Grateful Web Interview with Theo Katzman

Article Contributed by June Reedy | Published on Friday, January 3, 2020

Theo Katzman reminds me of that kid in my junior high art class that was so charming, interesting and easy to talk to.  His music is crazy catchy. His voice is out of this world. He is like the Robin Williams of musical ingénue with vocal characters and complimentary insightful lyrics.  When not touring with Vulfpeck, he is doing his own solo material including his latest EP, Modern Johnny Tackles The Issues. We here at Grateful Web are in love with "Like a Woman Scorned" as well as the single already released, "You Could Be President." Modern Johnny Wallows in Introspection and Gently Goes Mad just came out on December 20th as well. Theo took some time out of his day to chat with Grateful Web about his latest work.

Theo Katzman - Photo by L. Paul Mann

GW: Where am I calling you today? 

TK: I am in Los Angles where I live. I’m just coming back from a voice lesson

GW: Very cool.  I have a few questions for you. I guess I’ll start there, what musically drives you, Theo?

TK: Okay, musically? Like, you mean what would be an inspiration, musically?

GW: Well listening to your music, it’s a very produced sound.  That lends itself to the idea that you are after a whole sound. From reading a little bit about you, it seems like you do write all different parts of your music. I just wanted to ask, what drives you musically when you’re writing a song?

TK: Oh yeah, OK. I feel like the song tends to, well, best-case scenario, is that it unveils or reveals itself on its own. I tend to start with lyrics and lyrics usually suggest melody and then melody usually suggests chords and then by the time that’s happening, there’s usually a groove suggested. I just follow that through and try to see what I find as opposed to saying I’m gonna write a salsa song… or I’m gonna write a tango… or I’m gonna write… (chuckles) I don’t know who is writing tangos right now in American Pop music but...yeah! That’s the process.  Rather than having a target I usually set out to see what I can discover.  I do play several instruments, so arrangement - wise, even if I don’t play every instrument on a track, I do have an idea of what I’m hoping to hear from whoever is playing it.

GW: Right on, gotcha. So I’m going to be honest. I am not all too familiar with your music so would you mind playing a creative game with me?

TK: Sure!

Theo Katzman - Photo by L. Paul Mann

GW: It’s called: Top Five Companions at Dinner. It would be at your favorite restaurant, in your favorite city and it could be a group, but it is 5 separate dinners.

TK: Hmm… So I could go to dinner 5 different times 

GW: Who would be your top 5 dinner companions?

TK: So are they supposed to be famous or can it be anybody?

GW: whatever you personally would prefer. Just trying to get to know you as a person, thanks for playing!

TK: Yeah, no problem, 5 different dinners? One would be my mom. It’d be all my friends, to be honest. (chuckle) Probably. I mean I kinda, I’d want to go out to dinner with Joe Walsh from the Eagles.

GW: Nice!

TK: I’d want to go out to dinner with my friend Pete who I went out to dinner with last night. He is mt new friend Pete and he is one of the coolest guys ever loved having dinner with him. It was like, “We gotta do that all the time!” and then, this is kinda boring thing I’m giving you I realize that. My Mother, Joe Walsh…

GW: It makes me want to ask about Pete. Why is Pete so cool?

TK: Pete Harper, his music is under the name James Henry Junior. He played in a band called Harper Blynn for a long time. He’s done a lot of stuff, he’s got a project called Motor Sales, he’s just a creative dude, a new friend. Another one would be Jacob Jefferies, one of my favorite songwriters. 

GW: Nice

TK: Then Ryan Lerman and Jack Stratton, all musicians that I love that I already go out to dinner with, ya know? 

GW: That’s awesome!

Theo Katzman

TK: Honestly, I’d probably take them to… well, now I’m just telling you my favorite places to eat in LA.

GW: I’m down with that! I didn’t find many good eats when I was in LA. I’m calling from Chicago and I’m pretty fond of our cuisine here. 

TK: Oh yeah! I love Chicago, I love Amara Kitchen in Highland Park. It’s a beautiful place to get nice, really cared for, whole food.

GW: Are you talking about Highland Park here in Illinois?

TK: No, there is actually a Highland Park in LA.

GW: Ahhh! No Way - Just checking, okay

TK: Yeah, Amara Kitchen. You gotta go to Beverly Soon Tofu House in Korea Town. Insane bibimbap, my favorite that I’ve ever had. Anthony Bourdain was also a fan of that. 

GW: Is there an episode of that one?

TK: I think there is a Parts Unknown episode. Chicago-wise, there is a couple… Donkey Table and Stick!

Theo Katzman - photo by Paul Mann

GW: I’ve never heard of that, cool!

TK: And then there is this insane pasta place I went to in Florence Italy. I can’t remember the name of it but it was the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life

GW: I’m sure it was! You were in Italy man!

TK: Yeah, so that’s probably where I’m at…

GW: So let’s talk about You Could Be President. That came out in October, right?

TK: Yeah, I just put out 3 songs on an EP. One of em is You Could Be President and then two others but You Could Be President I released as a single back in October, yes. 

GW: Is the EP you’re referring to, Modern Johnny Tackles the Issues?

