Countdown to Warped Tour: Q&A with Sierra Kusterbeck from Local Band VersaEmerge

A lot of Warped Tour fans may not know this, but this year we have four Florida bands playing in the festival. Port St. Lucie/St. Petersburg transplants VersaEmerge commute three hours between both cities for practices, recordings, and writing sessions, as front woman and lead singer Sierra Kusterbeck lives all the way in St. Petersburg. They've toured with fellow Warped Tour bands We the Kings and The Cab, and now they're ready to show South Florida what they've got.

New Times
caught up with Sierra to talk about what it's like touring with a bunch of dudes, her love of Florida's beaches, and why she insists on referring to her fans as "vultures."

New Times: What do you do when you're in Port St. Lucie?

Sierra Kusterbeck: Well I actually live in St. Petersburg. I live over here and the boys live in Port St. Lucie and I come over there sometimes when we're writing and I stay there for weeks at a time, but I'm in St. Pete right now. Oh wow, so that's a lot further up. How does it work for you guys when it comes to practices and recording? Do you guys commute back and forth?

Yeah. When I first joined the band, my mom would drive me three hours all the way over there just for practice and I would stay there for like weeks at a time and live on Blake's couch. Then we actually moved the practice space over here to St. Pete, so when we practice they actually come here now. But whenever we're writing, I'm over there all the time.

So pretty much you guys commute between two cities.

Yeah, pretty much.

That's crazy. So what do you do in particular when you're in St. Pete?

St. Pete's really nice. Of course growing up here, I was always out. I was like the social bug. And now that I'm not home as much, so when I come home and I really appreciate it. I like barely leave my house. Like if I don't have to leave, I won't. I like hang out in my backyard, I've got a pool and a dog and I go kayaking. I just like really hang out and watch a lot of TV.

I can imagine. You're touring so much that once you're home, you'll wanna stay home.

Yeah. I hate leaving [laughs].

What was it like playing with Paramore at the Bamboozle in May?

It was awesome. It was really crazy just the thought that we were on the same stage as them. Like there are two main stages, and it's like wow, we're opening for all these huge bangs including Paramore and Something Corporate and Drake and Ke$ha. Kind of crazy, but it was really awesome. Paramore put on a sick show. It was really, really cool.

Do you feel like you have a sort of kinship with other female singers like Hayley Williams from Paramore? Or is it more of like a healthy competition between all of you?

Well I'm definitely... of course there's this natural competition that's built inside every single girl no matter what, but I don't see it as a rough or mean competition. It's kind of a way to help me want to try harder I guess. I know so many of the chicks that are out there today like Juliet from Automatic Loveletter and Cassadee from Hey Monday... it's like we're all really close, and it's kind of like we have each other's backs in a way. I've never kind of dealt with a girl who was really into competition, so it's more so we're all here for each other and we're happy for each other. And we're kind of taking over. It's definitely a big friendship. It's like you sing in a band, I sing in a band, we have this in common. Instead of making like a more negative competition, it's like let's bond with it, you know?

Yeah. Since it's such a male heavy genre, I feel like the few bands with women singers are sort of taking over.

Yeah, they're definitely taking over. It's really cool to see. Especially at Warped Tour, there's so many chicks. There's so many chicks. It's really cool to see because guys -- they're are everywhere. They're in every band, you can find any band with a guy singing, and they all just get lost in each other because they all start to sound the same. The voices aren't as unique, and they have to try really hard to be very unique, and so do girls. But guys can get away with --and I mean this in the nicest way possible, but -- they can get away with not trying very hard. They don't have to be so talented nowadays.

Of course, girls have to have an amazing voice to stand out, as opposed to guys.

Exactly. To be a girl in this world... we're not faking anything. We have to have some type of talent in order to make it halfway and have everybody judge us the way they do. Not one girl out there is faking it.

Yeah, unless you're like a female rapper or something, you have to have something to back it up.

Yeah, that's true [laughs].

