Ryan Key Plays a New Yellowcard

Westword's July 5 profile of Yellowcard frontman Ryan Key only scrapes the surface of the wide-ranging interview that forms the backbone of the article. Key has a lot to say, as you can see below.

Among the major topics: Speculation that Paper Walls, the latest Yellowcard CD, was rushed into stores because its predecessor, Lights and Sounds, was a commercial disappointment; Key's hope that Sounds will become for others what Weezer's Pinkerton disc is for him; various lineup shuffles, including the departure of Yellowcard guitarist/co-founder Ben Harper under difficult circumstances; which Paper Walls songs do, and do not, address the Harper split; a throat ailment that doomed Sounds and forced Key into surgery; the six weeks of silence that followed the operation, which gave Key time for plenty of personal reflection, and caused people trying to communicate with him to act as if he were deaf; the genesis of "Dear Bobbie," arguably the most sentimental Yellowcard to date; and his reaction to cynics of the sort he associates with Spin magazine.

Your reactions are welcome as well:

Westword (Michael Roberts): Paper Walls is coming out hot on the heels, more or less, of Lights and Sounds, and there’s been some speculation that’s because Lights didn’t do as well as you’d hoped. Is there any truth to that? Or is it just gossip?

Ryan Key: Isn’t speculation fun, man? The thing with that is, people tend not to be able to analyze all the facts and all the reasons why, and they sort of develop their own opinion why. Of course, Ocean Avenue sold two million copies and Lights and Sounds sold 500,000, so that’s everyone’s opinion immediately. But for us, in Yellowcard, when we look at the two records, I think it’s better to look at them in terms of levels of success instead of levels of failure. Lights and Sounds is still a gold record, and in today’s music business, to get a gold record is next to impossible. So if you’re going to call that a failure in your career, you’ve got a real problem with perspective on things. The fact is, I had surgery last year on my vocal cords in the middle of the tour for Sounds, which absolutely threw a huge wrench into the machine for about eight weeks, and really killed a lot of the buzz that was going on the record. The second single had just gone out, and we’d just finished making a video for it, and suddenly we disappeared, and we couldn’t be on the road for almost two months. And then, when we were able to get back on the road, you could kind of feel that had happened. The train had kind of stopped moving. And the logical thought process was, we did our best, we got out, we toured hard, we had a huge hang-up with the surgery – so what do we do now? Let’s get back in the studio. Let’s start fresh. For me personally, after the surgery, I was probably in the best place I’d ever been in my life. I had a lot of time to stop and think and talk to myself about myself instead of – no offense to you or other people I interview with – but instead of talking to other people about myself. And I got a lot figured out during that time. So when we went back on the road, we just decided to go back into the studio, and I don’t think it’s the records’ fault. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. Circumstances just are what we are, and we still got a gold record out of it. Nobody’s disappointed here. We’re just looking forward to Paper Walls and ready to get back out on the road again.

WW: You’ve touched on a couple of things I wanted to talk with you about. One is that you got a gold record, and I’ve read that it sold over a million worldwide. In this market, that’s excellent. Is it frustrating to you that that kind of performance can’t be put into better context?

RK: It is frustrating that because you sold X on one and Y on another, they’re compared to each other. My favorite Weezer record is Pinkerton, and everybody hated that record and it didn’t sell shit compared to the blue record before it, which sold three or four million copies. But it doesn’t make it not my favorite record. In a lot of ways, I kind of hope for Lights and Sounds to be Yellowcard’s Pinkerton.

WW: So you hope that people, when they go back and listen to that disc in a more objective light, will really respond to it?

RK: For sure. We’re very proud of it. It’s a record where we took a lot of chances musically. I took a lot of chances lyrically. I hesitate to use the word “dark,” but there isn’t really another word that’s appropriate for something like that. It was a very dark record, it was a very dark time in my life, it was a dark time in the band. We were very separated from each other. We’d been on the road for almost two years straight. We’d been through the whole thing with Alex and Pete and the stress of becoming larger than life than maybe we were ready to become larger than life, and all those things were factored into writing Lights and Sounds. I think that now we have Paper Walls, which is really the story of finding yourself after all of that. So you can’t expect Lights and Sounds to be the forward-thinking, find-your-place-in-the-world record that Ocean Avenue was, because it wasn’t. There were no pretenses from us that it was going to be like that. So I do hope people come back one day and say, “Wow, Lights and Sounds really does have a lot of depth to it. The band really stepped out on a limb and walked to the edge and looked over it with this record, and pushed themselves as far as they could go.”

