Theo Katzman is music’s Magic Johnson

Theo Katzman played Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room on Friday, Jan. 17.
Photo by Nicol Biesek

Has the musical verse got you down? Tired of putting on Spotify and just hearing those same sick beats and 808s? Did you just read the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Yummy” and feel sick to your tummy? Ever wonder what happened to the Jason Mrazes of the world?

Well, there’s Modern Johnny! A wonderful alternative to everything you’ve listened to up to this point in your life, Modern Johnny is here to lift you up and remind you that even in these dark times, great music can still shine a light on the human condition. 

With an impressive new, double shot of EPs, “Modern Johnny Tackles the Issues” and “Modern Johnny Wallows in Introspection and Gently Goes Mad,” Johnny gives you what came to hear. On “… Tackles the Issues,” hit lead single “You Could Be President” is an infectious Mr. Deeds Goes To Washington tale for this modern age that will have you dancing down Pennsylvania Avenue. Later on, the back porch groove of “(I Don’t Want to Be A) Billionaire” will have you wonder why the hell you ever took financial advice from Bruno Mars and Travie McCoy 10 years ago. 

Social issues not your thing? More comfortable drawing the blinds, making some tea and crying into your pillow? That’s OK, because Modern Johnny finds the melody in the melancholy on “… Wallows In Introspection and Gently Goes Mad.” The end of a relationship goes down like a cool drink on a hot summer day on the “The Death of Us” and “100 Years From Now” is a lullaby to sing yourself to sleep, lovingly reminding you that no one will care or remember you by the end of this century. In the cold doldrums of American life, Modern Johnny is a hearty bowl of vegan chicken noodle soup to warm your soul.

Modern Johnny is the rock star who will want to introduce you to his parents. He’ll make you bran oats in the morning and hold your hair back over the toilet after some tequila later that night. He’s just like us! A populist phenom with pop hits falling out of his back pocket, you won’t be disappointed in taking a couple spins around the record player this year with Modern Johnny.

Enter, Theo Katzman

“I don’t know if I can really describe the Modern Johnny thing in full. It feels like it is part me, but part all of us who are trying to make music now. I’m sure it’s never been easy to fully put yourself out in the world like this. … But I wrote that bio as sort of an art piece to everyone who is doing this. Don’t worry about trying to fit in, if you find yourself at a loss for words in trying to describe your music, that is a good thing,” said multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Theo Katzman over the phone to me a couple weeks back. 

Before speaking with Katzman, I had read the tongue-in-cheek promo he personally wrote that came with the release of his two new solo EPs, a comical blending of himself and kinda-sorta alter ego Modern Johnny. Amid its sarcastic tone at lamenting the state of modern music (“The Beatles are best known for their appearance in the Xbox video game Rock Band”) and his place in it, he struck at something very true, which is that Katzman is “too heart to be hip, too hip to be pop, too pop to be rock, too rock to be art.” 

“I’m an emotional all-heart guy, which feels like it can’t be hip because hip is very much ‘I don’t care, too cool for school.’ But musically, this stuff is hip, it’s hip stuff, so it can’t be pop, because pop is right down the middle. But it is pop music, not today’s pop music, but maybe from the ’60s or ’70s and days of yore in the songwriting structure. And it is definitely too pop to be rock and roll. Then it’s like a little too rock to be high art (laughs),” Katzman said.

His refusal to be pigeonholed reveals why Theo Katzman is one of the most intriguing and refreshing artists writing, recording and touring in 2020. For the record, I have had trouble defining Theo Katzman’s musical appeal, both to myself and to other people for some time. I usually have just put his music on, watch for the revealing what-is-this? “stink face” to signal someone’s approval and move on content with this transaction. Katzman’s 2017 album “Heartbreak Hits” and his newest EP releases have been in near constant rotation for six months and I still, for the most, part can’t put a finger on what was so special about this dude.

Then it clicked after watching some Magic. I don’t mean the stuff of David Blaine (though I wish there really was a through-line between the street magician and the musician), but rather the stuff of Earvin Johnson with the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s. Here was a 6’9” wizard who could pass like a point guard, shoot like a shooting guard, drive like a small forward, post-up like a power forward, and defend and rebound like a center, all with the charisma of a Hollywood leading man. He did everything that was expected of a basketball player, he did it better than everyone in the league, and he had tons of fun doing it. He was the complete package with a 10,000 kilowatt smile. 

