Stellar West’s Wall to Push Against: How One Teen Punk Band is Breaking Through
Today, Stellar West will be kicking off Chicago’s Riot Fest just as they’re ready to release their first LP, Unfiltered.
Stellar West’s band members are 12, 14 and 16-years-old.
The path to making a successful rock band used to be rugged and unsupervised. For many, this is still the case. More recently, however, forming a band during the schooling years has become more organized. Organized in that resources are now in place to help young musicians get an early start at playing music like never before. American cities and their suburban outskirts are dimpled with rock schools while music stores sell kid-sized electric guitars. YouTube channels are available to upload low-budget, DIY music videos while iTunes helps sell crowdfunded and self-funded albums. And yet, despite all of this new infrastructure, even avid listeners aren’t being inundated with original music from this new generation of highly skilled musicians. What exactly is happening to these students once they meander from their training grounds? If the next Clash is among us right now, would we know it?
Stellar West (formerly Stellar) is an original punk band that met on the steps of the School of Rock in Naperville, Illinois when its founding members were attending grade school and middle school. Last winter, the band (with current members now in middle school and high school) released their first EP, Songs From the Basement. Following a formal release party, Stellar West’s songs became available for download on iTunes while their music videos can be seen on YouTube as well as the band’s website. They’ve been interviewed by both local media, including an appearance on Chicago’s WGN-TV, and covered by music bloggers from the US and UK. Although the trio has already experienced an impressive level of success for their age, local forces are against them; The first of which is just being considered unique.
In Chicagoland alone, there are dozens of other bands under 18 with strong reputations. To honor and challenge these young musicians, Nicolas DeGrazia organized Highland Park’s annual Bitter Jester Battle of the Bands. DeGrazia is astounded by the level of musicianship, exclaiming, “20 years ago, when I was in high school, there weren’t this many bands. And, today, the quality is unbelievable! Oh my God, these kids are playing at levels that a lot of professional musicians aren’t playing at — especially when they were first starting out. I’ve had so many judges, over the past two summers, texting me ‘I can’t believe that I get to listen to this quality of music.’ Or, ‘I would pay to go hear this band play.’ And another said, ‘This is music-festival-quality music I’ve heard tonight.'”
For the past two years, Stellar West has competed in Bitter Jester. While they haven’t won the contest yet, their participation is building word of mouth. But nothing builds word of mouth quite like playing a lot of gigs which actually turns out being a particularly difficult feat for school-aged bands.
There used to be a time when neighborhood bars hired an original, local band to entertain their clientele. But now, anyone who performs live shows will eventually find themselves having to contend with “pay to play” agreements. In “pay to play,” venues and booking agents are looking for a guarantee that a certain number of people will pay for a ticket at a particular price. The number of desired attendees can be 200 people or 50 people. If, for example, the band fails to get 50 people to pay $15 dollars a ticket, the band has to pay the difference. For a small band that’s still building awareness, that could mean having to play hundreds of dollars just to play. (Fortunately, for Stellar West, they’ve only had to pay twice). Even if an under-aged band like Stellar West could solicit 50 tickets, most bars will still turn them down because they’re seeking a crowd that will also consume alcohol. And, the crowd that’s most likely to pay money to listen to live music and drink alcohol turns out to be Gen Xers with an insatiable appetite for cover and tribute bands. There’s no doubt that this trend is having a creative impact on emerging, original bands.
There’s no doubt that this trend is having a creative impact on emerging, original bands.
According to a recent article in Billboard, Ticketmaster’s 2014 U.S. Live Event Attendee Study found that “Boomers (55 and over) accounted for just 22 percent of concertgoers while millennials (18 to 34) accounted for 35 percent and middle-aged groups (35 to 54) were 43 percent of attendees. This minivan-driving generation accounts for roughly 16.7 percent of the U.S. population but 43 percent of concertgoers.” And, booking agents are taking notice.
Double D Booking is one of the largest talent booking agencies in Chicago. While they support original artists, the vast majority of their roster is comprised of cover and tribute bands. Among the most popular bands are Sixteen Candles 80s Tribute and Too White Crew (old school hip-hop). But there are also cover bands specifically emulating Prince, No Doubt, David Bowie, Bob Seger, The Who and countless other famous blasts from the past. Retro acts from the 60s-80s might seem like predictable eras to revive as people age and grow increasingly nostalgic. Surprising, though, is that an act like Louder Now’s Emo Tribute is covering the early 2000s, suggesting that the gap between a song’s release and the formation of its tribute or cover band might be narrowing. As a result of this trend, some of the rock schooled musicians are finding it more lucrative to start a cover band than an original band. And if a new generation of concertgoers follow suit by supporting recycled music, it makes giving attention to new music that much more difficult.
14-year-old Parker Belonio is Stellar West’s lead singer and guitarist. Contrary to the image of some punk who’s into rock ‘n roll, Belonio’s a straight-A, all-honors student with his most recent math scores placing him in the top 4% in the state of Illinois. Outside of public schooling and like his band-mates, Cole Onley (bass, backing vocals) and Jake D (drums), Belonio is an active member of his local SoR performance groups (musicians in training) and House Band (more accomplished young musicians that perform within the community). The SoR is a performance-based program that relies on songs from the past to teach its students about the different styles and fundamentals of rock. So when it comes to covers, Stellar responds by adding to their set list: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles and a punked-up version of “Theme to The Simpsons.” Nonetheless, Belonio reminds audiences, “we’re not a cover band.”
