AMONG THE YOUNG AT HEART: An Interview with Noah Stitelman of Neighbors
When Noah Stitelman of Neighbors talks about music, he becomes electric. His fingers flutter as though they’re playing invisible keys, his voice is elevated and excited and his eyes are focused, incredibly tuned-in. He launches into discussion, just putting himself out there unguarded, doing his thing. If you’re just as quick and interested as a listener, you’ll be rewarded with the entertainment and wisdom you pick up. For the Brooklyn-based musician, this seems to be his same approach to songwriting and it’s certainly paid off. In March of 2014, Neighbors released Failure, a brilliant full-length that gained steady internet buzz, local success via their energetic shows and put Stitelman on the map of notable electronic artists. We sat down over beers one Saturday in the lull of winter where he shared some of that wisdom on nostalgia, songwriting and the ever-evolving New York scene.
W: Where did you grow up and what was the music scene like there?
N: [laughs] I’m from Vermont, but there was no music scene there at all. I grew up in the late ‘90s and all the mainstream music that everyone was listening to was Rap music. But any underground music that you wanted to listen to was Warped Tour punk music. That’s what we got. Later on I discovered more lesser-known bands like Refused and At The Drive-In and I realized oh right, all this other music sucks and these people were doing something that’s really progressive, cool and fun to listen to. It wasn’t until I moved out of Vermont that I started listening to other types of music. You meet people who are from different places and they’re into bands that you’ve never heard of. I can remember the first time someone showed me Modest Mouse and I was like whoa, this is great! I had to wait until I moved out and found that person who’d say to me you might like this.
W: What was your music memory? What made you want to become an artist?
N: Oh I know exactly what it is. It’s kinda provincial maybe but…you know when you go into fourth grade and you’re allowed to rent an instrument and join the band? At the end of third grade they had these high school students come to the elementary school during music class. The teachers said hey, these kids are in high school and next year you’re going to be able to join the band. These kids are going to play some music for you, show you what it’s all about. One kid played the saxophone and one kid played the drums. The dude played the saxophone and I thought, oh, well, that’s cool. But then the other kid played drums and I really remember clearly sitting back and thinking that’s exactly what I want to do. One hundred percent. I looked forward to it the whole summer and then when fourth Grade started, I rented drums. The drums are the misfit instrument. I just got my little snare drum and worked on my rudiments and stuff. I’m still a lousy drummer. But that was it. And I don’t think I stopped playing music since then. It seems like a really long time, but only about six months after I started playing drums, I started playing the guitar.
W: How did you start? Did you take lessons or teach yourself?
N: No, I started playing guitar because I was bummed out about drums. This is so funny…I was bummed out and I was in the fourth grade. I had this image in my mind that they were going to give me a drum set but instead I just got a snare drum. You can’t do much by yourself with just a snare drum. So my dad had a guitar and I realized that with guitar you don’t need a bunch of people. You can have your melody and make chords. I started getting guitar lessons all the way until some time in high school, a good six-year stretch or so. At that point you’re good enough to develop on your own. But it was good to learn the fundamentals.
W: Would you say that, in all the bands that you played in throughout high school, you were really devoted to playing guitar?
N: No, in the first band I was in high school, I played drums. Terribly. But that was a pop punk band and everyone back then was terrible. And then when I was sixteen or seventeen, I was drumming for another band that was more aggressive. But it was a small town. There was this pool hall there where everyone hung out and I would just play guitar and sing there for like four hours on weekend nights. They’d be like, ok, just set up, do some covers, whatever, and just play. And we’ll pay you in free soda, bar snacks and pool. I was like sweet, sounds like a great deal to me! So I would eat pretzels and drink Mountain Dew and play pool. And then I’d play music for about four hours straight. Which was a really good experience because it helped me learn to engage with the audience. These were not friendly people. I was playing Radiohead covers to bikers at this bar. But it was a good experience because you play these long stretches and people are sort of hassling you. They don’t know what your deal is. Then you learn how to engage with them and sort of poke fun at the situation. And now I don’t ever get nervous when we play. I feel really comfortable talking to an audience and being there with them. I directly attribute it to that experience.
W: So then how did you gravitate toward electronic music?
N: When I left Vermont I went to photography school. I just didn’t see a path for music at all. I couldn’t go to school for it, I wasn’t trained. So I kept writing music by myself in college. I lived in Boston and San Francisco. Then when I was twenty-one I moved to Brooklyn. A really good friend of mine, the guy who actually produced our record, Kyle, he was here working with Fischerspooner on their second record Odyssey. Then they parted ways and he had a lot of free time. We’d grown up together in Vermont so when I moved here I kinda harangued him. I said I have a bunch of songs, we should record together. We could do everything in his apartment and it worked. We spent a year and a half making this record that never came out. But he was really good with electronic instruments and effects. By watching him, I learned a lot about arrangement, recording and using electronic elements.
