Somewhere in the giant rulebook of rock, it's written that after a band makes an album that turns them from complete unknowns into full-fledged rock stars (heretofore referred to as "the breakout album"), that band must make a follow-up LP that is ambitious, willfully obscure and completely different from the breakout album.
When said band is interviewed, they will often refer to the follow-up LP as "a giant leap forward," "a definite risk," or "a more mature effort" (oftentimes these phrases are used in concurrent sentences), and will usually mention albums like Radiohead's Kid A, or Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I & II as sources of inspiration for the new record. Usually, the band's frontman will also drop the names of a few obscure electronic/ambient/instrumental acts into the conversation (Aphex Twin, Mouse on Mars and Explosions in the Sky, for example) for added effect.
And most of the time, that band will be completely full of crap. More often than not, the follow-up record isn't that different from the breakthrough album (except for the string section and full gospel choir), and for all the namedropping and grandiose statements, you're basically left with the same music.
Which is why it's strange to talk to Yellowcard's Ryan Key and Pete Mosley about their new album, the follow-up to the breakout smash, Ocean Avenue. Because when they explain that the still-untitled album (due in late January) is "a definite departure" and "more political," they're not kidding. As they describe the loose concept that ties the album together — a girl named Holly who's lost in Los Angeles — they're wide-eyed and truly excited. And when the say that they're genuinely concerned that the new record will alienate a large portion of their fanbase, they are being, well, completely genuine.
"We feel that we have something to prove because of the success we've been given and the opportunity that we have, so we definitely stepped outside of our boundaries with the new album," Key said. "We want to be a band that matters to people, not just a band that got a stint on 'TRL' because they were a bunch of good-looking kids. So we had to make a record that mattered, a record with staying power for people. And maybe the younger fans who like our band are ready for that and maybe they're not. But either way, we're really proud of it."
"We kind of got grouped into a certain thing with the last record, and whether it's good or bad, who knows?" Mosley added. "But we don't want to walk around and go, 'Hey, I'm in this pop-punk band called Yellowcard' for the rest of our lives. So we made a record that's not like Ocean Avenue. It's not bouncy — it's rock and roll."
Last December, while the rest of Yellowcard were unwinding from a year-plus tour in support of Ocean Avenue, Key and Mosely moved to New York to begin working on the album, but found those initial sessions to be less than fruitful (see "Yellowcard Feverishly Working On New Album ... Starting Tomorrow"). Basically, after looking back at how far they'd come — from tiny SoCal punk act to arena-filling headliners in less than 18 months — they both realized that they had no idea what to do for an encore.
"It took us so long to get around to writing it because we were scared to death. It wasn't anything that was in the back of our minds, it was blatantly right in front of us," Mosley sighed. "It was the first time we had to write a record for somebody. Every other record we did for ourselves, and we did it on our own terms. We did something that attracted attention to us, and now we have to do something to follow that up and go beyond."
"It was frightening until the minute we started writing," Key continued. "Then it was easy."
And from early on in the writing process, Key and Mosley both noticed a common theme running though the music, one that seemed a bit odd, given their NYC locale: They were writing tons of songs about Los Angeles — particularly, how much they hated living there. And so they developed a character, Holly Wood, who would weave her way in and out of the new album's songs, serving as a sort of narrator and protagonist, providing the backbone to the LP's storyline.
"It's definitely not a concept record, but there's a story of sorts. Holly became this person on the record who appears in a lot of the songs, and at times you love her and at times you hate her. At times she's good to you and sometimes she's bad," Key said. "She's in a song called 'Holly Wood Died,' and in another song called 'Rough Landing Holly,' which is my favorite song on the album."
Yellowcard recorded 19 songs for the album, 13 of which will make the final cut, including an intro and a hidden track. Other titles include "Lights and Sounds" (the likely first single), "Sure Thing Falling" and the politically charged "Two Weeks From Twenty," about a G.I. killed in Iraq — which Key pointed to as another one of his favorites on the record, and a good example of just where his songwriting is heading.
"As a lyricist, I go where I want to go, I wrote about things that really mattered. In the past, we've had some songs about really trivial subject matter, and there's almost none of that on this record," he said. "There's no brokenhearted memories of a time long gone. There's nothing even close to that. It's all pretty far removed from my typical Ocean Avenue songs."