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Interview: Sean Mackin of Yellowcard Talks Longevity

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

We also chat about ‘Lift a Sail’, fans, and what’s on his bucket list as a musician.

Interview: Sean Mackin of Yellowcard Talks Longevity

Enduring alternative rock band Yellowcard recently blew through New York City for a fantastic show at the Best Buy Theater. Before the concert, I had the opportunity to sit down with the band's violin player, Sean Mackin, whose sister-in-law had just finished the NYC Marathon earlier in the day. That's a tough act to follow in any family, but Mackin and the rest of the band put on a hell of a show in Times Square. 

Mackin is the lone founding member of Yellowcard in the band, but as he explained, the ethos and spirit of the band is the same as it was when the group first started. We talked about the group's astounding longevity, the new album, what it's like to have fans of widely different ages, and the one thing on his bucket list with Yellowcard (hint: it's playing in a place that's really, really cold). 

You guys have the new album that just came out, Lift a Sail. How do you feel about the reception it’s gotten thus far?

It’s been amazing. We’re a bunch of “glass-half-full” dudes, and to be able to still be doing this 15 years later with the best producer in the world at such a high level is really a blessing. I think we always used to say that the Yellowcard goal was longevity. So just to have another full-length, big budget production at this part in our careers, we couldn’t ask for anything more.

Yeah, that’s what I was also going to ask. When you first started this band, you’re now the only original member left from back in 1997, what were the expectations then when you first started? I know you just touched on longevity, but what were the realistic goals you guys had when you first started the project, especially compared to everything that’s happened since?

I think, when you look at your life and the different friends that you have when you’re 15 and the friends that you have when you’re 30, 35, whatever, it’s a smaller number of people that are still connected. I think we all looked at it differently, but I thank my Mom. She made me really focus on playing music at a time when I didn’t want to play. You know, when you’re in middle school, high school, violin isn’t the coolest thing to play. I think she gets a lot of the credit; she screwed my head on right.

When I grew up as a younger violinist, I was forced to play music on paper and read music and study theory. It’s not that I wasn’t good enough. I knew I would never be a top tier player, but I didn’t know if I wanted to be told what to play all the time. Or [be told’ my interpretation or someone’s interpretation of beautiful, timeless music. I mean I love classical music, but I fell in love with composition. And I think writing songs and that expression is something that will never leave me. I think being the last member standing and being in Yellowcard, I think it still stands for what it did back then. It’s a group of friends that just share the same passion for music. Unfortunately, life digs these little paths and people come and go, but, that’s still the truth behind Yellowcard’s music.

To touch further on the longevity of the band, I started listening to you guys back in high school. Now, I’m into my professional career and still a fan, but what’s it like to still have people from my situation, who are in high school just discovering you, but also having fans that have been with you the whole way? What’s that dichotomy like, is it weird?

I wouldn’t say weird. I would say… can I say magical? It’s kind of magical to have a fan base that’s loyal. I recognize so many fans, and Twitter and Instagram makes it easy for you to see these familiar faces from all over the world. Even without that, you recognize these people and you start to learn how your music has helped them or shaped their lives, and that’s really a special thing.

To also be a songwriter in my mid-thirties and have a 16-year-old come up and say “I found your music through ‘X, Y and Z’ or my older brother” or whatever it is, we can write these songs, especially Ryan, and I won’t speak for him but as our storyteller, he writes from his point of view and he tells our story and his personal story, whether it’s hardships or the most triumphant of times. But the fact that he writes a song that a younger listener can relate to is really special and magical.

So yeah the more mature audience, maybe back at the bar. You know, they aren’t throwing elbows in the pit, but to see the younger kids sing along and dance and mosh pitting is, you know we’re kind of young-spirited, so that definitely has a youthful injection in what we like to do, and it makes our shows that much more magical.

Do you see kind of an evolution in the band just in the material that you’ve put out from Ocean Avenue and all that stuff leading up to Lift a Sail? Is there , I don’t know, a change that you felt in the writing approach or what you were writing about?

