It was the gamble that paid dividends. Back in 2011, three despondent musicians in their thirties – an angry metalhead from the sticks in Wisconsin, a shy, Eric Clapton-loving guitarist from Pennsylvania and a gig-hungry keyboard player from upstate New York – met in Los Angeles and decided to start a blues-rock band.
The angry metalhead (Chris Vos) became the frontman, the guitarist (Alex Stiff) became the bassist, and the keyboard player (Marc Cazorla) became the drummer. Together they were The Record Company, and they played rock’n’roll, spliced with the primal hoodoo of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones.
Tracks were recorded in Stiff’s living room. They all wore black. They didn’t care one bit about being ‘cool’. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. Two acclaimed albums, support gigs at uber-venues like Madison Square Garden and a Grammy nomination ensued. Blues rock seemed to have defined them.
Except, in truth, it doesn’t. It never has.
The Record Company are no homogenous, blues-purist unit. Between the three of them they’ve tried to break out in Nashville, written for hip-hop artists in California and played “fucked up” experimental sets in Milwaukee. Jam bands. Sludge metal. Electronica. No covers. Always living – or, more often, dying – by their own music. Ten years on, it was time to step out of the blues-rock trio format, reminding us that The Record Company was built by three individuals open to new ideas.
“Our influences are so vast,” Vos tells us. “We listen to bands like Tame Impala. We listen to electronic music. I love Boards Of Canada. I listen to Muddy Waters, and the Stones, and Alan Lomax’s recordings from the 1920s…”
“I think any artist that you love from any era, they all evolved,” Stiff (producer of their first two records) says. “We needed to come up with something that felt different. And it was different. It was like ‘Let’s think bigger on every single level’ across the board. I actually volunteered to have a producer on the album; I didn’t want to continually get the same thing.”
The end result was Play Loud, a tight, sun-kissed cocktail of rock’n’roll, blues, soulful pop, ambient touches and blissed-out psychedelic strains. There are high-energy songs. Pensive songs. Expansive songs. For the first time ever they worked with a producer, Dave Sardy, and collaborated with songwriters on some tracks. Extra musicians were brought in and instruments swapped at times, as the barriers of the trio format were broken down. Sardy pushed them to their limits.
“I wanted a producer that drove me crazy,” Vos says. “With the first record it was one or two takes. Then you read about Tom Petty making records and doing forty two takes. What’s that like? Well, I found out. It’s hellish, but you get good shit out of it."
Chris Vos was born angry. Furious, even. Growing up on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, he didn’t know what to do with it. He learned his first guitar chops watching his grandfather play country tunes at churches and retirement homes. At school there were three other children in his class. Outwardly he got on well with people, his family included. Inwardly, that deep-set anger desperately looked for a way out.
“No reason either,” he says. “It wasn’t put there by my parents. I was never angry at anyone, I just didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. I was known outwardly as very cheerful. I was never one to get into fights, or yell, or misbehave. But I’d go outside and run and run and run and run and climb and run and ride my bike and take it off ramps and go crazy.”
A solution of sorts came in seventh grade, when he heard Metallica’s Seek And Destroy. It opened him up to worlds that were wholly removed from his remote dairy-farm existence.
“Some kid came to my school with a ‘Metal Up Your Ass’ T-shirt,” he remembers. “It was a little catholic school. Scared the shit out of the teachers – scared the shit out of everyone. And I loved it. But I didn’t have the guts to be that yet. But it made sense to me.”
As a newly converted metal fan, he recognised the same qualities in the blues artists he also gravitated towards: “I saw the sadness and the frustration in Muddy Waters or Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker etcetera, and I loved the aggression of everything from Megadeth to Sepultura.”
Duly set on making a life out of music, he moved to Milwaukee and channelled that anger into a series of bands, including Erotic Adventures Of The Static Chicken (“fucked up” experimentalists who improvised sprawling, zero-fucks-given sets over an eight-year residency) and Invade Rome – purveyors of “big, heavy, sludgy, angry screaming music”.
The more Vos’s dream ceased to work out, the angrier his output became. “Loud amplification was how I processed all that energy. That’s the only way I knew how to process emotions. Fear, joy, anger, all of it.”
A few years later in Los Angeles (he moved there for his wife’s media job; the two of them met in their early 20s and married within a couple of years), it was Invade Rome’s music that piqued the curiosity of his now-bandmates, who’d responded to an advert Vos posted via Craigslist. The seeds of The Record Company were formed as the three of them started afresh. And the anger?
“You’ll never see that side of me,” he says. “I’m the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. But when you see me kneeling on stage, screaming into a microphone, there’s something behind that. I do it because I have to. I’m addicted to it. It’s my fix and it’s the thing that fixes me.”
Vos didn’t expect his musical kindred spirit to be an introverted, Jerry Garcia-loving guitarist from suburban Philadelphia. When they first met, Alex Stiff – who answered Vos’s ad and produced the first two Record Company records – was going through a time of change. For the first time ever he’d advertised himself as a bassist.
