Just Friends Are Rolling With the Punches [Q&A]

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It has been a journey for funk-rock crew Just Friends and the release of their third record, Hella. The six-piece’s 12-track release is a diverse body of work that surpasses expectations set by the success of 2018’s Nothing But Love. Its carefully crafted blend of theatrical brass sections, slick R&B, and funk makes the record a fun rollercoaster of sounds and emotions that leave listeners wanting more after its 38-minute runtime comes to an end.

The album opens with the bright and cheery “Love Letter,” including their trademark funk-driven basslines and Brianda “Brond” Goyos León's dreamy vocals.  The record closes out with the sweet and genuine acoustic love song, “Sunflower.” On the final track, the band explores wanting to know their worth and wanting to bloom and grow with the people you love.. You can hear the joy and warmth in Sam and Brond’s vocals on their respective verses, especially when they weave into each other on the bridge, “You hope sun shines on a new day / But real-life hit like a freight train.”

Ones To Watch had the opportunity to talk with Klees and Goyos León about the highs and lows of the music industry, the reality of releasing a record, and the lessons they learned along the way.

Ones To Watch:  Hella features not only Just Friends’ signature funk-rock sound but incorporates elements of hyperpop on tracks like “Bad Boy” and R&B and soul on songs like “Honey.” How do you construct such a diverse album, and where did you pull inspiration from?

Sam: It’s funny, the band initially started playing almost a decade ago, just me playing emo songs and stuff because that’s what I knew. And then we put out that first record, which is essentially just an emo record. I think that record didn’t do as well as I wanted it to, in a way. I felt I was following a lot of the tropes of the time, and then I had a conversation with a couple of my friends, and I was like, “I want to make the music I want to make.” My favorite band is Red Hot Chili Peppers, specifically, the Blood Sugar Sex Magik era, so I wanted to make a funk-rock sound. You can hear it a little bit on that first record, and you’ve always seen it in our merch designs. Then Nothing but Love came about, and that’s when the band as it is started. Different personnel and everything. And then, in 2016 or 2017, is when I think this band truly started. That’s why we go by JF Crew mostly. I feel like I tapped into music I loved - funk, rock, soul, and all that stuff.

And what does the band look like now in terms of creative contribution?

Sam: We have so many people in the band and this is the first record that we all contributed a lot because on Nothing but Love, I was doing a lot of heavy lifting in the songwriting. But this is the first time we sat down [and] were like, “Let’s try to make some songs and a record.” Even though it didn’t go the way that me or Brond wanted it to, like, that’s just what happens when you have really competent, amazing musicians and really musical people around you. We’ve always been a band that is capable and talented enough, I feel, to explore. We’re confident in ourselves enough to be like, "Yeah, we can have a song like 'Hot' where it’s like, [makes chaotic sound], and then have like an intimate song like 'Sunflower'" and that’s special.

Brond: So the way I interacted with it was like, I would get a little clip of somebody playing through the guitar line and maybe some drums, some bass on a loop. I don’t know, I just heard certain things, and Sam says we all have our… I don’t want to say roots, but we have our tastes, and I’m really into soul and Motown. I feel because we were all trying to work towards this funky, rock-y goal, we just locked into the same kind of thing and started gravitating towards it. We are who we are and we write what we write, so even though that’s what we were aiming for, it came out as something more of fusion because, as Sam said, that’s what we know and it melted into itself.

Sam: My mom says that we’re multifaceted.

Your mom is correct!

Sam: Yeah, it’s like that TikTok trend where that girl wakes up in the morning and she’s singing a rap song and then it’s like an hour later she’s in a meeting doing a presentation. We can do both!

Speaking of being multifaceted, one thing I really love and appreciate about this record is the incorporation of multilingual lyricism. Brond, how do you decide what parts you want to sing in Spanish or English? Is it something you feel out on the fly or is it more calculated to ensure it rhythmically fits?  

Brond: Yeah, I just go by feeling always. I think the way I interact with music is I wait for things to come to me and sometimes I have to work really hard and I’m pouring over it, but I really believe that music doesn’t come from like us. I think it comes from, like, I don’t know the heavens or Jesus or something.

Like it’s coming from a higher power or a source?

