The Warped Tour Diaries: Inside America’s Longest-Running Festival

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“It’s kind of a lifestyle county fair.”

Tuesday, July 22, 11 a.m.

Even though it’s still morning, the sun is already beating down on the hoards of people flocking towards the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, a few miles removed from downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. Lines of traffic pour in, and bright-eyed kids of every punk, scene and emo variation shuffle towards the entrance. The change in demographic is evident.

Since the first tour in 1995, average showgoers were in their late teens. There are still just as many in the 17 – 25 age range and much older, but the younger faces in the crowd have increased. Proving the point, an 11-ish moptop in Vans pushes forward and vanishes toward the front. Clusters of girls don bikini tops and not much else, and a leather-skinned and tattooed 40-something totes a two-year old. There is a wide stretch between exceptionally average style to some very strategic fashion choices involving violent hair colors, deconstructed Chuck Taylors and every form of body art and piercing known to man.

As people disperse inside, they spread out among lines of merchandise tents and an array of nonprofit booths which include Music Saves Lives, Peta 2 and Invisible Children. The tents loop around five stages as well as the amphitheater, which is divided into two stages. By 11:15, bands already occupy them.

12 p.m. The Creator

The path to the press area leads through a wooden fence and to the other side of the amphitheater. Behind the stage, several our buses are parked and a line of trailers stretches in front of them. Inside one air-conditioned trailer, Kevin Lyman drops onto the sofa. The tour is only half over, but it’s founder looks beat.

“I work on Warped year round. I finished the routing for 2011 yesterday. It’s pretty all-encompassing,” he says. Besides Warped Tour, Lyman handles the metal Mayhem Festival and Country Throwdown. The Throwdown tour just finished its first year and involved such alt-country songwriters as Jamey Johnson, Sarah Buxton, Jedd Hughes and Troy Olsen, who toured and collaborated from mid-May to the end of June. Lyman was ready to get out of the music business when Warped was born from an idea to go out for one last hurrah.

“I was going to go out with some friends for one last summer in 1995, build a skateboard ramp, have likeminded musicians kind of support each other. Really, that’s what this is.”

Walking around the festival, you get the sense that the gap between workers, fans and performers is small. Most bands on tour are fans of and friends with others, and can be seen prowling around the festival to see other shows after their own sets. More than the longest running music festival of its kind in North America, it’s an extremely community-oriented tour that evolves to reflect how sounds are changing within the subculture.

“The first lineup was Sublime, No Doubt, Seaweed, Orange 9mm, Quicksand and No Use For a Name, so I think it was a very diverse lineup in 1995, and I think it’s just as diverse or more diverse now and that’s really what I wanted this to be,” Lyman says. “For a while we went through a phase where people called it the Punk Rock Tour, and if you really go through the lineups every year, there have been artists from Eminem to Deftones to Kid Rock that wouldn’t fall under the punk rock category. The kids are into a harder sound right now. The harder bands are definitely the ones that are attracting. Maybe kids are pissed off because they’re seeing what’s going on with the world. Some of the sounds, to me, seem like the soundtrack to the apocalypse.”

Warped Tour has transitioned to follow the subculture in the sixteen years it’s been alive, and the bands enlisted have run the gamut from punk rock to pop punk, emo, and screamo. Gradually, more hardcore and metal has crept in. Now the tour is barreling into a new phase of some of the heaviest it’s seen. The Dillinger Escape Plan, Parkway Drive and Whitechapel are a few of the hardest bands on the bill, but these heavier bands are some of the more consistent, stylistically speaking. Lyman sums it up with an iPod analogy. “I always talked about people living their lives on iPods, in a way of listening to different tastes of music, but now I’m seeing that generation that’s making music by iPod on shuffle. They’re playing seven or eight songs within one song,” he says. “I don’t know if people have the attention for a single song sometimes, just going through four different sounds all in one song. It’s like a hyper, hyper movement of living on shuffle. It’s insane.”

Warped kicked off June 25 and runs until August 15. Bands join and drop off at various points during the tour. Lyman says that some of the more classic acts may be a generation removed from some of the younger kids out there, and parents’ influence often keeps them from staying for the duration of the nine-hour festival (even though there is an onsite “reverse daycare” for parents).

