There you are, on a stage making your national television debut with several million eyes watching on TVs across the country – not to mention the three pairs of eyes belonging to Conan O’Brien, Steve Wozniak and Snoop Dogg watching live just a few feet away. It sounds like a bizarre dream, but for The Record Company and frontman Chris Vos, that was their Monday night last week.
"It was a dream come true, man," Vos said, "but I was scared to death. It’s just like anything else; the moment you sit down and start playing, you’re just playing your song, and you just play it the best you can. And then it’s over, and it’s out of your hands at that point."
Those dreams-becoming-reality moments are becoming increasingly regular for the L.A.-based band as it continues to ping louder and louder on the rock ‘n’ roll world’s radar. In just these first few months of 2016, the band has released its debut full-length album, "Give It Back To You," seen its single "Off The Ground" debut on the Billboard charts at #23 (it’s since climbed up to #13), received write-ups from the likes of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, and got an in-person album request from Steven Tyler.
All signs would point to The Record Company going places, but that doesn’t mean Vos has forgotten the place where his journey all began: right here in Milwaukee, where he’ll be returning on March 30 for a Turner Hall Ballroom gig.
"Linneman’s open mic was where I started playing music in front of people, and it’s really where I learned how to start writing songs," Vos recalled. "Then there’s playing the Tuesday nights with Matt Turner and Jeremy Kuzniar and all the guys that were in the (Erotic Adventures of the Static) Chicken, all the stuff I did with Invade Rome and the Freshwater Collins guys – all that stuff is invaluable. The Cocksmiths, playing on that first record, and sitting in with Juniper Tar. Those were great times, and I learned so much about being a musician through the community."
Taking all that he learned and the skills that he honed in Milwaukee, Vos and his wife Val packed up and headed out west to Los Angeles in 2010. Over the course of six years, the guitarist has taken a liking toward his new home, insisting that it’s "just as friendly as anywhere else" and "a real place with great people." Also not fake: the massive intimidation factor of landing as a tiny speck on the sunny monolithic entertainment capital of the world.
"I remember when I moved here, I was standing on the back porch to my apartment with all of my stuff in boxes, and I was looking out at L.A., and I was like, ‘How in the f*ck am I going to get into that?’" Vos joked. "It was just a vast expanse of lights; it was just millions of lights. And my first thought was, ‘What have I done?’"
It didn’t take too long, however, for Vos to start getting comfortable and finding a place in the bustling L.A. music scene. Instead of hopping straight into a band, the relocated Milwaukeean took several gigs as a sideman, playing lap steel and pedal steel guitar that hooked him up with more people and better shows. The ultimate key to his early sideman success? Where else but Craigslist.
"In Milwaukee, you don’t go on Craigslist to find a band or say that you have a band – or at least I didn’t; my friends and I just formed bands with one another," Vos recalled. "But out here, people post legitimate gigs on Craigslist; you just have to keep an eye. My first couple of sitting in gigs – where I got to play Austin City Limits Festival and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – were all off of Craigslist."
In between gigs, the online classifieds also linked Vos up with a fellow musician, bassist Alex Stiff. The two struck up a friendship, and in 2011, with an assist from Stiff’s impressive record collection and a few beers, they decided to join forces for a band.
"We were actually listening to John Lee Hooker’s 1971 four-sided LP ‘Hooker and Heat’ that he did with Canned Heat, and it’s just so sick," Vos remembered. "We just were like, ‘We need to be influenced by this kind of music and just see if we can do something that’s just kind of raw.’ So we started recording in the living room."
After adding drummer Marc Cazorla and getting through the arduous process of settling on a band name – "one of the most horrifying times" for almost all bands, according to Vos – The Record Company was born. And as the name suggests, the band plays an upfront, old fashioned brand of rock ‘n’ roll, a turned-up blend of growling guitars, a little blues, a little soul and a little gospel inspired by the likes of Hooker, Chuck Berry and, for a dash of punk energy, The Stooges.
"The week before the band started, I saw Iggy and the Stooges with Mike Watt on bass at the Palladium … and I walked out of that show and felt like I was a f*cking teenager again," Vos explained. "The freedom of what they did, the raw authenticity – anything that’s got that raw authenticity to it, whether it be blues, early rock ‘n’ roll, early soul, gospel, that’s the stuff we really focus in on and really get inspired by.
"Then in rock ‘n’ roll too," he added, "the roll matters as much as the rock, and the roll is the soul. The roll is where all the blues and the gospel and all those influences come in. We all know what the rock is. They don’t call Chuck Berry blues rock; they call Chuck Berry rock ‘n’ roll."
Over five years, Vos and The Record Company would work on honing and crafting their rendition of the rock and the roll, releasing two EPs and eventually scoring a full-length album deal with Concord Music Group. Arriving just over a month ago, the band’s debut release became a hit, led by the satisfyingly swampy, strutty Billboard hit "Off the Ground."
Combine the band’s raw, rollicking sound with the current roots rock resurgence, with bands like The Black Keys and Alabama Shakes – as well as Chris Stapleton and Nathaniel Rateliff on the Americana or country branch of the genre tree – in demand for radio play, listeners and awards shows, and it’s no wonder The Record Company is making a splash, climbing the charts, showing up on talk shows and talking lap steel guitars with Conan O’Brien and others of fame and influence.
"I got to talk to Jimmy Vivino (leader of Conan’s house band, The Basic Cable Band) beforehand for probably about 20 or 30 minutes about Hound Dog Taylor and slide tunings," Vos said of his TV debut last Monday. "Vivino told me he had a guitar with Hound Dog Taylor’s actual pickups in it, and I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ I mean, Hound Dog Taylor, to me, I just love him to death. It was awesome, man."
Even as L.A. shines brightly on Vos and his musical quest, his heart, however, still maintains a soft spot for the city that got everything started. He noted he misses his friends, his family, the beer and, of course, the Packers and heading up to Lambeau Field for games. He has, at least, found a Packer bar out in Burbank, and if that’s not an option, there are plenty of other friendly transplanted Wisconsinites to watch the games with. Even in the most dire situations, Vos finds his way to the Pack.
"I was in the Czech Republic when they played the Bears on Thanksgiving, and I watched it on my computer at 6 a.m. in the morning with a beer in my lap," he laughed. "I remember I stayed up the whole night, and at the end of the game, I was just like, ‘Well that just ripped my heart out.’ I spent $20 to watch it on crappy Wi-Fi and then they lost."
We saved our game tape analysis for another conversation, but it’s safe to say that you can take Vos out of Wisconsin but not the Wisconsin out of Vos.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.