Just Friends: You’ll want to be more than that

by Charlie Walentiny 

photo by Tommy Calderon

Hailing from the small towns of Dublin and Pleasanton, Calif., Just Friends has made a name for themselves in Bellingham. Combining explosive parties, group singalongs, jazz, funk, ska and a slathering of pop punk power chords, the band also known as “JFCrew” have built a life around constant touring, dynamic live performances, and a dedication to fun I have yet to see in any band this side of Andrew WK.

Vocalist Sammy Kless, bassist Kent Holliday, “trumpet wizard” Avi De, trombone and percussion player Chris Hallowich, drummer Ben Donlan and the twin guitar chug of Brandon Downum and Matt Yankovich have been serving up a party-inducing blend of pop punk, ska, funk and positivity for the last three years, but have been friends for much longer. Meeting in middle school, the ragtag group of self-described “jazz band dorks” with their occasional guitar player and resident recording engineer Ryan Ellery developed a strong cult following in their hometown as one of the few bands to not move to San Francisco.

“We started out as like a shitty folk pop punk band,” Kless said. “When I started writing my solo stuff, under the band name ‘#samklessnation’, We played libraries… generator shows at skateparks… all sorts of weird places.”

Once they gained a little traction, they added the remaining members (initially they started with just Sam, Avi and Kent) and focused on incorporating more sounds and rebuilding the songs to be even more energetic and musical. They changed their name to Just Friends, after a jazz standard they all had practiced learning together in school, and started playing shows up and down the west coast. Taking influence from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Weezer for their big hooks and funky rhythms and the DIY ethic of underground outfits like The Motorcycle Industry and The Ovens, they released their first demo in 2013.

The band played lots of shows in and around the West coast, even getting to tour with Kill the Bats on tour brought a renewed drive to the band.

“We wanted to dedicate to music that is fun, even if that’s not ‘cool’,” Kless said. “There’s a void for fun and positivity that we feel like we can totally fill.”

Though not from Bellingham, they certainly aren’t strangers. A legendary show at the Lil’ Wisconsin and two subsequent blowout shows at Make.Shift have the band calling Bellingham “one of the three places we can call home.”

“Honestly, aside from Miami, Bellingham is the most fuckin’ beautiful place we have ever been, ever,” Kless said. “That dock, with the sunset? When you walk outta Make.Shift and the sun is behind the trees on the waterfront… shit man.”

There seems like a bit of dissonance between the band’s candid party attitude and Sammy’s gut-wrenching, heartfelt lyrics. Covering topics from siblings moving away on “Ryerson” to the emotional trauma of long term breakups on “Paint”, they’re often as sad as they are energizing.

“It sounds cliché, but it’s what I was really feeling at the time,” Kless explained of writing the most recent album’s lyrics. “It’s nuts, because as I get older and learn more I cringe a little bit because at the same time as feeling all that intense shit, you don’t realize that the you can hurt the people you write songs about, too. It’s only half the story, which I’m learning all the time. That’s why the new album is so positive; it’s funky as hell and I want to be able to show that we’re all learning, and that I’m learning how to deal with stuff better, ya know?”

As far as for what’s next in the Just Friends/JFCrew’s future, they’re currently touring the east coast with Prince Daddy & the Hyena, whom they just released a Weezer-themed split with, and a new album is in the works.

“You heard it here first, dude,” Kless said. “We got a new album, it’s called ‘Nothing but Love’, we got 4 tracks down, there’s gonna’ be 12 tracks total and it’s coming out hopefully next year. You’re gonna hear some of the new songs for sure when we’re in Bellingham!”

Just Friends perform Dec. 3 at Make.Shift. For more info, follow their Facebook page and check out their Bandcamp at justfriendsca.bandcamp.com. 

Published in the November 2016 issue of What’s Up!