Band To Watch: Been Stellar

Band To Watch: Been Stellar

“Could you ever live anywhere but New York?” I am sometimes asked, by people who know that I have spent more than three decades in the city that may occasionally sleep but which never gets less expensive. My response is usually, “Probably, but I could live without a limb or two as well.” Being here is that important to me. I am a sucker for songs and videos that evoke the place: Interpol’s eternal “NYC” – “The subway is a porno, the pavements they are a mess” — or Vampire Weekend’s lyric video for “Step,” with its images of Astor Place and Washington Square Park, my college-days stomping grounds.

They are also the much more recent stomping grounds of Been Stellar, a band that over a seven-year timeline has leaned into their New York connection, from early singles and run-and-gun videos, through a 2022 self-titled EP that included breakout tracks “Manhattan Youth” and “Kids 1995,” through today’s release, at long last, of a first album – a collection of 10 alternately urgent, thoughtful, angsty and gentle post-punk songs titled Scream From New York, NY. It’s one of the finest debuts you’ll hear this year.

Like many New York-identified bands before them, Been Stellar are not native New Yorkers. The nucleus of the group, guitarist Skyler Knapp and vocalist Sam Slocum, arrived here as NYU freshmen in 2017, fresh-faced Michigan teens who had sown their oats playing college party gigs around Ann Arbor and harbored dreams of becoming a part of the legendary indie rock scene of 2000s Brooklyn. Those dreams were quickly dashed when they learned that the vaunted “scene” had effectively died several years earlier, around the time DIY spaces 285 Kent, Glasslands, and Death By Audio were razed to make way for Vice’s corporate HQ – offices that have since been abandoned.

But once they recovered from that gut-punch, the pair — led by Knapp, Been Stellar’s indefatigable Energizer bunny go-getter and most reflexively talkative member — set about creating a proper band and mini-scene of their own. In short order they met guitarist Nando Dale and bassist Nico Brunstein, and eventually, drummer Laila Wayans. Been Stellar was off and running, or at least, walking – gigging regularly at venues including Brooklyn’s Sunnyvale, and honing their sound at self-staged shows in gallery spaces. The running part, ironically for the New Yorkers, came thanks to attention from the UK. In fact, if it wasn’t for ol’ Blighty, we might not be talking about a debut album.

British indie So Young released Been Stellar’s first EP, and an English embrace, from radio, the NME and more, was swift and intense. Within a year the band had played support on tours with three of the biggest in 21st century UK and Irish post-punk acts: IDLES, shame, and Fontaines D.C. (they’ll return to the road with Fontaines on the Irishmen’s US tour in the fall). Last year, they signed to London’s Dirty Hit, and this spring toured Europe with the label’s flagship band, the 1975. They’ve headlined their own tours in England, will return there this summer, and spend another month in Europe to end the year, all while their homeland plays catch up.

Scream From New York, NY, produced by indie rock A-lister Dan Carey (Fontaines D.C., Wet Leg, Squid) should help with that. Evolving from an early 2019 through 2021 phase in which self-described “imitative” songwriting and a wry, garage-y vibe led to frequent and ultimately irritating comparisons to the Strokes (I promise the band, no “S-word” in our conversation), they’ve broadened dramatically. The new LP can evoke Iceage, on dark and driving opener “Start Again” and the clattering “Can’t Look Away,” and traces of Radiohead on more expansive late-album tracks. Four singles and videos released prior to the album drop are sonically varied – from the brutish “Passing Judgement,” a throat-grabbing lead single from February, to the recent “Pumpkin,” a jangly and relaxed contemplation of couples and cohabitation. On “Sweet,” an alt rocker that does justice to its name, and on the glorious shoegaze-y closer “I Have The Answer” Slocum, a singer with many vocal weapons, positively soars.

I make my way out to Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez Park for a backyard conversation with four-fifths of the band – Dale is in Brazil – at the duplex apartment three members call home, a practice space in the basement. Fifteen years ago, this might have been a home on Greenpoint’s McGolrick or even McCarren Park. Twenty years before that? The East Village’s fabled Tompkins Square Park. Such is the inexorable trajectory for creatives in our great, majestic and maddeningly gentrified city, a place that has made artists into millionaires, snuffed out the aspirations of many more, and still has the capacity to inspire a great record from time to time, like Been Stellar’s Scream From New York, NY.

Below, stream the new LP, and read our conversation.

Congratulations everyone! I know it’s been about 10 months since you recorded the LP, and years before that getting there. Is it excitement, plus maybe a little relief?

