Devin King’s first big “Pinch me, I must be dreaming” moment struck as his band, The Color Morale, walked on stage and was greeted by 1,500 cheering fans.
“It was in Maryland, my second tour with The Color Morale,” King remembers. “I was used to seeing maybe 300 people,” he said, reminiscing about the days before 2012 when he hooked onto a rising star group and began to live his dream.
King, 27, was enjoying an extended holiday hiatus with family in Fond du Lac before heading back out on the road in February. That tour, when the band plays with the Sound Wave Festival, takes them to Australia, for the second time. King expects they’ll play for 100,000 people in the company of such luminaries as Smashing Pumpkins and Slipknot.
While big gigs and big venues now are common for The Color Morale, it amazes King. “When people want to meet me, it still freaks me out,” he said, “I’m just a guy from Fond du Lac.”
Headlines and spotlights are relatively new to the soft-spoken King, son of Robyn and Brian King of Fond du Lac. He graduated in ’05 from Fond du Lac High School, a member of the first class to have spent all four years at the then-newly-built school. He played drums in middle school, but didn’t stick with formal music classes or school band. Instead, he taught himself to play guitar and kicked around with local musicians in typical garage bands.
“We’d go to somebody’s basement, write three songs and play them and feel good about it,” he said. “I don’t say they were good songs, but it made us happy.” That led, sometimes, to small gigs at even smaller local venues.
There was nowhere to go but up. So far, it’s been an amazing ride for a guy who started playing at Marghael’s and Caddy Shack here, moved on Madison and a band called Pasiflora. He’s lived the life of driving five hours to play for $50, sleeping in vans and equipment trailers and getting by on $5 a day for food.
These days, it’s a better life with a well-equipped van, nice hotels and the luxury of exploring and eating at the most interesting places in cities across three continents.
The biggest thing hasn’t changed, King says. It’s the motivation to play music that not only makes him happy, but more important, makes others happy.
The Color Morale is a post-hardcore band, meaning it’s loud, features a lot of “primal aggression” (translation: yelling and screaming), and incites unbridled passion in both performers and audiences. It also means that anyone who didn’t grow up listening to alternative music probably doesn’t understand the lyrics. Still, rhythms and melodic lines transcend one’s understanding the words.
The big difference between the screaming bands of the ‘80s and beyond and The Color Morale, King explains, “ ‘80s bands were all about sex, drugs and rock and roll. We are the opposite.”At first glance, album titles, song titles and lyrics seem built on dark subjects: death, suffering, pain, suicide, exclusion, hopelessness. However, a reading of some lyrics reveals messages of hope, healing, acceptance and caring. As King says, “just the opposite.”
Lines from the group’s third album, “Know Hope,” include a key theme in “Learned Behavior.” “Sometimes it is good to build up walls, not to keep anyone out but to see who cares enough to knock them down.” And elsewhere, “Hope never loses us,” and “I won’t quit until I know I have truly tried.”
King and his four bandmates understand that their fan base, mostly ages 14 to 21, is more than familiar with dark issues and personal demons. Lead singer/songwriter Garret Rapp has struggled with depression, anxiety and anger. His dark past is no secret, and The Color Morale teaches some lessons learned the hard way. Taking an activist-advocate role, The Color Morale sends the message that “you are not alone,” and there’s help in trying to get through tough times.
“There is more hurt today,” King acknowledges, citing pressure from social media, the prevalence of anonymous cyber-bullying, insensitivity, and the way people use words to hurt others.
The band has not gone unnoticed in the past couple of years. “20014 was a good year,” recounted King, “three continents, 15 countries, 150-plus shows.”
The Color Morale was nominated last year as Alternative Press magazine’s Breakthrough Band of the Year and honored at a red-carpet star-studded event at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. “We didn’t win,” King said, sadly, “but it was exciting. I never thought I’d be walking a red carpet as a celebrity.”
There have been magazine and video interviews, individually and as a group, singles, YouTube videos, and, of course, the track record of four albums: We All Have Demons (2009), My Devil in Your Eyes (2011), Know Hope (2013) and Hold On Pain Ends (2014).
The golden day The Color Morale signed on to Warped Tour 2013 and its 2014 sequel was a turning point. The memory still evokes a head-shaking “I can’t believe I’m part of that,” from King. Touring with that musical extravaganza is, so far, the pinnacle of success for The Color Morale. “Warped was always a dream of mine since I was a teen,” King said.For those not in the know, Van’s Warped Tour is a summer road show with a 20-year run. It includes a dozen or two bands, hits outdoor venues, parking lots and open fields, sets up a handful of stages, and rocks non-stop all day long before moving on. It’s crisscrossed the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Europe and Australia multiple times, and sidetracked to Japan. King estimates he traveled 20,000 miles over each grueling two-month Warped schedule, both north and south of the equator.
Warped Tour, according to its website, tries to maintain a clean, safe environment. Banned from concert grounds, according the site, are chains, alcohol, recording devices and professional cameras, firearms, weapons, knives and illegal substances. Parents accompanying minors are offered free passes and the first 100 concert visitors who qualify to donate blood get in free.
King notes that counselors from two helping agencies travel with Warped Tour and are available on concert grounds to talk with kids suffering from depression, problems at home or school, kids who feel they don’t fit or who are contemplating suicide.
Life with the band is not just an on-the-road event, though. The five-man group, comprised of vocalist/songwriter Garret Rapp, King and Aaron Saunders on guitars, drummer Steve Carey and bassist Mike Honson, all hail from Wisconsin and Illinois, and list Rockford, Ill., as home base.
After first recording three albums with Rise Records, the group signed with Fearless in 2013 and produced “Hold On Pain Ends.” That production, whose acronym – HOPE – also delivers a strong message, debuted at Number 28 on the Billboard 200 list. Recording for six weeks in Los Angeles with Fearless Records “made me feel like I’ve made it,” King confessed.
But the most meaningful parts of King’s life these days are the most private and least noticed. “Garret and I often play a short acoustic set in the parking lot after a show,” he says. “We meet the kids, talk to them, especially the troubled ones, and give back on a more personal level.” He still can’t quite believe that he now is the guy some kids considers a rock star idol, and that some kids are just as thrilled by a little attention as King was as a kid meeting someone he admired. He is humbled knowing that “maybe we have the same impact on kids that (a similar experience) had on me as a kid.”
King’s other soft side revolves around his devotion to his grandmother, Dorothy King. The visit home to Fond du Lac turned out to be some of King’s last moments with his beloved grandmother. She died shortly after he left on tour with The Color Morale, but she will always be his “girl.”
The Color Morale is currently on a west coast tour taking them to Fresno, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Denver. They play the Skyway Theater in Minneapolis April 11th, and set out for Great Britain in May.
Renee DuFore Russell wrote for the Fond du Lac Reporter for many years and also edited two trade publications published in central Wisconsin. She lives in Fond du Lac.