William Ryan Key Explains Recent Rock Departure With New Electronic EP

Photo:  Acacia Evans

The Noise is Ones to Watch’s home for all things punk, hardcore, metal, hardcore you name it.

William Ryan Key is back and captivating listeners with his latest EP, Everything Except Desire. After forging his music career in seminal alt-rock band Yellowcard with eight albums, he ushered in his solo career with the release of two critically-hailed EPs, Thirteen and Virtue. After the success of those two releases and faced headfirst with the realities of a pandemic, Key continued to grow, experiment, and ultimately set out and create a beautiful, atmospheric and ambient record.

Everything Except Desire pushes the former Yellowcard vocalist and rhythm guitarist into uncharted musical territory, exploring a more experimental sound. It also marks a new beginning for the multi-instrumentalist as he’s inked a recording deal with seminal independent label Equal Vision Records. Textured with multi-layered soundscapes that incorporate pastoral washes of piano, strings, and synths, the Everything Except Desire evokes a palpable range of emotions carried by complex song structuring.

The Noise had the chance to talk with Key about the record, the genre transition, and what he ultimately hopes to achieve in the years to come.

The Noise: Obviously, many people know you for your work in the rock and pop-punk scene. So, what made you want to pivot into something vastly different from your previous work?

William Ryan Key: Yeah, it’s quite a departure, but I’ve been working in the space sonically where the EP is for a long time; I just haven’t released anything like it. So, one of my dearest friends is Ryan Mendez, who was the lead guitar player for Yellowcard from 2005 on; he and I have been working together since the band split up. We worked very closely in the band as well as together as writers. But after the band split up, we had been working together nonstop since 2017, 2018. He didn’t work with me on the EPs I released in 2018 but I was working on other music with him. We have a project called Jetta that we’ve been working on for four years, and in that space, it’s been all about experimental, ambient EDM, film scoring, and composition. So we want the project to have the umbrella effect of it being larger than one thing that we’re doing. We would like to be able to make albums, we’d like to be able to remix other artists, we would like to be scoring television and film and have it cover all of those things.

So when we’re making music, we’re conscious of the more cinematic elements that we’re exploring while also being mindful of the more dance and EDM elements we’re exploring. It’s just been fun, and electronic music has been such a massive part of the landscape that I listen to daily for longer than I think people would think or realize. I’ve been so removed from rock and roll for so many years, and my rock and roll outlet sort of became making Yellowcard records for a long time, especially in the last few years, but I wasn’t really listening to much music to inspire those records from 2010 on. I was just using Yellowcard as a place to make rock music, but behind those curtains, I was just listening to… I think the rock and roll that I still do listen to quite a bit of would-be instrumental post-rock type stuff, Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai and those types of things, but they fall so similarly into kind of the experimental EDM world of ambient, instrumental, almost orchestral movement-based pieces. That’s the music I love. So, Ryan and I have been creating similar soundscapes to the EP for several years now. What shifted for me to take that influence into my own music, we’re calling it the William Ryan Key space, is that I don’t really have plans to tour anymore.

Oh, really? Why is that?

So when I made my first two EPs, it was very important to me back in 2018 to draw a hard line in the sand that this is not Yellowcard anymore. Even though those two records are very different from what I did with Yellowcard, they’re still very guitar-driven. I evolved that in a way that I could take it on the road since touring was still a big focus of my career at that point. So the first EP, I was like, "Okay, I’m not gonna be able to afford to do much on the road, so I need to strip this down as far as I can and make it something that I can do in a cool way live, but not need a lot of bells and whistles." I like bells and whistles. I want the show to be all it can be, but I’m on my own, and I’m in a van again for the first time in 15 years, and that’s the way it’s got to be.  

I made Thirteen, my first solo EP, really stripped down so I could just pick up a guitar and play it. With Virtue, the second EP, I had more opportunities and more shows available, so it made sense to expand and add drums and bass and more guitar and more vocal, more keys. So I evolved, I think, personally a little bit on that record, but that was also the touring cycle where I was just grinding it out. I mean work gloves on, lugging gear upstairs and in snowstorms. I’m spoiled. I was in Yellowcard for so long, and we found success at such a young age, so it was a very humbling experience, but it was also a very time-consuming experience.