TK: Yeah

GW: So You Could Be President, is that encouraging? Discouraging? The lyrics are a little jarring. I mean, you’re writing about what is going on and I’m just confused, where are we at? What’s going on here?

TK: Writing about what?

GW: The lyrics reflect what you’re doing, it is sending a message, I mean, I can’t believe that you really think the Earth is a private residence, do you?

TK: Oh no, no, yeah… It’s sarcastic. The idea behind the song was not just happening in America, but all over the world right now there is a rise of fascist leaders in response to people who are appealing to that fascist playbook, that old school playbook.  I’m not sure how political, whatever, I’ll just say my peace because you asked.

GW: Yes, please!

Theo Katzman

TK: I don’t, uh, obviously the song is in reference to Donald Trump but also I think it applies to a handful of leaders around the world right now who are sort of, being like, throwing truths out the window and trying to confuse people. Basically, it’s like THIER world. It feels like, it’s MY world, It’s MY way, who cares what the people think? It’s MY thing. Their egomaniacs and so this song is written from two perspectives. The guy singing the song says, “Hey it’s pretty weird out there kids. I know it looks scary but if you are a complete asshole and throw everybody’s shit out the window, you could be president.”

GW: The title itself, it’s encouraging! I mean it is nice to think that anybody could be president. That is a beautiful thought, right? As you dig deeper into the song though, is it sincere or is it sarcastic?

TK: Yeah, no. It’s 100% sarcastic. If this guy can be president, or these people can be president, look at what is possible. It’s dark. It’s completely 100% sarcasm. It’s not a joke. It’s heavy. To me, it’s heavy. I like music that’s on the edge of multiple feelings so this is fun, it’s really groovy, really rockin, it’s super catchy, and it’s really dark. (chuckles)

GW: Cool!

TK: Deal with that. It’s like Only the Good Die Young by Billy Joel. Do you know that song?

GW: Yes I do

TK: Listen to that lyric. Only the good die young. Ya know?

Theo Katzman

GW: Wow, I never thought of it that way.

TK: it’s not a happy song, really happy music though.  Or Bob Marley. Everyone’s like ‘what a happy guy!’ well, maybe a happy guy but that music is heavy and it’s talking about real shit. 

GW: Totally

TK: So if anybody listens to that song and doesn’t feel like they got a jarring complicated mixed message, then I think they didn’t understand it. My hope was that the sarcasm was obvious enough that it made sense. That is my hope.

GW: Absolutely!

TK: Run your mouth and mix all your messages, Twist the truth until you can’t make sense of it, You can’t lose if you can keep on bending it, You Could Be President? That’s the message that kids growing up in this world are gonna see. That bums me out, ya know?

GW: I judge high school speech meets on the weekends and I do the extemporaneous category where the kids have 45 minutes to prepare a politically-driven speech according to the questions provided for them. They should have researched these topics beforehand. They aren’t allowed to use their phones, just their prepared research. It’s hopeful and wonderful but I relate so much to what you are saying because in a lot of their speaking styles, they almost imitate Trump to get their point across that they do or do not like a topic.  

Theo Katzman

TK: Really? Can you tell me more about that? What does that look like?

GW: Well, for example, this past weekend… One discouraging part is that there are fewer and fewer kids that chose this category. So that is sad.

TK: Of course.

GW: I had three kids, two took the same question which was, “Do you think Donald Trump will have the African American vote in 2020?” The first kid, bless his heart, he must have been new to speech but he just got up there and without regard for the professional demeanor, tone, volume that you’re supposed to exhibit, he blurted out, “Donald Trump is awful!” You want him to improve his argument. As a judge, you can’t give him points if you simply agree with his content. You can’t give him points for being passionate.

TK: Right, cuz that is part of speech? I’m not sure how that works.

GW: Right. You have to be very impartial and present your arguments and facts in a well-organized manner, like “From CNBC at this time on this date, this report shows that… yadda yadda yadda.” 

TK: Right right! Well, we’ve seen journalists lose that playbook too because they’re so pissed off they’re losing their cool now too. It’s a confusing time for a kid, I can imagine. My whole thing is look, politics is one thing but humanity is the overarching

GW: The bigger picture.

TK: Donald Trump is not a good guy. He is a faker. He is an egomaniac. It bums me out. Bums. Me. Out. very, very deeply.  I don’t know what to say. I don’t care about his… to me that is paramount. We can argue about economic theory. That’s fine. You have an opinion, I may have a different one. Who knows? I don’t know if I’m right. I really don’t. 

GW: We can take turns and figure it out together what is correct in the long run.  It’s not that hard. 

