Been Stellar: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features Been Stellar
Been Stellar: The Best of What’s Next

It’s not every day that a band has to scratch all of their South By Southwest shows because they’ve got to jet off and go open for the 1975 in Europe. But for Been Stellar, that’s how their March 2024 played out, as they toured through Spain, France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Italy with their new labelmates. I’d wager the sold-out arenas were a bit of an upgrade from the often-unpaid, sometimes-miserably hot week they would have spent in Austin. It was a move that made sense, as the New Yorkers—vocalist Sam Slocum, guitarists Skyler Knapp and Nando Dale, bassist Nico Brunstein and drummer Laila Wayans—announced their signing with Dirty Hit in February along with a debut album: Scream From New York, NY. By the time SXSW rolled around, Been Stellar’s momentum had ballooned into something bigger than a festival with hundreds of artists all scrapping for attention.

Going from a 500-cap room in the Sinclair in Cambridge to the 16,000-cap Barclays in Hamburg can be a shock (“There’s nothing that really prepares you for that,” Knapp says). But it’s been a gradual climb upwards for Been Stellar. In November 2022, they toured the U.S. with Just Mustard, playing small rooms on both coasts; in the spring and summer of 2023, they hit the Midwest and South with shame and played 1,000-cap clubs. But when they were tasked with opening for the 1975, they found themselves in rooms where virtually no one in the audience knew their music. It was the kind of circumstance that, according to Knapp, made it feel like anything but a big arena.

“You can’t see people, and you know that no one knows your music—especially with a band like the 1975, where their fans are very die-hard for them. Maybe our style of music isn’t something that they’ve been accustomed to,” Knapp explains. “It’s less like, ‘Fuck yeah, we’re playing these massive rooms!’ and more of, ‘Okay, we have to really, really work for this.’ It’s definitely made us better performers. We’re a lot more conscious of how to really convey songs—because in small, sweaty rooms, the energy is kind of built-in. People are already smashed together, so there’s going to be this natural friction to it. But when there’s this massive gap between you and the audience, you need to figure out new ways to connect with them. And I’m very grateful that, relatively early on in our career, even before putting out our first record, we were able to tackle that. I think that’s going to make us better performers, now that we’re going back to doing our shows in small rooms again.”

Knapp points out the culture shift (and age gap) that was obvious between the shame and 1975 tours, mentioning that, with the latter’s audience comprising mostly younger people, Been Stellar knew they had something to prove to them. And the 1975’s fans didn’t come to the show with the same “jaded, cross-armed judgement” that shame’s audience had. “A lot of those [shame fans], they’ll be like, ‘Oh, this sounds like Interpol,’ or ‘This sounds like the Strokes,’” Knapp says. “They’re already rooting against you, whereas young kids are like, ‘Oh, cool, we’re excited to hear music.’ That fact, it was really cool.” And while Been Stellar shares more musical DNA with bands like shame or Fontaines D.C. (who they’re opening for this fall), fans of the 1975 took to their sets quite well.

“They did really welcome us with open arms like you’d expect them to, because they are definitely die-hard,” Wayans adds. “I was definitely like, ‘We’ll see how this translates,’ but I think, maybe at first, they were like, ‘What is going on?’ But, after the tour started to progress, we started to see some crossover. People would come up to us near the merch table and say hi. It seemed like people were starting to connect with it. Their fans are the type that will go to multiple shows so I think, seeing us over and over again, they started to catch on. It was pretty cute. I’m definitely very thankful for those people.”

