The worlds of rock music and fashion have always been tightly linked. From the psychedelic explosion in the late 60’s to the glam movement of the 70’s, the punk and metal bands of 80’s to the grunge movement of the 90’s, musicians are influenced by what they see on the street, and stagewear is often emulated by fans and fashion designers.
John Varvatos is a men’s fashion designer who worked for Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein before starting his own company in 1999. Today there are John Varvatos stores in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Russia. For a musician (or anyone who loves music, for that matter) walking into a Varvatos store is an almost religious experience. Each store has its own unique architectural design and displays. The clothing alone is tempting enough to push one’s credit limit to the max, and as if all of the above isn’t enough, the walls of the stores are lined with art gallery-style photos of major bands such as Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. In addition to clothing, Varvatos also works with bands in a mutual relationship which reflects that symbiotic relationship between fashion and music.
The John Varvatos Spring 2017 campaign features the Los Angeles-based band Vintage Trouble. VT, as they are often known, is a band with a unique blend of musical styles and influences that include blues, soul, funk, and of course, rock. The band is comprised of drummer Richard Danielson, bassist Rick Dill, guitarist Nalle Colt, and lead vocalist Ty Taylor. Taylor is one of those rare people who is blessed with a seemingly endless quantity of energy and enthusiasm that appears genuine, and not forced or contrived.
The first few minutes of the conversation are about the history of both Vintage Trouble and Screamer Magazine. Despite both being based in Southern California, Taylor hadn’t heard of Screamer, and I was unaware of VT until I (being on the John Varvatos email list) received an email announcement about the spring campaign with a video clip to the song Knock Me Out. Taylor explains how the relationship between the band and the fashion designer came about.
“Well, actually John Varvatos knew the band first. We were opening for The Who at the time, and he had done something with Roger Daltrey. He came backstage and met us, and it was one of the most amazing things ever, because like you, I was a big John Varvatos fan. And I started getting into him from the time I got out of college. And the weird thing was, you know, I couldn’t even afford a belt! It was all about a dream relationship at that time that I had with John Varvatos’s clothes. Once we started getting known for our fashion as a band, we would walk around these amazing malls with these high-end clothes. And we would see these John Varvatos stores, and we’d go in there and see pictures on the wall of old-school rhythm and blues acts and old-school blues acts and rock and roll acts. Then you would see these coffee table books by Danny Clinch. You just wanted to get involved in it. So, when John came backstage and wanted to meet us, we were obviously blown away. You know what I mean?”
“John is…what do you call it? A curator of amazing, authentic music. And it probably takes him a bit of prying into to have him fall in love with a contemporary band, because he loves these legends, the authentics. And so the fact that he was there praising us, I cried basically. Not even just inside, outside as well. I literally let my guard down and let him know that he was a huge influence on my whole love for the marriage of rock and [fashion]. And the idea that he was gonna come to see us and talk to us afterwards was just crazy.”
Taylor continues the conversation on how that initial meeting slowly led to a long and continuing development process, a period of growth for both parties.
“We were going to do The Tonight Show right after that, and I talked to him about it while we were outside. He said that he would dress us for The Tonight Show, and we were lucky enough to do the show four times in one year. And then also we were asked to do the ESPY Awards, and he dressed us for that too.”
As Taylor tells the narrative, it’s easy to get why he is so passionate and energetic in his performances onstage. The man burns with excitement and energy, which comes across even in a telephone interview.
“So then we started to have this relationship, on and off of business, which is really nice. I could call him and talk to him about things. He would call me and ask me about music. And it was something really rich and exciting happening to me and to the band. I mean, because we’ve always…what do you call it? We’ve always glamorized the whole kind of beatnik time, where a lot of artists of different kinds would get together and have a lot of interaction and just sit around and smoke cigars or long cigarette sticks and talk about their art form together. And that’s what it was starting to feel like with John Varvatos. It wasn’t just about business. We were sharing art together. He would talk about why a song in his life influenced a certain jacket he made. And then I would tell him about how dressing a certain way makes me sing a certain way, or I can tell when guys in the band move one way according to what we’re in. And so we all had a true understanding about the whole marriage of art and fashion.”
“This summer, the band was playing in Norway, and there was one shot where I do this thing where I jump in the air. It’s actually a similar shot to the big John Varvatos campaign where I’m jumping up in the air and pushing off the microphone stand. And at the time, I was wearing John Varvatos shoes. So, I saw this one picture and I sent it to him. I was like, ‘Dude, it’s your shoes flying in the air!’ And then he sent me an email back. He was like, ‘I’m inspired.’ As it turns out, from the moment he received that picture is when he started designing this particular romantic/turn-of-the-century kind of line for 2017 Spring and Summer, and he thought of us right away. And so you can imagine here’s this guy being me, and here are the other guys from the band, that we love this man. And not only him, but his entire team and his whole design style and his mission in life, and then he writes us an email asking us if we would represent and be part of the face for the 2017 campaign.”
