The Denver pop-punk band Stray the Course doesn't sound like older punk acts by accident. The musicians have worked hard tinkering and reimagining music with a single goal: to put on a good show and to pay homage to the music they fell in love with as teenagers.
On their debut EP, Jetlag, influences such as Rise Against, Yellowcard, blink-182 and New Found Glory ring out across the four tracks. Songs such as “Crazy” and "Jetlag" stand out as very defined and intentional songs, sounding like better B-side tracks that never made the cut on Enema of the State or Ocean Avenue.
But for all the clear nostalgia and imitation, it’s apparent that real work went into developing Jetlag's sound. The songs are polished, each track has a distinct sort of genre bent to it, and the band has a clean and precise cohesion.
Seven years into the group's existence and a year into its current iteration — vocalist and guitarist Ronnie Toplyn, vocalist and guitarist Steve Nelson, bassist and backing vocalist Ben Baroch, and drummer and backing vocalist Cooper Travis — things seemed to have clicked for the Denver pop-punk quartet.
But that didn’t happen before cycling through iffy band names, many bandmembers, the use of a banjo and multiple versions of tracks to find the right combination of melodies, riffs, beats and people.
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“One thing I’ve noticed is with bands of just about any type, you have to learn how to work together, and you have to learn how your combination of people operates and get a flow of operations,” says Nelson, who joined the band in early 2017. “It’s taken us a while to figure out everyone’s process and being able to play off of that.
“Sometimes, when I first joined the band, I felt like Ronnie spoke one language, Cooper spoke another language, and I had to be the interpreter," Nelson adds. "Ronnie would try to explain drum things that he would want, and I would look in his face and see the gears turning, the anguish on his face. Then I would see Cooper staring at him blankly, and I would have to step in.”
Stray the Course is attempting to thread the needle between morose pop punk and alternative rock at least a decade after their greatest influencers were at their peaks. And this is all fine with the bandmates: They have learned to embrace what they like, how it influenced them, and how each member has a distinct taste for something a little different than the next.
“What makes the form of some of the songs is Steve’s got his roots in classic pop punk, I love emo and screamo music, Cooper grew up playing the most complicated progressive-rock things possible, and Ben is rooted deep in heavy metal,” says Toplyn. “When you smash all that together into one thing, you’ve got a dark pop-punk song.”
Learning to be comfortable with the band identity was not immediate; it’s something that, over time, they learned would make for more interesting, varying songs.
“I didn’t notice it until later, where I would mention a band or song and the other guys would go, 'Huh?'” says Nelson. “I would say, ‘What, you didn’t listen to much Blink growing up?’ And they would say, ‘You didn’t listen to Rise Against?’ At least for me, as time went on, I started to piece it together.
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“We all kind of learned like, 'Okay, this is how we have to approach songs in every way.' It’s taken us a while to get there, but I think we kind of understand each other better in a rehearsal setting — and I think that’s key.”
Working through the disconnect and uncertainty not only got the creativity flowing among the bandmates, but it provided an incentive to accomplish goals and figure out the group's sound, if it was going to be more than just a mashup of genres.
“It also feels like now we feel like a fully fledged band. We’re not just turning our amps up as loud as possible and yelling into mics anymore,” says Toplyn. “That was a really fun era, but we’re going for making the best sonic appearance we can at the shows, having a ton of energy, really flowing together as a band. This is a really good iteration of where we want to take things.”