New York based five piece Been Stellar performed at the Speedy Wunderground showcase at SXSW alongside amongst others, The Lounge Society, Heartworms and Warmduscher. After their set I sat down with the band out the back of the venue and had a very entertaining conversation that covered everything from the promise of an album, how pivotal The Great Escape was for the band, learning from Just Mustard and, surprisingly, Newcastle United FC. We were interrupted on numerous occasions which led to me considering publishing the audio of the interview rather than transcribing it such was the background pandemonium!
2022 was quite a year for Been Stellar which included live dates in the UK as well as the release of your self-titled debut EP in August. Looking back what were the highlights?
I think the most memorable part was coming to the UK. That was a bucket-list thing. People talk about overnight success, not that we’ve had that but there was literally a moment when things started to change. That was at The Great Escape (festival in Brighton). We played a show in Margate the day before and it did not go well, and that was our first show in the UK. We got to Brighton after Margate and we practised for hours to make sure nothing fucked up and then the next day we played some fucking amazing shows and then the next day everything just seem to go like…..
I was at that gig at The Great Escape and when you (Sam Slocum, vocals and keys) walked on stage you just went “WOW“.
I was freaking out. It didn’t help that we’d lit the candle at both ends the night before so I was hungover. Also The Great Escape is super industry ridden and you’re talking to so many people and it starts to get a little confusing as to why you’re doing this. We’ve been a band for what feels like a really long time and its always been our own thing and all of a sudden…..it felt like a lot, we were overwhelmed.
Am I right in thinking that The Great Escape led to other opportunities last year? Didn’t you meet Trevor Dietz the manager of Fontaines D.C.?
We didn’t have a booking agent or anything at The Great Escape. We didn’t even know what that stuff entailed. That stage was at that point the biggest we had played. I remember setting up my drum stuff (Laila Wayans, drums) and I had the same moment too, I was like “WOW“. Because it was empty at first and and when I put the cymbals on and I looked up and it was like jeez.
It was the So Young stage. You mentioned Trevor and he came to one of the unofficial showcases and that was crazy for us I mean we’re big fans of Fontaines D.C. The next day we heard he was there and he liked it. That next day everything kind of unfolded for us. We owe a lot to So Young because they out us in front of that audience.
How did the connection with So Young come about?
Lauren (manager of Been Stellar) sent them the first version of ‘Kids 1995‘, just so they could write about it in their magazine and they really liked it and asked if we wanted to work together. That’s how that came about.
And then the debut EP came out in August. That must have been incredibly exciting, to have the tangible vinyl.
Oh yeah, I could show it to my Dad and I was like “Look Dad I made a fucking record“! I have it unopened in my room, just sitting there. I don’t think I’ll ever open it. That was really a crazy thing to see. Yeah, it was really cool.
Up until now the music that we have heard Been Stellar produce has been influenced by New York. Are you working on new music? And if so what are the themes and inspirations of the new music? Is it still the city?
We’re working on an album right now. We’ve got a bunch of songs that we’ve developed over the past seven months. I feel that what we’ve been talking about a lot, It’s not that the themes have changed, we’re starting to focus loosely on language and the thing that we keep going back to, not that every song is about this but, it’s how words never end up being enough to convey what you’re trying to say or what you’re feeling. There’s an inherent tragedy in that, but its also beautiful in a sense. It’s not that we’re not talking about New York anymore. The thing that Sky (Skyler St. Marx, guitar) says a lot New York is the setting where all these feelings take place. Its not even really a conscious decision it just naturally comes out that way. It’s where we are and how it shows up.
We moved into a new apartment two years ago and its sort of really packed in, with this courtyard in the middle. And when you’re lying in bed going to sleep you just hear screams and these loud exclamations from anywhere. And people will be screaming loud and you’ll have no idea what it is! It kinda hit me that that is the feeling of New York that makes it different from anywhere else. You cannot convey just how intense an experience it is, or the existential angst you have there. It’s noise, exclamation that words won’t do. That’s the thing that is really interesting us right now
I do have to say that in your songs you manage to convey an atmosphere in the instrumentation. It’s not just in the lyrics. It’s hard to articulate what that is but some of the . You don’t have to explain everything, its these soaring sounds.
