pick it up and the action’s super high, and I’m struggling to play it and I’m like, “Wow, that’s crazy that this person is pulling this off with that feel!” I would definitely want to play Hendrix’s guitar.
Specifically, one of his Strats, which he was famous for. I know he had other guitars, but I want to play his Strat, because the St rat is tighter, at least for me. I haven’t totally figured out the perfect feel that I want for my Strat. I have an amazing guitar tech in Michigan who I always bring my stuff to, and I go back there pretty regularly. I love where he has it set up, but I still wonder, “Man, is there something that I don’t understand?” Maybe Hendrix’s guitar contains the answer!
L4LM: When did you start playing guitar, after playing drums for so long?
TK: Well, it’s funny. I started playing drums when I was 12. I was in the 6th grade. I was either 11 or 12. I started playing guitar when I was 13 or 14, so it wasn’t that long after it. I just really went in on drums. I really practiced and learned how to read, and would work on my technique, and did hours every day on it for a while. I got really into it, and then I started wanting to sing, so I just felt like, “I’m going to play guitar.” I messed around with it. My dad got me a $20.00 guitar that was acoustic. It took me a while to even figure out how to apply enough pressure to fret the note. I remember just totally sucking at it. Wow, it was really hard, and it’s still hard. Guitar is a hard instrument, and apparently there’s a quote of Prince say something like, “Guitar is hard,” so okay, then it’s not just me. Guitar actually is hard.
I was mostly just teaching myself for probably two years, then I started to play in a band, and sing, and I was playing drums and I was singing in the band. That was my first gig. Not real gig, but you know, with my little friends at the time. I was the singer in the band and I was playing drums, but I started feeling like I should play guitar because I’m singing and there’s more that I can do with that. I started taking lessons. It was harder for me to understand, for some reason, than drums. Drums were so natural for me, and guitar was, and still is, much more of something that I have to wrangle with, but I’m more compelled to wrangle with it than I am drums now, for some reason. I want to, and need to play the damn guitar, and I want to get better at it all the time.
L4LM: Just out of curiosity, what was the name of your high school band?
TK: Oh my gosh. This might explode the internet. No, I’m joking. The first one had several names and I can’t even remember what we stuck with (haha). There was a guy named John Byrnes, who is a great guitar player, and we called it The John Byrnes Band for a while, because he was just slamming on guitar. Then we changed the name, and another band in high school named themselves just John Byrnes, which was really weird. It was quite a high school prank, you know. The real first band that I was in, my high school band, was called Lovango.
It was named after an island in the Caribbean that I’d heard about. We wanted to call it Perpetual Groove, and we printed up posters, and then we found out there was a band called Perpetual Groove.
TK: I remember being at the lunch table with all these posters for a show at the dance. We played at a couple dances, man. That was the bomb! Oh, my God. Playing at a high school dance with your band. We were it. It was crazy. It was so cool, man. Mad respect! That was when I really got their respect!
L4LM: Being in a band must’ve earned you some points in high school. When did you introduce singing to your stage presence? Did you ever sing in a choir or anything like that?
TK: Yeah, I did, actually. This is the funny thing. My whole life, I was always doing multiple things, so I guess it’s a combination of whatever natural musical aptitude I have meets being really distracted, or something. I was in the wind ensemble on percussion. I was in the jazz band on drum set. I was in the male vocal ensemble. We had a male vocal ensemble at my high school called The Kinsmen, and I was in that as a tenor, singing. I was also a tenor in the choir, and then I was just a rock singer in my band, playing guitar.
Music wasn’t particularly cool in my town. Sports and lacrosse were cool in my town. Still, I had an amazing public school music education. Truly world class, now that I think about it. Mr. Von Schenkhof and Mr. Knudsen, and Mrs. Baskin were really serious, and very much influenced me. I was definitely singing in high school and singing in my band.
In college, I went for drums to the University of Michigan, because that was what I could audition on, and was the most technically proficient on. There wasn’t a program at Michigan for just writing your own guitar songs, or anything. You couldn’t go to school for Jason Mraz. You couldn’t do that. That would’ve been like a Berkeley thing, which I didn’t know, really.
Anyway, I went to school for that in college, for drums, and I started singing and playing the guitar in a band almost immediately, because that was kind of what I did. I would do that. Out of that came this group My Dear Disco, and I was just singing backgrounds and stuff because we had this phenomenal vocalist, Michelle Chamuel, who went on to get 2nd place on The Voice Season 4.
I was singing my stuff and I really wanted to do my own project, and I wasn’t really happy in My Dear Disco at that point, so eventually I quit the band. Before I quit the band I was having vocal problems. I was losing my falsetto. I have this high falsetto, and it was going away. I was hoarse and I couldn’t hit those notes because we were gigging a lot as My Dear Disco. I’m singing a lot and I’m losing my voice, so I end up going to a speech therapist, and they tell me it’s going to be $250.00 for a half-hour session, or something, so I was like, “Well forget it, I can’t do that,” so they say, “Go try to find a voice teacher, okay?” I email a buddy of mine in the vocal program at U of M, and ask if he has a voice teacher he would recommend. And he says, “Yes. George Shirley. He’s amazing.”
