Yellowcard: Setting Sail For New Territory

Unlike the Beartooth Story, this one was planned out in advance. Like the story about Caleb and his wife Fleur, this story centered around Ryan Key and his wife Alyona. It got very personal and I felt quite honored to write about their relationship at the time.

This piece covered issue 42, in which I also wrote the Editor's note (read below). I was asked to do the cover story on issue 43 as well, but I passed in order to get more writers featured in the mag.

Editors Note for Issue 42:

Making changes in one’s life is difficult to do. It’s easy to become comfortable in ways set in perpetuity over the course of time. However, life isn’t pursuant to comforts and is apt to force change in unexpected ways. Life also expects the most from you. There is time and cause to evolve and make use of our talents to their full extent while we are able to use them. We should all strive to be more than what we are today.

We chose Yellowcard for the cover of this issue for all of those reasons and more. After a career spanning more than fifteen years, it would be easy for them to settle into a framework that pleases the crowd that kick-started their career. Instead, they have continued to push their sound into new frontiers. They’ve added new instrumentation to their recording arsenal and utilized other musicians like Anberlin’s Nate Young to continually progress and improve.

Life has chipped in as well. Tragedy, rehabilitation, and the welcoming of new life has breathed a myriad of inspirations into Yellowcard’s forthcoming album Lift A Sail. The result is a bigger sound, deeper lyrical content, and broken ground.

Yellowcard inspires us to be better here at Substream. We’re continuing to improve our layout and content to provide you with the quality you and our contributors deserve. I hope you enjoy this issue and the story of Yellowcard’s growth in Lift A Sail.

Yellowcard: Setting Sail For New Territory

It’s December 17, 2011. Yellowcard have landed in Madrid, Spain for the final stop of their worldwide tour with Saves The Day. After being abroad since June, it’s safe to bet these musicians are more than ready to return home after a lengthy stint across the globe. Still, there is one more show and they plan to make it count. Today is also Yellowcard singer Ryan Key’s birthday, so celebration is in order.

Sala Caracol is the venue tonight, which is not unlike any other room Yellowcard has played. It’s your standard concert hall. There is a bar, a stage, and room for a few hundred friends to crowd in and watch. Another night, another performance. It’s time to go on.

The setlist is comprised of seventeen songs spanning the last eight years of band’s career. Songs of experiences and loves past. Playing these songs tonight, Key is blissfully unaware of the woman in the audience who will soon be the inspiration for every love song he will write from this night on. His future wife, Alyona Alekhina, is there by a matter of chance, watching with a friend from school.

"My wife was snowboard training in Switzerland at the time, but was also working on her master's degree and a big part of her program was linguistics. She has a degree in the origin of language or something like that. I don’t fully understand, but she speaks fluent Spanish as well as English and Russian,” explains Key almost three years later. "She had a close friend who was studying abroad in Spain at the time as part of their Spanish track and she came to visit her that day. She got in at 6AM and had to get back to training the next morning at 7AM. She was there for literally 24 hours. They were initially planning on seeing a Spanish band that they liked, but they had the date wrong. They decided to go to our show instead.”

Call it chance, destiny, or luck, an American musician and a Russian athlete meeting in Spain within a twenty-four hour window is a rare occurrence and one not wasted. Key continues the story of the night he met the love of his life. "I met her after the show and we talked all night. It’s funny,” he laughs, “internationally, you can’t really ask a girl for her number. So I got her email address and we kept in touch for the next few months. At some point, she ended up in LA. We went on a couple of dates, and here we are now.” The couple was engaged on Christmas Day in 2012.

It’s April 23, 2013. Alyona departed Los Angeles, California the day prior to trade skate and surf for some snow on Mammoth Mountain. It had been a while, but she was eager to return to training. Poised to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi for the Russian National Team, nobody could have anticipated the tragedy that would unfold that day. During a run, Alyona was paralyzed from the waist down.

