An Interview With The String Project, VITAMIN STRING QUARTET on Their Latest Collection, Covering Daft Punk, The Weeknd, Being Featured on Westworld and More!
Posted On 03 May 2017
Vitamin String Quartet formed in 1999 with a curious album idea: What if a string section performed Zeppelin’s greatest hits? Years and countless records later, that simple formula has become the blueprint for Vitamin String Quartet, widely regarded as the source for innovative string renditions of popular music. The Los Angeles Times recently profiled The Vitamin String Quartet and Vulture declares, “The Vitamin String Quartet has turned contemporary pop into instrumental string works for the last 17 years — consider it an updated take on elevator music of yore.”
A group of music geeks, string players, performers, arrangers, producers and creative, VSQ have released over 260 albums and have honored such artists as David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, Sigur Ros, Daft Punk, Weezer, Kanye West, Queen, Senses Fail, Lady Gaga, Adele, Muse and many more. With over 3.8 million downloads, VSQ also releases sheet music, exclusive online content, instructional videos, and live performances. In 2011, Vitamin String Quartet backed up Thirty Seconds To Mars for their MTV Unplugged performance ad EP release. VSQ’s music was recently featured on the popular HBO series Westworld with its renditions of Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have” and Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” VSQ has also been featured on other hits shows such as Modern Family, Shameless, and Gossip Girl.
VSQ, not a quartet in the traditional sense, is a series of string projects developed and produced by CMH Label Group, an independent record company based in Los Angeles. The CMH team works with an ever-evolving cast of string players, arrangers, and other creatives to bring each project to life.
Learn more about Vitamin String Quartet in the following All Access interview with James Curtiss, their A&R rep and project director :
What are some words you would use to describe 2016-2017 for VSQ and VSQ music? What were some of the highlights? What are you most excited about for this year?
Words to describe 2016? Surprising. Adventurous. I don’t know. There were a lot of firsts. We’re always experimenting with ways to tell our story, while continuing to try our hands at different kinds of tunes, formats, etc. We put out our first 7” as a tribute to two tracks off the record Radiohead put out last year. That provided us with material we work-shopped in front of our first live-stream, which we would then expand into our first music video. Earlier in the year, we put out what might be the most ambitious album of ours, so far, which was a full string quartet spin on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. If you know that record beyond just the two big singles, you know that’s a pretty massive undertaking, what with these long expansive pieces, electronic soundscapes, juggling genres, and a whole lot more. And, we put that out on vinyl as well, so we had to make sure the production and performances were super on-point to really impress the audio heads who go over wax with a fine-tooth comb.
The other big coup for us was the placements we received on Westworld. As for 2017, we’ve already dropped another live-stream where we played our rendition of The Weeknd’s “Starboy”, which was part of the EP we put out in February. At that live-stream we also performed our rendition of Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, which thanks to the aforementioned Westworld placement has become one of our biggest hits currently. And, now we’ve got our Kanye record coming out on Record Store Day in April.
How did you all come up with VSQ’s name? Was it difficult to come up with it? Were there a lot of other names that you were considering?
Necessity is the mother of invention. Originally there wasn’t a name. There were just a lot of tribute albums that were being put out, under a lot of different titles. There was a solid period of 8 years where these albums were selling incredibly well in the physical marketplace. Then in 2007, I and a few other people at CMH Label Group were spearheading the effort to get the entirety of the label’s catalog up online for sale. This included all the string quartet tributes that were being put out on the subsidiary label Vitamin Records. We all agreed that we should try to come up with a name that we could house all the disparate albums under; that way if someone comes across, say, a tribute to Metallica they could click on the artist name and find all the other tributes. After a lot of back and forth, with a lot of variations on artist names, brand names, etc. I suggested we call it Vitamin String Quartet. It made sense to me, since the label was Vitamin and the name rolled off the tongue quite nicely. The abbreviation would actually come a couple years later when we started to see fans online talking about it, taking it upon themselves to shorten the name. That also rolled right off the tongue and looked quite nice when you put it on an album, shirt, everything.
I am a big fan of the show Westworld so I’m curious how VSQ was featured on it?
We have fans in high places it turns out. A lot of the placements we’ve received in film and television have come from creators and productions reaching out to us, and Westworld was no exception. Since you’re a fan of the show, you know that a lot of the music on the show are these ironic or anachronistic spins on modern pop, rock, alternative. I assume this helps set the mood for the juxtaposition of Old West and Hi-tech Future that is the show’s bread and butter. That’s why a lot of creators come to us. They are always looking for a unique spin on something familiar, which is a good chunk of what we do on our day-to-day with VSQ. It’s why so many people want our music for their weddings, or why they study to the records we put out. We provide a new spectrum through which they can experience something they love, for any number of reasons.Your music has been featured in a lot of shows in the past. Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs on TV? What was that like?
