Pop-punk stalwarts YELLOWCARD have faced more than their share of adversity as of late, from band turnover to health scares to heartbreaking personal tragedy. Down but never out, their ambitious new album Lift A Sail (iTunes | Amazon | Google Play) documents these trials—and rocks hard.
It’s been a trying few years for Yellowcard, to say the least. First, while in the midst of a career recovery/upswing that initially began with 2011’s When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, violinist Sean Mackin was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Then in April 2013, singer/guitarist Ryan Key’s wife (Russian Olympic snowboarder Alyona Alekhina) was paralyzed in a tragic accident. And then this year, founding member Longineu Parsons (a.k.a. “L.P.”) called it quits, after 17 years with the group. Through it all, Key kept writing.
Back with a newfound fire, the group—also including guitarist Ryan Mendez and bassist Josh Portman—crafted Lift A Sail, their boldest, most exploratory work to date, fusing their familiar West Coast-inspired pop-punk with a wide palette of previously unused textures including heavy splashes of ’90s alt rock and electronica. Intrigued, we caught up with Key to find out how Yellowcard arrived at their radical new sound.
Before you dive into our interview with Key, we have "Crash The Gates," an exclusive new track from Lift A Sail, here for your listening pleasure!
Lift A Sail has much more of a ‘90s alt-rock vibe than your previous records. Was that intentional?
RYAN KEY: We feel like there were two groups of bands for us growing up. There was a group of bands that first inspired us to become musicians, play guitar and write songs, which are a whole separate group of bands from the groups that really made us want to be in a band and tour and be on the Warped Tour. I think I was 15 when the Nirvana record [Nevermind] was coming out, and the first Weezer record was coming out, the Smashing Pumpkins record... all those ‘90s alternative grunge or whatever-you-want-to- call-it bands who made us pick up a guitar and want to play music. For whatever reason, that’s the path we tended to go down on this record.
The bands like No Use For A Name, Lagwagon, Strung Out, Bad Religion, NOFX and on down the list, that was a time later in our teens or early 20s, when we decided to start touring and form bands, so those bands heavily influenced us, even now. I don’t know if there’s a specific reason why, but I feel like we gravitated toward [the first group] on this record.
What personally inspired these new songs?
I feel like every song is independent and standalone, but then they fit collectively together. I was feeling quite inspired to write music; I went through the most tumultuous year. I met my now-wife [Alekhina] a couple of years ago. She’s a professional snowboarder from Russia, and we were engaged in December of 2012. She was in California in April of last year, training, shooting some videos and stuff, and she broke her back, and is paralyzed below the waist. She’s been making progress, and it’s been a huge inspiration to me, but I’ve been going through that—we’ve been going through that—and as a songwriter, something like that, it’s impossible to not put it down on paper and write about it.
We were really comfortable with the way we wanted the songs to sound, and the structure of the songs we wanted to write. We write the music before we put the lyrics together; we’ll use the music to create the inspiration for the direction to the lyrics and it will determine the way I write. So I did a lot of that on the record, taking home the demos and sitting there with them. Obviously, I have a lot to write about and I felt really good about it, really confident the whole time. I didn’t have writer’s block. I didn’t get hung up on anything.
We wanted to make a genuine rock record and I hope that’s where we ended up. We don’t want to alienate anyone—we’re not trying to push away anyone who’s gotten us to where we are today—but it is important for us that we’re continually growing and evolving as musicians and songwriters and not making the same record over and over again. I don’t know if we set out at the beginning to make it as different as it ended up being, but when all was said and done, we were all really, really impressed with it. I think it’s the best songwriting we’ve ever done as a band.
I’m so sorry for what you’ve both endured. Were you there when Alyona was hurt?
No, I was recording Ocean Avenue Acoustic, and I hadn’t talked to her all day. Her manager called and said, “Hey Ryan, it’s Drew. Alyona has fallen and she can’t feel her legs. We’re on our way to the hospital. Call you when we get there.” I got home, packed my bags and was at the airport. I got the call at 1:30 and I made it to the airport and was on a flight by 4. It was crazy. It’s been a wild ride.
