(originally published in Star News, more Q&A follows)
April 10, 2018
By Brian Tucker
When The Record Company recorded its 2016 debut Give It Back To You singer-guitarist Chris Vos stood turned away from the band, close enough to the records on a shelf to read the spines. Recorded in bass player Alex Stiff’s Los Angeles living room, the furthest thing from Vos’s mind was a Grammy nomination (for Best Contemporary Blues Album), touring with John Mayer, or playing Madison Square Garden.
“It was fun to make that record because that space, we hung out there, we rehearsed in that living room, we wrote all those songs there,” Vos said. “We listened to those old vinyl’s that I’m staring into, that shaped the record, they were in that living room.”
The band – Vos (vocals, guitar), Marc Cazorla (drums) and Stiff (bass), grew out of listening to records and hanging out. After first playing together, and hearing to what was recorded, they formed a band that afternoon. Those first recordings were in that living room – four microphones strung around as the band played. That mindset mirrored their debut, a groove heavy blues and old rock and roll affair whose steady, hip shaking immediacy puts you in the room with them.
“You gotta do what’s right for the song. It’s not about an idea, it’s about the sound. You got to believe your heart, and your ears, and your gut. You can’t be letting your head dictating everything that’s happening in a creative moment, or you sterilize it. You over analyze it. There’s good editing and then there’s editing the soul out of a song.”
Something about the energy and atmosphere of the album struck a chord. Its earnestness and the delivery of an older sound through modern appreciation clicked. Long time fans of blues and rock and roll, what resonates about the band’s album is its feel, and music looking back while looking forward.
“I always remember records I listened to for pure joy and other times I listened to records like a kid studying at school with a book open taking notes. You take that lesson, ingest it, and let it be a part of you. When it comes out of you, it should be that lesson reflected trough your lens which should hopefully make it your own, and unique.”
Following the debut’s release on Concord Records the first single “Off the Ground” did well. Soon the band was touring heavily and eventually around the world. Word on them spread faster than expected.
“It felt like something different was happening and we kept trying to fan that flame, keep it alive inside the group, which in the end is the songs and what you sound like playing the songs.”
They caught John Mayer’s attention, joining him for a dozen shows in front 18,000-plus capacity crowds. The capper was playing Madison Square Garden, a moment that would live long in any musician’s memory. Vos’s is rather cinematic. He could see the venue from his hotel and left for the show guitar case in hand. Walking along, the building seemed to get bigger and bigger, his realization settling in.
“I’m holding my guitar that I’ve walked through doors to play in front of zero people many times in clubs and smoky bars and it starts to dawn on me what’s about to happen. I walk in the security door, I walk backstage, up the steps of the stage, take my guitar out and put it on the stand on the stage. I turned around, looked and went, I’m going to play Madison Square Garden tonight.”
The Record Company performs at Brooklyn Arts Center April 22nd, bringing their soulful blues rock and roll to town playing from a successful debut and perhaps some new tracks from an album due this summer.
Below is more of my conversation with singer Chris Vos about the band’s formation and quick word-of-mouth success, fondness for barbecue, and about playing Madison Square Garden.
Was it your intention to be a trio from the outset or perhaps later add other people?
Vos: No, there never was, we just liked the sound we were getting. You never know, you can evolve, but we’re not looking for anything. The thing I like about a three-piece band is that your fourth member is the space between you, between the sounds. That space, the reason I think that sometimes as a three piece band, you can be listening and think, that’s a lot of sound for three people. It’s because you’re also being engaged by what’s not there. It’s like they used to say, you don’t dance because of the notes you dance because of the space between the notes. It’s the same philosophy.
That energy, that emptiness, we found that you make it part of your sound you get a greater depth. Some people can decorate a room with every knick-knack you could ever find and it’s an amazing, overwhelming experience. Sometimes you go in a room and there are a few things in there and it’s striking and stark. Those things have to be what they are, have to matter, and be doing their job. That’s the thing about being a three-piece band; you take something away it’s a big difference. If you stop playing guitar for a verse that’s just bass and drums. You bring that guitar back in it changes things in a big way.
Are you home on break or gearing up for the road?
We’re getting ready to go to Florida this weekend. After we released the first record there was definitely a lot of being away from home. I think we did something like 50-plus shows in eighteen months between 2016 and 2017. I grew up on a dairy farm so being busy is an okay thing for me. We love what we do. Even when you’re doing what you love there’s two sides, you can go out to a lot of different places and have a lot of amazing experiences but it will keep away from home.
