When the Weekender calls Travis Clark for an interview, he’s in a “fantastic” mood after strolling through Charleston, S.C., on a sunny spring afternoon.
It’s no surprise, as the We the Kings vocalist/guitarist has a lot to be cheery about these days. Free from record labels and supported by devoted fans, he fronts a successful Florida rock group that has released gold and platinum singles and four chart-topping albums, touring the world and living a life he’s dreamed of since high school.
Before the quintet stops back in the area again on the Warped Tour on July 9, they’ll be playing at Misericordia University this Friday, April 25 with local openers A Fire With Friends and The Subnotics, promising a “wild” performance. Clark told us why and just what makes him so optimistic about his future in music and his trusted listeners.
WEEKENDER: What initially made you interested in pursuing music?
TRAVIS CLARK: I started playing piano when I was four years old, and I quit when I was 11 because my piano teacher… refused to teach me anymore. My mom thought I was in trouble, but I was going to these recitals and was playing Mozart and Beethoven and all these songs that I learned, but I was changing them to make them sound how I wanted them to sound. My music teacher was like, “This is something that is evidence of a songwriter, and I don’t want to each him anymore because I don’t want to really constrict him to that formula of learning. You’ve just got to let him go and do his own thing.”
Around 11, I picked up guitar, originally to get a girlfriend. I thought that playing guitar was so cool, and there was this girl that I liked in high school and even all the way though elementary school and middle school, when I met her. I liked this girl and I really wanted to make her my girlfriend, so I figured if I learned how to play the acoustic guitar and wrote a song for her or something like that that she would have no chance, she couldn’t resist. So that was my whole idea, so my mom, who was a singer/songwriter growing up, taught me how to play guitar, and then a couple months later after I learned, I went and saw Blink-182, Green Day, and Jimmy Eat World and came home from that show that night and was like, “I want to start a band so badly. That looks like it was a blast, what they just did, and I want to try and do that.” That was really the moment that we started even thinking up the idea that we could be in a band, us friends, us dorky little kids that just wanted a girlfriend.
W: Do you feel that’s worked out for you at this point?
TC: [Laughs] It has worked out. It didn’t right at the start, but we’ve been fortunate down the road. We’ve met very attractive and very cool girls along the way.
W: We the Kings started in high school, so what has made you stick with it?
TC: Unofficially, we released our first record in 2007, so that’s where it all kind of began and kicked off, but we definitely were writing music before that and playing together all through high school. I think ultimately what it is is we have such a big passion for music, and we all love each other. We have been almost like family for so many years that the things we fight about, they’re never detrimental to the band. It’s always, “Who ate the last ice cream Snickers?” or something like that, whereas other bands fight about girls and some have drug problems. There’s so many different reasons that bands break up, and fortunately for us we don’t have those issues. We’re all very open with each other. I think it’s just how close we are individually together as friends, even before bandmates. I think that’s what really keeps us going strong.
W: With that experience in mind, how did you approach your latest album, “Somewhere Somehow?”
TC: A lot of bands, unfortunately, release one album and then you don’t really hear of them again, so for us it was about making every record and album different from the previous one, so our first album was very guitar-heavy and focused on the big pop hooks and the lead guitar parts. Our second album I wrote majorly on the piano, and so we tried using different instruments and making it kind of atmospheric sounding. Our third record, “Sunshine State of Mind,” I just wanted every song to able to be stripped down into an acoustic guitar and a vocal and it still sounds amazing so that we could play it full band, we could play it acoustic, and it would still sound great.
Our fourth album I focused primarily on just the lyric and the actual beat, like the rhythm of everything, so the lyrics are definitely different than the typical love songs that I would normally write about. There are definitely the love songs on the album, but I think this record touches a different side of myself as a songwriter and also the things that I went through growing up and that I’m going through now. I think I just kind of let everybody into my life a little bit more.
W: The song “Just Keep Breathing” has a strong anti-bullying message behind it. What kinds of reactions have you received from that?
