Interview: Ryan Key of Yellowcard


My relationship with Yellowcard begins over a decade ago and the musical connection and ensuing friendship now runs deeper and longer than many of my “in real life” relationships. On October 7th, 2014 the band will be releasing their most ambitious album to date, Lift a Sail. I had the chance to sit down and talk with lead singer Ryan Key about everything that went into crafting this album, the stories and inspiration behind the musical direction, and so much more.

Why hello there Ryan, how you doing today?

Doing pretty good. Moving in to a new house actually at the moment.

Where are you calling home now?

Actually moving to Nashville, Tennessee. Been planning on making the move for a little while now. Finally found a place that I love, and Razor and Tie, our label, is actually in this area as well — the publishing side — and I’m going to start doing some more sessions work with them, you know, writing, things like that. After I came here a few times for work I just fell in love with it, which I knew I would, so the goal is now when I’m off the road I’m not just sitting on my ass, but I’ll be able to keep working and do some writing and recording and stuff still.

Awesome, that sounds great. I think the last time we actually talked you were in Georgia, that wasn’t even that long ago, but it feels like forever now.

Yeah, I had moved back to LA in like 2010 or something like that, when the band started back up. And then in 2013, when Alyona got hurt, I moved to Denver — and I’ve been there until about May of this year. Then once Warped Tour started, and she was in Russia for the summer, I actually haven’t had a real place. So, over this summer all of this came together, and, I literally got here yesterday. Basically drove across the country and it was crazy. I had to fly back from this pretty crazy press tour I did for the new record, which, by the way was amazing because I hadn’t really done anything like that in almost a decade. So, I had all our stuff in Denver, I flew in and stayed in a hotel, got a U-Haul in the morning, loaded up the storage unit, drove to LA, unloaded some of that stuff there, re-loaded the truck with all the stuff from my storage unit in LA, and then drove straight here to Nashville.

That is crazy. I hate moving. I think my goal is to not move for another ten years or so at least. It’s such a pain in the ass and I become such a creature of habit — I just like knowing where all my things are and not having to worry about the stress of moving.

Yeah, I really hope that’s the case with this house.

So, how’s the lead up to this album, Lift a Sail, been? How are you feeling right now (we’re about a week away from the release date)?

Honestly, a little bit overwhelmed. You know, with the lead up to this record, it’s been a little bit nerve-wrecking because of the kind of album that it is, you know? It’s exciting, and I’m anxious, and I’ve been wondering what people will think. And then, around each corner, there just seems to be some new amazing thing that keeps happening. I mean, you’ve followed our band from basically the start, and I think you’ll know as much as anybody how unbelievable it is that we are still here. I mean without being some massive arena rock legacy band with worldwide fame; we’re a touring band with a really great and solid fan base and a touring career. But still, to have some of the stuff that’s been happening to us recently and for it to still feel so current and new and fresh as far into this career that we are — it’s pretty unreal to me. It doesn’t feel like we’re just touring to make a living but instead that we’re still reaching and striving for these goals, goals we may never reach, but we’re still clawing and fighting our way in the same way as we were when we were in our early twenties. And then you’ll get a phone call or email or something and learn that some awesome opportunity has opened up, or some website is doing some awesome feature for us, or whatever it is, and you really have to step back and realize that it’s still growing. And then with ‘Lift a Sail’ kind of shifting directions like it did, I think it’s actually opened up a whole new world of opportunities for the band, in the best possible way.

In the lead up to an album like this — where’s the spot where you feel the most stress? Before anyone’s heard any of the songs, between the single and the album stream, between the album stream and when the album is actually available for purchase?