TK: Yeah, you feel that your religion means that you can’t do a certain thing but I feel that it is necessary, whatever. I’m not gonna change your opinion about it. That’s okay. We need to be able to have those conversations. But a guy like Trump, he just sets the house on fire and then…

GW: There is nothing to argue about anymore

Theo Katzman - photo by Rob Katz

TK: Yeah! It’s tough. I’m pissed about it. I don’t even want to make political music.  I just want to make what comes out of me.  I’m ready to play for 25 people if that’s how many people want to hear it and I’ll be a happy camper. If there are 10,000, sweet! I’ll play my band more money or hire a massage therapist to come with on tour.  I’m not trying to be the next anything. I just want to be real. That is what this music is to me at this time of my life. By the way, the next album that is coming out is not all political stuff. There is other stuff too

GW: That’s why I was asking, the title Modern Johnny Tackles the Issues with the first single You Could Be President just has a direction that begs to be asked about but really what that song did for me because it is so genuine and personal with so many mixed messages is that it makes me want to see you live. I see you have a big fat tour coming up.  I figure if I saw you actually singing that song, I would be able to tell if you were really serious. 

TK: What do you mean if I’m serious or not? Talk more about that

GW: Just that the lyrics, the whole Earth is just a private residence, do what you want, send mixed messages - you are so specific about what I think is wrong in the world today. If I saw you singing it and I saw your facial expressions, I would definitely know that it’s sarcastic but just hearing the song creates that intrigue, is this guy serious? Are you part of the dark forces?

TK: Right right, ok cool. Dig it.  It is supposed to be captivating. It is supposed to be agitating and thought-provoking. I think catchy music is one of the great ways to make a message.  It’s infectious.

GW: One of the only ways to make meaning in a message in an oversaturated market is to make it repetitive and catchy.

TK: Yeah, you can say whatever you want but if you sing it and it’s got some do-ray-me-shit happening, guess what? It’s stuck there!

Theo Katzman

GW: Earworm!

TK: I hope, I thought it was sarcastic enough that it was clearly so. But, I hope I didn’t screw that up if you’re sort of not sure. That’s okay though. I think it would be kind of funny if some alt writers were at the gig like, “Yeah! you could be president” heh. Alright, bro. You don’t get it but… I’m not trying to alienate anyone. I’m trying to tell the truth. This is my truth. 

GW: Absolutely

TK: Donald Trump, as well as other world leaders, have done everything I mentioned in the song or behaved the ways I sing about in this song. The point is, look kids! You can do all these things and you can actually have the most powerful position in the world if you do them. 

GW: Well that was so clearly exploited with Hillary Clinton. We want girls to know that they can employ the highest office of the land too. But… but….but

TK: Sure. This is a perversion of that. If that weren’t clear, I’d like to make it clear in this interview that I am not suggesting you go be an asshole. 

GW: That is the beauty of the medium you chose, I think.  Music can be different things to different people. It can be a total release or hold deep meaning. Sarcasm is a coping technique for you but maybe not for everyone. Are you gonna go to the show and dance and enjoy these lighthearted sarcastic lyrics or are you gonna take it to heart as inspiration? That, to me, is really good art because you have created a piece that is open for interpretation by the audience and they can decide for themselves. 

Theo Katzman

TK: Right, cool! Yeah, I hope so. Sarcasm is something that I didn’t know was in me but has come out of me a lot recently.

GW: Are you from the east coast? Originally from New York?

TK: Yes

GW: I think sarcasm is waxed greatly on the east coast. I’m getting to know family in New Jersey and everything is sarcasm with them, everything is a sarcastic way of coping with issues for them. 

TK: Sure thing. That is a thing.  Also, I love Kurt Vonnegut. Sarcasm is really deep for me.

GW: Kurt Vonnegut loves his freshwater people. You went to the University of Michigan, right?

TK: Yeah. 

GW: Yeeeaaaah

TK: It’s not a joke though, you know? A lot of times people think you’re making a joke and it’s sarcastic like it is supposed to be facetious but it’s heavy. To me, that’s a big part of my heart is finding the objectivity to look at something and be like, this is absurd y’all! Do you see how absurd this is? It’s so absurd that I’m gonna talk about it like it’s cool. That’s how absurd this is! Anyway, that’s probably more that you bargaining for but here we are…

GW: No I love it! Again, we can’t be afraid to talk about hot button topics just because they are hot buttons. I’m totally jiving with what you are saying

TK: I didn’t know where you’d be on that spectrum. 

Theo Katzman with Vulfpeck

GW: It’s scary, right?

TK: Yeah but it’s also, I don’t feel bad. If somebody says, “I love Donald Trump because he is fighting for the American worker and he is gonna make our economy better and that is really important to me.” If they said that, I’d say, “well, I understand why you would want someone that does that but I believe you have the wrong guy because I want that too.” I don’t feel like it’s gonna make somebody hate me because I do not respect that man. It’s simple. Fine, you respect him, fine. You have things that you want out of him, fine. I respect you, I respect your opinion, but I do not respect that guy. I don’t understand why we can’t hold that duality. It’s getting worse and worse and worse. It’s so sad. It breaks my heart every freakin day. I hope you don’t print all my expletives but it’s just like…

GW: Well I think it’s very telling of the type of person you are that you chose your friends to go to dinner with - out of anyone in the world alive or dead. You chose people that you already know. I think it’s a sign of the changing times.  We definitely trust people that we know more than those we do not know. Throw in Trump’s pig-like attitude and mix it up… We will see what happens.

TK: I don’t know how to do an interview.

GW: I think you did just fine. Thank You so much for taking some time out with us today!