How is your wife doing now?
She worked really hard to get into this rehab center in Russia that’s a retreat type thing—it’s kind of a log cabin up in the woods-type place where the doctors live and work there. It’s really hands-on, really detached from the world, so you can just focus. She’s been really happy with it. She’s amazing, it’s been a year and a half, and she’s still doing 6 to 8 hours of therapy every single day. I’m so proud of her. Her first session of that just ended. She’s taken a lot of the work home with her, and she’s with her parents now. They have a nice country house. In a few weeks we’ll be together, and I think after Florida she’s going to go back to the program there for a couple months. Seeing her work as hard as she does, it’s hard for me to complain about anything... I don’t think she has any drive to do athletics anymore, but she has the same drive to walk again; she has the same passion and athletic spirit to focus toward her therapy.
Will she walk again?
It’s hard to say. I’m trying to learn all there is to learn. They rate these injuries A to E, and B to E are an incomplete injury. Unfortunately, she has an A rating, and it was hard for her to take at the beginning, but she was like, “I’m not going to let these doctors tell me what to do,” or let any rating tell her. She still doesn’t have any sensation below the waist. Sometimes she feels things happening in her legs—they’ll get hot or cold—but there’s not what you’d classify as sensation. We’re going to have to wait and see. I know she’s not going to give up.
With so much stress in your personal life, didn’t you find it hard to sit down and focus on music?
We lived in Denver for a year at the hospital in-patient rehab, so when it came time to make the record, I was in L.A. while she was in Denver. I just tried to focus on the record, and I had most of it done when she got to Los Angeles. It was good to have the time to myself to work on it, but it’s certainly been tough being away from her.
I can imagine it would be so heavy to write about the experience you’ve both been through.
I feel happy I was able to pull so much from the same experience but make so many different songs and ideas. To me, it doesn’t feel like the whole thing is about the same experience, although all the songs evolved from the same experience. There are songs that are unrelated, but most are pulled from the one experience. There are all kinds of emotions you can pull and write about and have a different feel.
You also wrote a song (“My Mountain”) about your grandfather, William Alexander Speir.
My grandfather passed a couple months before we started working on the record. I was home in Florida to see him, and my grandmother passed recently, too. It’s very common for two people who have been together for a number of years to pass soon after the other, and it totally happened with my grandparents. It’s amazing because depending on your belief [system], it makes you think they couldn’t be without each other.
So when I went home to see my grandfather, they’d put him in hospice, and he ended up hanging on and doing okay for another month or so. He was 94 years old, but didn’t have any sickness or disease; he was just 94 and tired. In October of 2012, my aunt Stephanie, who is the middle sister in my mom’s family, she passed due to brain cancer. So I wrote some music in honor of that.
We have this property in North Carolina—this mountain house—and we scattered my aunt’s ashes there by the house and did a service for the family. My grandparents asked to do the same, so when I was visiting my grandfather, I remember hearing him ask my mom over and over again if he was there yet, and my mom would say, “Where dad? Where do you want to be?” He kept saying, “Am I on the mountain yet?” My mom would say, “Not yet, but you’ll be with Stephanie and it will all be perfect.” Since my grandmother also passed, when it says, “I’ve found my mountain, I can be with her,” that also applies to my grandmother. I’m really proud of that song.
My grandfather wrote a lot of poetry his whole life; we have a cool book that my mom and brother made for him once, where they collected all his poetry. He did a voiceover on a Yellowcard song in 2007 on Paper Walls called “Dear Bobbie,” and he got a writing credit. It was cool because it immortalized us, writing a song together. He was a really special man to me. I always looked up to him, and he’s definitely missed, but I feel really happy I have the ability to write songs and do something like write a song for him.
You also wrote about your aunt in “Sing For Me,” from When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes. Your family story has really become interwoven in the songs over the years.
The fans who’ve been with us since the beginning are very aware of that, and I wanted to put it out there, including the story of my family. I feel like I should be proud of the way I write, pulling directly from life experience. It’s kind of unavoidable, and I have such an amazing family, it’s easy to write about.
