The Fame Game
Someday the members of Dork will be remembered as either the hardest-working or the luckiest guys to ever come out of this town. But if you ask me, the band has made much of its luck -- from landing on the Vans Warped Tour, to reaching out to high-powered attorney Dina LaPolt, to being featured in the current Warped Tour exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to working with Ramones art director Arturo Vega, the guy responsible for that act's iconic logo.
By now, Dork's tale is a well-known part of local folklore. For the uninitiated, however, here's an abridged version: Back in 2003, the outfit drove nine hours to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to meet Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman and lobby him for a chance to perform. Despite the fact that they had no idea what Lyman looked like, by chance, drummer Jimmy Blair bumped into the punk-rock impresario, who consented to let them play that day and then invited them to join the roving punk caravan the next year -- provided they put in some sweat equity, paying their way by building and tearing down stages. The band earned its stripes and has been asked back every year since.
These days, the Kevin Says stage is geared toward giving hardworking bands a chance to test their mettle. But back when Blair approached Lyman, the thought of a no-name band joining the tour was absurd. So it's fitting that, after sorting through submissions from various acts, the curators of the Warped Tour exhibit decided to include Dork -- even if the band was dubious about its own prospects.
"We were thinking at the time that it wouldn't go in," recalls bassist Donovan Welsh, "because we knew that No Doubt, Bad Religion and NOFX and all of those bands were submitting stuff, and there's only so much room for the exhibit. But then we got an invite to the opening ceremony with Bad Religion, Pennywise and the Bouncing Souls playing. A lot of our friends were going, so we headed out there. On our connecting flight, I ran into Kevin Lyman's marketing director. She told us, 'Your stuff's totally in there.'"
Sure enough. When Welsh and company, including guitarists/vocalists Schuyler Ankele and Brian Johannsen, arrived at the Hall of Fame, they were stunned to see that Blair's drum head was item number nineteen in the display -- which, at the end of its nine-month run, will be buried in a time capsule to be opened 25 years from now, in the fall of 2032.
"Our drum head is right next to Gwen Stefani's outfit, Joel Madden's outfit and sitting on top of Senses Fail's guitar cabinet," Welsh notes. "And there's a write-up about us and how we've been on every Warped Tour since 2003 and how Kevin Lyman called us the 'ultimate DIY kids' or whatever -- which was really cool, to have it right in front. It was a big moment and very surreal; it's weird to think that no matter what, in 25 years, it will be back up there. And then they have this movie reel that talks about the tour, and Schuyler is the first person that they interview on it."
That Kodak moment soon turned bittersweet. Shortly after the rest of the band returned to Denver, frontman Bryan Knoebel -- who hadn't made the trip to Cleveland -- announced that he was going to part ways with Dork.
"He just said he didn't have the love anymore," Welsh explains. "When he said those words, it was, like, well, I get it, you know? If you don't love it, you sure as hell can't do it. We weren't mad at him; he wasn't mad at us. He just wanted to move on to the next chapter in his life. So we had a meeting right after he said he was done to see what we wanted to do and make sure we were all still in it. Fifteen minutes later, we were rearranging the songs and figuring things out."
Ankele has stepped up as the band's de facto frontman. Aware that his new role is going to require some stamina, he's been taking voice lessons, running and working out. "We're rehearsing our asses off," Welsh reports, "trying to keep the pace of a show to make sure his voice can keep up."
But Ankele should be just fine. Although slight in stature, he's never shied away from heavy lifting. In fact, that's how he caught the attention of Vega on last year's Warped Tour, in a moment just as serendipitous as Blair's initial encounter with Lyman. As Welsh tells it, the legendary designer spied Ankele pushing around a road case and thought to himself, "That kid is way too small to be on the road crew." After asking around, Vega sussed out Ankele's identity and soon showed up to watch Dork's sets.
Meanwhile, the band's members had no idea who Vega was. At first they just assumed he was a really intense Ramones fan -- partially because he ran the Ramones tent, but mostly because of the giant tattooed insignia on his back. When they later noticed that he was riding on Lyman's bus, though, they realized that Vega wasn't just some fanatical merch guy. For his part, Vega took a shine to Dork and has since become a mentor.
"Having a guy that did all that stuff with the Ramones like our band, it's surreal," Welsh enthuses. "He has so much insight and so much experience. He's so inspirational. He's just so honest and... he's not jaded, like when you meet music-industry people. And he has absolutely nothing to gain by helping us. He doesn't need any money. It's just out of love for the band. With that, I trust everything he says."
So do a lot of other people, apparently.
"He was the first person ever who said he was going to do something and got it done," says Welsh. "He was like, 'I'm going to have label people come see you in L.A.' I don't know how many times I've heard somebody say that. And we played the L.A. show, and there it was, the head of Sideone Dummy chillin' with Arturo watching the set. And Arturo's the reason we got the main stage in Denver. Everything he said, he did. Like, Sony came out to see us in New York and took us out to dinner the next night. A lot more doors have been opened because of him. We get treated different because of him."
But as much impact as Vega (who, incidentally, has not worked with anyone other than the Ramones) has had on the band, and as good a friend as he's become to its members, Welsh concedes that Dork would never have met him if not for their own ambition.
"It was definitely some luck," he says, "but if we wouldn't have been working so hard, he would have never noticed us. We would've just been another band on the tour."
Upbeats and Beatdowns: Ran into Stephen Copeland from Bender's Tavern this past Saturday night at the Oriental during the Woven Hand show (which was beyond epic). He made a comment in passing that has stuck with me all week. "I'm enjoying every minute of life right now, thanks to Woven Hand," he said emphatically, when I asked how he was doing. "Sure, we've got work and all this other stuff in our lives, but this is the kind of thing we live for."
Amen to that.
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