Matt Rucker recently had the chance to chat with Theo Katzman over the phone about his latest album 'Heartbreak Hits'.
Matt Rucker of GrizzlyGround: I’m going to go ahead and dive right in. A lot of people know you for your Vulfpeck stuff, but you released a solo album back in 2011. What made you want to record solo stuff in the first place and what made you want to record a new solo album now in 2017?
Theo Katzman: I’ve sort of always been in different bands. At the very end of 2011 I had just quit the college band that I was in, it was an electric pop band. I was going in a different direction. I wanted to write my folk rock and pop stuff so I made that record then and I have always thought of myself as a singer songwriter as my primary, that’s what I am thing. The plan was always to keep making my own records and Vulfpeck was kind of a surprise in my life.
Theo: It (Vulfpeck) caught on more than I had ever imagined so I followed it. At some point it was like I still got my dream here and I’m going for it, of making the music that’s in my mind and in my heart. Which does include Vulf, but it’s also this thing (Heartbreak Hits). It seemed like it was the right time. The Vulf thing really kicked up to the point that it was a real opportunity and we had to follow that. So we got very busy in 2015 and 2016. And during that time I was writing when we weren’t on the road, my own songs, and playing them live in LA and doing shows. So I said I’m going to make this record and see what happens. So it’s been really cool to have both outlets. My songs, which are more my thing, and then the collaboration with Vulfpeck has been incredible. I think Vulf has shown a light on my solo project; I think a lot more people are discovering it as a result. A lot of people have really accepted it. I wasn’t sure anyone would really dig it who was a Vulf fan because I thought it was different but there has been a lot of crossovers.
Yeah. And you mentioned that you saw yourself as a singer-songwriter, especially with this album. I was curious what your writing process is like, how did Heartbreak Hits come together? You said you were writing on the road with Vulfpeck? Do you typically write with a band or by yourself?
Theo: Just to be clear, I wasn’t writing this stuff on the road, I was writing it in between when I was at home and wasn’t on the road. But the process is always pretty different. For this record, I got into a swing where I was putting in a couple hours a day just focused on flushing out the seeds. Once I got the songs to a certain point, I sent them all to my producer, Tyler Duncan. I got together with him with maybe 17 tunes. We were like, “these 10 are strong and this is a good record; let’s make this record.” From that point Tyler and I turned to the writing, he was definitely a huge part of the collaboration. I brought him these finished seeds or songs and then he would go, “what about this.” And it would be like “oh, that’s the bomb now.”
Yeah, very cool. How do you go about writing your lyrics, they come across as very detailed? I really dig the beginning of “As the Romans Do,” it’s very descriptive.
Theo: I definitely feel the most inspired by the lyrics part of the process. I just love writing lyrics and lyrics in general, reading lyrics, and words. I am glad to hear that they stick out. I think that’s what I have to offer in the songwriting realm, my own lyrical thing. I just flow with the lyrics; I tend to write way more lyrics than I can fit in a song. I have a lot of songs where I’m really bummed cause I have a good lyric but I just can’t fit it and I have to replace it with a better one I’ve written. I definitely draft, sometimes something comes out totally whole, but not usually. I tend to get choruses whole but I don’t know what the verses are or what the bridge is. It just depends, I’m not the kind of guy that just sits down and says, “that’s it” in ten minutes. There have been times when that has happened but I usually have to work at it. I want to dispel the myth that you have to plop it out there whole. I try to make sure that when I am writing I am at the edge of a fresh idea whenever I am writing. If I am trying to fit a square peg into a round whole for more than 10 minutes I’m going to change direction. I’m going to change the shape of the whole…or even the peg. That never is fruitful. I’m not saying that you don’t find the solution. But for me I have to switch my approach constantly.
I want everything to come from that place of flowing energy. If I’m going (angrily) “I. just. can’t. get. the. right. word.” If that’s the case, then I’m going to change what I am even writing about. I am going to do a different rhyme scheme or change the whole concept here. See what comes out of every fresh take, keeping that improvising spirit as much as you can.
You were talking about how you’re songs will switch topics or subject matter. Are all of your songs about real events? And are there any that are particularly interesting stories behind one of them?
Theo: I think that I tend to get a lot of autobiographical feeling from my life, like I get feeling from my life that will pop into my head and turn into a song idea. But I usually use those as a jumping off points to sort of open it up as opposed to saying “this is solely autobiographical.” Sometimes it is, but usually I just use one of these feelings as my jumping off point if that makes sense.
Yeah, are there any examples of that on the new album, Heartbreak Hits?
Theo: Yeah, I kind of think this whole album was part of the concept to me. Maybe with the exception of “My 1-Bedroom” which is totally from my brain, that’s just my personal take on an experience. I think every other song is a feeling. Like “My Heart is Dead,” like that’s a feeling I’ve had. BAM! Totally heartbroken! Ok, I asked myself what is “My Heart is Dead.” Like those lyrics just came to me (sings) “My Heart is Dead,” so I asked “what’s that about, maybe somebody shot my heart, maybe I have no heart, maybe it’s a murder mystery, now I can write this in a cool way, I’ve opened this up in a fun way while still maintaining the gravity of the topic.” You can be like “O, this is a heavy chorus, or you can say that it’s a very relatable song.”
You mentioned how there is a theme throughout the album. Was it difficult to write so that all of the songs fit into the theme or did it just work out like that?
