The Record Company: A Life to Fix Anew
In the living room of bassist Alex Stiff’s Los Angeles home, a half-dozen long, rectangular cardboard boxes filled with signed Fender guitars lean vertically against the wall. Stiff and his two Record Company bandmates—drummer Marc Cazorla and singer/guitarist Chris Vos—carry the cargo carefully, one box at a time, out to a waiting car. Seger, Stiff’s perfectly friendly, mildly protective dog, barks intently enough to let the visiting Fender rep know that this is his living room, too.
It’s a cozy space, longer than it is wide. A vintage upright piano and a gleaming Ludwig drum kit are placed next to the couch, with The Record Company logo affixed to the bass drum. Shelves stuffed with hundreds of vinyl records line the walls. A turntable sits poised for the next spin of an LP.
As their new sophomore release All of This Life quickly attests, The Record Company makes music that stomps out of the speakers. It rumbles with arresting authority in headphones and earbuds, and on TVs and laptops, as well. But, really, it’s music that should be heard, and felt, through some good old, hi- watt, solid maple behemoths. That’s how the members of The Record Company listen to the music they love because that’s rock-and-roll.
After wrapping up their morning promotional business, the three Record Company men sit on polished saddle stools in the shadow of Stiff’s impressive stacks of wax. Seger slumps on the hardwood, decimating a stump of rawhide.
“This is where we made our first album,” says Vos. That debut LP, Give It Back to You, spawned three Top-15 singles on Billboard’s AAA chart, including No. 1 “Off the Ground,” which tallied over 10 million Spotify streams and garnered the group a 2017 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Before there ever was a first album, though, there was a lie. Vos is a heartland native, raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm and well-versed in the commandments of honest, humble, hard work. He knocked around the Milwaukee club scene, earning his stripes at open mic nights, but after his wife Val, who worked in advertising, took a job in Los Angeles in 2010, Vos relocated to the West Coast. The singer/guitarist dutifully surrendered to the LA grind, answering Craigslist ads for sidemen, and playing pedal and lap steel on sessions and tours. It was unsatisfying and draining, so he posted his own ad.
While slogging it out on the road backing another musician, Vos called his wife and asked her to log in and renew his posting. She read her husband’s plea for simpatico players and thought it was terrible. “No one would respond to this,” she thought, before making some changes.
“She wrote what I refer to as a lovingly fraudulent ad,” says Vos. “It made me seem a lot cooler than I am or ever have been.”
Then singer/guitarist Stiff read Vos’ revised ad and thought it was worth at least a phone call, but came away from their talk discouraged that he’d be part of a start-up, instead of joining a work in progress. But, he liked Vos, and invited him to the house to barbecue and listen to records.
“The two biggest things that have happened in my life said no to me at first: my wife and these guys,” says Vos.
Stiff had actually known Cazorla—a once-and-future drummer playing keyboards after being enticed to the ivories by the blues of Charles Brown—since their days attending Bucknell University. The two formed a quick and lasting bond, but their story almost ended as a musician misconnection—Stiff migrated to Los Angeles just as Cazorla moved to Nashville.
After a few years toiling on Music Row, Cazorla reunited with his buddy out west. The pair circulated in and out of unsuccessful groups. They began to dread the routine and its implicit metaphors: the bad parking and cheap carpet of dreary rehearsal rooms, and the faceless, apathetic audiences. They had long since zoomed past being twentysomething optimists in the entertainment capital of the world and were now one step closer to the scrap heap of demo tapes and dive bars.
Vos had a strategy: He would politely hang around, occasionally calling Cazorla or Stiff for a session, or sitting-in on pedal steel at one of their gigs. They spent summer nights on Stiff’s porch, drinking beer and digging on John Lee Hooker. “Nobody was ever putting on records that the other guys didn’t want to hear,” says Vos. “I was going to find my band if it killed me.”
Their friendship grew over time, and the many nights they spent sampling Stiff’s colossal collection certainly aligned their musical sensibilities, but a year-and-a-half later they still didn’t have a band. Then, one night, Cazorla suggested setting up some mics in the living room and recording as a trio.
“I was still really skeptical of being in a band, just from all of the prior heartbreak,” says Stiff.
They sat on the porch listening back to tapes of their jam. Stiff and Cazorla agreed, undeniably, that Vos possessed the rare combination of a killer voice and a keen songwriting ability. With Stiff relatively untrained as a bassist and Cazorla shifting back to drums, by default, they quickly locked into a rhythm section that flashed a uniquely restrained pocket.
“I remember looking at them both and saying, ‘That sounds like a band to me,’” says Vos.
On New Year’s Eve 2011, The Record Company made their public debut at Harvard & Stone—a hipster’s hang in the Thai Town section of Hollywood Boulevard that’s more boulevard grit than Hollywood—during a party hosted by Stiff. (The bar’s dress code ranges from discouraging shiny shirts to flip-flops.) In the first week of January 2012, they booked a proper gig at Harvard & Stone, and then in the spring, scored a coveted residency where they proceeded to blend their originals with A-and-B- side covers of classic 45s from The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters and The Stooges. They handed out business cards with a free download link to the set of songs they recorded in their living room laboratory.
