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Taste Of Tuesday: In 2003, the Starting Line became an overnight success

May 24 2016, 3:27 PM EDT By AltPress

Editor's note: In its origins, the TASTE OF CHAOS tour was frequently deemed "Winter Warped" by both fans and organizers. The 2006 road show took place in the late winter and early spring, featuring lineups populated by some of the most diverse voices in the scene, including bands like My Chemical Romance, the Used, Underoath, Killswitch Engage, Deftones, Atreyu, Avenged Sevenfold and 30 Seconds To Mars. For the next few weeks, we are going to go back in our time capsules to revisit some of the names that not only cemented TOC as a formidable adjunct to Warped Tour's summer mania, but as a festival of great merit curated on its own aesthetic terms.

As the reactivated TOC begins its next chapter with a touring lineup of Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday, Saosin and many others, we'll be starting this weekly special "Taste Of Tuesday," where we'll look back at the bands participating at the point of their original zeitgeist. In 2003 the Starting Line were booking high-profile tours and had a growing fan base. After reaching what appeared to be overnight success, many critics were left scratching their heads in disbelief and disgust. When AP caught up with them (AP 183, Oct. 2003), they were out on the Vans Warped Tour and on a mission to prove they weren’t just another band riding the pop-punk wave.

Get tickets to Taste Of Chaos festival here!

ON THEIR MARKS
With high-profile tours and a growing fan base, life is looking good for THE STARTING LINE. But the race has already started.
STORY: CARA LYNN SHULTZ // PHOTOS: SHANE McCAULEY.

The members of the Starting Line are soaking wet. But unlike concertgoers at the Pompano Beach, Florida, stop on the Vans Warped Tour, they didn’t get this way from sloshing around in the temporary swamp created on the marshy fairgrounds by a short, tsunami-like downpour earlier that morning. “Did you see those kids swimming in the swamp?” says drummer Tom Gryskiewicz, shaking his head incredulously. “That’s nasty!”

This is a band who hate being dirty—they keep baby wipes on their showerless tour bus, and right now, they could use some. The foursome are literally pouring with sweat, thanks to the near-100-degree temperature, and caked in mud from the shins down. But here they are, standing at their merchandise booth for more than 40 minutes, signing autographs and taking pictures with nervously giggling, mostly female fans. There are 100 or so fans who’ve lined up even longer, eagerly holding up TSL posters with thin arms that bear sweat-smeared “Punx” and “Starting Line” tags scratched into their sun-reddened skin with lipliner.  For once, the band can’t match the energy of their fans, having blown their wad on a blistering 30-minute set. They also haven’t eaten yet today, not that their steady diet of Pop-Tarts would do much to curb their hunger. And on top of all this, all four members are suffering from raging hangovers, thanks to last night’s Jack Daniel’s-fueled barbecue with Yellowcard and bus-mates Brand New, during which they had the drunken inspiration to have their next tour sponsored by Corvette and Chips Ahoy. “We like cars and cookies,” says guitarist Matt Watts.

When their tour manager sees his ashen-faced band on the verge of passing out, he suggests they retire to the air-conditioned bus.

“Look at all these kids,” says Watts. “We can’t just leave them standing here.” He turns around to face the crowd, and Gryskiewicz, Watts, singer/bassist Ken Vasoli and guitarist Mike Golla stay crowded in the booth for another half-hour, signing, smiling and hugging. And the fans stay blissfully unaware of the band’s misery.

Welcome to the secret to the Starting Line’s success: They’re a virtually overnight sensation who’ve left some critics scratching their trucker-hat-covered heads in both disbelief and disgust. At a cursory glance, they’re just another band riding the pop-punk wave that’s spread across high schools with a fervor that would make the SARS virus jealous. And, sure, TSL have the symptoms of being just another Nerf-punk band—good enough to get the job done, but not hard enough to do any real damage. But beyond the baggy shorts, the edgy-enough-to-be-an-MTV2-VJ good looks, the bleached hair and the well-placed piercings are poignant, Everykid lyrics, a sincere love of performing and an “aw, shucks” gratitude for their fans that people have sniffed out and won’t let go of.

“I found out that it’s pretty easy to keep the intimacy, even in larger rooms of 5,000 kids. Because it’s about the spirit of the kids coming into the show, not about the size of the room they’re walking into.”

