DIY Bands Battle Heat – And Everything Else – On Warped
By Thomas Nassiff
Suzie Zeldin is hot.
It’s over 95 degrees outside, but with the South Florida humidity, the heat index is well over 100 at 2 p.m. She finally reaches the door of a bus and walks in. The air conditioning feels like breathing for the first time.
“Welcome to our home,” she says with a smirk.
The tour bus is indeed Zeldin’s home – at least for now. Zeldin is the lead vocalist and keyboardist for indie pop group The Narrative, which is currently touring the country on the 2011 Vans Warped Tour. Living in a bus for a month like The Narrative is doing has its share of ups and downs, but at that moment, the welcome blast of cool air was a definite “up.”
Jesse Gabriel, vocalist and guitarist for The Narrative, is happy to be in the bus as well. The back lounge isn’t huge, but it gives the duo enough room to stretch out and relax before going back out and braving the heat during their set. And although it seems like a nice setting, one tiny detail seems off – this isn’t their bus.
The Narrative is an unsigned band. Without any label support, they are funding their entire Warped journey by themselves. In this case, having the right connections paid off and they were able to score a spot on the Kia Kevin Says Stage for the last month of the tour. They play for 30 minutes every day, and the other 23 and a half hours are engulfed in doing everything they can to help their band.
Zeldin and Gabriel consider themselves lucky, though. Along with their touring drummer, Jeremy Scalchunes, and Alexa Fuentes, their loyal merch girl, they were able to find another band to share a bus with. It costs them a little more, but it’s worth it just to have that A/C to walk into when it gets too gruesome outside.
“We see bands doing the tour in vans every day,” Gabriel said. “That’s insane, to do this whole thing like that.”
Luckily, they found Abandon All Ships – a metalcore band on Velocity Records (an imprint of Rise Records) that couldn’t be further away on the opposite side of the musical spectrum from the smooth indie-pop stylings of The Narrative. But they had room on their bus, so Zeldin, Gabriel and Co. pitched in their share on happily hopped on board.
“On this tour, the music you play almost takes a backseat,” said Samuel Lister, drummer for the United Kingdom-based punk band Sharks. “Everyone has to come together, to work together to get through it.”
Warped Tour started on June 24, and it runs through August 14. It spends almost two solid months snaking through America and a few parts of Canada, stopping in major markets at large outdoor venues. Every stop of the tour features over 70 bands playing across the venue on about eight stages. Thousands of people, ranging from young children to adults, attend each date.
One thing most people know about Warped is that it’s considered one of the most difficult tours to play as a band. From the headlining band to the groups that travel alongside the tour just to patrol the endless lines of patrons waiting to get into the venue before the gates open, most bands won’t ever go on a tour as hard as this one.
That standard is something that has been held for a long time. Years ago, in the ‘90s and early 2000’s, the tour was considered a coming-of-age ritual. Veteran bands respected the younger ones who made it through their first Warped Tour. New bands were eager to get onto Warped, wanting to prove themselves and get noticed by a large audience. Many band members recall how they went to Warped every year since they were young teenagers, and how playing the tour today is a surreal experience.
The tour certainly has changed since its punk roots. Even though the type of music on the tour has evolved to fit the tastes of the younger generations of fans, there are still plenty of hard-working, do-it-yourself bands that use Warped Tour as a grind-it-out way of getting noticed.
They aren’t the bands that play the main stage with thousands of kids watching them. They aren’t the bands that sit at tables, signing autographs for a winding line of fans. Maybe they will be those bands one day, but for now they’re struggling musicians waiting for their chance, and hoping that Warped Tour helps them get there.
The Narrative is a prime example of such a band. Having release a self-titled record in 2010 to solid critical acclaim, this is the type of band that might have thrived during more promising times for the music industry, when the economy was better and more people paid for music.
“When you’re doing everything yourself, it’s hard to get your stuff out to that many markets,” Gabriel said. “The response to the record was good, but we’re a band on such a small scale that it’s really just pockets of people that know about us. There are only some specific markets that have taken a liking to us.”
Gabriel and Zeldin both said that while critical reaction to the record was positive, it’s been difficult to become known to a larger audience. They’re hoping Warped Tour will help in that sense, and get them some attention from record labels and others who can help smaller bands.
“When you’re a band that’s doing everything by themselves, you know, you’re constantly questioning whether or not it’s worth it,” Gabriel said. “‘I’m spending all my money, I’m sacrificing all of these things, is this really worth it?’ But then you have these people who you don’t even know that are thrilled with what you’ve done, and that makes you stop questioning yourself.”
