Vinyl Theatre’s Keegan Calmes Digs Deeps With Blurred Culture About New Album “Starcruiser” BC INTERVIEW: Song Inspirations, the Music Industry, and Creative Freedom
LYNCHBURG, VA- The up and coming trio known as Vinyl Theatre, formed in 2012, is best known for their single “Breaking Up My Bones”, released back in 2013. Made up of Keegan Calmes (vocals/guitar), Chris Senner (keyboard/backing vocals), and Nick Cesarz (drums), they are breaking at the seams after making their latest album all on their own. They are pushing boundaries with their new album “Starcruiser”. Taking a step back from their pop-punk/rock sound, they are taking off and exploring new sounds and expanding their vulnerability lyrically.
The Milwaukee based band recently went through a breakup with their record label, Fueled By Ramen, but I can already tell they have their best days ahead of them. They are persistently striving to fully showcase their abilities, which they thoroughly do throughout this album. Every track is slightly different from the last, seeping with creativity that is woven into each song. They weren’t scared of stepping outside of their comfort zone with this album. As we can still hear the heavy synth pop sound we are used to, but they have refined their sound and I think it’s safe to say we are all looking forward to hearing more from them in the future.
Being faced with tough challenges and making the choice to fight for what they want, “Our Song” and “Feel It All”, portrays a fresh surge of energy and devotion to their new music. With this carrying throughout the rest of the album, they ended the album on a softer note, one of my personal favorites, “Dream of Me”. The song singles out Keegan’s serene voice with just a simple acoustic guitar, a peaceful melody that comforts and sooths the soul. Intertwined during the whole album, the lyrics are something the audience should pay attention to and not overlook. They touch on the human condition and the different emotions and mindsets we encounter during life, hitting the high points in life while also facing the reality of going through tough times.
I got a chance to chat with Keegan a little bit about this new album, inspirations for songs and just about the music industry in general.
Congratulations on this album! How does it feel completing your third album?
It feels good, I feel like we kind of rounded out our catalog, so with the first record we kind of took on synth pop and rock and the second record was much more organic rock record and with the third record, it was “okay what kind of sounds can we make that people aren’t making”. We experimented and took all the chains off and just went nuts. We kind of approached music differently.
You guys recently split from your record label, right?
Right yeah, that was a surprise to us. We were sitting at home for almost a year not touring and they really didn’t put us on any tours. It was kind of like letting someone down slowly, but you thought the person was still in the committed relationship with you and they were seeing other people. It was a tough one, but you realize after it’s done that this is for the better.
With that being said, does one of the songs off the album hint at that specific relationship?
Yeah, one song that really does is “Feel It All”. It was actually our manager who told us, who still manages us. It was a little bit impersonal, they didn’t call us directly to let us know. I get why cause it was hard and according to our manager they took it pretty hard. With “Feel It All” we wrote that same day, we had to do decide if we wanted to keep doing music or not, and the consensus almost right away was “yeah of course we want to keep doing music”. So, we wrote it and released it as a single at first. And it did really well. Other than that, the record touches on our personal lives. With the relationships we’ve seen in our families and our own lives.
There was one song, “Never Thought That this Would Happen” that stood out to me because it dove more into depression?
Yeah, it definitely touches on depression. A friend of mine was recently struggling with substance abuse, and I’ve been going through a bunch of stuff, so him and I had a long talk about what it means to be happy. It’s almost impossible to find. Without saying too many personal things about him. He had a great job, a great career, you know he had all these things going for him. A beautiful wife, a home, everything. He had everything going for him. It’s hard to find that sweet spot of happiness where you are. He looks at me and he probably thinks, “Oh, Keegan must be so happy doing music”. And I look at him going, “Oh, he must be so happy having such a great solid career, not a lot of ups and downs”. Every single person, no matter what they are doing, they are really trying to find that sweet spot, and it’s really hard. It’s definitely something I really wanted to write about.
And I think people will appreciate that song because, as you said, everyone is trying to find that sweet spot of happiness.
It was a surprise; a lot of people have said that is one of their favorite songs on the record. We kind of wrote it and thought “maybe this is a little too real”. We wanted to throw it on the record so that we touch on some personal things. We used to be more scared of saying those things when we were with the record label. A lot of those things would kind of get buried.
How does it feel to finally release these songs that you really haven’t been able to release in the past?