Theo: The theme of the albums is love, letdowns, and loss of expectation, which I conveniently call heartbreak because I think at the core that’s what that is. Like when you’re really holding onto something and it doesn’t work out or you lose it you’re like “Damn it!” And that’s a feeling that I have had and I’m sure a lot of other people have had that feeling and its not all about romance, some of it is about your own expectations of yourself or what you think you’d do by a certain age or what you thought you were or what you thought you were coming off as to people. And those things can all change, you know.
Was it difficult to write all the songs around that theme or were you just in that stage when you writing?
Theo: I was just in that stage when I was writing so I started realizing it was themed. In terms of the content, not the music. It wasn’t like it was all sad; some of it was zany or something. “As the Roman Do,” “My Heart is Dead,” and “Lost and Found” and kind of “Hard Work” are kind of zany. And then “Plain Jane” and “Good to be Alone” and “My 1-bedroom” and “Love is a Beautiful Thing” are more heartfelt and sad in a way. It sort of feels like a compilation of 2 or 3 musical sounds. Some of it is upbeat and some is more heavy. I like the contrast of dark and light.
No, definitely. I’m going to switch gears a little bit and ask about your opinion as a successful independent musician. Where do you see the music industry heading over the next couple of years?
Theo: Ok, good question. I’m not an expert, let me just say that. There was a time when I really was trying to keep up with what was going on in the music industry and I just stopped keeping up. I’m not the best guy to talk to in some way. It certainly seems like streaming is catching on; it already has caught on. I think ultimately it is a positive thing because if you’re able to build the fan culture around what you’re doing and you own your master than you can make money on streaming and then what we’re seeing is that fans are really interested in supporting more via the patron model of just paying because they want to support instead of that they need it. In other words, you don’t need to buy a record on Bandcamp anymore to listen to it, you can probably stream it, but I find myself buying records all the time to support the artist. And then I do a lot of Kickstarter patronage to records I love, PledgeMusic, to artists I love and then I listen to them on the streaming sources.
I think it’s a great time to be getting your name out there and to be getting good at what you do like I think everyone should focus on getting good at what they’re doing and less on how to break through and more on how to get really dope. Because when you get really good I think you’re going to enjoy what you’re doing more and people start to care. You know, build a scene, and come out of a community. I just heard an interview with Questlove where he was talking about how most successes you hear of that actually last; they come out of a community. I totally feel that, the music industry isn’t where it was in the 70s, 80s, and 90s; people are not going to be making 50 million dollars. There’s not that much money being thrown around. But I do think you can make a living making your art. (As artists) It beckons us to have consistent output instead of making one good record and then retiring. In a way, the internet model, and the streaming model is really beckoning us to be more consistent with our output and I think that’s going to make us all better artists.
And you know, if I’m wrong then I’m wrong.
In your case, did you make most of your money off recorded stuff, live shows, or merchandise?
Theo: Now that Vulfpeck is touring and doing festivals there are a number of ways that we are being compensated. Certainly, when you play live you make money. There’s many components to that business but we are making money off of streaming our album and streaming our music, also merchandise. I am now starting to think about the ways I can do that for my own music and it’s a work in progress.
At the end of the day, I’m a live performer. That’s where I think I’m best and I love making records. I don’t really think of myself as a video guy like Jack is from Vulf. He truly is a really incredible video artist. I think for Vulf, the video is a huge component. For me, it might be a little different. Like for me its more live stuff then the record because that’s where I think I shine. I’m still learning about how to best monetize it. I’m fortunate because I have a lot of work with Vulfpeck and I do a lot of work with other artists and freelance stuff in Los Angeles so mostly everyone I know is wearing ten different hats in terms of making it work in music. I’m just trying to embrace that as much as possible and it certainly can be a tough balance at times to be doing a good job at everything you’re doing but I think if you have a good attitude and put your heart in the right place then it is totally possible.
You were talking about how you really like live stuff. Do you have a favorite song you like to play live with your solo project?
Theo: I’m not sure if I have a favorite, but I really like playing “Plain Jane Heroin” live, that really seems to do something to the room. I like what it does. A lot of people laugh at the first verse, maybe they’re uncomfortable or they think I’m making a sexual reference, which I’m not but either way it’s kind of cool to take people on a journey where they go “woah, this is heavier than I thought.” But still be joyful in the way you present it.
When I come to a show, I want to be taken somewhere, that’s why I came to the show. I’m really starting to think about the larger, more deeper, spiritual aspect of performing and how to do that. I saw a clip of Prince the other day, and I was like, “What! This is the greatest show I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” I mean this guy was truly taking people somewhere else. That’s a feeling.
Yeah, "Plain Jane Heroin" was definitely the hard hitter at the end of the album, was that your intention?
Theo: Oh yeah, that seemed like the tune to end with. When I was making the track listing I labeled the ideas “A,” “B,” “C.”… I think I got all the way to “L.” I think I did that many track listings, but I think I found the right one.
And what will your live set up look like for the show (Jammin Java)?
Theo: It’s a four-piece band and everybody sings so that really rad. I like doing four-piece with vocals because the backing vocals are really important to me. Julian Allen on drums; he’s a great drummer and a great songwriter. I helped him do a couple of songs on his new EP. He just got released on Spotify. Jacob Jeffries on keyboard, another really great songwriter, phenomenal musician and songwriter. He’s a great artist in his own right, he’s also in a band called “The Cooties” which is coming up in LA. They’re like a comedy troupe meets music. And last but not least, Joe Dart on the Fender Bass.
And Woody played on the record right?
Theo: Yeah, every time you hear a piece of piano its Woody and then also Wurlitzer on “Break up Together” but all the rest of the Wurlitzer is by Lee Pardini from the bandDawes.
That’s great, I love Dawes. Those are all the questions that I have, but thanks for talking with me!