20 years after the release of Is This It (and all of the hit-or-miss indie hype that came with it), it’s cool once again to be a band from New York, thanks in large part to acts like Brooklyn five-piece, Been Stellar.
Formed somewhere in the last five years, Been Stellar (Sam Slocum on vocals, Skyler St. Marx on guitar, Nando Dale on guitar, Nico Brunstein on bass, and Laila Wayans on drums) is our favourite new addition to the enticing coven of NYC post-punk bands interested in creating music that has the melody, vigour and rawness of the city.
Boasting vivid arrangements and elegant singles like ‘Fear of Heights’ and ‘Louis XIV’, poured into tight, electrifying performances, they make walking down the street with sunglasses on feel a lot fucking cooler. I met the group at their apartment near Maria Hernandez (where they occupy two floors) to talk about their recent North American tour, the internet trends of the youth, and the optimistic plight of being a band in post-Strokes New York.
How’s everyone doing?
I know that you are, in fact, five separate individuals… but do you mind that I’m going to conduct this interview as though you are all a single thing called Been Stellar?
No, I guess not.
Great. I’ve been hearing about upcoming music from you for a while. What’s going on with that?
We are putting out new tracks in November that I think will be pretty substantial. They’re older songs that we wrote a couple of years ago and we just want to complete that cycle and sort of conclude that first EP. Early next year we will be putting out a lot of new stuff and I’m excited for that. Now that we record ourselves, it’s a lot easier to take as much time as we need.
That is fucking insane by the way. You all live together in this apartment on Starr Street, you live on one floor and the floor below is your recording studio and practice space. So really, is there a recording studio at your house or do you live in a recording studio?
Yeah, it is a great spot, we really lucked out. Have you heard of The Britnay’s? It used to be their house. We are good friends with those guys and when they separated, they passed down this place to us. Sometimes we will still find some Britnay’s stuff around. Stickers behind doors and whatnot. This living set-up is perfect for us, though. We can practice and record whenever, Nando (guitar) and Nico (bass) are the ones who do the mixing and mastering. It’s really efficient and fun.
You guys do music full time, then. Do you have day jobs too?
Yeah, we work side jobs, too. Coffee shops, bars, soccer coach for little kids.
How old are the kids?
They were born in 2015, so they’re six.
Kids born in 2015 are six? They’re sentient enough to understand the rules of soccer?
Yeah, it’s crazy you can have a full-on conversation with them! I’m the youngest coach so I get the youngest kids. My first year I had the 2013’s, then the 2014’s, etcetera.
That’s so fucked. I’m so old. 2015 feels like just yesterday.
My young cousin just started kindergarten and they have these little shirts that say, ‘Class of 2032.’ How fucked is that? What’s really scary is by the time we have kids; they’ll be born in 2030. That’s disgusting. We were talking about this a couple days ago, how we are kind of on the cusp of the generation that is obsessed with Tik Tok; we can dip our toes into it, but it’s not quite the same for us. It means something completely different to kids two or three years younger than us. Snapchat! I didn’t even know Snapchat was still relevant but apparently it is fucking huge in high school and I don’t understand it. The way my little sister explained it was that if you guys are talking on Snapchat, that’s like flirting. If you ask for their number off of Snapchat, that’s a huge deal, it’s a big step. I remember having to keep Snapchat streaks with my girlfriend in high school. Anyway.
How long have you guys been a band?
Sam and Skylar have been making music together since high school. I think as a band, we’ve been together for three or four years now. I should say that a year of that was during Covid when we were all scattered on different sides of the country. We were still working together on stuff but it wasn’t the same as being together like we are now. I should also say that the first year or so together felt sort of like a trial run, because they [Sam and Skylar] came together from high school with songs already written and the rest of us learned them and built off of them. It has been fully collaborative and feels more like a proper five-piece more recently. This last year we have taken it very seriously and it’s feeling good. Sort of a complex answer, but this solid iteration of the band is a bit over a year old.
What do you think you sound like?
We’ve been talking about that. We recorded an album but when the pandemic hit, we reevaluated what we wanted to sound like and who we wanted to be. It’s tough because when you check us out online, a lot of our music there doesn’t necessarily sound like what we sound like now. We were saying that there are two kinds of catharsis that you get with music: a physical reaction that happens when it’s really chaotic and noisy and intense, and that’s great, but there’s also maybe a deeper release that comes from harmony and melody. We’ve been working on trying to find the middle ground. We want the rawness of Sonic Youth but are also into a really good melody. Oasis, maybe.
I was way off in the intro. Sonic Youth and Oasis; two distant poles.
I think another constant influence for us is The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, specifically. The thing for me is that I really like music that has to exist in a certain time and place. Recently I’ve been really obsessed with making songs that sound sort of location-specific. Not that every song we write is about New York City, or hardly any, actually. It’s just that our music has to exist in a place.
Does it suck being a guitar band in New York City?
