Many know and love Theo Katzman as one-fourth part of modern funk sensation Vulfpeck. But, as he’ll readily tell you, that quartet is just one facet of what he has to offer to the world as an artist and a writer. For the last several years, he’s poured just as much heart and energy into his career as a solo performing artist, utilizing both his multi-instrumental skills and his production savvy to pursue the musical worlds of everything from indie to classic rock to modern pop, and unique blends of all the like. His latest album, Heartbreak Hits, is certainly a terrific offering, with a collection of songs boasting both rich melodies and keen lyrics, all of which also boast alluring and wide-ranging vocals from Katzman.
Theo’s upcoming performance this Wednesday, April 19, at Garcia’s at the Capitol Theatre is sure to be an awesome night of music, and we got ourselves even more psyched for it by getting to talk a bit with the man himself. We started off just getting an idea of where he was at, on his tour.
Theo Katzman: Everybody flew out to NY today, I’m driving to New York currently, from Michigan, in the tour vehicle. But yeah, excited to be doing some new shows, and play some new places, like Garcia’s, and hopefully be getting to play for some new people. It’s gonna be sweet, man.
The Poke Around: As I was getting ready to talk with you, I came across an article in Billboard that described a day in your life as musical director for Darren Criss’ tour, a few years ago…
Yeah that was crazy.
Is your touring life still that involved, and do you prefer it that hectic?
No, definitely don’t prefer it that way. That was probably the most hectic time of my life, and things are no longer that hectic. That was a great tour, but I took on too much responsibility. But you know, live and learn! I like to do a lot of things, but I’m learning about balance, taking care of myself, all that good stuff. This is not that hectic, this is kind of like…I don’t think we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. It’s just a cool opportunity for me to get out and do my own songs, that I’ve been working on for years, now, and now that the whole thing has kind of taken off, there’s a little bit more of a lane for me to be doing my thing. And it’s exciting to be starting that up again.
These solo dates are coming up right alongside some Vulfpeck dates. Is that a pretty natural switch for you, or is there some kind of transition process that needs to happen?
It’s pretty natural for me to do my shows, as this is sort of full me in terms of doing my thing, and playing my songs, and performing the way I feel. And it’s pretty easy to get into that zone whenever I have to do it. But this is actually the first time that I’m going to be touring two projects back to back, so we’ll see how it works. I’m literally touring, in between each Vulf run, I’m doing my own run. It’s sort of just like, there aren’t enough days in the year, you know? (laughs). Or there are, but they’re all happening at once, is how it worked out. So it’s gonna be fun, and it’s gonna be a lot of music. Which I love. So it should be good. I guess it is a transition…I just try to bring my full self, and leave it all on stage, you know? Sometimes, it’s just not possible to be like…as efficiently practiced on different instruments that I play, to the same degree all the time. So, I’ve just had to learn how to bring my A-Game, and bring what I can to each situation, you know what I mean? And let that be cool. And it can really be fun.
About your record, Heartbreak Hits. You brought in your Vulfpeck guys on it, and some other people you’ve worked and recorded with in the past. And of course you play all the drums and guitar on every track. What’s the ratio of you orchestrating the arrangements out for this record, versus letting these guys bring their style or ideas to it?
Drumwise, I always gear towards full arrangement on drums, and right, the guitar parts are mine…But for the most part, I try to bring everyone in and have them do their thing, and try to shape that off of what they put out. Woody is such a good piano player, and Joe is such a good bass player that…well actually everyone on this record is so good, that I do like to let them do their thing, and do what’s right for the song, you know? So it’s very much that everybody brings their thing to my songs. Even in the backing vocals, with Laura Mace and Mike G. I had some parts for them, but there are times when they said, “Well Theo, how about this,” and I just thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great.’ So I say that everyone made unique statements on these parts. There will be times in arrangements where I’m like I really want this to happen, because I’ve considered this compositional element, but beyond those elements, I bring people on whose instincts I like, and I want to hear what they have to say, too.
Speaking of background vocals, they sound really great on the album, but so does your voice alone. This record definitely sounds like a showcase for you to sing by yourself.
But have you considered singing duet with someone? Anyone you’d like to?
I definitely am a fan of so many singers, so that’s hard to say, but I’m totally open to it for sure. But there’s just so many…shoot, I don’t know how to answer (laughs). But I definitely want to do more and more of this kind of thing. I mean this album is…I’ve always thought of myself as a singer and songwriter, so like, when Vulfpeck blew up that was more of a surprise for me. That was always kind of a side project. And my main focus was my own songs, and my own projects. So it’s been a real blessing to get to have that outlet. This is cool because…I think it comes off as my side project from Vulfpeck, but it’s really what feels to me like my true identity. Or not my true identity, but my main identity, you know? So I think of myself as a singer-songwriter who is a collaborator in this funk band Vulfpeck, and a part of that scene. So this just sort of, me doing what I do. But absolutely I would do a duet for sure.
Another thing I read, if I have this right, is that you’d like to put out one solo album a year. Do you have a lot of material you’re sitting on? Are you one of those people for whom songwriting ideas or parts just comes to all the time?
Well I do get ideas, as many people do, kind of like, all the time, or at random times. I think about writing a lot, I would like to do it even more than I think about doing it (laughs). Sometime I think about doing it more than I do it…But I do currently have a bunch of material that I’m working on for another record, and I said that ‘album a year thing’ publicly so that I could be helped to it in my own life. Because it’s a lot. Vulfpeck does a record a year, and I think it’s easier because it’s a group, and we kind of put it together, and then we do it. It’s a little harder for me to do that kind of thing on my own, and that frequently.
But I’d like to stick to that as a goal, and just be constantly writing, and constantly working on music. My dream is to have my own artist project that is right up there in terms of Vulfpeck in terms of opportunity, and everything. Like, I definitely want to have this outlet for my songs being listened to, and have that be a lane for me. And certainly to supplement that with Vulfpeck as well, because it’s such an all-star cast. I’m hoping that I can grow this to putting out a really good record once a year…ish (laughs).
I understand that a lot went into this this last album, and it was kind of a big thing, putting what you did into these songs, from your life. And Hits seems to cover the arc or whole scope of relationships. Do you want to pursue this theme further, or are there other things you know you want to write about?
Oh yeah, no I have no desire in being the guy who always writes breakup songs. There’s definitely failed relationship elements in the record, there’s also…the whole record is really different flavors of letdown, and loss of expectations. But I want to write about everything. I want to write about whatever occurs to me, whatever inspires.
You have a couple of dates in Europe this Summer, in Britain and Ireland. Is that the beginning of a larger tour over there?
Well I’m doing a house concert in Berlin as part of my Kickstarter project, and once I saw that I was like, “Shoot, since I’ll be over there, let me try to book a couple of shows. The London one, like the first day it half-sold, so that’s awesome. So I knew I had plans in London and Ireland, so those are the three cities where I thought, Well I’ll start there, and see how it goes. I want to be careful not to put the cart too far before the horse in terms of Europe touring, and preparing to lose a lot of money, haha. But I know I have some fans, so I want to start building it, you know?
Well day one, half-sold, sounds like a pretty good sign that people that far down the line, and across the pond, are digging your stuff and want to hear it.
Yeah, that’s the dream, I mean I’m so grateful I’m getting to do this, and to try it out and see what works. You know, I really just want to be out there doing it, and having the experience, and not just thinking about it.
Interview by Miles Hurley