Normally it would be that time right before the full album stream and really wondering what people are going to think and say about the album. But, gradually, over the last three records I’ve really worked on moving past that stress and realize that we did what we believed in and public opinion of it — I know this is taken wrong when I say it — but it’s not that important to us. I know every now and then fans will make comments like, “well, it’s nice to know you don’t care what your fans think” — and it’s not that at all. That’s not what I’m saying. I can say that I honestly do care what the fans think who support what we do, and especially those that have grown with us, and even those that say, “you know, this may not be my cup of tea right now, but I’m excited for the band.” And I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve read, and honestly I’d say like 90%, have been extremely positive and supportive of what we’re doing and trying to do. And as I’ve spent some more time monitoring the band’s Twitter and Instagram and Facebook accounts, where I guess we see more casual Yellowcard fans versus maybe the message boards, and so much of that has been extremely positive. And even in there I see a lot of comments from fans talking about how maybe they’re not a fan of a song or something but that they’re really proud of us for taking chances, or taking a risk, and while the album may not be what they wanted it to be, they’re excited about us pushing ourselves and exploring new directions. And for me, that criticism, I totally get that. And you know, I’ve realized that you can’t make everybody happy with every record. At this point I try not to get to worked up about anything where it seems like someone has taken far too long out of their day to emit all this negative energy out into the world just because it’s something they don’t care for. There’s constructive criticism and then there’s that, I just block out that extra stuff. I feel bad sometimes when I engage those people online, and I totally admit that this is a mistake of mine that that I do, and it’s not that I’m trying to engage them in a battle or an argument — but in a way to basically say: “listen, I don’t really care if you hate it, I have an amazing life, and an amazing career, and I feel so fortunate to be a part of something that’s so much bigger than myself but my advice is that there’s so much negativity out there in the atmosphere and please just go find something out there that does inspire you, and if we no longer inspire you that bums me out and I wish that we could, but we don’t so go find something that does and stay positive.” I used to let all of that get to me a whole lot more. And it would really affect me and I’d be nervous wondering about what everyone was going to think. But, with this record in particular, I just let it go man. We just put it all out there. We put everything we possibly could emotionally and musically into this record. And what people think about it is not in my hands now, it’s done, it’s out there. And so to circle back on your original question, I think what I’m most nervous about this time around is the first show. We’re going to play a lot of this material live for the first time, I’m going to be playing keys, and switching back and forth between microphones while I do that. I’m going to have to learn and take on a lot responsibilities live that I haven’t had to before and on top of that Mendez wrote some guitar parts that are quite challenging to play, to say the least, so I guess that’s what I am most nervous about right now. I really want to make sure that that show and these songs do justice to the body of work that it is and how much we invested into the album.

Totally makes sense. When you went into this album, to write and record it, did you know from the outset that it was going to be a departure from, at the very least, the last couple of albums?

When we first started talking about making a new record, which I guess was about this time last year, maybe around the fall tour time, we started talking about the plans after that tour. We talked about everyone going home for Christmas and then meeting back up after the new year and to just keep on trucking — and that seemed like what everyone wanted to do. You know, if we hadn’t been feeling it we probably would have taken some more time off — you know played some extra shows or something and just said we weren’t quite ready to do this record. However, over these last three records we haven’t had that happen to us at all, we’ve just all been ready to roll right on over into the next one. So, I know at that time we were tossing around words like “massive” and “epic sounding” and “sweeping” and layers and depth and things like that. We talked about wanting to explore some of the electronic elements that we did end up exploring on the record, but “departure” — no, I don’t think we ever said “let’s make sure we don’t make a pop-punk record when we go into the studio.” I think instead we realized that’s what was happening early on in the writing sessions for this album. As it was coming together, the tempo of the songs, the progressions, that vibe that was coming across just came through that we were doing something new. And, in that process, we realized we really felt good about that. We talked about it, and we had those talks of like, “well, is this what we’re going to do? I mean, we’re clearly leaning in this direction and feeling inspired here, but is this going to be a bad move? Will this be like Lights and Sounds?” And by that I mean, a shift that no one is ready for, and we ruin the handwork we’ve done in the last three years. And I think we were just so moved by what we were writing that we decided we just had to do this and that we would be faking it of we didn’t and we’d be forcing ourselves to fit a mold that we’re just not in right now. When we’re feeling like we want to do something outside of the box — we just go for it — because the most important thing in all of this is inspiration. And when you’re feeling inspired to create: you do it. I think it became clear after we started writing that we were taking a trip to some new land but we didn’t set out months prior saying that’s what we wanted to do.

So the music that came felt like it progressed naturally and, as you said, completely inspired as the process took shape. That makes sense to me. I think one of the things that comes across to me when listening to this album is that it feels extremely personal. And I mean that in a few ways, first the obvious because you’re the vocalist and main lyricist, but also because I know you personally — and I think so much of you comes across in these songs. So, I’m curious what the collaboration with the rest of the band was like in crafting this album and sound.