Through a curtain of longish, highlighted bangs, Belonio resolves, “I think most people going to a show – even if it’s a huge band – probably expect a cover. I don’t mind doing a few as long as we can do it our way. Like, punk it up so it still feels like us, not trying to be another band. One of my favorite bands, The Replacements, sometimes play ridiculous covers, for example, their version of ‘Iron Man.'”
The dynamic between cover bands, original bands, teen musicians, their parents and their parents’ music is complex. Gen X parents are responsible for driving the current demand for cover songs and tribute bands. And yet, this same generation also gets credit for paying for their kids’ music education and sometimes, stepping in as band managers until the kids are of legal age to manage themselves. Unlike The Who that distanced themselves from their parents, this generation of rock musicians seem more open-minded.
Stellar West’s producer, Adam Krier, isn’t surprised by the connection between Gen X and its musical offspring. Demographically qualifying as Generation X, Krier also started playing music when he was young. By the time he was a teenager, his band, Lucky Boys Confusion, was signed to a major label and was touring. Krier remains the guitarist for LBC as well as the frontman to his other band, AM Taxi. With decades of experience, Krier reminds Stellar and all concertgoers that your parents’ music doesn’t have to be some force to be reckoned with. In fact, it more commonly becomes the basis for new, better music.
“Your parents’ music doesn’t have to be some force to be reckoned with. In fact, it more commonly becomes the basis for new, better music.”
Krier expands, “Originally, rock ‘n roll had kids rebelling against their parents’ music. But what happens when their parents’ music is what they listen to as well? Does it take the rebellious factor out of it? I say ‘no.’ In the 70s, punk rock was rebelling against the popular music of the time which was progressive rock and glam rock that had extended guitar and drum solos and elaborate stage shows. So, punk went for a minimalistic approach. The funny thing is, musically, punk ended up sounding more like their mom and dad’s music. The Ramones took their cues from Elvis. The Clash was listening to Eddie Cochran. Over the years, I think some of the most interesting music comes from those who are forward thinking but musically taking cues from the past. Rock ‘n roll is a tool of liberation and it will always have a wall to push against.”
So what wall is being pushed by original, under 18 bands today? Is it their parents? Are they rebelling against cover bands? For Stellar West, it’s none of the above. Instead, they’re writing songs about feeling isolated within their own generation:
“This ‘new age’ really bothers me/
Revolves around the likes and views then all the rates.”
— from the song “New Age” by Stellar West
Belonio explains, “The song’s referring to how the kids are caring about social media more than the real world. The music I listen to is really 60s through 90s from jazz to punk to… a lot, really. I like almost everything from the past because it just seems real. Today’s music seems like they wrote it just to be a hit. So, I guess ‘New Age’ is rebelling against my generation’s musical tastes and habits.”
With a position on contemporary pop music and cover songs firmly established, Stellar West pushes on. Over the past three years, and despite all barriers, Stellar West’s performed close to 60 live shows. Venues are now paying them to play. Belonio, Jake D and Onley each claim an additional 40+ performances for their ongoing participation in SoR Naperville’s House Band as well as individual playing opportunities (like the time Belonio played guitar in front of 22,000 Bulls’ fans at the United Center). Realizing that the music world is a much larger place than Chicagoland, the boys take their annual pilgrimage to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) in Nashville.
This summer, the punk band was invited to perform in front of a full-house at Nashville’s renowned Stage on Broadway. Stellar West’s performance of their single, “Too Much,” is especially telling of where the band is at today. If you watch the video here, you’ll notice how it takes only 15 seconds for this (mostly country-adoring) audience to raise their cell phones and start shooting video in approval. These “kids” know exactly what they’re doing and they look and sound like professionals. Throughout the song, the threesome are in constant communication with each other, the audience and sound technician because they’re already seasoned musicians. So when Belonio’s scuffed-turquoise, Nikita guitar is accidentally unplugged at the 2:55 marker, he shrugs, smiles, keeps playing flawlessly and patiently waits for the matter to be resolved. These are the kind of moments that don’t happen in a basement or a garage. It’s real life performance unfolding.
The challenges that face any musician, whether they’re young or old, in an original or cover band are plenty. But there’s evidence that they can be overcome. What Stellar West’s success amounts to is part of a bigger observation: Due to the infrastructure built around rock music, our country is swelling with an unprecedented number of talented young rock musicians. But only the innately passionate, the creative and the dedicated will stand apart from the rest. Stellar West is likely the youngest band to perform in Chicago Riot Fest history. And while this is all a very big deal, they’re keeping things in perspective.
Belonio concludes, “If we end up being successful, then that’s cool. Whatever happens, happens.”
Parker Belonio backstage at Riot Fest
For more information about Stellar West , check out their website here.
A few months after this article posted, Stellar West was named one of the Top 7 Best Rising Bands Under 21 in the Country according to Alternative Press and they’re now featured in Wikipedia.
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