I got an email late last fall that said that the 2018 edition of the Vans Warped Tour would be the last full-country run. Though the tour had not come through Montreal since 2012, the last time I attended it, I found myself going through the seven stages of grief. This had, after all, been the tour that had paved the way for the life I live now. It influenced and informed my relationship with music, as a medium of expression and industry, and it's what made me want to get into this in the first place. When I was around 11, my best friend and I managed to score press passes for Warped Tour by saying that we would cover the event for a charity (which, in hindsight, I regret using as an excuse). Eventually, I became friendly with the staff and the bands that would play regularly, and landed a volunteer gig there, which I did for a few years.
The idea that I would never get to live the experience of a Warped Tour troubled me deeply. So I bought a plane ticket to Florida to follow the last three days of the tour from behind the scenes.
After a disastrous series of delayed flights, I finally landed in Orlando just in time to go to bed and be at the venue bright and early the next day,
I arrived on-site with just a few minutes left to spare to get a lay of the land before the thunderous roar of thousands of eager kids made itself heard, as they ran out onto Tinker Field to be the first at this or that stage. All at once, memories of myself as a teenager attending the tour in Montreal come back to me. For many kids in this scene, Warped Tour is their Christmas, every other day of the year is spent impatiently awaiting the next one. For a very low price, usually between 30 and 50$, you can see a bunch of your favorite bands, hang out with your closest friends and finally meet up with all the friends you made online on forums but have never met IRL.
I meet up with Chuck, who's been with the tour since its early days. Now merch manager for the entire tour, the Brooklyn native got his start just being there at the right time. '' It was right after high school; I had been accepted at MIT in applied mathematics, but I wasn't certain if that's really the career path I wanted. I was just helping my friends in bands on the tour, doing whatever needed to be done. Kevin (Lyman, the founder of the tour) came up to me and said, 'You're going to stick around for a while'. '' Chuck, like most people who have been on the tour, emphasizes the fact that life on Warped Tour is a meritocracy : if you do a good job, Kevin will notice and reward you. ''I ended up going to school, trying to get out of the music business, but every summer would roll around, and I'd be right back at Warped.''
As merch manager, Chuck's job involves being up early every morning and figuring out the layout of the tents for the bands, the sponsors and the different charities around the site. '' As important as sponsors are, because they pay a lot of money to be here, the kids don't really give a fuck about them. Some sponsors complain because they want a prime spot, but the bands are what's really important to the kids '', says Chuck. '' Merch is the main source of income for most of these bands. I try to place their tent as close as possible to the stage they're playing, so that kids can buy their merch right away. ''
The typical Warped Tour date consists of about 7 stages, with about 100 bands playing on any given day. There are two main stages, for the headlining acts, 2 'side' stages, for bands who attract a big crowd without necessarily being headliners, and a handful of other stages for up-and-coming or local bands. For many young acts, playing those stages can be what makes or breaks them, and for those from abroad, it can be their chance to make it big in America.
Such was the case for Don Broco, a UK outfit currently enjoying enviable popularity in their home country, where they frequently sell out venues, while somehow remaining under-the-radar this side of the pond. Clearly a favorite of their fellow bands and crew on the tour, the boys in Don Broco put on a solid, mysteriously magnetic show. In just 30 minutes, their heavy mix of pop-rock would inevitably see the crowd gathered in front of their stage grow exponentially by the minute, having everyone dancing and smiling by the end.
"As important as the sponsors, since they pay dearly to be there, the kids do not care about them. "
After the Don Broco set, I pop by a tent to meet another young foreign band, Story Untold, and find some shelter from the impending rainstorm. Hailing from Montreal, the boys seem very happy to get to speak french. '' The tour has been extremely tough so far '', confides Joe, their drummer. '' It's been hot, exhausting, and we've had to do all of it in a van ''.
For many of the less established artists on the Warped lineup, playing this tour is their first occasion to travel in a real tour bus. These huge coach buses being extremely expensive, many bands choose to share them, to alleviate the costs. Though they are often cramped, they provide far more comfort than passenger vans, usually being outfitted with many bunk beds, TV's, microwaves, fridges, bathrooms and common areas.
However, opting for a bus doesn't necessarily ensure a more pleasant tour, as can confirm the boys in Trash Boat. When you're dealing with a float of 100+ tour buses like Warped Tour deals with every year, something inevitably goes wrong, but the British punk-rock band have probably had the worst bus experience I've heard of. Sharing a bus with Alabama christian metalcore band Mychildren Mybride, the band was about to make it through their first week when, on their way from Las Vegas, NV to Salt Lake City, UT, their bus broke down. '' It was the middle of the night and I was sleeping. I heard a loud thump and I thought we'd just blown a tire or something, so I tried going back to bed '', recalls lead singer Tobi Duncan. ‘’ I started hearing screaming, and our driver was telling us to get out because the bus was on fire. I was in boxers, so I put on some shorts and ran out."
