Q&A: William Ryan Key on Taking a Leap with His New EP, Yellowcard’s Ups & Downs, Mental Health & Star Wars


Adrian GarroCategories:Latest News

Rock Cellar Magazine
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William Ryan Key is, for lack of a better term, a key figure in pop/punk history. With Yellowcard, he hit a high note with 2003’s “Ocean Avenue,” a breakthrough single that made it all the way to No. 13 on the U.S. Mainstream Top 40 chart in 2004.

Yellowcard remained a beloved band on the scene up until its split in 2017, at which point Key directed his attention elsewhere. This burst of creativity and focus led to the release of Everything Except Desire, an adventurous new EP due out on Feb. 11 that forges new territory — and with material that may catch some Yellowcard fans off-guard.

And that’s precisely by design.

Enjoy an interview with William Ryan Key about this new project, his future goals, Yellowcard’s heyday, the importance of connecting with fans during these bleak pandemic years, his particular effort honoring the legacy of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and more.

Rock Cellar: I listened to your new EP last night walking around my neighborhood when the sun was setting and it was getting dark.

William Ryan Key: That sounds right.

Rock Cellar: Yeah, the vibe worked really well. “Face in a Frame” and “Brighton,” those two in particular, were very appropriate for that setting. It felt like that’s what you’re going for with these songs.

William Ryan Key: I said somewhere in an interview that “Brighton” is, yeah, for a night drive with nowhere to go, you know? I think a lot of what you’re hearing from me now stems from the amount of time I’ve invested in learning and writing with scoring and composition in mind. I hope that when I’m old and gray, I’m full-time scoring film and television. That’s definitely my main focus professionally now.

It’s a lot of pro bono work right now because I’m just trying to build a reel and get jobs, but I have a couple of really cool things in the works that … I can kind of start to smell it now, you know? I’ve been experimenting for a few years now with that style of writing in mind. And when I made the EP I was conscious of that. I was thinking, okay, well, with with my goals in mind, even with things that are not made for film and television — like this solo release — to be on vinyl and maybe play some shows, I was being conscious of sonically aiming towards film and television. I think the big, sweeping, cinematic feel of the EP itself stems from that.

And it is certainly made for late-night walks or open-road driving.

Rock Cellar: Yeah, it was a fitting soundtrack for sure. With the inspiration of working on cinematic music, does this new focus imply that the new material was a little bit of a conscious departure from your other EPs you’ve put out post-Yellowcard?

William Ryan Key: Yeah, 100%. I’ve been also living in the world of more electronic music for quite a while as well. Ryan Mendez, who was the lead guitar player in Yellowcard and one of my dearest friends in the world, he and I are still very much nearly full-time writing partners. We work on a lot of music together. We have what we once called a “side project,” now I think we’re calling it our … it’s what we’re doing.

We have a project together called Jedha that we started working on pretty shortly after the band broke up. He and I have been listening to a lot of the same artists, producers, composers. It’s been such a big part of our life for so many years while we’ve been in a rock and roll band, when the rock and roll band ended, we thought, “Why don’t we just take a stab at making some of this music? It might be terrible, but we’ll never know until we try.”

So for five years we’ve been working on songs for this project, and it’s opened up some other doors as well. We just finished tracking our first full-length album for Jedha, which Ryan is mixing at the moment, as we speak. In addition to that, we scored our first independent film in the summer of 2020 together, which was fascinating because we work remotely. I was in Florida and he was in California, and we were able to do all of our sessions. It was crazy.

But we’ve figured out a way to work remotely, which has been amazing, just diving into this style of music. I think it’s re-inspired us, in a lot of ways, to be creating all the time. One thing that’s different about making this music, for me, was that with Yellowcard it was always like … we were touring like crazy in between the albums, and I was never someone who wrote or demoed very much in between album cycles. I was always focused on the album at hand.

I’m just making music all the time now. I mean, I go in the studio every day, Monday through Friday, sometimes Saturday and Sunday to because I’m just having so much fun. And again, not that I didn’t have fun with Yellowcard, making Yellowcard records. I certainly did. Every time we got to make a new record, it was just like, “How do we still get the chance to do this,” you know? I loved making those albums.

