“Led Zeppelin, ‘The Ocean.’ I heard it and I totally freaked out. I told my dad I had to play drums. He told me I stuck my finger right in his chest and said, ‘I’m a drummer, man.’ ”
This is Theo Katzman — drummer, guitarist, singer and 2007 graduate from the University’s jazz program — best known around Tree Town for his work with the funk group Vulfpeck and former electro-pop group, My Dear Disco, currently on tour for his next solo album, due for release in January. For the first time in a year, Katzman is returning to Ann Arbor for a solo performance at the Blind Pig this Saturday, Nov. 5.
It has been a swift climb to popularity for Katzman, who for six years has been collaborating with Vulfpeck, while concurrently working on his own projects. Since graduating, he has been a part of the aforementioned My Dear Disco, written and produced music with the likes of Darren Criss and Ann Arbor’s Charlene Kaye, released his first solo album Heartbreak Hits and collaborated on six Vulfpeck projects — four EPs and two full-length albums.
Impressive, yes, but even more so when considering the broad array of genres encompassed under all these projects. From funk to rock to pop, Katzman has covered and mastered it all in his written and collaborative work. Vulfpeck brings the funk and Katzman comes in solo with the pop and rock, not to mention a moment of Irish-American fusion when he toured with The Olllam in 2014.
“Nowadays I’m making the kind of music I want to make both with my solo project and with Vulfpeck,” Katzman said. “But my thing is more of a rock thing, and Vulfpeck is more of a funk thing.”
Originally from Long Island, Katzman grew up surrounded by music. A professional jazz trumpetist, his dad played in the studio band during the Johnny Carson years at “The Tonight Show,” and his grandparents, classical musicians, performed in orchestras like The Detroit Symphony and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Music obviously runs in his veins, but Katzman insists there was nothing forcing him into creative arts; he simply found himself there by the booming progression of John Bonham’s groove.
“(Because of my dad) I knew it was possible to have a life in music. A lot of kids don’t know it’s possible, and that makes a big difference in whether you take the step to try to focus on it,” Katzman said.
Katzman formed his first band in high school — a little indie thing by the name of Lovango. They were deep underground, too big for Myspace or Bandcamp, but not too big for inexplicably strange names. From there, he entered the University’s Jazz and Contemplative Studies program, where he contemplated jazz with a focus in drums — his weapon of choice.
“I was in the Jazz program, and I was definitely a lost soul there,” Katzman said. “I didn’t feel like a jazz player even though I liked jazz a lot … I was always kind of trying to start a rock band.”
Not exclusively rock, My Dear Disco/Ella Riot was a product of this pursuit, where Katzman played with future Vulfpeck members Joe Dart and Joey Dosik. After touring with them for three years, Katzman sought his own solo career, beginning work on his debut album Romance Without Finance in 2009 and releasing it in 2011. While on tour, Katzman performed with Love Massive, a band that also included Dart, after releasing the first full-length album from Vulfpeck that same year.
And with The Beautiful Game, Vulfpeck’s second LP, coming out only weeks ago, Katzman has once again hit the road to promote his next solo album after writing and producing both albums over the course of the last two years. Two different sounds at the exact same time, but with a similar range of artists collaborating — Dart, Dosik and Julian Allen, the three of whom will be at the Blind Pig, along with Woody Goss and Tyler Duncan, a producer who recorded much of the album at his home studio in Ann Arbor. The uniting thread between all of these absurdly talented artists? Just that — absurdity and Ann Arbor.
“It’s sort of like in each different project there’s been different levels of going back to Ann Arbor,” Katzman continued. “It’s a scene. Ann Arbor is a great breeding ground for the future arties of the world.”
So let’s bring on the rock now, because despite Vulfpeck’s undeniable mastery of funk, Katzman’s here to play a rock show and give some advice about life and the blind chances he takes as a multi-instrumentalist in it. His next album is “more rock and a little heavier” than the acoustic lightness of his first; it’s more rock ‘n’ roll.
“I’m hoping people think (the different genres are) interesting and not just confusing, but that’s the risk you take by just being alive,” Katzman said. “People project sometimes that they’re trying to fit into a particular mold because maybe it seems like it’s more marketable. But our generation will be testing the limits of this because we are the iTunes generation. We’re the kids who grew up listening to all different kinds of music, who grew up listening to the greatest hits.”
And he’s right. In the digital age, we have every kind of music at our fingertips for the first time in history. Not only does this give us unbelievable power to converge different sounds, but it also encourages the testing of limits with what can be mixed and messed with. There’s boundless opportunity to derive influence from Funk Brothers and Frank Ocean; there are endless occasions to match wits with James Brown and Jimmy Page, as long as there’s something to hold the sounds together. For Katzman, that something is the lyrics.
“What will glue everything together is good songwriting. If the songs are good it shouldn’t matter what the styles are; you should be able to pull from anywhere in that realm,” Katzman said. “Lyrics are my favorite element of writing, and they’re usually where I get my musical ideas. I try to get a concept and go from there.”
Maybe that’s why Katzman has perfected the pop-rock song. Listen to “Backpocket” off of Vulfpeck’s Thrill of the Arts, a track Katzman wrote, and tell me you don’t want to dance. Now listen to songs like “Hard Work” and “Brooklyn” and tell me you don’t want to dance harder. It’s not the same funk of the Vulf, but it’s the rock Elvis brought when he started shaking his hips. It’s popular music done right.
“I think quality music is becoming very popular based on its own merit again,” Katzman said. “The independent artists movement is finally starting to get its own footing with the Internet now that streaming is more widespread and the technology is more readily available to create art for everybody. I think good music’s coming back.”
This isn’t your Top 40 pop that strains the ears with every repetitive chord progression after the next. This isn’t your New 98.7 radio trash. This is your “White Picket Castle” crying self who wants to feel those deeply buried emotions in the pit of your stomach, in your gut; it’s the person who wants to shamelessly dance to a modern rock song without the sub-genres’ smirks lingering in your peripheral. This is music that makes you want to feel expressively and unrelentingly.
“I want people to feel something. I want people to feel inspired and moved into their own creative power,” Katzman said. “I think inspired art inspires, and I try to make music that emotionally resonates with me and try to extrapolate real feelings that are human whether it’s my own feelings or someone else’s and turn that into a compelling piece of art. So when I play live I really aim to transfer that to the audience, the same kind of emotion that went into making the music.”
And sometimes that feeling requires one to sell one’s soul to Billy Joel — c’est la vie. But no matter the cost, come join Katzman, Dosik, Dart and Allen in their journey to rock. Try and see it as a humanitarian effort or a certain kind of charity work.
“Live performance of music specifically can bring people together; it can bring people in better harmony with themselves. Not that I’m doing it for humanitarian reasons, I just love to rock, I’m a rock dude, and I need to play — that’s not the same as real charity work. It’s rock n’ roll.”
Listen to Dosik sing his soulful tunes and witness Joe Dart tug at the bass like he’s playing strings of a heart as Katzman reminisces on his time passing out in the green room of the Blind Pig after “I-don’t-even-know what concert.” Come for the music, stay for the living proof that some unbelievably talented individuals survive to tell their tale of the University, even if they lost their documented proof.
“I can’t find my diploma, so I hope that I don’t actually have to present it to anyone,” Katzman concluded. “Trust me though, I did college.”