SKYLER KNAPP: It’s a lot of different emotions. It’s excitement, there’s definitely a lot of anxiety with it, for sure. I think the relief is a very important thing, because we’re a band that’s always working? Having an album that’s been recorded and is coming out, it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, anymore? It did once we had recorded it? But I think the whole build-up process and the whole promotion process is very new to us.

You’ve already had four singles drop before the album. Does that feel about the right lead-up?

SAM SLOCUM: Yeah I’ve always had a thing with like, it always needs to be less than half of the record? I feel like if half of the album is out before, I feel weird about that. I remember the first time as a music listener that that happened to me was with Weezer, the White Album. ‘Cause I was totally into Weezer in high school, and they put out the White Album, and I think they put out like six singles for it, and I was like, “This is too much, guys.”

I saw you for the first time a little over a year ago, with shame. And I think you were already doing some of these songs live, even then.

NICO BRUNSTEIN: Yeah we were probably doing “Sweet,” “Passing Judgment,” “Shimmer,” and “Start Again,” I guess.

KNAPP: Yeah, on that tour with shame a couple of songs like “All In One” [a particularly dramatic late-album slow builder] came together around that tour. Like, at several stops along the way we’d get like rehearsal spaces, one in Toronto, one in Austin. We didn’t think it would be possible, but honestly that’s kind of the way I want to do every tour, now? Because like it gets really exhausting and you start to feel like a phony on tour, especially for a tour that long, as an opening act. You start to feel like a, I dunno, dancing monkey? More than you feel like an artist? So that kind of kept us afloat through that tour. It was like, “Okay we’re actually also working on this.”

You mention Austin — it was at South By that you met Dan Carey, who ended up producing the album?

SLOCUM: Yeah that’s right, we met him – I think we were throwing around a couple of different producers, once we signed with Dirty Hit, and they had a few ideas and we had a couple ideas. But Dan had always been kind of our dream, to work with him. I think a few years ago if you told us we’d just done a record with him, we’d have been like, “That’s insane.” And now it feels very normal to us.

But he was doing something for his label, Speedy Wunderground, where he was recording like a series of singles. A band would come in, and then over the course of like six hours or something live track a song, with like minimal overdubs, and very just run-and-gun. So we went and did that. And we recorded a version of “Passing Judgment.” And we loved his enthusiasm for music in general, and [he’s] just a very kind person. And we were outside hanging out, and I just asked him on the spot, just, “If you’re interested, we would love to like do a record with you.” And right then and there we kind of shook on it, and he agreed to fly to New York. So that was in May [2023], and then in August he came to New York, and we did the whole thing over the course of two weeks.

Two weeks? So did you guys go in with the songs like, 90% done?

LAILA WAYANS: They were pretty done. I feel like we had been working on them for a while at that point? So when it was time to record I feel like they were mostly done. There was a few days where Dan came by the practice space, and we would play the album front to back, and he would just get a feel for it, and tell us how he felt. I feel like it was pretty much mostly done? Except for “Scream” [title track “Scream From New York, NY”]. That was the one that we kind of finished in the studio.

Did Dan ever have to referee any band disputes? I ask because I recently interviewed DIIV about their new record, where they had resolved that everything would be completely democratic, equal votes. And they would butt heads from time to time and at first kind of hoped their producer Chris Coady would weigh in as a deciding vote, you know? But Chris just refused to get involved like that.

BRUNSTEIN: There was a couple times.

KNAPP: Yeah there was a couple times. I think overall, the way you just described the way DIIV worked on their album, with it being totally democratic? That’s kind of how we’ve always been.

Oh really?

KNAPP: Yeah, I mean, the band started [as] just Sam and I making songs together in high school. But when we came to New York and knew that we wanted to start this iteration of Been Stellar, that’s exactly the thinking we had. We wanted a band in the truest sense of the word, and we wanted all the songs to be written by everybody. And I think, especially on this record, we’ve done a really good job at that.

SLOCUM: I think it took us a while to get to that, though. I think we’ve strived for that, and I’m really happy that we found that. But it’s really hard, as you said — and Nico and Laila can maybe speak to this more — but I think it’s an extremely difficult thing to be fully democratic, between everyone. You know, especially when it’s coming from the roots of this were just me and Sky. And yeah it takes time to develop that creative trust in one another, you know?

BRUNSTEIN: Yeah, like the first two or three years that we were a band, like up until COVID, like that’s when we became friends, I would say? So we were just all really comfortable with one another. And then, yeah, like 2020, 2021, we had a conversation about how, not just creatively, but every band decision should be unanimous. And there’s a lot of times where it’s like four against one, and it can feel really shitty to be that one, but you kind of have to – I mean we have all made our case, and if someone is really passionate about not doing something, the other four listen. And also, sometimes if it is four against one, you just have to surrender a bit, and accept it.

