Interview: James Curtiss of Vitamin String Quartet

Back in 2011 I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on a lazy day and was introduced to some new music. Despite the fact that it was not Malaysian, it felt surprisingly new and exciting to me. This discovery of a suite of popular songs translated into instrumental string music was my obsession during the remainder of my month long stay on the other side of the world. I simply could not get enough of it. The artists that opened this new door are called the Vitamin String Quartet (VSQ). With their vast tributes of amazing string orchestration, I felt the need to reach out and learn more about their success. James Curtiss, A&R manager of VSQ, took some time to answer some of my questions on their musical adventure.

Most of my curiosity was focused on their start into this ambitious endeavor. “It really didn’t start out as Vitamin String Quartet. At first, some of the team at CMH Records thought it would be kinda fun and kinda cool to experiment with paying tribute to rock and pop music in a variety of ways. So, Vitamin Records was started as a home for all of these albums, including quite a few string quartet tributes. Again, trying to have fun, a whole variety of different artists were paid tribute to. When we started to sell the albums digitally we decided to come up with a name that would collect them all in one place when searched out. After a lot of back and forth we went the obvious but arresting route of naming it after the label. That was back in 2007. We must have done a pretty good job with the name. Not only did it stick, but a dedicated fan base started to brew that even went the extra mile and started branding it as VSQ.”

Since the crew has been at it for a long time, I was interested to learn more about their best moments. “After doing this for more than a decade that is kind of a monumental question… Even then, there’s so much. One of the first live gigs we had was when 30 Seconds to Mars asked us to do accompaniment on their MTV Unplugged show. That was huge… Being asked by Disney to contribute to their massive Nightmare Before Christmas tribute was another big one. All of the vinyl we’ve created for Record Store Day was beautiful. Hearing our version of Edward Sharpe’s Home on the big wedding episode of Modern Family was so moving. Putting together ‘Per Versions’ was kind of a landmark thing for us. That felt like our first real album as a kind of artist… Obviously, our ‘Live at Troubadour’ album was the culmination of a lot of work on everyone’s part.”

However, despite their successful repertoire of work, their future desires remain solid. “Wow, another big one… Playing at the Oscars. Performing on So You Think You Can Dance. Sometimes I feel like I can’t see outside my own little world, so a lot of the places I’d want to perform are here in L.A., like the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Those might not come off as the coolest but it’s what I can think of. I don’t think anybody could claim that they’ve done their ideal performance already.”

No matter what, all bands have their rough shows. “Our most difficult performance was definitely the Troubadour show. That really comes down to the fact that it was all on us. All of the other performances were at the request of someone else or some other party, whether it was 30 Seconds to Mars, OSU, the Spotify Session or any of the private gigs and weddings we’ve been a part of. Troubadour began and ended with us. So, we worked with the venue, we designed the set list, we chose and choreographed the players, sorted out the staging, promoted the show, and on and on. It was a massive undertaking.”

Their place in the music world is rather unique. I asked if James could share his thoughts on its evolution. “It’s a fascinating time and place. There is a wealth of music now because of the digital world we live in. As a music fan it can be both rewarding and overwhelming. As for the industry, I’ll leave that discussion up to the pundits out there. The only thing I know is that there will never be a deficit of music, for better or worse. In this day and age, you need to have a video component. So, we’ve been doing more to reach our audience by engaging them with behind-the-scenes snippets, one-on-one video clips, longer-form documentary, live clips, etc. We’re even getting into tutorials and player videos where our musicians can share tips and anecdotes for other players and our fans. Also, we’ve been trying to answer the question, ‘What is the next step for us as a live act?’ The thing is, we’re starting to realize that we may need to start approaching it less like a live band and more like a show. Whatever that means, it requires us to really look at the narrative of what Vitamin String Quartet is. Does that involve more choreography? More audio-visual stuff? Bringing in additional musicians or performers? It may put it in the realm of theater, honestly.”

I asked what was next on the to-do list for VSQ. “… We’re going to go back and explore more original compositions. We’ve actually had some licensing interest in our original tracks for film, television, etc. and we need to start looking at that as a viable project for us.”

Inspirations are vast for the crew. “For beauty and truth … look to Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson and Paul Williams. As for role models in the entertainment industry … look at someone like Mike Patton or the filmmaker Takashi Miike who are tireless workhorses, weirdos with extreme tastes, and always willing to scratch every artistic itch whether it makes sense to their audience or not.”

Currently, the band remains busy. “Right now we’re wrapping up the first round of a series we call Five Fridays. Every Friday in a month where there are 5 Fridays we release a brand new single that fits a theme. The first launched on July 3rd and it celebrates the anniversaries of some of the biggest moments in rock and pop. For instance, 2015 is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles ‘Rubber Soul’ which is a huge record in the history of rock. So, to honor that, we covered that album’s song Norwegian Wood in the first week of the series.”

Next steps are exciting and original for VSQ. I wondered if VSQ would be having any additional adventures lined up. “We have a few. October presents us with the opportunity to do another 5 Fridays series. Fittingly for the month, we’re gonna do a series of songs that set the mood for Halloween. This will include covers of classic scary rock songs, as well as some covers from our favorite scary movies, TV shows and video games. We’re also paying tribute to the 15th anniversary of Modest Mouse’s legendary album ‘The Moon and Antarctica.’ That is going to come out as an exclusive vinyl for Record Store Day. Finally, we’re continuing to release more physical and digital copies of our sheet music titles, including renditions of artists like Sigur Ros, Coheed and Cambria and more.”

If you are looking for your next music obsession, look no further. Vitamin String Quartet will keep you busy for hours if not days with their excellent renditions. To this day, I simply become giddy with their additional releases and tracks. I love their smooth style and their dedication to revamping great music. Please give them a listen, if you have not already, and join me on their musical mayhem. Listeners worldwide will appreciate their work. I guarantee it.


Jam On.


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