Since you mentioned it, do you know Hey Monday? Have you worked with them before?

We haven't worked with them. We haven't toured with them, but they live really close to the boys, they're from the West Palm area, and we kind of work with a lot of the same people. We see them all the time. Every time they come out here and play we definitely go out and see them and it's a really, really close friendship with them.

Yeah, I was gonna say you guys have a lot in common since you've toured with a lot of the same bands and they're on Pete Wentz's other label, and you're both playing Warped Tour, so maybe you guys will finally get to work with each other since you're on the same tour.

Yeah. So on Warped Tour we're playing different stages and what not but we'll probably see a lot of each other.

How does that work with the Warped Tour? Do you guys have a bus you're sharing?

Yes. Some bands do it in vans, some in buses. Mainly buses because in a van it's very, very hard [laughs]. We're sharing a bus with another band because buses are just so expensive.

And it's more eco-friendly.

Oh, yeah. Always.

What band are you sharing with?

A band called Artist vs. Poet. They're kind of like a new, up-and-coming band.

We're trying to interview a lot of the bands from Warped Tour, but we wanted to interview our Florida bands first.

Very good idea. Yeah, we have to represent Florida. We're all over Florida, so we just represent it as a whole [laughs].

Yeah, I've noticed there are a lot of bands from Florida on Warped Tour this year.

Oh yeah. Florida brings it.

Do you feel like being from Florida has had any impact on your music?

Umm.. I mean it definitely did in the beginning because Florida's music scene is very like hardcore based. A lot of post-hardcore bands out there, and that's mainly Florida. You know, heavy music. So before I was in the band, VersaEmerge was a heavy band with like screaming and breakdowns, and then I kind of came in and it changed and we evolved because we all wanted to. I think just the heavy aspect is kind of... just shows what we listened to in Florida. But yeah, I think it has some kind of aspect.

What was it like joining the band later in the game? I read somewhere that you auditioned for the band by sending a tape online?

Yes. I sent them an audition. They sent me an instrumental version of one of their songs and I sang over it. I dunno why but Blake like... it sounds like shit. I listened to it and it's not a great demo. But they found it intriguing I guess and thought I was good. But it was really interesting. Coming into the game later was actually way, way awesome for me because I didn't have to go through kind of like the really, really hard times where they were playing shows locally and trying to make a name for themselves and doing really, really, really, really crappy tours where only like 10 kids show. I mean we've played those shows, but I came in when they were already established and already had kind of like a fan base, so it's definitely a lot easier for me. I got to skip out on a lot of the hard stuff.

What's it been like for the band with all of the member changes? Do you feel like it's changed the band at all? Obviously it's changed since you started singing...

Yeah. I wouldn't say... it hasn't changed in a bad way, only in a good way. And we're losing members for a reason. It's not that we're a mess. And it's not that we're having differences musically. It's nothing musically, it's all very personal. And there's a core of the band. If you lose the core members, then the band will fall apart. But it seems we're kind of like sifting through people that either couldn't handle the touring or kind of just weren't in the right place mentally to be doing this right now and on the same page as us. And a lot of people are like, "Oh, they got a girl and their music is going more poppy so the dudes that left the band didn't want to be a part of it because she's changing the music," and it's like no, that's not it at all. At all. It has nothing to do with that. No one will ever know the real story as to why we lost members because everyone's gonna say what they wanna say no matter what. But like I think the members that we have lost and where we are now, it's all for the better 'cause we're able to step forward and keep moving rather than being held back.

Have you had any fan backlash 'cause of it?

Oh yeah. We've had people call us out on so many weird things. Like kids will hear or just say the most random stuff. Like that I'm just a huge bitch, and that I made people wanna leave the band, and I have changed it musically and like I'm just driving everybody crazy. It all comes back to me in the long run 'cause I'm the newest, and then all of a sudden all these people start waving. So I guess it doesn't really turn into backlash.

So they're kind of treating you like the Yoko Ono, then, acting like you're breaking up the band or something.