That’s Theo Katzman. In a musical landscape where a lot of musicians are keen to blaze trails in establishing a new type of hyper-specific sound, Katzman seems to establish a broad, appealing sound by traveling along all the available musical paths, getting to know them, and choosing which trails will get him to where he wants to be.

“When I think about this path of being a musical artist in today’s world, we can look back and see all the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s and we have this amazing vantage point. There is this epic amount of legendary stuff that has happened before us and I think that’s a huge inspiration for me. But that’s where this evolved out from,” Katzman said.

He’s a musical Renaissance Man for a new age of musician, a righteous guitarist (and drummer) who can bring the heat when needed (see: “Hard Work”), a witty songwriter who writes songs you wish you did (see: “You Could Be President,” “Crappy Love Song), a consummate performer who evolves his sound in a live setting (see: live version of “Plain Jane Heroin”), all with the joy and charisma of someone who thrives in front of a microphone (watch: taped Audiotree Live set). 

You just don’t experience that type of broad mastery in the craft and execution of an artist’s sound in today’s music. He’s the complete package with a 10,000 kilowatt smile. 

The following are highlights from Tahoe Onstage’s conversation with Theo Katzman.

On the creative process

“I think the creative process is really more about discovery than design. You don’t sit down and say, “This is the song I wanna write.” You sit down and receive and say, “Wow, I guess this is it.” The more you can be cool about that I think the more you can enjoy the process of the writing. You don’t have to take it personally, or to put it another way, you don’t assume all the responsibility. You leave it to the muse, the creative process to give you a bunch of that stuff. That’s not an original idea, I just subscribed to that. 

If you think about it: I gotta write something cool. Wow, that’s a lot of pressure. I don’t have any ideas. Well, if you don’t have any ideas, that’s a great time to write because you gotta find some. If you have a bunch of ideas, that’s cool, but who knows where that is going to take you. If you don’t have any ideas, guess you gotta go find them. That’s how some of my best stuff has come for sure. There’s nothing wrong with inspiration, but it doesn’t happen all the time.”

On charisma, daily interactions

“I think any charisma I have is attributable to the fact that I love people and love communicating with people. I love getting a smile on someone’s face and making them feel happy and a good time. I am a natural performer in that way. I’ll perform at the grocery store, it might be a little much, but I can’t stop.

“I love going to the coffee shop or going to the market. It really brightens my day up to have real human interactions … The best people who work in customer service, especially food service, are the people with the people skills who can reflect back a positive thing despite what’s coming at them. I’ve worked in that and it is very draining.

“It’s not like being onstage, because you are sort of going to win all the time, especially if you are going to be playing a ticketed show of your fans. Everyone is there to have a good time, so if you try and lift them up they’ll go with you. If you are working at a bar, coffee shop or restaurant, that lady wants extra bread and she wants it yesterday. I think daily interactions are very important to me.”

On idol, Irish singer Paul Brady

“One that comes to mind was a singer called Paul Brady, who is an Irish legend over there, some would say he is the Irish Dylan. I discovered him in college through a friend and completely fell in love with his music. Through a bunch of accidents and fate, I went to Dublin a couple days early to start a tour and was staying at my friend’s parent’s house; turns out he’s Paul Brady’s manager.

“They have people over one night because I’m this young American musician they have staying in town and one of them ends up being Paul. We’re have a couple drinks and Paul goes, (in an Irish accent), ‘Hey, play us a song, man.’

“I played it cool, played one, and he goes “Play another, those are my songs, play one of yours” (laughs). He just had me play him all these songs and by the end of the night, we had traded songs until 3 in the morning. I was having this crazy, surreal moment that I didn’t think could happen. Then a couple months later he calls me up and asks me to do co-headlining concerts with him, and he’d never done that. So I went over to Ireland to play four concerts with him and it was amazing. It was so cool. You just get on that level, when someone treats you like he did, you arrive on their level. You just have to perform.”

On being a famous musician

“When you are a famous musician, you are still a musician. When you make the transition to celebrity, now you are in another level of annoyance from humans. I hope to never be a celebrity but a famous musician. Famous musicians get to play shows for fans, which means I get to play my songs for fans and pay my band, which is my dream. That’s cool. There are certain people who’d you say they are a celebrity and others you just never hear about anymore. Like, I never hear about Jason Mraz anymore. Well, guess what? He’s killing it, he’s absolutely killing it (laughs). He’s not on the cover of any magazines, but he’s got a humongous following and tremendous songs.”

— Garrett Bethmann


ABOUT Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage
Tahoe Onstage is an online entertainment and sports magazine covering Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Reno, the Carson Valley and June Lake.


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