By Nicholas Jason Lopez
On June 15, 2020, Denver-based pop punk outfit Stray The Course released a completely handmade music video for “Between The Walls,” a song about just choosing to stay in a comfortable all day instead of facing the harsh world outdoors.
Actually written years before the COVID-19 pandemic took over 2020, the message couldn’t be more relatable nowadays. The band called around the world for video submissions from fans to jam out to the song in their own comfort spaces. The members were overwhelmed by the response, as they received submissions from people across four continents.
Established in 2017, Stray The Course have been rolling strong since the release of their EP ‘Jetlag,’ whom critics have compared to the likes of Blink-182, Yellowcard, Rise Against and New Found Glory.
Pop punk to the core, Stray The Course is guitarist/vocalist Ronnie Toplyn, guitarist/vocalist Steve Nelson, bassist Ben Baroch and drummer Cooper Travis.
The Music Bugle had the opportunity to talk with about what they’ve been up to lately and more.
Music Bugle – How did you guys decide the band name?
Ronnie Toplyn – I was running from a lot of things at the time and after a lot of un-clever metaphors, this one seemed to stick the best without sounding cliche.
Steve Nelson – Ronnie also wanted to pick a band name that’s easy to chant. “STRAY-THE-COURSE! STRAY-THE-COURSE!” He’s got a point. I’ve seen Less Than Jake several times and people chanting their name before the encore is super effective.
Music Bugle – How would you describe Denver to someone who has never been there before?
Ronnie Toplyn – Not as close to the mountains as people think. A mid-sized city that is immensely loyal to itself while having a lot of different communities. Also, there is a giant red-eyed horse to greet you at the airport.
Steve Nelson – It’s the worst “best-kept secret” in the west/midwest. Not to go all Steffon from “Saturday Night Live,” but this city truly has everything – killer music scene, bumpin’ nightlife, great bars, great restaurants, great breweries, teams for every major sport in America and then some. I honestly don’t understand Denver’s reputation as a “flyover city” in certain circles.
Music Bugle – What excites you the most about pop punk?
Steve Nelson – It’s just fun to play, man. It’s fast, fun, simple and to-the-point, but there’s still room to pack meaningful lyrics into your songs if you wanna go that route, which we often do. Maybe it’s nostalgia, since I’ve been playing and listening to pop punk since high school, but there’s something so therapeutic about shredding some dirty nasty chords and whining about life’s problems.
Ronnie Toplyn – It’s a genre that keeps evolving. We went from being silly and having lyrics about being kids to talking about mental health, back to hating our hometown, then brings in elements of a lot of other genres. It’s also just fun to play, the guitar parts are typically simple, but you can play them while jumping around being too loud and having fun.
Music Bugle – What’s something you’ve learned about yourself throughout your time as a band?
Ronnie Toplyn – That I seem to only be able to write songs about experiences that are fresh in my head and that I am working through. It sounds cheesy or forced when I write about topics I haven’t experienced and those songs never get finished. If it sounds like the words I’m singing hurt, then chances are they did.
Steve Nelson – Personally, I’ve learned I can actually write songs! I don’t think I ever wrote a complete song before joining this band. Also, I usually don’t open up and wear my emotions on my sleeve in my everyday life. I like to play things pretty close to the vest, so it was a wild experience writing songs where I opened up and poured out my emotions for some catharsis. I never thought that’d be my approach to songwriting. It was really uncharted territory for me, but I learned how powerful that experience can be, especially when your lyrics resonate with people. Wow, I used a ton of different metaphors in that answer. As a band, we’ve learned to not – forgive the word use – “stray away” from all our different influences. All four of us grew up listening to different bands and genres, with some overlap of course, so sometimes, we all butted heads during the songwriting process to try and figure out how the hell a song should sound, but I think we’ve learned to lean into our influences, pull elements from various different places and smash them together to see what happens.
Music Bugle – Who are you listening to right now, music-wise?
Ronnie Toplyn – A lot of smaller bands. This past year, I joined about 20 pop punk-related groups on Facebook to network and was super impressed with the quality of music that I found. Here are a few highlights – The Mazlows – a fellow Denver group that just released a full album called ‘Community Locker.’ This record is killer if you like early 2000s blended with some Wonder Years and Real Friends. They did a great job creating this all themselves and I am blown away by it. There’s Nedder – this band is highly slept on. They have some electronic elements that highlight a really cool take on pop punk. ‘Ambulance’ is my personal favorite off their debut EP. Then, you’ve got Point North – I’m not a huge fan of their newest stuff, but their 2018 ‘Light In A Dark Place’ came up on one of my shuffle playlists and this whole album slaps. It’s heavy, it’s emotional, it was emo-meets-pop-punk in the best way.
Steve Nelson – A little bit of everything, man. I second what Ronnie said about The Mazlows. ‘Community Locker’ really resonates with me on a personal level. It’s an album about feeling stuck between being an angsty, hopeful, directionless teenager and being a jaded, burnt-out “grown up” who’s discovered that adulthood isn’t as great as everyone says it is. Everybody on the back-end of their 20s will relate to this album. No question. Over the past few months, I’ve been spinning everything from ‘Forever And Ever X Infinity’ by New Found Glory to ‘Good Thing’ by Leon Bridges to ‘folklore’ by Taylor Swift. No need to pick a lane. Shout out to “folklore” by the way. Taylor Swift is such an incredible, unparalleled storyteller. She paints beautiful pictures with her words. Plus, she’s more emo than most emo bands in the game right now. Go listen to “my tears ricochet” and tell me those lyrics don’t go toe-to-toe with The Used or Mayday Parade in terms of relationship sadness.