In one NME feature they said “Passing Judgment” represented Been Stellar’s “signature sound,” and I thought, I dunno, there is such variety on this record, from the more in-your-face songs like that one or “Start Again” to an epic, atmospheric thing like “I Have The Answer.” Does the band even have a “signature sound”?

KNAPP: A bunch of people have said that about the album, and it’s funny, it never occurred to me while doing it. I always thought that the balance between the really in-your-face and the more tender moments, I think that’s really the only way you can make a record. To answer your question about there being like a “sound,” I think our sound is just – I don’t think we like to exist in any middle space. I think that when we make music it always ends up being very intense, one emotion or another.

SLOCUM: I don’t think there is necessarily a pin-able label or sound to it. I think it really just is what the five of us made. And that’s why I’m so proud of it. I think in the past – and we’ve been a band for, at least to us it feels like a long time. I know relatively speaking it’s a short time, but we’ve been a band for a while. And we’ve done the imitation thing before, on multiple levels, in a songwriting sense, in a performance sense. But once you work through that, and you really tough out the awkward stages, I feel like you really come into your own in a way. And you just stop worrying about it sounding like anything in particular.

They say timing is everything, and you guys came here in 2017, when our mythologized indie rock “golden age” of blogs and DIY spaces had in many ways fizzled out a few years earlier.

KNAPP: Yeah man, that was something that we became very aware of like the first week we were here. Because like Sam and I, we thought, “We’re gonna go to New York, and there is this whole scene, this whole like DIY microcosm happening!” And it was literally like a week after we got here that Silent Barn closed, which I guess was kind of the last of that whole scene? And even before we moved here we were playing shows around Ann Arbor. And there was this band from New York that came through on a little DIY tour, and we opened for them. And we were talking to them like, “Oh yeah, we’re so excited to move to New York!” and their whole reaction was, “Why would you do that now? This is the worst thing you could possibly do!”

Oh no.

SLOCUM: Yeah, that response was kind of heartbreaking to me and Sky. That was kind of tough. But then when we got here, I think we just did not take “no” for an answer? I remember Sky put us on a bill before we had a band lined up. Before we even had people that we were gonna play with! I remember we were in the study lounge in our dorm, and Sky was like, “Oh, by the way, we’re playing a show in a couple weeks!” And I was like, “That’s insane.” But I really give Sky all the credit for that attitude of not taking no for an answer.

KNAPP: I actually think that the fact that there wasn’t a scene – I now feel very lucky, and grateful for. Because there wasn’t a sense of, “Oh, we need to sound like this band to get on this bill,” or, “We need to schmooze this booker to get on it.” It really let us just properly come into our own. And I think that’s something that a lot of people in a lot of cities, especially a city like London, don’t really have. They’re very, like, industry-conscious? From a very young age, or a very early point in a band’s career? So, having all that time to just be the underdog, all the time, I think was very crucial for us.

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You and Sam added Nando to the band first?

KNAPP: Well, so we all moved to NYU, and we applied to live on the music floor. At NYU there are these special-interest floor that you can live on. I kind of got made fun of for that! But Nando was my roommate, it was like two rooms connected, like a suite, so he was my direct roommate, and then Nico and Sam were roommates. Us four became friends very quickly. With Nico, I remember asking Nico, “Do you play bass?” He was like, “Yeah I have a bass!” That’s how he responded! [Laughs.]

BRUNSTEIN: Yeah, at that point I barely even – I basically learned bass through this band!

SLOCUM: He didn’t even have his bass with him. He had to have his mom send it to him.

KNAPP: And we met Laila at a Puzzle show, which is one of the guys from the Garden. We just got to talking and…

WAYANS: They had bleached blond hair! It was kind of hard to miss them. And we just got to talking about the Strokes and about NYU, and I was like, “I’m in Clive [Clive Davis Institute] and I play drums,” and Sky was like, “Are you good?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I guess?” And then a few weeks after, I got a text from him like, “Yo, we’re playing a show and we need a drummer, are you down?” And at the time, I had been playing drums my whole life but my dream was to be in a band. I had never really played live like that? And so I was like, “Yes, I am down!” I was so excited.

Sam, the album’s lyrics are quite poetic and impressionistic, but is there one kind of overall theme?

