In 2012, The Who had Vintage Trouble as the opening act on the first leg of their North American stadium tour. One night on the tour, as the LA band were due to take the stage, Pete Townshend pulled them aside and began unspooling a very, very long joke.
“He knew it was time for us to go on stage but he kept the conversation going!” recalls Ty Taylor, Vintage Trouble’s charismatic frontman.
The band realised it was a test: “Are we going to keep talking to him because he’s telling this joke, or do we leave him because we’ve got to get on stage?” says Taylor. They had two choices: listen politely so as not to piss him off, or cut the conversation short and go do what they were here to do. “We took the stage. We had to!”
That stint opening for The Who was followed by support slots with several of rock’s biggest bands, including the Rolling Stones, Kiss and AC/DC. Vintage Trouble’s blazing amalgam of vintage R&B, Motown soul and speaker-blowing rock’n’roll, along with their hyper-kinetic live show, won over pretty much every audience they played to, no matter how partisan.
Their debut album, 2011’s The Bomb Shelter Sessions, garnered attention and acclaim, and brought them a Classic Rock Award for Best New Band. Now, eight years after their last album of original material, 2015’s 1 Hopeful Rd., they’re finally back in business with a new record, the pulsing Heavy Hymnal.
Today feels like a full-circle moment for Taylor. We’re sitting in a shaded alcove in LA’s swanky Sunset Marquis hotel. In 2011, the singer and his bandmates – guitarist Nalle Colt, bassist Rick Barrio Dill and drummer Richard Danielson – met here to make their very first electronic press kit. It was very much a DIY operation, with the four of them filming each other as they were being interviewed by a media outlet.
“We were faking it!” says Taylor, howling with laughter. “Right in this very corner – not just in this very hotel, but in this very corner, on these grey and chartreuse, pillowed couches. So here we are! I do good interviews here.”
Taylor was virtually born into show business. He appeared in his first commercial when he was just 14 months old (it was for Pampers nappies). As an adult he’s performed in Broadway shows including Grease and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and appeared on TV in shows ranging from The Cosby Show to the reality programme Rock Star: INXS. More recently he landed a part in the Marvel TV series Hawkeye, playing the lead in a meta musical-within-theshow (there’s another project in the pipeline, but he’s not allowed to say what it is).
Back then when they convened in the Sunset Marquis, Vintage Trouble had been together less than a year. Taylor and Colt had started writing songs with each other, and brought in Barrio Dill and Danielson to form a fully fledged band. The band played their first show less than two weeks after they officially got together.
“We started playing at places where people already were,” he says, “and we were cocky enough to tell the owners: ‘It’s your bar, let’s see what it’s like when we play and you can pay us a portion of the bar that night.’ We ended up getting four residencies all over town. We were playing four nights a week without having to call a single friend to come.”
The energy of those early performances drew the attention of legendary manager Doc McGhee, who helped steer the careers of Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe during their 80s heydays, and who currently looks after Kiss.
"He signed us right away because we were playing all over the city – original music – and we were selling out everywhere,” says Taylor. “People were dancing and sweating, and they were dancing differently to our music than they would to rock’n’roll music. They were dancing at our shows more like they were at a 1960s soul concert or a Motown review or Stax show than a rock’n’show, and I think he loved that."
McGhee encouraged them to worry less about conquering Los Angeles and to instead focus on the UK, with its storied appreciation of soul music and the ocean-crossing success found there by Americans such as Jimi Hendrix and The Killers. As Taylor puts it: “He knew that he could put us into a rock’n’roll arena and we’d be the rock’n’roll band that was making people dance."
When The Bomb Shelter Sessions was released in 2011, it made an impact immediately. Vintage Trouble weren’t reinventing anything, but there was an entire generation of rock fans whose knowledge of old-school soul and R&B was surface at best. VT’s retromodern update gave it a new energy, not least from of Taylor’s powerhouse vocals, charismatic presence and ability to carry a stylish suit like few others. Hard rock audiences, sometimes suspicious of the new, embraced them.
“I think we had the advantage of having a black frontperson,” says Taylor, “and being more of a soul band in those places. People don’t think of us as trying to be the next AC/DC or trying to be the next Rolling Stones. The crowd isn’t looking at us and thinking: ‘Who do you think you are, trying to be AC/DC?’ I think that was an advantage. And because my band plays like motherfuckers. They play their hearts out, and I’m relentless. I don’t allow people to not treat us like we’re the headline act.”
The album 1 Hopeful Rd. was followed by an EP in each of 2018 and 2019: the confusingly titled Chapter II – EP I and Chapter II – EP II. But the initial burst of excitement and attention that surrounded Vintage Trouble seemed to be subsiding even before covid hit.
“We didn’t slow down,” Taylor insists, pushing back against the suggestion that the band had lost momentum. “We actually sold more records after 2015 than we did before that. We were on the road less but selling records more. We were tired of being a band that had to play twenty times a week in order to be seen. We wanted to figure out how to make records, so we started making records.”
