When I called up Yellowcard’s lead vocalist Ryan Key to rank every track on their iconic album Ocean Avenue, he was rushing to make a flight. To take his mind off the situation, I asked about his Star Wars fandom.
“Yoda is my Jesus,” he informed me.
Yellowcard crystallized a classic pop-punk moment in time with Ocean Avenue, including the hit title track, which put the band on the pop charts and marked one of the high points of the early-aughts emo wave. Their 2011 lineup—Key, violinist Sean Mackin, guitarist Ryan Mendez, and bassist Josh Portman, with drummer Nate Young from Anberlin—will take the stage on day two of Riot Fest this weekend to run through the entire album.
Key’s as amazed as anyone else that the Yellowcard reunion is happening. “I truly believed in March of 2017 that we played the last Yellowcard show of all time,” he confesses. “So this is a really pleasant surprise. We’re all just beyond excited to get back on stage together.”
Before bringing their classic album to the Riot Fest stage, we asked Key to run through it with us, track by track. Grab your air violins, loser—we’re going to Ocean Avenue.
01. “Way Away”
We were going to play “Way Away” at a show, long before there was actually going to be a new album. I sat in the front driver’s seat of the van 30 minutes before we played, and I just had a feeling. I changed the entire verse, melody and lyric. I actually wrote those verses in the van right before the show. And I don’t remember what the old verses sounded like. In the studio, it happens all the time. You’ll have a song you’ve been working on for however long and you’re just like, “No, it’s just not right.” At zero hour.
I remember writing the riff to that song in the dressing room at the Glass House in Pomona. We were on tour with Less Than Jake, probably. I had my first post-high-school, serious relationship, like we were living together. We were kids, 21 years old, 22 years old. The relationship ended. A lot of the lyrics on the album ended up dealing with that, as a 22-year-old pop-punk song writer would do, you know? “Breathing” is definitely one of the reaction songs to that experience. That’s also one of the songs that just really puts the violin in your face. Like, “Hey, we are a band that has a violin.” As soon as the drums hit, and that riff, he’s just shredding.
03. “Ocean Avenue”
[This one] almost didn’t go on the record. I could not finish the chorus of that song, no matter what I came up with. It didn’t feel right. Not just to me, but to anyone else in the band or Neil Avron, our producer. And it happened. I just wrote in my head, “Finding out things would get better,” with that melody, and Neil was like, “Everyone stop what you’re doing. Ryan, go in there, we’re recording that right now.” Kind of that lightbulb moment. I’m really grateful for whatever day that was in March of 2003, that I came up with that melody, because I still have a job today because of that song.
04. “Empty Apartment”
We did go through several member changes in the band. And I don’t consider myself blameless at all. I certainly made my fair share of mistakes. But sometimes you’re faced with a decision of: Do you quit? Do we break up and just call it? Or do we move on without this person? None of these decisions were made by one person. This song hits pretty hard, as far as dealing with loss and tension and friendship.
05. “Life of a Salesman”
My father and I had a very strange relationship. The support that I got from him, and from our relationship, to survive that time…even though he was very disappointed in my choices, he still was there for me, and has remained that way throughout my life. That song was just me wanting to remind him that no matter how strained our relationship is, how important he is to me and my life and how much I’ve learned from him as a person. That song has really been a special thing for a lot of fans…losing a loved one, losing your father or grandfather. A lot of fans have thanked us for writing that song.
06. “Only One”
It’s one of the bigger songs from our career, and also an accident. We were experimenting with different amps in the studio for our guitars just trying to find different sounds. One of the amplifiers we were messing with was an old Fender Twin we had rented that had a tremolo effect on it. [I was] just messing around with the riff when I was playing just fell into the rhythm of the tremolo. Then the song just grew from there. Neil [Avron], as a producer should, was like ‘That’s cool, let’s record it.” Another close call that almost didn’t go on the record, and ended up being one of the bigger songs from our entire catalog.