What have you learned from touring so much in bands?
That’s a good question and a lot of ways to answer it. There are just the practical parts of answering that, you learn how to be on the road, what to do, what not to do, how to behave, how to take care of yourself stay healthy while you’re on the move, how to get around a city. One of the great tings about nowadays is we all carry phones that do so much. You can find interesting spots of a city a lot quicker than even ten, fifteen years ago. As far as everything else, on a musical aspect of what you bring to the table, you learn not to take anything for granted. Every experience is unique – keep your ears open, keep your eyes open, and use it as an opportunity to learn.
There’s something new in every town. If you’re fortunate enough to be on tour you want to make sure you’re thinking about the music first, and the music second, and the music third, that you’re focusing on that people are taking time out of their day to come see you play. You want to make sure you’re giving them the best of what you have inside of yourself on any given day. One of the things I learned from years and years of touring is that every city in some way is completely unique and every city in some way is completely similar.
People are people no matter where you go and that’s a good thing. I tend to look at the bright side of life. I think the biggest thing is also you got to take it one day at a time. Live in the now, don’t be thinking about two months from now when you’re on the road. Or look at a string of dates and think I’m gonna be away from home for six weeks. Just get out there and play each day and take each day on.
I love every size and shape of venue and city. Having grown up in a place where when I went to grade school I had four kids in my class. Over the course of my life, having experienced the smallest of rural communities and living one of the biggest cities of the world (Los Angeles), and everything in between, I’ve learned to appreciate what each different community has to offer. One of the things I love about being in a smaller city is that people are really friendly. Audiences are always fantastic in those smaller towns. When you’re in smaller venue there’s a better chance that you’re going to talk to some folks and meet some people something that I really enjoy doing. I love meeting people.
Do you get much of a chance to explore a town on tour?
Before I do an interview I’ll look up the city and try to learn a little about its history, look at the venue. Seeing that venue (Brooklyn Arts) was really amazing. I’m looking forward to visiting your town and hopefully I’ll have a chance to walk around. There’s so much history in your town, going back to the founding of this country. I’m a history buff. I love all that stuff.
North Carolina my favorite pork barbecue in the world. Whenever I’m in Carolina I have to try and find something. When I was just starting out of college, one of the first tours we did, we didn’t have any money and touring in a van. This was when I was living in Wisconsin and we were playing shows around the North and South Carolina areas. We were looking for some barbecue. A truck driver directed us to some place, it was one of those experiences where that was the first time I’d ever been in that area and experienced that style.
Being from the Midwest I always thought of barbecue in a particular way, and all of a sudden I find myself in this place, a place that didn’t look like it would even be open. It was really run down looking and I don’t think it had an open sign. And it was one of the most memorable dining experiences of my life. You’re eating off a paper plate but this is as good as it gets. So I always look forward to being in the area for that reason and I can guarantee you I’ll be hunting for something in that nature when I’m in Wilmington.
Is The Record Company an L.A. band? Has living there changed you, affected your writing?
L.A. has changed me, at the core I’m still the same, but it’s brought so many experiences to my life. I would never have done living in Wisconsin, like eating sushi. When you’re landlocked in the Midwest, you’re like, sushi? Are you kidding me? Man, I love that stuff now. When you can see water it’s gonna be good, when you gotta fly it in from 2500 miles that’s probably not a good idea.
We are from L.A., we are an L.A. band. We all come from all over and when we started playing we kind of stuck out like a sore thumb. My background, I always loved blues and rock and roll. My grandpa loved old country music, Hank, Johnny, Willie. That was part of what helped us form this band out there. The thing about L.A. it has a thriving music scene so you can find a place out here, no matter what you’re doing. That was helpful, having places to play. We definitely consider ourselves an L.A. band but not in the sense of (L.A.’s history).
The L.A. scene is sprawling versions of what I’ve seen everywhere else – you got a scene of punk rock bands, of Americana and bluegrass bands, of rock and roll, you got electronic, hip hop scene, even when I was living back in Milwaukee it was the case, maybe not as big. But all these elements were in place and artists tend to find each other and figure out a way to get there music out there, even if a community doesn’t have venues that are supporting certain types of things. You’ll find these people playing in living rooms and basements and old buildings.
Was it your intention to be a trio from the outset or perhaps later add other people?
No, there never was, we just liked the sound we were getting. You never know, you can evolve, but we’re not looking for anything. The thing I like about a three piece band is that your fourth member is the space between you, between the sounds. That space, the reason I think that sometimes as a three piece band, you can be listening and think, that’s a lot of sound for three people. It’s because you’re also being engaged by what’s not there. It’s like they used to say, you don’t dance because of the notes you dance because of the space between the notes.
