by Interviews

Ways Away is a band you already know, even though you might not have heard of them. While the group doesn’t really want to be coined a “supergroup,” Ways Away boasts members of Samiam, Stick To Your Guns, BoySetsFire, Paint It Black, Knapsack, Trade Wind, and Racquet Club just to name a few. The band only has few shows under their belt, and like everyone else, has been managing the pandemic in their own fashion. Their self-titled debut album is out now, and Punknews interviewer Chris Barrett sat down with singer Jesse Barnett and guitarist Sergie Loobkoff to talk about coming together, managing as a “side project,” and shifting focuses during the pandemic.

(Editor’s note: This interview took place right before the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests.)

How are you guys doing individually and as a band during quarantine?
Sergie Loobkoff: Actually I’m unemployed after being employed continuously for 17 years. I’ve told myself this is fucking weird. I’m kind of a loner by nature so this hasn’t affected me personally that much. For right now I wouldn’t have been going to work anyway. As for my other band, Samiam, we were supposed to record in April but that didn’t happen, which is a bummer. For Ways Away in a weird way it's working out seeing as Jesse had pretty much the next 7 months booked with only a few off dates with his other bands Stick To Your Guns and Wish You Were Here. Although that’s unfortunate, since he’s around, Jesse has had more time to dedicate to this record and his label since the record is coming out on his label. We’ve been able to do stuff lately that we normally wouldn’t have, such as a [potential] second record because he isn’t out on tour. Who knows when we could have started that if Jesse was on the tour the whole time. For now the quarantine puts off the inevitable of him being too busy for us [laughs.]

Jesse Barnett: Yeah man, it’s been a crazy time. A lot of work went away real fast. We had a tour with Rise Against that went away, and we had a bunch of headlining shows that went away. When you play as often as Stick To Your Guns does, in its own way it becomes a job. I’m not saying that in a negative way at all. With Ways Away we’ve played three shows and I wanted to play all of them, and we’ve also done a few more for the internet during quarantine…

Loobkoff: And we played a little acoustic in my house!

Barnett: Right yeah! I’ve wanted to play every Ways Away show that we’ve had so far, which is fun. As for the pandemic, it’s definitely a negative on many levels, but not being able to tour with Stick To Your Guns has allowed me to focus on other things such as Ways Away, my label [Other Peoples Records,] and Wish You Were Here. I’ve been having this fantasy for the past 8 years that one year coming up I’m just going to take a year off. Honestly, I’ve felt for my mental, physical, and emotional health that I have to do it. Another year goes and another year goes and offers I can’t refuse keep coming in. So it’s been a weird blessing for me that now I have a forced year off, and I didn’t have to make the decision, the decision was made for me. Having said that, it’s worked to the benefit of Ways Away. Stick To Your Guns does have a new record finished, and we’re just waiting to see what happens around the world. Even if other places like Europe open back up, there will probably still be restrictions on travel. This has allowed me to focus on my label as well which has thankfully been crushing it. Since people are at home more, whoever has extra money has helped by buying records from us, which has been great. Despite everything going on, thankfully Ways Away and the label have been doing well.

For those who are still unfamiliar with Ways Away, how did the band come about? Who introduced who?
Loobkoff: So I’m backstage at a Terror show talking to Scott (Vogel), and he introduced me to Jared (Caraman) from Trapped Under Ice. So we’re talking about music and playing shows, and he had let me know that he actually had a soft spot for Samiam. He was really nice and we hung out the rest of the show, and at the end he said if I wanted to jam with him that he lives out here now. I told him that was funny because I was talking about jamming with Jared (Shavelson.) He looked at me and said he had been wanting to do the same with him for a while as well. So while I’m all about it, I’m thinking this isn't really going anywhere unless we find a singer. Finding a singer is fine, but finding a singer worthwhile to start a project with in my opinion is one of the hardest things to do. I’ve been able to do it a few times before, where I found what I felt are great singers, but I wasn’t sure if I would be part of something where we could do it again. Jesse was on tour in Australia, and they e-mailed him. I think he was honestly apprehensive since he was involved in a bunch of other projects and bands, but he liked both of the Jareds and I guess had a soft spot for Samiam as well. So we sent him some mp3s to check out. After listening to our jams, he took an acoustic guitar and went into a shower and sang a part of one of our songs. I flipped out because originally I wasn't sure if he’d be into and work with Samiam style songs. However, it turned out so well that we took the jam he recorded on his iPhone and incorporated it into (that song.) Our producer made that happen.

