In some ways, We the Kings reign over a charmed life. The Bradenton, Fla., punk-pop quintet formed while in high school around four childhood friends, then improbably shot to success. Last year, the guys in the band parted ways with their label S-Curve after three albums and struck out on their own, fueled by a six-figure crowdfunding haul. In December, they released the keenly crafted and textured Somewhere Somehow, highlighted by the single, "Just Keep Breathing." Frontman Travis Clark knows they've had it good.
"It's kind of a continual summer camp like the ones you went on as kids. It's all your friends. They have all these games and activities for you and catering. It's like that, except the summer lasts 365 days a year," laughs Clark, freshly rising at noon on the tour bus as it pulls into Nashville. "It's hard sometimes to really take yourself out of the situation and realize how great it is. When you're in it, some of it becomes automatic and sometimes you take things for granted."
For Clark and company, success happened pretty fast. Clark was the group's catalyst, seeing it as a chance for the then-high school underclassmen (and one middle schooler) to get girlfriends. But from the first moments jamming in the basement, they realized that they'd hit upon something so much more. "After that first practice we were like, 'This is awesome let's try to do this,'" Clark recalls.
They worked typically shitty teenage jobs. Clark's bandmates were pizza delivery guys, and he worked at Subway. ("I was a sandwich artist before I became a musical one," he cracks.) Coming from relatively hardscrabble backgrounds, the band raised $350 for their first bit of promotion, which at the time, seemed like a king's ransom.
Clark and his fellow We the Kings members used the money to place a song on PureVolume.com. That track's ad buy ultimately catapulted them to the No. 1 unsigned artist on one of the site's charts and attracted the interest of manager Bret Disend (The Academy Is..., Fall Out Boy, Gym Class Heroes).
"I literally thought it was a joke one of my friends was playing, so a week goes by and he sends me another email," Clark says. He wrote back telling his friend to stop it. "And Bret writes back, 'This is not a joke. I'm in New York City. I want to shop your music to labels. Here's my number.' I give him a call, and he tells me that there are airline tickets to fly up to New York in a week."
Clark spent three days playing for eight labels. By the time he returned home, they all wanted to sign the band. Ultimately, We the Kings went with S-Curve because the label wasn't looking for a piece of the band's merchandise and touring money, via a so-called "360 deal." Each of group's three albums did progressively better, culminating in Sunshine State of Mind, which cracked the top 10 of Billboard's rock charts and top 50 overall.
Shortly after Sunshine State of Mind's summer 2011 release, longtime bassist Drew Thomson (whose brother Hunter plays guitar) departed, weary from the grind of touring. Clark and company added musician/YouTube celebrity Charles Trippy to replace him and keyboardist Coley O'Toole, both of whom they knew from the Bradenton scene.
Sunshine was a grower which kept them on the road throughout 2012, leaving very little time for writing new songs. Clark used the Christmas break that year to write a new song he'd been thinking about ,"Just Keep Breathing." It was about growing up a redhead and the childhood bullying he received because of it. Featuring a clean, reverberating guitar line reminiscent of the Edge and a swelling sweep worthy of the Editors, the moody-but-upbeat ballad counsels endurance: "When hope is all too hard to hold, just take a breath and let it go."
At the time, We the Kings were between labels, and after consulting Disend, the guys decided to simply release it as a digital single rather than hold it until they had enough tracks for a full album. It was a fortuitous decision. In early April last year, it sold over 100,000 downloads its first week. With four more songs demoed out, they recorded and released the punchy modern pop track "Find You There," a month later. It sold 93,000 downloads the first week. In June they released another, "Any Other Way," which was also licensed for the Iron Man 3 soundtrack.
"Finally, we said we can't keep doing this. Let's dedicate a couple months to just go in the studio and write the album," he says. "Being off a label and just doing it ourselves lent a sense of relaxation to the process and a stress-free environment."
The success of the singles convinced them they didn't need a big label. "We'd built this fan base that was so incredible and we wanted to try to do something on our own," Clark says. "We wanted to try the DIY style and pretty much go back to our roots."
Despite lacking a major label's resources, Somewhere Somehow matched the chart performance of Sunshine State of Mind and produced the band's first success in the UK. However, bad news was on the way. Trippy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Currently, Trippy's in the fourth stage of chemotherapy, but he feels well enough to go out on tour with the band.
"I say this in the best way, but it definitely happened to the best possible person it could — he's so positive and really has a great outlook on life. When it happened, you're speechless. You don't know what to say," Clark says. "But when it happened he was like, 'Dude, there's only one way out of this and it's going to be great. We're going to be able to help people because they will see they're not alone when they go through this.' To hear him become a stronger person because of it. It's just so rare and it makes him such a very special human being."
"Being as positive as he's been helped us grow closer together, and it's helped all of us in our personal lives," he continues. "In the beginning you don't ever really see that being a positive thing, but trying to make something positive out of a negative thing can actually turn into a great thing."