Time to Reap

Yellowcard didn't fall into success, they sowed it.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not a huge fan of Yellowcard's music. Which is not to say that the quickly rising pop-punk quintet isn't any good. Or that their live show isn't a well-honed, frenetic blast of communal energy. Or that their move to a major label and the subsequent mainstream buzz-band status are reasons to dismiss them out of hand as another Good Charlotte.I'm just saying that, as a guy a good decade older than the average Yellowcard fan, I don't get as much out of the sound as do the legions of new-school punk fans who've loved and supported them from the get-go.

I do, however, respect the hell out of Yellowcard. And, my personal musical tastes (and Music Menu jibes) notwithstanding, I think their current success is extremely well deserved.

Here are five reasons why.

Their overnight success has been nearly seven years in the making. Formed in Jacksonville by a group of high-school friends in 1997, Yellowcard has been on the road almost non-stop since. If someone were to compile an even halfway accurate tally of every band to play St. Pete all-ages Mecca the State Theatre between '97 and last year, and how frequently each of them did, Yellowcard would undoubtedly end up in the top five.

The group ascended gradually from glomming onto local bills during their own tours to touring with other regional acts, eventually landing spots on jaunts featuring nationally known names. Before long, Yellowcard had a loyal fanbase in every city they regularly hit.

It wasn't until the band packed up and relocated to Southern California in 2000, however, that they fully benefited from the power of the punk community's grapevine. Arriving in the region that had spawned so many of their influences, the quintet experienced a reception far beyond their expectations.

"It was everything we thought it would be," says violinist Sean Mackin. "And to have the California people welcome us so much was pretty heartwarming … it was a pretty critical point in our career."

Their album One for the Kids was released by SoCal label Lobster Records later that year. It, and Yellowcard's relentless roadwork, continued to build on the foundation of their Florida days, culminating in a deal with Capitol Records.

Their commitment to the gig is total. The band's move to California wasn't just a matter of wanting to tread on American punk rock's sacred ground.

"Our record label [Lobster] was a one-man project in Santa Barbara, and we wanted to be there to help him out, doing whatever we could, stuffing envelopes," says Mackin. "We talked about it [back in Florida], and decided we were really gonna give it a go. And if we were gonna do it 100 percent, we needed to be where we needed to be."

They don't treat their gimmick as a gimmick. Not too many fast-and-hooky acts boast a violinist as a member, and plenty of critics (myself included) have waxed snarky on the Yellowcard lineup. But Mackin's membership boils down to nothing more or less than the desire of a group of friends to do something together.

"We'd jam at parties when we were younger, while we were drinking, back in high school, just being around music all the time. Ben [Harper, guitarist] and I were in a little acoustic kind of all-instrumental folk/classical project," he remembers. "And he started a rock band, and they asked me if I wanted to jam on one song, and I just kind of was always involved in the band. I was around from the beginning."

Still, it's an easy hook for a group to hang its identity on. But a listen to last year's breakthrough Ocean Avenue proves that nobody's shoving Mackin out front in an effort to position Yellowcard as reinventing the pop-punk wheel. His contributions are largely understated, subtly filling out the songs' big, hooky, familiar riffs.

"That's good, though — we don't want it to stand out like a sore thumb. We want it to mesh," says Mackin. "We just try to let it find its place.

"I used to stand around and watch the guys, especially the guitars. They would be playing all the time, and I'd try to do that, but over all the frustrating hours we began to narrow it down."

They're always "down for the cause." Last year, Yellowcard played Tampa's The S.O.A.P. Show, a huge, ill-fated event conceived to benefit The Spring, an asylum for victims of domestic abuse. They rerouted the Southeastern leg of their tour to do it, and cancelled a headlining State Theatre show that undoubtedly would've been more lucrative.

"We try to help out as much as we can. We're not really a political band, but I'm kind of disappointed that that show didn't work out as well as it could've," Mackin says. "We don't really get much of an opportunity to do stuff like that because of the schedule, but we always want to, and if we can, we will. If we can help, we don't mind lending a hand."

The S.O.A.P. show wasn't the first time Yellowcard have gone out of their way in the name of helping others. They once organized a benefit for a Las Vegas fan whose girlfriend's parents were in a horrific car accident — the kind of thing local bands do all the time, but that national acts might see themselves as unable to make time for.

In another case, Mackin lent his voice to a mix CD made by the parents of a young girl who was in a coma as the result of a Jet-Ski mishap. He didn't know her; her parents just told him she was a fan.

"I was really nervous about that. What do you say to somebody you've never met? So they just recorded my voice, saying hello and that I hope she gets better soon," he says. "She's better now, walking with a walker, so she and some of her friends are coming to our show in Seattle this weekend."

They know who got 'em where they are today. Though the band is now enjoying MTV and modern-rock radio rotation, and does the obligatory FM-station festival shows, their tours are still all-ages, and the prices at the merchandise booth are still closer to an unsigned band's than, say, Weezer's.

Furthermore, when Ocean Avenue came out, the band resisted immediate and massive promotion, letting their longtime fans digest the disc before serving up a single or video. As a result, they've avoided the sort of "sellout" backlash that usually accompanies a move to the majors.

"We never really had any problems with it, because our fans have been so supportive over the years. They've seen how hard we've worked," Mackin says. "They know we've been around, and now with growing popularity and stuff, they've stayed by us."

And Yellowcard has every intention of staying by them, even as they head toward whatever The Big Time has in store.

That's a pretty respectable way to do it.

"I don't know what the master plan is," Mackin admits. "I just know that the more shows we play, the happier the kids are."

Contact Music Critic Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or [email protected].

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