I must start this article by saying that at 24 years old, this year was my first Warped Tour. I set out to purposefully cover the experience as a newcomer for this publication; as a teenager, I was the definition of Warped Tour Kid, but I never had the chance to attend, for one reason or another. After years of imagining what it would be like, I finally got the chance to experience it from the inside out. I felt like my old, giggling middle school self as my friend and I left Memphis, TN at 8 a.m. to make the three-hour drive over to our neighbors in Nashville. Once we parked and covered ourselves in sunscreen, we followed the crowd to the end of the line. After two hours of talking with local bands promoting their music, we finally walked through the gates into my adolescent dream.
Warped Tour is a well-oiled machine, operating on 22 years of proof that given the ability to effectively change with the times and continue to roster relevant top-notch talent, the people will always show up. While it has evolved over the years from its punk-rock roots to a buffet of heavier acts, hip-hop acts, and even pop acts, Warped is a fairly honest reflection of the evolution of music in alternative culture. The festival never fails to pull from the biggest names in the scene, as well as lesser-known acts that have found their place in the landscape.
Walking through the crowd, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of home. Fans weren’t crazy with stars in their eyes; instead, they carried an identity from stage to stage, welcoming their favorite bands with a warm homecoming. As is tradition, all the acts on the roster do not know their set time until that day’s performance. Today, I passed by the Mutant Stage to see Sylar kick off the day as I walked the grounds to find the press tent, where I caught up with vocalist Ryan Kirby of Fit For A King.
The last time I spoke with Kirby was right after FFAK released Deathgrip, and I was excited to see how fans were responding to the work. “It’s going amazing,” he said to me on the hot summer morning. “Our crowds are five-times bigger on this Warped than they were two years ago. I think that’s a good sign.” FFAK has definitely made their mark on Warped Tour as a high-demand act after only three years on the lineup as proven by the massive circle pit that broke out during their set. It should be noted, too, that the band’s merch booth was the only one left at the end of the night, and somehow they ramped up the energy even more on the Monster Stage before the crew packed up to leave.
Warped Tour is a unique opportunity for a lot of bands to get exposure that they wouldn’t normally get, even on a headlining tour. “You’re going to get a lot of people that would never give your band a chance. And they’re not only hearing about you, they’re watching you live,” Kirby says. “We have had a lot of people come to the table and say, ‘We didn’t even know you existed!’ and then bought all our albums. I think that’s the coolest part. A lot of people are on their way to watch someone else, and then they see you and keep watching. (Warped Tour) gives you a lot of motivation to play well to impress those people.”
As I got to hear more and more from the wide-range of artists on the bill simultaneously running throughout the venue, I began to notice a pattern of nostalgia that comes with playing at Warped Tour. Not only is it a massive platform for bands to get seen, but it’s also the place that they were inspired to start and grow as musicians themselves. “I’m so spoiled getting to watch bands that I love by touring with them,” Kirby admits.
Later in the day, back at the press tent, Dance Gavin Dance guitarist Will Swan took me back to his high school days at Warped. “I liked moshing a lot,” he says to me. “I probably went to six Warped Tours. We went for Thursday, Glassjaw, even Coheed. There were a lot of really good bands back in the day. Back then, it seemed so big to me because I was just a kid. Seeing all the bands was overwhelming. I can’t even imagine growing up in the musical climate that exists now. It’s just different, but it’s cool.”
Warped Tour, founded in 1995 by Kevin Lyman, is the largest traveling music festival in the United States, and the longest-running touring music festival in North America. After decades of rolling the trucks out from city to city, the tour has to mix things up a bit each year to keep things new. They have continually added more socially-conscious booths throughout the venue, this year featuring Action for Animals, Feed Our Children Now, I Am Second, and many more alongside notable repeat attendees PETA2, truth, and To Write Love on Her Arms. As FFAK has seen a few, I was curious to hear from Kirby what made this year stand out to him. “I think the layout is better this year,” says Kirby. “There aren’t as many stages, so people can gather more toward a couple bands rather than having ten or 11 stages going at one time.” With a number of years under his belt as both an attendee and as a re-appearing artist on the lineup, Swan has plenty of Warped Tour memories to compare. “I think this year is cool because it’s such a mix of different stuff,” he adds. “Usually, I feel like Warped Tour is geared toward one thing or another — and that’s not bad. I’ve been the target audience for a lot of those, so I understand that. But this year, there’s a lot of variety and I think that’s really cool.”
