Crowned Punks

Bradenton's We the Kings go nationwide.

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click to enlarge LOCAL ROYALTY: With their debut album reaching No. 33 on Billboard, We the Kings have made a national impact. - Phil Bardi
Phil Bardi
LOCAL ROYALTY: With their debut album reaching No. 33 on Billboard, We the Kings have made a national impact.

"What's up, Florida?" announces lead singer Travis Clark, moments after his band, We The Kings, takes the stage at Jannus Landing in St. Pete. Not the most original opening salvo but still a crowd-pleaser, eliciting a surge of high-pitched screams from the mostly female audience.

Though the band is the first of three opening acts and is slated only for a brief set, the crowd responds because We the Kings are just about the only Bay area band to make a mark on the national rock scene this year. Many of these kids know of We the Kings. The girls wear T-shirts emblazoned with the names of pop-punk acts, maybe with a faux punk studded belt, pre-ripped jeans or mini-denim skirts and Chuck Taylors (replete with multicolor laces) or sandals. The vast majority of the audience appears too young to drive.

Scheduled to perform at 7 p.m. in support of headliner Boys Like Girls, We The Kings' Clark addresses the crowd at 6:58. Guitarist Hunter Thomsen, Hunter's kid brother, bassist Drew Thomsen and drummer Danny Duncan join the singer/guitarist on stage.

"We're from 15 minutes that way," Clark says, waving a hand in the general direction of the band's hometown, Bradenton. Another rapturous response from the crowd, which, in addition to teenagers, also includes the band members' parents. The other adults in attendance are on chaperone duty, passing the time in the back, their faces buried in magazines. But the proud Moms and Dads, the ones whose sons are playing in front of hundreds of fans, cheer after each number with the same enthusiasm as the kids around them.

We the Kings represent four graduating classes of Manatee High School in Bradenton, where all four musicians were born and raised. In fact, the band name comes from King Middle School, near the neighborhood where the guys grew up.

I meet with the band outside Jannus around 4 p.m. Oct. 10, the day of their show. There's already a small line of concertgoers waiting to enter the venue, which won't open its gates for another couple hours. Clark sports a tight white shirt with broad, horizontal black stripes. His long, bright orange hair hangs in his face. Like the other members of the band, he wears tight black trousers and matching sneakers. When I pose a question, it's Clark who answers. Occasionally Hunter chimes in, but it's evident who's in charge.

We chat while walking around the downtown block that surrounds Jannus Landing Courtyard. We're going to stop in somewhere for a beer, but then it dawns on me that Drew is too young to legally drink.

"But he'll get served," Hunter offers. "He always does."

I put the ball in Clark's court, and he seems content for us to continue our walk-and-talk. He later reveals that the band has a rule: no drinking before the show. "But we'll drink afterwards," he says.

"We like Corona or Bud Light," Hunter interjects.

Clark, the oldest at 22, graduated from high school in 2003. Drew finished his tenure at Manatee High early to join the band, which inked a deal with S-Curve Records (Fountains of Wayne, Joss Stone) earlier this year. We The Kings' self-titled debut album was released Oct. 2. At press time, it had climbed to No. 33 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart, making it the most commercially successful Bay area debut of the year.

"It's definitely surreal," Clark says. "Every show is like the biggest yet. We're super busy, trying to be as professional as possible."

I ask what he means by being professional.

"Making sure we're at the shows on time," he says. "Taking care of my voice, making sure our guitars are in tune. We didn't always do all that stuff on our DIY tours."

A formulaic pop-punk affair, We the Kings makes up for what it lacks in originality with verve and polish. The hooks are big, the lyrics squarely aimed at teenagers — especially girls: "Secret Valentine," "Stay Young" and "Check Yes Juliet" are three of the more popular titles.

"These are songs I've been writing for years," says Clark, the band's primary songwriter. "It's songs about who we are."

The band also takes great pride in Bradenton, which they name-check and pay homage to on "This Is our Town," the album's closing track.

"Dear Bradentown," Clark sings in a thin, yearning tenor, referring to the city's original name. "You have been good to me. You kept your word and got me through these years."

We the Kings' first moniker was De Soto, after the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto. Manatee County claims he discovered North America by sailing up the Manatee River and every year Bradenton throws a big, bawdy bash in his honor similar. While known as De Soto, the band built a local following playing Bradenton churches that hosted alcohol-free, all-ages shows. After rechristening themselves with the regal moniker, Clark started booking mini-tours up and down the East Coast, playing for gas money — or nothing at all.

"We'd sell merch, and that would usually be enough for gas money," Clark says. "Kids [at the shows] are always real supportive of young bands."

After strolling around with We the Kings for about an hour, I take off and the band goes backstage to eat. I return to Jannus shortly after 6 p.m., and there's a line wrapped around the block to Detroit Liquors.

We the Kings skip their one ballad, "This Is Our Town," and unleash a 20-minute torrent of quick, poppy blasts. Clark often lets go of his guitar, using his hands to illustrate a pleading lyric or to get the crowd to clap along. He's the consummate frontman, cajoling the crowd to love his band at every turn.

"Is Bradenton in the house tonight?" he says. "Is St. Pete in the house tonight? Is Tampa in the house?"

Each shout-out receives a huge round of applause. Later, he tells the audience they are the sexiest he's ever seen. He plugs the new album. Mentions they just shot a video. Says he wants to meet every single member of the crowd. Gets the audience cheering for the headliner, Boys Like Girls.

"Thank you," he says after the final number. "This was extremely the best show we have ever played."

We the Kings exit the stage at 7:18 p.m. I spot Hunter on my way out. He's posing for a picture. He has a girl under each arm. They offer him their sexiest smiles. They might be 18. Probably not.

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