That mindset is the driving force behind almost all of the bands on Warped that are doing it themselves. Zeldin said that without label support, they were only able to budget a small amount of money towards promoting themselves each day of tour. Every morning, the band wakes up around 7 a.m. to begin moving their equipment into the venue. They hang up about 40 posters with the location and time of their set, hoping that people will come check them out. Forty posters aren’t that many, but it’s what they can do.
The tour is costing both Zeldin and Gabriel thousands of dollars out of their pockets that they made doing “regular” jobs, the types of jobs Gabriel said they have so they can pump money back into the band.
“We’re both just in this to go for it,” Gabriel said. “We both graduated from universities with degrees. We could have jobs with salaries that we could use to buy houses and raise families if we wanted. You make your own choices in life, and we chose to do this.”
“It’s a lot of hours that you spend working on it. We’re only two people,” Zeldin said. “[When we’re not on tour], we’re practicing, we’re writing songs, we’re sending out the merch orders, we’re trying to get attention from places. As two people without a lot of resources, how much can you do in a day? Out here, when we’re out hustling trying to sell merch or trying to get kids to listen to our band for the first time, that’s a lot of work but we think it’s worth it.”
All of the sweaty hours that go into the beginning of the day, Gabriel said, more than pay off during the 30 minutes they actually get to play their music. Having a small crowd of about 50 people, or at some venues many more, is a sign that The Narrative is doing something right and that people care.
“They’re extremely hard-working people, and it’s a great experience to be out here with them and see what they’re doing,” Fuentes said. Fuentes takes care of The Narrative’s merch tent every day, setting it up early in the morning and trying to get people to come by the tent to hang out, check out the band and buy a CD or t-shirt. She isn’t getting paid. “I had a chance to go out with them and it’s for the experience, and to help them out. We may not be selling stuff to every kid, but at least they’re becoming aware of the band and every little bit helps.”
Spreading awareness of their existence is an important day-to-day activity for Zeldin and Gabriel. Some bands take this to an even more extreme level. Farewell Fighter, a pop rock group out of Nashville, Tenn., is following Warped Tour around the country in a different way. Farewell Fighter isn’t playing every date of the tour, they don’t have a merch booth and they definitely aren’t on a bus.
Instead, the four-piece is trekking around the country in a beat-up van, hoping to spread the word about their band and get people to notice them.
“A typical day starts around 7 a.m. for us,” vocalist/guitarist Kenny Fleetwood said. “We park our van wherever Warped Tour is that day, then head out and work the lines for about seven hours.”
When Fleetwood says “work the lines,” he means that he and his bandmates head to the front gates of the venue before it opens for Warped, talking to thousands of kids who are waiting in line to get in. They walk around with backpacks full of CDs and iPods with headphones to show people their music. Fleetwood said the band probably talks to about 2,500 kids every day between who they talk to before the venue opens and in the evening when people begin to leave Warped.
“We’re just trying to plant seeds with kids who have never heard of us before,” Fleetwood said. “Most of the kids like our music, and if they don’t buy a CD then we at least give them a flyer. If even 5 percent of those kids come and watch us in their town when we go on a normal tour, that means we brought 100 bodies through the door to watch us play and that’s huge.”
Farewell Fighter has been having fair success this year on Warped, and it’s something that Fleetwood said he’s immensely grateful for. He said the band sells between 150 and 200 CDs every day just by talking to strangers in lines, and he estimates that by the end of the tour the band will have sold 6,000 units. At $5 per CD, it’s the first time the band has seen a significant profit off of its music, and Fleetwood hopes it will attract the attention of a record label down the line.
Even when the band takes a break from patrolling the lines in the sun, they are still finding ways to keep busy. Farewell Fighter has been volunteering with several nonprofit organizations on the tour and even helping to set up stages – all without getting paid. As a reward, they have gotten to play a few dates of the tour on the Kevin Says Stage.
“Giving back to the tour is almost as important as the promotion for us,” Fleetwood said. “When we tally up our daily totals and head out in the van to drive to the next venue, we see the work we’ve put in and that’s what makes it worth it. It’s the drive toward bigger goals.”
Other bands that are on the entirety of Warped Tour in a van are making do with what they have. Shut Up And Deal, a pop-punk band from Milford, Conn., is navigating Warped in a van this year. They are on the entire tour and they play 30-minute sets every day on the Kevin Says stage.
“It’s been a mess. Crowded, sweaty, uncomfortable and awesome,” said Shut Up And Deal vocalist Joe Heafy. “It works out, you really just adjust. At first it sucks because everyone is sweaty and the air conditioning doesn’t work right, but you just get used to it.”
Shut Up And Deal has five band members and two crew members working from dawn to dusk every day to try to keep up with the more established bands on the tour. Everyone wakes up in the morning and unloads the trailer. After the equipment is in the venue and the merch tent is set up, the band spends the entire day promoting and taking on as many press opportunities as they can to get some buzz circulating.
