General Admission Standing Room Only
The cover of HELLA, the upcoming third LP from Bay Area outfit Just Friends AKA JF Crew, is a quintessential west coast dream: fireworks spitfire their way across a starry night sky while below on the warm pavement, friends watch the explosions from their cars, awash in the warm glow. Vocalist Sam “Sammy K” Kless says this ritual of nighttime Californian communion is what HELLA is all about.
“This is a record to listen to when you’re driving around at night time with your friends, with the person you like, or just by yourself,” Kless explains.
HELLA, which is due out DATE via Pure Noise Records, weaves marching band brass theatrics, R&B tenderness, funk brashness, and the occasional hard rock pummeling to create a record that triangulates the sweetest spots between Dua Lipa, Rage Against The Machine, and Brockhampton. It’s bold and bright, with a vibe that alternates between sugary sweet and cheeky citrus sting.
This is the magic of JF Crew’s west coast eclecticism: it’s a patchwork of the best bits from each of the band’s 8+ members. Co-frontperson Brianda “Big Bad Brond” E. Goyos León sums it up: “We are crew. We represent our culture, our families and the Bay Area, California. And you ain’t never seen anything like this.”
HELLA was written between the Bay Area and Memphis over the course of a year, then produced and recorded by JF Crew’s own Chris Palowitch (trombone, keys, vocals, percussion) at an Oakland studio. Kless says that while previous releases have carved the band’s platform as contenders, HELLA record “took it to the next level.” “We became the band I’ve always wanted to be,” says Kless.
The record is at least in part a product of the response to JF Crew’s prior releases. “Just Friends has always been counted out as a band,” says Kless. “Too many members to make any money, too many personalities, too big, too weird of music. We never fit in anywhere.” Through it all, the solidarity and community between the crew has been their anchor: “I don’t wanna say we’re a ragtag group of outcasts kinda thing, but it is like all these weird people that kinda gravitated toward each other. We have a lot of cards stacked up against us.”
For Kless, this alienation existed before the band. “I was bullied pretty hard in middle school,” he says. Then as now, music was a safe space in a cruel world. “I started playing bass when I was 11 and I remember thinking when I got onstage that I could show people that I’m worth something, that I’m worth being alive. That’s how I feel when I’m onstage with my best friends in Just Friends. It’s so fun. I feel at home, I feel myself.”
Signing with Pure Noise in 2019 was a validation that helped to flip the script. “We were in this space of really trying to have something to prove,” says Kless.
Creating HELLA was a response to these conditions—and the conditions we all live through. “Everyone goes through some shit,” says Kless. “Music exists to forget about how fucked up the world is sometimes.”
HELLA is an antidote to modern malaise. Opener “Love Letter” stirs awake with charmed funk rock riffing and an invitation to get on JF Crew’s level via León’s rosy vocals: “Better late than never, you bring me sunny weather/Let’s spend some time together, this is my love letter.” Follow-up “Shine” ups the ante and doubles down on the energy, with Kless backing up León while she big-ups herself: “Pack your things and get to leavin’/Never gonna dull my shine for somebody else!”
Next is single “Honey (feat. Nate Curry)” which Kless calls the record’s “mission statement.” It’s a thick, perfumed late-night slow-burn featuring León’s first-ever verse in her native Spanish, while Sacramento hip-hop artist Curry brings an airy, saccharine bridge verse. Fan-favourite groove “Fever” comes before the riotous, marching band tip “Basic (feat. Lil B and Hobo Johnson),” an infectious ode to the bare necessities: “Face it, we’re basic/Chillin’ with my friends, they’re my favourite.”
Kooky “Hollerbox” bisects the record before “Hot,” “Sizzle,” and “Stupid (feat. Lil B)” bring RATM riffs and rage, an unstoppable three-song rampage that goes down in flames as “Bad Boy” drops the BPM to moonlit heartbreak.
Closer “Sunflower” is a tender goodbye, a longing to grow and nurture one another even as darkness lurks ready to pounce: “Laying down, look to the sun/Can we go and have some fun/Just wanna be in bloom with you.”
Kless explains that the track is about platonic community love, which is so often a salve for punishing conditions. It summarizes the JF Crew way. “We all love California and we all love each other,” says Kless. “We’re one big family band.”
