The line-up of any tastemaking music festival this year will tell you that New York’s guitar scene is alive and kicking right now. On these shores alone in the past few months, we’ve seen art-punks Gustaf dominate Brighton’s The Great Escape with their urgent and angular grooves, while noise-rockers Geese smashed their first UK headline tour with a starker, but equally gripping, approach.
Excitingly, there’s currently a slew of emerging bands queuing at JFK Airport intent on following suit and winning hearts on this side of the Atlantic. That’s exactly the plan for Been Stellar, the Lower East Side-formed band who have patiently been crafting their shoegaze-indebted sound since they first descended on The Big Apple to study in the autumn of 2017. With their first UK headline tour and self-titled debut EP on the horizon, the five-piece are beaming as we dial in with them over Zoom fresh off a US tour supporting Ultra Q (who are fronted by Jakob Armstrong, the son of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong).
Guitarist Skyler St. Marx is quick to set the scene: “I met Sam [Slocum, vocals] at high school in Michigan, and we’d been making music for a while. But the band really began when we moved to New York to study at NYU. By chance, Nando [Dale, guitar] was my roommate and Nico [Brunstein, bass] was Sam’s. We were lucky because we’d applied for the music floor, which is a special interest housing that you can apply for when picking your accommodation.”
Been Stellar’s line-up was completed soon after when they recruited drummer Laila Wayans at a local show. Like any fresh gang of students in the big city, the starry-eyed five couldn’t help but channel the greats on their doorstep; an approach that initially held them back. “Our early sound was very indebted to our influences,” says St. Marx. “To me, it sounds like we were masquerading, trying to do the New York sound – but it wasn’t coming from a genuine place. I feel like we were just regurgitating [influential guitar music tomes] Please Kill Me or Meet Me In The Bathroom, or whatever.”
Looking back, the guitarist acknowledges the cliché of it all with a chuckle: “New York is the hyper-romanticised mecca of everything cool, and we all obviously grew up listening to The Strokes and Television, we’re not going to deny that.” As a college band, Been Stellar found the scene imposing and creatively stifling. “It’s a very distracting place to be an artist because of the amount of influence and industry and things like that,” St. Marx adds. “It’s very easy to lose your own sensibilities in the masses of other people doing stuff.”
There’s no denying that the youthful spirit of such NYC greats pulses through Been Stellar’s angsty early singles. Take the anthemic ballad ‘Fear Of Heights’ or the rattling and raucous ‘The Poets’, which is the perfect soundtrack for a screeching subway ride to the nearest dive bar. Though wearing a bit thin, St. Marx says he’s also humbled by the endless Strokes comparisons that have been fired at the band. “Whatever helps people contextualise what we are and what makes music feel special to them is fine, it really doesn’t bother me that much,” he says. “As long as they’re aware deep down that it’s sincere music and it’s not trying to play into fashions too much.”
The pandemic allowed Been Stellar to find their own angle in a previously stifling scene. “Up until lockdown, the city had been a very distracting place,” says Slocum. “When the pandemic happened there weren’t [any] live opportunities, so we were able to discover what made us feel true to ourselves.” Wayans chimes in: “We grew up and moved out into the world. We expanded our horizons as we matured as people, and we started to look outside our box.”
The band point to ‘Ohm’, the closer of their forthcoming self-titled EP, as the clearest depiction of that long, strange summer of 2020 when The Big Apple lost its core. The melancholic ballad, which brings to mind the soul-striking beauty of Slowdive and bdrmm, breaks out into thrilling poetry while shimmering guitars beam out: “A line forms outside of Katz’s / Tourists snake around the bend / A man shakes a cup rhythmically / My wandering eyes blink again and again.”
“Once you actually live in NYC, especially during the pandemic when none of that glamour is there and you actually see it for what it is, that’s when we actually had something to say about New York,” explains St. Marx. “We saw the fallout of the pandemic, and all the businesses closing, the homelessness and the whole social crisis. That all had a big impact on us and made us feel things differently, and I think that’s where the music came from.”
Been Stellar also attribute that renewed creative drive to the helping hand they received from some more recent guitar-wielding success stories of the New York scene. Sardonic post-punks Bodega offered them a spot in their rehearsal space early on in the pandemic, before they eventually inherited an apartment and rehearsal space in Bushwick (where half of the band relocated in search of cheaper rent) from cult Brooklyn rockers The Britanys. Slocum says the influence and support of these bands can’t be overlooked.
“Sharing a space with artists so sure of what they want to do really shaped us,” the frontman says. “These days we’re way more inspired by those bands than the New York bands everybody always thinks of. Because we’re in [The Britanys’] old apartment, we still find their old stuff: I found a dirty t-shirt and wore it out on our last tour. They gave us our first New York show outside of NYU, which was a huge deal. We weren’t even 21 yet, and it was our first step out of the college scene.”
Not only have Been Stellar been able to step out of their college scene since the pandemic, they’ve burst out of the US altogether by signing to the blossoming UK label So Young Records (Lime Garden, VLURE) and Rough Trade Publishing. They’ve also played a run of shows on British soil in support of The Goa Express alongside three showcases at The Great Escape.
“The moment the plane landed in the UK and we got to see London for the first time was really surreal, because I’ve been daydreaming about it for so long,” says St. Marx. “We rented out this rehearsal space in Brixton, and we drove by The Windmill [a rite-of-passage venue for any emerging name worth their salt on the indie scene in recent years] and were like, ‘Woah! There it is!’. It was all of the stuff we’ve been dreaming about. It’s also logistically crazy: we didn’t have a tour manager so I had to drive a van on the other side of the road!”
With a UK headline tour this month stopping in Glasgow, London and Manchester in support of their self-titled EP, the band are hoping to share driving duties this time so they can soak it all in.
“We still don’t have the budget for [a tour manager], but we’re all going to pitch in this time,” St. Marx adds. “What we’re doing now is what we’ve always wanted: to exist as musicians, and travel to interesting places and meet interesting people. If we never get any further along the line than this, then I would still be so happy. We’re so lucky.”
Been Stellar’s ‘My Honesty’ is out now. They tour the UK through July