I think it has for a while. We were talking about this with someone else who asked us who we think was the last New York band to define the scene in some way, and the only real choice is The Strokes. I think post-Strokes New York bands have been fucking cursed. I think now, it’s been long enough, and people are reconsidering what a band can be, which also has a lot to do with what’s happening in the scene in Europe with bands like Fontaines DC, Shame, Protomartyr, Iceage. There’s a hole opening up in the guitar music genre for bands like us to push through.
It’s been 20 years since Is This It came out and the ice is finally breaking for guitar music in New York.
We also don’t think too much about being a guitar band, so much as we happen to play guitars. We have a lot of influences that aren’t necessarily guitar bands that we bring into our own music. Laila makes trap beats and recently started doing some stuff with drum and bass. We each have our own interests and bring something interesting outside of guitar music. For that reason, I really like making music and I really like making music in New York. Like I said, I’m really into the history of where we are and the geography of music, and therefore take being in a band in New York very seriously. There’s so much history that I want to contribute to and have a place in, which works as a great motivator because we think, ‘Oh shit, we really have to be good.’ It’s galvanizing. We really think that New York is going to be the place for music again.
You guys are fresh off of a North American tour. How was it?
It was crazy. Emotionally and physically exhausting, but great. Definitely pushed us to our limit. We toured with another New York City band, Catcher, so it was 11 people crammed into a van, driving across the US. We did something like 20 shows in 30 days. It was just a lot.
Oh shit! I can’t tell if you think that was great or if it sucked.
Well, okay, the tour started really great. The East Coast was cool and easy. Then we played a show in Chicago, and we had to drive straight after the show, 15 hours to Denver to play the next night. There were a few of those nights where we’d play a show and drive all night, filling ourselves with McDonald’s and beer and really just doing ourselves in. After a show, I’d want to hang out and get drinks and meet cool people and party a bit, and we all quickly realised that that was not sustainable. When we woke up in Denver, we were fucked. We were getting tested for Covid constantly. Austin, the singer in Catcher caught some sort of sinus infection. A couple of us were sick with a cough before the tour and then we brought it on the van. We rallied and went pretty hard every night on the East Coast, and Denver really just fucked us up. We got baptized in Oakland when the window of our tour van got smashed in.
Oh shit! Did they grab all your gear? How’d that happen?
We got way too comfortable, I think. It sucks being the guy who’s yelling at people to hide their shit under the seats, but I mean, you have to hide your shit. We were leaving phones and cash and shit on the seats, just asking to get broken into. I [Nico] threw bags and blankets over the seats to cover as much shit as I could. So someone smashes our window and grabs a bag, and that single bag he took happened to be the empty bag that I used to cover up a computer and a camera. If that person had taken a moment to look around a little, we would have been fucked. We are friends with this other band, Bodega, and they asked us how the tour was going and we told them we got broken into in Oakland and they were just like, ‘well, yeah.’ It’s just expected at this point. An Oakland hello.
So what, you got it fixed? Or did you just fly home and call it a day?
This was actually the worst part. We had to drive down to LA to get it fixed the next morning. So we taped a wooden board to the outside that someone painted ‘Just Married’ onto.
What was it like seeing America?
It was a little strange. We are all from cities for the most part. When you stop at a gas station on the highway in middle America, it really hits you. Especially looking the way we are; all of our fingernails painted black, the baggy pants, slick back hair, Catcher’s crop tops… oh man. You get some stares.
Who have you been listening to lately?
I [Sam] have been listening to a lot of the Lou Reed Metallica record. I think it’s one of the best things he’s ever done.
Jesus, man. I like to pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t even include it in the canon.
I’m really into the late Lou stuff. The worst of Lou. That should be a compilation album. Something about a washed-up rock star really gets me. Leonard Cohen has an album called The Death of a Ladies’ Man and he’s in this white suit… there’s something about a washed-up rock star that is so enticing. So good. And I mean, again, I’d be lying if I said The Strokes isn’t an early influence that we are still into. Even just looking at their songs and going, ‘Oh that’s a good chord progression.’ We actually met Fab once [Fabrizio Moretti]. We used to cover ‘Hard to Explain.’
Oh, I love that song!
It’s a great song, for sure. This is the thing though: you should never cover a Strokes song if you’re in a guitar band from New York City. Never. This is the best advice we could give anyone, just don’t, because we met Fabrizio like a year later and he wasn’t fucking with us. We are friends with him now and he’s a great guy, but he genuinely asked us, ‘Are you guys still doing Strokes covers or are you working on your own stuff?’ Word gets out that you do a Strokes cover and that’s what you do. Anyway, Fab came up to us after and he was really nice about it. There’s a photo of us together. I put it in my bedroom.
Where can we see you play now that the tour is over?
We’d like to tour again soon! Count on that. If you’re in New York, you can see us at Elsewhere Zone 1 on November 21st. I think it’s cool to say that here. It’ll be announced pretty soon.
What are the aspirations for the band in the immediate future?
Right now we are recording a few songs that add up to about an album’s worth. I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t love to be signed to a label. That’s what we are really trying to do, not because we are obsessed with fame or a label, but because we really want to do this full-time. We love music and making music here together, it’s our favourite thing to do. Beyond that, we want to do something interesting, artistically, that will contribute to the story of New York.