Well, obviously there is a question out there about if LP leaving the band had an effect on the sound or if we were writing a certain way because we couldn’t play a certain way now without him, or whatever it was. Hmm, but the way we write music in general, would not have been affected one way or the other by that. Where that would have played a bigger role is when it came down to ironing out transitions in songs and the fills and things that are the backbeat of the music we’re writing. LP would come in mostly at a time in the writing when the core of that song had already been established and then it would expand or go other places based on what he was playing, you know? And, well, obviously he was not a part of this process, so, the drumming was interesting — because, well, we didn’t have a drummer. So when we were starting to write these songs we were all basically the drummers in a lot of ways — and we were all thinking about percussion. You know, here in 2014 it’s a pretty fascinating time to be interested and involved in producing music because you have the ability to demo up songs and ideas so far before you actually are recording them in the studio. But at the same time they can sound like such a realized idea at such a relatively young part of the process. You’re able to take your idea, put it down, and put drums to it as you’re writing it. And actually that’s something we had done in the process for the past couple albums, and we did that on this one as well, but we really had no idea what we were going to get when Nate from Anberlin came into the process. So, that became really interesting, and I’ll come back to that in a second. So, the way the rest of it went:

Let’s start with Josh. Now Josh has obviously been a friend of the band for over a decade and played in the band in 2007, and then when we got back together it was a situation of a terrible phone call I had to make when Sean O’Donnell was going to join the band. I was super close with Josh because I’d been living in Georgia and we lived close together and hung out all the time. And then Sean’s been one of my best friends since I was like 19 and were writing music together and it I had to make that call and be like, “hey dude, so we’re getting the band back together” but I’m going to ask one of my longest friends, Sean, to play in the band with us. And he was amazing and just like “yeah, I totally understand that’s all good.” And then when Sean decided to leave the band, which actually was probably one of the most amicable ‘band member changes’ in Yellowcard history — it was basically him just saying, “you know what guys? I kinda just want to get married and have kids and have that life and that’s my vibe now.” We were all like, “sure, ok, later!” — and then I called up Josh and had one of those “I wonder if they’ll still have me” situations and he was like “fuck yeah.” So, then this was at another point in the band where we were starting to get the wheels turning again, and when it comes to the publishing side of the band, and man has that been changed a lot, but for how we have it set up now, Josh is not a “writing” member of the band. I mean, Josh is a full-time member of Yellowcard, he is part of the band in every way, he’s not like on salary or anything like that. But the way it’s been right now, like on the record, is that it’s Mendez playing the bass because he’s writing it. So, hopefully that kinda gets that cleared up because Josh has sometimes been concerned about to say when fans ask. And, I think, at the moment it’s totally ok to say that “right now I’m not a writing member of the band.”

