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In-Depth: Buffalo's Philip Stephen Talks about His City and His Journey as a Songwriter

(EDITOR’S NOTE — When it comes to songwriting and dedicating himself to his craft, Philip Stephen is as hardworking as he is prolific. Preparing to take the stage with his band Skamagotchi on Saturday 4/20 at Mr. Goodbar —along with Daze Ago and Part-Time Genius (doors at 8 p.m.) — Stephen was nice enough to speak with 1120 Press Senior Writer Benjamin Joe about his art, his city and his approach to making music. We thank him for his time. Please read our story below and check out his music HERE. — Photos by Matt Smith/1120 Press)

Philip Stephen, a singer-songwriter from Buffalo and front man for the well-known Ska band Skamagotchi, has been writing and performing since his early teens.


“I started off just playing punk rock,” he said. “I think because of that, being 13… playing punk rock music… we were able to be really bad in front of people and get that out of the way.”


Since then, songwriting for Stephen has been a long evolution of journal entries — ones in which he is sometimes speaking to himself, and other times to no one in particular, while expressing a message or a thought or feeling inside him.


“I have feelings or ideas,” he said of his writing process, “that I want to sort out, get down and understand in my life.”


Over the years, Stephen has managed to stay prolific. Besides fronting Skamagotchi — which in July released a three-song EP ­— he’s been subbing in different bands for different friends, as well as playing every day for muscle memory.


Of his solo recordings, his first were “Paradox” and “The Riff Raff Sessions” in 2016, and “All My Songs,” released in June of 2018. He said, somewhat self-deprecatingly, that many of these were compilations of multi-instrument songs recorded by himself using an iPhone and GarageBand.


Other work quickly followed, including “Play” in July of 2019, “Dead Town” in March of 2020 and “Ooh” in May of 2021.


While it's been a long road for Stephen as a songwriter, the journey has been a productive one and he’s learned a lot along the way.


“I feel like all my friends, whether they be poets or songwriters, or just ex-emo teenagers, at one point we were all doing real thesaurus kind-of-work,” he said with a laugh. “We like using words we did not know the context of. When I was 17, I was writing a poem that was so wordy and lofty and using just the hardest synonyms. I mean, I know I don’t want to say ‘love’ 15 times, so what’s a synonym?”

These days Stephen is involved in Music Is Art and talks enthusiastically about the non- profit organization founded by Buffalo native and Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac.


“The most impactful thing for me has been the Music Is Art Music Industry Alliance,” he said. “We do a songwriting-workshop compilation album. We’re starting to record the fourth one now.”


The origin traces back to what Stephen described as a game between fellow songwriters in which WNY musicians learned to play each other’s songs during the pandemic.


“We picked names out of the hat, and you had to learn a song of another person as a surprise to them. It wasn’t a plan to record albums at the time, it was just, ‘wouldn’t this be fun if we all did this by next month?’ The performances were so fun, and people had real responses to hearing their own song that we decided, ‘let’s record this!’”


Music Is Art is funding a week at GCR to record the songs, which for Stephen has offered another evolution in his musical journey.


“This year I’m actually moving up to the role of a producer,” he said. “We thought it’d be cool to do production roles so one person at Music Is Art doesn’t have to wrangle 40 people for four months.”


While much of Stephen’s music is available on streaming platforms, some songs are only on his Instagram channel HERE, including a new untitled work first recorded on TikTok which begins with the line, “I left my friends at an Elmwood bar…”


“I wanted to talk about the buildings across from Goodbar, so when I get to the part about the new builds, (I talk about how) there used to be awesome businesses there,” he said of the new song. “Mondo Video, an amazing movie store, and Home of the Hits was a record store.”


Stephen said when he was younger, he used to bar crawl through various neighborhoods and those were the places he would end up at each night.


“It felt important to have things, specific to what I’m thinking about but also relatable to anybody, not just in Buffalo but also any city,” he said. “I do slam in a Goo Goo Dolls reference, so I think it’s definitely a Buffalo song.


“The total vision of that song is mostly like having a mentality of trying to stave off nihilism. Not just the moment of life I’m in — but all of us are in,” Stephen said. “It’s really scary what’s going on in the world. Maybe it’s my age, but it feels like the city is changing and it’s for the better, but the things I loved about it are starting to disappear.”




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