Scream, If You Want To Go Faster: Been Stellar Interviewed

The New Yorkers on their terrific debut album...

After what seems like an eternity, New Yorkers Been Stellar finally unleash their debut album ‘Scream From New York, NY’. It’s a wildly ambitious body of work, wide in both scale and sound which should make any comparisons to other acts from the city redundant. 

Clash recently spoke to vocality Sam Slocum, guitarist Skyler Knapp and drummer Laila about those unwelcome comparisons, the album, the history of the band and much more. 

Not long until the album is out. How does it feel?

Sam: It’s crazy to say it’s only two weeks away (at time of interview) and by the time it actually does drop, it will maybe feel anti-climactic, just because it’s been such a long process. It’s the hardest we’ve ever worked on anything, so once it comes out it feels like an after-thought: ‘OK, it’s out.’ It’s also weird because we have so much touring coming up in the fall. The album’s out but that’s just one part of the process.

Do you feel as a band you’ve evolved since you completed it?

Skyler: It’s something I didn’t really think about until now, but the dynamics on this album are very different than on the EP. Quieter parts need to be played quieter; louder parts need to be played louder where there’s more energy. Having to play these songs live, we’ve had to be way more conscious of togetherness as a band and those dynamics. We’ve grown quite a bit and also done a lot of touring since then. When you play enough shows, you learn the things you do poorly and improve on them.

It was a big evolution in sound from the EP to the album. Was that a conscious effort?

Skyler: We love the way the EP sounds, and we’re very proud of it, but we wanted the album to feel more necessary, if that makes sense? The EP was us figuring out how to write songs together, and that was our first foray into ‘finding our sound’, but once we had that under our belts, we were like, ‘How do we actually say something?’ We’re not just going to be a band that makes songs just for the sake of making songs. It sounds super-corny but we want to contribute to culture in some way. 

The album is very much based around New York, obviously. Tell us more about that.

Skyler: I don’t think we set out to make it inherently about New York, but the thing about New York is that it’s a city that always imposes its identity on you, every day. When you’re going to work, and the subway is delayed or whatever, (you think) ‘I’m in this city with a complex eco-system and things that need to work together.’ We’re ‘professional’ musicians but we all work day jobs as well. We’re not just people taking up space in New York, we’re actively part of the mechanism still, to this day. At the end of the day, when you come home from working a shift in whatever shitty job it is, these are the things I want to talk about because these are the things I experience.

Tell us about some of the other songs that touch on life in New York.

Sam: ‘Take Down’ has a line, (‘Cut into the lime again,’) because I worked in a bar and I was cutting a lot of limes! That song has a much bigger theme going on, but the entire album, the core of the record…I don’t know how interesting it would be if I wrote lyrics that just say how it is. The only way to effectively convey the feeling is to take those little moments and look at literally and in a metaphorical sense.  

Skyler: Because you spend so much time working and doing things that aren’t necessarily what you want to do, you have to form this narrative in your head: ‘This is all going to be something I remember as part of my evolution as a person.’ That’s a coping mechanism you have to have as an artist anywhere, but especially in New York. You’re paying rent all the time and you need to keep the romance and drama in your own life. As soon as you let go of that, you’re fucked. You see it all the time, you work with people who just gave that romance up and are now lost in the grind of everything. In a lot of ways, writing songs save you from that. It’s an important thing and it’s fuel for what you’re trying to do.

What are the sonic inspirations on the record?

Laila: A lot of Ride.

Skyler: When we started making the record we had an Oasis awakening. We were obsessed with the grandiosity and raw expression of emotion of those first couple of Oasis records. But as time went on, it got filtered and we didn’t want it to sound just like a rock and roll record. We got really into Bowery Electric and we became obsessed with their drums. We toured with a band last year called Just Mustard and through osmosis we grew as songwriters by watching them play. They were very inspiring.

Sam: As far as the lyric-writing goes, I was really inspired by this short story writer called Miranda July. I just really like her imagery, but I wasn’t super-influenced by other lyricists. On the song Shimmer on this record, I tried to take an intimate moment in my life and break it up (like) William Burroughs. But the main goal was to transmit a universal feeling and it goes with the concept of the record: words fail and you’re left with carnal impulses. It’s tough to write a bunch of words that feel like that ‘cos it’s counter-intuitive! Some of the lyrics are very unique and not something someone’s going to understand and only I’ll ever understand, and some are universal. 

You get lots of comparison to bands that make up the lineage of New York: Blondie, the Strokes, etc, but your sound is different to them. Does that frustrate you?

Sam: We’ve all had moments with it in the past. We’ve been a band for seven years now, so we’ve gotten every comparison in the book as far as New York goes. At some points, when you’re younger, you obviously get insecure about somebody comparing you to The Strokes. I’m so confident in what we do and the sound we’ve found. When you’re secure in what you’re doing, you really don’t give a shit about it. That’s how humans work; the only thing to do is to compare us to something you know. A guy wearing a jacket onstage in front of four other guys playing guitars and they’re from New York = Julian Casablancas. 