The band was left stranded on the side of the road for nearly 24 hours, causing them to miss their show in Salt Lake City, before another bus came to pick them up. This new bus broke down four hours later, on the way to Denver. Stuck in the desert, the band waited close to 30 hours for another one, before deciding to get cabs and rent cars to get to their next show. Once they finally got bus number 3, their were just relieved that it was actually functional. However, the generator blew out an alarming amount of smoke, so they had to turn it off, which meant no electricity or AC in the bus. To boot, the band started getting sick because of mold in the bus’ mattresses.
Stuck in a dispute with the bus company, the boys in Trash Boat were finally able to complete the tour in a rental van. ‘’ Now we’re known as that band that had all those bus problems’’, says Duncan, happy that they made it through the tour in one piece.
Thankfully, the bus I rode in had no problems. After catching the penultimate set of the day, by my hometown heroes Simple Plan, I settled into my top bunk the size of a child’s coffin. I was placed on bus 15, which houses some of the sponsors. I met most of my 14 busmates and was relieved that they 1) were all amazingly friendly and welcoming, and 2) as eager to party as I was. We started off the night with some shots of tequila and beer shotguns. As the night provided a soothing and very welcome breeze, about half of us headed for what would be the last BBQ of the tour, organized by the BBQ band, a different band every year that gets to follow the tour on the condition that they organize BBQs multiple times a week for bands and crew.
Bus call that night was only at 4 am, so there was time to party a bit more than usual, but most were so tired that the BBQ ended fairly early. Not ready to sleep yet, I checked Twitter and saw a tweet from Jordan, from Every Time I Die, where he explained that he was high on magic mushrooms and challenged Donald Trump to a game of flip-cup at their bus. I walked around for a while and sure enough, about 40 people were playing flip cup, which as it turns out is quite a popular sport on the tour. Having never played, Jeff from Simple Plan tried to coach me the best he could, but I was swiftly replaced by members of Juggalo rap-rock band Twiztid. I ended up doing what I do best, DJ’ing, alongside Keith from Every Time I Die. We all drank, sang and danced a lot until it was nearly time to leave. The entire time, as I looked out at this parking lot where this horde of misfits mingled and partied, all I could think was how sad it was that this would be happening for the last time. And, more importantly, I wondered what life would look like 48 hours later, after the final set of Warped Tour would be played.
I awoke the next morning after a surprisingly comfortable night of sleep, and we were in Tampa. I walked through the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheater in the blistering heat in search for iced coffee and something to eat as the kids were slowly swarming the site. After wandering about for about 15 minutes and familiarizing myself with the layout, I headed to catering to meet up with Seb from Simple Plan.
Having played the Warped Tour 12 years, half of the tour’s run, they are the second band that has played the most on it, right behind Less Than Jake. Their time on the tour, according to Seb, has contributed to their longevity and constant relevance. ‘’ We’re a band that’s always been at that weird intersection of pop and rock. We have had radio hits, but we still fit into the Warped crowd, which isn’t a very common thing ‘’, he explains. ‘’Most bands that have had a commercial success post-Warped Tour have not really come back to play it, like No Doubt, Limp Bizkit and all those bands. They just made it to another level. But we have always appreciated, and insisted on, playing Warped Tour."
But the band’s connection to Warped Tour goes much further than just having played it; it helped bring its members together. ‘’It was the first year it came to Montreal, in 1996. I had convinced my mom to let me go with a few of my school friends. The first band playing was Reset, Pierre and Chuck’s old band. I recognized them from my school and we connected like that ‘’, recalls the guitarist.
Through my interactions with the crew and other bands, nearly everyone conceded that Every Time I Die are, objectively, the most talented band on this year’s run. Not wanting to waste time, the metalcore heroes powered through their set, barely taking breaks between songs. For their extremely mosh-friendly anthem ‘Floater’, Every Time I Die brought out pop singer and queer activist (and everyone’s favorite person on the tour) Yves Mathieu to help on screaming duties. Finishing with one of their most beautifully crafted tracks, Low Teen’s closer ‘Map Change’, guitarist Jordan Buckley had the crowd carry him from the stage to the band’s nearby merch booth, as he kept playing the song’s main riff.
Wandering around the site, I stopped by the ‘Reverse Daycare’, a large, cool tent with chairs and newspapers where parents accompanying their kids to Warped Tour can go sit and relax while their kids are living their best lives. Inside, I talk to Nicole, who brought her son, 14, and her daughter, 12, to the show. ‘’ It wasn’t really an option for us to not come today ‘’, she says, laughing. ‘’ My daughter, especially, has been having an especially hard time. She’s just at that age where she gets sad a lot. But she’s been talking about this for months, and I haven’t seen her this happy in a while. Her brother’s out there with her, I wish I could go with them, but it’s too hot and I don’t have that kind of energy anymore ‘’, explains the mother.