After that project I was into lush arrangements. I made an EP of Neighbors which had horns and strings and sounded like chamber pop or something. I realized I wanted to do these big arrangements but didn’t have the capability. You’re not going to have a band with five string players, you know what I mean? It doesn’t work. So I was like, how can I have a really big sound just by doing it in my apartment or with like five other people? With Synths, having that wider array of sounds available for whatever thing I’m in the mood to write made songwriting a lot easier. I still find this experience of exploring and writing with synthesizers really enjoyable. I discover new sounds and new tricks all the time. The process of playing electronic music made me a better guitar player. For the first time guitar wasn’t the place where I started so it didn’t define the shape of the song. The guitar became an auxiliary instrument, making it more exciting to play.
W: That’s really cool. So then, what’s your process like? How do you juggle all of those things, know what you want it to sound like in your head and then make it happen?
N: I don’t think that I can do that. I’m not the kind of person that hears things in my head. The whole thing is a process of discovery. Usually I like to start with rhythmic elements. I mean, we have a live drummer on the record but when I’m just in my apartment, I’ll come up with a pretty simple drumbeat. Then I’ll come up with a bassline that works well and then sort of start building the melodic elements from there. Bring in synths or guitar and feel out a melody and structure. But yeah, usually it just starts with drums or bass. It’s super important to have a good rhythm to the song because it’s the first thing you’re going to latch onto. If I can just sit there with drums and bass and I’m grooving to whatever I’m doing, that seems like a good starting point. If I start on keyboard or on guitar (which, sometimes I do) I get locked into whatever the main part is, whereas with drums and bass seem so much more fundamental. Then with your hook or chord structure you can go a lot of different ways with it on top of bass and drums.
W: So a lot of trial and error.
N: Yeah, and sometimes they write themselves and other times I’ll just be noodling around and it comes out. Other times it takes weeks, you know, sometimes it takes a long time. And I think working through that process is really healthy—not stopping. The thing that you might have been excited about when you started is probably still there, it’s just that you’ve heard it so much that the excitement has sort of worn off. If something was exciting to me at one point, or at any point in the process, I try finding what that one exciting point was and sort of aim at it and go for it. It’s a mixed success.
W: On the topic of success, Neighbors’ last album Failure is a really great album. Why did you title it Failure?
N: Well, Neighbors has been a band for a long time. We have two EP’s and two full-lengths, three EP’s if you count the one that no one is ever going to hear. Think I made the first EP around 2007, so it’s been bubbling for a long time. I wanted to own that the lack of success, or lack of traction that I was gaining with it. It speaks to the feeling of not being successful. And not even successful like everybody loves your band but successful in the sense that what you’re making can sit on the shelf with your favorite music. I think that’s the most important thing. And I got closer, for sure. I like that record a lot.
W: Who are some of those influences—favorite bands that you’d like to sit alongside on the shelf?
N: The usual suspects, LCD Soundsystem. I love Hot Chip. I love The National. A lot of stuff…New Order. I love David Bowie. I like people that make smart, funny music. Not funny as in “haha”, like Ween. Ween’s fine but I don’t really care about goofy music. I like people who are wry, thematically and lyrically. When I’m thinking about overarching themes, overall tones and overall approaches, I want it to be smart and funny. And sad.
W: A lot of the lyrics on Failure seem to revolve around youthful experiences or things that seem nostalgic. Do you know exactly where those ideas come from?
N: I turned thirty right before that record came out. So as I was writing that record I was thinking a lot about getting older. And I’m far enough away from my teenage years where they feel romantic again. You get more nostalgic about it. That’s what nostalgia is, pretty much: remembering things through rose-tinted glasses. Because nothing was like that, really. So yeah, I had enough distance from it to be able to look back and think about how it defined me. But the new stuff that I’ve been writing now has not been about that at all.
W: The stuff you’ve been writing post-Failure.
N: Yeah, the music I’ve been writing since Failure doesn’t really focus on those nostalgic things. I think I got it out of my system. But as I get older, there are a few types of things to write about that are really rich. Getting older is one of them. It’s like love; those are the key things you have to grapple with, right? Those topics are very potent things to write about. With those themes, you can’t say too much about them. You can try to talk about things that aren’t cliché. For example, I think you can’t write “I Want to Hold Your Hand” now, you know? There’s nothing to say about that. But you could write about the exhilaration of just meeting somebody in a way that is applicable to you and it’s going to translate to other people.