Brond: Almost, yeah. There’s this one writer named Elizabeth Gilbert who I’m a fan of; she has this book where she talks about how the ancient Greeks and Romans had this idea that before they called people geniuses, they said people worked with geniuses. They used to say that a person has a genius, which they believed to be some sort of spirit of creativity that helped somebody bring these ideas to life. So I felt like once I heard that, I was like, “Yeah, man. That’s right!” That really tracks for me. As much as I want to take credit for everything I do, I’m just a little pencil, man.

So for “Honey,” the Spanish, bringing it back to myself as a person, I’m very, very proud of my culture. I’m Mexican-born and bred, and I feel like part of my mission as a person, as a human, my life goal is to create more visibility for Mexican people and minorities. We are, I think, the biggest or second-biggest minority [group] in the United States and the largest ethnic minority in the U.S. I feel like how I understand my community and things is we need more voices, and we need to see ourselves in certain places and things. So for me, it’s very important to always bring that with me and always push it to the front. It’s important to me as a human being and a personal goal to bring that culture into all the spaces I inhabit.  

When I spoke with your sister band Mom Jeans, they talked about how there came a point after dealing with the pandemic and their personal lives that they felt ready to do another album. Was there a similar moment for Just Friends?  

Sam: Honestly, we were contractually obligated to make a record. [laughs] So the story goes, we put out Nothing but Love in the Summer of 2018, and by the Fall, we were signed by Pure Noise and were super excited about it. We thought it would be life-changing. You get told your whole life that you’re gonna sign the big contract and it’s gonna be different.

Brond: That it’s gonna be fun.

Sam: Yeah, but the truth is you gotta work fucking even harder. I remember in February 2019, sitting in the Pure Noise office, and then they look at me, and they’re like, “So, you need an album by August,” and Nothing but Love took three years to write.

Oh boy.

Sam: Yeah, I was speechless and Bart turns and says, “I don’t want to listen to a Just Friends record that comes out in August.” Then they asked for a Graduating Life record because we got signed at the same time, and we were like, absolutely not. They really wanted to push us but we’re not in a financial position as a band to take time off. You know how Eric said he pays his rent with the streaming stuff? Honestly, that is a blessing that no band has. He and Austin [Smith, bassist Mom Jeans] are very lucky that they were smart, not even smart, but they got popular after putting the record out. Eric said he made the record when he was just chilling as a 20-year-old kid in his feelings in a dorm room. So for us, we all deal with real lives. We all work real jobs and have to do responsibilities and just deal with life. So we were like, “My life is not gonna stop for this band right now, as much as I would love to.” Like are you gonna pay for seven people’s rent? No, of course not. So we brokered a compromise.

Which was was what at the time?

Sam: We had to put out two singles because our touring schedule was packed. We just got back from Europe and we were gonna go on Sad Summer. We were gonna do our headliner and we were gonna go tour with The Story So Far. We are a band that puts on a really amazing live show, and we know that, and that’s what we’re known for. We’ve never been known for the music, which is kind of infuriating, and it’s another thing that shines through this record. We want people to listen to this and be like, “This is good music,” and it’s not like, “Oh, you got to see it live.”

You wanted the album to speak for itself.

Sam: Yeah, exactly. So we wrote “Fever” and “Stupid” and put those out. And then we decided to keep writing and writing, and it was choppy here and there. We recorded in December 2019, and then we were trying to get across the finish line for the tour we were going to go on with Prince Daddy and Oso Oso and we were trying to make a big splash. Like, here’s the record, here’s the tour, let’s go. And it didn’t work. It caused a lot of rifts with a lot of the producers and the people and stuff. We learned a lot about making records. Then the record was essentially done, and then the pandemic hit. We get shelved because they don’t want to put out a record without touring.

That must have been really frustrating and disheartening.

Sam: Yeah, and we just kept getting shelved and kept getting pushed back. They just kept saying no. So then I came up with the idea to do the EPs just to stay relevant. We’re such a different band than when we were even making Nothing but Love; one song is gonna represent that, you know what I mean? So we did a bunch of these EPs. Some of the songs are on the record, as you know, and we just, once again, we just kept learning about stuff. We took some songs off the record, we changed this and that, it was a really emotional experience to do this record for everybody. I feel like we learned a lot, and, I don’t know, it’s interesting how it turned out because we were shelved like four or five times and then this isn’t the record Brond or me necessarily envisioned.

What did you envision?