WW: You mentioned a lot of the drama that was going on during the making of that record, and right afterward, if I have my chronology correct, Ben left. You guys have been pretty vague about that particular split. Have you avoided getting more specific because it was so painful? Or is it more a matter of, it’s personal.

RK: It’s both, really. In all aspects of it, it was a traumatic experience. Ben started Yellowcard. Ben is the reason I’m in Yellowcard. He came to me when I was twenty years old and miserable in college and said, “Come back to Jacksonville and play with us.” And the biggest reason is because of the circumstances of what happened and the things that led up to it, I think it’s in the best interests of Ben and any career he’d like to have in the future that the story is not told from our point of view. You know, it was a really hard thing to go through and it was really hard to not stand up and say, “We’re right and he’s wrong,” or whatever. But I don’t think that’s the right way to be. I think it’s better if we just pack up and move on and wish the best to Ben. It’s just not something where we wanted to air the laundry in public.

WW: Those Internet reports, which we’ve already established aren’t always that accurate, say that “Shadows and Regrets” and “Five Become Four” are about the Ben situation. Is that correct, or totally bogus?

RK: “Five Becomes Four” is definitely, pretty directly about the situation. “Shadows and Regrets” has nothing to do with it at all. But “Five Becomes Four,” it was really hard to get through the album and not touch on that subject. It was something weighing really heavily on the band and definitely on my heart, and I’m really proud of that song, and I’m really proud of the way it was constructed, and the way the lyrics came together. I don’t think it’s offensive or slanderous at all. I think it’s a really genuine and heartfelt letter to Ben about what happened.

WW: Those lyrics are written in such a way that listeners might not necessarily look at them and say, “That’s definitely about the Ben situation.” They could probably be applied in a whole lot of different ways.

RK: Definitely. There’s a huge theme in that song about abandonment. You did this for me, and maybe I wasn’t always grateful enough, but why would you do this to me now? Why would this relationship go the way it’s going now? There’s definitely a lot of questioning about why things happened. The biggest thing is, I just hope that he’s going to move forward with his life in a positive way, and I think that shows through in the song as well.

WW: Let’s touch on the throat situation. What were the early symptoms? How did they start? And did you try to ignore them at first? Or did you know right away that something really serious was wrong?

RK: I started losing my voice a lot in August of 2005. I had started having a little bit of trouble in the studio, recording Lights and Sounds, but once we got on the road, in August up until December, I was pretty bad. We had cancel a couple of shows here and there, but in December, we had to cancel a lot of stuff. We canceled a run to Europe, and we canceled two weeks worth of shows in the States, too. And that was just miserable, because we never, ever cancel shows. At that point, I went in and started working regularly with a vocal coach and eating differently and not drinking as much and doing all the things you need to do to fix the problem without having surgery.

WW: Did that help?

RK: Unfortunately, it didn’t. We worked for four, five months, and after getting a couple of opinions from a couple of doctors, and we this nodule that I had, it had gotten to the point where it wasn’t going to go down on its own, and we were going to have to go in and operate. We had the surgery in May.

WW: I found a piece on Spin that reported you were having surgery, and the item asked, “Are throat problems the new exhaustion?” – as if the situation was being used as a convenient excuse to back out of the tour. Was that irritating – that some people didn’t realize how serious your situation was?

RK: Well, I think Spin magazine is a bad publication to look at anything in the mainstream pop-rock market. Anything like that, they’re going to have something not nice to say about it. Like, they once wrote about us going to a party at the Video Music Awards, and the party got shut down because of the fire marshal. It said Yellowcard didn’t get in because the fire marshal showed up and it was over capacity and the whole party got shut down – and then, in parentheses, it said, “Not, as one might think, simply because they’re Yellowcard.” That’s their deal. If they want to say I was copping out on something, that’s fine. But why I wouldn’t want to be touring on a brand new record and a brand new single, I don’t understand that at all. Why I would want to go have surgery on my vocal cords – why I would elect to do that? I don’t know.

WW: Did your doctors say this surgery might not fix everything, and this surgery might be career-endangering? Or did you have a pretty good sense that if you had the surgery, things were going to be okay?

RK: It was one of those one percent things – like, “Before you go in, we’ve got to tell you, there is a chance that you could come out and your voice could sound totally different,” or X, Y and Z could happen. But they also made it clear that those were pretty much disclaimers. I really had a lot of trust in my doctor. I knew it was going to be good.

WW: After the surgery, did you have to remain silent for a while?

RK: Six weeks, maybe.

WW: Six weeks?

RK: I started out – I did four, and then they asked me to do another two. But I went the first four without making a sound the entire time. And when I went to the doctor’s office the first time and spoke, I was like, “Wow, there I am.” It was insane, man. It was insane. When you go out, I would have a notepad, or I’d just turn the font up as big as I could on my BlackBerry to show people. And people talk to you like you’re deaf. They talk really loud and slow. And I’d be like, “I can hear you. I just can’t talk.” But it was a real time to get in touch with myself and reflect on what’s happened up to that point and what I wanted to happen next, because you’re kind of all alone in the world at that point, you know.

WW: Did you come to any big-picture conclusions during those weeks of silence?

RK: I think my biggest conclusion is that I wanted to go on, go forward with everything we were doing, and not take anything for granted. I really wanted to get out, and I understood what was probably going to happen with Lights and Sounds up to that point, and we had worked as hard as we could up to that point, and that was probably going to be close to the end of that record cycle just because of the surgery. And I was looking forward to writing new songs and making a new record, which then became Paper Walls.

WW: When you were given permission to start speaking and, presumably shortly after that, to start singing again, was it a little bit like being a football player who blew out his knee – that you’re a little afraid to make that first hard cut because something could go wrong?

RK: It was a little difficult at first. I had to relearn a lot of things. My muscles had just trained themselves to sing around this giant, hard-rock bump on my vocal cord, and now it wasn’t there anymore. So I had a little trouble with controlling things, controlling my pitches and stuff. But it’s way better now. It’s like being eighteen again.

WW: Now that your past that transition stage, it feels better than it ever has?

RK: Absolutely. It feels like I have a brand new set of cords.

WW: The new album seems to be front-loaded with harder, heavier material. Was that something you did consciously? Did you really want to grab people right out of the gate?

RK: We always want to do that. But the way we wrote Paper Walls, having all five bandmembers in the same room writing so much of the material from the beginning to the end – that’s the energy you get from Yellowcard when we’re all together. You get a real high energy, real driving sense of music from us. The songs that were written out of the band room, i.e. “Keeper” and “Light Up the Sky” and “Dear Bobbie” – songs like that – are the ones that are a little more left of center, a little more backed of in terms of that energy. But all the songs that were written with the five of us standing in a room together are really in your face and really driving through the tracks. We definitely wanted to front-load the record so people would be like, “Wow, that’s more energy than I know what to do with.”

WW: You mentioned “Dear Bobbie,” which is a flat-out tearjerker. One review that’s already out there compared it to The Notebook. How did that song come about?

RK: I’ve been working on that song for a long time, and I didn’t really know if it was going to be a Yellowcard song or not. The original version of it was really twangy and country. It was very much Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash inspired, and I thought that might not fit, might not have a place on a Yellowcard album. But when it really started to come together, I wanted it to be a part of Paper Walls, so I started to hone in the focus of the song and figure out how to make it work with the rest of the body of work. And once it got focused enough to be a part of Paper Walls, I got my grandfather, who’s 87 years old, to write a letter to my grandmother, who he’s been married to for 58 years. A big theme in Yellowcard’s music and my lyrics has always been the strength of family and how important family has been to me, whether it’s been good or bad. My experiences with my family have been a big part of my developing as an adult and as a person. So this one was really important. You’re listening to the head of the table in my family, pretty much, speak about the most important thing in his life. I’m really proud of that song. Yellowcard the band is really proud of that song.

WW: That’s one of those nakedly personal songs that the folks at Spin magazine are going to go after. Did that go through your mind when you were making it?

RK: Man, if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. That’s what I always say. I’m not going to pay attention to the people who don’t like it. It’s much more enjoyable to pay attention to the people who do like it, and embrace that. Whoever it is that wants to criticize can feel free. It’s not something we linger on or let ruin our days. Because we love what we do and that’s that. That’s that.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts