As they celebrate its 20th anniversary, Yellowcard vocalist William Ryan Key joins us to talk through the making of their landmark album ‘Ocean Avenue’, performing it live in full and how revisiting it helped inspire latest EP ‘Childhood Eyes’.
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When Yellowcard broke up in 2017, they really meant it. A combination of declining ticket sales and seismic shifts in the music industry meant that it was no longer feasible to continue as a band, something vocalist William Ryan Key is candid about now. “We decided to call a time of death for the band because we had a nice surge and a lot of success right at the beginning,” he says. After touring hard for several years and releasing a handful of records, in 2011, the band signed to Hopeless Records. For the next four or five years, each year saw the numbers go down. “It’s taboo to talk about it, but at the end of the day we are trying to make a living. This is our job. When you’re not making the money that you need to, you have to take that into account and we did. It just didn’t look good.”
Things look a lot better today. The band are back together, anticipating the release of their new EP ‘Childhood Eyes’ and touring for the 20 year anniversary of 2003’s ‘Ocean Avenue’. Now, ticket sales are soaring–more than they ever have been. “The fact that it’s 2023 and this is the biggest tour we’ve ever done in our career is hard to digest. I don’t understand it.” It’s not rhetorical – it seems as if Key wants an answer, something that will make it make sense. “I know there’s a resurgence in the early ‘00s pop punk movement, but none of that helps me to understand how we went from breaking up to almost 8000 tickets in our hometown.”
One thing is for sure: Key, and the rest of the band, are excited for the future. Key thinks that ‘Childhood Eyes’ recalls the sound of 2007’s ‘Paper Walls’, and he knows that longtime fans are going to love it. It even features a guest spot from Florida emo royalty Chris Carrabba, a friend of Key’s who helped guide him through the difficult non-Yellowcard years. “I knew it was going to be this big anthem-esque acoustic track, so I knew Chris was the guy. When he comes in on that last chorus and you hear that guttural Dashboard vocal, it’s so cool. Having him on a song that I wrote is awesome.”
The ‘Ocean Avenue’ tour reignited a love for playing shows, and now he can’t wait to do it all over again with new music. “What’s special about the shows where we play the whole album is that you get to see that connection that people have with that record. It was a monumental thing in our lives to look back on.”
Here, Key dives into that monumental record.
Coming off the back of Key’s first album with Yellowcard, ‘One For the Kids’, ‘Ocean Avenue’ was their first on Capitol Records. “I don’t really understand how we got signed to Capitol in the first place. Fans loved ‘One For the Kids’, but I’ve been in the music business for 20 years, and that’s not a record that gets you signed to a major label,” he says now. “We didn’t get signed to Capitol based on our songwriting skills. We got signed because we were touring so hard and building this fanbase.”
Yellowcard are the only band associated with mid-00s pop punk to have a full-time violinist, Sean Mackin, and it’s the strings that set the sound of ‘Ocean Avenue’ apart. “It’s definitely unique and I think it opened a lot of doors for us as songwriters to bring in a lot of the acoustic music that we’ve made,” says Key. “I think it did add another layer to our production and our songwriting, having a classical instrument in the band. It is also a fascinating thing to come to a rock and roll show and see him raging with a violin in his hand.”
On ‘Ocean Avenue’, as on every other Yellowcard record, orchestral arrangements are central to the sound. Viola player Rodney Wirtz joined them for ‘One For the Kids’, and the addition of cellist Christine Choi bulked out ‘Ocean Avenue’. “Sean wrote and arranged everything and he conducted them while they were playing. They came in on ‘Ocean Avenue’ and worked with Sean on writing and arranging all of the parts.” He says. Key also credits producer Neal Avron with some of the more interesting production choices–like a triangle in the pre-chorus that you’ll never unhear. “It is so loud in the mix, next time you listen to the song you’ll hear it,” promises Key.
“Neal is as much a part of the band that created ‘Ocean Avenue’ as the five of us,” says Key, calling connecting with “lifelong friend and mentor” Avron for this album his “fondest memory” of making it. “When we went in to make ‘Ocean Avenue’, we got to work with Neal for the first time. That was the real game changer. That was the first time that we had a musical mind like that come in and take apart what we were working on and put it back together in a way that made sense,” says Key. Since then, Avron has worked on all of their records. “He really helped us to focus on the best parts of our ideas.”
“He changed my life forever. Out of all the memories from that time, I cannot overstate how much I learned from Neal about songwriting and what my strengths and weaknesses as a songwriter are.” That experience transformed what the band believed they were capable of: “We thought ‘Ocean Avenue’ was really amazing, we loved the songs, we had never heard our music mixed and mastered like that.” The story of him producing the record is a long, funny one. As Key tells it, they were excited to work with Eric Valentine, but Capitol messed up the guest list for a show in Hollywood and he didn’t get to go to see them. Instead, Neal flew up to San Francisco to come to their next show and hang out. “He talked about how interested he was in our songwriting and in the violin being part of the band. There was something about his energy. There was no question.”