Yeah. But any talk whether it's good or bad is good. People are talkin' about us [laughs].

Yeah, at least the band's name is on people's mouths.

That's right [laughs].

I saw that Chris Pollock has been filling in as the drummer. Is he going to join you guys on the Warped Tour?

He will be on Warped Tour. Yes.

Are there any plans to make him a permanent member? Or is it just gonna be a rotating position?

We're definitely not rushing into anything because we've done that before, where we're like, "We need a guitarist. You? Okay, yeah, you're in" and then like a year later we're like "Okay, this isn't working." And it's really hard when you just rush somebody in because it takes a while to get to know somebody. Like this is our family. We live with each other. We have to be together in a very small space 24/7. We have to be able to get along. I'm not saying that anybody can play drums, but you know there's talented drummers out there who can play our songs, but if we don't mesh, there's no way it's gonna happen. It cannot happen. It's the most miserable thing when you have to be with people or with one person that can ruin the experience for everybody. And even if they don't try. Sometimes people can't handle touring because it's too much hard work, and they don't get enough sleep. You just really get to your wit's end and it gets irritating and it's easy to piss people off. Personality wise, that's kind of what we're looking for. And Chris so far has been awesome. Like we love him to death. I want nothing more than to say, "Yeah, he's part of the band. He's part of our family," but I've learned that I will not say that [laughs]. We're definitely not gonna rush into it. We're probably gonna have him as long as we can, but maybe we will try somebody else, just in case. But it's always hard to say, 'cause it's a process.

Is he from Florida, as well?

He's actually from Pennsylvania, from Philly.

Oh wow. So he'll break the whole Florida band aesthetic.

He breaks actually a lot of things. He's not from Florida and everybody in the band is a Sagittarius and he's not. So he's like the odd man out [laughs].

Can you tell me a little bit about your new album, Fixed at Zero? What was the inspiration behind it?

Fixed at Zero
is kind of like... it was a very self reflecting album because when you're on the road and so young still. I'm 19 now and have been doing this since I was 17, and I'm still young at heart and in my head, we all are. So it's just going through all these experiences. Like half the time they're good because I'm living my dream, but on the inside it's like a lot of negativity. And I don't ever wanna show that in my life. I'm not the type of person to dwell about negativity so I have to write about it.

So you vent it out that way.

I'm the person to come to. Like I'm always smiling and happy and looking at the bright side, but when you listen to our music it's kind of dark and opposite. So the title Fixed at Zero means being stuck at just like this low place in your life and not being able to get out of it. Like zero through ten, zero being the worst. Like you're stuck at zero and you can't move it up. That was kind of the whole feel of the record.

Was there anything in particular that inspired that?

I don't know. Like everything inspires me. Like everything.

So you were just feeling in a dark mood when you wrote it?

Yeah. And it was funny because I was going back on my lyrics and I was trying to find... we wrote this song and we had everything written except for the chorus. So I'm going through all my lyrics and I'm trying to find something perfect and I saw the line "fixed at zero" and I don't remember writing it, and I was reading back on it and was like, "This is perfect. We have to use this. This would be so perfect." So it really worked out.

And this is your first full length, but you guys have already had a couple of EPs.

Yeah, we have two EPs so it's really cool to have our first full-length because it's actually legitimate.

Well EPs are legitimate, too.

They are legitimate, but we couldn't get the kind of exposure that we ideally wanted because a person can't go into a Target or a Walmart or an FYE and find us, you know? We weren't sold in stores. So it's really hard to get the promotion. So now that we have a full-length, it's like, "You can find us in stores! Go find it!" But it's really different because both of the EPs are like 5-7 songs and now we're driving like 15. It's like okay, we have a lot more material to work with and we're not in the studio for just two weeks, we're in here for a month. It was just like a totally different experience. We got to experiment with different instruments and different sounds and have the time to try a lot of new things that we didn't get to do on the EP. I feel like it's really good 'cause this is us establishing ourselves. This is what we are now, what's gonna give people an idea. Like we gave them a taste, and now it's like well this is it.

