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Forget ‘Stupid Fucking TikTok’—VIAL Is Ready to Be a Band Again

Quarantine, dumb boys, social media, terrible Jimmy John’s saxophone music—VIAL has overcome it all and would really like to go on tour now, if you don’t mind.

DK Tong

“The saxophone is so loud,” says KT Branscom, and it’s true.

The music that blares through the West Bank Jimmy John’s makes conversation so difficult, in fact, it’s almost like the cheapie sandwich franchise isn’t designed to host a full-hour interview with a punk band or something.

But hey, we’ve all had to adapt to the pandemic in our own ways, and the way VIAL has had to adapt today is to schlep down Riverside Avenue to JJ’s from our initial interview site, the Hard Times Cafe—which, we learned, had gone takeout only (and good for them, everyone be safe). The members of VIAL aren’t gonna be deterred by a short walk. Or a little saxophone. Or a lot of saxophone. Some of them even multi-task and scarf down a pre-rehearsal dinner between probing questions such as “What even is this music we’re hearing?”

“Some classic Jimmy John’s music,” drummer and singer Katie Fischer says simply.

Yes, Katie and KT are different people, and neither of them is Kate Kanfield, VIAL’s bassist. Not that anyone meeting the three musicians would confuse them—they stand out by personal style alone, ranging (today at least) from punk leather to dorm casual to nattily artsy, and even more so in conversation. Odd woman out, name-wise, is Taylor Kraemer, though even her middle name is Katherine, and in a pinch she could always call herself TK.

Onstage VIAL is the kind of band whose energy is so rambunctious that whether they’re expressing anger or joy or (more rarely) sadness seems almost besides the point. They’re just getting it all out in the open. Here at Jimmy John’s their attitude is much less “eat my ass and suck my dick” (to quote a unison shout from “Planet Drool,” on their newish album, LOUDMOUTH) than onstage. (There’s a time and a place for everything.) They’re intimately respectful of each other, and more than once a member ends a statement with a deferential “I don’t want to speak for the whole group,” after which the others express their agreement. If you ever have to spend an hour in a campus Jimmy John’s, I would highly recommend talking to VIAL while you do so.

Though they’ve only existed for two years, VIAL has already answered the “how’d the band get together?” question so frequently they’ve practically rehearsed their parts. So, quickly: Kraemer, Kanfield, and Branscom met at an after school music program that the bassist will only identify as having “the same name as a movie that was just added on to Netflix recently.” “With Jack Black in it,” Branscom adds helpfully. (Nacho Libr—oh, wait, I get it.) A night (another night!) of all-male bands was the proverbial backbreaking straw that spurred Kraemer into insisting they become a band, and a Tinder profile brought pep band percussionist Fischer into the fold.

Then they got to work. Well, not really. “Most of the time we just goofed around and talked,” Branscom says. Which, when you’re a band, is part of the work. But they went about booking shows as a way to force themselves to start, you know, practicing and writing songs and performing all those other essential being-a-band-ly duties. They also set about finding something for Kraemer to do with her hands while she sang.

After an attempt at guitar that Kraemer calls “humbling” (“I have the patience of a squirrel,” she says of her attempt at learning the instrument), VIAL stumbled across a solution that would not only utilize her keyboard abilities but, with Kanfield away for the summer, also add some much-need low-end to their sound.

“It was my little brother’s keytar that he got from my mom for Christmas or something years ago and he never played,” Branscom explains. “Because he’s not musically inclined and… well, it’s a keytar.”

Kraemer tuned it low, ran it first through a distortion pedal and then through a bass amp.

“And it sounded like farts,” Fischer says.

“But it was perfect,” Kraemer adds.

VIAL grew up on and, soon, out of the local DIY house circuit. (They reminisce about one, the Rowhouse, as rosily as some people do their college days.)

“It was sort of getting to the point where it was a little dangerous,” Kraemer says. “A lot of people would come. It would get super-crowded. People would get too rowdy.”

They’d released an EP. They started wondering if it was time to concentrate on the “legit” club scene. They booked their own tour. They were going to play Pride.

“Then,” Kraemer explains, “it all got shit on.”

COVID, of course, was the incontinent culprit taking the metaphorical dump on VIAL’s plans. As the band weathered their forced hiatus, Facetime made way for bubble hangs, and then, alas, TikTok. “We started it for fun, to keep ourselves entertained and to engage with our audience,” Branscom says.

Soon, Kraemer cracked the algorithm (“Taylor has an incredible business mind,” Kanfield boasts of her friend, who responds sheepishly to the praise) and the band started doing good numbers. (After all, you can’t spell “viral” without “VIAL.”) The success, they say unanimously, was crushing.

“The insidious part of it was that it was working,” says Fischer. “The TikToks were doing well. The ones we posted on Instagram were doing well. We were getting more followers. So that dopamine would hit and we’d be like, ‘Aw, this is great! We gotta make more TikToks. This is amazing.’”

But like any drug, social-media dopamine had its side effects. “My mental health and my self-esteem would just fluctuate with every post,” Branscom says.

Fischer agrees: “It’s very visual-focused, so we spent a lot of time doing our makeup and getting the right outfits and making sure the aesthetic was just right.”

Fortunately, the band emerged from lockdown with something less ephemeral than just some widely shared video clips: their full-length debut, LOUDMOUTH, released on Get Better Records. Reporting from the DIY front lines, many of its songs explore the universal truth that men are, if not outright terrible, at least terribly exasperating—an inexhaustible topic that well may outlast gender itself and for now at least an inescapable one for non-dudes in bands. The lyrics are ruthless. There’s a chorus of “Get therapy!” and a patty-cake taunt of “You’re not punk/You’re not queer/Nobody even wants you here.” Clearly if these four nice young people had wanted to, they could have teamed up against me in that Jimmy John’s and crushed my soul.

There’s plenty of old-school Riot Grrrl influence here, especially when Kraemer gets all nyah-nyah on some jerk’s ass. But the way the album whips through styles either 1) demonstrates that the whole band shares Kraemer’s squirrel-like patience or 2) shows off the ease with which they can adapt to an individual song’s musical needs. Branscom is a whiz, wending a lovely Peter Hook-style line through “Violet” or seeming to jumble the notes of “Rock Lobster” in a totally different order for the murderous riff of “Roadkill.” Kanfield and Fischer are a versatile rhythm section, whether delivering a beat as expected as straight punk bounce or as off-kilter as the haunted carousel waltz of “Ego Death.” And for fans of trumpet solos, there’s “Vodka Lemonade,” which has a trumpet solo.

The band returned to the physical world on July 31 for an album-release show at the Fine Line. It was the biggest room they’d played by far, and in some ways the biggest show of the summer. Gully Boys headlined, the room was full, and the vibe was like that first weekend you reunite with all your friends at once in March, but times a thousand. “It was a lovely welcome back,” Kanfield says.

“To me it felt like floodgates,” says Kraemer, launching into an unexpectedly gory comparison. “Like the elevator in The Shining opening: After all of the blood and sweat and tears we put into writing and planning and doing stupid fucking TikTok, finally doing what we came here to do again was really cathartic.”

She glances at Kanfield.

“That’s Kate’s favorite word.”

“I do love that word.”

“It’s a great word.”

And it was a great show.

VIAL
With: Early Eyes, 26 BATS!, Alien Book Club
Where: 7th St Entry
When: 8 p.m. Sat. Oct. 30
Tickets: 18+; $18/$20; more info here.