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The Record Company had to go back to find their way forward

Chris Vos, vocalist and guitarist of The Record Company, is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin farmboy. Using his deep Wisconsin roots, he pulled himself up and moved to Los Angeles in 2010, armed with lap steels and dobros, hellbent on staying true to his sound and vision in a new city.

Fourteen years later, The Record Company have amassed high praise and honors for their blues-soaked rock ‘n’ roll style, powered by Vos’ unshakeable energy and heart-and-soul vocals.

The band’s latest release, The 4th Album, took Vos back home. He connected with longtime Milwaukeean and now-fellow Angeleno Jeff Castelaz, formerly of Dangerbird and Elektra Records, and founder of Cast Management, which works with Dropkick Murphys, Blues Traveler and iconic Milwaukee rockers The Violent Femmes.

You can take the boy out of Milwaukee, but you can’t take Milwaukee out of the boy.

Vos and I caught up before The Record Company’s busy Saturday takes them to our Walker’s Point home for a Studio Milwaukee Session followed by a hometown gig at Turner Hall Ballroom that caps off a long tour of sold-out shows.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You grew up on a farm of all things. You're a farm boy. So when did you make your move to the big city of Milwaukee when you were young?

Eighteen years old. I went to UW-Milwaukee and never left Milwaukee until I moved to Los Angeles. And I enjoyed my time in Milwaukee greatly. I was a big part of the whole music scene there and have a lot of friends and family there. I remember when the station opened, and it's great to be on the airwaves here again.

A vintage photo of a grade-school-aged boy sitting on a large tractor with a white home in the background.
Chris Vos, circa fourth grade, on his family's farm in Burlington.

How did you get your start as a musician in Milwaukee? Do you remember the first club gig you ever played here?

I had a high school band, and we got booked at The Gasthaus … in the basement of UWM’s union. I would play the little coffee shop down there. And then we played The Globe a couple of times back in the day — shout out to Marc Solheim, wherever you may be — and did a few things there.

Then that band, we were just kids so it disbanded, and then I started playing Linnemans’ open mic when I was getting to that age where I could sneak through the door, at least back in the day, and started the Freshwater band – that Freshwater Collins thing. Then I kind of went and did The [Static] Chicken over at The Estate for years and years and was in the Cocksmiths, was playing with Juniper Tar for a while, played with Mark Waldoch’s Celebrated Workingman. A lot of Milwaukee bands, a lot of Milwaukee bands.

I remember seeing Freshwater Collins on show bills all the time, all the time. You were always up there.

That was the first one that I did that I learned a lot of what to do and what helped define who I am now. All those bands, all those influences.

I always chose to be in bands that if I wasn't fronting it — like when I was playing with Celebrated Workingman with Waldoch, who's a great writer and a dear friend — I would learn something from how they would go after something.

Or when I played with the Juniper Tar guys for a little bit. I was never really officially in that band but played like five, six, seven gigs with them, just hanging out with those guys. Learning songwriting with the [Static] Chicken over at The Estate, which started as a lark. We were like, “Why don't we just go to a place and just jam all night? I guess they still play sometimes …”

Yeah, they do.

So that's been going since like 1999. There was that kind of old guard. Then I moved out of Milwaukee in 2010. I've been in LA for 13 years now.

Lucky number 13!

That's right.

What’s the first Milwaukee place you always want to see to make sure it's still there when you come back?

That's a really great question. I would’ve said Sydney Hih up until a handful of years ago. I used to go there when I was a kid. I’d go to The Unicorn and see shows down there. But, I guess at this point, Five O'Clock Steakhouse is a good one.

Our friends, they do the Top Chef show, and I took our friend who produces that show with Mark [Waldoch]. I took her down to Three Brothers and we got them in there, and that's a place that Valerie, my wife, and I will always go when we come back into town. Although now I hear it might be a little tougher to get in there, which is great.

No, it's not a bad problem.

Wade's Guitar Shop [is another one]. My old boss, Wade, when I graduated from UW-Milwaukee he gave me a job. I know Wade's there ‘cause I talk to him all the time, but I have to go in there and just sit. He gave me the employee discount for 20 years. I had to ask him to stop. I would go in there and still buy stuff when we come through on tour and he's like, “Employee discount!” I'm like, “Wade … no more employee discount, man. Come on!” But…that's Milwaukee. That's the kind of people, you know?

