The life of Kings: Behind the scenes with Bradenton's biggest band
Sunday was already going to be a big day for We the Kings.
The Bradenton power-pop punks celebrated the release of their second album, Smile Kid, last week. On Sunday, they were back home in Florida to perform an acoustic set at the 93.3 Jingle Ball at the St. Pete Times Forum. It was the first of seven radio-sponsored concerts in seven days across the country, including gigs in Seattle, New Orleans and Oklahoma City.
But when the Ting Tings dropped out of the lineup, We the Kings got called up to the mainstage — and an already big Sunday suddenly got even bigger.
So when We the Kings' people asked if tbt* wanted to tag along with them all day for an inside look at the band, we turned to their biggest hit for an answer: Check Yes Juliet. Here’s how it went.
12:30 p.m.: Since the band had a rare day to chill in Tampa, their label, S-Curve, called the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to snag some tickets to Sunday’s game against the Jets. Not only did the team oblige, they threw in sideline passes, too. Standing next to the field during warmups, singer Travis Clark and drummer Danny Duncan snap photos of the view and describe how Travis, a former varsity soccer player, can kick a 55-yard field goal. “Our scouting department wants to talk to you about those field goals,” jokes Brian Ford, the Bucs’ vice president of administration. Clark and Duncan autograph a football for Bryan Glazer, and then it’s up to the seats.
12:40 p.m.: Over burgers in the club level (meat for Clark, veggie for Duncan), the guys talks about the evolution of Smile Kid, which has a bigger, more fleshed-out sound than the band’s self-titled 2007 debut. “On the first record, there were songs that I wrote on piano, but we converted them over to guitar," Clark says. "I’ve been playing piano since I was 4, so I was like, Let’s use this. When it came to producing the album, they let me co-produce it, so I was like, let’s just add as many bells and whistles and strings as we can.” Laughs Duncan: “There are literally bells and whistles on there! It’s awesome!”
1:30 p.m.: We find our way to our seats. They’re good seats (Section 234, about the 30-yard line), but they’re staring straight into a brutal sun — and both Duncan and Clark have brand-new tattoos, so their skin’s more sensitive than normal. After a few minutes reminiscing about the band’s early shows in Tampa Bay — “The first time we played the State Theatre, we were, like, shaking, taking lots of pictures,” Duncan says — everyone agrees that it is way too freaking hot out there. After about 20 minutes, Clark calls his dad, who’s also at the game (through a business connection, he’s sitting in a luxury suite), and they invite the guys come upstairs for a few minutes.
2:10 p.m.: Up in the luxury suite, Clark hugs his parents and lets his mom examine his new tattoos. “Travis, that’s enough!” she says, peeking into his shirt. “You don’t want to end up looking like a lizard person!”
2:34 p.m.: Halftime. The Bucs are down 19-0. Duncan is into the game, but everyone else is getting bored and fidgety. With their Jingle Ball rehearsal still two hours away, they all decide to hit International Plaza for an impromptu shopping trip. More hugs and photos, and then it’s off to the mall.
3:10 p.m.: Normally on tour, the band might not get to see much of a given city — sometimes as little as a few blocks around that night’s venue. But they do occasionally check out the local malls. “The store to hit when you’re in a touring group is the As Seen On TV store,” Clark says. “We’ve all gotten Snuggies.” Clark and Duncan eyeball the surf machine at Adrenalina, but both opt against hopping in, as Clark fears the chlorine will turn his new tats green. Then we head to Zara (where Duncan buys two shirts) and XXI (where Clark picks up a hoodie).
3:45 p.m.: After a quick peek in Hollister to see if the store has Smile Kid in the jukebox (they don’t), the band swings by Hot Topic because, Clark says, “It’s good luck to buy your CD the week it comes out.” There, Clark surveys the selection of We the Kings T-shirts and snaps photos and signs autographs for fans. A solid six-footer with a shock of wild red hair, he leaps out in a crowd and, as the frontman, tends to be a magnet for fans. Duncan, not so much. “I’m just glad they recognize him,” he says, “because that means We the Kings is working.” Hot Topic, by the way, is sold out of Smile Kid. Duncan buys two sticks of Laffy Taffy, and it’s off to the St. Pete Times Forum.