You mean the intro to “Drop Line Sink”?
Loobkoff: Yeah that’s it! My point in bringing it up is that it wasn’t just good, we thought holy shit this is amazing! The crazy thing is that I honestly didn't know much about Jesse and his projects, and I’m looking at YouTube videos of him playing in front of 7,000 Germans going crazy to him. So seeing that and even second guessing if he wanted to play with us it worked out. As for Jared, he’s the one who really started the band and hooked everyone together. He was real gung ho about it. Right around when we had a bunch of songs together and ready to go for recording, he ended having to go for work up in the Sierra Nevada mountains fighting wildfires. He did eventually come to check us out at our show later. We now have Ian from Racquet Club who plays with us now.

Barnett: Yeah Jared was the one who reached out to me to say “let’s do this!” It was a definite plus that it was also with Sergie, as I like Samiam and I’m a huge fan of Knapsack. Jared (Shavelson) essentially guided me into this project and I was friends with him for a few years since I had done a bunch of shows with BoySetsFire for the past few years. I had told myself no more projects but made an exception for this one. I was excited to get into the room with three other dudes who are from bands I love, and then Jared (Caraman) had to do his thing but we have Ian, and he kicks ass. Jared and I have been able to text and remain cool after that.

How many shows were you guys able to play before we all went into quarantine? How did they go?
Loobkoff: In mid-February we did this trip where we played in Orange County at this really cool place which is also a skateboard store. It’s called Program and it’s in Fullerton. It fits maybe 100 people, but I’ve also seen much larger bands play there such as Terror, Strife, and Fiddlehead I believe as well. Lots of cool bands have played there. Some people might joke that it's a warm up, but yeah it was a real show for sure. It went really great, and what was surprising was the response even though we only had a few songs floating on the internet at the time. Also it’s important to mention that Jesse is a hometown hero of sorts up in Orange County. There’s a lot of people there who would see anything he would do. After that, we went up to Oakland to play at (Jason Beebout’s) bar, which also is a small venue that fits only 200-300 people inside. A lot of other bigger bands have played there as well such as Green Day. However, we only drew a handful of people so it was more of a smaller event, but it wasn’t surprising for a band’s first out of town show I suppose. Then we played in Santa Barbara at a surfboard warehouse, which was cool and a lot of fun. That was also a modest show. It was a test for us because we thought we put things together in the studio pretty well, so now we wondered if we could pull this off in front of people? It sounds like a silly question, but as a group of guys sometimes you wonder that.
Barnett: After our first couple practices were definitely were not ready to do it in front of people [laughs]

Loobkoff: You do see people in bands who do a side project or an offshoot band closer to what they actually listen to than what they’re known for who come off as stiff. It sucks sometimes and makes people seem like amateurs. I mean speaking for myself when I’m alone on the couch I’m a little Eddie Van Halen, but sometimes when I’m playing for a crowd of people I feel like a beginner playing guitar. All my fingers turn into fat hot dogs and I stare at my feet the whole time, and I look stiff. I’m sure there's some people who think that when they see me at shows, but in general I think we did pretty well!

How is it for you playing these songs with Ways Away compared to your other projects?
Barnett: With all the songs that Sergie writes, they’re super catchy. They’re really fun to play, and they’re really fun to play and sing. It was cool playing those shows because there was a feeling that there was no pressure. I honestly didn’t care if only three people showed up. When I play shows I say it doesn’t matter if there’s 10 people or 10,000 people there.

Of course I understand especially if you're touring most of the year!
Barnett: For sure. With Ways Away, it was cool just going and hanging out with these dudes and going to play small shows in intimate places. Honestly, I thought the turnouts were cool and we had a really good time. It would be really cool to do a full tour with Ways Away, primarily not only do I think the band is good, but it’s also a nostalgic sound that bands aren’t really doing now. Bands are doing either indie rock, pop punk, or just punk occasionally, but no one is really doing what we are doing now.

