“Think of guitar bands from New York and still, 21 years after their debut album was released, your mind will likely jump straight to The Strokes. Within the city’s musical history books, Julian Casablancas and co’s shadow looms large, and it’s a burden that Bushwick’s Been Stellar are all too aware of - yet they’re shrugging it off brilliantly with a refined new sound and a strong sense of confidence.
“Being in a band in New York isn’t cool anymore,” explains singer Sam Slocum nonchalantly from one side of a table in central London pub Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (“We’re getting a real Charles Dickens experience!” they joke). “If someone asks me what I do, I won’t tell them I’m in a band.” To most people, that might sound like there’s a shame attached to the group’s endeavours but, the frontman says, it’s quite the contrary.
“That’s really liberating,” he suggests. “It’s hilarious to be a band [in NYC], but it’s just the format we enjoy making music in,” agrees guitarist Skyler St. Marx. “Coming over [to the UK] and seeing how much people care about guitar bands makes us realise that New York doesn’t have that same industry infrastructure.”
Been Stellar began life when Sam and Skyler started playing together in high school in Michigan. When they moved to New York for university, the band slowly evolved into the five-piece we speak to today, completed by guitarist Nando Dale, drummer Laila Wayans and bassist Nico Brunstein. Having first started gaining attention locally around four years ago, their early sound might have been a little more indebted to those famous forefathers but, now, they’re moving forward and coming into their own. You certainly won’t find them clinging onto the city’s past, “wearing leather jackets and hanging out in Tompkins Square Park”, as Skyler laughs.
The quintet’s sonic evolution can be heard on “Kids 1995’ - their latest single (and first for label So Young) which arrived in April as a rush of noisy shoegaze and the commanding hook of, “So when the time is right / You just have to take it / Jesus Christ, it’s like time is naked.” First written a few years ago, the song has since morphed to fit the band’s current vision. “The pandemic gave us time to reflect and rethink how we want to be perceived,” Nico explains. “It felt like what we were making [before] wasn’t being honest to what we felt or how we wanted to sound.”
Although their latest release nods to Kids, the Larry Clark-directed, Harmony Korine-written movie that follows a group of lawless teens around NYC, it’s less about the film itself, instead tying into a new mood of honesty. “I wrote it after I saw the movie for the first time about three years ago,” Sam shares. “I used it as kind of a jumping-off point for these reflections on my life and internal struggles, and topics like loss of innocence.”
Despite a film being the launchpad for the single, the band say movies aren’t really a typical source of inspiration for their music. “I prefer to write about my own experiences and things I see around me,” their frontman says, while Skyler adds that they do see themselves as “writing the soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t exist yet”. “Nando has some great descriptions,” he adds, referring to the imagined scenes they’re trying to accompany. The whole band looks at their other guitarist expectantly, as he digs one up from his memory. “One was meerkats staring into the setting sun,” he grins as laughter rings around him.
Imaginary films aside, Been Stellar’s commitment to staying true to themselves will come into focus on their next single - which comes ahead of a full EP in August. Titled “My Honesty’, according to Sam it marks the proper introduction of the group to the world. “To me, it’s the real first song of the band,” he nods.
It’s timely, then, that the track should arrive at a point when Been Stellar have more eyes on them than ever before. As they spend more and more time on the road (more US, UK and European dates are on the horizon), their star is continuing to rise - though they don’t see themselves losing touch with the New York that made them.
“We love albums and bands that could only exist in the city that they were made in,” Skyler explains. “Touring has made me love New York more and made our obsession with it so much stronger than ever.” You can take the band out of New York but you can’t take New York out of the band and, if Been Stellar have their way, what the world associates with that scene could be about to get a big shake-up.