After a hiatus, Yellowcard frontman Ryan Key opens up to PopMatters about returning to the studio and the road -- and the challenges within.
Ryan Key is no stranger when it comes to writing summertime anthems. The lead vocalist and guitarist for Jacksonville, FL, pop-punk giant Yellowcard became a household name after the band’s 2003 breakout Ocean Avenue began making waves across radio and MTV, catapulting Yellowcard into the spotlight and making them one of the most buzz-worthy bands in rock. Even if follow-ups Lights and Sounds and Paper Walls never reached the level of hype as their predecessor, the sudden cancellation of their 2008 European tour and subsequent hiatus served as a major disappointment to both their fan base and the scene as a whole.
When the band reunited to release last year’s When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes on Hopeless Records, speculation swirled. Would the band move forward with the maturing sound of Paper Walls, retrace the steps laid by the nostalgic Ocean Avenue, or do something else entirely? The answer was, well, a little bit of everything. Yellowcard immediately hit stride in the form of one of the best pop-punk albums of the past few years. When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes captures the heart of a band that is well aware of its growth but is still able to reflect on its days of youth -- not in longing, but in modest reflection.
Now, a mere year and a half removed from their return to the scene, the band is set to release Southern Air, an album that Key believes zones in on the balance between the freedom experienced with family and friends back home and the exertion that comes from life on the road. Whether it be the warm weather reverence of “Always Summer”, the triumphant declaration of “Here I Am Alive”, or the painful honesty of “Ten”, Southern Air seems to find a band that is fully self-aware and talented enough to express it nearly flawlessly. As Warped Tour was winding down, PopMatters had the chance to sit down with Key and talk about the band’s return to the tour, the personal reflection that led to the creation of Southern Air, and his expectations for the future of Yellowcard.
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What’s been the biggest difference for you guys coming back and playing Warped Tour now as opposed to the last time you did the full tour [in 2004]?
I think there’s a level of focus. Our work ethic has improved from when we were younger, but that comes with age. I hate to make us sound older than we are, but I mean, the show is really important to me. Knowing now that I can have an amazing show at noon if we happen to have to play at noon as opposed to seven or eight years ago, waking up and being so hung over I can hardly talk. I really enjoy the idea of taking care of myself so that even the 12 o’clock shows are as amazing as the 6 o’clock shows. I think that’s the biggest difference for me personally is just my general work ethic on the tour. I’ve been really taking care of myself in order to perform the best that I can.
It’s safe to say that you’ve influenced a number of the younger bands on this year’s tour. Have you guys found yourselves in somewhat of a mentor role at times on this tour, or have there been any bands that you’ve shared your experiences with?
I would say that All Time Low is who we would be the closest with in that regard. We spent a lot of time on the road with them the last two years. We were actually fortunate that they took us out on their tours last year in the UK and the United States. That was a big kick-start for us coming back from the hiatus. But throughout that time, we’ve certainly had some conversations with them while traveling the planet together about what we’ve been through and what mistakes we’ve made and what not to do. I think they really appreciate having those conversations and just trying to be open and honest about things that I wish that I had done differently and things that I did do right.
How are your feelings different as you approach the release of Southern Air than they were last year before the release of When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes now that you’ve been back on the road and touring for a year?
Well, we’re already in stride. Last time we were on tour before the album came out, but it was only for about a month. We left for Japan in February and the album came out in March. This time, there’s not that thing looming, like, “is this going to work when we put this record out?” that we had last time around. We had a really amazing and really successful year last year and the response to When You’re Through Thinking was incredible. So going into Southern Air, I think we feel like we have a really good opportunity to continue that momentum because we already are on the road now and things are sort of back to normal. We’re not faced with the pressure of worrying about whether it’s going to work or not. We feel like it is working and we want to do everything we can now to keep it going and keep it working.
How much did getting back on the road and gaining that momentum inspire your writing on Southern Air?