Ok, so, now onto writing songs. So, Ryan (Mendez), Sean, and I decided to start working early in the year. I found this really awesome bungalow in Laurel Canyon in Hollywood, and it’s up in the hills and it’s quiet and awesome and we rented it, and the vibe was amazing. It had this fantastic mid-century feel and really put off this amazing feel. So, everyday they would come up and we would hang — make some coffee — and just hang out and talk and pick up guitars when we were feeling it and start talking about music. If we weren’t feeling it? We’d make some more coffee, hang, talk, and then pick up the guitar again. And we all brought in several ideas, some of which ended up on the album, some of which actually ended up inspiring completely new ideas and branched into other songs. So we brought in a variety of different concepts for music or starters for where songs could be or go. And the three of us, at this point, really know how to talk about music with each other. We know the ins and outs of how we want something to sound, the production, the process, the feel, and all of that. We can think about and talk about what we want a song to be like once it’s fully realized. That in turn kind of becomes its own demoing process of where we get the chord progression down, structure down, think about the flow and how it works musically, we demo it up and then I live with it for a while and start thinking about lyrics and the melody. It’s very rare that I’m actually bringing a fully thought out song to the band. Actually, that happened a lot more in the earlier years of the band, like One For the Kids and maybe some of Ocean Avenue. Way, way back I’d sit down with an acoustic guitar and write a song and then all the lyrics and say “here we are, let’s turn this into a full band song now.” Now, I take the music we’ve written, and I live with it, and I try and let it guide me melodically and lyrically. And so for this album so much of it was the three of us sitting around together and working together on these songs and that’s when we started to see we were moving in this new direction and then it was all about talking out and through how to navigate all these new ideas. So, then Nate came into the mix. And, obviously, we’ve all been pretty big Anberlin fans — have been for years — and they’re an amazing band that write amazing songs and have incredible production on their records. And Nate is, in every way, a songwriter in his own right. He writes a lot of music, does a lot of production, comes at it from a very different angle than we’ve ever had in that department before. So when he came out for a few weeks, probably about two weeks before we started actually tracking so that we could do some legit pre-production, and iron out all the drum parts and all that. And from the start his connection with the music was incredible — because he came into it almost as an outsider and almost with another producer like mindset. So he was coming up with ideas like “what if we tweak this” or “what if we do this instead” and really inspired a lot of thinking and was really a great fit for this kind of new direction. And honestly I really think his outlook and how he plays drums and his entire vibe matched up really nicely with this set of songs and his input was killer. It was truly awesome. And I think a big part of that was because he wasn’t in the band, he didn’t write the songs with us, but instead came in and was able to look at it from a completely different lens and had a fresh take on everything from the outset.

I think that’s something that does come through in the album as well, there’s some programming work, and other little flairs that I think you can see Nate’s influence on.

Yeah, and I think actually that’s a nice little segue into the programing and all the electronic stuff we did on this album. Nate actually left a little before we really got into the meat of all that. Now, the one song that he really had a lot to do with was, well, “MSK.” Now, “MSK” is obviously a pretty interesting moment on the record — there’s no guitar and no drums. Sean has had that piece of music, and it’s something he’s been playing for a long time at sound checks and things like that, for quite a while. He ended up changing quite a bit of it here, but the bones of that piece have been around for a while. And that “Believe”-esque riff that’s kinda going on in there he’d play a lot during soundcheck or even I think on our Ocean Avenue tour he played some of that. At some point in the process he basically said, “hey, what if we have a song that’s just strings and vocals, we’ve never done anything like that” — and that’s at the start all that song was going to be. Tracked the violin, wrote the lyrics and melody, and all that — and then if I remember correctly Nate just wanted to hear it, cause he was excited about the idea, and so we sent him over the track. And he came back and was like, “would you guys be ok with me just taking a stab at mixing this up a little bit and adding some programming and stuff to this song?” And because he had done so much programming for Anberlin that I was a big fan of, we were like, yeah, of course give it a shot. And he knocked it out of the park and took that song to a whole new level. That said, all the rest of the programming on the album was Neal and I.

While recording Neal and I basically had two studios running at the same time. Studio A and Studio B. Studio A was guitars, and bass, and vocals, and violin, and all the organic elements. Then Studio B was all of the electronic elements. So every day we would meet up in the morning and kind of talk about the day, the plans, and all of that. And then Ryan and Sean would go upstairs and work with Eric, our long time engineer, and Neal and I would head into the little smaller area and really dive into finding these sounds. One of the things Neal really brought to this album was when I explained I really wanted to explore the whole Jon Hopkins and Coldplay-esque side of the programing and melding the electronic and the organic together, he as the producer was like, “OK, yes, yes, yes, when do we start”? And I know he was really excited about how new this whole process would be. So, he and I would sit there, and we called it going down the rabbit hole, because we would spend 5 or 6 hours each day searching for these sounds. We would look for sounds and fucking with them and making them sound like something else and then messing with that to make it sound even different. Really there were two things I loved about this: First, we were able to create something that I really loved sonically, and second I got to spend so much time hanging with Neal and learning and just soaking in all his knowledge and we really bonded over this whole experience. And seriously I feel so lucky that I got to be that close to him through this whole record and I learned so much through that process and it just reaffirmed what I already knew: that he was such an amazing person not just a producer.