It’s definitely a sound not really being done right now, and I personally am a huge fan of it.
Barnett: Yeah man same here. I mean people have compared our sound to Hot Water Music and The Draft and bands in that vein. A lot of people have compared this record to The Draft, and for me I’m all like sure let’s fucking go! I love that record by The Draft. The songwriting on that record has almost a pop style accessibility with the songwriting formula, and sometimes it's exactly what I want.

In regards to songwriting with Ways Away, is the dynamic in writing these songs going to remain the same? Or is there going to be more input from the other members of the band?
Barnett: I personally love singing to Sergie’s songs, because I feel it makes me sing in a way that I wouldn’t normally sing. If I’m writing a song on a guitar, I feel that I am going to write the same pattern and progressions that I’ve become accustomed to writing. I would switch it up even if I were doing similar melodies. However, when Sergie writes material, it forces my brain to work with material that is different, which I personally prefer. I only wrote one song musically with Sergie on this record, which was "Roam With A Ghost". So far with our new batch of songs, Sergie has what seems like 1,000 and I’ve written one so far. As for me writing songs on guitar, it's not a bad thing or boring, but I love singing to Sergie’s songs.

Loobkoff: As of right now I have 15 songs between Samiam and Ways Away, but since there is a different songwriter with me for Samiam, I’ll probably only end up using 5 with them. Jesse and I do plan on writing more songs together, and hopefully Ian and Jared are able to contribute in some way. With this record, if you listen to my garage band demos, the 8 songs I wrote sound very similar. Even though its A.I. drums and I’m a crappy bass player, we flushed out my demos. With the next record I want to do something different and better, and I would like to have everyone be a part of the new songs.

Moving forward, what are some show/tour plans you guys are trying to do?
Loobkoff: I want to tour as much as realistically possible. Between the pandemic and the expectations of the other guys in the band there is only so much we could do, especially now. As for any plans we could make, we would have to balance that out. If we were able to line up a tour around the time Samiam, BoySetsFire, and Stick To Your Guns was out somewhere that would be perfect though. Just stow us in the back of the van or something and make sure Jesse has good Wifi, because all that he said he needs.

Barnett: Yeah running the label could be hard from the other side of the world, but you give me some Wifi and I’ll be good for sure.

Loobkoff: You said you needed good Wifi for Netflix!

Barnett: Haha yep! Just have Survivor on in the background and I’m good.

Loobkoff: I do have zero expectations of that happening though. It’s tough to balance schedules. Jared is in Seal, BoySetsFire, and The Bronx. Jesse is involved in all of his other projects, so for Ian and I who occasionally go on tour, we gotta be patient. We’re all into this project and we all like each other, so we are going to make things happen.

Barnett: I think the best way at this point is to join up with bands that were friends with. Joyce Manor wants to take us out, or we’d love to link up with a band like Culture Abuse and maybe go out for a run for a week or two. Seeing as Stick To Your Guns, BoySetsFire, and Samiam have followings in Europe, we will definitely have opportunities over there when we are able to do so.

So Jesse, seeing as you are one of the people behind Other People Records, do you find it more satisfying to self release the record?
Barnett: Honestly no, not at all. I hate releasing my own bands. Well I should clarify. With Trade Wind, Tom and I are the band and the same thing goes for the label so there is no pressure there. With Ways Away I do feel more pressure because working with Sergie, he’s been on everything from major labels to cool indie labels. So he’s seen everything in between, and the same goes for Jared who has been involved with a bunch of different labels as well. With that, I didn’t know what their expectations were going to be, and I don’t want to disappoint my band. So generally speaking, usually a band and a label are still very much rivals like the Montreal Canadians and the Boston Bruins.

Loobkoff: Still is!

Barnett: Yeah or like the Yankees and the Red Sox. Labels and bands often end up hating each other. So in a way I felt it put me in a position where I was between both of them. What’s great about Sergie is that any concerns he has he’s been able to come directly to me. I’m in a position where I want to do right by these guys. I felt fortunate that I was able to sell out of the first pressing within a few days. I wanted to make sure that we were over-prepared. The only thing I felt like we didn’t do for the label was playlist pitching. Everyone seems to love to talk about these days about being on particular playlists. In doing so, you have to give yourself a bunch of lead time, but we wanted to start releasing songs. So if I went out to pitch for playlists, in a way I felt like it would crush morale. So I figured let's just utilize having streams going through all of our various bands. It ended up doing pretty sick. We’re going to release another track, right around when the record is set to be released.

