Six weeks after The Record Company’s second album All of This Life released on Concord Records, the album and its first single “Life to Fix” climbed to the top of the Americana Music Association’s albums and singles charts. It’s not quite as big a moment for the band as, say, a Grammy nomination announcement or an invitation to perform at Madison Square Garden—both of which the band received in years past—but it is a confirmation that the expanded sound the group set out to explore on All of This Life is picking up traction with listeners.
Praised shortly after singer Chris Vos, bassist Alex Stiff and drummer Marc Cazorla joined forces in Los Angeles 2011 for the full sound they managed to accomplish (surprising, many critics said, for a band of three), The Record Company sought to deepen that sound on All of This Life, leaving behind the home studio in which they’d recorded their debut album Give it Back to You and settling inside a studio at Boulevard Recordings in Hollywood. The Record Company recently launched a U.S. tour in support of their latest release, during which they promise to dust off fan favorites from the first album in addition to new tracks—but before getting too far along on that tour, Vos touched base with Blues Rock Review via phone from Milwaukee, Wis., to discuss the music, Jimmy Reed’s influence and the small musical moment that made all the difference to Vos as a child.
What goals did the band have going into the making of this record?
Goals never change, at least not for the way we approach music. We always want to be honest about where we’re at. We want to make the best music we can. That’s the top priority: To make honest music that reflects what we’re thinking and feeling, and the kinds of sounds we’re enjoying creating at the time.
In making a record, we learn through the process. This was our first time going into a follow-up album, where people heard the first album. Going into the second record, you’re making something that people are going to be waiting to hear. You have to know that, but you don’t want to focus on that fact. It’s all about making the music, making the songs and enjoying the process. We’re trying to be honest, because we’re drawing from our lives, our experiences, and it was really important to all of us to reflect on what happened since Give it Back to You came out and bring forward what we felt we had learned, musically and philosophically, in some of the lyrics.
We wanted to expand the sound, so we went into a really nice studio. We wanted the second album to sound like we had evolved, had grown into a newer sound.
How did being in a professional studio affect your recording process?
You embrace the environment you’re in. We went into Boulevard Recordings, and that room has been there for a long time. Everybody from Ray Charles to Pink Floyd, who did part of The Wall in that place, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac and more recently War on Drugs did their albums there. It looks virtually preserved from those days. You can tell that great music happened there. You can feel it when you walk in the room.
In practical terms, if I’m in a living room, I can only turn my amp up so loud or crash the cymbals so hard before you have a neighbor knocking on the door, going, “What are you doing?” In a studio like this, you can turn it up and let it rip. You do have a different environment in a practical sense, because you’re not thinking about some of the other factors. Recording in a living room, you’re forced to deal with whatever you have and make that work. In a studio, you have a lot more options, and it makes you realize you have to not get lost in all those options.
Did you have a sense of being part of something larger than yourselves while you were at Boulevard Recordings, given its history?
I hadn’t really thought about it. Those other groups—I’m huge fans of those bands. Being a fan, you put those bands over here: Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Ray Charles. These bands and artists are icons. I didn’t necessarily look at us as being part of something. Once we started recording, I just looked at it as an opportunity to be in a great place where a lot of great stuff happened.
Once you start recording, you’re not in the middle of a take thinking, Wow, Roger Waters was in this room, or, Ray Charles was in this room. If you’re thinking that while you’re recording, you’re not focused on the task at hand. You acknowledge that when you go in there, and then you have to go completely 100 percent into, “How does this sound? Is this working?” When you’re recording, that’s no time to get sentimental about memories or thoughts outside the music. Your sole job is a great, beautiful thing to do: You get to walk into a room and be creative and realize that’s what you’re there to do. You have to take advantage of that gift, however it came to be, and really give that time fully to the music and the creation.
I’ll often think about it as a person who’s in the ninth inning of the World Series, and they have to hit the baseball. They need to hit the ball to win the game. What’s the difference between the person who does and does not hit the ball? I think the person who hits the ball, at the moment they’re swinging, they’re not thinking about what’s going to happen when they hit it. They’re thinking, I have to hit this thing. They’re only looking at the ball and thinking about the ball. You’ve got to stay focused. You have to be concerned with what’s happening in that moment. If you get distracted by the greater concepts, you’re not going to do your job.
You find yourself in situations because you’ve lived your life and gone through and made the mistakes and learned the lessons that got you that possibility. If you are at the bottom of the ninth, swinging at a baseball in the World Series, you went through a lot to get to that place. All the lessons you learned your whole life are with you at that point. It’s the same as a musician. If I was just plopped at 14 years old, when I first picked up a guitar, into a studio like that, I would have been completely overwhelmed and wouldn’t have known what to do. But after years of playing and being in many different studios and different environments, making records that didn’t work out, the more you learn something, the more you learn how to do it well. That’s part of being aware of what you do and don’t do well, what you need to work on, what you can do in that space.
