Drummer Curt Mulick is eager to recount the episode, as he was the only band member present in the audience for singer John Glenn’s first foray into stand-up comedy.
“‘Being a musician and a substitute teacher,’” Mulick quotes from Glenn’s material, “ ‘are both really great jobs if you hate money and love 15-year-old girls.’ . . . From there the whole thing crumbled.”
Glenn’s the first to admit the line didn’t come off right and that it’s part of a larger issue he’s been working on for his band Stellar Young. As the group’s frontman, stage banter is as important a performance skill as vocal delivery and one that most bandmates admit he needs to polish. Guitarist Kyle Hatch recalls one rambling introduction to an upbeat song called “Animals” that culminated in Glenn’s rationale not to become a veterinarian because it mostly involved putting people’s pets down. So Glenn’s begun cross-training, working out comic material at open mics to feel more comfortable public speaking.
It’s only the bluntest example of the lengths Stellar Young are willing to go to perfect their craft. When their first record, Madison, came out in fall of 2011—while the band were calling themselves The City Never Sleeps—it landed like a foot on the gas pedal. They’ve since become one of the region’s busiest-gigging bands, working their way onto the lineup for LarkFest, Tulip Fest, the Capital Area Indie Fest at the Egg, and into most of the venues in town.
But it’s not just ambition that’s driving these guys; they have a plan. The house where three members live is customized for recording, the landlord having allowed the experimental carpentry it required to run cables from room to room. Last winter they launched a Kickstarter campaign to buy a touring vehicle—a medical van parked in back with a sign reading “Respect patients rights to confidentiality.” Every band member has an extra-musical role in the business and a weighted voting system was implemented when it came time to change their name and rebrand in advance of their new record Everything at Once. The fact the record is available for free on their Bandcamp page (stellaryoungmusic.bandcamp.com) is another part of that plan to put their music in the ears of as many listeners as possible, including Glenn’s students—which is really, he insists, what he was driving at.
Perhaps the band’s first calculated move came when Glenn, Mulick, Hatch and guitarist Erik Flora “faked an open mic tour” fresh out of college. Glenn, Mulick and Flora had been playing in bands since high school, covering the All-American Rejects and such, before college brought them to Albany. Between the lot, they’ve attended all of the local colleges at one point or another. It was on this plight to play all the local open mics within a week and a half that they met bassist Dave Parker, who’d recently returned to the area to work for Equal Vision Records after touring on keyboards for Hudson Valley prog-rockers Coheed and Cambria. Parker was looking for a new band and The City Never Sleeps was looking for a bassist to allow the classically trained Hatch to transition back to his preferred instrument, guitar.
“I got a little worn out from the heavy stuff,” Parker says of his time with Coheed. A “cool decade” older than the other guys in Stellar Young, he’d had considerable recording and touring experience before joining the group, including stints with hip-hop outfit Weerd Science. “I was looking for something that was a little more catchy and melodic. I wanted a singer that could sing and a band that was catchy but not cheesy-poppy.” Stellar Young fit the bill and it didn’t take long to realize that most members shared a constellation of influences. “Some of the stuff I grew up listening to was within their realm,” Parker says, naming Saves the Day and the Get Up Kids, “like, before emo was called emo.” The rest of the band adds Taking Back Sunday, Say Anything and Northstar to the list.
The hallmarks of these bands—earnest lyrics, emotive vocals, catchy hooks and propulsive drumming—are present on Everything at Once, but there’s something else, a certain chord-coloring or riffing sensibility that places the band outside this genre, often evasively dubbed post-hardcore. Parker’s prog past, Hatch’s mention of Incubus, and Glenn’s name-dropping Ben Gibbard help lead the way, but even fans of glossy indie pop like Phoenix might find themselves surprise fans of Stellar Young. The sound is squeaky clean, guitar tones dialed in for minimum crunch, with Glenn’s pitch-perfect vocals front and center. It’s a sound that’s earned a positive response opening for Sublime tribute band Badfish but can work in front of a sit-down crowd just as well. This is probably part of the reason why they’ve landed on so many bills over the past two years. As Hatch says, “We always partially fit with whoever we’re playing with.”
Another reason is Parker’s initiative. “We were kind of lost before Dave came,” says Hatch. Dubbed “band dad” by Flora, Parker not only stepped into the role of bassist for the band’s first record, but tackled the bulk of the engineering from their home studio and plotted out a business plan. “His work ethic is outrageous and he kind of got us into shape,” says Glenn.
If Madison was a trial-run, assembled track-by-track and released on the Internet as they went along, Everything at Once nearly verges on the cohesive concept-album package Parker was trying to rid himself of with Coheed. Although the digital tracks are offered for free, the album packaging features ornate narrative artwork by Amanda King. They tracked the whole thing at home before traveling to Woodstock’s Applehead studios to record the drum kit. Mulick gushes over photos of the 16-mic set up. The rest of the record was then built back in their apartment, Parker and Flora putting their engineering degrees to proper use. The finished product bears no mark of DIY Jerry-rigging.
The hardest part might have been what came next, arriving on a new band name to represent the recast sound and lineup. Cumbersome, falsely connoting New York City, impossible to Google search and frequently garbled by emcees like Mayor Jerry Jennings, The City Never Sleeps had to go. The band winnowed a list of 100 names down to five that then received a weighted voting system complete with index cards and a hole punch. Glenn’s proposed “Stellar Young” won the day.
“I was trying to think of something celestial because my name is John Glenn, like the astronaut,” the singer says. “Stellar has two meanings and Young can mean ‘the offspring of.’”
“We’re all technically kind of made of stars,” Hatch adds, although they all joke that it will be a tough name to tour under if they’re still doing this at age 58. But that isn’t exactly in the long-term plan yet. First the band is gassing up the medical van for a number of Hudson Valley voyages, trying to work over regional crowds as much as possible before expanding their scope, meanwhile awaiting early reviews of the new record to better determine the genre market to pursue. Everything at Once is becoming a bit of a false mantra for the band, but one that Mulick says, “you hear a lot more often than you think.” Instead, for Stellar Young, it’s a little more like, everything in its right place, which, with the right game plan, can come together just as quick.