A trip down memory lane with Ryan Key as Yellowcard wrap their latest UK tour.
It’s fair to say there’s a pop-punk kid inside us all somewhere. Even those in pop-punk denial will find it hard to resist the urge to stick on a Yellowcard record and dive around the house, right?
After a two-year hiatus that ended back in 2010, Yellowcard have been hard at work writing records and showing fans that none of their original spark has been lost. A current string of sell-out shows across the UK and central Europe has kept the band busy (see our blog for more on that) but we still managed to catch up with frontman Ryan Key to talk about how his journey in music began...
Was Yellowcard your first musical venture or had you played in bands before?
"I had my own band in high school with my buddies and we used to play on the weekends - it was nothing serious. Even in university I had started a band. I ended up dropping out of school and moving to California to join a band that I liked called Craig’s Brother as they were looking for a guitarist. I toured with them for eight or nine months in ’99 but it didn’t really pan out so I ended up moving back home and re-enrolling at university because I was broke."
How did you come to join the band?
"One weekend one of the guys in Yellowcard happened to be out visiting me and some other friends of ours in Tallahassee, Florida, where we were going to college. We were just hanging out and he came to a band practice that I was having with my friends to listen to some of our songs. That night when we got back to my apartment he filled me in on what was happening with Yellowcard. He was like, ‘Spring Break’s coming up and I know you’re gonna be home in Jacksonville. Maybe you could come to band practice and just jam with us, because we’re gonna need another guitar player.' I went home for Spring Break and went to practice with them and we ended up jamming out a couple of the songs that I had and it just felt right. I’d never really brought to life any of my songs the way we did when I played with them for the first time."
How did you end up singing for the band after starting off as the guitarist?
"We went in to record the first little EP and I guess they weren’t really happy with how the vocals were turning out with the other guy singing, so they basically came to me and were like, ‘hey dude, you get in there and sing it!’ I went in and I sang on these first four songs and that’s really when things started to change. The guy who was originally supposed to sing on the demo got super pissed and ended up getting kicked out the band - and of course everyone blamed me for doing that. I was like, what have I gotten myself into? But I stuck with it. It was a rocky start, that’s for sure, but we had that EP recorded – two of the songs were material they’d already written and I kinda went in and wrote melodies and lyrics over the top. The other two songs were ones that I had written that we worked on together as a band."
How long did it take for things to take off once you’d joined the band?
"I jammed with them for the first time at the end of March in 2000 and we got offered our first little record deal on Lobster in June of 2000, so it really didn’t take long for things to get started. We decided we wanted to sign the record deal and did it completely blind - we didn’t have proper lawyers or anyone to check the contract over. We were just idiot young kids and there was definitely some shady shit in that contract somewhere but we signed it and freaking went for it! We knew we were gonna have to make a record so we spent the summer just working our asses off saving money. I told my parents I was dropping out of college again…they were really happy about that! We borrowed a little bit of money from Shaun’s parents, I traded in my car and with that money we had enough to buy our first van. Our mission was to get out to California to make the record. We had pooled some cash over the summer to buy a trailer to go with the van so we loaded all our shit in there and headed out in late October I think it was. We recorded for a month or so and when everybody else went back home for the holidays I stayed on, sleeping on a couch at a buddy’s place. I just tried to get started on finding a place for us all to live. We ended up making the full move in January or February 2001."
How did things change when the band moved out to California?
"We all still had day jobs and were basically scraping by to survive but we were playing as many shows as we could. That was really the brilliant thing about being in Southern California as opposed to Florida. In Florida you can play Orlando, Tampa, Daytona, Miami, Jacksonville, Tallahassee – maybe five or six cities once a month. You couldn’t just keep going back or nobody would come to see you play, but in Southern California there were countless places that you could go and play shows in. It’s such a big sprawling metropolis. Our genre was starting to take off everywhere at that time but in Southern California we were able to play everywhere all of the time. We could book shows every Thursday through Sunday and be playing different cities, from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. From central California all the way down, you could find shows online. There were always kids looking for bands to play here and there. We just started building it up there and it stared to click."
Where and how often did you practice? Do you practice more or less often now you’re a fulltime band?