Top Shelf, I worked over there for a while, Top Shelf [Guitar Shop]. I'm glad to see some venues have still survived and some new ones have popped up. Although I heard The Estate closed? Did I hear that? Is that correct?

Yeah … yeah.

That’s a drag, man.

You never know when things come back, though. You never know.

That’s right. Yeah, let’s hope so, let’s hope so.

You all have a little break on your tour dates after your Turner Hall show. Are you going to get some time to decompress and visit with family after that?

The last show is the night before the Super Bowl, so we'll play Milwaukee, and that show is going to be filmed actually for a bunch of possible stuff in the future. Last show of the tour … I’ll probably go back to the farm and hang out with ma and dad for a day or two, and then go back to Milwaukee and just keep on moving.

I don't like to sit still for long. I like to stay creative and stay engaged in my life and with music and writing and just being inspired. I’m the son of a farmer, you know? I have to work. I have to. And it's not work to me — to do music. Whatever price there is to pay or the toll that has to be paid for me to do what I do is all fine with me. I have no complaints about it.

If you work to do something, you hope you have reasonable intentions behind why you did what you did, why you spend your time the way you do. And I think through this whole process of the band — going out to L.A., knowing nobody, getting this thing moving and being able to come back home with it, and all the stuff that's going on — the biggest [or] one of the big lessons I've learned is that the answers you're looking for are in different places than you may have anticipated. And your needs may be different than what you thought when you started dreaming this thing.

I feel very centered on it now. I've got Wisconsin. My feet are always in the ground because of where I come from, but I also have learned a lot and gained a lot of perspective being all over the country, the world, and just growing and trying to be a student.

I give long answers, by the way. I don't apologize. I'm just letting you know. Be careful. I'll spin a yarn.

I appreciate that. I mean, you’re just basically saying you found balance in this lifestyle that's chosen you and you've chosen along with it, and that's awesome. It's a beautiful place to be.

I think it was following the example of my parents who both loved what they did. My mom was a nurse for 50 years. Loved it. Didn’t want to retire, basically, and just felt like she had to. My father just got both his knees replaced. I don't know if he wants me airing that out on the airwaves, but … sorry, dad. Can't put it back in. But, you know, the first thing he's thinking about is: When can I go back out there? He's 75.

Valerie and I, we met with somebody who was talking to us about “planning for retirement.” He asked her when she'd like to retire, and she said what you would expect, you know? In your 60s, late 60s, that would be ideal. And he said, “When would you like to retire?” And I said, “When they bury me, man. That's when I'll retire.” Or when I can't do this anymore.

If I physically, for some odd reason, can't do it, which could happen through age, god forbid. As long as I can do it at a level that I feel like I'm putting something out there that represents a value and has something to say, I'll do it. I don't feel like my tank is even close to halfway out of gas. I'm very motivated and very excited, and I'm stoked to be here. You know, I'm sitting here in a Best Western in San Antonio, Texas, ready to rock tonight.

Even as you get into your 80s, you could totally “Les Paul it” — sit down, jam on the guitar.

My heroes are Muddy Waters and all those guys from Chicago. Obviously, they have a completely different experience, background and time. I look to artists. That's something I've always been very curious about: Why is someone like a Johnny Cash or a Merle Haggard or a Ray Charles or an Aretha Franklin, how did they sustain their voice and their validity? All the way to where if you still went and saw a concert of theirs at the end of their lives, it still was fresh and beautiful.

I think what I have drawn out of that is there's some people that have a purity of intent with how they deliver their voice, how they deliver their music — even if it's extremely energetic or way mellow — whatever it is, they can retain it. They can retain that greatness. Like you look at a Neil Young … or any of them. Whatever is in me, that's kind of like a model I look at: lifelong musician.

Fashions come and go. In style and out of style comes and goes, but good songs and heartfelt performances are something that you can hang your hat on, and that's all we're trying to do here.