But with this, I’m on my own and exploring new sounds and trying to accomplish something that I haven’t accomplished before musically. Not being on the road, being more of a studio musician and producer, composer, it’s a whole new world. Ryan and I are making music all the time. We got hired to score a show for a very, very large studio this year. And we’re really excited to announce all that, so it’s just awesome opening up doors and opportunities.

Going back to your original question, the conscious decision to go the way I went with Everything Except Desire, it’s definitely in there. I was already waist-deep in the pool, I just decided to dive all the way in. By making these songs and not having them be more acoustic guitar-driven like the first couple of EPs, it allowed me more time to focus on the style of production and composition that hopefully is going to lead me — and/or Ryan and I and/or both — down the path toward scoring and composing full-time.

Rock Cellar: And it’s so different in style from what people might expect from “The guy from Yellowcard.” You’re very online with your fans on Patreon and Discord. How have they taken to this particular new material thus far?

William Ryan Key: I think that the fans that are in the trenches with me on Patreon or Twitch for a little bit of last year, they’re super into it, unless they’re just telling me what I want to hear, [laughs]. It was a cool experience. The four songs on the EP that have vocals were produced at the time exclusively for Patreon.

When I launched my Patreon in 2020, that was my, “How do I survive this pandemic thing without being able to tour?” And it’s amazing, because in the long run, it didn’t just help me get through the pandemic and not have to tour, I just don’t have to tour anymore. And I don’t think I had a bug where I was feeling, “Ugh, I don’t like touring,” or “I don’t want to tour,” I think I didn’t know any better.

And now that I’m home and I’m working in a studio every day, Patreon has afforded me the ability to make music that I’m not necessarily getting paid to make — which is challenging — but Patreon is helping me get through it and be able to create all the time. I’m not having to tour, and it’s been an absolute game-changer.

When I opened up the Patreon thing in 2020 it was sort of a survival tactic, but it gave me this EP, and I was very open and upfront with with the community as far as what direction I was going in and that I wanted to use the opportunity to try something really different. Patreon is the kind of space built for that. It’s made for your most devout supporters, you know, the people who have been through it all with you and are interested in you changing things, interested in hearing where you’re going as an artist.

They’re not the “play the old shit!”, T-shirt wearing types. I’ve really, really enjoyed connecting with fans that way. This is probably another interview, but I’ve talked recently a lot about focusing on better mental health for myself and learning from a lot of the pitfalls and mistakes and trauma, really, that came along with being in Yellowcard — for all of us. Yellowcard sort of had a shiny, happy surface, but underneath it was a pretty dark space, to be honest, for the entirety of the of the band’s career.

I think I wasted a lot of opportunities early in my career to connect with fans in a meaningful way. Because I was very stressed and anxiety-ridden, and the personalities in our band were never very cohesive. I struggled with finding the right way to deal with my stress and anxiety. And one of the things I think I missed out on was making a real genuine connection with fans.

But I think that what I’m doing now is a testament to how it’s never too late to improve yourself, or to work on yourself. People that support you for the right reasons will be open to understanding why, maybe, things were the way they were 15-20 years ago, and are happy for the opportunity to connect now. I’m finding such a sense of gratitude and gratefulness through this experience.

I’m getting support from people that I probably should have been better to in the past, and they’re very open to hearing about my journey. And I’m open to hearing about theirs. And we have this really interesting relationship now through this online community that I never saw coming. Had there not been a pandemic, I don’t think I would have found it. I think I’d still be humping gear in a van and bitching about the fact that my Spotify numbers were weren’t high enough.

Doing these online projects and working with this community of fans, one of the most meaningful things for me has been learning new metrics to measure my happiness by. Those numbers don’t matter. I shouldn’t measure my success and my happiness by those things because they’re out of my control, you know? What is in my control now is nurturing this community that I have and is supporting me financially, supporting me emotionally. It’s allowing me to create.

It’s absolutely amazing, so I don’t give a shit about my Spotify numbers anymore. I don’t check it. I don’t look, I don’t care. I put out a song, if you want to listen to it, right on. There’s 300-400 people I know want to listen to it, and they are behind me all the way and if nothing else, again, they’re supporting me financially, so fine, I’m just making the songs for them.

 

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Rock Cellar: You’re giving each other something, really. 

