"There's fame and there's fortune," explains Strung Out's lead singer Jason Cruz. "You can't have both, so you have to decide which you want. If it's fame, it'll cost a fortune, which is why you sign with the majors. They're the only ones who can afford the radio, videos and marketing to make you famous. If it's fortune, you hew close to the ground, keep expenses low and tour your ass off."
Cruz's wisdom is culled from a dozen years of experience fronting the SoCal old-school punkers, but it also reflects the accumulated wisdom of the Warped Tour, where I encounter him. For 11 years Warped Tour has catapulted bands into the spotlight, and its alumni list includes almost every act to crossover from the underground into the mainstream during the last decade: Sublime, No Doubt, Mighty Mighty BossToneS, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Papa Roach, Blink-182, NOFX, Kid Rock, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, Jimmy Eat World, New Found Glory, Good Charlotte, to name just a few.
It works because the tour keeps the cost low (tickets are around $30--less than the recent Pixies show at Disco Rodeo) and the value high (at least eight stages and 70 bands over the course of an eight- or nine-hour day). Hosting 10,000-15,000 kids a day approximately five days a week, the tour is an unparalleled opportunity for bands to cultivate national audiences and the steppingstone to surprising grassroots sales swells. Take, for example, UnderOath, the Florida death metal/screamo/melodic hardcore act, who played one of the small side stages last year, helping propel their fourth album, They're Only Chasing Safety (Tooth & Nail), to sales in the neighborhood of 200,000 without any radio airplay or marketing muscle.
All of which is why I leap at the chance to join local iconoclasts Valient Thorr on Warped Tour for a week. The quintet of dry-docked Venusians have been in this particular time stream for about four years, ever since their ship crashed near the Triangle, stranding them in our space/time. Seeing little choice but to make the best of the situation, the five of them (four of whom--with their long, unruly hair--look like refugees from the Marshall Tucker Band, with the final, cap-sporting member purveying a kind of redneck-metrosexual chic) set out with rock 'n' roll dreams and the desire to "create the positive vibrations," according to their leader, Valient Thorr.
I catch up with them in Columbus, Ohio, for the tour kick-off, but the band's already been on the road for several weeks. Several frustrating weeks. They apparently have little luck with vehicles, as the van they were using suffered the latest in a long line of setbacks and threatens to shitcan the whole tour. Plans to rent a replacement to avoid further repair costs are shot down when they discover rental agencies don't accept debit cards, a harrowing blow to their hopes. Desperate times require desperate actions, so the band borrows money from relatives to purchase a small RV, mothballing the van somewhere in the Midwest.
"It's just a learning process. We've sunk a lot of money in the van," says Valient. "We didn't want to crash it. We've crashed so many ships in the past, and it's such a good one, I'd rather get it fixed. So we needed to upgrade our earth module significantly and this one was really adequate for crossing from metropolis."
Of course, the RV only solves the most immediate problem. As the tour goes on it only grows harder, as the days accumulate and the hours of driving run into each other.
"It's crazy, non-stop. I don't know what else to say. It's balls to the wall. It's pretty much guaranteed without a driver or a merch person, every third day we're spending it up and don't get to sleep. Because there's only five of us, and one of us has to drive every night. And some of these drives are 10 to 12 hours," says Valient. "We have to keep our wits about us and be on top of everything, and still mail bills and sell stuff. There isn't one second in the day that you aren't doing something absolutely important to do to get through the next day."
I arrive a couple of hours before the gates open, but the parking area's already abuzz with a veritable cattle train of vehicles and band members unloading equipment and hauling it by hook, crook and even skateboard to the sprawling venue stages. With the exception of Milwaukee, all the shows I attend are on sprawling Verizon soundstages well out from the center of town. More than a hundred booths are crammed onto the grounds, which besides band and label booths include representatives from Major League Baseball (who have a batting cage and pitching speed gun), Cingular and, of course, long-time tour sponsors Vans.
The audience for each show is uniformly young and notably female this year. There are parental punk rockers with their kids, and scads of high school-age girls sporting shirts from their favorite emo bands, such as Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. The high female quotient is particularly unique to this year, due in large part to emo's emergence into the mainstream and the large number of acts aimed squarely at this demographic cohort. You might even think there is some kind of culture-shift going on when you witness all the girls crowd-surfing (more than the boys) and arriving at the barricades with their bikini tops still attached, or when My Chemical Romance's singer screams into the audience (each day), "All you women, when someone asks you to show you their tits, I want you to say 'Fuck you.' Say it, 'Fuck you!'" But at the post-show party in the parking lot, alcohol and young women intermingle with the band members in classic rock fashion.
Classic rock fashion might also describe Valient Thorr. Sporting sleeveless denim jackets with their name emblazoned on the back, the Triangle Five are the envy of their peers by several admissions. Musically they split the difference between metal and punk, with an almost over-the-top stage show that revels in classic rock stage moves, which they deliver without an intelligence-insulting nod and wink. Eidan, the Edgar Winter-looking guitarist who sports a radio transmitter that allows him to wander into the crowd, particularly likes to raise the guitar over his head as he plays, like an offering to their Venusian gods.
Valient, the lead singer, climbs over the barricades and entreats the audience to leave their seats and gather in a circle around him, as he tells them his tale much like a kindergarten teacher before sending her kids off to nap time. It's incredibly engaging, and by my last day on tour, in Kansas City, they've garnered almost as large a crowd of backstage band and crew onlookers as there are in the audience. Strung Out encourages its audience from the stage to go and see Valient Thorr. Sometimes it seems like everyone on the tour is a fan.
"Every person in a band, [every person] who works for security, catering, sales, merch, and guitar techs and production crew, from top to bottom, the whole place is talking about Valient Thorr. It ain't no bullshit," says Valient. "Finally we're getting some feedback and some body buzz. This is the real deal, and we're meeting up with heavies. People you had posters of up on your wall when you were growing up, and now they're eating breakfast with you or they're scamming beers with you. I had breakfast this morning with Tim Armstrong. We're finally seeing what we always wanted to see about Earth culture, the acceptance and the real, true sense of community."
But the best thing about the tour--besides the exposure to over 650,000 kids in almost 50 cities in the United State and Canada--are the contacts. Already Valient Thorr is talking to Strung Out about joining them on tour after Warped is finished. Other bands have suggested trading shows or opening for Valient Thorr when they come to town. This is where the rubber meets the road, and where the rock hits the roll--when the hard work begins to bear fruit.