Grammy Nominees The Record Company on the Character of Used Gear

If you’ve been listening to the radio lately or following the music awards circuit, you’ve probably heard of the The Record Company. They’re a blues rock band out of Los Angeles made up of guitarist Chris Vos, drummer Marc Carzola, and bassist Alex Stiff. They draw inspiration from musicians and bands like John Lee Hooker, the Stooges, and the Stones.

The Record Company - Give It Back to You

The band is extremely relatable, driven by the fact that they formed in Alex’s living room-turned-home-studio six years ago. They recorded their first full-length album, Give It Back to You, in that very living room with their trove of collected used gear – everything from a free piano from someone’s garage to a trashed Teisco found in a dumpster.

Their February 2016 album’s lead single, “Off the Ground,” reached the number one spot on the US Billboard Adult Alternative Songs chart, and Rolling Stone cited them as a band to watch last year – one of many outlets from which they received positive recognition. In early December of 2016, they were nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

With no signs of slowing down, the band is continuing their tour through the US during the latter half of February before heading to Europe and then Australia for March and April. We had a chance to catch up with Chris, Marc and Alex to talk about their history, their record, and what gear means to them.

You guys are a band with the kind of DIY success story that everyone who has ever been in a band dreams about – from your living room to number #1 on the charts, playing 175 shows in a year and being nominated for a Grammy at the end of it.

But how did it all start? Can you talk a little bit about how you guys met and started playing music and how long you’ve been doing this?

Chris: We met in 2010 as friends. I had moved from Milwaukee to LA and put up a Craigslist ad basically saying that I was looking for people with similar interests to play with. And then Alex, who is basically a Craigslist wizard, saw it and reached out and we became friends.

We didn't actually end up playing together for a couple of years. Instead we hung out, had drinks, and would listen to records every Friday and Saturday night at Alex’s house religiously. One night we were listening to this John Lee Hooker record called Hooker and Heat and were inspired enough to give a jamming session with the three of us a chance.

Alex’s living room was already set up and actively used for recording, so we just placed some microphones and hit record. Then when we listened to playback, we felt like we already had a band. So we just kept going.

The Record Company - "Off The Ground"

You guys started playing record shops and smaller venues after that around LA?

Chris: Yeah. We played our first gig on New Year's Eve going into 2012, and that first year we pretty much took any gig that we could get. If something came along – especially over the first six months – we would just take it.

We ended up getting onto some residencies, which is a big thing out here in LA. Free Monday night residencies and Thursday night residencies allowed us to get on stage at a place that was already full of people who were there to see new bands. Those were great opportunities.

As the year went on, we ended up getting some other gigs. We got lucky and got to play Canada and some festivals.

Were you writing and recording tunes that first year that you used on this album?

Chris: Yes, we’ve been writing and recording these songs for the past handful of years. Since this was going to be our first international and first label release, we wanted to give a snapshot of what we were when we started and what our show as come to.

So we went with the ten songs we felt made the most sense, from songs we had just written before the submission of the record all the way back to one or two songs from that first year.

I read that you recorded everything in your living room with a bunch of used gear that you have collected over the years. Is shopping used important to you guys? Is it part of your sound?

Chris: We like getting things that are a little older with some wear and tear – you can feel a little soul in those pieces. Just this week, we grabbed a vintage ‘70s Martin that I’m sure will be used in the studio and all of our microphones are used as well.

Alex: I’m a huge fan of used. I saw an ad a while back for a piano someone was trying to get rid of. They were offering it for free to anyone who could get it out of their garage. It just so happened that the person running the ad lived just a couple of blocks away, so I was able to go over and play it. It just had the right feeling and vibe.

You feel like there’s a story that comes with used gear, and not knowing what that story is is part of the mystery of it all. I think everything we have is used.

Those stories are really important to us at Reverb. There’s nothing like picking something up and feeling that history – a little bit of that extra character already built into it that you then can add to yourself.

Alex: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes one of these guys will come in with a neat old guitar that they found, and we’ll say, ‘That guitar has got some songs in it. It’s got a story to tell.”

You guys have been touring a lot – is there any specific staple gear that you always take with you?

Chris Vos with two 1957 Fender Champ Lap Steels

Chris: I’ve got a little stable of guitars that I bring along because I use a lot of alternate tunings. I use an old Guild acoustic that I converted into a squareneck dobro. I also use a Gibson Hummingbird Pro and an old Silvertone that I’ve been riding around with for a while.

