Yellowcard Survives Turnover and Label Trouble to Keep Fighting

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

Ocean Avenue, the 2003 Capitol Records release that thrust Yellowcard into the Top 40 spotlight, was an album that managed to define the wide-eyed wonder for a generation of teenagers. With a 17-year career under their belts, Yellowcard has gracefully managed the pitfalls that come with being a longstanding pop rock band.

They're one of the last vestiges of the Total Request Live generation, bands that peppered the early '00s with the pop punk that's etched into the after-school memories of millennials all over. When Yellowcard plays the Nile Theater in Mesa on Saturday, January 18, they'll be bringing some of those early glory days with them, touring behind last year's acoustic treatment of Ocean Avenue.

Though he joined up with the band after their platinum ascent, Yellowcard guitarist and Tempe resident Ryan Mendez has been on board for almost nine years, having worked with the band for over half of their career and contributing to Ocean Avenue Acoustic. "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 inclusion into the band came at a slightly 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 of Mendez, 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 want to come play shows with us? We're looking for a guitar player,'" Mendez laughs. "So it was kind of a funny, one-two type of thing."

Yet Mendez wasn't initially welcomed by diehard Yellowcard fans. As with any band with a following garnered from anthemic pop albums and TV performances, like prototypical Little Monsters or Katycats, Mendez's relatively sudden appearance as a member of the band after a platinum-selling record could be seen as shocking. "Any time you have a band that comes out of a scene where the fans feel so closely involved and a part of that band, any time you see any lineup changes that occur [backlash occurs]," 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."

After nine years with the band, 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 emigrated to Tempe in May of 2008 as she pursued her masters 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 we have to offer.

"In the time that I've been here, then 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 explains. "We did this side project and we wrote thirteen, fourteen songs and some of those songs ended up on the last Yellowcard record -- obviously a little redone."

The ease with which Yellowcard produces today hasn't always been such a fluid process. Their history is pockmarked by a significant hiatus in 2007 that stretched out over four years, in which Mendez honed his production work 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 #37 on Top 40, and that exact same week was the week they announced the [buyout] and it just died," he further explains. "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."

So Yellowcard is still moving forward, fresh off a world tour and about to embark on another. For all the cataclysmic lows, including the 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% behind him" through the tragedy -- they're a band that always seems to come back swinging. Christopher, having been by their side for the majority of their career, has witnessed Yellowcard's trajectory, rise and falls included. She's not worried about them, however. Yellowcard, from their fans to their 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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