Despite an Overdose and Cancer, We the Kings Triumph Through Family

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We the Kings
Photo by Lee Cherry
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In a few short days, Vans Warped Tour will wrap up a two-decade summer odyssey across America. The last day of the venerated festival is Sunday, August 5, and will be held at Coral Sky Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach.

Several Florida bands will help shape those final sweaty memories: Mayday Parade, New Found Glory, and the hook-heavy alternative quintet We the Kings.

This will be the seventh time the last band has hit the road with Warped Tour. We the Kings would be crowned the rulers of the fest if it weren’t for groups such as Less Than Jake, which recently celebrated a 365th Warped Tour show. Still, it’s safe to say much of the five-piece rock outfit's popularity is tied to Warped Tour.

New Times spoke with lead singer and frontman Travis Clark as he and his We the Kings bandmates prepared for their stop in Baltimore. He has mixed emotions concerning the end of Warped Tour.

“It’s bittersweet. I don’t know that there will be anything to replicate what Warped Tour has grown into and the family, community, and connectivity it’s been able to have, not only with artists, but with fans.

“Most of the shows have been sold out; that’s like 25,000 or 26,000 people. But towards the end of the set — right before we play “Check Yes, Juliet” — it gets to that point where you start realizing, Oh, man, this is the last time I’m going to be onstage in New York for Warped Tour. It starts dawning on you that this moment will never happen again.”

Before becoming a mainstay on the summer-festival circuit, We the Kings won a battle of the bands that landed the group onstage for a hometown show in St. Petersburg (the band is from nearby Bradenton). Afterward, they were asked to return and never looked back. A highlight of the band's career came during that first run with Warped Tour in 2008.

“This was about seven months after our first album came out. We were playing our show, we got a really good set time, and there were endless people... on porta-potties, on top of food trucks, just to see us. I remember that was the very first time we got offstage and all looked at each other like, Holy shit, we should do this permanently because, whatever that was, let’s chase that. It was one of the first times I felt we had made it as a band.”

Will there ever be another music festival like Warped Tour, where five dozen bands travel the nation to take their music to the fans? Clark kind of hopes there won't be. “It’s just so special. It would kind of be like covering a Beatles song, where you’re almost too scared to do it because you don’t want to ruin the original.”

As for their own music, We the Kings just released a new record, Six, in early July. The band has always had a knack for catchy melodies, but Six contains a more mature sound, exploring new energies and rhythms. It's one of their best albums and features two standout tracks: the rousing and anthemic “Festival Music” and the slick groove of “Ride.”

Not that any of this is an accident or a coincidence. This is not the same band that broke through with “Check Yes, Juliet” ten years ago. “So much has changed,” Clark says. “We’ve evolved as songwriters, as artists, as people. I write the songs for the band, and I’ve never wanted to write the same album twice, the same song twice."

Part of that evolution includes thinking of how to make the live experience more visceral. After so many years together, the bandmates know exactly how to get an audience’s blood pumping. “The main difference between Six and our first record is we have so much touring experience. So when we’re doing these new songs, we think about that. We’re like, Hey, what part of the set, if we played this song, would fans clap or jump or run in circles or crowd-surf or sing along or dance?

As a matter of fact, We the Kings revealed in interviews leading up to the release of their latest album that the title, Six, is not simply a way to keep track of the number of their LPs. It’s also a reference to whom they consider the sixth member of the band: the fans.

“We started the band because we wanted to get girlfriends, and ten years later we’re married,” Clark says, laughing. “I have two kids, two daughters. They’re on the record as well, and not just sentimentally. They would literally come into the studio — I built a studio in my house — and they would just be talking in the background or laughing or trying to sing with me, and I left it all in the tracks. I wanted it to be organic and not all polished."

Life recently got very real for music fans after news broke of Demi Lovato’s overdose. (She's still hospitalized.) Eight years ago, the former Disney star recorded a duet with We the Kings that wound up being the hit single “We’ll Be a Dream.” Since that teamup, Lovato and Clark have stayed in touch, even with very busy work schedules. Clark describes his relationship with Lovato as long-distance, but nonetheless, when they do see each other, “nothing skipped a beat,” he says. So the overdose came as a shock.

“You hear that stuff and your mind goes to the worst, like, Oh my God. What if she doesn’t make it? It broke my heart, really, because no one deserves that. You’re doing that because you don’t like yourself or because you have a mental, emotional, or physical disease that makes you uncomfortable in your own skin. Hopefully, this is eye-opening and it can be turned around. It can show people that she’s human too, that we all make mistakes, and not a single one of us is perfect."

For Clark, Lovato’s recent struggles have reinforced the importance of having a strong network of family and friends, both cornerstones of We the Kings’ appeal outside of their music.

“There have been times that I felt superdepressed on the road because I missed a birthday of my loved one or Thanksgiving or Christmas," he says. "But I keep a close family around me, and it helps keep us all accountable. It feels like family when I’m on the road, even when I’m away from my other family. If she didn’t have anybody around her that can make her feel that essence, then it becomes tough.”

Closer to home, Clark is enduring an even more personal ordeal. “My mom is actually going through cancer right now. She was rushed to the hospital the other day. I had a really, not bad show, but I was just so out of it because I wanted to be there for my mom. It’s hard for me to shut off my mind and go into playing a show or a meet-and-greet where I have to be happy and smile. The only thing racing through my mind is, Will my mom be OK?

“I just want the fans to know that everyone has things they’re going through, and it is nice for people to know that they’re not alone. I know my mom would definitely want me to stay on tour. But if I’m having a bad day,” Clark says with a slightly nervous laugh to diffuse his anxiety, “something is going on.”

Vans Warped Tour. 11 a.m. Sunday, August 5, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach, 33411; 561-795-8883; vanswarpedtour.com. Tickets cost $45 to $55 via ticketmaster.com.

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