I just picked up a handmade Telecaster Thinline with a Bigsby from a guy here in town who builds guitars and owns a guitar shop called Old Style Guitars. It’s got Lollar pickups and everything. It’s just really sweet. I think it’s going to become a staple of my live rig.

I run these old 1950s Fender Champ lap steels, too. In the studio, we have this old, beat up Teisco Del Rey that a friend of mine literally fished out of a dumpster. I think he gave it to me as a joke because it was so broken, but it’s so microphonic that there’s no other guitar we ever want to record with. We end up coming back to it over and over.

Other than that, it’s just a couple of stompboxes and a Deluxe Reverb. Nothing much to it.

Alex: For pretty much the entire five years that we’ve been playing together, I’ve used a ‘62 reissue Fender Jazz bass made in 1990. I used to work at Sam Ash and was able to pick up a few pieces of gear there.

Every so often, someone would come in with a guitar or a bass they didn’t end up selling at the shop. Maybe Sam Ash didn’t offer them the money they were looking for or whatever the situation. So I would sometimes make them an offer on their way out. I got a few pieces that way.

The Jazz Bass I’ve been using is pretty beat up and has some quirks. You often can’t take everything you want to take because your travel situation doesn’t allow for it, but I’ve just started taking a ‘78 Fender P bass as a second bass. I’m still learning the quirks of that instrument – how to play it live, how to make it sound good.

Marc: I don’t really get to carry my drums unless we’re starting a tour from Los Angeles, but I like bringing my cymbals when I can, and there’s a Black Beauty snare drum that I just got and really like. I like vintage drums for sure and would love to always be able to bring my old Ludwigs along, but you have to adapt to whatever is at the venue.

There was a time when I would think, like a lot of players do, that I could only play on a certain kind of kick drum pedal or else I’d be all screwed up. But you just kind of learn that you don’t really get to make those choices a lot – especially in festival with quick change overs.

The Record Company

What is your writing process like? Do you just kind of write and record in the living room?

Chris: Yeah, I mean we get together, write ideas down, and record them. We’ll come back the next day and make improvements on them, and then when we feel like we’ve got a song, we’ll usually cut it that day.

That’s something we like about recording on our own: we can get everything at the exciting moment that it’s being born. We like the honesty of an earlier take, even if it’s a little bit more raw. A lot of songs on our record are early takes, so the first or second time we had played it all the way through.

Are you guys mostly multi-tracking since you’re in the living room, or do you have the space to record live? What do you guys prefer?

Alex: The basics of the track – drums, bass, guitar – we will usually cut live. Sometimes comes with a little mic bleed and sometimes not. Sometimes we’ll put the guitar amp in another room, and I’ll go direct in for the bass to isolate it.

But sometimes having that bleed will actually make it sound even closer to three guys playing live music. So it depends, but the basics of any track that you hear from our album were almost always cut live with just three humans playing together.

Marc: We don’t close mic all of the drums, so there isn’t a rack tom mic and all of that. We still experiment with all of it, but like Alex said, we try to capture the sound of a band playing rather than taking everything apart and reassembling it in post.

I’m interested in how you guys do mic different gear, like the drum kit. I’ve seen in one of your videos that you don’t necessarily abide by traditional conventions.

Alex: Mic'ing the kit is an evolving process for sure. I’m starting now to learn the sounds of different microphones, but very early on, we used a couple of AKG C1000s as our two overheads. Later, we upgraded to the Shure SM81s. They just capture a really honest and dry sound. It’s very revealing. There isn’t a lot of color on those.

I just picked up a Coles 4038 Ribbon Microphone, which is kind of that classic that everyone from the Beatles to Pink Floyd would use as their overhead. Shure SM57 on the snare. We’ll try a couple of different kick mics but nothing expensive or fancy is really going into the process.

Right now, we have a Neumann U 87 on loan from our record label. Believe me, I’m using it to the fullest extent because it’s by far the nicest mic that I’ve ever even held. It comes in this wooden box. I leave out all of my other mics with little care, but that one I put back into the wooden box at the end of every single day. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself it that got knocked over or something.

I can imagine. Thank you guys so much for talking with us, and good luck at the Grammy Awards next month!

Our pleasure, and thank you!

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