Having been to Warped Tour for about half of its run, I’ve encountered a million kids who fit the description of Nicole’s daughter. Though it is something I had forgotten or internalized, it all came back to me as I walked around the venues every day, looking at what kind of accreditation bracelets the kids had; every so often, I would see a kid whose wrist, sometimes entire arm, would be covered in scars from (presumably) self-inflicted cuts. Though I thought that that form of self-harm had hit its peak when I was still a young boy, it seems that cutting is still very much a thing. And yet, inevitably, there was a joy in those kids’ eyes. And if those kids were anything like the ones I knew back in the day who resorted to self-harm, Warped Tour is probably one of the best days of their year. It’s a day of hope, that they look forward to for the entire year, where they can be with people who accept and understand them, all brought together by their love of the same music. I know that that’s what made Warped Tour so important to me and all my friends.
Again, thinking about that, I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen next summer when these kids don’t have that thing to look forward to. I was scheduled to talk to Kevin Lyman the next day, and I knew it was imperative that I ask him about that.
The penultimate day of the history of the Warped Tour was coming to an end and the sun set over the amphitheatre as I stood sidestage to watch Florida natives New Found Glory, who flew out to play the last three days of the tour, merch manager Chuck came up behind me. ‘’You like wings?’’, he whispered in my ear. ‘’Wing party tonight across the street, I’m DJ’ing’’. He had said all the magic words, and, besides, it was the last real party I’d get to attend, as everyone was leaving as soon as the night would end the next day.
After a few shots of tequila and shotgunned beers with my busmates, I headed down to meet with members of Story Untold and Simple Plan. I see the former as being very much part of the legacy of the latter, so I was not surprised to learn that Simple Plan acted as unofficial mentors for the younger band, bringing them out on tour and teaching them the ins and outs of the music industry.
"People will have to find another way of doing things or they will not survive. "
We headed to the nearby WingHouse, which was packed with locals trying to catch the UFC fight that night. The patio was reserved for our party, overflowing with bands, VIPs and crew, all reminiscing about the good times they had on the tour over the years over beers and wings. Here and there, you could here the choked voices of imposing men, as they started saying their goodbyes to the people who had become their family. Chuck provided us with the deepest cuts of old-school hip-hop from his iTunes library, while Kevin Lyman walked around thanking everyone for their service.
Exhausted, belly full of wings and beer, I made my way back to my bus. However, the gates to the site were locked, and fenced with barbed wire. I could’ve simply walked all the way around back to the parking lot, but being slightly inebriated, I decided that that route was too tortuous. Using skills I acquired as a vandal youth, I climbed over a series of fences and completely wrecked my impeccably white Vans. I was, officially, living the real punk-rock life.
I awoke to a text telling me that I was to be interviewing Kevin within the next two hours. I found it very telling that this man would, on the very last day of a tour that will surely be remembered as his greatest achievement, still take the time to talk to me.
But before doing that, I knew that there was someone I had to talk to for who Warped Tour was super important. So I headed down to catering to find Keith Buckley, from Every Time I Die.
‘’It’s a tangential tour that you do as part of a record promotion cycle. But when you really think about it, for Every Time I Die, it was the boost we needed every single time we put our a record. That thrust that Warped Tour would give us every single time we put out a record was what we needed to stay relevant ‘’, says Buckley. ‘’ We would put out a record, play Warped Tour as a release tour for the record, new people would see us and come back when we’d play in a club, and that’s just kind of how our career was built. It was hugely important to us. ‘’
The thing with Warped Tour is that it is huge. In one day, you have anywhere between 50-100 bands playing; it helps centralize and federate the scene. And everyone seems to agree that it is simply unthinkable that these bands will all head out on tour on their own next summer, because that would saturate the market. As Seb from Simple Plan told me : ‘’You can’t expect kids to save up enough money and find the time to go see 100 shows every summer’’. Much like animals kept in a zoo and freed into the city all at once, it’ll be about survival of the fittest and, sadly, some of these bands will die.