They also began performing shows with complimentary beer at High Fidelity, a record shop that was then located in their Los Feliz neighborhood. A third residency across town at The Satellite netted more new fans.
“We’d gone almost a year and still hadn’t charged anyone a dollar to see us,” says Cazorla.
Vos delivered pizzas and loaded moving company trucks. “We were calling ourselves The Record Company—in LA—and we didn’t know if we could even get a record deal,” Vos adds. But Stiff’s experience composing music for television Lab partners: Cazorla, Vox, Stiff (l-r) and film exposed opportunities for song licensing, and The Record Company’s homegrown tracks started popping up on CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and BBC America’s Orphan Black.
“I’d get emails saying a TV show wanted to use a song,” says Stiff. “All of us would be like, ‘Yes, of course.’”
Vos is quick to add: “We’ve never said yes to anything we didn’t like. Even in the early days, we passed on a few. There are things we will and won’t do.”
The Record Company remain a democratic entity. On the porch that first night, certain of the music they had just created, Vos laid out a deal: They would split everything from the work, stress and responsibilities to the money and songwriting evenly.
All three band members would also get to vote on every band decision. “We will not green light something, in any respect, if we all three don’t feel it,” says Vos. “I like to say we’re three reasonably capable guys that can make one good decision at a time collectively.”
Thanks to some licensing checks, the members of The Record Company were able to stay afloat, and they eventually scored an opening slot for Brian Setzer Orchestra on a national tour. They hawked their two self-released EPs on the road, catching the eyes of the Concord Records reps scouting their show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.
“It was one of those nights when the merch line was like one for a roller coaster,” says Cazorla. “You could see those [Concord] guys thinking, ‘Whoa.’”
In February 2016, Concord released Give It Back to You and “Off the Ground” topped the Adult Alternative Songs chart thanks to regular plays on 93 XRT in Chicago, WXPN in Philly and SiriusXM. Their concerts—raw, muscular revels built around the punk-marrow bones of rock-and-roll— also started to sell out. Then, in December, they landed a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
“My wife’s saying, ‘Oh, my god. Oh, my god.’ And, I’m thinking: ‘It’s 6a.m.—this is nothing good,’” Vos reminisces. “We had all been beat through the mill,” Stiff adds. “Who would have thought that three guys, who aren’t 23 years old, playing this music in Los Angeles, would succeed?” (Fantastic Negrito’s The Last Days of Oakland would take home the trophy, but this was more than a moral victory for The Record Company; see a Spotlight on him elsewhere in this issue.)
Then, The Record Company was faced with the difficult challenge of following up their unexpected success. A lot had changed during their five years together. There were expectations—they couldn’t follow up their breakthrough LP with another living room record, nor did they want to, but their music needed to remain as pure as it had been before. It also needed to reveal growth and the climate around them.
“When we first started out, our songs were kind of about making people feel good at Harvard & Stone,” says Stiff. “The world we’re in today isn’t necessarily ‘feel so good.’”
The house remained an incubator; the three musicians met at noon every day for a series of joint writing sessions.
“When we pace our record, we think about a side A and a side B,” says Vos. “I think this new album brought me to mental and physical collapse about 15 or 16 times.”
If their debut mirrored the exuberance they felt finally being in a band that clicked, then their sophomore album, All of This Life, would be what’s behind the glass. The struggles and doubt, the challenges and choices were all sources of stimuli.
“The best work you can do to make things brighter is to tend to light inside yourself,” says Vos. “There’s a lot of talk on this record about what has been beautiful, and there’s talk about what needs to happen. It’s an honest reflection of the fact that we’d gone through shit. If you aren’t being as honest as the day you played that first song, when you write this new record, it’s going to be fake. It’s not going to be us.”
The band booked time at Hollywood’s Boulevard Studios and tapped Stiff to produce. They recorded template parts in the living room. Boulevard’s stock of vintage analog gear was impressive, and exciting to utilize. Still, some house recordings just sounded better.
“The pressures that we talk about—of being Grammy nominated or whatever—go out the window when we’re here. This is our happy focus place,” says Stiff.
“And whether anybody listens or not is OK because we feel like we got to say what we wanted to say,” adds Cazorla.
Ahead of All of This Life’s June release, the band issued the first single, “Life to Fix.” Its companion video, filmed in stark black and white, splits the screen into equal thirds. The track opens with Stiff’s rolling liquid bass riff, before Cazorla counters with commanding kick-drum thuds as Vos’ brusque and determined voice enters. Then, he hits a wooly power-chord downstroke on guitar and the track blasts off. Within a few weeks, “Life to Fix” surged to No. 15 on Billboard’s Triple A National Airplay. People were definitely listening.
“There were a lot of years of beating our heads against the wall. But, here we are together. We get to do this,” says Vos. “I’d do it all the same.”
This article originally appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.