I mean, if I’m looking back, I see a definitive timeline. We pushed really hard for Lights and Sounds to show people who were putting us in this box. You know when you’re younger you rebel, “We can do this, too!” So that was a pretty big change immediately, even though it was within our wheelhouse to write songs like that.

I still, when I look, see a timeline of my life. And it’s not based on who wrote this record because we were here or this or that, but I see and hear those songs and it’s like memories. It’s very vivid. I think the difference now with Lift a Sail is writing songs in our 30s as opposed to in our 20s and trying to showcase the full range of Yellowcard. I think with Lift a Sail, we chose the moments and we chose the things we wanted to do for a long time, and we were still were able to mix in the vintage Yellowcard sounds. I think it was more subtle.

You look at the scope of songs, whether it’s a slower acoustic song to the fastest of fast, and we wanted to pick a point where maybe we didn’t have a lot of Yellowcard songs in that range. We have some heavier rock stuff that will definitely, like “Crash the Gates,” “The Deepest Well” will now always find they way consistently in a Yellowcard show. And you look at some of the mid-tempo songs, like “MSK” or “One Bedroom”, material that we felt like we wanted to write for a long time and felt that we didn’t have the springboard. It was really special for us.

And I think within the Yellowcard camp, we have never been musically focused in the same direction. We sat down before the writing process, and usually it’s like, “I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to do that.” But this time it was, “Let’s try this. That’s what I want to do, what you think about this? That’s great.” So we were all very focused in the same direction on this project, super positive, and really wanted to do some exploration, but art mimics our life. So I think there was going to be very big sort of swing with this record.

Is there a significance to the title Lift a Sail? Does it mean anything deeper?

Yeah, I think within our own personal struggles, we have problems just like anyone else. Ryan’s been pretty open about sharing his story with him and his young wife and her recent accident and their struggles. She’s been such an amazing inspiration, but I think there is a really strong imagery of saying, “Out of this storm, we can lift a sail. We’re ready to do it.” And I think with the title track, that’s definitely what that’s about.

So when you’re playing live, what do you love to see the most from fans in the crowd? What really gets you going when you’re up on stage?

For me, at the Yellowcard show, it's how the song takes its own shape from how we imagined it recording and our expectation of what we think will happen, and what really happens. If there’s one person or if there’s 1,000 people singing, it really doesn’t make a difference to me. It’s just the fact that we can put out Yellowcard songs and people consume it in today’s world, whatever way that is, and they come to the shows, seek us out, they sing the songs with their eyes closed or tears in their eyes. Just that sort of transformation from music to an actual live emotional reaction, that’s so special.

Is there a particular song you enjoy playing live out of the numerous Yellowcard catalogue?

Yeah, well now it’s a little different. We want to test the new songs out, and there’s a song “Crash the Gates” that sort of modulates between A-minor and A-major, I put some violin arpeggio in there, a kind of Muse-y delay. It’s really fun to play. I think if we were going for a newer song, that’s my favorite. It’s heavy, Mendes wrote that song, and it’s so much fun to play.

But, we’re not playing it in this set, but there’s a song called “Believe” that commemorates the heroes during the tragedy of 9/11, and that song, more often than not, will move me to tears. It’s really special, especially playing it in New York. I remember Ocean Avenue’s 10-year anniversary last year, and we played it at Irving Plaza. It was so moving, and just so special. So over the past 11 years, that’s been my favorite song. But if we’re going with a new song, I’ll go with “Crash the Gate,” a little edgier, a little heavier.

Especially when you get to show off a little bit on the track.

Yeah, you know, you mix in a little classical with a little of the rock stuff, I like that!

Do you ever get sick of playing any songs?

No, never. Never. It’s such a gift, to be able to do what we do, and I really believe that. There was a time in our band where things were kind of out of our control and we weren’t able to do it anymore, and I was pretty angry. I think maybe it is just some stupid masculine thing of not being able to do something out of your control, but it just made me so frustrated and angry. But then we did get an amazing second chance. We didn’t know if it was going to be like a reunion feel or if we could really revitalize it and make a new business about it. I have a wife and now a new kid.

