The members of Vinyl Theatre know firsthand that music has the power to bring people together because it happened to them. Music is how they met, it’s what they bonded over, and it’s what has transformed their lives. Since officially forming in 2012, the Milwaukee-based quartet has gone from being college students who revered bands like The Killers, Two Door Cinema Club, The Shins, and Death Cab For Cutie to coming into their own as artists themselves, building an impressive following for their buoyant synth-based alternative-pop sound. Vinyl Theatre’s use of social media, including uploading tracks from their independent EP Chromatic one by one over a period of months onto SoundCloud, proved to be a savvy tactical decision.
“Whenever we would tweet that a new song was uploaded to SoundCloud, our fans would play it non-stop, which pushed it to trend on the site,” explains drummer Nick Cesarz. “And once you’re trending, everyone sees it.” That led to attention from venerated indie label Fueled By Ramen (Fun., Young The Giant, Paramore), which signed them and will release their eight-song debut Electrogram later this year. Vinyl Theatre tell the story of having their lives changed through the songs on Electrogram, writing about being so inspired by music that it practically hurts (first single 'Breaking Up My Bones'), finding their passion in life and going after it ('Gold'), and persevering now that they’ve found that passion ('Shine On'). Sonically, the songs pulse with kinetic dance-friendly energy that is informed by their mutual camaraderie and sheer joy in the creative process.
“Our goal as a band is to share this experience,” says singer and guitarist Keegan Calmes. “We want to share what we have. It's hard to share a relationship, but we want to show people our bond, and hopefully they will form that bond with each other as fans and become friends. I met all of these guys through music. It brought us together and we want to do the same for others.”
Vinyl Theatre’s origins are rooted in a seven-year friendship between Calmes and keyboardist Chris Senner, athletes who met at a cross-country track meet during their junior year of high school. Senner approached Calmes, a star runner who would go on to win eight All-Americans and three national titles, and said, “So you’re Muskego’s best runner? I’m going to kick your ass today.” “He’s kind of a jokester and was trying to psych me out,” Calmes says. “I was kind of mad, like ‘Who the hell is this kid?’ and I beat him by two minutes. After the meet, the two got to talking and discovered that they were both were musicians. Calmes began playing guitar at age ten and singing at 15. Senner began taking piano lessons at age eight, eventually spending eight to ten hours a day practicing with the goal of being a classical pianist. It was hearing The Killers’ Hot Fuss that changed everything for them. “That was when I completely fell in love with pop music,” Senner says. “That album was my rock,” Calmes says. “It’s what I return to whenever I want a refresher about the craft of songwriting.”
The first time Calmes and Senner hung out, they wrote two songs right away. “I had never really written with anyone else, and I was kind of guarding all my music like, ‘I don't trust anyone,’ but immediately, the chemistry was there,” Calmes says. “I’m very structured in how I write, but what impressed me about Chris is that he’s kind of off-the-wall. He brought that missing factor for me.” Says Senner: “Keegan is just super-talented when it comes to structuring ideas, writing hooks, and seeing the full picture of a song and what direction it needs to go in.”
To complete the band, Calmes and Senner recruited two friends of Senner’s, his childhood buddy Josh Pothier, who took up the bass in middle school and spent hours jamming with Chris from the age of 12, and Nick Cesarz, who began playing drums in fourth grade. He met Senner in a music theory class. “Nick has always been the prodigy,” Calmes says. “He could have gone on to do anything with music, been a classical percussionist. What I love about him is that he wanted to be in this band.” Says Nick, “I studied percussion performance in college and I got sick of reading notes on a page. It just wasn’t for me. You can only interpret something so many ways. But with these guys, I get to create something.”
Despite the fact that Calmes was attending college in Colorado, the four began exchanging ideas over Skype and practicing whenever Calmes was back in town. “One night after a show, Nick said, ‘I don't think that you should go to school so far away.’ He'd never spoken up like that. And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘I just think it's foolish. I think that we have something big here.’"
Turns out Cesarz was right. Calmes transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and “that’s how this thing got serious,” he says. Since then, Vinyl Theatre has released two independent EPs, performed many local headlining shows, and supported such national acts as Royal Teeth, Parade of Lights, Five Knives, and twenty-one pilots, whom they got to open for after winning a battle of the bands at Marquette University last year. “After the show, the singer Tyler [Joseph] gave me a big hug, and said, ‘Just keep going, man. Keep doing what you're doing.’ They’re one of my favorite bands, and that meant to the world to me.”
The infectious spirit of that encouragement is something Vinyl Theatre hopes to put out in the world themselves with their music. “Emitting a happy, energetic vibe is so key to us because this is what we love doing, and when we write, that's how we feel,” Pothier says. “And we just want that happiness to spread to other people because we love life and we love doing what we do.”