When you start walking down that path, and you’re adding new sounds, taking out some of the more traditional guitars, and things like that — how do you balance what’s expected of Yellowcard with where you’re inspired to go as a musician? I mean, a lot of people expect Yellowcard to be a violin over pop-punk songs, how does that play on your mind when you as an artist are looking to take it somewhere else?

I think that through the entire process that did play a role to some degree on our minds. I mean, there were times in the process where Neal was like “we could push this a little further” and it wasn’t so much the expectations of others, as it was that we really still do love being in a rock band. So we still wanted those elements in the band, the big massive guitars and searing sounds like that — we needed that to be a part of it. And I guess with expectations, I’d be lying to say that we hadn’t thought about these things before when we recorded, as I’m sure many artists do. That idea of “this is what’s expected of us so we need to find a good way to blend or balance the two things” — and I really think with this album we let go of that, I really do. I think we hope that if we were successful and right in how much weight this record carries for us personally, and how emotionally invested we were in it, and if those feelings were correct and real then it won’t really matter — that any listener, fan or not fan, could hopefully be affected by that weight more than any expectation of what they think we should be.

The music industry these days seems to almost breed or force a culture where bands are afraid to take risks. Bands know if they just keep putting out similar albums, going on the same sort of tours as they always have, and that if they do that they can have a career for another decade or so, right? So what is it like to basically go the opposite route? You probably could have written another pop-punk album and gone on the same tours as before and collected a paycheck, what is it as an artist that led you to reject that idea?

You know, I dunno. There’s a certain level of tenacity that plays a role. An aspect of never giving up and for always wanting something more. And by that I don’t mean more money, I mean money is nice. I want to have a life, and a family, and be able to provide for them and all that. And I am extremely blessed that music has been able to do that for me. But more so I mean “more” of what we get off on, which is bigger shows, more touring, bigger and higher level shows. Raising the stakes. Like, for example, on this upcoming tour we’re playing in LA at the Nokia which is twice as big as any of the venues we’ve played in LA since like 2004. And that’s what I mean, that’s high stakes, and that’s mind blowing to me. That’s what I’m looking for. And I’m not ashamed to say that I want this to keep growing and for more people to get into it. I think that’s what we’ve always wanted: to be the biggest band we could be. I dunno, when someone tells me I’ve sold out, as long as the show is sold out, then you know what, you are right, I did, I sold out all the tickets I could.

So I think when we made this record we just thought: let’s keep searching for that next level. Making the same record, or staying inside the lines of any expectation put on you, just doesn’t allow you to keep searching and I think that’s what I want to always do. I want to always keep searching as a band for that next level or thing that could carry the band even farther. I think when we made this album the scope and scale of these songs and the way they feel are just that — it just feels like it’s reaching for something higher. And you know, honestly, we really didn’t think about it, the expectations, we set out to make the best album we could make that we wanted to make, and this is what we created. The idea of what would or wouldn’t be good business never entered my mind to be honest.

Do you ever feel like you’re held back by the Yellowcard name when you make a big shift like this? That the history of the name and the expectations that are there with fans makes a musical shift more difficult to pull off?

I think the success the band’s had in the past is what’s allowed me to continue to make music to this day, and that includes trying something new and a little crazy maybe. I would never really equate our band or success or whatever we have to any or most of the bands that I, personally, am a fan of. So with all the respect in the world, I’m not making the equation, but if you look at like a band like Radiohead. Now, when they put out ‘Kid A’ they were already a successful band at that time, but not like they are now. And not on that level. And when they were coming off ‘OK Computer’ there were a lot of fans that were kinda weirded out by that album and not sure how to feel after the departure it was from their previous work. And then they just took it to a whole new place, without even taking the highway to get there, they time traveled or something to get to where they ended up. And in the process have had a wildly successful career and I look at that and I love that. I mean, I love their band, and I love everything they’ve done. And at the same time I know that I, as a songwriter, wouldn’t be all that interested if we were making the exact same album over and over again.

