Capturing zeitgeist in song has always been elusive at best. The question is: How does one compress a moment of time into a single musical statement? Look no farther than Theo Katzman’s latest record “Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe” for an answer.
Watch the in video of “Like a Woman Scorned”:
Katzman was raised by two musical parents. His mother was the child of classical musicians, his father tops in the 80s Los Angeles jazz scene as a trumpet player on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
“Through my years growing up my parents never pushed me. I wanted to do music and they supported me. Hell, they let me put my drums in the living room.” —Theo Katzman
“Through my years growing up my parents never pushed me,” he says. “My dad would drop these gems of wisdom though when I was practicing — these little nuggets. I wanted to do music and they supported me. Hell, they let me put my drums in the living room.”
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When he was a teenager, the family moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., and Katzman attended the University of Michigan jazz program where he founded Vulfpeck. But rather than tour with the uber-popular proto-funk supergroup this winter, Katzman is focused on his solo project and a 37-date North American tour that begins in Seattle on Jan. 10.
On Dec. 6, he released the first of three parts of the new album in a three-song EP dubbed “Modern Johnny Tackles The Issues.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek exploration of current events ranging from President Trump to income equality and women’s rights.
“Modern Johnny is a feeling,” says Katzman. “It’s a concept. It’s closer to Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout than Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. He is an archetypal character who represents the journey, the reality, the plight of the singer-songwriter trying to make it in today’s music world.”
The lead single is called “You Could Be President.”
“Sarcasm is my chief literary device,” says Katzman. “Right now there are a bunch of world leaders acting truly terribly and it’s sort of winning. So what I did is take an honest look at what I see in terms of their behavior and listed it in terms of what you can do with the prize being your president.”
The second tune could be Bernie Sander’s new campaign theme song: “(I Don’t Want to Be A) Billionaire.”
“I was just feeling burnt out on how much we talk about billionaires in our culture, the fact that this is so valued,” says Katzman. “That level of success is truly not appealing to me. I want to have enough money to take a real acoustic piano on tour.”
Then there is “Like a Woman Scorned,” which is a personal song from a man’s perspective in light of the #metoo movement. It’s also one of the best pieces of indie songwriting since the late-2000s Ray LaMontagne and The Shins or more recent works by Laurel Canyon sweethearts Dawes, whose marvelous pianist Lee Pardini plays in Katzman’s band.
As he was walking one day around L.A., Katzman stumbled on the adage, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” which originally comes from the 1697 play “The Mourning Bride” by William Congreve. Then Katzman thought about a recent news report he’d read on how rare it is for females to be perpetrators of school shootings or for that matter violence in general.
“I tell you sometimes I don’t remember what a song started with,” says Katzman. “I have no memory of the process. It’s sort of like you black out. Even Paul McCartney said, ‘Well, I don’t really know how to do it [insert Liverpudlian accent].’ I like to distinguish between discovery and design. Design is something you set out to do. I’m gonna draw it and I’m going to see it. Discovery is I have no idea what this is. Let’s find out more.”
Before settling on a final draft of the dynamic and vulnerable composition, Katzman ran it by an inner circle of friends including Michigan songstress Daisy May Erlewine who’s only advice was to take it further.
“I played it initially exclusively for women because I wanted female feedback,” he says. “One hundred percent of the feedback was the same. Everything in there is how I feel. I’m trying to hold a mirror to what I see in the world without pointing a finger. Is anyone else noticing this? There is a problem with men and it’s pervasive and it’s all of history.”
The second part of the Katzman’s album, which dropped on Dec. 20, is called “Modern Johnny Wallows in Introspection & Gently Goes Mad.” The final six songs will be released on Jan. 10.