It’s the same philosophy. That energy, that emptiness, we found that we found the emptiness and make it part of your sound you get a greater depth. Some people can decorate a room with every knick-knack you could ever find and it’s an amazing, overwhelming experience. Sometimes you go in a room and there are a few things in there and it’s striking and stark. Those things have to be what they are, have to matter, and be doing their job. That’s the thing about being a three piece band; you take something away it’s a big difference. If you stop playing guitar for a verse that’s just bass and drums. You bring that guitar back in it changes things in a big way.
I love the simplicity of it. Not to mention that music is a conversation between people, a universal language. When you have only three people speaking to each other once its easy to have a conversation go in different ways really quickly in different directions because you don’t have to step back and be polite and wait for six other people to understand where you’re coming from, not so much pushing and pulling. I’m not saying that playing in a larger band isn’t fantastic, but if you look the benefits of what I see as a three-piece, that conversation in music, if our drummer Mark hits a tom in a certain way I know we’re taking a right turn, in a different direction. It’s easier for two guys to go in a certain way than say, six other guys.
It allows for some improvised moments. We try to keep it fresh every night, but you gotta let the songs be what they’re going to be in any given space. You’re not trying to force something, you’re trying let something come to life and everybody in the room and everybody involved in the music that day has a very big part to play in what that song is going to be that day and the experience that is going to be everybody. Again, that’s another reason why I enjoy touring and live music.
It has a feeling of immediacy, like I’m in there with you.
That’s a very nice compliment, I appreciate that. We recorded that album ourselves and our bass player mixed it and we did it in his living room, so you are in the room with us. It wasn’t some fancy studio. Honestly, when we made that record the thought of some of the stuff that followed, that was not on our minds. We certainly weren’t thinking about some of things that came to pass, Grammy nomination, playing with John Mayer at Madison Square Garden, when I was thinking about singing my vocal part, staring into my microphone. Our sound baffling was we would turn the microphone towards our bass player Alex record’s collection. So I sang every song staring into record titles, all sitting there right in front of me.
It was fun to make that record because that space, we hung out there, we rehearsed in that living room, we wrote all those songs in that living room, we listened to those old vinyl’s that I stared into, that shaped the record were in that living room.
Making the new record, in a studio, do you think that will alter the band’s sound?
That (first) record was great. This new record is different in that we moved into a studio. I’m excited about the new record because we retained what we are but we took that natural next step. When you’re three guys there are songs you can get close as live a possible, you’re gonna go back and do some overdubs for sure. The experience of playing something completely live is a thrill and there are songs on the Give It Back to You record like that. There are songs on the new record that are like that, a majority that are done live.
There’s something that happens when the three of us play. You gotta do what’s right for the song. It’s not about an idea, it’s about the sound. You got to believe your heart, and your ears, and your gut. You can’t be letting your head dictating everything that’s happening in a creative moment, or you sterilize it. You overanalyze it. There’s good editing and then there’s editing the soul out of a song. There’s good crafting and there’s crafting for the wrong reason and every artist has to decided where that line is for themselves. For us it took some time to understand that and we let that evolve.
The first early recordings of the band were the three of us in that living room with four microphones strung around playing live. You want to grow your sound, challenge yourself, to make new sounds. You do open up the box and start pulling more tools out. For us it’s been very natural that way. But we learned those hard lessons in earlier groups.
Before we formed this band I was in bands where we did force the issue or did edit the soul out of a song or you didn’t know how to believe in what we were hearing. When the three of us got together we brought all of that knowledge and were all in the same place if we were going to go back out there with another group. We found each other and never looked back. The first time we played together and heard the recording we formed a band that afternoon.
After playing for a year, did the band and those songs start to feel like a well oiled machine?
One of the best analogies I ever heard about what happens is from a old friend of mine back in Milwaukee, a guitar player, is like having a click in-field in baseball, an in-field that’s been playing together for so long they just know, and that definitely happens. You definitely feel as time goes on that you’re understanding one another more and more, see things you can do to keeps songs interesting and fresh. You certainly get to a point where you feel really good as a band, know what everybody’s trying to do at any given moment.
Is the new album familiar to your debut?