5:45 p.m.: Clark and Duncan meet up with brothers Hunter and Drew Thomsen, the band’s guitarist and bassist, respectively, who flew in from New York Sunday morning. The band is a little late to their soundcheck, so there’s not much time to prepare for an acoustic set in the celebrity meet-and-greet area. To fans, the three-song performance may sound perfect, but to the band, it feels glitchy. A technical error leads to a slight delay, during which the band is just sitting onstage — in Duncan’s case, literally, since only two chairs were brought out, one for Clark and one for Hunter. Immediately after the set, the band races off to their dressing room.
6:10 p.m.: There’s not much time to analyze what went wrong with the acoustic set, because We the Kings are the first band on the mainstage, and they need to figure out what to play. They’ve been given 10 minutes, and it’s a hard 10. Can they fit in three songs, or just two? Everyone votes for three, but they know they’ll have to double-time it, and hope no one pulls the plug.
6:25 p.m.: Standing behind the curtain, waiting for their cue to go onstage, S-Curve rep Brad Davidson, the band’s shepherd for the day, gets a text. “We just officially went Top 30,” he tells the band. Meaning Heaven Can Wait, the first single from Smile Kid, has entered the Top 30 of Billboard’s pop chart, at No. 29.
6:31 p.m.: The band hits the stage and rips through three songs — Heaven Can Wait, Secret Valentine and Check Yes Juliet — in 11 minutes. On their way back to the dressing room, they half expect someone to come down on them for exceeding their allotted time, but no one does.
6:47 p.m.: The band dissects the set as Clark strips off his shirt and gingerly examines his new tattoo, which stretches across the crease of his right elbow — not the most convenient location for a rock guitarist. “It’s painful,” he admits.
6:50 p.m.: There’s not much food in the messy dressing room — a little fruit, a few drinks, some chips and salsa on a table. Everyone’s hungry, and no one wants anything to do with the arena food. Someone asks for sushi. Clark suggests his favorite, Chipotle. P.F. Chang’s is thrown into the mix. Finally, a few minutes later, Clark, Duncan and Davidson agree to drive out to Chipotle to pick up some food, leaving the Thomsen brothers to watch a Tampa Bay Lightning game in the quiet dressing room.
7:46 p.m.: The group returns with bad news: Chipotle was closed for an employee Christmas party, so they picked up some Jimmy John's subs instead. As they eat, a few friends from other bands — Boys Like Girls, 3OH!3, Cobra Starship — swing by to say hello and check out the new disc.
8:25 p.m.: On their way to an autograph signing, the band passes Pitchmen star Anthony Sullivan, who gives each guy a fist bump. “Pitchmen-approved!” he says.
8:34 p.m.: Compared to the quiet vibe of the dressing room, the MetroPCS Celebrity Club is complete chaos. A line forms and grows quickly as dozens of ladies (and a few dudes) get autographs and pose for pictures with the band. Clark’s parents stand by off to one side, watching the line grow.
9:02 p.m.: As the band wraps up their signing, Billy Mays III, son of the late pitchman, hands Duncan a stack of stickers bearing his father’s famously bearded face. Duncan seems genuinely astounded by this. “Coolest moment of my life,” he says, grinning goofily.
9:12 p.m.: With the meet-and-greet over, the band can relax. Davidson orders a round of shots at a bar. “To Smile Kid!” he says, as the guys hoist their drinks.
9:45 p.m.: Watching the show from a tunnel offstage, heads bobbing, everyone agrees that Pitbull steals the night with a wildly energetic performance. That leads to this exchange in the dressing-room tunnel:
Clark: “That was sick!”
Pitbull: “God bless you, man!”
10:34 p.m.: At a backstage VIP lounge, Duncan and Clark hang with members of Cobra Starship, 3OH!3, Boys Like Girls, Adam Lambert and Ke$ha. There is some debate about whether to stick around for The Fray, but Clark is a fan, and he's emphatic: “Dude, I’ll sing every word.” Davidson offers to introduce them, and off they run to The Fray’s dressing room. The band asks for a copy of Smile Kid, and Davidson hustles back to We the Kings' dressing room to frantically search for a CD, but it seems someone has made off with the only two copies in the room. Oh well.
11:30 p.m.: After the Fray's performance, the band says goodbye to a couple of 93.3-FLZ honchos, and heads out for the drive back to Bradenton. They’ve got to be up at 6 a.m. for a flight to Oklahoma City. Sunday, it turns out, is only the beginning — the real work pushing Smile Kid is still to come.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photos by Luis Santana and Jay Cridlin, tbt*.