Yellowcard Rock With Strings Attached

Pop-punk-plus-violin band hits the Top Ten with "Lights and Sounds"

Last year, after Yellowcard finished touring behind the platinum hit Ocean Avenue, the Jacksonville, Florida, band's sonic architects -- frontman Ryan Key and bassist Pete Mosely -- decided they needed a grittier environment and moved to New York. Renting an apartment on Lower Broadway, they got some furniture from the Crate & Barrel around the corner and painted the walls "merlot." "It made it like a cave," Key says. "It just felt warm. Any other color, to be honest, we wouldn't have made the same record."

Lights and Sounds, the band's fourth album, recently debuted at Number Five -- making Yellowcard the highest-charting rock act with a violin this side of Dave Matthews Band. "Honestly, the violin thing is a bit of a curse," says Mosely, joking about Yellowcard's master plan for scoring a record deal: "Let's get a violin." Fortunately, the violinist in question, Sean Mackin, also turned out to be an accomplished arranger of string sections, providing the lush atmospheres that push Lights and Sounds beyond the Pop Punk 101 curriculum of their previous discs.

Yellowcard formed in 1997; the name came from the soccer-style warnings band members would give people at parties for misdemeanors like spilling beer. Mosely defends his hometown: "I tell people, 'Don't laugh -- there really is a music scene in Jacksonville! Limp Bizkit's from there.'" He takes a beat. "Oh, OK, keep laughing." The group has had multiple personnel changes over the years -- last year, after Lights and Sounds was recorded, guitarist Ben Harper was let go -- but all five current members have been friends since high school.

"When we started, the goal was 'Can we get on the Warped Tour?'" says Key. "The biggest thing ever would have been to be on the main stage. Now my goals are on the level of being an artist." He considers that statement and tries to rephrase it in a less cheesy way: "I don't think we've changed the face of rock & roll and become the coolest band in the world. But I think we've made the first step towards being a band that may pass the test of time."

Lights and Sounds, with its larger musical palette and lyrics that extend beyond twentysomething angst, might prove him right. The sweetly melodic "Two Weeks From Twenty" is about a Jersey boy who joins the Army, goes to war and dies. The soaring "How I Go" is the lament of a father over the life that has flowed past him -- it includes vocals, improbably, from Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. ("I dated a girl who was a huge Dixie Chicks fan," says Key. "Now I'm a closet fan.") And the title track is a whirlwind rocker about the pressures on the band members and how they have changed as they've aged.

"We're older than people think we are," Mosely says, meaning that they've reached the ripe old ages of twenty-six and twenty-seven. Everyone in the group now has a steady girlfriend except Key. ("Last man standing," he says, sighing.) With almost a decade of experience, the band has learned how to temper its wild side and keep its biggest tour-bus indulgence to an excess of Anchorman quoting -- most of the time, anyway.

"We go through months of serenity," Key says, "and then there'll be this one night where there will be evil." This past November, some band members got hammered on Jack Daniel's in University Park, Pennsylvania, and started knocking over parking meters. Key says, "If someone had seen us that night, they would go, 'Dude, what a bunch of assholes.' And we're not, but there's just those moments of stress."

Fun with parking-meter vandalism ended when the cops showed up; the guys hid. "It's about as Motley Crue as we ever get," Key says apologetically. "Tommy Lee would have taken the quarters, too. We didn't. We just got on the bus."