Sam: I mean, it was initially called Hella Nasty, but the record isn’t as “nasty” as I wanted it to be, the vision that I had changed. I’m not trying to talk ill of anyone or anything like that, but it’s just how it goes. Then finally, we’re thinking we’re going out for this Pure Noise tour, but then they were like, “No, you’re not.” And we’re thinking, “Fuck!” Finally, after all this, we get a release date and a vinyl date, too - well, I mean, the vinyl is pushed back a million years. Anyway, that’s kinda what it was. We were learning to work not only with a label but also with ourselves. It’s tough because we have had many engineers and producers put their own personal stamp on our music, and there are highlights, but there are also lowlights. It’s like trying to get your voice and opinion heard; that’s kind of where we were at as a band in the summer where it’s like, “Is this even fucking fun anymore? Do we even fucking like each other?” It was some stuff like that, and it took so long. It was the opposite of the Mom Jeans shit.

Mom Jeans went through their own emotional type of stuff, but for us, it was necessary to get through this. We’re still learning to work with each other and all the other things because this is what we want to do. Brond mentioned before recommitting yourself to the project, and it is like that. You learn new ways and learn how to work with each other at every level and when you get to a level that even Just Friends is at, and we’re smaller than Mom Jeans, there are so many things you need to do and account for and so many conversations and emails, it becomes hectic, and you forget about the music. I’m really happy with where we are now.  

On this album, y'all have teamed up with some fantastic artists like Lil B, Nate Curry, and Hobo Johnson. How did y'all go about constructing these collabs, and what makes for a great creative collaborator?

Sam: I’ve always been a fan of collaboration. I grew up watching my favorite bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers; they did a huge collaboration. It was the 1999 Billboard Awards and you got Snoop Dogg coming out with fucking Red Hot Chili Peppers. You probably remember Linkin Park and Jay-Z. It’s like a hip-hop, rock kind of thing and something that was told to us a long time ago was, “You’re never gonna make it in the hip-hop world with real drums.” And I was like, “Okay.” I mean, it’s honestly true if you think about it. If you go to any Spotify playlist, who has real drums, who already isn’t Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. Breaking through is hard and so something that I considered; I was talking with some friends about it, you get features from people, and that’s another way you can enter that world. People look at you differently in a way.

Right, it gets people’s attention.

Sam: Yeah. Lil B did multiple songs with us and then there’s Hobo Johnson and it’s like people start to think, “Oh, there’s something there.” So that was one kind of angle about it, too, and it’s like, that’s why we do these covers too. We want people who like No Doubt, and we want people who like Toro y Moi to listen to our music. We’re going after those fans; we want those people to like us. But as far as the actual composition, it’s like what Brond was saying. The music tells you. We put out “Stupid” and we were like, “There’s something missing.” Not to mention, in the first version, there’s nothing during the chorus. It’s just horns. Lil B’s on it, like, that’s the version we play live. The music will tell you.  

Your music videos feel very fun and have a DIY flare that showcases the band’s personality. What was your favorite part of the shoots and the most challenging part?

Brond: My favorite part was shopping for the outfits and the hardest part was that we were doing things very quickly. Sammy and I want to get into videos where we have more production, more story, and elevate what we’re doing because we’re used to just turning the camera on be like, “alright, somebody dance, or do something dumb,” and those are really fun.

Sam: And, oh yeah, it’s also due tomorrow. [laughs]

Brond: The hard part is we’re trying to make the best out of a very limiting situation. But I think that the videos are great anyway. They’re really fun and we know how to do it. I think they’re really cute and I think it just kind of goes to show that the friendship is real and the personalities are there, because that’s literally the only thing that we’re leaning on. It shows that we’re besties but I would love to get a little more props?  

Sam: Yeah, it is. It’s this pandemic, right? We had to get our house in order. We lost a few members and asked ourselves whether we wanted to do this. The answer was, in the Zoom, all seven or six of us were like, “Yeah, let’s do it! Let’s game on now!” and it’s been game on since then, and we’re really happy.

Honestly, I’m really impressed with how we’ve been able to roll with the punches so far, but Brond is right. We’re trying to get to a point where the production will be better and everything. “Basic” was shot off a VHS camera that my dad owned at my elementary school. One Saturday, we were just like, “Okay, let’s do it.” We are leaning a lot on just our personality and our friendship, and it shines through, and it’s incredible. It really shows love and everything, but we got bigger dreams and fish to fry. The “Honey” video came out later than the song because we sat down and looked at it and felt we could do better. That’s the first step, making sure that you know we’re not just okay with that. We wanna love it.  

Just Friends' Hella is available everywhere you can stream it.

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