SLOCUM: Yeah it’s built off of conversations that we started having as a band. Sky and I were talking a lot about the idea of when words aren’t enough? And like, resorting to a scream, or something non-verbal. There’s so many moments, and they could be good or bad, but moments when we stop speaking, and you’re left with this kind of innate, almost primordial kind of feeling with another person? That’s what the title of the record, Scream From New York, NY, is – it’s in a place like New York, which is so condensed, and so chaotic, that you find people resorting to those non-verbal things, like, all the time! So that’s kind of the main driving concept behind the album.

If someone played me Scream From New York, NY and didn’t tell me the name of the album, or anything about you, and asked me, “Where is this band from? Three guesses.” I would guess England, Ireland and…maybe Scotland.

[The band laughs.]

It definitely wouldn’t be from this country! American bands just don’t sound like this record! It has a lot more in common with those big bands you’ve toured with – Fontaines, IDLES, shame. Do you know what I mean?

BRUNSTEIN: I think it’s true in a lot of ways. I was just making a playlist for work and almost all of it is British music. And not just rock. But I don’t know, I think this has a lot to do with the way that radio works there? And live shows work there? Like, all the infrastructure there is just built to produce more creative music?

Support slots aside, you’ve played more headline shows over there than here, right?

KNAPP: Yeah, we haven’t really headlined a show here other than New York. But a lot of that was not intentional, it was more just the first people who ever really showed any interest in us were this British label called So Young. They put out the EP, and things happened there very quickly. And to your question of would you be surprised if people thought we were British, I would say no, because there really aren’t American bands? I mean there are, obviously, but there’s just not much earnest stuff in the US. For whatever reason, in England and Ireland, whatever, people are just way more willing to be very honest and put themselves out there musically in a sort of very real way.

You made the point in another interview that in the UK people grow up with guitar music much more a part of their larger pop landscape, whereas here, you know, good luck finding an iHeart pop station that plays guitar bands along with everything else.

KNAPP: I mean, this is why people didn’t really pay attention to us for a very long time. ‘Cause there was the whole bedroom pop thing that was big for some people, and all these other waves that we’ve never really compromised for. And so, it definitely does stick out. But also – we’re not rock purists, like “Bring rock back!!” We love a lot of pop music, and Laila for example does production for rap songs as well, and we all listen to a lot of that. But for whatever reason this is the kind of music we make when we’re together. I do think we feel a kinship with those bands you mention, and seeing that whole thing happen was really important for us. I remember when Fontaines and shame and IDLES started popping up, it was during the pandemic, and it was like, “Oh okay! This is the thing that we’ve been wanting.” You know, young people making very earnest, aggressive music. Or music that was about something. That was really important for us.

SLOCUM: Yeah, we didn’t see that in New York.

KNAPP: Not at all. And it wasn’t like, “Okay we need to hop on this bandwagon.” It was more just very inspiring. It’s funny that we’ve played with Fontaines and played with shame, cause at that time, that would have really blown my mind. Cause I never really thought that was something we belonged with? And I still don’t think we really belong in that world, to some extent?

Well, sonically it completely makes sense to me.

KNAPP: Sonically yeah, but I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, we’ve never – they have a community there, and people bounce things off one another, and those people play the same shows, and I’ve always felt like we’re in a world of our own.

For me, the outlier was the 1975.

[The band laughs.]

I mean, I get the Dirty Hit connection, but when I heard that you were touring with them it seemed odd. Weren’t you encountering audiences on that tour that were like, “What is this?”

WAYANS: It was definitely an outlier, but I think I was surprised with the way the retention kind of happened? I didn’t expect their fans to grasp on to our music. Like, I didn’t think they would hate it! But I didn’t really think it would translate as well as it did? And that’s why I feel we don’t fit fully in that whole IDLES, Fontaines world. I feel like we kind of straddle this double life in a way, where we can have fans from the Fontaines, IDLES scene, but also fans from the 1975.

KNAPP: I think the main thing is we don’t want to just be a post-punk band, in a post-punk pocket. And I definitely think on this record there’s a lot of songs that are quite post-punk-y and shoegaze-y and so forth, but we’re also really inspired by bands like Smashing Pumpkins and stuff like that. This has kind of been a thing for us from the very beginning. We don’t really want there to be a ceiling to what we can do. We want to be a band that can communicate to people who are not just music heads or post-punk heads. Definitely this album has a lot of those elements to it, but I don’t really see us as a band of just this album. I see this album as a first step in an ongoing process. So like, sure, the 1975 might not make sense now, but we took that tour because we want those doors to always be open to us, and we want to always be growing toward something that is that big. And we have no shame in admitting those aspirations. We do want to be a big band.

Scream From New York, NY is out now via Dirty Hit.

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