Yeah, even with your EPs you guys had a big following because a lot of teens in South Florida had heard of you guys.

Yeah we were really super surprised that we got to tour on our EP for almost like a year and a half. And the fact that that many kids stuck with us and even though we weren't releasing new music, they stuck with us. We have like the best supporters ever. Like they are so hardcore, cult Versa members. It's amazing. They show so much love. And the theme of the record is this vulture... 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. So we started calling our fans Versa vultures. It's like our pet name for them, because we don't like to call them fans. We just don't like that word, 'cause everyone's a fan. I feel like they're just way more special than that, so we call them vultures [laughs].

When I think of vultures though, I think of something like preying on dead bodies. I don't think of a happy, peppy fan.

Exactly [laughs]. Yeah, that's what works about it. We have that feel, and the vulture is the theme of the record. It's like demons, bad habits, it's like all the bad things about your personality that you are aware of, and it's just kind of like there. But if you didn't have this vulture --these bad habits -- you wouldn't learn and you wouldn't even know half the things you know. It's like a good thing that has an evil texture [laughs].

So just to clarify, you're not calling your fans your demons.

Yeah, they're not demonic to us at all [laughs]. It's not like that. It's like if you have this vulture and it's kind of making you do crazy things, it's making you take chances. Our vultures --our supporters -- help us take chances. They make us who we are. We wouldn't be doing this interview right now and we wouldn't be on Warped Tour if we didn't have people supporting us. It's all them.

So in essence they're kind of like pushing you sort of how vultures push people who are slowly dying to stay alive so that they don't get eaten by the vultures.

Exactly. That's a very good way to put it.

What was it like to go on the Secret Valentine Tour with We the Kings?

Ohhh. That tour was so much fun. That was like our first, real big tour with like a bigger band playing big venues and there was like production. That was like our first time experiencing that. We were like, "What? We get a sound check?" [Laughs]. It was really interesting. Getting to experience that with We the Kings who are probably some of the nicest dudes I've ever met... Even with Travis, 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. And their crew was so nice to us. They really took us under their wing. To this day we keep in touch with them all the time, and we're definitely gonna be hanging out with them on Warped Tour this summer.

Yeah, I was gonna say they're on Warped Tour, too.

Yeah. Last year on Warped Tour they played a few days and we had a day off and my band and We the Kings and a few friends went to this lake called Mount Shasta, which is surrounded by mountains. And we all rented a boat and went out there together, went swimming. It was so much fun. They really know how to have fun.

Where was that?

Mount Shasta. Well, Lake Shasta, actually. I think it's in California, maybe? I dunno. I don't ever remember what state I'm in. It's really hard to keep track.

Do you have anything special planned for your Florida shows since you're from Florida?

Well our shows are never planned. We definitely don't have anything planned, but we try to make it as special as possible, always and forever. So we'll have to think of something, and if we do, maybe it'll be like five minutes before we go on stage [laughs]. Or maybe we'll do a contest or something like that. That would be cool.

It almost feels like being from Florida bonds a lot of the bands together that maybe wouldn't meet until later in the game. Are there any other bands that you've been wanting to work with?

Umm. I'm trying to think of who else is from Florida, it's hard to remember. I'm not sure. I know there's We the Kings and we got to meet the Underoath guys last year. That was awesome 'cause the boys and me are really big fans of Underoath and the fact that we got to do Warped with them was pretty cool. Who else is from Florida? I know Copeland is from Lakeland but they're not a band anymore, which is really sad. They're really good. There's a lot of good bands from Florida. We've got Against Me! and A Day to Remember who we're good friends with.

Yeah, ironically enough people don't hear about Florida bands until they make it big...
Until they're out of Florida [laughs].

Exactly, it's really sad. They don't hear about Florida bands until they leave Florida and then they're like, "Oh, wait a second. That band's from Florida."
Yeah. Exactly. Florida's a big ass state.