"I refuse to watch the video of what happened,” explains her fiancée. "They were filming that day. As I understand it, it was a quick little thing. A lot of these accidents happen this way. It wasn’t this big crazy air. She was just coming over a little obstacle and caught an edge and flipped over the wrong way. It was more of a somersault than anything else. She just fell back really hard. She immediately knew that she couldn’t feel her legs. It was terrifying for her. I can’t even imagine."

She was immediately taken to a hospital in Reno, Nevada where she was told that there had been damage to her spinal cord and that she had, in fact, been paralyzed. On her prognosis, Key states, "It’s not as black and white as people think it is. They tell you to do the best you can and that they’ll do the same. Spinal cord injury is a thing that there is very little knowledge about. Nobody knows why a nerve cut in your hand can be replaced with nerve tissue and regrow while in your spinal column, it won’t. Nobody understands that yet and it’s amazing that in 2014 there isn’t an answer. There just isn’t. She got a rough dose of diagnoses as far as the level of injury and she was in a pretty rough category. I’m sure there have been times that their diagnoses has put a dark cloud over her head, but most of the time she just doesn’t care what they said. She’s going to keep working as hard as she can, putting in the hours until she’s walking. All we can do is believe and keep supporting her. From what I’ve been told, most people give up long before this. Most just accept it and move on. It’s amazing to watch how dedicated she is to it. She’s not going to give up.”

During Alyona’s weeks in Nevada, the couple married. She was then transferred by private jet to Denver, Colorado.

"She was really excited about going to Denver because of the reputation that Craig Hospital has for rehab. We wanted to make that happen for her. She only had travel insurance for snowboarding trips, which obviously made it challenging to figure out how to do that. She didn’t have citizenship, residency, health insurance, or anything like that. I was able to put her on my health insurance once we were married, so it was kind of a no-brainer to just go ahead and do it. So, we got married at the hospital in Nevada when she was initially treated and everything worked out incredibly. They paid for everything in Denver. It was multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy, but it all worked out.”

The wedding was a small affair. Ryan and Alyona were joined by her parents and younger sister as well as his mother and sister. The service was performed in the hospital. Not the dream, but an important event in the circumstances at hand. "It was like magical and terrible at the same time,” says the newlywed. "It was a crazy roller coaster of emotions to be on. Obviously that’s not where you want to have your wedding but, at the same time, we felt so connected. The feeling on that particular day was that we’re going to do this thing together. We were strong that day.” Key continues, "You know, it is what it is. We wish that we had a real wedding and that she had walked down the aisle, but life is a crazy journey. She is amazing and I still have her. It could have been so much worse than it was. I’m also still playing music and touring the world. The ride has been insane up until now”

Leaving a loved one who is so in need of care and support is a hard thing to do, but as a touring musician, Ryan had to return to making a living on the road and performing for the thousands of fans who needed him as well.

"It’s really hard to be away from her at any time while she’s going through this. She went home to Russia this summer while I was on Warped Tour and I think we both felt—and I don’t think either of us felt selfish for it—that she needed it. Not to be away from me, but to be in a different environment. She needed to change it up and be with her family and her closest friends. She went through a really intensive rehab program there in Russia that she was really excited about. It was a new thing, it was fresh with new exercises and new equipment. She needed that as much as I needed to get back out and working, being focused on music and touring again.”

He pauses and continues, "I think her trip home really lifted her whole spirit. Going home was such a good thing for her. Doing Warped Tour was good for me. Being surrounded by so many friends and having as much fun as we had all summer—we both needed that. Even though we weren’t together, I think we were both really happy for each other. The whole experience is such a paradox, you know? It’s black and white. It’s both things, all the time. Good and bad, happy and sad.”

Returning to the road and writing was a positive experience for not just Ryan, but the entire band. They have all done some growing up since Southern Air and have moved into new territories with their lives. Violinist Sean Mackin and his wife recently welcomed a baby girl into the world, they made the move to Razor & Tie from Hopeless Records which opens them up to new opportunities in radio, and there have also been some lineup changes that pushed them into new directions with the help of drum fill-in Nate Young of Anberlin.