Were there any other things you were compelled to write about on the record aside from your wife and family?
Yeah, when you get to be our age, really at this point, just trying to figure out who’s moving forward in your life and who is not, and who’s going to be with you for the rest of the way, and who isn’t. I think I covered a little bit of that, separating yourself from negativity so you can be in a better place without it. There are a couple songs that go that way. It pulls from what I’ve been through with my wife, the concept of what that was like. She and I have grown a lot—her family is in Russia, mine’s in Florida—so going through that together, the two of us, having it be challenging to have a real support system there, and calling out for help. So that was one different take on that experience.
How’s Sean doing with his bout with cancer?
He’s doing well. He’s trying to take care of himself, eating gluten-free, taking some meds. His last scans are really good. He’s not officially cancer-free, but it’s good to be contained and do everything you can do. I don’t think there are any red flags for now and that’s all you can ask for. Onstage, it’s not holding him back in any way.
On this new record, his playing seems a little different in terms of his contribution to the overall mix.
I think he was definitely challenged to find his way through the beginning of this process. While you may not hear what you can identify as a solo violin part in all the songs, there’s a ton of violin on the record, it’s just used in very different ways. There’s a lot more electric violin. There’s a lot of percussion stuff. He’d play a part with the back of his bow to create a percussive sound. Sonically, there’s some crazy stuff going on as far as production and programming, and there are a lot of electronic elements in it.
Coldplay is my favorite band of all time, and the guy who programs for them is Jon Hopkins. Ryan Mendez opened my eyes to him, so I started listening to [Hopkins’ solo material] and learned a lot about how he does what he does, and a lot of the stuff he does on his own is a lot more aggressive and kind of grittier than what he does on the Coldplay records, and we took a lot of inspiration from that. A lot of bands we love do interesting stuff sonically that we’ve never done before. I think I found a really cool marriage of programmed electronic elements to use on the record, but keeping everything sounding super-organic with the instruments going along with it, and the violin is a part of that. We used it in so many ways to create cool sounds and a balance, where sometimes you don’t even know it’s a violin.
I’m sure we’re going to run into people who are like, “Oh, where’s the violin?” But it’s funny, because it’s all over the record. We used it in different, new ways, and then there are songs like “MSK” and the intro [“Convocation”] that are completely driven by strings. There are string moments on each song, but you have to listen for [them]. I think the solo he wrote in the song “Fragile And Dear,” that shit rips your heart out, and I think he was, like we all were, making something new. I was hoping my voice worked over these new-style songs. I think Sean had the same challenge to make the violin work, and I think we all pushed ourselves to the limit.
What was it about your vocals that you didn’t think was working with the new music?
I didn’t necessarily think they weren’t working, but I don’t have that grit. People think my voice is on Autotune when it’s not. It’s such a pure, clean note that comes out. It was interesting to approach it and see where my voice was going to fit. What I did was really immerse myself in the song and do what I’d never done before as far as dynamic and falsetto. I used a lot of my falsetto on the record, and I love it. I can’t wait to do it live. There were a lot of times where we were like, “The melody’s high, it’s going to be really straining to sing, but it’s the right melody, so why don’t we just do it falsetto?” People will probably be a little taken aback when they hear it for the first time, but it’s a completely comfortable way for me to sing and get the melody out.
Then, dynamically, this time I could choose my moments to let up and then really hit it hard, and Neal [Avron, producer] worked really closely on the programming, electronics and with vocals. He worked really hard with me. He pushed me.
This is the sixth album you’ve done with him. Was it any different working with him this time?
He was a big part of why this thing turned out the way it did. At the beginning, he was like, “I think you guys are ready to step out of the box a little more. You never have before.” I think in the end, there were probably more raging rock guitars on it than he would have liked, but he helped us find a good medium. He never just lets you do things, even though we’ve made so many records with him over the years. He doesn’t just press “record” and let it go. He’s deeply invested in what we do, and that’s why we keep going back to him. It feels really good when he tells us we’re doing something good. We had a lot of fun with it. We weren’t holding back. We weren’t worried about who was going to think what about what; we just had fun and did what we thought sounded rad.
