- "I don't recognize him without his violin, officer."
Climbing to the top can be a bitch. But it's got nothing on actually being there. It's an entertainment-biz cliché by now, as any issue of Star magazine will tell you: Fame breeds problems. And it's one that not even the violin-loving pop-punks in Yellowcard could avoid.
The Florida quintet broke big on 2003's Ocean Avenue. Songs like "Way Away" and "Only One" kept the band on the radio, in video games, and on awards-show stages for more than a year. You couldn't escape Yellowcard. The group recorded a follow-up, Lights and Sounds. Then singer Ryan Key's voice busted on him. He went under the knife to fix it, and when Yellowcard resurfaced with last year's Paper Walls, everything had changed.
"I'm sober now, if that says anything," he says. "I definitely had a pretty long stretch of not taking the best care of myself. And I would be lying if I said it didn't have something to do with the problems I developed with my throat."
The trouble started a month before Lights and Sounds was released in January 2006. It was especially frustrating, since Key couldn't sing — that meant no promotional appearances and no immediate tour. "It got to the point where I was doing all these training sessions and working with a speech therapist," he recalls. "I was going to the doctor twice a week and getting my throat scoped."
In May 2006, Key had surgery to repair his vocal cords. While he was recovering, there wasn't a whole lot he could do besides think. He had plenty of time to reassess things and, he says, "put my life in focus." Being mute for two months will do that.
"You're 23 years old and on top of the world," says Key. "A lot of the clichés you hear about being in a rock band and becoming successful are clichés because they're true. It happens. You get swallowed up by temptation and outside influences. I allowed myself to fall prey to a lot of things I told myself that I would never do."
But Key wasn't the only conflicted one. While he and bass player Pete Mosely (who left the band last year) were in New York, clearing their heads and writing songs for Lights and Sounds, Yellowcard's founding guitarist Ben Harper quit. "With success comes a lot of confusion and a lot of questions about your identity and what you're doing — whether it's substance abuse or drinking too much or blowing all your money," says Key. "What you originally set out to do gets diluted so quickly that you just [say], 'I need to get out of here.'"
Lights and Sounds is all about this conflict and coming to terms with both adulthood and responsibility. If Ocean Avenue focused on the enthusiasm of embarking on the journey, Lights and Sounds was about getting lost along the way. During the album's recording, everyone was struggling with one thing or another . . . and this all factors into the disc's ambition, scope, and dark tone. It also has a lot to do with its sense of disconnection. "There's somberness and sadness that wasn't present on Ocean Avenue," admits Key.
The relatively grim record didn't sit well with fans. Ocean Avenue sold more than two million copies; despite its Top 5 showing, Lights and Sounds barely broke gold. It hit the band hard. "You start basing your life on how many albums you do or don't sell at that point," says Key. "We thought we'd gone and made this groundbreaking rock record, and all of a sudden, it wasn't selling."
The guys spent the latter part of 2006 away from each other. They got back together early last year to record Paper Walls. Returning to the punchy, upbeat songs that made them a buzz band in the first place, the album is all about what happens after the dust settles. "It's 'Here we are, this is everything we've been through, and where do we go from here?'" says Key. "It's looking forward instead of looking backward."
That's the notion behind Yellowcard's current acoustic tour. With drummer Longineu Parsons III taking a leave of absence to care for a sick grandmother, the rest of the band is unplugging for a series of shows. (For those who prefer Yellowcard loud, the group recently released the plugged-in Live From Las Vegas at the Palms as an iTunes exclusive.)
To a bunch of kids who started as a hardcore band in high school, it's certainly an opportunity they're grateful for. They've been through a lot, says Key, and now that their problems are behind them, they're looking forward to making music and living cliché-free — together. "We've loved and hated each other the whole time," he says. "You can't sleep in bunk beds on a rolling house for 10 years and not know how to love and hate each other passionately."