“It’s a great place for parents to send their kids because they know their kids are going to come home sunburned, tired and lay on the couch for four days.”

Age aside, odds are there’s a band that will strike the interest of any attendee. “If you enjoy music and being social, unless you’re just into diehard gospel, you can just wander around and find five bands you didn’t know existed,” Lyman says. “It’s kind of a lifestyle county fair.”

That’s a thorough way of putting it. A stroll among the tents throws more than music at passersby; it’s a display of style, molding influences, genres and generations in celebration of the DIY ethic. And there’s only one thing that would really push Lyman to quit doing summers filled with music and debauchery.

“Probably health reasons,” he admits, looking weathered. “It’s been a hard summer.”

4 p.m. The Pop Punk Veterans

“Last night was our videographer guy’s birthday,” says a vaguely amused-looking Jason a.k.a. “Cone” McCaslin from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. The Sum 41 bassist sits adjacent to drummer Steve Jocz on a random picnic table behind the amphitheater. They appear to be the only ones who don’t look hot and flustered, though they’ve both been nursing month-long hangovers. Though it’s far from Sum 41’s first time on Warped, this year is only the second they came along for the entire tour. The last time they stuck it out for the whole ride was 2001, when the band had just blasted toward success with the release of All Killer No Filler on Island Records. Now the band is taking notice of the fact that none of their band buddies of previous years are on the bill. As some of the oldest faces on Warped, perhaps they are maybe a half generation removed from the 10-year olds at the festival, but it hasn’t stopped the band from having fun.

“Yeah, we had a couple strippers on the bus,” Jocz says. “It was the kid’s birthday. He’s 25 – a quarter of a century – so we got him some strippers.”

“Steve also stripped,” McCaslin adds. Jocz nods. “I stripped and I also kissed him on the mouth with cake on my face. Yeah, I did make him feel a little awkward.”

Sum 41 has reached the pleasant stage in the music career that has surpassed the puppy-like eagerness of brand new bands as well as the self-aware smugness of moderately successful up-and-comers. They’ve made it and some would even argue that they’ve already peaked. Now they just seem happy and pretty open to sharing what they’ve been doing with their time on Warped.

“At the beginning of the tour, our driver was drunk while driving us from San Francisco to Ventura, so that was interesting. That was, like, the second day and he told us that we drove him to drink which I thought was really funny,” Jocz says. “So we fired him right there after we knew he crashed the bus trying to pull over. But now that Pennywise is on the tour, the shenanigans will increase.” He’s referring to a punk rock group from California scheduled to play right before Sum 41 later in the evening, and there is some discussion over whether the two bands are more like gasoline to a match or wind and fire.

They’ve just finished recording the new album which is set for an early 2011 release. “This album’s pretty intense. Really heavy, but still melodic. There are a couple metal parts, but also light stuff as well, so it’s kind of like everything we’ve done in the past 10 years all mixed together,” Jocz says. “It’s not as pop-punky as All Killer No Filler or Underclass Hero. It’s more like Does This Look Infected? and Chuck.

It’s a comfort to fans that the bands they’ve been listening to since they were 10 are still making the same music. Even if that suggests some immaturity on the band’s (or listener’s) part, it’s oddly reassuring.

“As far as the tour goes, I don’t know if anyone would want to take any advice from us…regarding anything.” Jocz finishes gravely, and after a pause, “We don’t know what we’re doing.” McCaslin offers one tip: “The thing we do is stay inside all day long.”

Jocz agrees. “Stay inside and drink, because if you drink outside in the heat, that’s a recipe for disaster, kids.”

4:30 p.m. The Rock and Roll Novice

New and eclectic music isn’t difficult to come by with one lap around the premises. Case in point: as I step out of the bathroom, a man with a newsboy cap and an Irish brogue ambushes me.

“You like Irish punk, love?”

He presses a flyer promoting a band called The Mighty Regis and their set time into my hand, then hustles off.

Along the rows of tents, wiry musicians eagerly thrust earbuds into the faces of passersby. “Would you like to hear my band’s new record?” A somewhat awkward procession, yes, but with over 70 other bands in the venue vying for attention, friendly aggression is key. One grinning guy working merch sneaks a business card into the tote bag of an unsuspecting girl walking by. Another forces a band leaflet on me and says, “I’m watching you. You better put that in your purse and not on the ground.” There’s a vibe that says hardcore carnival, but with more approachable vendors and better chances of walking away with something free.