It feels really liberating. Even if this record isn’t going to be the best record ever, I think it’s great and I think the songs are awesome. But this is a stepping stone. Every single [album] has been a stepping stone, and with this one we are finally free. So, this is a complete experiment and it feels great to put out something that is just a big experiment. Putting out records before, we knew what was going to happen. Here’s a single, here’s a slow song, blah blah blah. you have your typical formula and not that the songs are bad, we tried extremely hard and I love a lot of them but there is a formula that we were told and meant to follow and now it’s just a new frontier. Here’s some crazy weird songs, let’s go!
It’s working! With the response that I’ve seen, everyone has been loving it.
Yeah, it’s been pretty crazy. We put the record out two days ago and it has almost 80,000 streams [on Spotify]. So, it’s really crushing, by our standards.
You guys mentioned in a previous interview about going towards creative freedom, can you define what the phrase “creative freedom” means for you guys as a band or even for you as an individual? And what that looks like for you guys moving forward?
Yeah definitely. To us, it’s not cutting instrumental breaks at the bridge. Or not cutting that 30 second guitar solo or synth solo because it doesn’t fit radio. And as I was saying before, there’s a formula. For us, it was just throwing that all out of the window. For us it was creative freedom to stop cutting songs, to stop cutting lyrics out. A lot of times we were being told the intro is too long or this takes longer than a minute to get to the chorus, then throw it out. If it takes longer than a minute to get the chorus it is no longer a single. And since everything was catered to be a single, a lot of the songs would end up having the same feel and it breaks you down over time. Getting free is definitely what we needed to feel to get that stress off our back.
The album’s name is “STARCRUISER”, and you only hear that word briefly mentioned in the first song, what’s the significance of the name?
STARCRUISER is the whole theme we have with the live show and everything we have. It’s like welcome to STARCRUISER, when you get onboard the ship we are taking you on a journey through our lives and what we’ve gone through. So through the record, we take you through the ups and downs and, like you noticed, it touches on depression, substance abuse, and with “Knock Knock” that talks about having those days, those weeks, where you feel bipolar and maybe you are suffering from bipolar disorder and the song literally goes from this dark spooky feeling to the chorus where it talks about how in the sunshine you feel just fine. It feels a little bit creepy in a way. So STARCUISER is just taking you through a journey and by the end of it, you kind of get an idea of our lives and a journey around our universe.
And the album artwork ties into that then, because it looks like an astronaut with a disco ball?
Yeah we definitely tried to tie in our singles with the art work. I start talking to our drummer, Nick. He’s really good with graphic design and I talked to him because “Masterpiece” talks about seeing life through a disco ball. It’s like seeing life through kaleidoscope in a way. You can see everything just fine but for some reason it’s just pixelated and distorted. At times when you wake up and try to figure out like “what am I doing with my life?” or “what does this really mean to me?”. it just really seems like you are seeing it in a fragmented way and that’s kind of what we wanted to do with this astronaut, our protagonist of this journey. He has the disco ball helmet, and like everyone else, we all have our biases and past experiences that make us see in a fragmented way and that’s really where the artwork came from.
You mentioned “Masterpiece” and when I first heard that song, with the beginning of it, I immediately thought of The Neighbourhood. So where did you get pull your inspiration for this album? I saw you mentioned Bruno Mars and Cage the Elephant before, but anyone else?
Yeah those were big ones, but it evolved and we were pulling from Eminem and we were pulling things from strange places where we didn’t really know what we were doing. Anything that sounded cool, we were like “hey this sounds great and I have these lyrics so check this out” or visa versa. Like with “Masterpiece”, I was listening to Bruno mars and he has a great falsetto and I’ve been recently singing in my falsetto more and that’s kind of where that came from and I was just singing his songs in the car, and when I was writing, I just felt myself be so influenced by his voice and his music, that song kind of came out. Some past influences too, yeah, we love The Neighbourhood and Cage the Elephant, so they all kind of seep into the record.
In the song “Done With These Days” you dabbled with spoken word and talking during the track, what made you want to do that?
Well we kind of started integrating rap into the music a little bit. A lot of it is because we are writing so many lyrics, we want to fit in a story and to do it in a way that is fast enough. It’s just one of those moments when you’re singing and putting energy into it and it sounds beautiful, but when you get to the talking part, you’re just like “I’ve just had it, listen! Listen, I want to say something here”. Like you just have it and you have to use spoken word to get your point across.