“That it was just huge for us! You know, we’ve loved it since we’ve watched Willie Nelson and his kids and Gary Clark Jr. and Jimmy Page, all these acts that came before us that he allowed to be the face of John Varvatos. When he asked us to do it, it was really, really validating. Because we’re not a band that just because we have a radio hit or something, people are hounding us. People actually fall in love with us. And we’ve done most of it, in the States anyway, without a huge radio hit. Not by choice. I’m not gonna bitch and try and pretend that’s a reality. Of course we’d all like to be on the radio, but you know, our day has not come there yet. But even without that, people are sort of affected by our live performances, and I guess who we are, and our humanitarianism, and the way we treat our fans. That someone like him could know our body of existence and ask us to represent him is a huge validation for a band on the rise like us.”
Asked if the song featured in the promotion for the Varvatos campaign, Knock Me Out was written specifically for that purpose, Taylor replies “No, not at all. We were in the middle of the AC/DC tour. We had just gotten back to America with AC/DC, and I was hanging out with a couple of my friends. I had gone to see the movie Creed. And while I was watching that movie, I was thinking to myself ‘The soundtracks for boxing movies are always amazing.’ The amount of soul and the amount of empowerment that goes behind the chord structures and tones and the lyrics, it’s almost like you’re trying to…I don’t know. It’s almost like you’re feeding lyrics to a bull. You know what I mean?”
“And so I really liked the whole idea of writing a boxing song. I started writing some lyrics. And then when we got back to the States, we were exploring different kinds of writing styles for the band. We’re writing with some other people here in L.A., and I started writing with the songwriting team. And it was the first song we wrote. It was fast and it was furious, and we came up right away. I’m one of those of people that have a big endurance. And almost the fact that people tell me that I can’t do things–that makes me able to do it quicker, because I like to prove people wrong in that sense. Especially like, as humans, we can do whatever it is that we want to do. And the only reason that we usually don’t get as far as we want to is because we allow outside sources to convince us that things are impossible. But I’ve always been one of those kind of people that believe that things are only impossible until they are possible.”
In conversing with Taylor, it quickly becomes apparent that his passion extends to all facets of life, not just music and fashion. He is the type of artist whose concerns extend to social issues and injustices in the current political environment.
“Right away, I was thinking, ‘Okay. I’m gonna dare someone to knock me out.’ I’m not even gonna say, ‘Try to knock me out.’ I’m gonna say, ‘Go ahead. Do it. You can probably do it.’ And the fact of how strongly they will come to me, that would give me even a stronger power to push back. Now, I’m not talking about just fighting by any means. I’m just talking about the way you walk through life and the obstacles we go through. And so we had sent a few songs to John Varvatos. And he loved them, but he’s like ‘Do you guys have any songs that that no one knows about yet?’ And we sent him a whole pile of those songs, and he called us back within hours and said he wanted it to be Knock Me Out. And here’s what I really like about the timing of it. Besides it just being about fashion and John Varvatos, and saying ‘I dare you to knock me out,’ I felt like the world had just gotten to a time where we were all being challenged as a people. And around me, a lot of the music and art that I was hearing was very soft-spoken, somewhat even almost overly evolved. I think there was a lot of talking and not a lot of action going on from a lot of my friends. You know, a lot of people were on their social media and talking about what needed to be done, but a lot of people weren’t doing things.”
“And so I loved the concept that John Varvatos showed that song during this particular zeitgeist. Because I think in the time we’re in, people need to be swinging a little harder, you know? And I mean that metaphorically, not literally. But it’s a time that we have got to stomp. We’ve got to lift signs. We’ve got to scream. We’ve got to say…we’ve got to shake people’s shoulders in order to say, ‘This is our life that we are playing around with.’ You know, when we sit back and allow ourselves to be passive, things happen to us that are looming over us right now. Everyone’s trying to act like it’s so hard to believe. You know, how many people are saying to you, ‘Oh, I can’t believe where we are. I keep thinking it’s a dream.’ To me, I’m like, ‘Of course this is where we are!’ Of course life is not a dream. We just sat back. We allowed ourselves to be walked over. We allowed ourselves to be led to this place.”
“So, I like that this song exists in this time. And hopefully, even if it’s one person out of every million people in the world hears Knock Me Out… because you know what? You’re not gonna get me down. I’m gonna keep pushing. That, to me, is one of the most beautiful things you can do as an artist. I mean, our favorite time has been the struggle, the ’50s and ’60s, when there’s so much…I wouldn’t like to call it political music. I’d like to call it lovemaking music, where the people were pushing that you make love more so than war. And with a song like Knock Me Out, people think about it as a fighting song, but it’s actually about the spirit of fighting, so that we can get to a place where we will be making more love and having less actual fighting going on.”