TC: First of all, whenever there are people that look up to us as a band, whenever we show them a glimpse that they don’t normally see, whenever that happens it’s a really great breakthrough between the artist and the fans. We have this moment where they don’t see us as just this celebrity of this idolistic type persona – they see us as being exactly like them, just another person trying to make it through the world, and that’s a great thing. That’s how we should be seen. I don’t think that artists should be seen as these big celebrities or whatever – we just want to be seen as a bunch of kids that are friends that write music and play just because we have fun doing it and nothing more.
It’s not about the money or the fame or anything like that, so when you write a song like “Just Keep Breathing,” it helps the fans relate to the band at a totally different level than they’re used to, and for us, for me personally, I wrote the song about bullying, so to me, it’s so important that people hear that song, that people hear that, “Hey, when life gets rough, don’t worry. Just keep breathing. It will get better.” As a person who went through it myself, it’s easy for me to talk about now because I did go through it, but it’s upsetting to see that kids are going through crazy things right now and they don’t know how to handle it. I didn’t really have that song when I was growing up, when I was dealing with it, so I would love to be able to offer that to some of our fans who have been so incredible to us that would want to hear something like that.
W: In an age when people don’t buy records nearly as much, your Indiegogo campaign to fund this album was very successful. What is it about this band and this music that you think clicks with people so much?
TC: I think it is the transparency. A lot of bands are very difficult to get to, whether it’s social media or even at the shows, if they can see the band, if they can meet the band after. I think we’ve always been really good at making that bridge, that connection with the fans, both on social media and in person.
The music industry is slowly dying. It’s crazy because there’s more and more bands than there’s ever been, yet it’s harder and harder for bands to exist, so we’re in this weird predicament where we’re on our fourth album and we’re not signed anymore, so we got off our label and we asked out fans to contribute to the idea of us making an album. We didn’t know how that would go; we ended up raising $150,000 for the cause, $150,000 for us to make an album, and that is something that is so incredible, and it just proves the efforts of our fan base are so strong that even if the labels and the music industry were dying, we could still turn to them for help and for support. I think that honesty and that transparency is what really makes the fans root for us. They really want to be a part of the band, and we try to include them as much as possible.
W: With so much negativity in the world and in music, what keeps you guys and the songs you write so positive?
TC: The world is so negative, but it’s really tough for us to be negative living the lives that we do. If you think about it just from a very cut and dry perspective, we are five guys who play music, which is like the coolest job that you can have, for thousands of people every single night, and then we go to sleep and we wake up in a new city and do it all over again. I mean, how could you be negative? There are definitely things to the job that aren’t as quite appealing. … There’s so much stuff that goes into the actual show, and a lot of people just see us for the hour that we’re onstage, and then they see pictures of us partying and having a good time. That’s all there as well, but there’s so much work that goes into it, so there are the negative aspects of the job, if you can even call it a job, but I think for the most part we’ve been able to really establish what the positive things are and to be able to really focus on them. I think that’s a big thing in life, no matter what you do.
There’s positivity and negativity all around you; it’s just whatever you want to envelop yourself with, and for us there’s so many things that are positive around us, and it makes it very easy for us to stay positive and to write happy songs and songs that make people feel better about a specific situation or just about life in general.
W: What are these college shows like Misericordia like? Are they different from a typical concert?
TC: They’re much different. … None of us really went to college because we got signed so early and went on the road so early, but what it feels like to us is that these college kids are cooped up all day long, just trying to find some sort of fun or some sort of meaning, like, “Why are they in college? What are they doing?” There’s so much stress and pressure that goes into being a college kid that when a band comes, no matter who it is, that is their one escape from that college, that life.
It gives them a reason just to totally escape from that stressful, pressured world and to just try to let go and have a great time, so the shows are always incredible. A lot of times it’s people who are finding out about the band for the very first time.
It’s a wild show, and for us, because it’s a slightly older demographic than the typical club show, we feel like we can be a little unfiltered with things that we say. People will get jokes differently and things like that, so I feel like we have a little less pressure. … It’s a little different when you’re at a college show and you’re playing for adults that can kind of understand where you’re coming from a little bit more.