With you just saying that you want the people to just focus on the words, the track “We Make the Music” kind of talks about people not necessarily paying attention to the lyrics and it’s just more of an entertainment side for people but you guys are trying to put out real and vulnerable lyrical stuff.
Right, it’s kind of like irony. Have you ever heard those pop songs where they come on the radio and it’s so catchy and then it turns out the song is about their dead brother and you find out 10 years later? With all these giant songs, nobody is really listening and sometimes the lyrics are so bad. With some, you finally listen to them and they are really stupid. But you don’t realize it until you either grow out of it, you realize it way later or maybe you never realize it. The biggest thing is a lot of people turn on the radio because they want to escape and that’s totally fine as well, just enjoy the melody. But there’s a lot of die-hard fans out there that live for that and want to hear what the artist has to say, and they really are listening to the lyrics. It kind of touched on that and how for a long time, at least with the label, it felt like it didn’t even matter what the lyrics were anymore. They just wanted a big chorus. And you know I get it, but we wanted to just cut that a little bit and talk about how lyrics are really important.
During the making of this album, were there any favorite memories?
Well we were in Nicks basement studio with beautiful hardwood floors so everyday just coming over and having a cup of coffee and just sitting down with my two best friends. It’s just always going to be a fond memory now, six months of doing that and recording. A few times we had big break throughs. I think listening to record all the way through was one of my favorite memories with them, getting excited and feeling like a kid again. Like wow, we just made this.
What is your personal favorite track from this album?
I’d say “We Make the Music” and maybe “Dream of Me”, the last acoustic track, because I haven’t really had the opportunity to showcase any acoustic guitar playing. I wrote the song when I was with my girlfriend. She was falling asleep and we had a really long day and I just started playing the song. Looking at her and singing those lyrics and whatever the lyrics were, it was the song right away. Like it all just came to my mind right away and those guitar parts were pretty much there. It was really weird, I just had the song inside and it just came out. I really like that song for that reason, it was very personal.
“Dream of Me” is one of my favorites as well because it puts me in a different mindset and I really like how you ended the album with that song because it is totally different from the other tracks.
Yeah, I’ve always been a big fan of ending a record with something that people don’t expect, The Killers always do it. I’ve always been a massive fan of that and I don’t know what it is but, like you said, it puts you in a different mindset. It makes it sound like a book, there’s an ending. And it really helps to round out a collection of songs.
If you could play one of your songs live, from any album or EP, which would it be and why?
Oh God, I think “Breaking Up My Bones” is one of my favorites to play. I think it’s maybe the way that the crowd makes us feel when we play, because so many people know it. And it resonated with so many people. That question makes me question why do I do music? I think when it comes down to it, seeing how happy people are when we play “Breaking Up My Bones”, that’s what makes me happy. It’s all about having other people enjoy our music. I see people dancing at shows or jumping around and it’s the most fulfilling thing you could possibly see.
With all your fans and the audience at your shows, do you guys get to meet a lot of them?
Yeah, almost every single show we play, we stick around and meet every fan we possibly can. We’ve probably been kicked out of more venues than most bands. Because fans want to talk to us and the workers just want to go home. We always try and talk to every single person we can. We are big on that and we’ve never sold a VIP package just because we want to meet every fan and because we are not there yet, we’re pretty normal guys.
Do you guys remember fans from different cities?
I absolutely do. I know a lot of fans from different cities. Personally where they are in their lives, like personal things about their lives. It’s not something you seek out, it just happens through conversation. There’s this guy from Ohio that we’ve known since he was in high school and now he’s just about to graduate college. It’s crazy. When people stick around that many years and keep coming to shows, it means the world. And with the ups and downs, you start to appreciate that more.
Is there anything to look out for with this tour coming up that’s brand new that you’ve never done before?
Yeah definitely. Our set has completely changed. Everything is kind of themed, so it’s a story from the beginning to end. We have a little bit of narration that is happening and some audio files that we’ve found that were really important to each song and transition. We’ve really catered this show to our audience and made it a story for them, just like the album. It all relates to the album. And we are playing a lot of old songs and a lot of new songs, so we really didn’t leave anything out. There’s something for everybody. These venues are pretty small and intimate, so we are really going to make it about the fans experience.
That’s a good thing to focus on, the fans experience. You guys are in the right mindset with that. Thanks for taking the time and chatting with me! Can’t wait to catch you on the road.
Yeah, that you for the great interview. See you at a show!
Make sure to catch Vinyl Theatre on tour this fall with their pals, Royal Teeth and The Catching.