"We practiced everyday. We never stopped. We would do everything we could to find a place where there were no restrictions on when you had to be quiet. We would get off work and go straight to rehearsal everyday - we couldn’t get enough. We had everything from a storage unit, where we’d close the door and hope we wouldn’t get in trouble to the cool Mum who’d let us jam in her garage all night long. If we couldn’t find a place to play we’d go and find someone’s living room to play in. We’d load all our gear in, play for three or four hours and then take it all back out. We were just always writing and practicing. It was awesome, a real good time. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to do that. We don’t really practice much now because we’re on tour almost three hundred days of the year."
What kind of bands influenced you back then and what sort of impact did that have on your own writing style?
"In high school, Yellowcard’s original sound was much harder, it was actual punk rock, almost offensive I’d say, more in the vain of Lagwagon and Strung Out. That nineties Warped Tour punk sound was way more prominent in the music before I started singing. When I joined I definitely brought a certain influence to the band. We all had a common interest though. I think Lagwagon is a great example. My favourite Lagwagon record was ‘Lets Talk About Feelings,’ which is their most well produced, melodic record. If you talk to the original guys in Yellowcard I think their favourite record would either be ‘Trashed’ or ‘Hoss’ – the more kinda dirty punk. There was sort of a difference in our tastes but we still liked the same bands. Which songs and records we liked created a cool kinda diversity in the band. When I really started writing songs in Yellowcard I was listening to a lot of Saves The Day, The Get Up Kids and Lifetime. I’ve gone through a lot of phases in music. After 13 years of playing in Yellowcard, Coldplay are my favourite band."
Did you ever think that playing in Yellowcard would turn into a full-time career?
"Yeah, I think I did. That’s why I hung it all out there. I believed that if we got that van and that trailer and headed out to California then things would happen for us. The first official North American tour we ever did was with Rise Against and the Mad Caddies, which was amazing. We were still touring on ‘One For The Kids’. After that it all started to happen really, we were touring full time after that. I think our biggest goal in life was to get on the Warped Tour. To us that was the career we envisioned and everything else that happened after that was magic. Our first run on the Warped Tour was summer of 2002 after we had signed our deal with Capitol.
What I can’t believe is the level that it ended up getting to. While we didn’t sustain that super high level of success for more than a couple of years, the fact that we reached it, that we did sell those couple of million records and play those awards shows was a total whirlwind. I always believed and had faith that we would be able to make a career as a band and that was why we gave everything else up to do it."
Did you go chasing labels and booking agents or did they approach you with offers? How did the opportunities present themselves?
"The first official music industry person that we worked with is still our booking agent to this day. She came out to a show in Anaheim at a pretty famous little venue called Chain Reaction. We’d been touring around So-Cal for a solid year or two by this point and had reached a point where we sold out that venue on our own. She approached us and said, ‘I know you guys don’t have a booking agent so I’d like to book you.’ We didn’t know any better and were like, ‘really? Awesome!’ – classic LA young kids in a band. Every opportunity we had we just took it. Luckily we made absolutely the right choice with Corey. She’s been our booking agent for twelve years now. That was really the biggest turning point. Once you had someone fighting for you, making sure you were getting paid and getting you booked onto tours.
We had a real Hollywood story major label bidding war going on – it was crazy, totally surreal. We were only 22 years old. We were talking to Warner Brothers, Rick Rubin’s label, American Recordings and we were talking to Captiol."
So what made you choose Capitol over all the others?
"Louie, our A&R guy kept coming to shows and you could tell he really believed in the band on a real grass-roots level. He wasn’t sales pitching anything to us. We got a very honest and down to earth vibe from him and that’s really all we needed. It didn’t feel like some big Hollywood record company guy coming to tell us we were gonna be rock stars or whatever. He was with us the whole time we were at Capitol. When he left the label that was a big deciding factor for us to leave too – it just wasn’t the same without him there. I don’t regret anything and there was nothing we could have done to change how it all went down. We had such a positive experience there at the beginning with Ocean Avenue that I wouldn’t have changed that for anything. When we signed to Hopeless a couple of years ago I remember the feeling of everybody being so gung-ho about the band and the new record. It was a very similar feeling to when we signed to Capitol back in 2002, we felt that same personal touch. It was great, I’m very thankful that we’ve had that experience."