But Been Stellar aren’t a band that only started a year ago, signed a record deal and are, all of a sudden, playing in front of thousands of people. They’ve been around since 2018, when all five members landed at New York University and crossed paths while studying recording music (Dale, Brunstein, Wayans), writing (Slocum) and philosophy (Knapp). Slocum and Knapp are both from Michigan and knew each other in high school, while Wayans and Brunstein used to call California home. Dale is from Brazil, but he used to be from Australia, too. Their first single, “Fear of Heights,” came out in March 2020, but they’d already been gigging around for a few years, playing their first-ever show as an opener for Future Teens at Sunnyvale in New York before sharing bills with bands like The Goa Express, Ultra Q, Hello Mary and Loose Buttons around town at Baby’s All Right, the Mercury Lounge and Elsewhere. Before the pandemic hit, Been Stellar were “focused on playing a ton of shows and weren’t so focused on the songwriting,” according to Slocum. “It was about playing within the small scene we were in,” he continues. “Once COVID hit, we were able to stop and look more at the songs and try to hone in on that.”

Pre-COVID, Been Stellar were more accustomed to playing one-off shows around the city. Their first major stint on the road was a month-long DIY tour with Catcher in a rented 12-seater van. But Knapp is quick to point out that, when you’re playing in a band in New York City and you’re just starting out, it’s “like you’re on tour all the time, because there’s shows to be added to constantly.” “Once you get wrapped up in the DIY circuit, you’re in a mode as if you’re of tour, which is a good thing. But, it’s also a bad thing, because it doesn’t allow you to grow as a songwriter,” he continues. “You’re really focused on, ‘Okay, we need to play this bill to get on that bill.’ Everything’s stacked on top of each other.”

Though their momentum, just like everyone else’s, was stunted by an inability to tour during the pandemic, Slocum saw that slowing down as a net-positive for the band. “I think we really needed that time,” he admits. “Sometimes, [playing shows in New York] can make it difficult to give yourself time to focus on what you really want to be saying. Because we were forced to stop playing shows, we were able to come up with new ideas and then think more critically about what kind of space we wanted to fill.” “The pandemic saved us,” Knapp adds. That patience led to more singles, “Nihilist,” “Kids 1995” and “My Honesty,” and a self-titled EP in August 2022. For Been Stellar, “Fear of Heights” remains a product of its time and the band’s then-inexperience—a good reminder of where they came from. “I think ‘Fear of Heights’ is an endearing recording, and it’s sweet to listen to, but it sounds like kids getting a handle on what they want to sound like,” Slocum says. “The influences are very on its sleeve.”

Between the EP and Scream From New York, NY, Been Stellar have shed their influences and honed in on a real, honest collaboration between all five members. “I think ‘Fear of Heights’ came at a time when Sky and I were mostly working on stuff, and a lot of it was written at a computer,” Slocum continues. “Now, the way we’ve written music for the past few years, has been the five of us bouncing ideas off each other in real time. There’s never really a computer involved until we get into the actual recording of it. It feels a lot more human now.” “We just have things that we need to write about now,” Knapp chimes in. “Whereas, for a really long time—especially when you’re in college—it’s difficult, because you’re figuring out who you are as a person. You want to make music, but I didn’t have stories to tell. I feel like I was always pretending when I was trying to tell stories.”

Now, Slocum, Knapp, Dale, Brunstein and Wayans have more to say. They’re all working jobs (Knapp himself joined our conversation right after doing a job interview in the city) and seeing the true value in their surroundings. “I see why I want to make music more,” Knapp says. “It’s because you have these things that you need to tell people.” When writing Scream From New York, NY, the band found themselves inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 anthology film Coffee and Cigarettes. Knapp found himself interested in the concept of noise pollution in New York and the constant high-decibel levels of sound being let off by the people living there. “It’s this big, overhanging blur of sound,” he says. Slocum and Knapp share an apartment together, and in a place where a courtyard should separate all of the buildings in the complex, there is an old steam shaft instead. “When you’re lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, you’ll just hear these screams coming out of nowhere—a scream from the street or a scream from one of the other apartments,” Knapp continues. “It’ll be a blood-curdling scream or just a drunk person screaming. It’s really interesting, because you’re like, ‘What the hell is that? What led that person to scream?’ I can’t think of the last time I’ve ever screamed.”