‘’ It’s going to thin the herd a lot ‘’, says Buckley. ‘’ There’s going to be a lot of bands who’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute...We actually have to put work in and tour in shitty clubs and build an audience? We can’t just walk into this heaven for punk-rock and have a base already in position to watch us?’. People are going to have to find another way of doing things or they won’t survive.‘’
Walking around the venue, which looked exactly like the other ones we had rolled through on previous days, something was amiss. Sure, there was the same constant buzzing of worker bee-like personnel running around trying to make sure that everything was perfect, with bands playing in the distance as background noise. But everything still felt weirdly silent. Not that the atmosphere was particularly sad, but there wasn’t the same cheer in people’s voices, there wasn’t laughter echoing through the backstage halls of the amphitheatre. There was no ‘Hey what are you doing tonight?’, no ‘My set’s at 4 today, come see me!’; just a lot of tacit head nods and high-fives.
‘’I just think I’ve done everything I can with the platform ‘’, simply answers Kevin Lyman when I ask him why the tour is ending. ‘’ It really has been a challenge in the last few years to keep this going in the way I wanted it to. There’s been many more regulations on touring, new trucking laws, insurance, security on concerts.‘’
For Lyman, the success of Warped relies on three important pillars : music, philanthropy, and education. And up to now, he feels he has achieved his goals the best he could. Nearly half the tents on Warped Tour this year had a philanthropic vocation, and if you were to ask any band on the lineup, they would tell you that this has been the most informative crash course on touring and the ins and outs of this industry. However, when it comes to music, the founder doesn’t know what long-lasting effect the end of the tour will have on the scene. ‘’ They need to figure it out, I can’t keep trying to figure things out if I don’t have their support ‘’, says Kevin of the music industry, explaining that competition on the market means a lot of bands no longer see Warped Tour as a priority, because of the limited amount of money it can bring in. ‘’ Right now, I just want to focus on the philanthropic and educational side.’’
Of course, the man who has been described by many over the course of my interviews as one of the most hardworking people in the music business is not retiring or slowing down. Starting this week, Kevin Lyman becomes Associate professor of Practice in the music industry department at USC Thornton School of Music. He has also started FEND (Full Energy, No Drug), an app that aims to combat the opioid epidemic in North America.
For someone whose biggest life achievement is about to come to an end in the next few hours, the 57 year-old seems weirdly at ease. In his plush tour bus, surrounded by family and friends, many of whom flew out for the day to experience Warped one last time, it becomes apparent that he truly does feel that he has done all he could with this. He looks genuinely unphased when I ask him how he would feel if someone took the concept of the Tour and tried running with it. ‘’ A lot of people say that they could do this better than I do. Let them try it. Warped has always been about giving kids opportunities, so if one of the younger bands decide they want to try their hand at something like this, I hope they succeed ‘’, he says.
A bit distraught and already nostalgic about the end of this very important chapter of my life, I head back to my bus to start packing my things before catching my very last Warped Tour set ever. The entire parking lot is covered in luggage, merch boxes, and gear, and all my busmates look very eager to get back home, after nearly two months on the road. At the same time, though, no one looks like they legitimately want this to end. Most are only going home briefly before embarking on the next tour, while some are going back to regular office jobs. A lot of promises to hang out when we’re all in each others’ cities are made, and we chug our final beer. I wave goodbye to my coffin of a bunk and head out.
On Sunday 5th 2018, if you were at the Coral Sky Amphitheater in West Palm Beach, you had two options: either you saw Every Time I Die close out the side stage, or you saw Pennywise on the main stage. Predictably, I ended up on the side of the stage for Every Time I Die, who played what was probably their most visceral set of the tour so far, probably motivated by the equally animalistic crowd who gave the band whatever energy they had left in them. Not ones to shy away from antics (they have, after all, nearly been sued by Kanye West for impersonating him and other celebrities on Twitter to promote the sales of their merch), the band were set on being the last band to ever play Warped Tour. So for 13 minutes after the end of their set, Jordan Buckley kept playing the last riff of their song ‘Map Change’, until one of the stagehands finally turned off the guitarist’s amp.
Unfortunately for Every Time I Die, Pennywise had been allotted a longer set than the usual 30 minutes given to bands. On stage behind the California punks stood hundreds of people, some perched up on the stacks of monitors of the venue’s PA system. Before sending the band off into ‘Fuck Authority’, Kevin delivered a heartfelt message of love, hope and thanks to the crowd gathered for this very historic moment. For the first time that I’ve seen in those 3 days, Lyman seems utterly vulnerable, tearing up as his right-hand woman since the beginning of the tour, Lisa Brownlee, jumps into his arms. As if that were the signal, dozens of people burst into tears, hugging each other and saying their final goodbyes. Even I found myself crying, as I realized that this event that had changed the lives of so many people was coming to an end. More particularly, I got sad when it hit me that the next generation would not get to profit from something of this magnitude. I made my way across the sea of people to Kevin Lyman to hug and thank him, as Pennywise’s ‘’Bro Hymn’’, sung by the thousands of people in the venue and pouring out the backstage into the adjacent parking lot, played us out.
This article originally appeared on Noisey FRCA.