For the eighth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Locavore, the newest restaurant at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2014."
With empty coffee mugs, sugar packets and plates strewn across a long table in the upper level of Café Hollander at 2608 N. Downer Ave. in Milwaukee, Keegan Calmes smiled.
"This is the most relaxing dinner we’ve had … or lunch?"
Nick Cesarz looked at him quizzically, and Calmes laughed.
"What time is it!?"
The lead vocalist and guitarist for Wisconsin’s own Vinyl Theatre could be forgiven for being unsure of the clock – the band has been touring with twenty one pilots, driving all over the country, adjusting to life on the road where every day leads to a new city, a new venue.
"Usually Nick is like, you have five minutes to eat this Burger King – go!" Calmes said of the band's drummer.
This is why Saturday's show at The Rave is special for the group, as all four are Wisconsin natives. And when OnMilwaukee.com asked where they’d like to get together for lunch, the East Side restaurant was an immediate choice.
"I remember a couple years ago when Keegan and I would be in the music building (at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and we came here a few times and we’d do some plotting," Senner said.
"It was actually kind of an escape," Calmes added. "We’d talk about current ideas we had for songs, or shows we had coming up, dreams and aspirations we had and wouldn’t it be cool to do this? This is where we’d lay out all the ideas and shoot around a bit."
The restaurant is also a favorite of bassist Josh Pothier, and has been a favorite of the trio for the atmosphere, and of course, the food. It was the first trip for Cesarz, however – and he decided on the Café Burger in his maiden voyage through the menu.
Pothier’s go-to is the chorizo burrito ("Every time," he said) while Senner always orders the Mrs. Hollander.
Calmes, however, had to find a new favorite – his go-to option was taken off the menu just last week. "My favorite thing is gone! I was all ready to tell you about the veggie wrap!"
His choice on Saturday then was the turkey avocado wrap, with a side of fries.
With that, and some coffee and water, we caught up with the group in the hours before taking the stage at The Rave.
OnMilwaukee: Now that you guys have been on the road, what have you found yourselves missing from Milwaukee, food-wise?
Josh Pothier: I’m a big fan of A.J. Bombers. I love the burgers and the onion strings. My girlfriend and I come here all the time – we’re actually close to the ‘Tosa one – but we’re always coming here for the brunch. Big fan of the brunch. Jings Downtown, great Chinese food.
Chris Senner: I go out to eat a lot with my girlfriend, too – we go to Sobelman’s a lot. We come here because it’s a block away. All the local restaurants around here are just awesome.
Keegan Calmes: What I miss the most is the familiarity. I just love being around the places I know the best. But, Comet Café, too, it’s a good one. Actually before I moved into Shorewood last year and then pursued this whole music thing really hard, just working full time, I almost moved in across the street from Comet. That was almost a huge selling point for me – I was like, I could just go there all the time! I just love Comet, this place. Most of the places around Milwaukee you’re bound to see somebody you know. It’s a big city but it’s got a small town feel to it in a way. It’s what I definitely miss about going out to eat around here.
Nick Cesarz: This is my first time (here). When I visit my grandma I go to Ned’s Pizza. And Comet Café.
OMC: You won a battle of the bands to open for twenty one pilots at Marquette University in 2013 – now that you can look back on that experience, was that the beginning of something that maybe you didn’t know was beginning at that time?
JP: I think it’s absolutely true. We were just talking the other day with our management even, how closely linked twenty one pilots is linked to all of us in weird, different ways. That show was definitely a big catalyst for what came. Especially you (points to Calmes) had a great connection with (twenty one pilots front man) Tyler (Joseph) at that show.
KC: They watched our entire performance, and to do that to a local band that was kind of just jumping on their tour for a half a second, it meant a lot to us. And it speaks a lot to their character and what they stand for. They give everyone a chance. Tyler, when I was leaving, gave me a hug, said goodbye to us all and said to just keep going, to keep trying this dream. It makes all the difference when somebody you look up to says something like that.
(Calmes then relayed a story from the band's show in Chicago on Friday night where people who had seen the group at Marquette became devoted followers, and made their way to the Aragon Ballroom to see the band again.)
KC: "They’ve been watching us ever since, watching us grow and they’re super proud of us. I feel like all the fans that were there at the beginning, there’s an even closer connection and it’s kind of cool."