With the very literal title of Scream From New York, NY in mind, Knapp likens the echoes of howls to a “silent understanding about the intensity of living” and the “constant emotions that you’re being battered with from every angle” while living in New York City. (“Maybe the voices play to cancel out the sound, a scream is heard from buildings all around,” Slocum sings on “All in One.”) Just as Been Stellar were beginning to conceptualize their debut album, Knapp found himself really into the logic of Ludwig Wittgenstein. “He always talks about how the reason why philosophy and a lot of literature is still a process—why we’re still asking ourselves the same questions that ancient Greeks asked each other—is because the tools that we’re using, which is language, are an inadequate way of conveying things,” Knapp explains. “It’s very easy to mistake things. The only things where you really do understand what someone is saying are intense moments of love. We wanted to explore that from a bunch of small angles and a bunch of direct, personal interactions.” “I think New York is the type of environment that just automatically imposes itself on the honest art that’s created there,” Slocum adds.

Been Stellar’s EP was a stepping stone in their pursuit towards city-based songwriting. The band combine vivid imagery of their home (“the jackets voice pressed up against the avenue noise,” “the same river twice, trusting our senses and stepping in time”) with laments that wax poetic about generational malaise, screen-time and the “symbols of past” that “corrode and surpass” (“on the cave walls, they paint images of jazz and forge alters to the heroes of past,” “my exhaust is my own colossus”). On “Manhattan Youth,” Slocum bemoaned his peers being sons outrunning their parents and being “locked in the moments with our only truth.” On “Ohm,” he nodded to Dime Square, Calvin Klein ads on Houston Street and falafel carts in Lower Manhattan’s thoroughfare. “New York is our home, this is where my life is,” Knapp says, and his bandmates all nod in agreement.

On Scream From New York, NY, Slocum’s vocals soothe like a balm while the band’s instrumentals quake through different intervals—stuck in a tapestry woven with slowcore and melodic, breakneck guitar riffs. His lyricism doesn’t aim so intently on the intrapersonal coming-of-age cosmos he and his friends were/are entangled in. Instead, the album wrestles with stagnation within the city-bound microcosm of community he and the band are affixed to. They had been working on songs from Scream From New York, NY for a few years before recording the album, buttoning up ideas on the road. In the summer of 2022, during their first-ever trip to the UK, they were workshopping “Passing Judgement.” “We were looking at the song differently each time we played it, and I was coming up with different lyrics every night and trying to finish it on the road,” Slocum says. “All in One’ is post-punk brick-and-mortar set aglow by worn-in brilliance; “Sweet” is gritty and distorted and fuzzy, as Slocum reckons with letting a relationship’s quiet moments simmer by filling the uncomfortable silences with voracious riffs and vocals that wouldn’t be out of place on a shoegaze joint. The distorted guitars fill in where words simply cannot, and Been Stellar harbor motifs of disconnect and loneliness across all 10 tracks.

Scream From New York, NY pays homage to New York City musically. Been Stellar’s music carries decades of history within it, from Knapp and Dale’s colossal guitars to Wayan’s heavy, throbbing and thrashing percussion to Slocum’s one-of-a-kind wail and infectious tambourine-playing. There’s a difference between evoking your influences and showing love to the company you keep, and it’s why songs like “Shimmer,” “Pumpkin” and “Passing Judgement” hit so hard. When you choose to be a band from New York, you’re tasked with, as Knapp puts it, “feeding the big organism that’s constantly moving. “The city pushes you to make music like that,” he says, nodding to why Been Stellar and other groups in town share the same sonic lineage. It’s akin to what Thurston Moore has said about early Sonic Youth recordings, how he wanted to make music that sounded like what New York sounded like to him: the constant noise, the screeches and horrors. And, when you come up as a musician in NYC, the connectivity between your peers and those who came before you becomes an unspoken part of the craft that’s always going to be present, no matter what.

