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Columbus band Stella blends passion, esoteric nihilism for edgy sound

James Garcia / Lantern reporter

This is part of our weekly series titled “Columbus’ Own,” where we profile a local band every week.

You’re at a local bar, it’s late and your buzz has reached a high point and you’re staring at people, wondering why they exist. You might be wondering what the point of your pathetic life is and how you’ve lasted so long on this miserable planet. Then the next band steps onto the stage and your existence is two parts confirmed to one part called into further question.

This band is Stella.

The members of Stella hail from Cincinnati where they attended Sycamore High School together. They’ve been playing music for the better part of a decade and were in bands in high school, but, oddly enough, had never played together until they met up again at Ohio State.

There is Kevin Hall, guitarist, vocalist and a fourth-year in biology and neuroscience; Charlie Manion, bassist and third-year in art; and drummer Lauri Reponen, who is taking a break from school, but will return in the fall as a fifth-year in mechanical engineering.

It would be hard for a good journalist to pinpoint exactly what genre of music comes from Stella. A lazy one might call them progressive hardcore or experimental metal.

Whether one witnesses it live or through recordings, it becomes apparent almost immediately that this is not your typical band.

Rhythmic experimentation and pushing the physical boundaries of their instruments is a regular part of any Stella song.

“The way Kevin writes is really novel, and I feel interested by the music he writes, always. I think that’s why it works, Kevin being the primary songwriter,” Manion said. “I find it exciting. There are little challenges presented every time Kevin writes music we have to overcome. Sporadic rhythm changes and really bizarre chord changes. As a player I get to navigate those new sonic spaces and figure out how to make it work.”

Hall brings songs he’s written to practice, where Manion and Reponen “find a main groove and build around that,” Reponen said.

“The songs kind of change as we play them,” Manion said. “We improvise a lot. We’ve never really talked about it, but improvisation is a really big part of what we do and how we write. The songs take on new character after we play them for a while.”

The end result is something Reponen feels is not often heard in popular, contemporary music.

“The way Kevin writes things, the way our songs come out, there’s not much precedence for that type of style,” Reponen said. “I feel like we have a certain advancement to rock music that we brought.”

Hall said his writing is inspired by bands from the record label SKiN GRAFT Records and 20th century composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki, Charles Ives and John Coltrane.

“There isn’t so much a certain goal in mind for what I aspire to do, so much as it is what I get off to. I’m serious,” Hall said. “There just are these certain sounds that are like, ‘Holy f—! That sounds so cool!’ And either it’s inspiring or makes me feel awesome. In like a drug kind of way. (We) just have to keep plugging and plugging away to find that sound, how to connect everything to this climaxing moment, maybe.”

Each of the members has a personal style of performing to create their unprecedented collective sound.

“I’ve been really interested in physically struggling with the instrument. So there’s this emphasis I’m putting on pushing it past its limits by playing really hard. I want to be tearing up my fingers in the strings,” Manion said. “I think a lot of players don’t do that because it’s sloppy, but I think it lends a lot of energy live, and it adds some sort of drama to the bass that I think is compelling.”

Manion’s bass-handling, which is inspired by Les Claypool, Victor Wooten and Omar Rodriguez Lopez, adds a driving punch to the band’s sound. And complimenting the complexities of the bass and guitar riffs, Reponen tightens the sound up with percussion of a minimalistic persuasion.

“I learned a lot of Tool songs back in the day. System of a Down. And recently, I’ve been getting into a more minimalist style, like Dave Grohl, where you play as little as possible, but don’t play more than you need to,” Reponen said.

The bass and guitar together hit diverse octaves, creating a symphony of harmonies and dynamic tonal ranges, all the while maintaining a fast-paced punk feel.

“What’s nice about the guitar is you can play it angrily. There’s so much room for dynamics and imperfections especially,” Hall said. “I learned how to play every Nirvana song, that’s how I learned guitar. Even if I’ve drifted away musically, the way I play, this raw, beat-the-f—-out-of-the-guitar ethos is still there.”