Yellowcard co-founder L.P. [drummer Longineu Parsons] left earlier this year, and since then you’ve had Nate Young from Anberlin temporarily filling in on drums. Have you found a permanent replacement?
I wish so much that we could keep him. But he’s heading home to Florida and starting a coffee brewing company with his brother-in-law. It is a bummer though, because there’s magic in playing with him. He really stepped in and made it amazing. We have a few guys in mind, but we’re definitely not anywhere near making a final decision as to who gets the full-time gig.
Did L.P. leaving have anything to do with the band’s new direction?
It was an internal thing, and it’s one of those situations where we’re not going to say too much and he’s not going to say too much. We honestly wish him the best, and he’s starting a new project. That’s what he wants to do now and I think everyone’s moving on.
What made you pick “One Bedroom” as the first single?
I went into that with the philosophy that I’m not going to have a philosophy; I’m not going to try to tell the label what to do. I want the label to pick what they believe in to go to radio and it’s on their shoulders to make it work. I love this song; I can’t wait. If we’re able to put a minute-long, raging ’90s filter guitar [solo] thing on the radio, it will be a major accomplishment. But if we’d put a song forward as a band and it didn’t work, I think they’d say, “Well, it’s not the one we’d have chosen.” So I really went into it thinking, “You guys decide. Whatever song moves you the most and you’re the most excited about.” It was an interesting choice; it was a super-different song for us.
That song seems to be the apex moment on the record.
When those lyrics started coming out, it was heavy. It’s a song that’s related to my life and my wife’s life and our experience, but anyone can grab onto that song. I love the lyrics, and that guitar solo is maybe my favorite moment on the record. It’s so big: It’s like 1993, the vibe of that solo. I’m so stoked we did that. I just think we made a lot bolder choices this time.
How about bassist Josh Portman settled in as your newest permanent member?
He and I talk about it a lot, because he’s not playing on the record and he’s not writing right now, either. At the time he came into the band, there were so many changes and we’ve been through that so many times, that we decided to keep the writing side of it Ryan [Mendez], Sean and I. Josh is an incredible musician, so I have full confidence in his playing, but it’s a transitional thing and it’s still the way it was when we made the transition.
He’s like, “What do I say when fans ask me?” and I said it’s an acceptable answer, it’s not crazy: “I’m in the band, I’m just not a writing member.” So we’ll see what goes on, how that pans out in the future. I’d be happy to have him as part of the writing process, but it just hasn’t been neatly done.
You’re also on a new label again, Razor & Tie.
Our contract was up with Hopeless, and we had kind of entertained the idea of seeing what was out there. We got pretty close with the guys who run [Razor & Tie]. We feel really comfortable there and we feel like they really believe in our band. We had a great run with Hopeless; there was no bad blood, there was no real reason behind why we didn’t re-sign. We just wanted to try something new for several reasons on our end and Hopeless’ end. It will be an amazing accomplishment and another dream come true, but [R&T] are trying to present us with a radio opportunity again. They have a radio department, and I don’t even know what radio means anymore, but a couple of their bands are doing really well on the radio, and they’re excited about this record. They’re going to go for it, and that’s one of the things we wanted to try, simply because we’re not ready to give up on that. There are some songs that potentially could have a place on the radio. We should go after that if we have the ability and somebody who wants to do it, spend the money and get behind the songs and the band. We look forward to seeing what they may be able to pull off.
What are your expectations? Another Ocean Avenue?
On our end, we want to tour and tour some more, so if they can pull off a marketing miracle and get the band up to another level, we’ll be so grateful and we’ll roll with it and keep going. But if that doesn’t happen, we’re not in any kind of trouble. I have a lot of hope for this record to open up a lot of great opportunities for us. We don’t want to be running in place—we really want to grow. I hope the record is going to help us on our path, on our way toward those goals. ALT