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YELLOWCARD – Live Rock Band

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Put aside the usual pigeonholes, things like style and genre classifications – it takes much more for a band to really make a personal connection with people. Yellowcard understand this. The Ventura-based punk quintet (by way of Jacksonville, Florida), have made that direct musical connection in each of the hundreds of shows they’ve played at all-ages punk nights, rock dives, school events, suburban VFW halls, living rooms, back yards and any of the other places they play over 200 nights a year. It’s a mature insight for five young guys who don’t take themselves too seriously, but then Yellowcard – Ryan Key, 23 (vocals, guitars); Sean Mackin, 24 (violin, vocals); Ben Harper, 22 (guitar); Longineu Parsons, 23 (drums); and Alex Lewis, 25 – aren’t your typical young punk band — starting with the classically-trained violinist in their ranks. And they’ve now created a powderkeg of affecting, personal and explosive rock on their new album, Ocean Avenue.

Yellowcard formed in 1997 but quickly made some lineup changes. Current singer Ryan Key was friends with most of the band from their high school days in Jacksonville, Florida. He and Sean Mackin, in particular, were close friends and both enrolled at Florida State University after graduating.

Key dropped out of college after only half a year, moving to Santa Cruz to follow his heart and make music. He played with a couple of punk bands in California and Florida but nothing really stuck. Yellowcard guitarist Ben Harper saw one of Key’s band practices and quickly extended an invitation to him to jam with the rest of the band – as luck would have it, they had jettisoned their current singer and were looking for a replacement.

“We started playing some songs I had written,” remembers Key, “and it all just clicked. Sean and I had always been really tight and I had a good relationship with the rest of the guys. It just seemed to work very naturally somehow.” Yellowcard were now a complete band and Key convinced the band that they needed to move from Florida to Southern California to have a real shot of catching their aspirations. They would move to Ventura County and quickly find their collective voice together, playing many of the songs Key wrote on his own before joining the group. Most of these were recorded on their debut album, One For The Kids (Lobster Records), released in 2001, and the 2002 follow-up, The Underdog EP (Fueled By Ramen Records). Both releases received favorable reviews and genuine buzz, particularly for the group’s upbeat, honest music. Ocean Avenue, Yellowcard’s debut for Capitol Records, was produced by Neal Avron and mixed by Tom-Lord-Alge. On the album, themes of self-empowerment and self-awareness reveal themselves throughout the 13 songs on tracks like “Believe” and “Inside Out.” And there is a conspicuous lack of irony or sarcasmÉsincerity rules. “We’re definitely a positive band,” says Key. “We want to take experiences in our life and use them in a productive way, to encourage people not to let anybody tell them what to do with their life.” Ocean Avenue offers a passionate brand of upbeat punk — but with a twist, complementing the standard band setup with the exotic (by rock standards, anyway) inclusion of a violin as a rhythm instrument, played by Sean Mackin. It makes their songs stand out, says Key. “I write the verses and the chorus and then let the band take it from there. They come up with any new kind of rhythms or chord structures that they can to just make the songs more interesting, to make them better. It’s a very equal-parts thing that comes out really strong.”

Ocean Avenue’s opener, “Way Away,” finds Key speaking to the idea that people are ultimately the masters of their own destiny. “We’re talking about really owning up to what you want to do in your life,” he explains of the song. He cites his own personal journey from dropping out of college to pursue his dream of being a songwriter, and the band’s decision to leave their hometown of Jacksonville for California. “It’s like, I’m not going to stay here just because you tell me I have to. A lot of those people who say that are doing the 9-to-5 and they’re not happy. You have to do what you want to do.”

On other songs, Yellowcard cull directly from their lives. On “Only One,” Key talks specifically about the recent breakup with his girlfriend. “I can’t stand albums where every song is about some chick who broke your heart,” laughs Key. This song is different, though, he says. “I made the decision to end the relationship because it was the right thing to do, even though I’m not sure exactly why, and this song is about knowing it was right but still trying to understand it.”

On “Miles Apart,” Yellowcard reflect on the divergence of friends’ lives after seminal periods like high school. “Twentythree” is about youthful idealism giving way to maturity. And the frenzied pace of the song stands out on Ocean Avenue, as do the vocals, done not by Key but by Mackin. “It’s amazing how Sean can sing a song and it still sounds like Yellowcard,” says Key. By design, the end of the album feels like arriving at the end of an emotional journey. The final song is “Back Home,” a counterpoint to the album’s opener, “Way Away.” If that opener is about the brash pursuit of personal dreams, “Back Home,” is a sentimental reflection on what was left behind. “Sometimes when you’ve gone out to do what you want to do, you miss what you left – home, security, friends, family, safety,” explains Key. “We wanted to end the record with that kind of reflection.”

Indeed, it’s that kind of wise-beyond-their-years sensibility that has helped Yellowcard stand out from the pack. In 2002, they joined the West Coast leg of the famed Warped Tour, a breakout stint for the band, and they soon used their newfound buzz to land spots on tours opening up for revered punks like No Use For A Name, Lagwagon and Less Than Jake. This summer, they’ll be featured again on the Warped Tour, this time on the East Coast leg.

“It’s awesome to know we sacrificed and followed our hearts to end up where we are right now,” says Key. “We definitely feel lucky, but we’ve worked hard as hell to make that luck happen.”

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