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Yellowcard are Suddenly Huge Again — And They Don’t Know Why

Yellowcard’s career trajectory has been anything but ordinary. The Florida-bred, violin-assisted foursome’s signature hit, the nostalgic title track of their 2003 major-label debut Ocean Avenue, is now a beloved pop-punk classic. But years went by without another smash, and by 2017, with their career seemingly stalled out for good, they broke up. Last year, they came together for what was supposed to be a single performance at Chicago’s Riot Fest, only to realize they were on the brink of something big.

“We have a running joke,” says lead singer and songwriter Ryan Key, “that when the pandemic hit and the world was sort of on the brink, that maybe the world did actually end and we’re in an alternate timeline now, and that’s why the band is so big.” A combination of millennial nostalgia and a new wave of young pop-punk fans seems to be a more likely explanation, but in any case, Yellowcard’s current Ocean Avenue 20th anniversary tour is selling out some of the largest-capacity venues of their career. They’ve recorded a strong new EP, too, the just-released Childhood Eyes. On a day off from the tour, Key discusses the band’s newfound success — and takes a deep look back at the album that started it all. 

I wanted to dig back into the Ocean Avenue era a little. First of all, can you share what you remember about the very first sparks of inspiration for the title track, how it came together musically and lyrically?
It was one of the last things that we recorded before we had to be out of the studio. The chorus vocals were the piece of the puzzle that was missing… We were going to finish it later, and it was just going to be a B-side. Isn’t that that wild?

I could not find a melody for the chorus that we were all excited about. I had the melody of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” in rehearsal, and everyone looked at me like I had two heads because I hadn’t figured out it was a Cyndi Lauper song that I was singing over the Yellowcard song. It became very hard to un-hear that melody. Every time I was playing I was like, “Stop thinking that.” I tried all these different new melodies and none of them got past [producer] Neal Avron. He’s the gatekeeper for whether it goes on an album or not.

One day I walked in, exhausted and almost defeated at this point, and I sang, “if I could find you now, things will get better.” And Avron was like, “That is it! Go in there. Record that right now.” I tracked it on the spot and our lives were changed forever.

I think you’ve said the song “Ocean Avenue” is more about a time in your lives than about a specific girl but, was there in fact a specific relationship you were writing about?
There is a moment that inspired some of it. I had a group of close friends: three brothers and their sister that I grew up through high school with. Before we were leaving for California, they were moving as a family back to Mississippi. I remember sitting in their house, it was empty with no furniture. So we were sitting in folding chairs, just having that last night. There was this feeling of your youth dying. I can think about it and remember this feeling of loss, the end of an era for us all. 

But the origin of the song came from some lyrics I had in a notebook. I had [the verse] down. In rehearsal, we came up with a rhythmic idea to go with that, which became the hook that you hear at the top of the song… “Ocean Avenue” is one of those unique songs where it’s actually hard to say if the verse or the chorus is the reason why it’s a hit.

“Ocean Avenue” is such an affectionate look back at being 16. What was your daily life like in Jacksonville at that age?
It was less about the geographical location and more about the experience. You hear more people dying to get out of high school and go to college… but I went to an art school called Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. I was a theater major and the environment that I was in at that time was so creative. It was so inspiring. My friend group [and I] were artists at such a young age. We were creating together, we were performing together, we were collaborating. We would work with our friends in the visual arts department to do artwork for our little self-made cassettes that we would sell at school… I think of Jacksonville as this place that inspired me to head out into the world and become an artist.

I really love the new EP. You guys sound super-energized.“Three Minutes More” seems to touch on the desire to move beyond the past but still feel that strong nostalgia. How do you see that balance working in your mind?
I think that we’ve spent the better part of our career subconsciously and inevitably chasing Ocean Avenue. You’re always going to be clawing and fighting to get back to that mountaintop, that pinnacle moment. We never got back to that level of success again. Unfortunately, that subconscious mindset is one of many factors that led to us thinking it was time for the band to end forever in 2017.

I didn’t want to hang the whole EP on the Yellowcard experience, but I felt like it needed to be addressed… I think this song specifically is the first time I’ve dealt with the idea of chasing that moment as opposed to living in the present, and the idea that I’m still willing to try again with a fresh perspective and mindset.

Does that idea feel more omnipresent than ever as you celebrate 20 years since the band’s biggest moment?
It’s funny how we don’t feel like we are chasing anything anymore. It’s safe to say that the band is bigger than we’ve ever been in our entire career right now. That is such an interesting thing to get your head around, because we’re not on the radio. Not that there even is an MTV anymore, but if there was, we wouldn’t be on it. Some of those commercial factors that led to the meteoric rise of the band in 2004, ’05, ’06, we don’t have those, but we are selling more tickets than we ever could have imagined that we would.

You’re at bigger venues too. How does that feel?
We’ve never played any of these venues. I was afraid that I was going to have this sort of, “where have you been all my life?” mentality for all the people at these shows. Instead, I’m filled with an unbelievable sense of gratitude. We’re playing for between five and seven thousand people a night. Towards the end of the show, I ask everyone, “Have you seen us play before? Have you seen us but not in a while? Is this your first time seeing Yellowcard play?” And I’m not exaggerating, it is 50, 60 percent of the crowd [who are first-timers]. And then I make a comment hoping that we’ve made an impression that will keep them coming back to see us again, because we don’t know what comes next. I don’t think we’re really that concerned about it, either. We’ve never operated on that plane before, never in our career. We’ve always been thinking about how to turn what we’re doing into the next thing. It’s not that that’s completely absent right now, but there’s no fear of loss: there’s no financial stress, there’s no inner band bickering or bad attitude. We’re keeping that mentality of staying present and in the moment and really soaking this up as if we’re not going to get to do this again.

Did you start recording the EP before you saw the fans’ excitement for the tour?
We were already working on it knowing that we were going to release something before the tour started. I was in L.A. recording vocals the day of the on sale for the tour. I remember laying in bed. I rolled over and opened my eyes to 30 missed calls from our manager and our booking agent. [Our manager, Kristen Harris] started rattling off ticket sales on the first day. It was a tear-filled, goosebumps moment for the three of us together on the phone.

We were all terrified of these venue sizes. We understand that there is an element of nostalgia, an element of celebration with the 20th anniversary of Ocean Avenue, an element of people missing the band because we’ve been gone for six or seven years. But how can that possibly translate to five or six times the amount of tickets we normally sell in some of these markets? It was shocking.

The new track “Childhood Eyes” is a really strong song, and the chorus is explicitly about reconnecting with your youthful spirit. What’s going on in your life that inspired the song?
What I tried to do with that song was personify my experience in the music business. The dark force that I’m grappling with in that song is an industry that is designed to keep you down. It’s why only the select few break through and are able to have successful careers. It’s hard and it’s sad and it’s gross a lot of the time. I wanted to evaluate where I was at this point in my life and my relationship with music.

On paper, no one should have this opportunity. No one should go through what we went through, make some of the bad decisions we’ve made in our career, lose the commercial success that we once had, and then wind up playing a close to sold out tour in amphitheaters. 

The band blew up when you were all in your early twenties. In 2012, you told Mark Hoppus that was challenging because you were molded into people’s perception instead of paving your own path. Have you been able to reconcile that in the 20 years since the debut?
Speaking for myself — because with something like that it’s hard to speak for everyone in the band —  I have certainly reconciled all of it. I’m not carrying any baggage. We meditate every night right before we walk on stage. We have a wellness lounge on the tour where we do it. It’s a completely different experience being in Yellowcard now versus being in Yellowcard 20 years ago. So I don’t carry that stuff around anymore. I feel very free of it. I hope that fans coming to these shows can feel what a changed person I believe that I am, and just how grateful we all are to be up there.

What was it like playing the 9/11-inspired “Believe” to a sold out show at Pier 17 recently, just steps away from One World Trade Center?
That song has always been a really special one for a lot of people, especially when we play it in New York and New Jersey. It was remarkable… being on that stage with the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center behind us, what a backdrop for that moment. New Yorkers are forever attached and scarred by that moment in time. If we have a piece of music that helps people feel good for a moment in regards to that experience, then we’re just happy that we can do that for people. 

A lot of the appeal of Ocean Avenue and your current tour come from a nostalgic place. How do you manage to use that feeling to your advantage? Do you discuss this theme with your tourmates, Story of the Year and Mayday Parade? 
What we try to figure out on tour is the answer to how these shows are as big as they are. No one can figure it out. There’s nostalgia. There are people that were too young to come to shows before. Fans are a little older now, and they have steady jobs and disposable income that they can spend on a concert. But we all are still baffled. It is fascinating to try to understand how and why we’ve been given this opportunity this late in the game.

Maybe there is no answer, right? That’s kind of one of the most frustrating things…
It’s not frustrating because it’s one of those things in keeping with the mentality of not trying to chase the past or recreate some moment that you’re not going to because you’re not 23, you’re 43. I don’t need an answer… It’s fun trying to figure it out. But whatever it is, we just want it to keep happening. It doesn’t matter the why or the how.

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Back in 2006, you actually told Rolling Stone that you think you’ve “made the first step towards being a band that may pass the test of time.” How does it feel to see that prediction coming through?
It’s so funny because I don’t remember saying that, especially not to Rolling Stone. I said that because I felt like we had taken this huge step forward with the songwriting and the production of Lights and Sounds, the album. We were so focused on proving to the world that we could do more than a three-chord pop song. And it didn’t work. 

That is such a cocky thing to say. There’s so much ego in that statement. And that’s kind of a lot of what I’ve talked about, breaking all that stuff down and trying to understand why I would say something like that. It feels so much better to say we are a band that withstood the test of time now, because saying that comes with gratitude, appreciation, humbleness, and love for what we do and the fans that have supported us and brought us this far in the face of me saying stupid things like that. Fans have forgiven and embraced who we are now and given us this chance, and that is all that matters.  It feels good for me to be able to say, that’s not actually what I meant. I was actually kind of being a little shit right there.

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