As he speaks, a woman passes by our alcove and Taylor notices her. It’s Diane Warren, the Midas-like songwriter behind hits by Aerosmith, Heart, Cher and many others. It turns out the two of them know each other.
“Diane!” he exclaims, leaping up from the couch to say hello. “Hi, Ty,” she replies with a grin. The two chat for a few minutes, before agreeing to catch up under less hectic circumstances.
“That was Diane Warren,” exclaims Taylor, gushing into the microphone. Jaded he isn’t.
Covid impacted on Vintage Trouble in the same way it impacted on countless other bands and artists. With no shows to play and no foreseeable light at the end of the tunnel, they got to work on new material. For Taylor, there was plenty of inspiration, bad and good, for lyrics.
“We’re talking about George Floyd, we’re talking about Trump, we’re talking about family members passing away, we’re talking about divorce, we’re talking about an unforeseeable future for entertainers when the pandemic happened,” he says. “All the things that happen during any revolutionary or evolutionary time in the world brings out the best music.“
The album they emerged with is Heavy Hymnal, 10 genre-blending tracks that celebrate the band’s trademark style while expanding the boundaries of soul music and traditional rhythm and blues. Who I Am, Holla! and You Already Know tap into the feverish, foot-stomping energy of a revival, while Baby What You Do, Alright Alright and Shinin’ showcase a funky 70s soul vibe that will impel even the most sedentary audience to abandon their seats and dance. The Love That Once Lingered features a smouldering duet with Lady Blackbird.
“I happened to be going through a divorce myself,” says Taylor, “and I wrote a song a while back about a different situation that works really well for me right now, because it talks about the love that you had and sometimes it goes away.”
The record closes with Repeating History, a biting protest song with a blazing guitar outro. “It’s about not being quiet about the things you believe in, and not just seeing that things are better for other people and letting it make you mad or shrink you, but obtaining it for yourself. And if you’ve got to march in the streets, if you’ve got to jump up and down on your bed, if you’ve got to call your Congressman, there are ways to make noise. You don’t have to be sitting in a big seat to make noise.”
Race is an issue very much at the heart of the album; Taylor is, after all, a black man playing historically black music, for overwhelmingly white audiences.
“Fortunately and unfortunately, I’m the black guy that gets in white rooms,” he explains. “That’s the way my whole life has been. As I grow up it makes me feel honoured but it also hurts me as a person. I’ve always been celebrated, but I’ll say this: celebrated sometimes in a way that makes me feel like I’m a dancing monkey. Because they want you to be more soulful or they want you to do this or that because that’s the difference."
Consequently, on the new album you can hear more focus on contemporary R&B stylings and on the type of soul music reminiscent of 60s-era Ray Charles.
“We wanted to reach people that weren’t only rock and blues audiences,” says Taylor. “You have to imagine that as a black person it’s disheartening for me to perform to thousands of people and no one in the audience looks like me. So the goal was to figure out how to make our records sound more like soul records than blues-rock records.
"There’s no way I can be an African-American doing the same music that I’ve been doing for the last two years. It would be irresponsible of me for things to not have changed. Now I understand the blues more, I understand racism more, I understand murder more, I understand privilege more.” This updated sound includes bits of electronica, layers of effects and subtle dynamics that transcend the sounds of the past.
“I know so many people that are great blues-rock musicians but their music sounds to me like music that their heroes played,” says Taylor. “But I don’t think it sounds like music that their heroes would be playing today. I think the new record is the record that old-school rhythm and blues artists would make if they were alive today."
While the singer disputes that Vintage Trouble had lost any momentum over the past few years, he acknowledges that fans might have wondered where the band had gone.
“You might have a best friend, and then you go through a period in your life when you’re not connected and then you reconnect. I do think that this new music will give some people who thought they lost us something to reconnect to. So in that, I don’t feel like there’s any ‘coming back’ that needs to happen.
"It’s almost like calling an old friend and saying: ‘Let’s see where we are now.’ I would invite any friends who have not been to the party recently to come to the party again and re-evaluate, because I think they will find more things there for them. And I think it will be a better gateway drug to what we think is happening now.”
Soon Vintage Trouble will be packing their suitcases and heading off for a pair of dates in Japan before heading over to the UK for their European summer tour, which kicked off with a return to the Glastonbury Festival. Their expectations for their band aren’t unrealistic: Taylor says they’re not looking to headline stadiums (although they certainly would if the opportunity arose). But that’s not their why.
“Thank god for social media in a certain sense, because you’re continually made aware of how what you’re doing changes lives, so you see that it becomes bigger than you. What keeps us going is understanding that what we do is more than just our own wants and needs and desires, but satisfying people outside of us and feeding, for some of them, what keeps them going.”
Taylor won’t even take a guess where the band might be 10 years from now, although he cheekily suggests “dead” before roaring with laughter, followed by “in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame”, which he finds equally hilarious. He then pauses for a moment and says simply: “I can’t tell where we’ll be ten years from now because I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to be. I just don’t know.” And that’s the way he likes it.
Heavy Hymnal is out now via Cooking Vinyl.