Yellowcard – ‘We wanted to capture what originally made people so excited about Yellowcard’

Words: Miljan Milekić

Yellowcard are back! Like really, really back. Not only did the band have an amazing tour in the Summer of 2023, but they also released an amazing new EP ‘Childhood Eyes.’ Now, the pop punk legends are getting ready to hit the road again, this time supporting Third Eye Blind on their US tour, but not before releasing another piece of music – ‘A Hopeful Sign,’ a collaborative album with ambient post-rock duo Hammock. With so many things going on with the band, it was a perfect moment to catch up with frontman Ryan Key and talk about all these things, and much more!

Yellowcard / Photo: Acacia Evans

Hi Ryan, thank you for finding the time to do this! How have you been these days?
Ryan: Oh, man, life is wild! Yellowcard’s back together, and I’m married with a nine-week-old son. It’s a whole different universe. (laughs) But I’m very happy. I feel grateful for everything happening for the band for my family. It’s a good chapter right now.

You guys have just released your brand new record ‘A Hopeful Sign,’ along with Hammock. Can you tell me more about the idea behind the project, and how did it all come together?
Ryan: When Yellowcard decided to disband in 2016 or early 2017, I set off to make my own way, making music. At that time, it seemed very real that Yellowcard would never return to my life. I made a couple of EPs on my own and, musically, left the pop punk space. I went in a direction I had been wanting to explore for a long time, but it wasn’t right for Yellowcard. I was touring pretty extensively for both of those five-song EPs, but I would often headline a show, and I didn’t have enough material to fill 75 minutes or even an hour. So, I was sort of re-imagining and reworking old Yellowcard songs into the style of music that I was performing live. It was much more stripped down, and my vocals are much more subdued, breathy, and in the lower register.

Then, in 2020, when the pandemic arrived and touring was no longer an option, I found my way to keep making a living with music by starting a Patreon community, where I was providing new music, acoustic live streams, and things like that. So, in that process, I recorded a couple of Yellowcard songs that I had reimagined in this new way. They were very piano-centered, with a lot of strings that I was composing to go with them. I gave those songs to Patrons, which led me to have the idea to maybe put out an EP of these Yellowcard songs this way, have some friends come and do guest vocals. And this is all in 2020. So, I reached out to Jordan [Pundik] from New Found Glory, Vic [Fuentes] from Pierce The Veil, and other friends in the genre. Everyone was really excited about being a part of it, but when you ask people to do guest vocals, there is more than you’d think that goes into it. The label has to clear it, sometimes there might be a fee, so everyone was figuring all that out.

And in that time, one of the artists I asked to do one of the songs was Hammock, and that was so left of center from every other guest I was gonna have on the record. I connected with Mark Byrd from Hammock in 2017 on tour. It was a tough time for all of us in the band, mentally preparing for the end of it all, and I tweeted something about Hammock being a crutch I could lean on at the time. That led to Mark messaging me on Twitter, saying – “Don’t you live in Nashville? I live in Nashville.” So, we got together and became friends. We had a lot in common musically, and it was a really cool connection. And this long before this project came to be. But I knew Mark and Hammock were one of my favorite artists in the world and that it would be an interesting piece of the puzzle to put an ambient track with all these other songs.

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So, while everyone else was figuring out their stuff with management and labels, Mark and Andrew [Thompson] from Hammock just did a song and sent it back to me. They just nailed it over right away. I was ‘Empty Street,’ and it was a real, eye-opening moment to hear a Hammock song with me singing on it. It was surreal. I’m a huge fan. It’s like being in a movie or something. I’m in a Hammock song, you know? (laughs) But that got Mark and me to talk about it. It was so good that I was like – ”Maybe this is the vibe. Maybe it’s a collab-type thing. What if we did an EP of four or five songs?” And at that time, it would’ve been William Ryan Key and Hammock. Then, in late 2021, early 2022, the conversation about Yellowcard playing Riot Fest in Chicago started to happen. And once we agreed to play that show, things really escalated quickly as far as booking the tour in 2023. It just all started steamrolling.

So, I went back to Mark, and I said – “Hey, I’m not doing William Ryan Key music at the moment, or who knows when, because Yellowcard is taking a front seat in my life again. It’s very unexpected. But how would you feel about still moving forward with this project? I haven’t really talked to the band about it, but if you’re interested, I would love to take what you’ve done so far and show them.” And he was like – “Of course, this sounds awesome, but let’s keep it at four or five songs. That’s probably all we’ll have time for.”  So, everyone was really excited about it, especially Josh, our bassist. He’s a massive fan of Hammock, and he was blown away. And before all that, in the Summer of 2021, when I was streaming on Twitch, I had fans vote on which Yellowcard songs I should do next with piano and vocals. So, one cool fact about the album is that every song except for ‘Ocean Avenue’ and ‘Only One’ was voted on by fans in chat on my Twitch channel.

So, that led to the nine songs that ended up on the album. I sent all those demos I made on Twitch to Mark after we agreed, thinking they would pick four or five songs they liked, and that would be the record. They didn’t even call me or call us – they just did all nine. They got really into the project and were feeling really inspired – which is super cool to hear that our music could inspire them to create like that. But they did all nine songs, and we ended up with a full-length. And it’s just such an unexpected, and I think unorthodox collaboration between artists from completely different spaces in music, you know?

And there were some concerns about how fans were gonna receive it. Mark asked me once – “Do you think anyone wants this?” (laughs) And in Yellowcard’s previous experience – no, they don’t. Every time we’ve tried to do something pretty far outside the box, we have not gotten a very good result, but let’s stay the course. What matters is that we love it. So, we forged ahead and finished the album, and now that it’s here, that question has been answered. The response to the record has been just incredible. There are so many comments saying, you know – “This is the album I never knew I needed until I heard it.” Our fans, that never heard Hammock before are falling in love with them. And I’m really pumped for fans of more mainstream rock and pop rock, to find an independent, ambient post-rock artist like Hammock. I mean, they’re godfathers in the space. I mean, they don’t need our help. They’re a wildly successful artist, but it’s cool for us to be able to bring new fans to them. And hopefully, that goes both ways.

I actually love this story, as when we kicked off this website, in the Fall of 2017, one of the first shows we did was your show in Antwerpen, Belgium where you did your ambient music, along with some Yellowcard covers. And ‘A Hopeful Sign’ kind of reminded me of that, and in a way showed that this is something you wanted to do for a long time.
Ryan: Oh, yeah! With Normandy? Yeah. I had no idea what I was doing yet. That was really just slapped together. (laughs) But I think this [A Hopeful Sign] is also helpful for Yellowcard, as in a way, it scratches that itch of wanting to do something off the normal path that you’re on. When we think about approaching new music for Yellowcard, I think we will have an easier time feeling comfortable just doing what Yellowcard does. I think this helps us not necessarily need to explore the studio space quite as much on a Yellowcard album because we had this opportunity to put out something so new and different. We can go and make a straight verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, pop punk anthem album with Yellowcard. And I think this record has helped us be a little more prepared to do that.

Last year, you released your new EP ‘Childhood Eyes,’ your first release after getting back tomorrow, and the first Yellowcard music in seven years. How was it to be back in the studio and work together after all these years?
The writing process and demoing the songs were really great. It was important for us to reestablish our relationships with each other and spend some time together, talking about the future and what this all means. And those couple weeks we spent together fed into the creative side, so we had a clear focus of wanting to deliver songs that were purely Yellowcard. We wanted to capture that thing that originally made people so excited about Yellowcard, but without sounding forced and without rehashing something old. And it’s a tricky thing. It’s hard to do. But the way we reconnected was so positive that the songs came out very naturally. I think we were able to capture a lot of that core, genre-specific Yellowcard, that we had steered away from for a couple of years, feeling the need to do something like ‘A Hopeful Sign’ on our own records. And it was refreshing to get back to the original sound of the band.

And that is one of the things I love about the EP – it brings a classic Yellowcard sound, a healthy dose of nostalgia for us older fans, while at the same time, it sounds fresh and current. How challenging was it to find that balance, to take a step back, but not repeat or recycle yourselves?
Ryan: I can’t speak for everyone, but it was very challenging for me. I was coming off of a completely different musical direction that I was very focused on since 2017. For several years, I was working in a completely different space, mentally and creatively. So, it was very challenging to step back into those shoes. It was the hardest lyrically. If I wrote the lyrics to ‘Ocean Avenue’ right now, you wouldn’t like it. It wouldn’t sound right. I needed to be 23 years old when I wrote that song. So, that was a real challenge for me.

But I enjoy being challenged to make music. If it’s easy, it feels like a day job. And what’s inspiring about that? So, digging up my passion for Yellowcard after forcefully compartmentalizing it away after the band broke up took me some time. It took me some time to unlock that compartment, to find where I belong and where I fit into that music again. But the four of us together, I feel we’re pretty unstoppable when we’re really connected. When we have the same goals and the same vision for the band, we’re a force, and it feels good. I had a great support system in Sean [Mackin], Ryan [Mendez], and Josh [Portman], to help me put those shoes back on.