Young was an active member of the Lift A Sail recording process and live percussionist during Warped Tour. With Anberlin’s impending disbandment, there has been a fair amount of interest from fans for the drummer to join Yellowcard in a more permanent state. To which Key explains, "We wish that was the case. We have from the very beginning. It was a collective decision for [Anberlin] to move on and just be home with their families. They’re starting new chapters of their lives. I know that Nate has big plans back home as far as a business he’s really excited about starting. I don’t think it’s in the cards as much as we’d like it to be, but we’re very lucky to have shared the stage and studio time that we did with him. He’s an incredible talent and he brought so much energy and good vibes to Yellowcard. It’s something I’ll never forget and he’s a friend I’ll never lose. That’s what I’m most grateful for.”

Truly, the energy of the band has changed. As seen in the live shows and the new album, Yellowcard has not abandoned so much as matured their sound. It’s difficult to categorize them as pop-punk these days, if you ever did before. With Lift A Sail, it’s more accurate to say that they have reached new heights as a pop-rock band that continues to push their potential and change things up, something Yellowcard expects will be polarizing.

“It’s like being on thin ice to talk about it,” he says hesitantly. "I don’t want a fan of our band who has been with us for however long, supporting us and providing us with opportunities to make music and tour, to feel alienated. We don’t want them to feel like we’re turning our backs in any way, but I think we have begun to move away from our previous sound. As risky as that is to say, we’re not doing what we do to upset people. We do it to make people happy and to make ourselves happy. We love writing songs and playing music as a live touring band. There is still the core of what makes us Yellowcard in this record. It’s still there. I think this is direction we’ve wanted to go for a long time. We’ve been taking the right steps to get there, waiting for the right time. That time is now."

This album, like five albums prior, was produced by Neal Avron who also has credits for New Found Glory, Fall Out Boy, Weezer, Linkin Park, Anberlin, and more. "I can’t imagine making a record with anybody else. I can’t imagine having the level of trust and creative connectivity with anyone like we do with Neal. As you can hear on Lift A Sail, he deserves due credit for how far he pushed the sound. A lot of what we were capable of on this record is thanks to him and his desire for us to head in a new direction. He’s more or less a sixth member of the band and has been for years now. It was a natural decision. We don’t even entertain the thought of working with anybody else as long as Neal will continue to make our records.”

With Avron pushing the band forward, Yellowcard was able to achieve new heights in their songwriting careers. Lyrically, Key had a large pool of life experience to draw from. "With marrying my wife, her spinal cord injury, and how insane, horrible, and inspiring it all was, I really ran the gambit of emotions over the last year. When I first sat down, I asked myself, 'What are you going to do about this. You have to write. How honest are you going to be? What are you going to reveal? How much of her do you want to protect?' That was really challenging for me at first, but once the floodgates opened as they tend to do when I’m writing a record, it all just came together and I was writing nonstop. This one scared me at first, but I got that first song out which led to the next one and they just kept falling in line. I was in a place where I was really challenged and forced to just be honest and let it out."

Musically, Lift A Sail is natural follow up to 2012’s Southern Air, with facets new to the Yellowcard discography to keep it fresh. Electronic elements flip the tone from Warped Tour stage to more stadium friendly songs. "One thing that’s not happening that probably scares people when they hear or read about Lift A Sail is the idea of synth leads. We’re not playing these weird, buzzy, synthesizers sounds as lead parts instead of guitar or violin. We’re using them to provide depth, layers, and atmosphere to the sound."

Coldplay’s exotic career also lends some influence to the album, "I’ve decided that Coldplay is my favorite band of all time. They’ve grown and evolved a lot over the span of their career. I’ve always been insanely attracted to and inspired by their melodies and the way that every single thing is so memorable and anthemic. As they’ve got into these last couple records, starting with Viva La Vida, there have been more electronic elements blending in with all of the organic elements that they still use so heavily. I got into learning about that, what they were doing and what inspired them to do it. Listening to a lot of that opened me up to all of these other programmers and people who create sounds. It was a place of extremely rad experimenting for me. I had an amazing time doing it. I hope you can hear that when you listen to the record. It’s not forced. It’s not trying to be something that it’s not. We sat down to make cool sounds and have fun blending the rock and organic elements we have with these more anthemic, percussive, programmed elements. I learned how to do all of that on the fly.”

