The fiddling punk

There was always that guy in school. The one with the weird, hair-sprouting mole, the huge Mickey Mouse ears ... the headgear. He was endlessly taunted and ridiculed because kids can be so cruel. That's sort of what it's like to be the kid who plays violin in a punk rock band.

"We were all friends when the band formed, so I was always around when they were practicing," says Yellowcard violinist Sean Mackin. "It was very difficult, and early on I did get that a lot — 'We don't think you should play here.'"

Mackin wasn't even an official member of the band at first — he only appeared on one song off their first demo. It wasn't necessarily a natural fit, and Mackin struggled to find an identity within the band.

"I didn't have a predecessor or a band to really listen to help me find my niche in the music we were creating," Mackin says. "It took a couple years to get over that criticism and learn how to make the violin fit as its own thing."

The band mates grew up together in Jacksonville, Fla. They bonded — in the way many teenagers do — as fellow outcasts. They hung out, drank, smoked pot and plotted their grand exodus from Florida for California. The dreamers would eventually make their way to Los Angeles, but not without sacrifice.

"Everything has a cost and, as fortunate as we are, that's just how life is," Mackin says. "I think part of it was us being naïve, like, 'We're the kids from high school who moved to L.A. It's always going to be us, and we're always going to be together. We're going to be on top of the world and nothing bad is ever going to happen to us.'"

The band struggled financially for several years in California, despite building a strong grassroots fan base up and down the coast. The released their debut, One for the Kids, in 2001, but tensions were already developing within the band, and original bassist Warren Cooke left before they signed to Capitol to release their 2003 breakthrough album, Ocean Avenue.

After two years of nonstop touring, Pete Mosely (who replaced Cooke) and lead singer Ryan Key moved to New York to write the new album, Lights and Sounds. Midway through recording, original guitarist Ben Harper left the band. (He appears on half of the tracks.)

"Things start to change and it becomes a little bit more stressful and less about drinking beer, hanging out and meeting new people," Mackin says. One of the hardest things about getting older "is learning how to cope with the fact that it's not always going to be the same. It's hard to lose someone who's been a major part of your life. But while I'm still here, I want to play the music I've created."

Indeed, with the other members' departures, Mackin's importance has increased in step with his seniority. Lights and Sounds, while retaining some of the power-pop punker's chunky attack, leans more heavily toward the pop side, embellishing songs with string-kissed choruses and texture. Mackin — who conducted the 25-piece orchestra that accompanies the new song "How I Go" — finds himself central to the band's new sound and approach, much more than a sonic flourish on top of the song.

"I think that with this new record, we're beginning to scratch the surface of where the violin will fit within Yellowcard now," Mackin says. "I look up to a lot of classical music violinists like Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell, because they're doing things I could never really do, but also [guitar players] like Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. Perhaps even more so the guitar players than the violinists — I'm trying to get where they're at. If I can play what they play on my violin, maybe I can be accepted as more than a classical violinist."


Yellowcard appears Saturday, Jan. 21, at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-6358. Mae to open.

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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