“We’re The Record Company and we play rock ’n’ roll.”
With that drawled introduction from frontman Chris Vos, he and bandmates Alex Stiff and Marc Cazorla launch into their album-release show Friday night at the Echoplex, blowing through the songs on their debut “Give It Back to You” with the vein-popping fury that has endeared them to hometown audiences. Amid wailing guitar, blaring harmonica and ascents to upper vocal registers, Vos scrunches up his face as if summoning the ghost of John Lee Hooker.
In truth, he says a couple days earlier over coffee in Atwater Village, he is summoning himself. Before they emerged in 2012, before they became unlikely local favorites playing old-school music to hip L.A. crowds, before they circled the U.S. opening for darned near anybody who’d ask, before landing the deal with Concord Music Group that led to Friday’s album release, “I failed and failed and failed and failed,” Vos says.
A move in 2010 from his native Wisconsin to Los Angeles (prompted by his wife Valerie’s career move) and a Craigslist meeting with Stiff and Cazorla (again, credit Valerie with an assist) have helped Vos achieve he only dreamt back in his days playing small-town bars in the Midwest. On Friday, he tells the crowd, “I’m gonna sound like a hokey Wisconsite right now, but thank you,” with the open-heartedness typical of a guy who grew up on a dairy farm near Burlington (hometown of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo).
How did this happen? Our conversation went like this:
So your wife had to drag you kicking and screaming from the snowy Midwest to L.A., right?
[Laughing] She came up to me one day in Milwaukee and said she had an opportunity to interview for a job at the L.A. Times. Which was a big deal, because I was playing in a band back home, four different bands actually. And I had my own business — a guitar studio where I had four teachers working with me and had about 50 students myself — so I was pretty established. It wasn’t my dream to be doing that; it was just what I was doing since I had run out of money from touring in the Midwest because none of my bands could get anywhere. My wife asked if she got the job at the Times, would I move? And I said yes.
I went to SXSW and played with my band, and on the way back she texted me and said she got the job. So I knew I had to make some big changes. I had to sell my business, break up my band, rip the hearts out of my family — because it was a shock to everybody, basically. But she was the catalyst. It’s funny, because she had always told me, you should move to Nashville, you should move to Austin, you should move somewhere else [to pursue music]. And then I end up here because of her.
Yeah, L.A. crowds are tough, but try playing original music to three drunks in some town in the middle of nowhere on Saturday night.
You paid some dues back home then …
I know every small town in Wisconsin — played ’em all. You walk into a small town on Friday night in wherever, playing for six people who do not want to hear original music. When I moved out here, people said, “L.A. crowds are tough.” And I said, “Yeah, L.A. crowds are tough, but try playing original music to three drunks in some town in the middle of nowhere on Saturday night when they’re just trying to have a good time and don’t care about your innermost thoughts.” That’s a tough crowd. You get to know what being hated by your crowd is like. But it was good practice.
Can’t bar bands just get by with covers?
I never played covers … [laughing] I failed on the basis of my own shitty music.
Nothing happened overnight once you got to L.A., though …
I delivered pizzas, working in catering and worked for a moving company.
I think when we first met, you were working for a moving company and had just injured yourself.
Yeah, I realized I’m not half the man I thought I was, and needed to get out of the physical labor business as fast as possible. Luckily I convinced the owner to let me stay on and work the front desk for a while.
It’s taking inspiration from then and moving it into now.
What’s harder, moving a couch or writing a somewhat original blues riff?
These days, or those days? … In the genre we’re in, which I just consider rock ’n’ roll, it’s all about being honest.
When we were first forming the band — and this is going to sound really uptight — I said to myself: I’m not listening to anything that was recorded after 1974. Not intentionally. It went almost a year. I’m not encouraging that, because it means you’re not supporting modern music, but it was strictly for the purposes of trying to root out some authenticity, trying to understand all that in the context of now. To try to find out where that spirit lives inside a song now. Without trying to be “then.” It’s taking inspiration from then and moving it into now. It’s taking the sound quality and the raw, emotive stuff you hear and rediscover, “That is what a guitar can sound like. That is how a song structure can be. That is how there can be flaws on a record and it still works.” You don’t have to click things like that away with a computer mouse, because it was part of that moment.
How did you meet Alex and Marc? They were doing a much different kind of music [playing in a shoegazer band] when I first saw them.
They were, and so was I. I was doing loud, psychedelic rock, but I don’t think I was writing very good songs and it wasn’t who I was. I feel like I was walking away from what I actually wanted to do. I didn’t know who I was anymore, so how can you write anything honest?
Was that feeling a result of the environment?
I feel like I took an easy road the last couple years I was in Wisconsin and became complacent. Sometimes you lose your edge, you lose the will to dig deep. I was playing because I had always played — I had reached the point where I had failed and failed and failed and failed, and just kept writing songs [out of reflex].
When I moved out here, it was a fresh start. I thought, nobody knows who I am, I have to rebuild everything. And slogging around in the trenches sharpened the edges. Being around the mentality of the people the way they are here was new. I’m not saying it was better. But kids gave a shit about how they wrote their songs. You have to care that much about writing your songs again.
When I met Alex and Marc, their edges were already sharp. Whatever flaws I have as a writer were covered by them. Whatever I lacked, they had. It was a good team effort. Which is why I consider us equals in every way.
She wrote a lovingly fraudulent Craigslist post that made me sound 75,000 times cooler than I am.
How did you find them?
Craigslist. My wife Val is in sales, and she said, “Why don’t you put an ad up on Craigslist?” So I did, and it was horrifyingly bad. And while I was out on tour playing with another group, she called me up one day and asked, “What’s your Craigslist log-in? I want to update it.” So I gave her my log-in and she went in and wrote a lovingly fraudulent Craigslist post that made me sound 75,000 times cooler than I am.
