Photo by Rebecca Reed
Interview with Ryan Key | By Jameson Ketchum
Most bands don’t get a second chance let alone have the mojo to propel them into a potential second career peak. On the brink of releasing their third record since their hiatus, it’s almost as if Yellowcard never left us. The band braved the heat this summer slaying Warped Tour crowds, providing guest vocals with Linkin Park and honing what would become Lift A Sail, a record that is sure to delight fans that have grown up with the act. Calling it “mature” would be undermining its brilliance, “progressive” would imply their previous releases were somehow inferior, so we’ll just leave the adjectives up to you dear listener.
In a scene where resting on your laurels can garner you a handful of years of fame, few bands are able to not only break the decade mark but continue to push themselves to new heights. Reminiscent of early Foo Fighters, Sail feels like the launching pad for the next twenty years of the band. Vocalist Ryan Key and company has been through every peak and valley imaginable, both personally and professionally, so it’s no wonder that Sail breaks new ground in every aspect possible. Key phoned us from the backseat of his parents’ car as he made his way home after a grueling but fulfilling summer on the Vans Warped Tour.
Would it be fair to say you guys felt pigeonholed in pop/punk?
I think you have to tread lightly on that stuff. We’ve been through it and back again as far as letting it get to you or not get to you. People are going to put a name on something so there is nothing you can do about it. That being said, being a part of said scene, whatever it is, got us where we are today. No matter what it is we have been apart of, we’re grateful for it. We’re not trying to be one thing or another, we’re not trying to be a pop punk or not be a pop punk band. We’re just trying to write songs that we feel inspired to write at the time. I think we’ve always done that and stayed true to that. This record took us in a very different direction but it was from the heart.
So you don’t feel like it was a conscious decision to go heavier?
We made some choices to tune the guitars a little lower than normal. I’ve been trying to describe the evolution of the band in this way; there are two batches of bands that really heavily, in their own right, influenced us as individuals and us collectively. We were all getting our first guitars and learning to play music in the explosion of rock music in the early 90’s, whether it was grunge rock or whatever label was on that music. Those bands such as Nirvana, Filter, Smashing Pumpkins, the first Foo Fighters’ record, Weezer, early Green Day record,s etc. They were all writing and playing rock music but it was so mainstream and so accessible. I personally didn’t have any access to cool underground music at the time. I don’t even know what it would have been in the early 90’s. I guess it would have been the older NOFX and Bad Religion records but we all share that. The early 90’s were a very formative time for us as far as wanting to learn how to play music. We were all starting to get into the Warped Tour so bands we listened to were No Use for A Name, NOFX, Lagwagon, Strung Out, the list could go on forever. Pretty much if Epitaph or Fat Wreck Chords put out an album then we bought it. That was the time that we began to be very influenced in the matter of forming a band and what kind of band we wanted to be and what kind of career we wanted to have. I think what’s happened with Lift A Sail, the first batch has really pushed their heads through. They’re the root of why we all started playing music and the rock music that formed us and got us to become guitar players and become songwriters. They really made themselves evident, influence wise, on these songs. That was more of a conscious choice when we started writing. All those old songs we love and those old bands that we’ve loved for 20 plus years continued to come up so we just ran with it. I think that’s where a lot of the shift came from. Where it may sound new and different, it comes from a very real place. It’s just a place we haven’t visited in quite a while.
How do you view the balance between being an artist who wants to change and grow and not becoming so vastly different that you’re unrecognizable or fans don’t follow the change?