Their own starting line was drawn drawn four years ago, on the tree-lined streets of Philadelphia’s suburbs. Watts and Golla (then a drummer) were checking out a mutual friend’s band practice, when said friend suggested they start their own group. Watts and Gryskiewicz discovered they played in bands on the same circuit when they met at a local Olive Garden—Gryskiewicz opted for salad and breadsticks instead of attending a Snatch show at a nearby venue, and bumped into Watts at the restaurant. But it was the way Vasoli entered the picture that could be used as an argument in favor of Internet spam: Watts, then an engineering student at Hartford University in Connecticut, found Vasoli on AOL.

“I searched through the member directory for kids in our area that had cool bands I liked—NOFX and Lagwagon,” Watts says. “I sent out 75 emails. Kenny was the only person who responded. He claimed to be “like 15,” but he was actually 14. I was 20, and that’s really, really creepy. And I feel gross about it, but I swear to God I was not looking for young boys on the Internet.”

Watts shook off that R. Kelly feeling long enough to catch a performance by Vasoli’s band at a local skatepark. Watts was blown away by the strength of Vasoli’s voice, and his soul-bearing lyrics that belied the then-sophomore’s age. “Kenny’s voice just immediately draws you in,” agrees Stefanie Reines, co-owner of the band’s label, Drive-Thru Records. “There’s singers who just sing, and there’s singers who sing like they actually mean what they’re saying. There’s always that urgency to it, and those are the voices I am drawn to.”

That urgency comes from an organic place. The songs on their debut, Say It Like You Mean It, are Vasoli’s audio diary. Rather than addressing an amorphous “you,” his lyrics cry out to specific people, times and places. He sings about his best friend’s moving away from Evergreen Road in “Greg’s Last Day.” He bemoans a bittersweet, final embrace on Feb. 12, 1999, in “Leaving.” The songs are lyrical snapshots of specific moments in time—most notably, a brutal breakup with “Karina”—and, during shows, Vasoli revisits those emotional touchstones.

So who is Karina from your song “Hello Houston,” anyway?
VASOLI: Karina is a girl who doesn’t think. I really liked her, tried getting into a serious relationship with her, and it turns out she was dating one of my good friends at the same time as she was dating me. It didn’t really make me too happy, so I thought I’d write a couple of songs about it to make her feel like shit.

During your set today, you dedicated “A Good Night’s Sleep” to your ex-girlfriend, who “deserves to die.” Is that Karina, too?
Yeah, she deserves to die. It was not a very recent [breakup], and I’m not even that bitter about it anymore. I just think it’s funny to rehash it, because I’m good at holding grudges against girls. It was about a year and a half, or two years ago, [and] we dated only a month, but it was the first girl that I ever really loved.

You sounded like you were reliving it on stage today, though, especially during the lyric “Fate works both ways.”
If you want to get really angry in the song, you have to think about what’s bothering you. So when I’m thinking about it, I am like, “Man, that sucks so bad”—[and] you just scream. There’s a lot of things that I don’t talk about, so the best way for me to get it out is just write a song about it, because just talking is uncomfortable. But if I write a song, at least it’s a little bit coded. And if other people know about it, then it makes me feel better and it’s not like reopening the wound. It’s pretty good therapy.

Anything you’ve thought about writing and had second thoughts?
There’s always stuff I want to say, but I am afraid people would either take it the wrong way or it would get me into trouble.

Like what?
On our next record is the new ex-girlfriend, who is 10 times worse than the last one. I have a song where I say her full name, and I am not sure if we are going to be able to do that. But I think it would be really good if everybody knew who exactly it was.

It sounds like harsh words, way harsher than you’d expect from an apple-cheeked 19-year-old who’s extremely courteous to the waitress at the Pompano Beach International House Of Pancakes and returns from his band’s hectic signing session with his blue eyes giving literal credibility to the cliché “eyes as wide as saucers.” But it’s the kind of emotional vulnerability that drives most of his lyrics, although TSL’s breakout hit, “The Best Of Me,” is an uplifting love letter slipped into the locker of a newly repaired relationship.

But thanks to the single—and its accompanying, gleefully goofy video—the band finally registered on the pop-culture radar. It was a slow burn for a band who experienced every other aspect of the industry in fast-forward. Just last year, the foursome were sharing a tour bus with labelmates Allister and Homegrown, only getting to perform on the Warped Tour because their label sponsored a stage. This year, though, they were asked back for the main stage, and this month, they’re headlining the first-ever Drive-Thru national tour. Again, it all goes back to the fans.

“I look at audience response now,” says Kevin Lyman, founder and director of Warped. “I wish I knew my music better, but I think I know music as well as anyone 42 years old is supposed to know the music of 17-year-olds. [So] I watched the crowd respond to them last summer, and I saw it building. [The Starting Line] are very accessible to their fans. When [they] talk to them, [they] make them feel special. That’s something these guys are good at. They are getting an equal response as the All-American Rejects, [a band that] has two singles on the radio.”