You know, I think it inspired the last record more than this one, to be honest. The idea of coming back and the idea of touring again really provided a lot of energy and charge to When You’re Through Thinking to be that record that said “here we go” and “this is what’s going to happen” and “we’re going to get this thing back.” A lot of songs, like “Be the Young” and “Life of Leaving Home”, some of those songs were in that vein. I think that Southern Air is much more, now that we did get on the road and did get that all out of our system and did sort of get things back to normal, I was able to reflect more on the time I had away from the band this time around. That’s where the inspiration for Southern Air came from , was sort of those two or three years back East, out of Los Angeles and back home in the South, where I grew up, away from touring and the band. I think the road actually opened my mind a little bit to worry less and write less about what the future is going to be and things like that. It’s more focused on how my life has been and how it’s changed over the past few years.
You guys went back to the studio with [producer] Neal Avron again for Southern Air. How have you seen your relationship with him grow the most over the years?
There’s so many things. We have such an amazing level of trust with him. He’ll tell me if I’m being an asshole and he’ll tell me if I’m doing a great job and I’m not afraid to hear either one. I don’t let the “good job” go to my head and I don’t let the asshole comments make me mad. I trust that he’s right when he tells me what’s right or wrong, so we’re like family with him. I think for us as the band, the biggest thing I’ve noticed is how much we’ve learned about recording and making albums. There’s so many things that we’re able to do without even having Neal in the room now, because we understand the process so much more. I think we’re better at our instruments. Every time, we learn more about how playing on an album is different than playing live, so we’re just better at making records as a band. We’ve even started to self-produce some stuff. We did the acoustic version of When You’re Through Thinking ourselves, and all of the knowledge to do that, we’ve learned from Neal.
You’ve done something a little different this time around by bringing some guests on board – co-writing a song with Patrick [Stump], vocals from Tae [Jardine] of We Are the In Crowd. Did that come about just from being back on the road and meeting up with people again?
Yeah, and the family of Hopeless Records too. For the most part, they’re all on the same song. Patrick was originally on the song that he co-wrote with us and there were some clearance issues with Island Records, so we weren’t able to keep his parts on the record, so we just asked Tae to do it, since she was already there. It sounds like a lot of people, but they’re all in one group vocal part; there’s not a stand-out solo vocal part by anyone. We just thought it would be fun. New friends have been a big part of our life in the last year, so we thought it would be cool to involve them in the next chapter of the band, especially Alex from All Time Low.
You recently released the first single “Here I Am Alive”, and a lot of the feedback from people online has been that this song has the potential to be a hit. How much is that even on your radar at this point?
It’s not. I mean, I think it’s a great song, I think it has a lot of potential, but I understand the climate. We’re on an independent record label, but even if we had a half-million dollars to spend on a radio campaign, there is absolutely no guarantee that anyone would give a shit or play the song, because we play real guitars and real drums and that’s just not what’s happening. For a band like Yellowcard, unfortunately, sometimes, we belong on Top 40 radio. We don’t really fit on rock radio, you know? Our music is a little too pop for that, but it’s a little too rock for Top 40, so we don’t really know where we belong. In 2004 it just happened that the Top 40 stations got hip to what was happening out here on the Warped Tour that summer and started playing all of our bands on the radio and it was amazing. But we’ll see. If it happens, it will definitely be icing on the cake. But we’re moving into bigger venues on our fall tour and we’re going overseas for half of the year; everything’s going amazing. So it’s not on my radar, to answer your question. I don’t focus my energy on whether or not we’re going to have a hit song or not.
Now that Yellowcard has been back together for over a year, recorded a couple of albums, and been back on the road, has there been an unexpected difficulty that you’ve experienced? Maybe something that ended up being more challenging that you thought?
I think being on tour is a little harder than it was before the break for all of us now. Personally, I can say that I used that time away to really reconnect with my family and my friends back home in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. For me, I really, for the first time, miss them in a way that I should have always missed them. That’s really the hardest thing, but we understand what we have to do here and we’re lucky to have family and friends that are so supportive of us and want us to win.
This fall you guys are going to be heading out on the road with the Wonder Years and We Are the in Crowd, which is a fantastic lineup. How did that all come together?
Hopeless Records, really. We’re all three on that label and all three working for the same things. That label is an amazing place to be signed and put out records. We’re just stoked that they’ve done such a great job with all three of our bands, where people are that excited to