Alex saw that and said, “Who the hell is this guy?” And he found out that while I might be a very nice person, I was not as cool as the ad made me out to be. He ended up inviting me over to his house one night just to listen to records, and Marc joined. We hung out that night and became friends. And about a year later, we formed a band.
It took a whole year?
[Laughing] Yeah, I had to woo those sons of bitches for a year. I took the same exact path I did with my wife — I never asked, I just kept being present until we were all going the same direction.
So there ended up being listening sessions and then jam sessions in Alex’s studio — was there an ah-ha moment?
Yeah, the first day. Alex had the studio and he hung up some room mics and we recorded some stuff. We were in the back yard on a beautiful day listening to the playback of the mixes and I said, “Hey, does anybody else feel like we’re a band right now?” And they said, “Yeah.” And I said, “How about we do this? Everybody’s equal. Every dollar is equal. Every decision is equal. Sound good?” We shook hand and that was that.
The local scene gave you a warm embrace right off the bat. Do you feel gratified by that?
It’s always an honor to play music and have people like what you do. To have those drunken moments at 3 a.m. when you hug and talk about things and learn about people. But I don’t think we ever really realized that, which is why I don’t know how to answer that.
When we first started I wasn’t sure we could book ourselves into a pizza joint.
You mean you were too focused to feel the love?
We recognized that the crowd was being very good to us, but we had never been in an experience that like. So it was like, “People are into this, so let’s get better. Let’s write better songs. Let’s go be better than this.”
When we first started I wasn’t sure we could book ourselves into a pizza joint. We wanted it to be good, but we wondered, “Who is the audience for this going to be?” At the start, we just wanted to book shows and play.
So how the record deal come about?
Like everything else, it happened pretty naturally. Chris Dunn [senior director of A&R] over at Concord knew about us, talked to us a couple times, took our stuff to the label. Jason Linder [VP of marketing] in the Cleveland office came to Detroit to watch us open for Brian Setzer, and then saw us play Cleveland. At that point, we’d gotten on board with our new management, and one thing led to another to another.
I’d forgotten you opened for Setzer. I mean, you’ve supported a lot of people — B.B. King, Grace Potter, Trombone Shorty, Buddy Guy, Charles Bradley, Robert Randolph, The Wood Brothers, Social Distortion … I remember commenting to somebody, because of your music, “You know, these guys could open for anybody.”
Well, that’s true. We will open for anybody. [Note: At that Friday record-release show, Vos joked to the crowd, “We’ve been the opening band for so long we don’t know how to act like a headliner.”]
You have to be yourself and stick to what you know. Don’t change who you are because you’re intimated, don’t insult the audience. Be real, for better or for worse.
How did you make a decision about what was going to be on the record?
We tried to be representative. There are 10 songs; some have appeared on [the band’s 2012 and 2013 EPs], some haven’t appeared on anything. And we re-recorded some stuff. We were very aware of fact this is our first international release, so we picked the ones that play well together. We think in terms of A-sides and B-sides, so it works that way too.
One of the thrills was when we went to Cleveland and we walked into the studio where they were remastering some old Staples Singer stuff … And the guy was like, “Hi, I’m going to master your record.” And I said, “Yes, yes, yes, you are. And that sounds great, sir.”
This has been a great a great process for us. We have different mastering for vinyl and digital. Alex mixed the record. Marc did the artwork. They let us keep our mixes; they let us put the record in the order we wanted; they accepted all our artwork, with hardly a word.
The album has such a solid early rock ’n’ roll feel, there are moments — musically and lyrically — when I think, “How could somebody not have written that before?” Is that just you guys channeling all the old stuff your were listening to?
That, and just being honest. For instance, we all write the lyrics, and we’re proud of them. We come up the story, write the lyrics and then sit with it. … One thing I learned from an old Springsteen interview, and I’m paraphrasing him here: Take the time to root out the cliché. Sit with your notebook. Some of our lyrics are simple as simple can be. Some aren’t. But at least I hope we’ve put in enough work that they’re not always what you expect. It’s important to say something, not just phone it in.
All this sounds pretty fairy-tale like … but surely you’ve had some trials and tribulations while you were knocking around. What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you guys?
I don’t know about worst, but this was instructive. We had a gig up in Canada, and all of our instrument rentals were fucked up, the car rental was fucked up, the guitar case we’d flown in with is missing, the guy behind the counter was giving us grief. … It was one of those moments when every possible thing went wrong, but also one of those times you learn that if you just stay calm everything will be OK. It’s the small stuff that’s the challenge — getting your ass up, hauling your amp up four flights of stairs, not getting paid.
The worst things that happen are the things that force you to figure out how to keep it all happening, without compromising your integrity, ever.
A city full of dreamers? I’m in.
So what do the people back home in Wisconsin think?
That’s been one of the most gratifying things. They’re happy. Wisconsin is a wonderful place of beautiful friendly people who care. When you’re out here and you find out somebody’s from Wisconsin, you’re duty-bound as a Wisconsite to ask, “OK, what do you need? Are you doing alright? Go Pack go. Go Badgers. What else can I do for you?” That’s what happened when I first moved here and needed to recalibrate. You gotta do that, you have to pass it on.
On the other hand, Los Angeles is inspiring. You can’t feel out of place here. And I think it helped me be who I am, because this place encourages you to find the truth. At least that’s my experience.
One of the things I love about being here, that I loved right away, is the intensity of the way people live. People come out here and go after it. And people are just as friendly here as they are anywhere else, I’m gonna be honest.
But they’re going after something, so they have a singleness of purpose. This is what my vision is, this is my dream. And I’m like, a city full of dreamers? I’m in.
Photos by Carl Pocket