W: Yeah, but, a lot of Neighbors’ lyrics seem so particular, those clips of memories happening to whomever…
N: Well, “Jenny Jones” is a good example of that. It’s a story about any person, but has a relatable narrative, right? You’re a kid, you grow up, you go off to college and everything seems really exciting and potent and visceral. Then you’re out of college for a few years and you get a job and then you realize that life just kinda continues on. People need to keep doing things otherwise they’ll feel like they’re just on pause. The end of everything is not super rosy and having that realization was really healthy. Because then I found, well, I don’t need to be defined by the point in life that I’m at. I can do anything I feel like doing. Age is a firm thing. It’s a reality. But your mindset isn’t. And your mindset is malleable. When you think of it, the best old people that I know are not bitter. It’s easy to get bitter when you feel like your life didn’t pan out the way you wanted it to. And I think the easiest way for your life to not pan out the way you want it to is to remain unfulfilled by the things you keep on doing.
W: Talking about change, about staying positive, I’m wondering about the closing of Glasslands. What does it mean to youpersonally to be losing that venue?
N: Well, they’ve been awesome to us. The environment that they created was always friendly. It never felt exclusive but it never felt lame. Which is a hard line to walk. They had standards. The stuff that they put together was of high quality. They weren’t just going to put any shitty band on the bill, which some places will do. But they also didn’t make you feel like you weren’t welcome. Once they announced that they were closing, I just thought about how many times we’d played there and how nice Rami [Haykal] had been to us. In twenty years when people talk about Williamsburg indie music in the 2000’s, they’ll recognize that Glasslands was as big of a place as CBGB’s was for that kind of music and that scene. There are other spots that I’ll remember, but Glasslands was the centerpiece. So I thought of all that and then thought man, even though our band isn’t even close to being one of the biggest bands that plays there, the fact that they wanted to give us one last night in their last month, felt really special. I felt really honored. And I got really nostalgic, thinking man, this place was a home for us. You know? If we were going to do a record release show, they were the first people I would email. They were always just game for anything.
But I also think that the people involved will keep doing stuff. Things come and go, New York transitions. CBGB’s is now a John Vardavos. And even if it was still CBGB’s, no one would go, you know? It’s just not the place anymore. And Kent Avenue isn’t the Kent Avenue it was in 2006. Kent is weird condos and people who really don’t know. And that’s fine, they don’t need to know. They’re not responsible for being educated on their environment. But their lack of education on the environment is what makes the environment change. They don’t care. It’s not special to them. Then the flip side of that is that the neighborhood will no longer be special. It will just be condos. And CVSs and Duane Reades. People always bitch that New York isn’t the city that it used to be. Even David Byrne, who I love, wrote an article about how NY is no longer a good place for artists. And it’s like, ok, kids are no longer hanging out in the LES, new wave bands are no longer playing at CBGB’s, but you didn’t hang out in Bushwick in the ‘70s. And now Shea Stadium and Silent Barn are there doing their thing. All that stuff is there if you want it. There will be a million other venues and people that keep making stuff. There will always be creative young people here. Always. The city still has that appeal. If you don’t try to engage and try to find it, it’s your fault. The same way that Glasslands is gone and it’s sad and I’ll miss it because it was a part of my thing, I don’t have any illusions that there will be another thing that’ll be great. If I look for it and pay attention, I’ll find it. I don’t know if it’ll be “mine” but it will be somebody’s. So that’s good. New York is a seasonal place. Everywhere has its moment and its season. Then that season ends, but you move onto the next thing. It doesn’t belong to anyone’s memory. I think people really get into that trap of saying New York isn’t what it used to be years ago. It’s like, yeah dude, that’s because it’s not yours. You don’t own it. You don’t get a say, you’re just part of it. And if you want to continue to be a part of it, it will have to be on its terms. Not to say you shouldn’t fight for things, but understand what game you’re playing. It changes. Change with it and be a part of it.
W: Really good answer. What’s next for Neighbors?
N: I’m writing a lot and am really excited about that. I think we’re going to do some SXSW shows. Couple of things booked, so that will be awesome. Probably no shows until February, just because I really want to focus on writing. But we’ll be playing, we’ll be doing our thing. We’ll keep cruising. No tours yet, but probably when we have a new batch of songs, for sure. It’s on my radar and I’m building toward it. Before I’m thirty-five I will mount some sort of pathetic tour when I have some time. Mindset, man. Never too old, even if they have to wheel me around.
While we’re waiting for those tour dates and new material, check out all of Neighbors’ releases, including 2014’s Failure. Here’s one favorite from that album to get you started: