Yellowcard is one of those bands who incite very extreme reactions — mention their name to a hardcore punk fan and expect eye-rolling and accusations that the pop-punk superstars sold out, ask the many fans who bought their platinum major-label debut album Ocean Avenue and the reaction is far more positive. Either way, the boys of Yellowcard are “TRL” staples who care more about making music than appeasing their critics or pleasing their fans. With their latest album Lights and Sounds, Yellowcard expands on the combination of catchy pop stylings, sincere punk sensibilities and strong string sections that made them famous to create an album that showcases their individual musical talents and their collective maturity as a group. Despite enough ups and downs to fill at least half of a “Behind the Music” special — including the replacement of the group’s lead guitarist Ben Harper just before the band’s promotional tour for Lights and Sounds — Yellowcard is still going strong and is currently touring the country to promote the new record. Yellowcard’s violinist Sean Mackin sat down with Artsweek a few days before the band’s June 11 stop at the Santa Barbara Bowl to discuss making music, getting famous and growing up.
How has your life changed since the success of Ocean Avenue and how do you think the fame and success have affected your music?
Sean Mackin: My life has kind of changed on two different levels — I think I’m somewhat still anonymous in the band, so I’m not out getting recognized all the time. But the pace now is more directed towards business, as opposed to where it used to be, which was directed at fun and partying all the time and hanging out with friends, and now our days are mostly business and interviews, radio appearances, radio interviews, meet and greets before the shows and sound check parties. I definitely think our music has changed. I think being musicians that have grown up playing our instruments and growing up together, we all believe our music is a direct reflection of our life and as we evolve, our music evolves too. That’s where we’re at now. Ocean Avenue was our first major label record … a lot of that music, we wrote when we were 19 or 21 and now we’re 26 and that’s where we’re at now.
A lot of people, including many people who were fans of yours when you were considered a more ’emo’ and underground band have accused you guys of selling out or becoming too mainstream because of the success of Ocean Avenue and your popularity on shows like “Total Request Live” on MTV. How do you feel about that?
I think our popularity definitely has changed, and I think that what not everyone understands is that our emo kids and punk kids are still proud of us, and they helped us out so much and lifted us up to that level. And, when a different group of kids, like the MTV generation, took to us it was a neat thing because we were an underground band. That was definitely a weird time and our fans were transitioning. Our emo fans were kind of dumping us … and at this point in the game we’re going ‘we haven’t changed as people’ … we’re standing here going ‘a fan is a fan.’ At this part in the game, sometimes I miss the old school days and then I go out and play shows and see kids that have been there time and time again and these people aren’t just our fans, they’re our friends, because we’ve toured so much … we go out and see our friends in Chicago and friends in St. Louis and friends in Denver and when it’s lonely on the road, it’s like those are our friends and family.
Lights and Sounds features a more musically complex sound and it includes a recurring character named Holly Wood. What inspired you guys to craft the album in this way?
I think [singer and guitarist] Ryan Key was inspired. We all were in a different place — we wanted to write an album that could show off our better artistic qualities. We’ve always said we are a band of musicians. At that point, Ryan didn’t have a romantic interest in his life and he didn’t want to write “Only One” again, and he wanted to create something new. A lot of songwriters narrate and create fictional characters … and Holly was a character where sometimes you love her and sometimes you hate her, and she was someone he could get all his emotions out through.
Who are some of your influences as a group and as an individual?
As a musical act, you could probably write any artists. It goes from the Beach Boys to Green Day, as a collective band we listen to everything. Our common listening ground when we first got together … is like the last movement of punk music, like NOFX, that’s kind of what we were listening to as a band. Now, I think I have two different sides — a newer rock music side like Thrice and Muse, which are classically oriented and trained and have a harder edge to them, and a singer/songwriter side like Ben Folds Five, Damian Rice, Amos Lee, Sarah McLachlan. And, I also listen to movie soundtracks for composition and inspiration. Movie soundtracks are definitely where the composers of today are, and being an amateur composer, I’m definitely inspired by them.
Speaking of composers, you composed an entire string section and conducted an orchestra on “City of Devils” for Lights and Sounds. Why did you decide to conduct the orchestra yourself and what was that experience like?
We wanted to get back in the studio, and we wanted to show our fans and the naysayers that ‘yeah, we’re for real and we’re not hiring conductors and arrangers to put strings in our music, and we’re not using protocols for our vocals.’ We tried to do this record as organically as possible, and we wanted to do something different to show that we’re not your run of the mill “TRL” band … I have such an amazing band, I’m so proud to be in a band with these guys and I wanted to show them I could do something other than help write a song here or there. … I’ve been playing classical violin since I was six and I just scratched the surface on Ocean Avenue and it was frustrating … composing was getting so frustrating since I wasn’t writing as fast as my mind was thinking, so going back I wanted to make sure that each of my arrangements for this album and the 12 different songs were completely different. And, the band has always talked about wanting to have a full orchestra. Conducting was the easy part, and I think the composing part is much harder.
What do you hope people get out of Lights and Sounds after listening to it, especially because it is a departure from your past work?
I don’t know. I just hope that at some point when they’re listening, they enjoy it. And, we’re so proud of it and each person will get something different out of it. I just hope they enjoy it and understand where we’re at and where they’re at and, as musicians, what we do and what we’re capable of. We look back on the record and we’re so proud of it and, yeah it’s a little bit of a departure and maybe some kids won’t understand it because it’s not on “TRL” as much.
As a band, you guys have been through a lot in the past few years — including the sudden success of Ocean Avenue and the departure of Ben Harper from the band. What do you think is responsible for all of the negative things you guys went through and what do you credit with keeping the band together?
I think a lot of things happened after Ocean Avenue was released because people paid more attention to us. So many things happened before Ocean Avenue was released too … it’s just always an uphill battle and sometimes it gets really, really hard and things break. And, we’ve been friends since we were 15 and sometimes people choose to take a different path. There are not many people out there who are 26 who kept in touch with people from when they were 15. I think that I credit it to our good friendship and our musical beliefs; I think that keeps us together. If we hadn’t known each other for 10 plus years we wouldn’t be here now. We would be sick of each other by now.
Since you are now touring again, can you tell me what some of your favorite songs to play live are?
I like our song “Avondale,” I think that was a really good song at the time that we wrote it and I really like playing it. I really like our “Spiderman 2” song “Gifts and Curses.” There’s a B-side on Lights and Sounds called “When We’re Old Men,” and I really love that. My favorite song off Lights and Sounds is a song called “City of Devils.”
Do you have anything else you want to say to the Artsweek readers?
Tell all of our fans that have been there since the beginning, thank you very much. Special thanks to Ryan Mendez, he lives there and he’s lived there all his life and he’s our new guitar player, so when we do interviews in Santa Barbara I like to give him a little love.