Oh, congratulations!

Thank you, she’s 8 weeks today!

Wow!

But it ended up that our fans really embraced us and really made it happen. So if we’re playing one song and I’m not really feeling it, that’s not fair to anybody. I don’t live my life like that. I’ll play “Ocean Avenue 1,000 more times if you want me to. If that’s what the fans want.

Is there anything left on your bucket list of things you want to accomplish with Yellowcard? You’ve toured, you’ve put out great albums, you’ve sold out shows, what more do you want to accomplish?

It’s funny, I think within Yellowcard, we’ve accomplished so much. Everyone’s always like, “Oh, did you want to do this?” So much of what we get to do are beyond my wildest imagination and dreams. We did a small USO tour in Kuwait. And just to see the men and women that you know, and I’m not going political here, I’m just saying they are fighting for us. Someone is telling them what to do, and they do it for us without question and give me the opportunity to play music. To see them over there doing that, and to bring them a moment of joy, I couldn’t imagine being able to do that. Being over there, taking pictures wearing flak jackets on ships with the wings of giant American freedom birds, whatever you want to call the airplanes.

We’ve played South Africa with Deftones and Manchester Orchestra at this huge festival. We’ve done six continents, and I’d love to be able to be on Antarctica at least once, if we could play a show.

For the researchers down there.

Yeah, I mean somebody! Fungus, moss, a single-cell organism type thing. Even to have the opportunity to go there, I mean that’s a big budget deal, I don’t know if that will ever happen, but six continents and countless countries and thousands of fans, I’m so lucky. So if I could keep doing this another 35 years, I think that would be good. But every day for us is a gift, and I can’t imaging asking for anything else.

You’ve played New York a bunch of times now at this point. Do you have a particular spot that is sort of your favorite?

Um… I have some good memories at Irving. I think there is something special about being in Times Square [Best Buy Theater]. And really, it’s not a venue in particular: it’s the moments on stage and the audience singing to us. So we’ve had amazing shows at both, but those venues really stand out to me. And I’m from the mind where, I grew up in Florida, all of the guys are bouncing around all over and now I’m in Seattle. I’m kind of like a small town country kid at heart. So, the city kind of gets to me if we’re here for a couple days. I feel like there are so many people that are so hardworking, and sometimes they can be a little cold emotionally. But that’s why I love the shows because it doesn’t seem to mimic any of that. So, I grab a slice of pizza with my friends and a drink and we’re on to the next city. But this is a good place, there are a lot of great people here. I think I just discovered it a little too late in my life.

If you could tour with any group, past or present, who would you want to play with?

Yeah. We’ve never toured with Jimmy Eat World. I think that would be fun.

That would be great.

It would be great if the Foo Fighters headlined. I think they are the coolest band on the planet. We were watching the ‘Sonic Highways’ and Dave Grohl was in Nashville doing a cafe, and he’s just like, “Hey, I’m Dave Grohl. I’m a drummer.” And he says it, and it’s gotta be casual, because it’s his life, but to musical outsiders, it’s like, “God, you’re so much cooler than me!” So, I mean, we would never get that gig, but it would be cool.

I mean, we’re all big fans, but honestly, Chris Scifllett, he’s my guy. His days in No Use for a Name and his classical training. I was able to pick his music apart with a violin and his leads sort of led me to where I am in Yellowcard and the mixture of string arrangements and whatever. But the fact that of course he’s amazingly talented, and of course he would end up in Foo Fighters, but he’s super cool and is in one of the coolest bands back in the day, and we used to tour with No Use back in the day, so if that were to come around I don’t think we’ll be mad.

We’ll say it enough and that will it just organically happen.

You know, it’s in the universe and has been out there for a while. But I don’t know if the universe is mad at us. If we’re hoping and praying, that would be more on the Christmas list.

You can still catch Yellowcard on tour now with Memphis May Fire and their new album, Lift a Sail, is out now everywhere.

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