Key says that Neal’s temperament made the sound on ‘Ocean Avenue’ and every record since. “He is such a kind person. There are plenty of bands who have gotten massive off more abrasive styles of production, but Neal’s temperament is such a huge part of his process. He keeps the band calm and holds the relationships within the band together throughout the process without hostility. You always end up with a product that everyone’s happy with.” Key calls Avron the “sixth member of the band”: “I can’t say enough what an incredible human being he is, just what a kind person he is. He’ll open his home to you. We became family. That’s a relationship you can’t take for granted in this business.”
The lyrics of ‘Ocean Avenue’ grapple with things that every young adult can relate to: complicated relationships, loss, and leaving home for the first time. They’re a part of what made the album not only so successful, but connected it to such a huge audience. “Lyrically, the reason the record was so successful in 2003 is that pretty much everything on that album is dealing with stepping off the cliff into adulthood on your own.” Key says that, to have the success it did, the record had to come out in 2003, when Warped Tour was reaching its peak and excitement around third wave emo was starting to build. “Me penning lyrics about leaving home and having this wide-eyed hopefulness about the future, what other 23 year old kid who was listening to the radio wasn’t ready for those songs? It was the perfect time.”
Key adds that, for the most part, Yellowcard were playing shows to people their own age who related to the things he was saying. At that time, the band felt like nomads in the scene, unconnected from other bands either in the East or in California. “We were from Florida, and there weren’t a lot of bands getting out and doing it from our hometown. We struggled with that a little bit in the beginning, because there was this inherent need to not be included in the scene. We didn’t know we were a part of something bigger than ourselves.” Yellowcard stayed in their own bubble, and while he now feels like he’s better at cultivating relationships with other artists, the fingerprints of that outsider status are all over ‘Ocean Avenue’. The lyrics deal with missing home and becoming disillusioned with Los Angeles – fitting to look back on, now that Key has moved back to Florida.
On the cover of ‘Ocean Avenue’, a beautiful woman, model Brittany Nash, sits in front of a Pacific Ocean sunset. “The first two or three years that we were signed to Capitol Records, we had an amazing team,” says Key. “Musically, they were not involved. Nobody was ever whispering in our ear, we didn’t have any pressure, and that extended into the creative departments.” he credits how smart and creative the team were with their VMA win for ‘Ocean Avenue’. The art director at Capitol, Mary Fagot, always knew exactly what the cover should look like. “She wanted to have a sunset on the Pacific Ocean with the silhouette of a beautiful girl that you don’t know. You don’t know who she is, where she’s from, her story. That’s what she wanted. All you know is that you’re looking at this epic summer moment of hope and mystery. That’s what that picture is. It’s so simple,” says Key. The photo, taken by Sasha Eisenman, is backlit, blurring Nash’s identity slightly. “Mary achieved her goal, 100%.”
While the lyrics are full of the band’s inner turmoil over despising LA and missing home, the entirety of ‘Ocean Avenue’ calls back to Jacksonville while remaining rooted in LA. The cover itself, shot near Santa Monica pier, makes Yellowcard a firmly California band, even when they didn’t want to be. Key says that his favourite track on the record is ‘Back Home’, a song about missing home while lamenting the artifice of LA: “There’s nothing real for them to see here”. “I left home because I wanted to get out of here. There was a lot of baggage here, there was a lot of history that I can look back at and say I was running away from and not dealing with. This was my way out. You can hear in the lyrics that there was a deep connection with my place here and where I grew up.”
The title itself, however, represents the tie between the two cities, the tug in Key’s heart. It’s a reference to a street in Jacksonville called Ocean Boulevard, accidentally becoming one to Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. “I just changed it to rhyme the lyrics,” he says now, but it is intended as a reference to Jacksonville, even if it feels confused. “The album holds a really strong connection to that lifeline that is home.”
After such a long break, Yellowcard have returned to the studio and to touring with a new approach to working together. “Coming back after so much change, there is such a different mindset and energy in the room. Things don’t need to matter so much. Things don’t need to bother everyone so much, and we’re all feeling that way.” He says that their new investment in making it work comes with age, and he doesn’t want to let that go anytime soon. ‘Childhood Eyes’ and the upcoming tour are just the start of a new era for the band–they’re bigger than ever, and they don’t want to lose this opportunity. “Now that all of this has come to fruition and it’s so much bigger than we ever imagined it could be, we are officially a band again. We’re talking about making more music. I want people to be really excited and blown away by the show so that this time around we can make really smart choices and decisions as artists and as a business.” That being said, though, if this is it–they’ve had a good run. “We are so grateful. We’re not chasing that 2004 success anymore. We’re just happy to be here, and that is a very different mindset than the band has ever had before.”
‘Ocean Avenue’ is available now. ‘Childhood Eyes’ is out July 21st via Pure Noise Records.