I found that as badly as I wanted to work on music with Ryan and as badly as I wanted to expand my career, or even focus and transition into film scoring, I felt like I was gone away from the studio just way too much for the return that I was getting on the work I was doing to stay on the road. Then the pandemic hit, and there was no touring, and that really opened my eyes to how much I enjoy creating and being in the studio every day.  

I moved back to Los Angeles for the first time in about six years, intending to work more with Ryan and focus more on film and television scoring and stuff. And then the pandemic hit, I wasn’t gonna be able to tour, which affected my income and my ability to operate as a full-time musician. Touring is a very supplemental thing for me to be able to work at home when I’m not touring. I don’t want to stay in Los Angeles where it’s, you know, 10 times the cost of living anywhere else in the country. It led me to a bit of a void. I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t really know what to do, I didn’t really have a plan, so my parachute that I pulled was to go back to Jacksonville, where I grew up, and my parents had a little rental house at the beach. It worked out perfectly for me to set up the studio there and at least be able to work, but I was around my parents every day in the middle of the early days of the pandemic, so I didn’t do any socializing. I would get up, meditate, workout, work in the studio, go to dinner at my parents’ house, come home, play Call of Duty, go to bed, get up repeat.

Routines are essential for maintaining mental health, especially during increasingly stressful situations.

Exactly. The songs and choice to deliberate with the departure were born out of that meditation and solitude. I was forced to think, "Okay, I’m not gonna be able to record drums and stuff with other musicians the way I did on my past work, and I need to be making some music." So I just turned on my Prologue, and I started turning knobs and making noises. I was already pretty practiced in electronic production through the amount of work Ryan and I have done over the last few years, so I just kind of ran with it. The songs became these long movements of ebbs and flows of all these cool ambient and string-driven pieces. I don’t know; it just felt right. The more I started creating it, the more I realized, “This is it. You’ve found the place that makes you the most happy creating music.”

Were there specific artists you listened to during this time that inspired you or did that inspiration come from an amalgamation of sources?

I think there’s also something to be said for how different it is. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m looking back to other influences to emulate them as much as I was on Thirteen and Virtue. At the time, I wanted to move into that post-rock space, so I was taking heavy inspiration. The number of ambient and electronic artists that I listen to is so deep that it’s impossible to say I’m looking at this one thing. The inspiration sonically came naturally from all of this music I’ve constantly been listening to and absorbing over many years, and I had a lot to say. I had kind of gone through, I’m not going to call it a relationship because it wasn’t one, but it was a very long extended interaction with a person that was very unhealthy for me. I found out I had a lot to say about that and what I did was I wrote the songs musically first. I created the tracks first with a lot of that kind of film and television score cinematic movements in mind and then placed the vocals on top of them. I let the music guide my choices for where I was going lyrically and melodically. It’s a different experience for anyone who’s heard me before and anyone who hasn’t heard me. That gets me excited too. I would be very stoked for this to be someone’s first experience listening to my music.

I can only imagine how exciting that must be to introduce yourself to a new sector of the music world.

Yeah! I will say that it’s funny. I’ll never be able to defeat the algorithm. When this is released on Spotify and Apple Music, if someone’s listening to Pierce the Veil or State Champs or New Found Glory or something, one of these songs is going to come on in the shuffle from Spotify because I think somehow the algorithm is going to connect me through that. I would prefer you listen to “Face in a Frame” of “Brighton” or whatever song is suggested to you, and then a Christian Laufer or à"lafur Arnalds song comes on next. That’s obviously where I’d like to live, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m getting to release music. So, I’m happy.  