The late afternoon is beginning to drag on people, though. Back at the press trailer, a willowy, bohemian sort of blonde takes a seat outside briefly, having finished her set about an hour earlier. There are a handful of girl-fronted bands on Warped this year, including Dirty Little Rabbits (whose frontwoman Stella Soleil was a dynamo in a sparkly silver dress during her set, though a broken foot kept her on crutches) and the Pretty Reckless.

This particular siren appeals to Americana-lovers and southern sentiment, mixing her Florida roots and a bit of emo into what she calls “good old rock n roll love songs.” Juliet Simms, vocalist and rhythm guitarist of Automatic Loveletter, is back on Warped Tour for her third year, now with a full band (her first time was just her on acoustic) and a new record, Truth or Dare.

In an easygoing drawl, Simms explains what a typical day is like for her on the tour. “You wake up at 7:30 a.m. and you have to go in search for a bathroom. That’s probably the worst part of the day. Then I go back, the boys get up, we load the gear out, load the merch out, find our tent spot, I usually go for a run, then I wait in line to take a shower,” she says. “There’s showers in the venues, but it’s such a pain in the ass that sometimes you’re like, ‘I’m gonna be dirty for a couple of days.’”

Bands don’t find out set times until the morning of, and by the end of the day, after press and load in, Simms says, “You’re so freaking tired you end up passing out at, like, 8 o’clock.” But then she smiles. “It’s new music being played all around. What’s more fun than a day of just music?”

5:45 p.m. The Metalcore Up-and-Comers

There is another two hours of sets, but people are trying to wind down. Whether or not he’s thrilled to be doing press at this point in the day, Winston McCall, frontman of Australian metalcore band Parkway Drive, puts on a happy face a few hours after their set ended. Parkway Drive’s stage stood near the front of the venue with a small skateboard ramp nearby and a grassy hill off to the other side, which offered a view down into the crowd. A most pit opened up in the center, and for the next half hour, people pushed and shoved, opened water bottles rocketed overhead and a black, half-deflated beach ball was thrown around during the bone-crushing set. The hillside was packed as well as the entire stage area.

“It was absolutely remarkable to have that reaction with hundreds of amazing bands playing is pretty insane,” McCall enthuses.

Their second time on Warped Tour, Parkway Drive have a new album to promote. Their third endeavor Deep Blue has been out since late June, but the record has already proven itself more than once, climbing to No. 1 on the Australian Artists Chart and hitting No. 2 on the national ARIA charts. On this recording the band worked with a new producer to get an organic sound.

“There’s a lot of bands out there, especially since we released our last record three years ago, that push the idea of clinical precision to the point of automated music – autotune, drum machines – and it doesn’t sound human. The human aspect is what drew me to heavy style music in the first place.”

There are almost too many bands on tour to completely absorb the style and vision of each; the time they have to perform and the time there is to check out as many as possible only allows glimpses.

“Warped Tour is kind of a window into several different sounds within a counterculture. It’s wonderful, rather than just having bands that sound like X and that’s it. There are bands that sound like absolutely everything, and if there’s something you don’t like, just go and hear something you do like,” McCall says. He names Every Time I Die, We the Kings, Bring Me the Horizon and The Dillinger Escape Plan as some of the best he’s seen on tour.

“The bands are directly involved and connected with the audience. It’s not just a bunch of rockstars sitting backstage getting drunk, playing for a half hour, then vanishing.”

Afterward, McCall makes a beeline for his friends. There are only a few sets left, and one includes a high-energy performance by Sum 41. Deryck Whibley bounces around onstage like a punk garden gnome and provokes a bit of nostalgia as he offers the Sum 41 salute (four fingers held up on the right hand, the middle finger held up on the left) and plays all the hits of the early aughts.

As tents close down and kids wander out, they look ready to crash but wear subliminal expressions. They’ve spent a day immersed in a colorful shock of music culture, and experienced bands in a way that couldn’t happen at a typical music festival. For a lot of teens, music is one of the only things they’ll remember fondly between the ages of 13 and 19, and Warped not only pushes new music at them, but leaves the barrier between artist and audience all but demolished.

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