It’s almost like you’re not supposed to admit this, in this much-ballyhooed golden age of television we’re living through, but I’m not much of a TV guy. It took me a minute to see some of the placements we were getting in the context of the entirety of whatever episode or show they were being used in. I know I saw the way So You Think You Can Dance had used a couple of our pieces, like some of our Coldplay renditions. That was easy because a) I have a background in theater, so I love dance, and b) it isn’t a narrative show you must keep up with. I think the first two shows where I really got to experience the way our music came across was with Gossip Girl and Modern Family. The former I wanted to watch because I played a big part in not only getting the pieces that the production wanted, but also because we got some of our players on-camera in the episode, which took place at Blair’s wedding. The latter was something wonderful for me just because I was a fan of the show. The production wanted to use our rendition of Edward Sharpe’s “Home”, which was a lovely track that at that point hadn’t found an audience with our fans, and they wanted to use it in the wedding episode for Cam and Mitchell. I loved it. What can I say? I am big softie. And now that version of “Home” is one of our biggest successes.
How do you think VSQ has grown and changed over the years? What has stayed the same since VSQ formed in 1999?
Well, like I was saying, there was no VSQ in 1999. That’s one really big change since the output of all these records began. Giving it that identity made a huge difference, because now you’ve given it a name that people can hold onto. Another thing that’s changed is the level of attention that’s been brought to the music and all of the ancillary content. There’s a much higher demand that we place upon quality and vision. We’re far more focused when it comes to the repertoire that we choose to put out and we’ve worked hard to get the arrangements and productions to sound the way we want.
VSQ has covered so many artists. Is there anyone that VSQ would still love to pay homage to one of these days?
There’s so much music out there, it would be impossible to list everything that we are still chewing on, repertoire-wise. We’re all music fans here, so there’s a never-ending wealth of music we’ve all talked about turning into string projects.
What can you tell readers about VSQ’s upcoming Kanye West collection? What was it like recording that music?
Much like the Daft Punk record, it’s a pretty ambitious project that we’re putting together for a Record Store Day release. We’ve done a few hip-hop artists before, including some Kanye stuff, and it’s always a little more difficult than a rock or pop act. Even with an artist like Kanye, who has some strong melodies, you’re still having to try to translate more percussive elements or a non-melodic flow onto a string instrument. That can allow for some incredible experimentation, dealing with more atonal or abrasive moments than you’d find in our usual output, but it can be a far more difficult thing to nail down. There are a lot more little nuances to deal with. But, I think people are gonna be blown away by what we’ve managed to capture on the record. Right from the jump, with our rendition of “New Slaves”, it’s a much more immediate sound that demands your attention. Kanye’s catalog is so varied, again kind of like what we were dealing with on Daft Punk, that it enables us to cover a lot of different ground sonically.
I understand that Vitamin String Quartet also released sheet music, exclusive online content, instructional videos and live performances. Where did the idea to release all of this come from?
Why wouldn’t you want to expand the breadth of your work when you see a demand? Like a lot of things we do, some of that starts with the fans and the demand they’ve placed on us for more, more, more. I started with CMH almost 12 years ago, before there was officially a VSQ, and I was working as an online marketing and customer service rep. As such, I saw emails that would come in all the time asking for sheet music of something that we’d put out, or asking if the quartet would play a wedding, live gig, etc. So, immediately you see this and try to find a way to make it happen. We’ve had the opportunity to put forward a lot of what we do and who we work with into different platforms and realms and I think it just charges us and the fans up that much more.
Who are some of your favorite artists? Who would VSQ absolutely love to work with in the future?
I am the biggest music geek on the team, so asking me these kinds of questions is begging for a long-winded diatribe, peppered with ample amounts of hyperbole. The list of favorite artists is just far too lengthy to get into. As for who VSQ would love to work with in the future, we’re actually starting to look into a wide array of creatives, not just musicians, that we would like to collaborate with on a number of projects. Some of these projects are audio-visual in nature, while some are studio recordings. We’re looking to try our hand at a lot of different mediums.
Growing up, did you all always want to work in the music industry? Can you recall your earliest musical memory?
I didn’t have a clue that I would work in the music industry. Ever since I was like 5 years-old I thought I was going to be making movies, which I was on track to do until I was in my early twenties. While I was in between TV and film gigs, I had to work a lot of different jobs to keep the lights on. When I was around 20, I got a gig working part-time at an indie record store. I was brought on-board as a clerk and to buy and stock up the store’s heavy metal and underground hip-hop sections. After a year or so, I moved into a full-time position as the main buyer and promoter for the store. I did that for a couple of years before I started looking for a position with a label or distributor, seeing if I could move up in the industry. CMH turned out to be my first label gig and, with the exception of an almost two-year stint at a metal label, I’ve been part of the team ever since. As for a first musical memory, there seems to be a flurry of things I can point to, since I have a pretty good memory that allows me to go a lot further back than some. For instance, I can remember seeing Michael Jackson’s video for “Billie Jean” on MTV when I was 3 years old. Around that same time, I remember seeing John Travolta in “Grease”. Those two experiences made me want to sing, dance, and act. I can also remember an uncle of mine taking me along with him to see Black Sabbath when I was 4 years old and me realizing that Ozzy was not the guy fronting the band at the time. Heavy metal and show tunes; those were pretty much my first two loves.
At the end of the day, what do you hope is the message of VSQ’s music? What do you hope people take away from VSQ songs?
I just want people to stay curious, to stay open-minded. Being a music geek comes from an inability to stay in one place when it comes to everything cultural. I carry that attitude over to everything in my life. To paraphrase Alvy Singer, a love for music, and by extension a love for life, is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I don’t want anybody’s love for music to become a dead shark.