Music Bugle – What was it like making your debut EP ‘Jetlag’?
Ronnie Toplyn – It was a huge learning curve. This was our first time in a real studio and we were not prepared for the amount of planning needed. We came in thinking we could just play our parts and call it good, but didn’t realize all the elements that go into creating a song. From doubling vocals to tracking multiple guitars, we got a crash course in how to produce an EP. The title track was actually recorded later and I think we finally understood at that point what direction we wanted to go and how to get there. The actual recording process was pretty surreal. We tracked at a place called The Spot Studios, which was in Lakewood at the time. The studio was in an old mansion from the 50’s or 60’s that had a giant atrium, full band quarters, a courtyard and a ton of gear to play with. To me, it felt like for the first time we were a “real” band and hearing our music produced professionally solidified that.
Steve Nelson – We learned so, so, so much about the songwriting and recording process. When we first headed into the studio, we were pretty unprepared. We had pretty solid foundations of songs, but they were missing lead riffs, vocal harmonies, things here and there. Glenn and Rich at The Spot whipped us into shape and helped us learn what makes a song feel complete and releasable. The second time we hit the studio, we were infinitely more prepared and it went way smoother. Plus, Ronnie’s right. I didn’t feel like I was in a “real” band ’till we got our first mixes back from The Spot. I immediately put “Crazy” into iTunes and listened to it everywhere – my car, my headphones, the speakers in my house. I was so excited to be a part of something that sounded so real.
Music Bugle – Does social media make it easier or harder for a band to stand out these days?
Ronnie Toplyn – Honestly, both, but leaning towards easier. A lot of social media is driven towards talking about big bands other people can relate to. However, there are so many people we have been able to reach, from bloggers, to reviewers, or even other artists that we wouldn’t have had the chance to without social media. We’re fortunate that this is a resource we have.
Steve Nelson – There’s good news and bad news. The good news is social media levels the playing field and gives everyone equal access to resources they can use to promote themselves. The bad news is social media levels the playing field and gives everyone equal access to resources they can use to promote themselves. Because anyone can make a Soundcloud and an Instagram, you’re up against a ton of stiff competition from around the entire world, but overall, I’d say it’s helped us cast a wide net. We have fans in places like Japan and Australia, who found us on social media and have become loyal listeners. That wouldn’t be possible without the power and reach of social media. When we released “Jetlag” and it earned a spot on the “New Punk Tracks” Spotify playlist, I think Denver was tenth in the list of cities where we had the most listeners. The 9 cities ahead of it included places like Jakarta, Berlin, Chicago and Los Angeles. We had more monthly listeners in Indonesia than we did in our hometown of Denver! That’s such a unique phenomenon that wouldn’t be possible without the reach of internet.
Music Bugle – What’s the biggest challenge of being in a band with four members?
Ronnie Toplyn – Scheduling. Living in different parts of the city and each having different work schedules is rough. It adds a whole new complexity with COVID, which limits our ability to meet in person.
Steve Nelson – Three things – scheduling, scheduling and scheduling. Our jobs all have different schedules and it’s quite the juggling act to get us all in the same room at the same time.
Music Bugle – How have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ronnie Toplyn – Somewhat. It has forced us into writing and recording mode, which is helpful. A lot of members care for an elderly family member, so we are being extra careful. So far, we are all fortunate to have our day jobs and everyone has stayed healthy.
Steve Nelson – It’s affected us a bit, but I think it’s helped us in some aspects. We’ve focused more on writing new music and Ronnie’s bolstered up his home recording studio setup in his garage. That’s where we recorded “Better Off Lost” in its entirety. Man, I miss playing live shows though. I’d give anything to play another crappy dive bar gig on a Wednesday night, where the audience is five people – three are band girlfriends, two are bartenders. Just put me back on stage where I belong.
Music Bugle – What has been the most productive thing you’ve done while in quarantine?
Ronnie Toplyn – Collaborate with people around the world to make a music video. Technically, we started before Blink or Stand Atlantic launched their call for submissions, but it took a bit longer for us to put it all together. We are so happy with how it turned out and overwhelmed that we got submissions from four continents. We are also proud that we did this all D.I.Y.. We felt it was more authentic that if fans had to do submissions themselves shot on iPhones, why shouldn’t the band do the same. We also learned how to video-edit during this process, which was another skill that took some time. We hope it spreads little joy while everyone is stuck at home.
Steve Nelson – Second that. The “Between The Walls” music video was so cool. I think it made us all feel a little more connected during the age of social distancing. We wranged friends and family from five countries across four continents! That’s awesome. We were so grateful to have everyone participate in really unique ways. We had videos ranging from Ronnie’s friends jumping into an above-ground pool with a GoPro, to my cousin hoisting a chainsaw above her head while standing on the edge of a fjord in Norway. Years down the road when the pandemic is over and life’s returned to normal – whatever that may be, the video will serve as a cool memory and artifact from a dark, uncertain time in our lives.