07. “Miles Apart”
Most fans know this, but I feel like people that are not huge fans of the band – they’re gonna be like ‘well that’s weird to say.’ We joke about it all the time that Miles Apart is definitely my least favorite song on Ocean Avenue. I don’t even know how it made it on the record, to be honest. I’ll say this: the verse and the bridge of that song are super cool and interesting, really cool guitar riff with some harmonics and even on the verse, the chord progression is not super vanilla or straightforward. We wrote the song, or at least the idea for it, in the basement of The Nile in Phoenix, Arizona, a dingy old basement venue. I built the intro of that song. It’s like “my first guitar riff dot com.” Twenty years later, that’s how I feel about it. I have a cool acoustic version of that song that I play now. It’ a totally different vibe. And I actually like it that way.
I love the progression. I love how the chords keep changing and moving. It was a writer’s-block type day. I wrote that riff and that chord progression really late at night after everyone had left for the day, you know, having some cold beers and trying to figure out what to do. My favorite part of that song is the bridge, where we’re palm-muting, along with a snare roll that hits every single mute. The production is so tight and aggressive, and the mix is so good. We always love playing that song live. The crowd would just go wild for that track.
09. “View From Heaven”
A good friend of the band, and a good friend of mine, who had juvenile diabetes and had passed away in 2001. He was only 18 when he died. I grew up with him in the local music scene in Jacksonville. He was just such a light. He was such an amazing drummer and everybody loved him. That was my first attempt to write a song dealing with that loss. One of the really nice things about being a songwriter, something that I feel really grateful to have, is the ability to deal with some of the trauma in my life through song. It’s always helped me.
10. “Inside Out”
The biggest tour we ever did was that fall of 2004, when “Ocean Avenue” was all over the radio and things were just crazy. We opened that entire tour with “Inside Out.” That was the first song we played every night. And I still can’t believe that we made the choice to do this, but it just worked. It was awesome. Every night it got the entire room off. You got your feet off the floor. I think it’s really different from the rest of the record too. It’s got this mid-tempo rock feel to it.
Ocean Avenue was like the year after 9/11, which is crazy to think about. We started working on that in late 2002. [“Believe” is] a song that’s really iconic for Shawn’s violin being a part of our music. [I told him,] “Hey, man, I have these things written this chord progression. And I want to have one of those [mimics the violin arpeggio] over the top of it,” however I explained it. That’s always been a super iconic live moment for the band. Black stage, one spotlight on Shawn playing that riff still gives me chills. That song was very much written for first responders. We had to get a pretty strong fan base very early in the career helping in the tri-state area of Jersey, Philly, New York, those areas. I know that a lot of fans really, really connected with that song. What really inspired me to write it was the Springsteen record The Rising.
12. “One Year, Six Months”
That was a very last-minute song. We had this void, like we needed something acoustic, we needed something stripped down. I went off in a room and started twisting the tuning pegs and found a cool open chord to play and started working from there. Yet another song about the breakup at the time. But again, very on brand for a 23-year-old songwriter in the Warped Tour, early-2000s pop-punk scene, writing six or seven songs on a record about a breakup. We recorded at a studio in Hollywood called Sunset Sound, a very iconic, legendary Hollywood studio. They have some of the first-ever-built reverb chambers, these big concrete rooms with a speaker at one end and a microphone at the other. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, before there were digital reverbs, you literally just created reverb that way. I guess Simon and Garfunkel recorded a lot of stuff there. Just hearing that story, we were like, “Let’s do that.”
13. “Back Home”
I remember our booking agent, Corrie Christopher, saying how special she thought that song was. She has always maintained that it’s her favorite Yellowcard song. And that’s really special to me, because Cory has been with the band all the way from the very beginning. It feels like a closer. It’s the song that’s supposed to end the album. I love that clean guitar riff that opens and closes the song. I’d been waiting to put that riff into a song that makes sense for a long time, and it finally worked out and became “Back Home.” It’ll always be one of my favorite Yellowcard songs.