“I always had trouble finding bass players, my entire life,” he says over Zoom while his dog, Seger (yes, as in Bob) barks outside. “But I thought: ‘I know I can play bass pretty well, what if I try to put an ad up that I’m a bass player?’ It really was a last straw attempt.”
At that point he was ready to jack in music. Multiple bands including a solo project had collapsed, running up debts in the process. The compositional work he’d been paying the bills with was beginning to dry up.
“I was trying to think of other things to get into, like… starting a bagel shop. I’m not joking!” he laughs. It was a major low point for a guy who’d naturally taken to music all his life. As a teenager in Wayne, Pennsylvania, he was playing his sister’s piano pieces by ear, but it was the guitar that really called to him. “I wanted to learn every Led Zeppelin song, because I started to hear those songs on classic-rock radio stations. Clapton, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin… I had to learn all of it.”
Arriving in LA as a graduate, he worked odd jobs in between gigs, initially falling in with a hiphop crowd and working on a Tupac Shakur record (2002’s posthumous Better Dayz). From there, TV and film composing formed the backbone of his income for a time. He fronted an electronic-driven band, The Frequency, with old college friend Cazorla on drums, inspired by groups such as Air, Spiritualized and Pink Floyd.
The fruits of all this (coupled with myriad tricks learned from Dave Sardy) fed into this year’s Side Project, a surprising collection of covers: Big Mama Thornton’s Ball & Chain, INXS’s Devil Inside, Cypress Hill’s I Wanna Get High and Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, all of them “messed up” by Stiff in his home studio, where his confidence peaks. That collection paved the way for the open-minded spirit of Play Loud.
“I get really nervous before shows,” he admits, “but when I get on stage I love it. I think there are a lot of introverts that play music. They’re shy people, and they’re able to do this thing where the stage separates them from [the audience]. Sometimes I go: ‘I can’t believe this is what I do with my life.’”
So why do you do it?
“I just know that if I see a guitar I have to play it. It might be terrible, but I have to make something. That doesn’t go away.”
If you want to pique Marc Cazorla’s interest, the drums are one way in. You might mention heroes of his like Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr. Drumline routines like the ones he played in his school marching band, when he wasn’t pounding out Sepultura and Slayer songs in church basements. Beating the crap out of his kit on stage with The Record Company, as headliners and at mega-shows with the likes of John Mayer, BB King and Bob Seger.
His other love, though, is keyboards. Most of the piano parts on all their albums are his. When he got his own place in Los Feliz, LA, he began to fill it with keyboards he collected, having moved out of the apartment block he’d initially moved into with Alex (“the median age was probably 90 to a hundred,” he recalls. “Just very old Russian people”). Fast-forward to 2020, and for Cazorla working in Dave Sardy’s amply equipped studio was like being a kid in a toy shop.
“Sardy had just finished working on The Who record and he was just getting ready to work on Modest Mouse, so he has all these old, incredible analogue synths and keyboards laying around,” he enthuses. “We had never used any of that stuff. It was just open season. He’s like: ‘Let’s try everything, don’t worry about how you’re gonna do this live. We’re making a record; you have to separate the two.’”
Upon graduating from college in Pennsylvania, Cazorla had watched his peers get finance jobs in New York City. The band he and Alex started had just played an out-of-town gig in Pittsburgh. Around the same time, he and some friends drove his sister cross-country to Los Angeles, along the way seeing much of America for the first time.
“When I drove back home I was like: ‘There’s too much life experience to be had to just go to New York, live in a shoebox apartment and make money in something I don’t even know if I’ll like.’ I’d been in bands the entirety of my high-school and college life, and I didn’t want it to end. I remember doing that show and thinking: ‘Is that it? Are we grown-ups now and we can’t do this any more?’”
Accordingly, he moved to Nashville and tried to get gigs there, and realised that his bluesy, play-by-ear keyboards approach wouldn’t cut it on the session circuit. He wound up working for BMI’s writer relations department, until his old college bandmate Alex mentioned that he had a spare room in LA.
Twenty years later, the City of Angels continues to inspire the three of them with its hidden layers, A-type personalities and contradictions. It’s a refreshingly open take on a place that’s often reduced (in the media, at least) to Hollywood, the health-obsessed and Sunset Boulevard.
“If you have any crazy idea, no one’s gonna look down on you for it, because everybody has crazy ideas,” Cazorla says. “Once I navigated my way through all the bullshit, the Hollywood stuff, there’s pockets of really cool places. The perception is that it exists in this 10-block Hollywood radius, when actually it’s 15 million people, with incredible culture. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.”
Blues rock set The Record Company up for two records. For Play Loud it was the city, a game-raising producer and, ultimately, themselves. All of it boiled down to the same maxim: making great songs.
“Dave Sardy saw something in us and he pushed us to make the songs better,” Vos says of the Play Loud process. “Every band we love, they were all song bands. The Grateful Dead. Led Zeppelin. Van Halen. Metallica. They jam up, but at the core they curate and create great songs."
Play Loud is out now via Concord. (opens in new tab)