The EP's coming out on Equal Vision, which is such an honor for me to get to do a release with them after years of listening to their bands. But we’ve talked a lot about how challenging it will be to get the songs into the right ear holes, because it’s tricky, and it’s all algorithm-based now, even playlisting places like Spotify. There used to be a more human touch on the selections for playlisting, and it’s becoming more and more strictly algorithm-based now. It makes it really challenging because I am and will forever be tethered to Yellowcard, and that’s not a bad thing. Still, it does make it challenging to go make a record full of six-minute-long ambient songs that need to get on the right playlists and get into the right people’s ears. It’s a challenge for sure.

Is there anything that can be done to combat the algorithm?

I hope so, but a lot of it is, honestly, so out of our control. I do have one opportunity. I got booked on a festival in May. It’s only like seven or eight artists, and Fitz and the Tantrums are headlining. So I had no plans to tour this music or perform it live, but now I’m pretty dead set on figuring out how to do a live show where I perform the EP all the way through because, in a setting like that, that’s the right earholes, as we say. For me to get up on stage and it not be as necessary to perform Yellowcard songs at a show like that, letting people experience my music in that way for the first time, I think that’s the right kind of audience.  

So who knows, maybe we get some more opportunities at festivals and things like that. Where I can play and people will just go the old fashioned way of, “Who is this artist playing? I really like it,” and then go research and find out and listen to music. We’ll see. Again, so much of my focus right now is trying to open doors in the world of scoring for film. So I really want this to do well. I also know I have a core group of fans that are really excited about it, and I’m definitely making, if for nothing else, I’m just making music for them. They’re the reason I get to keep making music because of the support I get from them. And so, if it carries on and starts to permeate to the right playlists and the right places, that will be amazing. But if not, I know there are people out there enjoying it.

Some of those core fans were signed up to your Patreon when you originally released the demos for these tracks in 2020. Do you think we’d be getting a record if you hadn’t put your demos on Patreon that day?  

I think so. Patreon gave me a space to create new music, and I didn’t have a plan for the release. When I first opened up my Patreon page and started building, one of the “perks” was to get a new composition every month, but it was exclusive with a disclaimer. I said these are exclusive to Patreon, but they might get released someday. And it’s been well over a year, almost two years since I started Patreon, so everyone involved in it did have the music long before the rest of the world got to hear it. And of course, again, I have this little community of super supportive people that were like, “We don’t care! Release it tomorrow. We’re here to support you!” It’s pretty incredible, to be honest. So it’s definitely the reason we got the EP, but I’m sure if I hadn’t done Patreon, and certainly, if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would have carried on making music. Whether or not it would have been this departure, I don’t know. I don’t know what it would have sounded like had the pandemic not happened and had I not been alone at home for eight months straight. I have no idea what I would have created, but I probably would have continued to release music.

You mentioned earlier that this departure is the happiest you’ve been while creating music. Did you ever experience any fear or doubt about the departure?

I definitely was not feeling any type of doubt, fear, or hesitation, mainly because I was creating in such a safe space with the Patreon community and knowing where I want to go in the future. I’m a very goal-oriented person, and I’m very driven to accomplish what I want to achieve. So in my mind’s eye, I'm sitting at the Academy Awards someday for a film score. I mean, come on, yeah right, but I have to create images like that and visualize goals in my mind’s eye. An award is not what I want; that’s not the point. Just knowing that I’ve been able to accomplish the goal of shifting my career into scoring, that’s what I want. So this was an opportunity for me to do so many things and try something new to practice.

Who would be a dream director to work with?

The list is just crazy, but Denis Villeneuve, Danny Boyle, Baran bo Odar. The soundtrack for Dark is unbelievable. Honestly, really anyone who uses the music almost as much as the dialogue. And Danny Boyle is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. One of my favorite soundtracks is one of his; I think his most underrated film is Sunshine, a sci-fi film based on a novel that came out in the early 2000s. The soundtrack was John Murphy, who did 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, and Underworld, a techno dance EDM producer kind of sound. That’s the kind of stuff I want to be doing. Neoclassical electronic with strings and electronic hybrid stuff. That’s a crazy one to think about. To be honest, I’ve never thought about it until this moment, like, a specific director I want to work with.

What was something new you learned from this experience?

