A Brooklyn transplant by way of Michigan, Theo Katzman has got a knack for surrounding himself with budding megastars. For years he played in My Dear Disco, an Ann Arbor band fronted by “The Voice’s” current darling, Michelle Chamuel. When he left the project to work on his solo music, self-releasing “Romance Without Finance” in November 2011, Katzman was still in orbit of another budding pop star, “Glee’s” Darren Criss, a fellow Michigan alum.
Amidst working on his own music and extensive touring, Katzman joined forces with Criss as a collaborator on his forthcoming debut album, in addition to pulling duty as musical director and opening act for his first solo tour. Katzman gave Billboard.com an exclusive peek behind the scenes at his life — which primarily involves a lot of phone calls, outfit changes and climbing stairs — leading up to a May 30 performance at the House of Blues in Los Angeles.
After kicking the tour off in Criss’ hometown of San Francisco on May 29, Katzman wakes up midday on a bus parked in Los Angeles, regretting his decision to opt for the top bunk. First up, a four-mile run he started doing with members of his band, “just for maintenance.” Before he can finish up his workout, the hustle and bustle of touring takes over: the crew is assessing their equipment situation and realize they need more spare drum parts — at least one more snare stand, a spare pedal in case that breaks on the road, miscellaneous items since they’re already sending someone on a run. It’s like a choreographed ballet as Katzman spins and twirls to answer crew member questions about the drum setup, about merchandise, about the possible existence of a shower in this venue. He snags a few moments of quiet on the deserted bus before Ricky Rollins, the manager he shares with Criss, joins with concerns over a file transfer that needs to take place ASAP, and whether or not the on-site WiFi will be strong enough. Eventually, they load the file onto a spare camera SD card and opt for overnighting it.
One crisis is averted, but there are several more to deal with. There’s only an hour until soundcheck begins, and Katzman makes several circuitous trips inside the venue and back out to the bus, over and over again. Each time the girls at the front of the line shout for him, and Katzman shouts back his apologies over not being able to stop.
“They don’t realize how much I have going on this tour,” he says. At 3:26, he finally has time to drop to the floor in the mostly deserted dressing room at the House of Blues and finish his crunch and push-up routine. He usually does pull-ups instead of push-ups, but there’s no bar in this venue.
“Now that the first show is under my belt, I feel less stressed,” Katzman admits as he rotates to a second set of ab workouts. “Now we know we can pull it off.”
Katzman doesn’t just have to pull off his own five-song opening set, but Criss’ as well. He’s acting as musical director for the tour, commandeering a lineup of musicians that Katzman says “sort of picked itself,” since they needed a group where everyone is able to sing. Katzman is joined by the majority of Vulfpeck, his instrumental group formed in 2011 after the members met in a 19th-century German literature class at the University of Michigan. After they filled out with more members of the Michigan music scene, the group began breakneck rehearsals to get ready for the tour, figuring out how to integrate Criss’ back catalog of music in with new tracks he’d be testing on the road.
One big change to the Criss set from previous shows is that he’s ditching his instruments to simply sing on several new tracks. “It allows him to sell the new songs a little easier, without playing,” Katzman explains, although he says he won’t be following in Criss’ footsteps anytime soon by stepping out from behind his guitar.
“I want people to be like, ‘What is this, a rock show?'” says Katzman. “I’ll be a rock show right now. People don’t know that I wrote hip-hop on my laptop, or acoustic folk-y music.”
After a quick shower and assessment of his suitcase (“I”m getting to laundry point”), Katzman heads down to the stage. With Criss running late, Katzman takes the group through soundcheck, fixing spots from the night before on new songs like “Picture Perfect Girl,” which Katzman co-wrote with Criss and collaborators Joey Dosik and Joshua Lopez, as well as Criss staples like “Sami,” which is featured on Criss’ solo EP and in the StarKid musicals. After an hour and a half focused on the Criss set, Katzman switches over to his own while half the band breaks for dinner and relaxation.
Katzman alternates between playing the guitar and checking his phone for more updates from friends and family attending the show. “I’m never this attached to my phone, I swear,” Katzman jokes as another message pings through.
Once he’s offstage, Katzman is on the phone with someone at the guitar center, still trying to secure the correct spare equipment for tonight’s show. Katzman catches wind of the masseuse/acupuncturist who usually works on the “Glee” set in the house — Criss brought her to the venue for the band and crew. After hearing of her presence, Katzman disappears and emerges an hour and a half later with only 20 minutes to prep for his set. “I’m so relaxed that it’s stressing me out,” he quips as he scarfs down the chicken salad that’s arrived for him while he was away, debates outfits and rushes off to join Criss for a vocal warm-up in the venue bathroom.
By 8:01 he’s bounding down the stairs and up the House of Blues ramp to the stage, diving right into his newer song, “Pop Song.” Fans might not know the words to it just yet, but they definitely sing along to “Brooklyn” and “Country Backroads,” from “Romance Without Finance.” Girls in the front rows raise their hands to the sky and snap pictures as Katzman mugs and effectively warms the crowd up for the main event.
After closing the set with another new track, “As The Romans Do,” it’s up the stairs again to change into his Criss costume — a blue checked shirt, tie and slim pants. Katzman chugs a Vita Coco and bounds around the room to keep up his stage energy. The eight performers all maneuver around each other, waiting for Criss to finish his prep, take pictures and head back down again. In the minimal downtime, Katzman starts doing impressions — no one in particular, just different voices he’s working on. When they get downstairs again Katzman is the first to take the stage after a group huddle and a back-slapping hug with Criss.
The 75-minute set alternates from rock to pop to musical theater and ends with confetti cannons. Then, it’s back up four flights of stairs again, but there’s no post-show tranquility since the L.A. crowd equates to famous friends wanting to stop by and wish well. The celebs that pile onto the couch — Kathy Griffin, Topher Grace and “Glee” star Chord Overstreet among them — pay no mind to the gaggle of boys, Katzman included, changing back to civilian clothes and packing up. Katzman is off to spend time with his own fans, squeezing out of the way of the legions that are waiting for their meet-and-greet with the headliner. Criss may be the main attraction on this tour, but Katzman’s supporters are no less energetic, determined and complimentary toward him, and he talks to as many as he can before House of Blues pulls the plug and sends him on his way. He’ll do it all again tomorrow.