“I would never be able to hook up with a girl wearing a Starting Line T-shirt. If I am going to be with a girl, I am going to want to know her, not just [as] some random girl in a Starting Line T-shirt.”

But although the Starting Line seemed on the proverbial fast track, that track was rife with potholes. Sure, they were together for barely a year when MP3s posted on the Internet found their way into the hands of We The People, a label with close ties to Drive-Thru. They signed with We The People, which arranged a showcase for Drive-Thru founders Stefanie and Richard Reines. The Reineses thought that, although the band were decently good, they had one glaring flaw.

“They didn’t have any choruses,” says Stefanie. “We were like, ‘Well, the songs are awesome, but what is missing in every single one is a chorus.’ So they went back and reworked their songs, and [they] turned from a good band with no choruses to an amazing band with awesome choruses. Then we were like, ‘We really want to sign you.’”

And they lived happily ever after? Hardly. Vasoli was still in high school, but his mother approached his guidance counselor to find a way for him to get a legitimate degree in the quickest amount of time possible. (That’s Mrs. Drexler, “Best guidance counselor ever!” mentioned in the band’s liner notes.) So Vasoli doubled up on his course load, taking night courses at a local college while attending his regular classes during the day. (“He was ‘Super High School Kid’ at that point,” says Golla.) And while songs like “Given The Chance”—a big valentine to their fans, particularly the ones in New Jersey—make you think they’re from the Garden State, they found acceptance in their Philly hometown hard won.

GOLLA: A lot of bands had broken up when we had started, so the scene was dead, basically. The only thing left was a street-punk hardcore scene in Philly, which wasn’t too accepting of bands like us.

What was their reaction?
VASOLI: They wanted to stab us.
GOLLA: Yes, they literally wanted to stab us. We got death threats, so out of fear, we never played there. So we played Jersey all the time. It was the first home this band ever had.
VASOLI: We got e-mails saying, “If you ever play Philly, we will come in and stab you.’

How did you know they weren’t just empty threats?
GOLLA: I’ve seen it happen. I know the kids that do it, and they’re not joking. I’ve seen a kid get stabbed at a Jimmy Eat World show. So when we got that, I was like, ‘Okay, these kids are insane, so we’ll try to avoid it if possible.’

It didn’t exactly help their credibility when a date with Vasoli was auctioned off on makeoutclub.com. (”That was the stupidest idea,” he says. “It made me feel like a whore.”) Add to that the fact that their message boards brim with posts from people with screen names like  “KennyLover 007” and “Mattiscute,” and you’ve got a legitimately talented band having a hell of a time getting respect.

“I’ve seen a kid get stabbed at a Jimmy Eat World show.”

Jordan Pundik, frontman for New Found Glory, a band who’ve seen their own share of haters during their stints on Warped, explains it succinctly. “A lot of the punk purists, the kids that go to the Warped Tour wearing Dead Kennedys T-shirts and giving the finger to bands like the Starting Line,” he begins, “well, they’re like 15, and they got their shirt at Hot Topic.”

But for the Starting Line, the heartthrob element is puzzling. While Golla and Gryskiewicz both have long-term girlfriends, Watts and Vasoli are still coming to terms with the “OhmyGodyou’resohot!” screams from girls.

“I would never be able to hook up with a girl wearing a Starting Line T-shirt,” Vasoli says. “If I am going to be with a girl, I am going to want to know her, not just [as] some random girl in a Starting Line T-shirt.”

It would be hard to believe him if he didn’t write almost an album’s worth of songs about a month-long relationship. “[Besides],” he adds, “We’re not that smooth. So we just kind of hang out with each other, drink beers and talk about all the hot girls.”

And in the end, at least for for the Starting Line, again it comes back to the fans, hot or not.

“If a band is really good, what does it matter who listens to them?” says 16-year-old Jeffrey Juergens. He’s standing in the Pompano Beach mud, ruining a perfectly good pair of sneakers, while waiting for TSL to take the stage. Their inclusion in this year’s Warped Tour is part of the reason he’s even here. “There are good chick bands, too,” he adds.

“They’re the nicest guys, and they really care about their fans,” gushes Carissa Defilippo, 16.  “Yesterday, we were [at the] Tampa [stop of the Warped Tour], and they were at the booth, signing for their fans. They wanted to meet them. [And] I guess it sounds corny, but the lyrics speak to you. Yeah, they’ve got great songs. Yeah, they’re good-looking. But their music… you have to listen to the lyrics.” alt


 

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