I got to experiment, and one of the things I got to practice the most and learned the most about was string arrangements. I composed and arranged all the strings myself. In Yellowcard, Sean [Mackin] is an incredible composer, and he notated all of the massive string sections we had on all of our albums. I don’t write music, like handwrite notated music, but I also had a lot to learn about how the three main string instruments (the cello, the viola, and the violin) work together sonically and having this free space to just write five-minute-long string sections was a blast. I started to really learn how the melodies play with each other and counter off each other. When I listened to the EP, one of my favorite things was the strings. I wish I had been in a space where I could have recorded real string players in a studio somewhere tracking them, but the tools we have these days as composers are pretty unbelievable.  

This EP is a beautiful, atmospheric record full of moments that are likely to resonate with listeners. Is there a favorite music moment for you?

100%. I mean, overall, the whole thing kind of has a “fuck, I made that” energy for me. I think lyrically, there is a very specific moment when I wrote it, thinking back on it, it’s one line that the entirety of the record doesn’t even need any more lyrics. This one line is the whole thing I was trying to say. That one line in “Brighton” says, "I will elevate the uninvited so that I can feel a goddamn thing." The idea that I was continuing to allow this unreciprocated, toxic thing to come into my life repeatedly just so I could feel something and exploring that was very much what I did throughout the entire record lyrically, so I love that lyric.  

Musically, I think my favorite moment on the whole record is when the drums drop in “Union Chapel." After that, you’re lost in that trancy piano piece, and then suddenly, the kick drum and bass just drop on you out of nowhere. I love that moment. That’s my favorite song on the EP for sure.

Which song are you most excited for people to listen to?

It’s so hard because I think "The Swim Back” is such a statement since it’s an instrumental song that’s almost six minutes long, and It sets the scene in a way. I think I’m most proud of “Union Chapel” as a piece of work. I’m not a super-skilled piano player, and I have very much accepted using the tools I have at hand and being able to lean on my computer to play the piano. My greatest regret is quitting piano lessons when I was nine or ten years old. I can play; I just can’t play at the level that I wish I could. So what I’ll do is, when I write a piano part, I definitely take great care to make sure that it’s humanly playable and that I go through and give a lot of love to the performance to make it feel human and real. I don’t lock it on the grid, I don’t quantize it, I don’t let the computer do all the work, but again, I’m just not a super-skilled pianist. I was a guitar player, and I didn’t spend enough time in my life focusing on the piano. It would have been a different story if I had known what I wanted to do 20 years ago, but I’m only saying all this to say that the piano part that opens “Union Chapel” is just one of my favorite pieces of music I’ve ever written. It just came out of nowhere. I don’t even know how it happened or what inspired it.

That track is such an impactful way to end the record.

I’m definitely old-fashioned in the sense that I believe albums should be listened to in the order that they’re delivered. There’s a reason, and there’s a method to that madness. I very deliberately built us up to “Heavens,” which I think is the most pop-sounding song on the record. It is driving with that kind of dancey kick underneath it to the last second of the music, and then I brought it down to this very lonely, sad place for “Union Chapel.” It’s the only time on the entire record where it’s just one vocal. There are no doubled vocals, no harmonies. It’s just me and a piano. And I brought it down to that to close it out. In cinematic fashion, I wanted the whole thing to feel like it had scenes to it, and so I really think “Union Chapel” is just such a cool, final piece.

What can new and old fans expect to see you do now that the record is out?

There are a lot of really exciting things happening honestly. I’m just gonna keep streaming and creating. I actually have a project that’s on the table to work on. A good friend of mine has just been hired as a Creative Director at a really cool sync house for television and film. So they’ve commissioned me to do a 10-track project. Imagine Everything Except Desire without vocals and only two minute long sync-based ambient pieces. I’m going to work on that live on Patreon, and I’m waiting to see if any more opportunities like this festival pop up. I think doing a proper tour is really not in the cards for now anyway, but if the one in May is sort of a test run, if I’m able to turn Everything Except Desire into a show in some way that works and is cool, then I think we could go out and look for more opportunities to do some of the festivals type shows.

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