By Ashley Zimmerman
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Now in the Vans Warped Tour's 16th year, what started as a source for skaters to enjoy good punk and third-wave ska music has grown into a yearly music mecca. The aforementioned styles now are side-by-side with blistering metal, pop-punk, post-hardcore, and straight-ahead rock for a coed crowd. The tour has brought musical enlightenment to Floridians since 1997, exposing younger generations — and the rest of us too — to bands we might not have encountered otherwise. The punk-rock summer camp on wheels arrives at Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach on July 24.
Fast-forward a few years from its inception and some of those very showgoers have grown up and formed their own bands — successful ones. Four Florida bands join the lineup of 71 other acts this year: pop punks VersaEmerge in Port St. Lucie and West Palm Beach's Hey Monday, alt rockers We the Kings from Bradenton, and the slick power pop of Tallahassee's Mayday Parade, a band that got signed by following the Warped Tour and selling CDs outside of the venues. Each has worked with at least one of the other Sunshine State bands, and several are close friends who keep in regular touch.
Of that group of Florida acts on Warped, two feature female lead singers. VersaEmerge's Sierra Kusterbeck and Hey Monday's Cassadee Pope, who attended her first concert ever (Hanson!) at Cruzan Amphitheatre, have formed a friendship through Florida connections as well as the shared experience of fronting otherwise all-male bands. "We're all really close, and we have each other's backs in a way," says Kusterbeck. "We're kind of taking over. It's definitely a big friendship. Instead of making like a more negative competition, it's like let's bond with it, you know?"
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Pope and Kusterbeck's shared experiences also include touring with a lot of the same bands, being linked to labels run by Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz, and technically calling Broward County home — though Kusterbeck commutes from her native St. Petersburg for songwriting with the boys and the occasional band practice. "We're not women that are coming and taking over the labels; we're like artists that are so young," says 20-year-old Pope. "It just shows that the younger we get, the more women come out and support us."
The natural drive to compete doesn't hinder the girls either. The frontwomen have a built-in respect for each other. "[It's] 'cause we're paving the way for each other, you know?" Pope says. "It's like an added kinship. We're trying to get ourselves out there and out of West Palm and doing national tours and stuff. We all wish for that." Pope then continues, while laughing, "I have the utmost respect for any girl to be in a band with a bunch of guys, because it's not the easiest thing in the world."
Hey Monday's sophomore album, Beneath It All, reveals a softer side of the band, with lyrics that touch on relationships with the familiarity of seasoned pros. Set for an August 17 release, Pope suggests that the lyrics are raw and will surprise fans. Following Hey Monday's 2008 debut, Hold On Tight, she still feels that people don't know that much about her, her personality, or how she feels about things. "I'm really excited for people to get to know me through the lyrics, 'cause they're very, very honest and brutal," she says.
Following suit, Kusterbeck and VersaEmerge just released their first full-length album, Fixed at Zero, a self-reflecting album about going through so much at a young age. "I'm still young at heart and in my head — we all are," the 19-year-old says. "Half the time [these experiences] are good because I'm living my dream, but on the inside, it's like a lot of negativity. I'm not the type of person to dwell about negativity, so I have to write about it."
VersaEmerge's title cut, "Fixed at Zero," refers to being stuck at a low place in life and not being able to get out of it. She offers a number scale from zero through ten, with zero being the worst, and not being able to move up from it. The album shows off Kusterbeck's dark side, which contrasts with her rich, powerful vocals.
Both Kusterbeck and Pope have pet names for their growing fan bases: the "Versa Vultures" and the "Cass Is Bad Ass" Team Cassadee Pope street teams. Though Pope has nothing to do with the founding of her team of fans (named as such because she says bad ass a lot), the Versa Vultures are a different story. "The theme of the record is this vulture," Kusterbeck confides. "Like the line is 'There's a vulture on my shoulder,' and it's supposed to be the vulture is all your demons and all your bad habits that just kind of flare up in the back of your head." But she doesn't see her fans as negative aspects in the slightest. She treats these "vultures" as a driving force that pushes VersaEmerge. "Our vultures — our supporters — help us take chances," Kusterbeck says of the band's hungriest fans.
The female music frenzy at Warped Tour isn't confined to the performers. It's no longer strictly dudes with skateboards, and the girls on stage have definitely helped with that. "Especially at Warped Tour, there's so many chicks," Kusterbeck says. "There's so many chicks! It's really cool to see because guys — they're everywhere."
The young Kusterbeck is relatively new to touring, having joined the band a little later in the game by sending in her audition video to the band via the web. Her first big tour was with We the Kings, and she concedes, "We were like, 'What? We get a sound check?' [laughs] It was really interesting."
Kusterbeck then gushes, "Even with [vocalist Travis Clark], I remember watching him and taking a lot in from him. I was like a little sponge on that tour. He's just such a great frontman and really knows how to work the crowds. He's a great singer. He's so talented. That whole band is." To this day, they keep in touch, she says. "We're definitely gonna be hanging out with them on Warped Tour this summer."
Clark, the soft-spoken, red-haired lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and piano player and his band We the Kings have been touring only since 2007, and they've recently hit mainstream success with the hit "We'll Be a Dream," which pairs the band with another promising female vocalist, Disney darling Demi Lovato.
A proud local, Clark admits to witnessing what he calls "a dry spell of Florida bands." "And now it's just like history repeating itself," he says. "And all these Florida bands are coming out. I love it, 'cause I love bands from Florida, and I love their style. And we obviously have a lot in common, coming from the same state."