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Features, Print January 15, 2020

Theo Katzman: Modern Johnny Explores The Darkness With The Light

by Dan England

In 2017, just before Theo Katzman prepared to write his last full-length album Heartbreak Hits, his father died, he had a bad breakup, and he lost a bunch of money on what he thought was a cool professional opportunity. This is how Katzman discovered his sense of humor.

He was already kind of a goofy guy. In Vulfpeck, he helped write “Animal Spirits,” a funny song about a perfect couple who hadn’t met yet, and he appeared in the video playing drums while his stratospheric singing voice is lip-synced by Vulfpeck’s bandleader Jack Stratton wearing a mishmash of something a dad would wear to a pickup soccer game to embarrass his kids. Joke’s on you, viewers! But he had no intention of being a funny guy until hanging out with Stratton, one of the funniest guys on the planet, Katzman said.

Stratton laughed at Katzman – a lot – and so did his friends in Vulfpeck, a band that never takes itself too seriously despite the complex, jazz-influenced funk they play. Katzman became comfortable with being a funny guy and unleashed that humor in Heartbreak Hits, an album he wrote to help him get over a period of intense loss. In that record’s lead-off track “Hard Work,” for instance, he sang about doing a girl’s laundry and “folding it real nice” as one of the many reasons she shouldn’t break up with him.

Known for his shenanigans in the goof-funk supergroup Vulfpeck, Theo Katzman’s true musical self shines in his Modern Johnny series of releases. Photo by Nicol Biesek.

“Out of the wake of all that was sort of this ‘f— it’ attitude,” Katzman said in a phone interview for BandWagon. “I realized I tend to gravitate toward a lighthearted, sarcastic take on life most of the time. But it’s not just funny. There’s a moment when people watch my shows, they laugh, but then there’s this lyric and they feel bad for laughing. That’s how life is for me. I’m a weirdo. I want it to be uncomfortable.”

That’s the kind of discomfort Katzman discovered in a trio of songs he wrote for his recent EP, Modern Johnny Tackles The Issues, now also part of a larger album, Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe, which dropped mere days ago.

With discomfort in stride, life is actually much better for Katzman now. Vulfpeck has sold out Red Rocks the last two summers and played to a sold-out crowd in mid-December at Madison Square Garden, thanks in part to a groundbreaking social media presence and in part to “Back Pocket,” the band’s hit song that Apple turned into an iPhone commercial. But his new EP is a bit more serious, even worldly, than his past works.

The Katzman’s self proclaimed “issue tackling” full-length Modern Johnny Sings: Songs In The Age Of Vibe dropped just days ago, with grave discussions cloaked in a twist of humor and frankness. Photo by Nicol Biesek.

Katzman writes about President Trump’s confrontational disposition and how that’s changing the world in “You Could Be President,” income disparity in “(I Don’t Want To Be A) Billionaire,” harassment in “Like a Woman Scorned,” and the futility of existence in “100 Years From Now.” Katzman addresses the issues with lyrics drenched in sarcasm, of course, and they still provoke the laughter Katzman now finds comforting, but they’re also songs about our tough and changing times.

“I don’t really ever intend to write anything in particular. I just sort of write and see what’s there, and what I saw was some borderline political stuff,” Katzman said. “I just looked at the songs and thought they should come out [on the release] together.”

Katzman says the moniker Modern Johnny is a feeling, not a persona he developed, but it provides a kind of curtain which helps embolden him to write about the more serious topics. He’s self-aware that “tackling the issues” seems ridiculous, and yet, it was something he felt he needed to release as an artist.

He sees himself as a singer-songwriter, and although Vulfpeck pays a lot of bills, Katzman still thinks of it as the side project he and his friends from the University of Michigan would play once a year until their videos sparked an internet sensation.

“I really am a singer-songwriter,” Katzman said. “People might assume that I’m just Vulfpeck under a different name, but it’s completely different music. When you look at Cory (Wong), he’s funky as hell. That’s just not who I am.”

Indeed, Katzman prefers catchy pop rock inspired by the 1970s from bands such as The Eagles and Little Feat, with the latest EP leaning a bit on southern rock, and the full-length evoking a sharp-witted Jeff Buckley or George Michael instead of the funk-jazz-rock Vulfpeck or the band’s guitarist, Wong, plays.

Touring the country in support of Songs In The Key Of Vibe, Katzman hits the Fox on January 30 and The Bluebird Theater January 31 and Feb 1. Photo by Nicol Biesek.

Because he sees himself as a singer-songwriter, he takes pride in his lyrics the same way James Taylor or Jimmy Buffet might (though he sways toward the latter and considers Ben Folds and his comical, quirky lyrics another influence).

“I don’t think I’m making comedy music,” Katzman said. “If I’m doing my job right, the people in my audience at times will be insanely sad. I like to play with emotion that way. But I think you can explore the light along with the dark. I’m a joyful, extremely passionate person who feels things deeply. But I can’t make you hurt if you can’t walk into my room and have a beer on the couch with me.”

And personable though he is, he happens to play in one of the more popular bands on the web right now. But that, he says, will not change him. 

“Vulfpeck is a joyful outlet,” Katzman said. “But the solo thing is who I am. I have to do it, and I’ll do it my whole life.”

Catch Theo Katzman live in Colorado in support of Modern Johnny Sings: Songs In The Age Of Vibe January 30 at The Fox Theater in Boulder and January 31 at The Bluebird Theater in Denver. Dig theokatzman.com for more.