With the variety of bands comes a variety of sounds. When I asked which band on the tour was a must-see, Swan was sure to shout out the guys in CKY for their quality live sound. “They use real guitar tones. As an audience member, I like to hear the organic tones,” he says. “Nothing against digital — everything is going that way — but I prefer real amps, and those guys are just rockin’ it old school.” When it comes to Dance Gavin Dance, “I’ve always used my Orange Rockerverb 100 on tour,” he says. “I record with it on all our records. I just want to sound good and play well.” Never disappointed, the crowd was ready for those thick riffs by the end of the night on the Journeys Right Foot Stage.
Once I wrapped up with Swan, I ran down the hill at the Nashville Fairgrounds to catch the rest of Silent Planet’s set. The band — who recently won an Alternative Press Music Award for Best Underground Band — was one I wasn’t going to miss. Their sound was as big as ever, something that can often be lost in translation with outdoor festivals. I caught up with vocalist Garrett Russell later on to talk more about their set. Our conversation went well over our scheduled time, no surprise for the man who has been well-known to spend extra time with press and fans. We picked up where we left off almost a year ago when the two of us last spoke on the heels of the release of their second album, Everything Was Sound.
“I’m really impressed by our listeners,” Russell says to me. “I feel like the people that listen to Silent Planet have been able to follow us through some pretty weird and twisting corridors. I don’t think that we’ve given Silent planet listeners the standard metalcore treatment, and they have been willing to go on that journey with us. So it’s really special to know that because we’re continuing on that path in what we’re doing and our listeners are allowing us to not have to repeat ourselves.”
Throughout our conversation, Russell continually attributed Silent Planet’s unique festival experience to relationships they build with their fans. “My friend Hannah brought her seven-year-old son Aiden to the show, and we gave him a big hug. Those moments — where you know people amidst the crowd — really cut through,” he says. “My friends Kyle and Brad Wiper have gone to every show in the Kentucky area, and they drove all this way to be here. My friend Gabe from Rocketown came out, too. And a year ago, when we played Nashville Warped, Gerald Clark proposed to his girlfriend at our show. (I wrote the song ‘Panic Room’ for him and about him.) Those moments are really special.”
Garrett Russell is a name that many recognize in the heavy music scene as a guy who follows his faith to the core. I asked him how big festivals like Warped Tour affect him spiritually, a question I don’t think he was expecting. “That’s a good question. I don’t expect typical questions when I get to sit down with you or anyone from HM. It can be discouraging because you see a lot of darkness,” he admits. “And I don’t mean people wearing ‘Hail Satan’ shirts; that doesn’t bother me. I mean people fighting, hating each other, being selfish or vain, and doing cocaine or anything else. I think you see that kind of stuff and you get kind of hopeless. You kind of feel like you’re on the losing team, that maybe this was all an accident. But it can also be very empowering because God gives me moments to talk to people about Jesus, or our lovers put their hand on my throat to pray for my voice. Stuff like that is really empowering.”
After a few more questions, I wrapped up our conversation and headed back to the stages to catch as many bands as I could, including Our Last Night, Bowling for Soup, blessthefall, and Silverstein. It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the bands you want to see. By the time the stages were being loaded up, I was completely exhausted. My friend and I walked back to the car with tired smiles on our faces and about a dozen new song ideas buzzing around in our brains. We made the three-hour drive back home, dreading work at 8 a.m., but completely full and satisfied.
My assignment for this story was to capture the feel of Warped Tour 2017 as a newcomer. The feeling I left with was assurance. I was assured that we are never alone in our passion, our pain, our curiosity, and our excitement for music. Powering through the long days and the summer heat, all the bands on Warped Tour prove, year after year, that music is worth it. Our hope in its power is kept alive by these bands’ diligence every festival season. There was nothing but love left on the Fairgrounds — love for making music, for hearing it, and for sharing it.
Warped Tour 2017 was posted on July 23, 2017 for HM Magazine and authored by Nao Lewandowski.