Thank you. That’s great to hear. It’s what we’re trying to get across. You can’t really say it, so what’s the best way to say it besides playing a bit of music. Its like the creative writing one on one thing and you’re supposed to show and not tell. And thats the big thing with lyrics. We like using proper nouns and using specific examples and things like that but especially in choruses, keeping it universal and vague in a lot of ways actually ends up doing way more. We toured with Just Mustard last year and the big thing that I love about their music, their lyrics are very simple and very sparse. It’s like that’s all they need to say. Their music gives me way more than a lot of bands tell you something.
They have that soundscape don’t they, that wall of sound……
That was probably one of the best things we could have done, touring with them. They taught us such an important lesson. The first band that taught us a big lesson was Bodega, we shared a practise space with them for about a year. Just being in their space we learned a lot about how they express themselves. They are such an eccentric group. They’re so obsessed with colour, and for lack of a better word, vibe. It was an amazing thing to be creating in the same space as them – and it was the same with Just Mustard. Going on tour with them, we looked up to them so much prior to the tour and being on tour with them and sharing a stage and watching them every night. We learnt how simple trying to convey that message should be. It really should be a basic thing and it becomes so much clearer. When you see Just Mustard you get it instantly because they’ve got it down.
Credit: Julia Mason
So your song-writing process, is it collaborative?
Yeah, we’ll have very rough inklings of things and then we write it as a group the five of us. So someone may bring a riff or a melody and it does not exist as a song until it goes through all of us. There are so many songs, even more so recently now actually, it’ll start one way and one person will do just one small thing like change a bassline or something and we’ll look to that person and we’re like ok, we’re going to follow that and it becomes a completely different thing from what the original idea was. But if it wasn’t for the original idea and the person building off that we probably wouldn’t have the song.
It’s a very different instinct when you’re writing together as opposed to when you’re writing by yourself. When we’re all in the room we can follow that person. Its like a five person machine. I think writing as five people, you have to understand each other really well. I feel like we are very lucky that we are all close friends. I can imagine other people in a band not wanting to challenge each other creatively. Creatively this person wants to take this this way which is fine but we’ll be like “fuck that lets do it this way”. We’ll do a tug of war a hundred different ways and then we’ll finally land on something that we’ll all feel happy with.
So in terms of looking forward, you mentioned you’re working on an album. Any timeframe for that?
We want to record as soon as possible. We’re in the process of fine tuning those songs that we’ve been working on for the last seven months. We want to put stuff out soon. There’s a lot of factors, we’ve a pretty busy schedule coming up and working around that. We have started planning.
And what about live dates?
We’re touring with Shame in the US in May. There’s a ton of other stuff that isn’t announced yet (subsequent to this interview Been Stellar are announced as support for the three Fontaines D.C. headline shows in the US).
And how are Newcastle United getting on at the moment (bassist Nico Brunstein is wearing a Newcastle United F.C. tee shirt and has been a fan for years!)?
We’re in fifth place above Liverpool, and a game in hand against Liverpool as at March 14th! Newcastle’s a great place. It was so hot that day. (Been Stellar played in Newcastle in July 2022 during the heatwave in the UK) and the venue being right on the Tyne, the walls were just dripping! Playing at Zerox you could see the bridge and the Tyne.
The two support bands that night had four or five members in them so there was more band members at that gig than there was gig goers because it was so hot!
Are you from Newcastle?
I’m from Edinburgh, and oh my gosh Skyler I could not believe you knew Sneaky Petes the independent music venue in Edinburgh!
yeah, I’m a bit of a music nerd. Do you know swim school?
Yes! The drummer Billy works in our local independent record store Assai Records in Edinburgh, so when you come to Edinburgh to play Sneaky Petes, you’ll have to do an instore at Assai Records!