Skyler: Without a doubt, all of those bands – The Strokes, The Walkmen, Interpol – were a galvanizing thing for us. We wanted to go to New York and make music. I was obsessed with it.

Sam: It’s definitely part of our DNA.

Skyler: It definitely is, but earlier on I was self-conscious about that, because I knew that’s what we were doing: listening to The Strokes and learning how to write songs, but now I really don’t care about it anymore. In fact, it’s made me fall back in love with The Strokes. For a while I couldn’t listen to them, to unlearn this DNA or whatever, but since we’ve developed, I can confidently say I love The Strokes! People will contextualize things how they need to.

I get why people do it, but I don’t think music is as exciting now as it was then. Music is great now, but a band like Oasis or The Strokes were truly life changing. I’m not saying there aren’t bands that make good music (now), but bands that you become truly obsessed with, you want to start dressing like them and know every aspect of them, There hasn’t been a band like that for a while. The only band I can think of that has that cache is Fontaines D.C., which is cool, but I get why people want that so bad. 

Every time something cool has happened in New York, it’s been unintentional and out of necessity. All those people like Tom Verlaine moved to New York because they had nothing else to do and it formed organically. I talk to a lot of people who lived through the early 2000s and they say the scene was really contrived. Major labels had a shit-ton of money to blow on these bands. The music is still really good but I reject the comparison between those two eras because they’re quite distinct. People need to realise the way to make a scene is work really hard and be passionate, and not try to cultivate your own myth.

Bands like Interpol were on tour buses on their first album. There was so much more money, even from the indie labels. People were still buying physical records at a high velocity and a lot more money being made from live shows. None of those people were working just before their debut album came out, but that’s the nature of the world now. The label we’re on is a very successful label, but it’s still the case for us, but it makes us have to work harder. 

Speaking of the label (Dirty Hit), how has it been working with them?

Skyler: They’ve been amazing so far. A lot of people were surprised that we were signed with them, and so were we. It was between four labels and the thing we loved about Dirty Hit was that they have a very clear vision of themselves. It reminded me of how Creation or 4AD must have been in the early days. They care about how the present themselves and the cultural contribution, rather than just putting out albums. When it came down to it, the choice was very clear.

Dan Carey produced the album. How did you find working with him?

Skyler: It was amazing. I think a big part of the reason that the album doesn’t sound like his other stuff is because we didn’t do it at his studio in Streatham, like he usually does. We had him fly out to New York because we felt very strongly it had to be recorded here. It lined up really well because his daughter goes to school out here so it was serendipitous. He’s such an inspiring guy and he loves music more than anyone I’ve ever met. All the doubts and insecurities I have melt away around him. He gives so much care and love.

You’ve toured with The 1975 and Shame, have you found working with them to be inspirational too?

Laila: Everyone you tour with, you learn something different, but as an opening band you learn how to engage someone else’s crowd. Especially on a tour with The 1975, you have all these people there dying to see them but you still have to go out there and put on the best show you can and give them that energy. That’s definitely something we learned.

Did it spur your ambition to get that level?

Laila: It sparked it even more. Obviously, it’s a great opportunity and we’re super grateful to be able to do that, but we’re now working harder to get to that point where we are the band that people are dying to see.

Talking of touring, you’ve just finished touring the UK. How did you find that?

Skyler: We’ve been to the UK quite a bit and it feels local to us, we’ve been there that much. People in the UK are way more enthusiastic about live music. It’s like a hobby of some people, like you’d be into a sports team, or go to the local venue to see the latest band. That really doesn’t exist here at all, partially because ticket prices are way more expensive. You get a lot more people who are trying to listen to what you’re saying rather than compartmentalising things: ‘It sounds like this, or this.’ It’s a lot more earnest, I think.

What was your favourite UK crowd?

Skyler: Maybe it was the venue rather than the crowd, but we played the Polar Bear in Hull and I loved it. The best crowd we’ve ever had. At this point we hadn’t even put an EP out, but it was a night – I think it’s a Tuesday – where it seems like the whole town goes to the venue to see the band’s that playing. It’s so cool and special, I don’t think they realise how rare it is. That’s the kind of thing I wish I had as a kid. Getting to experience that was so cool.

‘Scream From New York, NY’ is out now. Catch Been Stellar on tour:

19 Bristol The Fleece 
21 Manchester Academy 3 
22 Glasgow King Tuts 
24 Newcastle The Cluny 
25 Leeds Brudenell Social Club 
26 Nottingham Bodega 
28 London Scala 
30 Dublin The Workman’s Club 

1 Galway Roisin Dubh 
2 Belfast Ulster Sports Club 

Words: Richard Bowes
Photography: Gabe Long

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