I emailed George Shirley, and he just said, “Come on in.” I take a lesson with him, and he’s told me, “You don’t speak correctly. You’re a tenor and you’re speaking down here, but you really need to be speaking up here. That’s why you’re losing your voice.” That guy really did change my life, and his lessons were $50.00 an hour, just to give you an idea of how much cooler it was to go study with George Shirley.
George Shirley was the first African American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera. President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2015 for his contribution to American music. He is a legendary, influential figure in opera, which I didn’t realize at the time, but I learned that while working with him. With a National Medal of Arts under his belt, you’d think he’d probably be able to charge more than $50.00 an hour, but he just loved teaching.
L4LM: That’s incredible! What a miraculous thing for you to experience.
TK: Yeah, I just want to shout him out, because I studied with George for about a year and took it seriously and practiced, and that’s when I really started to understand where my voice even was. The voice is this elusive thing. You can’t really tell where it even is in your body, and there’s all this physical tension we have around it, and we use it to communicate all day, but then we also use it as an instrument when we sing. There’s a lot to be learned from a voice teacher. I recommend to anybody who wants to sing, take a voice lesson. It’s really sweet.
He was a huge influence on me, and I’m still getting my voice together. It’s something that takes a lifetime, but that was a turning point for me. When I listen to recordings of myself in my early 20s, it sounds like I have a chunk of steak wrapped around my throat, like somebody is strangling me with a steak. It’s so tense and funny sounding to me.
L4LM: That’s wild. I didn’t know any of that. You basically had to relearn how to sing in your early 20s?
TK: Yeah, kind of. It was kind of easier than it sounds, because it was so much easier to sing once I was doing the stuff he was saying. It was like, “Oh my gosh! This is how it’s supposed to happen.” It’s just effortless, you know? It starts to come out and you start to have control, and in a way it was easy. I had to put time into it, and I definitely put a lot of time and work into it. But once you get over certain humps you feel like, “Wow, this is easy.” Whatever I was doing before was forced and straining, and now I’m not doing that, so, it was cool.
L4LM: Awesome. I’ve got another question before we cut the time on this conversation. Have you been digging any new music recently that you want to pass on to fans of yours? Any new bands or artists that you’re into?
TK: Absolutely. I’ve been listening to the new Dawes album. My friend Lee, who plays Wurlitzer on Heartbreak Hits, is the new keyboard player in Dawes and his stamp on their new record is so palpable. They were already one of my favorite bands, and now this guy who’s playing I love, and who I love as a person, is in the band, and it’s so great. The song “Roll With the Punches” is an amazing song. I wish I wrote it, on a lyrical level. The concept and everything is great, but then Lee’s tone on the keys is incredible. Any tone heads, check out “Roll With The Punches.” You’d think it’s a guitar, but it’s actually a distorted Clavinet with some kind of thing on it. I’ve never heard a sound quite like it, so that’s a really cool one.
I’ve been listening a lot to Aaron Lee Tasjan. He is one of my favorite songwriters. He lives in East Nashville, and he’s got a new album out called “Silver Tears” that I love. He’s one of my favorite artists. Lyrically I feel a kindred spirit with him, but he’s always pushing the envelope and it’s so exciting to hear. I’ve also been listening a ton to Jason Isbell’s album “Something More than Free,” and also “Southeastern.” And then there’s “The Convincer” by Nick Lowe, which has been a big influence on me in the last year. Also check out “Glass Houses” by Billy Joel. That’s a very underrated album in my opinion. “Sleeping with the Television On” is an incredible song. I could go on forever.
Last but not least, check out “Lakes of Pontchartrain.” It’s a song off of a Paul Brady album. The album is called Welcome Here Kind Stranger. I have yet to listen to the song without crying. It’s so amazing. If you need to get in touch with some shit emotionally, please listen to that song. It’s Irish. It’s a traditional song, and Paul Brady’s version is amazing.
These are very song writer-y things I just said. But funk fans will be able to appreciate the depth of the music, you know?
We definitely know…
It’s interesting to see the career of Theo Katzman unfold into a multi-instrumentalist who writes original songs for the love of writing songs. Now, with hundreds of thousands of *new* eyeballs on the Vulfpeck drummer/guitarist, Theo’s music has the opportunity to spread to fans otherwise unaware of his solo stuff. We’re grateful that we got this chance to talk personally with Theo about his music, his inspiration, and his dreams moving forward. As he expressed, it’s about doing your thing and staying weird. We can definitely get behind that message!