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Been Stellar All in One

Been Stellar, New York City and the innate tragedy of language

29 May 2024, 09:00
Words by Jasleen Dhindsa
Original Photography by Gabe Long

Dirty Hit-signed Been Stellar tells Jasleen Dhindsa about the influence of their home city and how its sound reverberates through their jagged, introspective music.

Even before they moved to the city that never sleeps to forge their beautifully vexed debut album Scream from New York, NY, Been Stellar’s vocalist Sam Slocum and guitarist Skylar Knapp had been weaving their story through the city’s fibres for years prior.

Joining on a call with guitarist Nando Dale, bass player Nico Brunstein and drummer Laila Wayans (Knapp is absent for the call due to work commitments; all the members of Been Stellar work full-time jobs alongside their music careers), Slocum recalls the early years of his friendship with Knapp that would form the foundations of Been Stellar. “We met on the cross-country team and we were both wearing band t-shirts. He was wearing a Vampire Weekend shirt and I was wearing a Strfkr shirt.”

After that fateful exchange, the two started playing music together alongside other friends, driving up to Ann Arbour to play house shows at the University of Michigan, “which was funny as high schoolers being around these college kids”, reflects Slocum.


Playing these college shows stirred up a pining for something more, something bigger - but not without apprehension. “It was coercion on Sky’s part”, Slocum drawls. “I didn't really want to move to a city. The first time that I ever went into a city I felt very uncomfortable.” He goes on to explain how as someone who had grown up in nature, he found the large, towering buildings of cities to be very overwhelming, “I really wanted to go to a medium sized college like Ithaca, it's a very small school in the middle of tons of wilderness.”

Knapp’s dream was the opposite, his sights set on New York University. He eventually managed to convince Slocum to move there with him in 2017, with Interpol’s 15th anniversary of Turn on the Bright Lights being their first show there before they moved. “I applied to the school, and I guess my whole life is completely different based on that single decision”, Slocum muses.

At NYU, Knapp and Slocum intentionally applied to live in the music dormitories, despite neither of them being music students (studying Philosophy and Drama / Critical Writing respectively). It was there that they met Dale and Brunstein (Dale recalls Knapp wearing the aforementioned Vampire Weekend shirt in their first meeting), with Wayans joining the fold when Slocum and Knapp met her at a Puzzle show at Baby’s Alright. “We were pretty much as annoying as you could get,” Slocum laughs. “Imagine meeting two bright eyed kids from suburbia with bleach-blonde hair ready to take down the city”.

Been Stellar Sweet

Despite the kismet opportunities that seemed to be coming their way, the trepidation Slocum felt about moving to the city remained. He recalls one of the college shows in Michigan he and Knapp played, opening for Climax Landers who were part of the underground scene in New York.

When speaking to one of the band members about their move to the city, he recollects said member retorting in disbelief; “He said, ‘what the fuck are you doing moving to New York? This place is dead, you're too late’. It was classic, like a movie monologue”, Slocum exasperates, going on to list several NYC venues that he and Knapp had been looking forward to playing, but had closed or moved by the time they had got there.

“There was a scene, but we were a lot younger,” he continues, detailing the early stages of the band, “figuring our shit out and not making very good music. It just wasn't the right time at all for us. It took a little bit of time to realise that we didn't feel like there was something we wanted to necessarily be a part of. It didn't really feel like an environment that made sense for us.”


At the time, there were few opportunities for bands to play in NYC, and the nights that did exist were led by start-up companies who put on mismatched lineups to quarter-filled rooms, charging $20 dollars a ticket. Dissatisfied with what their surroundings had to offer, Slocum and co decided to put on their own shows, renting out gallery spaces and inviting their fellow creative peers to curate with them, keeping things cheap but authentic, with bands, clothing stalls and visual art all in the mix.

Been Stellar only started to think more critically about the music they were making when the pandemic rolled round and they stopped playing shows, contemplating more on the void they wanted to fill within New York, as Slocum summarises, “What kind of band did we feel like was missing today?”

The band’s melodic, moody shoegaze and post punk eponymous debut EP was born out of this reflective period, after a year of writing and experimenting. The record was released via indie UK label So Young Records, who they connected with over Zoom and later in person at Brighton’s The Great Escape festival in 2022. When restrictions started lifting, and they were able to play live again, Been Stellar started to feel more streamlined, or “symbiotically grow[ing]”.

After playing more shows in the UK, at venues they had admired for so long from afar, like Brixton Windmill (where their favourite bands Shame, Fontaines D.C. and Black Country, New Road cut their teeth - “these bands that were galvanising for us”, Slocum puts it), Been Stellar soon caught the attention of several labels, including the one they’d eventually go on to sign and release their debut album with, Dirty Hit.

An A&R at the label stumbled across Been Stellar’s angular punk bop “Manhattan Youth”, and connected with them instantly when they met. Soon enough, Scream from New York, NY came to fruition, written on the road in the UK, and named after a wordplay Slocum had thought of seven years ago. The record is brooding, soft and intense, melodic and vast, capturing both the chaos and loneliness of the city it was named after.

Been Stellar Gabe Long 2

Been Stellar recruited their pipe dream producer, Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey, for the album. After a chaotic early session in which they recorded a version of “Passing Judgement” in a room full of strobe lights and a smoke machine, Carey flew out to New York to record with the band in Brooklyn.

Scream from New York, NY was recorded live in two weeks, which contributes substantially to the record’s looming sound (with the exception of a few barely noticeable overdubs). “Dan really wanted me to record the entire album at once,” Slocum explains, “so we went into it as if it was a show. We even had some friends come and sit in the studio.”

Disconnection and isolation are prevailing themes for the debut, inferred by Knapp’s philosophy major, with Slocum writing most of the lyrics. His vocal delivery lends itself significantly to the subject matter, materialising as dejected and pained, almost gagged by the jagged, whirl-pooling instrumentation. “There's this innate tragedy with language,” Slocum says of the album’s nihilistic lyrical matter. “[Knapp was] really into [Austrian philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein at the time, and one of his big ideas was about how language is a broken tool. We're trying to convey these massive ideas and feelings [but] at the end of the day, it can be pretty upsetting how futile trying to explain it with words is.”

“At the same time, there's a conversation going about screams,” he continues, referring to the album’s title, but also a daily lived experience. “In a place like New York, words fail all the time, and I think you get a glimpse into pretty raw human emotion through something like a scream, whether it's a good scream or a bad scream,” he says. “You hear stuff like that all the time in a place like New York. You might be on the subway, or laying in bed at night, and the person in the apartment above you will just scream. It's something that you grow to feel pretty comfortable with, but when you stop and think, it is a pretty alien and strange thing that we just kind of roll with in a city like this.”

It’s these haunting echoes of city life that reverberate throughout Scream from New York, NY, spawning a sagacious observation to the complexities, and futilities, of human existence.

Scream from New York, NY is out on 14th June via Dirty Hit

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