“It’s something that we think about a lot, because you’re stepping into really big shoes just by living here,” Knapp says. “And, especially the fact that none of us are from here, per se, you’re always thinking about the space that you’re occupying. I think not enough people do do that. There’s a lot of New York records. It’s, by no means, a novel thing to write an album about New York City. But, I think a lot of people take from that and say, ‘Okay, I’m moving to New York and I’m gonna put on the leather jacket and start writing songs like the Strokes.’ And, in a lot of ways, that’s the antithesis of what New York is supposed to be.”

Been Stellar’s current reputation of being a New York-based rock band making some noise beyond the boroughs is happening concurrently with Meet Me in the Bathroom’s forever-omnipresent eulogy for the early-aughts and the industry’s labored attempts to lump artists together to make it happen again. We’re seeing a lot of groups get likened to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes, and Slocum, Knapp, Dale, Brunstein and Wayans aren’t strangers to those comparisons; they’re currently featured on a “Meet Me in the Bathroom Take 2” playlist on Spotify. But, at some point, talk like that becomes wallpaper for NYC bands—or, at the very least, with growing confidence comes subconscious aversion to the chatter. “That’s the way people contextualize music for themselves—based on things that they know—and it becomes easier to make a map between ideas,” Slocum says. “We used to be bummed out, if someone was like, ‘Yeah, it sounds like the Strokes.’ Somebody [told us] that one song sounds a lot like Smashing Pumpkins. We’re still obviously really early in our career, but when you’re still finding your footing artistically, it can be a tough thing to hear.

“I think the only reason it’s a tough thing to hear is because you still aren’t that many steps away from your influences,” he continues. “Once you come into your own more as an artist, it stops bugging you—because it’s still there and in a lot of the press we’ve had [for Scream From New York, NY]. People will know that it sounds like certain things, which is totally fine. I don’t think it bugs any of us anymore. There are certain comparisons you get excited by, like every now and again somebody would be like, ‘Oh, you guys sound like Ride’ or ‘You guys sound like Sonic Youth.’ Someone said we sound like the Verve. You get certain ones that are refreshing to hear.”

At this point, the lore of the Meet Me in the Bathroom era has outpaced the scene it’s meant to romanticize (“The headline of this should be ‘We are the Strokes again,’” Slocum jokes). And Been Stellar are pretty content with calling it out for what it is: media-built, artificially-pushed fables. “Now that we’ve been able to talk to a lot of the people who lived through that time, all they ever talk about is how bullshit it is,” Knapp says. “It was an exciting time in New York, but music of the same style arises out of a necessity.” Slocum mentions being at a Dare DJ set recently and finding himself “in these rooms with a bunch of people wearing leather jackets, squeaking around and looking at each other, silently going, ‘It’s happening again. Finally, this is it.’” “I don’t know, there’s something really sad and depressing about it,” Slocum continues. “People are so invested in this lore of a place that it’s never accurate to how it was. It’s a fun thing to believe in, but does feel like there’s some degree of ‘You gotta wake up. This is happening now. We’re not trying to recreate anything.’”

Whether or not the early-2000s’ pound-for-pound recreation of the CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City-era of the Talking Heads, the New York Dolls and Television that came 25 years prior, Been Stellar aren’t much interested in contending with whether or not that’s even a possibility. They want audiences and critics to not be so smoke-and-mirrors about time periods and approach history with honesty instead of folklore. And if Scream From New York, NY proves anything for Been Stellar, it’s that Slocum, Knapp, Dale, Brunstein and Wayans are the keepers of their own destiny, the tastemakers of their own distorted future in this industry. And if others sound just like them, then so be it. “I think, if you people want that to happen in New York again, you can’t be trying to make a scene. You just need to be making music,” Knapp says. “The fact that everyone’s experiencing the same things, because we’re in the same place at the same time, inevitably it will have a throughline to it.”

Been Stellar’s debut album, Scream From New York, NY, is out June 21 via Dirty Hit.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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