Music is a unifying force. I remember when, at the beginning of this adventure before our first record came out, we were on tour in Europe. The first night that we were in Spain, we were in Madrid and had the night off. Our drummer, Marc, and myself went to a little blues club. It was amazing. I went downstairs and there was this guy who had this amazing slide technique. He’d built his own guitar and was clearly self-taught, and he was one of the best players I’d ever seen. He had one of the best vocal tones I’ve heard, maybe ever. He’s just playing this little club in front of 15, 20 people. It’s one of those magical experiences you only dream of. You read about it, and all of a sudden there you are. This guy spoke Spanish, I spoke English. I can speak a little Spanish, but I’m not fluent. We couldn’t talk about what was happening, but we could point at the instrument. He’d play something, and then he’d hand me his slide and I could play something. We could communicate that way, and maybe say more to each other than we could otherwise. That’s a really beautiful thing that exists across all genres, across all countries and in every language. You can hear music, and if it touches you, it doesn’t matter if it’s from where you come from; it could be an instrument you’ve never heard before and can bring beauty into your life.
How did you approach All of This Life from a lyrical standpoint?
Every song was different. I’d say it was a very personal record. Like “Life to Fix,” one of the things we talked about was how maybe the greatest thing you can do in any situation is reflect and improve yourself first. Make sure you’re being a good person. We all can do better; no matter how down you are, you can always do better, and no matter how high up you are, you can always do better, have more understanding, be kinder, be more loving.
This experience made that all come home. All of us thought that our dreams were gone. We thought that we would never be in a touring group again. All of us had reached that point where we weren’t done, but the likelihood of having conversations like this was highly unlikely. We came together and loved playing together, so we just decided, “Let’s give it our best shot.” When things all of a sudden happen that you didn’t expect and you check off some boxes that you never thought you’d check off, what you’re left with is a surprise, an opportunity to look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Wow, all that happened—and I still have things to work on. I still have things I’ve got to get better at.”
As a band, we talk about how the Beatles had a really simple philosophy about their music, and it was, “Peace, love and positivity.” I don’t know how that resonates these days, but it resonates great with me. We’re just trying to be positive and honest and say something about what we’ve learned. If we’re talking about how lonely we are in a song, it’s because one or all of us were talking about how lonely we were. If we’re talking about wanting to come back home, it’s because we wanted to come back home. If we’re talking about how much we’re in love with somebody and need to get away with that person and be in love, it’s because that’s what happened.
Have the experiences you’ve had with prior bands given you all a greater appreciation for the success you’ve found with The Record Company?
There was a much greater and wiser artist than me who said in a song, “If you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose.” When we got together, we enjoyed this music. We didn’t know if people would enjoy it or if we’d even be able to book a coffee shop playing this kind of stuff, but that’s what we wanted to do. It was funny that, ultimately, what ended up working was us surrendering to what we loved most, not thinking about how it would come across. As three guys listening to old blues, rock ‘n’ roll and punk records in a living room in Los Angeles, Calif., we certainly weren’t thinking about radio charts. We just wanted to make music we loved. We’d all been through a lot, and we were excited to be excited.
I’ve had the experience of handing in my record and not getting a gig, not getting on the radio. I’ve heard a lot more of “no” than I’ll hear of “yes.” That’s par for the course; that’s not a complaint. When you start hearing “yes,” it makes you realize how special that is. It definitely did motivate us to say, “Okay, let’s really give this a shot; let’s really throw ourselves into this group and support each other through this process.”
What moments stand out to you as marking a shift toward success with The Record Company?
The first time we heard ourselves on the radio was great. I remember the first time we opened for a bigger artist; that was amazing. The first time we went overseas was amazing. When we signed our record deal, that was quite a day. Getting a Grammy nomination was certainly a shock. Getting on that John Mayer tour and getting to play venues like Madison Square Garden was definitely a shock.
Even though those moments stand out, there are also the little moments. There’s a kid in St. Louis who couldn’t come to our show, and he had heard our stuff online and loved it. His dad brought him down; he’d had a Little League game he was playing that day, so he was wearing his Little League outfit and he had our record. His dad was like, “He needed to come down after the game to get his record signed.” So we signed his record, and the next time we came through St. Louis, the kid came back and he had a lap steel, so we signed the lap steel. Now every time we go back to St. Louis, the kid and his dad write the email we gave them to stay in touch, and we always make sure they get into the show.