OMC: You guys made your name on the music sharing site SoundCloud.com and establishing a large social audience. It’s a path many artists, from all genres, are taking – but when you went into it, did you have a plan to separate yourself from all the other music, or was it random that you sort of blew up in that format?
KC: We had kind of a plan, but it was a really vague plan me and Nick and the guys kind of made up in our head – like, maybe if we do this, a shot in the dark, no algorithm, a shot in the dark of let’s tell everybody on every facet of social media to listen to this one song that we’ll release for free on SoundCloud before anything else, and tell them all on the same day at the same time, and make sure that we promote that it will be released then on SoundCloud, and we did that, and everyone – we got lucky – they believed in it and they listened to it.
And, if you get enough people listening right off the bat when it’s uploaded, apparently, it will help you start trending if there’s enough people. So it would spread the word and it would spread like wildfire. And we did that for each track after that, like, wow, this really worked. We speculated that maybe – maybe – it would happen for each track. And it just grew for each one, each track becoming more popular. To the point of we couldn’t really determine if there was a single or not.
JP: We had kind of a plan but at the same time lucked out big time because the trending aspect of SoundCloud only launched a couple weeks before we even uploaded our track, so we got super lucky with that. It worked out really well.
CS: Yeah, we decided to do that to every other song we would be releasing then, too. The first song we did that for was "Breaking Up My Bones" …
NC: We went on our page one day and we could see in the right hand corner how many plays you had that day, and we had like 11,000 plays in one day …
KC: We were calling each other!
NC: We were like, is somebody buying plays for us? This can’t be real! We went to the explore tab and started figuring out that our song was up at the top on trending …
KC: We also even Googled, can you buy plays? How is his even … We were searching to make sure nobody was messing with us or something is going on. It’s impossible to rig SoundCloud.
I thought "If You Say So" was the first track we uploaded? After that happened, we figured if we can get each one to trend somehow, that would be amazing. So we would wait a whole month before we would release another one.
OMC: You guys were even digitally savvy in picking out a band name, factoring in search engine optimization (SEO) along with your personal choices. What was that process like?
KC: We started a Google document, actually, that we all shared and we broke down all these different ideas, all four of us, just everything. Any idea, even band names that we liked that were already bands, like, ‘how did they get this?’ And we discussed it. It took us a long time. Eventually we committed to it. We didn’t even bring it to management. We said this is the name, this is what we love, Vinyl Theatre, this is what we stand for, the vinyl record aspect of it and the theatrics.
JP: I think what really helped was we had the Google doc and there things that we liked, but we were driving to Chicago for something and it was all four of us together and we actually got to talk about things together. Then, Vinyl Theatre just kind of like came organically out of that. I think that was key, having us all throwing names out there and immediately being does that click? And when Vinyl Theatre came out it was like, yup, that’s got to be it.
OMC: Interesting at all to you guys that you’ve done so much work digitally, and then settled on a name with vinyl in it?
KC: We wanted to make sure people know that. We have sort of that new synth sound and everything but we wanted people to know that our influences are kind of older, too. I really respect bands that pride themselves on their instrumentation. We respect that and we kind of want to emulate that. But at the same time we don’t want to lose being pop savvy or be pretentious about it, like, all we do is solo or all we do is this. I love bands like that, don’t get me wrong, but I want to have every aspect of the spectrum covered if we can. That’s kind of what we were going for, with the name especially, to represent that.
OMC: If you look at your timeline on paper – named to Billboard’s Next Big Sound chart in March, being a part of Summerfest’s Emerging Artist Series in July, then signing with Atlantic Records imprint Fueled By Ramen, starting on this tour on Sept. 4, then releasing your debut full length album "Electrogram" on Sept. 23 – does it feel as fast as it looks?
CS: Yeah, it feels just as fast as it looks. Yeah …
NC: The other thing too is that we’ve been writing together for like, five or six years now, so that process has been long but we’ve loved every minute of it. But yeah, definitely from the timeline perspective, it sure looks pretty quick.
KC: It’s a whirlwind right now.
JP: We played Yield bar – it feels like a few months back – and then we played for 4,500 people last night (in Chicago). It’s like, ‘what happened? Where are we?’ It’s crazy.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.