Music News

Tempe's Ryan Mendez on the Ups and Downs of Yellowcard

For those who came of age after Y2K, the heady days of heart-on-sleeve pop-punk, as defined by bands like Fall Out Boy, Cartel, and Panic! at the Disco, brought radio-ready acts that were as relatable and open-hearted as they were kitschy. Few records encapsulated this timeframe with the honesty of Yellowcard's Ocean Avenue.

The 2003 Capitol release was the record that thrust Yellowcard into the Top 40 spotlight and defined wide-eyed wonder for a generation of teenagers. Now, with a 17-year career under its belt, Yellowcard has gracefully managed the pitfalls that come with being a longstanding pop-rock band.

The band is one of the last vestiges of the Total Request Live generation, when bands peppered the early '00s with the pop punk that's etched into the after-school memories of millennials. When Yellowcard plays Mesa's Nile Theater, it'll bring along some of those early glory days as the band tours behind last year's acoustic treatment of its breakthrough release.

Though he joined the band after its platinum ascent, Yellowcard guitarist and Tempe resident Ryan Mendez has been on board for almost nine years. "It definitely wasn't easy at first because that's kind of a tough situation to walk into — into a band that's already blown up — but nowadays, it's totally fine," he says.

But Mendez's move came at a somewhat tumultuous time, following the band's decision to excise founding lead guitarist Ben Harper due to conflicts within the group. It was a chance phone call to violinist Sean Mackin, a longtime friend, that led to his joining Yellowcard.

"I actually called Sean in 2005 to invite him to my wedding because he had been good friends with my wife and I, and he's like, 'Sorry I can't come to your wedding, but do you want to come play shows with us? We're looking for a guitar player,'" Mendez says with a laugh. "So it was kind of a funny, one-two type of thing."

But Mendez wasn't welcomed by diehard Yellowcard fans right away. As with any act that's garnered a following from anthemic pop albums and TV performances (think Little Monsters or Katycats), sudden changes don't go over easily.

"Anytime you have a band that comes out of a scene where the fans feel so closely involved and a part of that band, anytime you see any lineup changes that occur," you get backlash, says Corrie Christopher, Yellowcard's booking agent since 1999. "I think the fact that the rest of the guys were so excited to have him in the band, it was pretty evident to the fans that he wasn't going anywhere and that he deserved the position."

Nine years later, having crisscrossed the world and even taking on production and mixing aspects of 2011's When You're Through Thinking, Say Yes right here in the Valley, Mendez couldn't be happier with his position. He and his wife moved to Tempe in May 2008 as she pursued a master's degree at ASU. Despite an insane touring schedule and an admitted absence from the majority of the Phoenix scene, he's still made an effort to check out all that Phoenix has to offer.

"In the time that I've been here, there seems to be a bigger metal scene than a punk or pop-rock scene," he says. "That's fine for me. I listen to a ton of metal and have gone to a bunch of shows since I've lived here, mostly at the Marquee, which is a great venue. I was kind of involved with the guys who ran Krank [Amplification], and they are based here as well, so I would go to shows with them."

It was also here in our backyard that much of the latter-day Yellowcard material was formed as well, whether in the form of compilation contributions or demos of newer records. Mendez's affinity for mixing and production transformed into a bedroom hobby into a versatile tool for the band.

"[My wife and I] bought a house in Tempe, and I converted one of the bedrooms into a home studio, and Ryan Key and I wrote a ton of stuff during that time," Mendez says. "We did this side project and we wrote 13, 14 songs, and some of those songs ended up on the last Yellowcard record."

The ease with which Yellowcard produces today hasn't always been such a fluid process. The band's history is pockmarked by a hiatus beginning in 2007 that stretched four years, during which Mendez honed his production technique and other band members pursued personal endeavors. The story behind that break, however, is much more involved.

"Basically, everything that happened with [2007's Paper Walls] was a catalyst for us taking our hiatus," he says. "We did the record, and then the Capitol parent company, EMI, got bought out, and everything having to do with the label was frozen — all promotion, all everything. We had just finished Paper Walls, and it just got killed. The company that came in and bought EMI came in and wanted to move everything around, freezing all assets, so anything that was active at the time went permanently dead."

It's far from the first time that a label's corporate actions have hindered a band's release. For Yellowcard, this was more than a minor setback — it was the straw that broke the camel's back.

"The first single off that record was a song called 'Light Up the Sky,' and it was actually charting, jumping over to pop radio and started at something like number37 on Top 40, and that exact same week was the week they announced the [buyout] and it just died. It was really, really a bummer for all of us because things were going really well, and we had no options after that. It just seemed like the best decision for all of us, to just take a step back and figure out what we wanted to do going forward."

But Yellowcard is still moving forward, fresh off a world tour and about to embark on another. For all the cataclysmic lows, including a horrific accident last year that left vocalist Ryan Key's wife, professional snowboarder Alyona Alekhina, paralyzed from the waist down — Mendez says that the band has been "150 percent behind [Key]" through the tragedy — it's a band that always seems to come back swinging. Christopher, having been by Yellowcard's side for the majority of its career, has witnessed Yellowcard's trajectory, rise and falls included. She's not worried about the group, however. Yellowcard, from its fans to its history, is one of the figureheads of the ever-resilient TRL era.

"They were very young when they started this band, and they're a little bit older now, and they've traveled the world and have gained a lot from those experiences, and they've improved on what was already a solid foundation," she says. "They are some of the most loyal people I have ever worked with. We fought through stuff together, and I think that says a lot about them as people."

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Kristian C. Libman