It’s interesting you mention that because I wouldn't have considered the reliance on playlist pitches and the fact that someone like me would actually listen to it instead on YouTube or another old school method.
Barnett: To be honest I came with the idea to try something different and I went to Sergie and said “what if we just release these songs on Instagram, and that’s the only place you could hear it?” It worked out in a way because it created a buzz where people had to ask themselves where they could get it. It was a different route to take and I felt it worked out really well. It’s weird at times honestly, because today there is no real formula to the music industry. So labels are going to make their own decisions and do what they want to do. If you’re an established label and used to a particular formula, and have to recalibrate your entire system, that definitely would take some getting used to. If you’re a new label like us just trying to figure it out and doing whatever the fuck you want is cool in a way. It allows you to get creative with things.

So far you released about half your album. All of the tracks have some type of music video with the song. How has the reaction been so far?
Barnett: So Sergie did all of the videos except for “No Means, No Ends”, which was done by my girlfriend Savannah, who also works at the label. That one I felt had the best response since people wanted to see what Ways Away was all about. I’m sure people not only wanted to know how we all knew each other, but also how our band’s members from different generations would work together. We figured since that was going to be people’s first impression, we wanted to lead with a big punch to introduce ourselves. So from there I’m hoping that about half of those people are people who would stay to check us out, buy our merch and music, and eventually see us play.

Loobkoff: I like the approach we are taking with Jesse’s label. We’re not trying to use our band to pretend that we're the guys from these bands, we’re trying to go about it like bands that haven’t done it before. Occasionally you get these bands who come out of nowhere with the big labels and the first thing you see is a $5,000 lyric video. There is something inherently lame about some supergroups, especially when they are puffing their chest out about who they are. We’ve done everything that we could so far to convey to everyone out there that we know we’re not shit. With Ways Away, we’re trying something out here and we hope you like it. When we first started we said maybe we could get on a big label. I was in Racquet Club and we did it. Before we even got something together to shop around, we didn’t like the idea of that process and thought that was a dubious way to go about things. So Jesse told us to just put it out on his label, that way there’s no pressure. At first I did think about other larger labels who might be interested, but then I thought this would be a thousand times more rewarding to do it this way instead. I figured this was one step above putting out a record and only putting it on Spotify. For now we’re only doing a modest amount of physical vinyl records. So despite the fact I’m an old fart, this is the way I would have done it if I were 16.

In regards to the videos I made, I used a program called Character Animator in order to use in a few of our videos. So I was able to animate a cloud, and I was able to animate us. Savannah’s video (“No Means, No Ends”) was all done on her phone. We’re doing this like we’re young again, and it’s all us. We got our producer Beau, but the rest is just us. It’s modest and I’d rather be perceived that way.

What is the expectation for Ways Away compared to the other projects you are involved with? Do you expect this to be more of a small scale passion project? Or if it grows would you expect to spend more time focusing (touring and writing) on it.
Barnett: I look at it this way with a lot of things in general, if an opportunity presents itself, you take it. Having said that, I’ve also learned that saying no is also a powerful tool, as it often gives you more control and value. With Ways Away, I’m not putting any expectations on it. If and when something presents itself, if it could make it work, we will. We’d like to rally around that opportunity to give it the most momentum we possibly can.

Loobkoff: When we started this we joked in the practice room that we were never going to be able to tour. For me it’s like fuck it let’s tour if we can. I’m open to whatever happens and I’m not setting expectations. Because of my bands I have friends in Europe, Japan, South America, and even across North America that could help us out with shows

Barnett: The one positive thing about Ways Away is that we all live in the same city, so making small runs together is possible.

Loobkoff: Yeah, when you’re not touring all the time haha!

Barnett: Well it won’t be like that forever, and with my other bands things will eventually change. We agreed to slow down at some point. It will be a balancing act. I fit in the three shows for the weekend that we did as that was my free weekend before other engagements began. I will play shows all the time that I am able to do so.