Meet the Brooklyn five-piece ushering in a whole new post-punk revival with nothing but an upcoming EP, a home studio and a whiteboard
Been Stellar played the Great Escape in May 2022, but even if you were there you probably didn’t see them. With more people queued up outside the tent than were squeezed inside, the band hit Brighton beach like a bomb – arriving with the kind of buzz that makes every stage look too small.
Turning classic indie influences into something cinematic, Been Stellar have helped kickstart a second wave of post-punk garage rock without even releasing an album. With just a handful of singles to draw from, the band barely have enough for a setlist – yet their live shows are already electric. We caught up with New York’s Been Stellar ahead of their debut EP release (out 12 August) to talk origins, organisation and the weight of expectation.
Were you aware how many people were stuck outside that tent in Brighton when you played The Great Escape?
Nando Dale: Yeah, we heard that people couldn’t get in. That was pretty shocking. It was a funny day, though. We played that show and then right after we put on an official show in this very small English pub. It was a very interesting experience.
Skyler St. Marx: It was really crazy. We didn’t really know much about the festival going into it, other than that it was a similar sort of situation to South by Southwest where all the gigs are at different local establishments, and that it’s very industry heavy. But playing that tent was very surreal. We were first on the bill, and that was one of our first ever shows in the UK, so we really didn’t think anybody would be there. So it was equally as exciting as it was terrifying.
How have the UK crowds been for you in general?
Skyler: I’d say they’ve been fantastic. We just finished touring the US, and that was a very stark contrast. Everywhere from London to Hull people are just so enthusiastic. When you play Salt Lake City or Reno it falls much more on deaf ears. And that’s just the way the music world works over here. But I think we felt a lot more gratification playing the UK because we felt like people really got us, and that’s something we really haven’t had before.
Did you all know each other before you started the band?
Nando: Yeah we all went to college in New York. I was actually Skyler’s roommate and Nico was Sam’s suitemate, and we met Laila at a show.
Am I right in thinking you all live together in Brooklyn now too, all above a recording studio?
Skyler: Yeah, Sam, Nando and I all share a spot right above our studio and it’s a really interesting place. It’s pretty rare to come by in New York, but our basement has this one little dedicated room that we use as our practice studio, and we have a very, very good relationship with our super, so we don’t get noise complaints. To a certain degree…
How does that work for you all? Do you ever need time away from each other?
Skyler: Yeah, I mean, the good thing is that we all have different endeavours. Laila, for example, is also a producer for rap beats and trap, and all of us have various other tasks that we go about aside from the band. But it’s always just been a through-line for us. The band is always there and our practice schedules are always very consistent. So yeah, we like each other!
How do you like to describe your sound?
Nico Brunstein: It’s definitely evolving, especially after the pandemic. We’ve talked a lot about what we want Been Stellar to be, and what type of music we want to work on as a band, because even up until last year we were still kind of in limbo. This last year we’ve had a deeper conversation amongst the five of us. Sam put it really nicely when he said we want catharsis – the energy of music… sound and noise, but also melody and harmony, finding a good balance between song writing and production.
I think production has been a big thing for us, and we’ve been working Aron Kobayashi Ritch, from Momma, and he’s really helped us fine tune our sound. We’re getting to the point where we can really intertwine the noisiness and the aggressiveness with the sweetness and the melodies, and that’s what we’re still trying to develop now.
Skyler: Yeah, I think one of our biggest touching points since we started was The Velvet Underground. And we have huge respect for how they managed such experimental sounds but still made very catchy songs. I feel like for a while, at least in New York, melody was kind of frowned upon in some ways, especially in certain circles where everything needs to be very noisy and abrasive. But we really value melody, and we kind of see melody as the bit of the song that you’re able to latch on to emotionally. The noise and the feedback, which we all love as well, is more like the colouring of the picture that’s already there. So a union between those two worlds is really what we try to go for.
Most bios I’ve read of you jump straight to The Strokes comparisons. Does that annoy you?