William Ryan Key: It’s very much a two-way street, for sure, and all of it has manifested into all of these cool things. The EP is coming out on Equal Vision Records, that’s legendary for me. Saves the Day is one of the most impactful bands of my rock life, from a very young age. I see an Equal Vision logo on my record, that means a lot to me. It’s kind of cool because they don’t seem to give a shit about Spotify numbers either. They just want to be in business with people who make cool music, and it’s just … everything feels good. And as Radiohead would say, everything in its right place. Seems to be that way right now.

Rock Cellar: “Union Chapel” was one where the lyrics stood out the most. It seemed like it was coming from a place of pretty intense emotion. A project like this seems like a good way to exorcise and work through some of those thoughts.

William Ryan Key: 100%. There’s been a lot of solitude, pandemic not included, post-Yellowcard. Touring on my own for those first couple of EPs, a lot of that was very, very much on my own. And I think through that experience, it took the pandemic, and that isolation, for me to really start doing “work,” you know? I started meditating every day, exercising more and just doing the things I think that we all hoped we were gonna do, and it’s like, “Okay, well, I’m stuck at home, I’m going to take care better care of myself.”

I forced myself into doing it and made a routine out of it. But I think all of that solitude, all that reflection, even before that, led up to all of these lessons that I’m learning and teaching myself. Because I was afforded this time and used it the right way to explore what was going on with me, and this EP came out the other side. So those songs are coming from a really, really intense place of self-reflection.

Rock Cellar: You’ve discussed your mental health and the “dark space” that was part of Yellowcard. Many bands go through this to varying degrees, of course. In 2017, you participated in Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington tribute show at the Hollywood Bowl, three months after he died. In hindsight, I’m very surprised that all was put together so quickly after he passed, because it was one of the more powerful things I’ve been able to witness.

At the show, you played “Shadow of the Day,” which suited your singing style very well. For folks that may not have normally associated Ryan Key of Yellowcard with Linkin Park, how did that all come about?

William Ryan Key: When did he pass, July?

Rock Cellar: July 20th, yeah.

William Ryan Key: That’s right. So on July 20th, I had a super early morning flight from Nashville to Phoenix, where I was going to do an Emo Night appearance. When I got there, I went straight to the hotel and slept until … my set was probably at 11pm or something. So I fell asleep through the entire day and woke up to the news.

Yellowcard toured with Linkin Park in 2007. We were direct support for them in Japan and it was one of the most wild experiences of my entire life. You know, 30,000-40,000 Japanese fans. It was crazy. So we met them, very, very kind guys, all of them very open to … they were not closed off in any way on the tour. They were very welcoming and wanting to hang, said hello at every chance, every member.

They were just what you wanted a band like that to be, you know? Then throughout the years, we ran into each other a few times. Linkin Park played Warped Tour in 2014, they played one show in Ventura. And I don’t think I’m mistaken, it was actually the first time that any member of Linkin Park had even been to a Warped Tour, let alone performed at one.

Leading up to that they asked several artists on Warped that summer to perform with them on stage. By the second verse or whatever we were singing together, but it was very clear, “Hey, we would like you to sing ‘What I’ve Done,’ just by yourself, you’re gonna sing alone with Linkin Park playing music.” So surreal. So we did that.

And then we all hung out afterwards, the World Cup was on, it was just a great day. Obviously everyone is like, “Oh, my God, Linkin Park is here,” but they weren’t like that. They just wanted to hang out with everyone at Warped, it was so, so, cool.

Fast forward to July 20, 2017, I was really affected. Chester and I weren’t friends, per se, but we shared some time on the road. And we had some conversations about our life and music, so I was really affected. I was surprised how much it affected me. Sitting in the hotel room brought to tears, I mean, I was really upset. And I thought, “How am I gonna go on stage and throw this, for lack of a better word, ‘party’ that Emo Night is?” It’s such a carefree experience. That’s what’s great about it, that’s what people go to Emo Night for, to just cut loose for a night since everybody’s getting older and can’t go to 10 shows a month.

And while the bands aren’t touring as much, Emo Nights became a place for people that love the music. So I thought, “You know what, I’ll just do what I can to create an atmosphere that’s celebratory. I know it happened today, but I’ll do the best I can to make what we do tonight about celebrating music and the artists that we love.”