Just over a year on from the release of their EP Godspeed – which includes “Hum”, their feel-good song about the joys of being in love – Albany trio Young Culture are back with a brand new album, You Had To Be There. Although similarly dramatic and catchy surges of unabashed emotion, the two songs that announced the record – “Tattoo” and “Good Karma”, whose melancholy rush of high-octane energy they worked on with Paul Marc Rousseau from Silverstein – contrasted that happy-go-lovestruck tune with the shadows that were lurking within their foundations. The other eight songs on the album follow suit. Recorded with Anton DeLost (State Champs, Silverstein, Mayday Parade) at his studio in Toronto, it feels like the trio – vocalist Alex Magnan and guitarists Gabe Pietrafesa, two close friends who have been making music together for a decade, as well as guitarist Troy Burchett – are coming down from that lovestruck high of a year ago, especially on the aforementioned “Tattoo”. ‘Never thought it would hurt forever when I asked you for your name,’ sings Magnan over a chugging guitar-line that soon travels into the past, pitting the optimism of back then against the reality of a relationship gone wrong. The distance between those two things is played out over an infectiously catchy pop-punk tune that is nevertheless carried by a sense of hope.
“It’s a song about anybody that scarred you in a permanent way,” explains Magnan. “People can make impressions on your life and it can be permanent, whether that’s someone you’re in love with or a friend or something. We wrote it in the studio, and I think it really showcases our roots – and it’s so Young Culture!”
“Godspeed was kind of a love EP,” adds Pietrafesa, “This isn’t, but thankfully there was no real emotional turmoil as far as our relationships went or anything like that. And musically, like Alex said, this record really captures who we are.”
Interestingly, You Had To Be There is the first time the band haven’t worked with State Champs’ Derek DiScanio, but its songs nevertheless build on the foundation that he’s helped them lay down since the band formed in 2016. What’s more, it’s an album that defies the classic (and often true) notion of the difficult second record. This was anything but. What’s more, you can hear just how much freedom, joy, exuberance and fun was involved in the process of putting it all together.
“It was kind of scary going in,” admits Magnan, “but it felt so natural making it. I feel like it’s the sound of us coming into our own and making a record that is the most Young Culture thing ever. We were the most excited we’ve ever been to make music.”
“Once we got into the studio, it became this really organic process,” confirms Pietrafesa. “We knew exactly what we wanted to do and there wasn’t any fear or difficulties at that point. We were just like, ‘Wow! We’re making some of the best music we’ve ever made!’ Because of the pandemic – because we didn’t really get a fair go at putting out and touring first album – it almost felt like we’d been given another shot at doing the first album again. It very much feels like a true stamp of Young Culture, both in terms of where we’re at now and what we want for the future.”
In other words, this is the sound of the Young Culture engines revving up to full throttle. From the smooth and polished pop of opener “Not In Love” and the hybrid pop-punk of “Kind Over It” – both songs about finding solace in the company of someone else, if only for one night – to the joyous, emphatic and triumphant strains of “We’re On Fire” and the forlorn but still defiant of “Know Better”, this is a record about making the most of now, of living in the present and having as much fun as possible, whatever you or the world are going through. Musically, it’s also an unashamed nod to all the genres and bands that the trio love. On “Tattoo”, for example, the band reference listening to Backstreet Boys the same way they mentioned listening to Britney Spears on “Hum”. There are no concerns whatsoever that that might not be cool within the pop-punk scene the band are a part of, and nor should there be. In fact, it’s precisely that unbridled passion and unfiltered enthusiasm that makes You Had To Be There stand out.
“One thing we really wanted to do with this album,” says Magnan, “is showcase our love for the music we grew up on. Like, we’re kind of a pop-punk band and a pop band and an alternative rock band – whatever you want to call us – and thought it would be awesome, you know, just incorporate and showcase our roots and the kind of music we grew up on.”
It’s done in such a way, however, that the band are also looking forward to what’s next – both in the near future and the grand scheme of things – and are doing so with extra confidence. That’s something wholeheartedly reflected throughout the entire album, musically and lyrically, from the very first note to the very last.
“Our like ambition and work ethic and overall drive has never been higher,” says Pietrafesa. “Even if you’re coming at this as a first time listener, I think you’re going to be excited to join the family that is Young Culture.”
“I really think this is something that you don’t want to miss out on,” adds Magnan, “so now’s the opportunity to tap into it. We don’t want Young Culture to be a moment. We want it to be a movement. And this album is a party. Come join it, so you can say ‘You had to be there.’”