When I first discovered your band, I was still living in a small country in Southeast Europe, and for me and a few of my friends, Yellowcard was like a well-kept secret, despite all your success in the States. However, right now, and your recent headline tour proved it, it seems like Yellowcard is bigger than ever. Is that something you saw coming, and what do you think is behind that?
Ryan: Well, first of all, absolutely not. Our decision to break up the band was very definitive and very finite. It truly felt like the end. So, doing anything, ever again, truly was not a thought in my mind. Not even just a festival or something. It felt like it was done. So, to do anything at all, much less the biggest tour we’ve ever done in our career by a long, long shot… The tour we did last Summer was, I don’t know how much, bigger than the Fall 2004 Ocean Avenue Tour was. And I don’t know the reason. I don’t have the answer. There are no metrics. We don’t have a song on the radio. MTV isn’t a thing. There’s no TRL. We’re not on some huge playlist.

I mean, ‘Ocean Avenue’ and the top five songs still do well on Spotify and other streaming services, and we have four and a half million monthly listeners. When we picked back up, we were a little over three – which is crazy that we’ve increased by over a million monthly listeners since we came back. But still, a few million people listen to the band – that’s been there. And we quit because it felt like it was time to quit. We quit because people we weren’t selling out shows, and we felt like our music wasn’t connecting with people. It felt a bit irrelevant. And we didn’t want to run it into the ground and step away from it with a half-sold venue. We wanted to go out on our own terms, and therefore, we planned to do a very final thing. And it was amazing. The 2016 tour sold out all over the world, and we felt like we had a nice closure to the band in that way.

But some of these venues we played last summer are literally six or seven times the size of what we did in 2016, and they were selling out. The House of Blues in San Diego, I think, is either 1300 or 1600 people, and that was a venue we struggled to sell on the last couple of tours before the final tour. And last Summer, we sold 8,000 tickets at Peco Park. It’s almost eight times the number of people. Where do they come from? Yes, there’s nostalgia. People are older and have more income to spend and go to a show. All those things people will tell you, and I hear that – but how does that explain eight times? So, I don’t know, man. It’s The Force. It’s some kind of magic. (laughs) 

We’re just so grateful to be here. It’s wild to think that this huge part of your life is taken away from you, so to have it brought back to life, and then have it be bigger and better than ever… It’s hard to describe, honestly. All I know is that we are still getting incredible offers and opportunities moving forward, and no one has their sights set on like ten years from now. It’s nice to just take one thing at a time and be able to make informed collective decisions about which offers, which tours, which shows make the most sense for us and our families and our future. As opposed to ten years ago, when we were just chasing. We had to take every show ’cause we were just trying to make whatever money we could and make a living. And it just kept sliding downhill a little bit every year.

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This is the first time in 20 years that we’ve been successful enough to make decisions not based just purely on survival. We’re able to make decisions that might lead to bigger opportunities later. And if they don’t, no one’s gonna cry about the fact that we sold 8,000 tickets in San Diego. And if that’s how we ride off into the sunset, then shit, what else can you ask for? But I think we do have some incredible life left in the band. I think there are several years ahead of us where we’re going to have great success and do amazing things together. But it’s okay if we don’t. I’m at peace with the journey we’ve been on and just taking one thing at a time.

And as a fan of the band for 20 years now, I am happy to see you going stronger than ever. So, is there a chance we will see you in Canada anytime soon? Perhaps in cities not called Toronto, Vancouver, or Montreal?
Ryan: Dude, this Summer is not our fault! It’s not our tour! But we know! (laughs) Back in the mid-2000s, and then I think in 2011, we would just do a Canadian tour. It didn’t have to be attached. I’m sure there’s room for that, we just gotta figure it out. And again, all these things – touring here or there, these decisions have to be calculated now, because of where we are in our lives as adults with our families.

We have desperately wanted to go back to South America for so long now, but we just cannot find an opportunity that barely even covers our flights to go there. So, those are the types of situations where it’s just hard to make it work, you know? I don’t know what was behind Live Nation’s decision last Summer to not dip into Canada. I’m sure they had their reasons, and I apologize deeply to the fans. And again, this Summer, we’re direct support, so it’s really, REALLY out of our hands. But, I think up until very late in our career, we were pretty consistent with our touring in Canada. We love our fans there, and we’re gonna try to make it work in the future.

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*Interview edited for length and clarity

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