Skyler: It does, just because I think it’s incorrect. I get it, and I guess if you’re a British listener seeing a five piece band from New York it’ll instantly draw you to those places. So I do understand it, but I also really, really don’t think we sound much like The Strokes! There’s a good chunk of bands that people will pigeonhole us with who I really don’t think we sound anything like. What flatters me though is when people are very specific in their comparisons. Like, you know, we had someone after one of our shows come up and say ‘your guitar work sounds a lot like Sonic Youth’. That, to me, is a huge compliment. But yeah, I don’t know. It concerns me when people put us too deeply in any kind of box. It really defeats the purpose of what we’re doing.
Who were your early influences? Who were you all listening to when you got into music?
Sam Slocum: The first memory I have of music really hitting me was The Beach Boys song ‘I Get Around’. A friend of mine’s Dad was driving us back from school, and I must have been five or six. It sounds kind of cheesy when I say it out loud, but I had him play that song over and over again, just because the harmonies during the chorus were unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
Skyler: For me it was Interpol‘s first record. I heard that towards the tail end of high school, right as I was trying to decide where to go to college, and that definitely played a big part in me moving to New York. Obviously I’d heard The Strokes, I’d understood it, but Interpol really offered this perspective of New York that I hadn’t seen before. It was cinematic. And then the other big one for me in high school was My Bloody Valentine. Once I started listening to Loveless, it kind of changed my perspective of what music can be.
“Cinematic” is a word I’d use to describe your sound too. How important are visuals for you when you’re writing?
Skyler: Oh we’re big mood board people. We have a private Instagram account that only members of the band and our manager have access to, and that’s where we share visual references. It’s actually a huge part of what we do, especially going into this EP and now going forward to the record.
Do you remember your first gig together? How did it go?
Laila Wayans: Yeah, the first gig all five of us played together was a college show at Wayward Social in Bushwick. It was during the first week of college so it was probably everyone’s first big party, and I remember showing up being, like, the most DIY you can get. We get there and we realise we don’t have a drum kit. So Skyler and I went all the way back on the train from Brooklyn and stole the drum set from NYU, where we’d been practising. We wrote a note that said, “Don’t worry, we’ll bring it back”, and then we literally broke it down, put it in suitcases, and made it back in time for the show.
Did you take it back afterwards?
Laila: Oh definitely. We needed to practise the next day!
Which song are you proudest of?
Skyler: I’d say ‘Ohm’.
Nico: Yeah, that one’s not out yet, but ‘Ohm’ is interesting because I remember Sam, Skye and Nando came up with the foundation of it during the pandemic. When they showed us the riff, at least for me, I thought it was one of the best things they had ever come up with. I was super excited, but then Sky sidelined it for some reason. When we were building the EP we were all looking at our huge whiteboard of ideas and we realised that we’d forgotten it. So we brought it back up and reworked it, and after a couple of weeks we got it into a really great place. I think collectively it’s probably one of our favourite songs on the record. But also, at least for me, it’s the best song to play live. It’s very cathartic, and now we’ve decided that it’s our closing song.
Skyler: Yeah I’m also really proud of that song because it’s one of the first songs that was written in complete collaboration. That’s become the way we write music now, but the band has obviously gone through some sort of gestation period. Now we can tell if a song is really good when we can’t tell which member wrote it.
I love hearing that you use mood boards and white boards… are you always that organised?!
Skyler: No not at all! I mean, I think it really just comes out of a place of necessity. It’s a long process of trial and error. At least for the whiteboard, y’know, we have a lot of ideas and it’s very hard to keep track of them. Before we used the board those ideas were all just deep in Sam’s Notes app and his voice memos. So we had to devise a system. We have three columns. One is abstract ideas. Two is work in progress. And three is, like, something that we might actually consider to be a song.
But that’s as organised as we get. We’re very organised with our creative process, but we’re still very much learning how to get organised with our touring and everything else!
What’s next for you? Can we expect an album after the EP?
Skyler: Yeah we’ve been playing a couple of songs that haven’t been released in any way yet that I’m pretty sure we’re gonna want to put out in some format. But beyond that… I mean, it’s difficult to really sink your teeth into something when you’re touring, but we have we have a pretty clear idea of what we want to do. Ideally we want to record it as soon as we can. We don’t want to waste any time.
Been Stellar currently have one show booked for the UK in Brighton on July 26. Find tickets here.