So I learned “Shadow of the Day” in the dressing room. And I went out there, and it was not fun party vibes. I walked out and I made a speech about what I’m telling you, my experience with with the band and with Chester and I. And I told them that I almost didn’t come to the show because I didn’t think it was appropriate to and then I said, “but I thought we’re here together. And Linkin Park is probably as important as many of the other bands that actually play here at Emo Night. So I think this is what we should do.”

I played the song.

We played a bunch of Linkin Park that night, it was really incredible. The energy was amazing. And you could feel that, the vibe was that everyone there was impacted by it. We were celebrating his life and his legacy. So it was crazy that I was at a show on the day of and I was sharing that experience with an audience. It was really intense. I played the song and it hit YouTube — I’d never been a part of a viral YouTube thing. And even this wasn’t crazy, you know, millions and millions of views, but it did definitely spread around.

A couple months later, I got an email and it said, “Hey, man, I hope you’re well. I would love to talk to you about something we’re trying to put together. Hit me back when you have a minute.” And it just had an “M,” It was just signed like that.

In that moment, I was like, “who is this from?” Then it came to me, though, that I had an email from him from the Warped Tour and I remembered he just signed it “M,” it was [Linkin Park’s] Mike Shinoda. I replied, we got on the phone and he said, “The band all saw this video of you playing the song in Phoenix and we were very moved. We would love for you to be a part of this tribute, this benefit concert we’re going to do.” And of course there was no question, “Yes, I’m going to do it.” My biggest thing was like, “So you want me to be alone, sing the lead vocals for the whole song with you guys?” I was terrified. Yes. Freaking terrified. But they were like, “Yes, that’s what we want you to do.”

Rock Cellar: Had you played the Hollywood Bowl stage before?

William Ryan Key: I’d never even been to a show at the Hollywood Bowl. So my first time at the Hollywood Bowl was walking from backstage onto the stage. Not the other way around. So I walk out for rehearsal and just jam with Linkin Park. It was surreal, man.

Rock Cellar: We’ve seen a resurgence, I feel, of the pop-punk vibe in popular music lately. Olivia Rodrigo, Machine Gun Kelly did that big album with Travis Barker. It’s a little bizarre to me to see that music considered nostalgic now, because it feels like it was three years ago, rather than twenty. But what is it about that kind of music — and Emo Night — that makes people appeal to it so much?

William Ryan Key: It’s interesting, though I couldn’t tell you anything current events-wise, I’m so out of the loop. Obviously, I know Machine Gun Kelly made that record, but I have no idea what’s going on. I know it’s happening, but I don’t know the bands, really. I listen to Icelandic composers 24 hours a day [laughs]. I’m so removed from it. But I do still do a lot of Emo Night appearances with Emo Night Brooklyn. The guys who founded that are good friends of mine.

And it’s been an amazing thing for me to keep me going, making a living, to be able to do these shows all the time. That’s another way I get to stay in the studio making music that people don’t actually pay me to do so that I can do what I want to do. I’ve done a lot of these Emo Night shows, and all I can tell you is that the passion for it hasn’t gone away.

I think that the music was deeply personal. I think the songs that everyone was writing back then had this relatability for young people in a way that felt new. If you think about that time, the mid-2000s, we were kind of coming out of this really angry, aggressive period of music and popular rock music, at least. And as it tends to do, the pendulum swings. So we swung back to kind of a more pop-focused thing, the lyrics were more personal and emotive as opposed to, angry “break shit” vibes.

You think about how much people loved that scene and music back then, you don’t just stop loving it, you know? It’s still there. It’s happening now with an entire generation of young fans, again. You’ve got to throw some of that up to, you know, these are children of people who, you know, loved Yellowcard and Fall Out Boy and Good Charlotte and My Chemical Romance and all those bands.

And there have been some bands that have really bridged the gap, like the All Time Lows of the world. There’s been a few bands like that, that sort of were in between the big wave in the mid-2000s and the wave that’s happening now, that have kept it afloat. And that’s been really cool to see, too. But yeah, I tell you, man, when I go out on stage for these Emo Night shows, people just lose their minds. It’s as if the band is on stage. And it’s just because they’re so passionate about the music and have that connection to it.