The band’s sound isn’t the only refreshingly strange thing. Its stage presence is unconventional, to say the least.

“I feel like there’s a lot of humor lost on the audience because of the presentation of our live performance. The lack of stage presence started out as a shtick where we pretended to be idiot savants. It morphed into this alienating anti-performer character as the tunes became faster and angrier-sounding,” Hall said.

“By detaching ourselves from the audience, the live performance is no longer about the people performing the music, but about becoming completely absorbed in the music itself.”

It’s commonplace for the somewhat-alienating humor of banter between songs to leave the audience in a dumbfounded state, wondering whether or not they’re being genuine when Hall says such things as, “We have CDs in the back, you can use them as coasters or … shove ‘em up your a–.”

“For some reason everyone thinks it’s awkward, and I don’t know why,” Reponen said.

All three believe the music and stage presence adds up to a funny, satirical, artistic endeavor. Manion also feels their stage presence compliments their overall attitude.

“We’re afraid to really take ownership of this thing, because people don’t really give a s—. So we’re just going to play anyway. We didn’t say it was going to be good. We didn’t tell you you were going to like it. Why are you even at our show? And that’s the attitude we take and it’s become what we do,” Manion said. “We’re just goofing around. Playing rock music, really hyper-aggressive, way over-the-top, rock music.”

This is a point the members of Stella made repeatedly in the interview: they are about the music, not about making people feel connected with ingenuous banter or marketing.

The lyrics Hall writes tend to share this apathetic tone. He said “Americ
an Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis is his favorite book, and its nihilistic themes appear in the lyrics he writes, but he doesn’t fully subscribe to the traditional philosophy of nihilism.

Hall said Stella is an instrumentally-focused band and finds writing lyrics the most tedious part of making music.

“When I write, I try to write vague things I will find funny. The true meaning won’t make sense to anyone except myself,” Hall said, laughing. “Say this song is a love song. I don’t want to say, ‘I love you,’ so I’ll say, ‘I like candy canes and chocolate and scotch and flowers and kittens.'”

Hall said the humor in their work is a method to “save face.” Manion feels more positively about the group’s outlook, however, seeing it as a deeper, almost contradictory message embedded within the listening experience.

“We’re closet optimists as a group. We have this deliberate rejection of that. We’re like overcompensating for ourselves and trying to project this idea of nihilism or apathy, when at its core, the music isn’t like that. It’s really emotional and passionate,” Manion said. “So it’s guarded in a certain way. And even though it’s accidental, I think it’s important.”

It’s hard for the band to pinpoint exactly what they’re all about, as much of Stella’s character is based around the nonchalance toward the impression they’re making in the audience’s mind.

“How can we seriously say anything about our band? Like, ‘Oh! We’re f—ing cool, you should come out and see us and you’ll be f—ing cool too!’ No. Our last EP was called ‘Idiot Loser’ because that’s what the music’s about, and that’s how it feels,” Manion said. “I think we’re all pretty self-deprecating by nature. It’s not as if we hold ourselves in really high regard, but I do think what we’re doing is interesting and we’re trying new things, as a band.”

The band has played Columbus venues such as Carabar, Bourbon Street, Kobo and Ace of Cups.

As for the future of Stella, a spring break tour is scheduled, taking the band to Virginia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

“We’re trying to fill some dates, but if we don’t, we’ll just go hiking or go hit on girls in Virginia Beach,” Hall said.

Stella is also working on rerecording older material, satirically referred to as the “25th Anniversary” album as well as creating new songs. All of its recorded music can be found for free at stella.bandcamp.com.

Manion said Stella has yet to tap into a larger audience truly interested in the music they produce, but is confident that they do exist and will be found. But until then, Stella will scream at nobody for as long they have to.

“I don’t even know if it’s necessary that people want to listen to us. I don’t think that’s part of it. It’s nice when people want to listen to us, and we want people to like our music. We have something interesting to say to people,” Manion said. “But we would play shows — we do play shows for nobody.”

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