Vulpeck’s Theo Katzman Shares His Heartbreak Hits
Photo by Dean Budnick
To many, the genre-bending, wildly unpredictable outfit Vulfpeck burst onto the scene and into the jam world with 2015’s Thrill of the Arts leading to subsequent appearances at Bonnaroo, Lockn’ and other festivals that put them squarely within the jamband bubble. But to bandleader Theo Katzman, this was indeed a slow burn to success.
“It feels like nobody witnessed the first four years,” Katzman jokes, referring to the initial output from the band that included several EPs and relentless touring. “It hit a tipping point and then people started saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I just discovered this new band with this wealth of stuff.’ But really, it’s years worth of work.”
With Vulf, as Katzman calls it, firmly in the eye of the public and amassing crowds all over the world (the multi-instrumentalist gushes over 1,500 people in Dublin humming the bass parts to Vulfpeck’s infectious material), he is pausing ever so briefly to release a personal collection of songs appropriately dubbed Heartbreak Hits. Because, as he notes, if Vulfpeck’s early days are unknown to most, so are Katzman’s as he recounts the trials and tribulations of a young musician, bouncing from coast to coast and emerging through hardship to land solidly on his feet with a wealth of music.
You had a solo career before, so when Vulfpeck blew up, what was your reaction to that?
I have so much love for Jack [Stratto], Joe [Dart], Woody [Gass], Antwaun [Stanley] and the community that has been created out of Vulfpeck. That has blown me away.
Initially, I was surprised. It wasn’t my plan, because I was mostly thinking of myself, and still do, as a songwriter and singer. Initially, I was a little nervous, not knowing what it would mean for the expectations placed on me in terms of this being something too good to pass up. But actually, everyone in the band has been very supportive of me on my solo project.
Joe and Woody still play on my records, Jack was my drummer for a while. It’s very much a supportive scene. Initially I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do both. After putting in a solid 1-2 years to really get Vulf to where it is, everybody in the band wants to focus it more and hone in on what kind of shows we want to play, what kind of media we want to make. We need to prioritize making records and getting together. That’s the thing that built Vulfpeck—YouTube and the records.
We’re going to take all that to the next level and it’s actually going to leave me with a little more time to do my solo project which I really believe in.
Within the next two years, I’m hoping my [solo work] can be sizable enough to have its own legs. It’ll be different stylistically. I really think Vulfpeck is a phenomenon and I don’t anticipate anything like it happening in my life again. It’s just this phenomenon that’s taken on a life of its own.
It all happened pretty quickly for you guys.
Here’s the thing, I’ve been working with Vulf for 6 years now so the first four years it was like nobody witnessed, in a way. We were just amassing this massive catalog. At some point it hit a tipping point and then people started saying, “Oh my gosh, I just discovered this new band with this wealth of stuff.” But really, it’s years’ worth of work.
The quick part was the way it hit the tipping point, it came seemingly out of nowhere for me, but I had been living a sort of balanced existence where Vulf is a very small part of the time that I make music. The rest I’m doing freelance stuff and working on my project. It was all great. We got to do the Colbert show and become friends with some of the guys in Stay Human now. I love those guys, great band.
Take me back to the Ann Arbor, MI music scene when you were just starting out as a student at University of Michigan.
We all went to the University of Michigan, I’m the oldest member of Vulfpeck. We were in the music school in various programs. Before Vulfpeck I was in this group with Joey Dosik and our friend Tyler Duncan who produces my records now and engineers the Vulf. He’s my main writing partner. We’re doing a project with Antwaun and that’s going to be a solo project for Antwaun, which is exciting. A little more of a pop thing, just cool music that I’m really proud of. That’s later this year too.
We were in the music school together, so we were homies and we would hang out, then we started a band with Tyler and Joey and a couple other people, called My Dear Disco. It was basically electro-pop meets this longform, trance thing. All our songs were 7 and a half minutes long. It was never going to be a pop radio thing, even though we wanted it to be.
I quit that band to start doing my own thing. Joe was my bass player and then at some point Jack and Joe were freaking out on this funk stuff, so we wanted to do one session for our friend’s senior recording thesis. We played a couple tunes and that became Vulfpeck.
I will say the Ann Arbor scene was really just essential. I lucked out that I happened to be in that town at the right time with those people. Then it came time for me to move and I wanted a bigger city and more musical opportunities and connections. I first came to New York and then I went to Los Angeles where I live now. But Ann Arbor will forever be the start of my musical existence. It’s still a place where I do a lot of work. Our friend Tyler Duncan has a studio, so it’s cheaper for us to fly to Michigan and spend a week there working on a Vulf record, so we do that a lot now. I’ve been to Michigan every other or every third month since 2011 when I moved.
When you put out your first solo record Romance Without Finance, you were in Brooklyn?
I put out my first LP in November of 2011 and I moved to New York in October of 2011. So it was about the same time. That’s going to look like it’s a six-year gap when my next record will come out, but a lot happened in those years. I did a lot of work in LA while living in New York.
I was working in LA as a writer for other artists and producers. I devoted two years of my life to that, and then Vulf took off so I took time for that. It’s funny to see myself put out a record five years ago but now I’m in a really good flow with my own writing and I know more about what I want to do—write my own music.
I’m less interested in climbing the ladder of the Hollywood writing scene. I really thought that was what I wanted to do but then I didn’t. It’s cool to try things out and that was my 20’s, but now I’m ready to make an album a year.
Your main reason for going to LA was to do the Hollywood thing?
I quit the Hollywood thing before I moved Los Angeles. I was in New York, quit the Hollywood thing, and went to Michigan. I lived at Tyler’s house rent-free for eight months. I just had to get my head together and figure out what I wanted to do.
My father had also passed away around that time. I had a break-up. I had to move. So it was a really intense, tough time for me. I got my head together in Michigan, then I decided to go to Los Angeles but not for the same reasons I had thought I was going there for. I realized every time I go to LA there’s the writing thing but there’s also the community of Joey Dosik, a huge reason I moved there.
I just hit a friend up to tell them I’d be around and they’d ask me to play nights at clubs all nights of the week. I had a bedrock of opportunity there so I went for it. I know New York has all that going on too, but I hadn’t connected with it when I lived here, so I came out to LA to try to get a cheap place to live and to be a weirdo artist.
Believe it or not, I have found both of those things. I have an affordable place to live, knock on wood.