That stands out because I can remember being that kid in the baseball uniform that liked guitar. The idea of having something like that happen, that touches me. It’s not just the big moments; sometimes the biggest moments are in the little moments. Saying “Grammy” and “Madison Square Garden” definitely gets people’s attention, and they’re certainly memories we treasure, but things like somebody shaking your hand and saying something personal about your song and looking you in the eye, those moments are really touching. That’s a gift, and I’m thankful for all of that. The opportunity to make music and have those smaller moments, which happen more on a day-to-day basis, those keep you going and make you want to do a good job.
The band has cited several influences as impacting the ways in which you create and perform music. What is it about Jimmy Reed in particular that inspires The Record Company?
I’m the big Jimmy Reed fan. I have every single thing he ever did, as far as I know. I’m obsessed with the man’s music. He has an ease to him; his lyrics are brilliant. He has a way about him. He’s understated, not one of those big voices like John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, where you hear the voice and you go, “Holy smokes, what a voice.” He’s simple and he’s quiet, and he’s gentle in his approach. And he’s a badass, and he’s honest and real. There are recordings where you can tell he had an alcohol problem. He had a lot of recordings where you can hear that he was completely not sober. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but those recordings mean a lot to me, because it’s an honest moment. It’s an imperfect perfect moment. That’s why I love Jimmy Reed: because he’s human, and his music’s brilliant. He isn’t perfect, and he has the best backbeat, swing and gentle sway to his music of any blues artist, in my opinion. You can put him on in the hippest party in the hippest city in the world, and nobody’s going to say, “Turn that off.” They’ll go, “Who is this?” I can say that because I do it all the time. I put him on all the time, in places where you probably shouldn’t. I really treasure his music. His influence on me is in every way. There’s no way I can put my finger on it.
When we got our Grammy nomination, my wife woke me up, freaking out because she’d seen it online. She said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to call my parents and I’m going to go listen to Jimmy Reed.” That’s what I did.
Is there a music-related memory that stands out to you, either from childhood or as a professional musician?
Watching my grandpa play an accordion when I was about 3 years old and realizing that he was making some sort of music. I didn’t understand how that was possible. I might have been 3 or 4, or 5. That’s my first powerful musical memory. It’s the first time I remember seeing somebody play, and this guy was my grandpa, my freakin’ hero. I’m 5 years old, and the guy walks on water. He pulls out an accordion and starts playing, and there’s music coming out. I don’t remember what I thought; I just remember it absolutely perplexing and fascinating me. Right up until the day he died, my grandpa would say, “Once I pulled out that accordion, you all wanted to hear that thing.” I was on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, my entire world was my family, and seeing my grandpa pull out an instrument and play it? I can honestly say that that moment lit a little fire inside of me, even at that age, that never went out.
To get into some of the songs on the new record: For a song as emotional and delicate as “You and Me Now,” how did the band go about crafting that song?
Alex Stiff, our bass player, came up with the whole concept. It was really his vision. He came to me with some lyrics and chords and the structure he was hearing, and I was like, “This is great, man.” It was one of those moments where a band member brings you a song, says, “Hey man, I was strumming on this.” That’s the beauty of our group: it can happen any way. We can write it together, we write apart, but it always takes all of us to make it.
We all write the songs, but there are occasions where one guy will come in with an idea. I remember the phone call: Alex called me, saying, “I’ve got this thing; it’s lyrics and I think it’s really great.” He said, “It makes sense with you,” because I have been married to my wife since my early 20s. I’m deeply in love with that woman. So these lyrics meant a lot to me. They resonated with me. I can’t remember what I added, if I added anything at all. I don’t remember how it all unfolded. I just remember playing the song for the first time, playing the first verse and being like, “Yeah dude, this is great.”
We wanted to take things a little further to the left and to the right of where we went with the first record. It’s important to expand your sound and evolve.
“The Movie Song” is another that stands out as having emotional lyrics, though in that case they are more nostalgic than heartfelt. How did that song come together?
We had the chorus sitting around for a while and couldn’t really come together with the music. Alex and I were talking one day, and he was like, “How about you write some lyrics about where you came from?” So I just wrote a little story about my experiences in the summertime and being a kid. About my mom, my dad, my grandpa, my brothers. Again, the little moments are the big moments in life, sometimes. You’ve got to spend time reflecting. You can’t live in the past, but it’s okay to acknowledge it. We’re always trying to get over the bad things that have happened, but sometimes getting over the bad things can be remedied by remembering that some good things happened, too. There’s nothing wrong with being sentimental, and that song definitely has a lot of that.
Interview by Meghan Roos