Through these changes in sound and song structure, it’s natural to question the role of Mackin’s violin, an instrument which has played such a large role in the band’s career. Although the usage may be changing, we’re assured of it’s permanent place in Yellowcard’s music.

Aware of this concern, Key explains, “[Violin] is a very much a feature. It’s Sean. I think he might have felt challenged to find where he fit on this record at first, but then he found his place and started exploring and working with sounds. He used a lot of electric violin on this record. There are a lot of places where you may not know it’s a violin, but it is. Both we and our fans need to find a way to be comfortable with that. That is a way that Sean enjoys writing and playing and it’s a way to create sounds that you can’t get out of any other instrument. We’re going to use that going forward. That’s something that will continue to happen. It’s not going to always be 'Yep, there’s the violin.’

"There are also other instrumentations. It’s expensive to have all of them available for a record and then continue to use them, but we’re starting to venture into using them during our live shows as well. It’ll come a little bit at a time, but it’ll start with 'I want to play this piano part live.' Maybe if I need to play guitar and sing, Sean can come over and play that piano part. I’m excited about that. Not only does it expand the sound on the record, but also the show and experience for the fans that see us live.

"Sean ended up playing viola in some places on the record; mandolin, mandola, and keys as well. That said, I don’t think there is any shortage of violin on the record. Like you said, [‘Convocation'] is just strings with a lead violin over it. ‘MSK' is completely centered around a violin lead. The solo in 'Fragile and Dear' is just so gut wrenching. The violin is very present. It’s just present in a different way that makes you realize that maybe it is more a part of the record than you thought it was in the first listen."

In support of the groundbreaking new album, Yellowcard is further stirring the pot with a two month co-headlining tour with Memphis May Fire and support from Emarosa. “Like anything we’re doing we just wanted to try new things and keep it fresh you know? If you put together a five band bill of the same genre and the same thing, you know it’s safe and good and that it’s going to work out, but I think it might be interesting for a fan to come and experience two completely different worlds of music in the same night.”

With new ventures come new opportunities. Yellowcard is sure to have many of those with Lift A Sail. The first single alone has started turning heads. "We got our first radio add recently, which was huge. We haven’t gotten one of those in a long time. That means someone is interested in trying out 'One Bedroom' on the radio, which is a cool thought. If it doesn’t work out there, I’m not going to be let down. I’m extremely happy with our career where it is now and everything we’re doing and everything that’s happening for us.

"We’re now focusing on putting together a world tour in support of Lift A Sail. We still love to tour and I don’t feel like anybody has a desire to come off the road, which is, at 35 years old, a really good feeling we collectively share. Everyone’s still hungry to travel and tour. Even with babies on the way and things like that. It gets hard and wears on you and your family. So, the fact that we’re all still dedicated to it is awesome.”

Positivity plays an important role in the momentum of the band, a theme which strikes a chord throughout the record. "I think Lift A Sail encompasses the whole vibe of moving forward and taking all the shit that’s been thrown at you and overcoming it… The word 'lift' to me, in general, evokes positivity.”

Yellowcard is ready once again to show the world what makes them remarkable. With growth in both their personal lives and musical careers, Lift A Sail manages to represent all that they are and will be. A collision of new and old meet head-on to make this album the most sincere offering yet. Staples such as their iconic use of violin, producer Neal Avron bringing out the best of them, and their devotion to all that encompasses the Yellowcard name set the standard that fans expect. New elements like programming, Nate Young’s expertise, and a wealth of life experiences propel the sound in imaginative directions. These building blocks that make up the band’s existence are held together by the bonds of family, something that remains with them at home or abroad.

While he’s off the road, Ryan will be spending time with his wife and family, continually supporting Alyona’s rehabilitation. While on tour, he will rely on their support to keep him going for the millions that come to see Yellowcard play. It’s his loved ones, after all who keep him inspired.