I don’t think I can put my finger on it, I just think that there was a lot of love for it. Otherwise, how does a band like Yellowcard get on the radio with a near top 10 single if it wasn’t just from straight, passionate fan base? We had no business being on Top 40 radio, you know what I mean? But the reason it happened was because of this rabid fandom for all of the bands that we associated with at that time, and that love is still there.

Rock Cellar: The interrelation of all of it, too. You are the perfect example of, for me personally, I was huge on Linkin Park in high school. And then I got into New Found Glory. Probably seen them 40+ times over the years.

William Ryan Key: The godfathers.

Rock Cellar: Exactly. You were hanging out with them on tour, playing guitar with them a few years ago. And Yellowcard toured with the Matches in 2004, a band I was around a lot as they got started. 

William Ryan Key: Great band.

Rock Cellar: Have you seen Bleeding Audio, the new documentary about the band?

William Ryan Key: No, I know of it but haven’t seen it yet.

Rock Cellar: Hopefully it’ll be widely available soon. This goes back to what you were saying earlier about Spotify streams. There’s a part in it where Tom from the Plain White T’s kind of … there’s a chart, “Oh, so you have a hit song? Here’s why you didn’t really make that much money off it back then.” It tracks the whole process, and it’s fascinating to watch from a music fan perspective.

The era when Yellowcard was exploding, the video was all over MTV, TRL. They’re huge stars, you know, “Ocean Avenue” is everywhere. It was weird that bands like that era had that huge success, but I feel like it had a lot to do with MTV.

William Ryan Key: It did. And streaming wasn’t what it is now. You were making money from radio. You know, “Ocean Avenue” charted at No. 13 on Top 40. That’s crazy. That’s insane. If you look at the metrics on a No. 1 single on Top 40, 13 isn’t that far removed from the top. It’s still wild to be at 13.

There’s a misconception that we, you know, we’re millionaires for the rest of our lives. A lot of people think you just have it made, but we didn’t make that much money. Though we did do really well.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I was a real idiot with with all of it, and don’t have any of it left. That’s why I work so hard now [laughs].

No, life is good, man. I’m right where I want to be, musically and success-wise. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I mean, I would like to keep striving to do better, but I’m not angry that I blew all my Yellowcard money when I was 25 years old, you know? I’m not gonna live that way. I’m not going to live with regrets for the mistakes I’ve made. I choose to make sure that I live with lessons learned from the mistakes, I think that’s a better outlook.

I don’t think I ever want to have a song No. 13 on the radio again, that’s just not what I’m looking to do now. I want to go to a movie theater, you know, and kick back and see where it now says, you know, Hans Zimmer, Max Richter, I want it to say my name or or Jedha. Listen to our score. That’s my dream, and we’ll see. You gotta have dreams, though.

Rock Cellar: Separate from music, you’re also part of a big Star Wars podcast. You guys are opening my mind to Star Wars, because I thought I was a big fan but the details you guys get into are crazy. I think it’s cool that three dudes from bands from that era have a Star Wars podcast.

I listened to the episode comparing Star Wars to Dune recently, and now that’s all I’m thinking about.

William Ryan Key: [laughs] It’s hard not to, once you hear it.

Rock Cellar: It’s got to be a lot of fun doing that all the time.

William Ryan Key: I love it, man. Our podcast, which is called Thank the Maker, is myself, Adam Russell from Story of the Year and Nick Ghanbarian from Bayside. I think the coolest thing about it is we always hoped at some point we would reach a place where the majority of the listenership was not rooted in our bands’ fan bases, and we’ve long surpassed that.

There’s no way it’s just people that follow us on Instagram. We’ve really broken into the Star Wars community in a big way. We’ve had incredible guests on the show from the Star Wars universe, both animated, on screen, behind the scenes. We’ve had amazing guests and we’ve got some incredible stuff coming up this year.

We’re going on the second ever voyage of the Galactic Starcruiser at Disney World, we’ll cover that with the podcast. We’re going to Star Wars Celebration and hopefully going to be on the panel there. We’re putting together a Star Wars themed Emo Night at Chain Reaction in Anaheim.

Yeah, it’s gonna be great. I have a blast with them. It’s just such a cool thing to look forward to every week, hanging out with my friends and talking about Star Wars.

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