We’ve been through this once before with Lights and Sounds. I think the same influences I just mentioned were apparent during that songwriting process. I get what you’re talking about though. In a lot of ways, fans didn’t receive it well and they felt like it was too big of a change. If you dig into message boards or posts, you find out that fans now go back to Lights and Sounds and means something different to them now that they’re older. So there was a lot of talk around that record and we thought “Well it didn’t catch, it didn’t work the way we thought it was going to. It would be our Pinkerton”, not to compare ourselves to Weezer in anyway but just functionally, it would be our Pinkerton. I guess my answer is no. As a music fan myself, the bands that I love I follow them and I don’t get angry at them for their choices. I think that’s something we struggle with when it comes to a label or a scene or a genre, people getting angry with a band, whether it’s us or not, for writing what they want to write. I don’t take that attitude toward the bands I love. We really believe in the songs we’re writing. I think the core of our fan base is ready and I think they want growth and change. We’ve been a band for 15 plus years, we can’t keep writing the same record over and over again. Not that we’ve done that but even for ourselves we need to change up what we’re doing and dive into different aspects of our influences and our inspirations and our talents and try to do different things. Lift A Sail is just a very deep exploration of a lot of those types of things.
You mentioned the backlash on Lights and Sounds and being a band for 15 plus years, is there a confidence of just wanting to do whatever you want now?
Of course, I think its confidence, not arrogance. It’s our desire to challenge ourselves and push ourselves further. I think there’s always been a desire deep within to be a rock band and not just have one label from one genre put on what we do. Whether we pull that off or not I don’t really care, I don’t care what people say or think. We’re really happy with the record we made and we’ve been happy with every record we’ve ever made. I think this record is really special. Ryan Mendez (guitar) kept reminding everyone through the process that we each individually and collectively needed to outdo ourselves. We needed to push ourselves harder and farther sonically and musically. We kept that in mind the whole way through. We wrote a record that has so many layers and so much depth sonically, emotionally, lyrically etc. I just think it’s the greatest thing we’ve ever done and I’m really proud of it.
It’s hard to compare to anything else you’ve done. It’s not a matter of better or worse. It’s different and it’s great.
Thank you. That’s all we can hope for. We don’t want it to be held up against other records because that’s why there are other records. That’s always been a big argument in my mind. You can listen to the ones that you like and put positive energies into the world. If you don’t like something you don’t have to go spewing negative vibes into the world over something you don’t like. Just go enjoy the thing that you do like. Our career and all the records we’ve made provide so many different things for so many different listeners. I don’t hold this record up against any of the other ones. I just think we really found something on this one.
Yellowcard was on a good- sized hiatus. Why not come back with a changed sound then?
I think it was more of a balance of “how do we write a record that reminds people who we are and why they’re a fan of Yellowcard and also challenge ourselves to write a record that’s fresh and new for us. I think if you listen to those Hopeless records you’re beginning to hear the evolution. We stepped outside of the box a little bit at a time. Those records are pivotal; we’ve had an incredible three and a half years touring those records.
How has being back in the Warped environment the last few years contributed to the band’s current state?
Yeah, I think warped is pivotal in garnering fans and putting yourself back out there. When you take two and a half years off, people in the information age have their attention shifted quickly to something new and exciting. When you go away for that long it’s a lot of work to put yourself back out there and say “Hey we were a band you liked once” (laughs). Warped gives us a great opportunity to do that every day because you’re going to be playing for several thousand people every time you hit the stage. Over our career, this is our sixth in 12 years. It’s been an extremely important piece of the puzzle that we’ve put together over the years.
What would you say has been some of the biggest missteps or mistakes in your career?
I’ve been a pretty open book in interviews about my personal one. Let me just go on a tangent and say I hate complaining about anything at all because of what my wife is going through right now. Whatever I’m bitching about pales in comparison to what she’s fighting to get through so it’s really hard to answer these questions. When I was 24 years old, the band was exploding and I was feeling a lot of insecurity. I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be. I was the front man of this big band now and I didn’t really have a lot of confidence in my singing voice. Instead of owning that and working on it, I kind of went into a corner and played in my own little world and gave off an air of ego or arrogance when it was really more fear than anything else. I learned you have to take care of your singing voice and get better at it and be more confident in yourself. Don’t worry about what people thing, it doesn’t matter. If you love what you’re doing, that’s all that matters. It’s taken me the whole journey to learn and I’m still learning now. I think that was my biggest mistake. I think that’s why Lights and Sounds was one of my favorite records because that whole record comes from that, lyrically where I was at then, I think you can hear a darkness or a searching throughout that record. I think that’s why it didn’t sound as sunny and shiny as Ocean Avenue did. I’ve learned a lot of that over the years and I really try now to get out every day and remember that I love to do it. I can’t speak for everyone. I think as a band we’ve learned so much; how to run our business better, how to put on a better show, how to write better songs, we’re always just learning.