Don’t change something that's good. If you form the mold of who you are in your own vision, that’s set … in a good way.

Like, flow with it, right?

Yeah.

Change can be brought in so many different ways. But musical change, personal change, tastes change — my thing is, if you're chasing something, I've learned that if I'm chasing acceptance, which I've done, nobody should be ashamed of learning these lessons.

Some people are inherently defiant. Some people want to be accepted. Some people say one and are the other. And you can't really speak for anybody else's intention but your own. There were times where I was reaching for things. I didn't know it at the time. Upon reflection, you do.

I find it ironic that it was when I finally said, “The hell with it” and just was put out on an island in L.A. where there's people onstage — and no disrespect — with computers, and I'm up there with lap steels and dobros in 2010 when it was way out of fashion to be that.

You just got to shine out from who you are and stay open to evolving, is what I've learned. And be a student. Always a student — never sure that you know, but know that you're sure.

Those are wise words.

Thank you.

I wanted to talk about your album that came out in September on Roundhill Records, The 4th Album. You all went for a self-described back-to-basics approach with this one? You used a yard-sale drum kit that you've had for years, and you recorded in a living room. What did artistic choices like these lend to the sound and the feel of this record?

So the first record we did was called Give It Back To You, and that was kind of the record that brought it all. You know, lived a whole life to get to that point and then have the opportunity to have wheels on the road and people paying to see concerts. That's when that changed for me. And that was a record we did in our bass player's living room with him mixing it with literally eight, nine microphones. Somehow, some way, we got on stations such as this across the country. And that changed things.

That was a very earthy, true-to-who-we-were-in-2011 moment. And as artists, you want to explore sound. You want to find new opportunities. So the next record we did kind of half that way. We did some of it in the living room, then we went into [the studio].

Our buddy Clay had a nice studio on Sunset [Boulevard], and we just went in there, and it was like junky-old cool. I walked in there, and I was like “This studio looks like how we should sound.” You know what I mean? For this record, it just was cobwebby-looking almost, you know? Not quite, but not a stretch. And that was amazing.

So then the third record … we had an opportunity where we had had two records that had done enough to warrant some interest from an outside producer, which we were never really looking for. But then [we] met a guy named David Sardy who has done a lot of records — from everybody like The Red Hot Chili Peppers to, like, just crazy, crazy records.

We got to go be in his house and record that right in March of 2020. So we were in there, like, March, April 2020 — isolated and making this record, and we went big with it. We really explored. We had our opportunity to spend five, six weeks in a really great studio and spend too much money but just enough to make it sound the way we wanted to. Where the other two records, we spent nothing at all. And we made some great songs and learned some great strides forward and opened the band up from a three-piece to a five-piece and couldn't get out on the road, you know?

After that, a lot of changes happened. One of our managers retired. Our booking agency was kind of in flux. This is, say about 18 months ago. And we submitted our demos for this album, and the label that we had been on, Concord Records / Rounder, had new management.

I kind of got to live my little Wilco fantasy in the way that I never wanted to in the fact that we submitted music that we were pretty confident in, and the guy just was like, “I don't get it.” Dropped us. Dropped us on Dec. 19 last year, right before Christmas. Like, “Hey guys. You’re gone.”

It was like, “Whoa.” We had two more records coming with them. It was like, “Oh my God.” We had to cancel the tour because ticket sales were terrible ‘cause people were afraid of coming out. We were dead broke, tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Dream pretty much on the ropes, you know? You're lying in bed at night, asking yourself, “What the hell have I done here? How did this happen? I thought I had it figured out. I apparently do not have it figured out! What's the answer?”

The answer was: First, we're going back in-house. We're going to go back in the living room. We're going to do this record ourselves.

A bearded man sits in a chair playing acoustic guitar next to a drum kit with a dog relaxing on a carpet next to it.
Chris Vos, back in the living room.

We did it, and then somebody popped up from my Milwaukee past that I never, ever thought would be working with me. And that was Jeff Castelaz, Cast Management.