Since they’re still an unsigned band, it was only through hard work and developing a rapport with Warped Tour owner Kevin Lyman that Shut Up And Deal managed to get the chance to be on the whole tour in 2011.
“We started out as one of those bands who were just working the lines and hustling CDs back in 2009,” said guitarist/vocalist John Vieira. “In 2010 we played a few of the dates and Kevin Lyman watched us perform. He liked what he saw and invited us to play the whole tour this year.”
While Shut Up And Deal has worked its way up into the Warped Tour ranks, other bands have been a little more fortunate. Sharks, one of the most popular up and coming punk bands from the UK, are only on their second-ever tour in the United States.
Before crossing the Atlantic to get to the U.S., the band signed to Rise Records, creating the Velocity Records imprint to release “The Joys Of Living: 2008-2010.” The support of a fairly large record label has made the world of difference for the band on Warped, but even with that huge leg up, the group was still shocked at just how brutal the tour can be.
“It’s been great, but we feel like we’ve been out here for an eternity,” said Sharks guitarist Andrew Bayliss.
Bayliss said Sharks is doing the tour in a Bandwagon – not exactly a bus, but not a van either. “It’s basically a bus but instead of that back lounge, you’ve got a small shower back there,” he said.
That shower certainly helped the band in times like the Florida dates, when the heat made everyone take shelter. Plenty of bands were turning down press opportunities or spending less time by their merch tents in favor of finding some shade or keeping cool in their bus.
“It’s really at the point where we’re almost starting to lose some of our motivation,” said drummer Sam Lister. “It’s bad to say that, but the tour has actually been amazing. It’s been an eye-opening experience. The crowds that have been coming out and the reaction we’ve gotten [has been] great.”
Lister and lead vocalist James Mattock both mentioned the wide diversity of the bands on the tour. From metalcore to punk to pop to bluegrass, the type of music everyone plays “takes a backseat,” and it just comes down to being people on the same tour.
“It’s completely draining,” Lister said. “When you’re in one of the bands out here, and you’re handing out flyers or hanging up posters or trying to get kids to listen to your band, it all feels like this great uphill struggle. It takes so long even to just get kids to listen to your band. And when you hand out those flyers, like 75 percent of the people just walk away and drop them straight on the fucking floor. And you’re just watching them do that shit right in front of you. Then later on, you’re holding up a t-shirt, and a kid who looks like Justin Beiber is yelling shit at you. And sometimes you’re just like, ‘Why am I doing this, man?’
“But then you get up on stage and you’ve got three times as many people watching you as you were expecting, and you’re like, ‘Well, yeah, that’s why I did all that.’”
To most people, the lifestyles these young men and women lead may seem ridiculous. Among all of the parents who want them to get normal jobs, the high-school classmates who are getting married and having kids, the closed-minded people who don’t give them a chance and all of the other obstacles that DIY bands have to overcome, they still manage to keep at it every day.
Dan “Soupy” Campbell of The Wonder Years once said in an interview conducted in January of 2010 that if you go to a punk show or if you’re in a punk band, there’s got to be something a little wrong with you. Maybe there’s some a little different in the minds of these bands who work as hard as they can and are satisfied with the tiniest of responses, but whatever that little difference is keeps the independent music scene thriving.
“Everyone is just doing this day-to-day,” Lister said. “I know we may be in the minority, but everyone here is working their asses off. Everyone’s sweating all day. The musical differences take a step aside on this tour, more than ever before. After doing this every day and seeing these bands who work just as hard or harder than we do, you just have so much more respect for everything involved in it.”
That was a great read and I now admire the bands even more. My friends barely survive a day at Warped and the bands survive a month or two. It's crazy but it's a good crazy and we need more bands like these instead of the ones who form and get signed before playing one show that don't even deserve to be signed. Keep it up; one day you'll get the recognition you've worked for and deserve so much.
I enjoyed this. I really was glad to be able to hang out with The Narrative after their set. They are great people and their music is pop gold. They were perfect music for a sunny day and really was a great transition from pop punk bands to pop rock band that day. Warped is always fun and meeting the bands is probably my best memories taken back (also a signed Terrible Things drum stick :D)
As always, a great read. Loved the side bar. So much respect for the DIY bands.
When I did press last year, so many smaller bands just walked right up to me, volunteering themselves for interviews, including Ryan Shaw of The Early Strike. The spirit of these small bands is incredible.
Sharks, one of the most popular up and coming punk bands from the UK.
Not over here they aren’t. I don’t think they’ve ever done a headline tour. Typical industry backed band being handed great support slots like with The Gaslight Anthem, meaning a proper hard working “DIY” bands miss out. And they’re toss.