Yellowcard has always had a theme of fighting or overcoming challenges in your music, why do you think this has been a constant for you?
I think the whole project started against the odds as most bands do. The year we started our band as one member of five, how many other bands with how many members all trying to do the same thing. We always possess certain determination and we just wanted to do this at all costs. I think that’s always translated into our writing.
What do you feel are some challenges facing you today? Seeing you perform with Linkin Park certainly puts things in perspective.
Of course in the back of my mind I never give up on the dream of getting to be at that level but I’m also aware of how unrealistic that can be and how slim those chances are and why those bands are those bands. Now it’s about taking every opportunity we can and hoping for the best and working as hard as we can. The rest will come as it will come. I think our goals are the same and we just continue to take this as far as we possibly can. We use the resources we can to get this as big as it can be. Life is a one time ride and we’ve learned that over the years. We were given a really unlikely second chance as a band because it’s not easy when you’ve taken that much time off and put it back together and bring it back to the level we’ve brought it back to. That’s been a real eye opener to realize how stoked we should be for what we’ve been given this second time around. We’re just rolling with it.
It had to be interesting to see the unity that performance brought to Warped.
More than that I think it was just cool to see that next level you’re talking about. You have this Warped Tour crowd and the guys in Linkin Park said on stage that none of them had ever attended a Warped Tour before. They start playing those genre ending worldwide massive songs and the whole place lost their minds. It’s like so cool to see, just to see a band like that where they’ve broken out of any kinds of constraints.
You’ve been playing on stage with Saves the Day recently. They’ve been a huge influence on Yellowcard so how does it feel to now be that band that young acts dream of playing with?
We’ve gotten to be really close with them over the last couple years. In the fall of 2011 we did a European tour together and obviously I had met Chris over the years here and there but at that point doing a tour together was a game changer. You don’t know what you’re going to get when you’re sharing a bus so we thought “We have to be awesome so they like us” (laughs). They just ended up being close friends and two years later they’re on the Warped Tour and we hang every day. Arun comes and plays guitar on “Ocean Avenue” every day. Looking back on being 19 or 20 years old and worshipping those first Saves the Day records and now having a member of the band on stage with us is epic. If younger bands are feeling like that’s something they want to do with us someday then that’s amazing to have gotten to that level. We’re still completely fan boy’ed out that we are as close to Saves the Day as we are.
You have a new home at Razor & Tie. What do you feel they have to offer the band?
We feel or have felt that our songs still, even if it’s a pipe dream, could still be successful on some sort of radio play. We write pop rock songs that I think are accessible to people and given the right chance to perform they would perform. Not to say that Hopeless didn’t give us a chance but they literally don’t have a radio department. Razor & Tie was pretty excited about the opportunity to make a record with them and pick a song out and try and have that song succeed. What that means, I don’t know. I don’t know what radio means anymore because there are so many different kinds. They’re excited about working a single in the traditional sense of the word. I think that was one of the deciding factors for us. We’re all still close with Hopeless and we are so grateful for everything they’ve done for us. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if Hopeless hadn’t brought the band back to life. We want to see what our chances are to push through to whatever the next level may be for us and we thought Razor and Tie was a good fit for that.
This interview was featured in the Yellowcard cover issue of New Noise Magazine!
Click the image below to get your hands on a copy.