I knew him from back in the day when he was managing Wild Kingdom [and Citizen King] and all that stuff, you know? Managing all those bands. And we sat down. He was in L.A., had run Dangerbird Records and then he went over to Elektra, and now he's managing The Femmes. Our mutual friend, Mike Kasprzak, says, “You should sit down with these guys. You should sit down with Jeff.”

I think we both took the meeting kind of like, “Oh yeah. I've known this guy's name for a while.” And we sat down and just hit it off. So we handed Jeff the record, he went with it, he got us a deal on Jan. 9, about as fast back as you could. The record came out, it hit number four on the [Adult Alternative Airplay] chart, so we got to kind of hang our hat on that. We knew we had something here. And the sound of the record is just the pure experience of all of that.

I love the bookending of it. … I feel like this is like a book. These four records are here, and now we're going to start the second half of our career or whatever because you get to hear the experience of a very similar sound through songwriting, production. And you can hear them, hear the miles.

So that was the whole experience, just to set it up. It's sticks and strings, man, harmonicas and slide guitars, melodies, stories, and hopefully you can sing along. That's the record.

What a story. That turnaround came so quick, and it took you back home in a way.

It did.

It's amazing. It's kind of like full circle of what we're all talking about here: Milwaukee and your roots and staying true to yourself and all that stuff.

It is. And the beauty of it … is that staying true was the answer. Because we had that tour canceled, and I don't know what was going on. You never know. Can't explain it.

These shows are packed. We're selling out. We've got this tour that’s selling out. The whole back half's about to sell out. I'm just in shock that's happening at this point in my life. And, again, I'm not gonna question this. I’m gonna go play my guts out. And it’s super fun, man. It's super fun to do it.

If I could say anything, if I was my 21 year-old self, and I had actually made it this far to listen to some dude talk that I don't know, I would probably want to say to that musician in Milwaukee, “Be yourself, be yourself, be yourself.”

And be hard on yourself, but forgive yourself for your growth. Don't be ashamed. Don't be ashamed of anything you've ever tried to do. Don't be ashamed of any creative move you've ever made. Don't ever question your motivation until after you've been motivated and done it and seen how it fits you. Because it's called growing and exploring.

And if you've got people, only listen to people who you admire, who do something you admire — be it musically, artistically in their job, in their life. Don't be listening to people who are … you never know what people's motivations are. Be yourself. … That was something I didn't know some days when I was younger. I think it's important, really important, to remember that no matter what you do, you know?

Those are good but hard lessons to learn. And now, looking back in the rearview, it's good to be in that place because then you can help others who are younger than you. It's a good place to be.

That's my favorite, Erin, is any time I talk to a young musician. And I don't like talking like I'm 85, but you know I'm not as young as I used to be, and I'm proud of it.

That’s another thing. Just submit to the fact that time is going by it. Don't wait. Go. I had a conversation yesterday about this. I said to Mike, if I hadn't done this insane idea, which was when I look at it now was completely … I mean, if you looked at it now, do the math: Dude in his 30s moves to Los Angeles and knows nobody. It wasn't a very smart move, but it was the right move — not just because the band came out of it, but because of who I am as a person now, because of the move.

So, I don't know. This is what happens when I come back to the Milwaukee vibe. I just get very nostalgic, and I want to share what I've seen out here. If somebody wants to hear it, there it is.

I think that's a beautiful place to end the conversation. Once again, I want to say your show's coming up on Saturday, Feb. 10, at Turner Hall Ballroom. There will be a live filming element to it. You’re going to see lots of buddies. Is there anything else special you want to throw out about that show coming up?

Just that it's great to be coming back to Turner Hall. It's very special to me to be in Milwaukee every time. I adore all the rooms in that town. Every dream I ever sowed in the ground happened in these rooms, you know — meaning from the floor, most of the time watching.

So come on out, have a good time, and I promise you it's going to be a lot of good people. I'm very happy to say that when we play in Milwaukee, it kind of feels like a wedding reception meets friend reunion meets family reunion. Half of the people probably don't even hear the noise because they're too busy catching up. So it's a really cool environment.

And we're really grateful to y’all for supporting us since day one — and back before, you know? Former bands, too, so I'm grateful for that and I appreciate the opportunity to talk today.

88Nine Music Director | Radio Milwaukee