But, also, at the end of the day, the fact that you could say to your friend they should check out the new Yellowcard album, and they say, “oh, Yellowcard!” — that’s what’s important to me. That means more to me because 6 or 7 out of 10 will go give it a shot and check out what we’re up to today because they’re aware of who we are. Without our past success we wouldn’t have that opportunity. And all these chances now to be in front of fans old and new are happening and maybe someone walks by the display in Best Buy and sees our name and checks out the album — and maybe they’re at a completely different part of their life, because that was literally a decade ago we released Ocean Avenue, and they find something in this new album that says “this is where I’m at now” and really all we can ask for is that opportunity. Hopefully the music speaks, and it’s where I’m at now, and where we’re at now as a band, and I hope that resonates with others as well.

Last question and then we can call it a day: What are you excited about right now? Sometimes I think we get caught up in all the extra shit going on in our lives and forget to think about all the great things happening around us, so, right now, what are you excited about?

Well, I’m really excited about this new move. I’m excited about all the opportunities and things on the horizon career wise, producing, writing, all of that. I really feel like there’s a big opportunity here for me and I’m closer to my family. I am excited about the future for me outside of Yellowcard, but really, it’s hard to say what I’m excited about outside Yellowcard right now because that’s what I’m living and breathing every single day. I love this band and am so excited about what we’ve created. We have a great tour coming up and then we’re pretty much booked through July of next year already with some awesome stuff. We’re going to be going to Australia next year, and we’re headlining, and in Sydney we’re going to be playing 5,000 seat rooms, and man, that’s just so awesome. I’m so excited about that. And in so many ways it really does feel like everything started over for us in 2010. That we were able to go back in time and just be young kids starting a band again, and we’ve been fighting and clawing and working our way back up. I know we had a really nice place to start from, but now, it just really feels like we’re seeing all our handwork pay dividends.

Do you think another single will come from this album?

You know, I dunno. You know how the music industry is and how damn slow it can be to move at times. I mean it really takes a long time for a song to get going. I know Razor and Tie has a really legit radio department and they are working it really hard and full blown. I think it’s too early to tell, and really, I dunno if we even live in a two single world anymore. These days if one doesn’t take you usually don’t even try a second one, you just reassess where you’re at and go from there. But, at the same time, new people and new company and I don’t know what they’ll even think. I know the owner of the label loved “Crash the Gates” but I think we run into a problem where that song would just live at Active Rock Radio and the powers that run those stations I don’t really think believe Yellowcard fits or belongs there even if the song may. That’s just landscape of radio in 2014. Honestly, I think “One Bedroom,” as polarizing as that song’s been — and it’s really personal to me as a track — I think really does show a little of everything that’s on this album. You see the electronic percussion stuff, the more falsetto vocals and melody, and then into that huge 90’s arena guitar sound at the end. I think you get a lot of flavors from all across the record.

Did that go into the thought process of releasing the song as a single?

Oh, and we didn’t choose the single. At the start of this process we said we were going to turn in the album and then everyone at the label could pick the single and work the one they loved. First, well, because we haven’t really had a successful single since 2007 and second we decided that if we were going to try this radio thing again, which we obviously are and that’s one of the reasons we signed to Razor and Tie, we decided that we wanted it to be the song on the record that they believe in the most. We wanted those sitting around the office to be inspired by a song to go work to radio and all that. Because if we pushed a song and thought one song really was the one to use and then it doesn’t work, they could turn around and be like “well guys that’s not what we were have picked” and we didn’t really want any of that responsibility. We just wanted to write the best collection of songs we could and let whatever happens from there happen.

Yeah, I totally get that. It also means you can walk into the album not thinking about having to write a single but instead writing a full album and then you don’t have that one song that kind sticks out as the obvious single that maybe doesn’t quite fit in to the album.

Exactly. And with the exception of “Here I am Alive”, which was always kind of an experiment from start to finish. And I mean, that was a co-write and originally Patrick was singing on that song, and he was unfortunately pulled from the song by management, which, well, that’s a bummer. But still, with him being a part of it and everything, that from the start was definitely an experiment of “let’s build a pop song and see what happens.” But other than that we’d never really done anything like that before — we usually, and this time, just write the record and then hand it over. I mean, I’d say we’ve had more opinions on what should or shouldn’t be singles in the past, like “it’s gotta be that song” but I think as far as writing it we’ve always been more of the just hand it in and try and write something cohesive kind of band. This time we said we were going to hand it off and just let go. We know what this album is and we wrote what we needed to write. It’s all right there. Now it’s for everyone else to experience.