We took what we did on the first record and went down the center and then pushed to the left and right. You try to expand your space a little bit, take some chances you didn’t take before. You also don’t just walk away from what you are as a band. To me, we always look at an album, I look at the Stones a lot, and they’re all over the place sometimes but the albums sound like a uniform concept, sounds like a total album. That’s the way we think, we think in terms of albums. Our thing is, we want to find ten songs that work well in an album setting. I feel like the new record we just made, it’s an album, a record we designed that if somebody’s enjoying it you play it all the way to the end. If you got the vinyl you listen to side A and then side B.
When we pace out a record we think in terms of side A and side B. What’s the end of side A, what’s the beginning of Side B? Even if you’re listening in the digital format, we want to feel that as if we’ve presented an album that flows because there’s a beautiful arc and drama that had always been there in music making up until the last twenty years. Just like if you watch a good movie or play, you had to consider the different acts. One of the big acts in listening to vinyl is flipping over the record. You have to stop the experience and turn it over, even if it’s only ten seconds. It gives you an opportunity to look at your record as both a complete experience but as two sides and you can tell a different tale on each side.
Is putting the album order together difficult? Does it change shape in the process?
You don’t know what an album is until you’re close to completing it. You got to keep writing the songs and as you’re picking songs for the record, we’re asking ourselves what do we have and what would we like to have? If you’ve got yourself a song that’s in a particular space you think is really great you don’t have to write five more like that. What else can you say, what else can you do? That’s the things we’re thinking about when making a record. We learned that by listening to other records we admire.
Bruce Springsteen had a quote I heard when I was a little kid. I can’t get the quote exactly right, but I can give you the crux of what it was. “The greats have you left you lessons to learn if you care to listen, and they’re sitting there right on those records.” What that taught me as a youngster, I always remember there were records I listened to for pure joy and other times I listened to records like a kid studying at school with a book open taking notes. You take that lesson and ingest it and let it be a part of you and when it comes out of you it should be that lesson reflected trough your lens, which should hopefully make it your own and unique.
You’ve played music for a long time, how do you look back on it?
We love music and love playing it. I feel real blessed to have the opportunity to do it. Now that we have that opportunity I want to work hard everyday to stay worthy of that opportunity. Music is the only true magic I think there is. If you’re in a room, bar, church, house, and there’s music on and there’s people in that room and the music stops, the room completely changes. If you are looking with your eyes you can’t see any change, except for that the whole room went where’d the music go? There’s a connective spirit.
Historically, every single culture found music, even the most remote cultures you found a drum, some sort of instrument. It’s a calling we have we have from our souls, that’s why so important to protect and appreciate and for kids to have the opportunity to experience at home and school. It enriches lives and brings people together. I have music here in languages I don’t understand one word they’re saying but I love it. It doesn’t matter, it transcends. Coming together and being together is something we could use a little more of in this world right now.
What is your memory of playing Madison Square Garden?
We got on that John Mayer tour and those venues, eleven or twelve shows; they were all of that size – 18,000, 20,000 seats. That was big step up for us, that was the first time we’d been on a tour bus, first time played with a roof over our heads and have it be that big of a sound and that many lights. First time we had a bigger crew, more than just us and our sound guy, because you needed all of that to do this thing. But one part that didn’t change was that after years of van touring I always take my guitars into my hotel room. Back in the day you didn’t wan your guitars stolen out of the van. It was born of practicality but if I had my guitars in my room I’ll practice too. That was good.
This time I had only taken my one Telecaster back to my room. I woke up the morning I was going to play the show and I could see the Garden from my hotel room. I had breakfast and kissed my wife goodbye and said see you at the show. I picked up my guitar case and looked at the Garden a couple of blocks away and I walked out on the streets of New York, I turn and faced the Garden, and started walking toward it. It started getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I’m holding my guitar that I’ve walked through to play in front of zero people many times in clubs and smoky bars and it starts to dawn on me what’s about to happen.
Its settling in slowly as that building is getting larger. It’s settling in to my heart that I’m walking my guitar into that building right now. I get up to the Garden, there it is, and I’m outside walking toward the door. I walk in the security door, get this security check, I walk backstage, walk up the steps of the stage, take my guitar out of my guitar case, put it on the stand on the stage of Madison Square Garden. I turned and looked and went holy shit, I’m going to play Madison Square Garden tonight.
That’s the memory of me walking in there and turning around realizing I’m not playing Jim’s Crab Shack with the TV’s on and only the bartender and the sound guy, as I have done countless times over my career. That was an amazing moment and you got to say I’m going to take this experience in, be thankful for it, and I’m going to do my best here so I can walk away like I did my job tonight. And it was a great show.