While attending SUNY Fredonia, Becca Ryskalczyk, Jon Gernhart, and Zephyr Prusinski were proud members of a tightly knit music community. Though they played in separate bands, they knew each other well just from hanging out in similar circles. With a number of house shows and the bar and club scene of Buffalo less than an hour away, there were enough places for emerging musicians to flourish in Western New York.
Gernhart and Ryskalczyk forged a friendship that followed them to Brooklyn after graduation. As the only two from their group of friends who ended up emigrating south to Brooklyn, they continued to grow closer while pursuing their musical ambitions. Gernhart quickly found work engineering, while Buffalo native Ryskalczyk took her time figuring out the city and was a nanny before fully immersing herself in the music scene of her new city.
The trio — with Prusinski on bass, Ryskalczyk handling guitar and singing duties, and Gernhart rounding things out on drums — decided to call themselves Bethlehem Steel; Ryskalczyk says it’s a good way to stay connected to the industrial cities from which they all hail originally. Plus, paying homage to her hometown prevented Ryskalczyk from feeling as though she was leaving her past in the rearview.
Ryskalczyk and Gernhart were dating at the time of the band’s formation, and while they’re not anymore, they retain a musical bond that goes beyond the romantic failings that could have destroyed their budding outfit. “We were best friends before,” Ryskalczyk explains over the phone from a tour stop in Rochester. “After that, we took a week off from the band and then we went straight back to being normal again.”
Last year’s debut release, Grow Up, showcased the trio’s talents, but it took until the November release of Docking for Ryskalczyk to understand what Bethlehem Steel was about. The death of a close friend and her mom’s emotional state were on Ryskalczyk’s mind, and she was able to channel her strife into the aptly titled EP.
“I wasn’t setting out to write an EP at the time when I was writing,” Ryskalczyk says. “When my friend died of brain cancer, and my mom was going through a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized at the same time, I was trying to deal with both of those things. The only way I could get everything out was through writing and being able to lash out and scream onstage.”
Ryskalczyk’s booming vocals and grinding guitar chords complement the bulldozing effect of Gernhart’s drumming, and those have become the hallmarks of the group’s powerful sound. Even though Bethlehem Steel’s music retains some lo-fi elements and a punk ethos, the foundation built for a bigger, more accessible sound is a sturdy one.
Initially reserved, the singer-guitarist begins to beam as she discusses Docking in greater detail. The circumstances behind the record may have been difficult, but the raw feelings helped her develop as a writer. It also gave Bethlehem Steel a sharper vision of where they wanted to go sonically as a band. Recording with the guidance of Nick Corbo at the familiar Shea Stadium and David Blaine’s the Steakhouse allowed the trio to take as much time as they needed to achieve their desired results. Over the span of four on-and-off months, the band sought to craft something that will serve as the template for their forthcoming first full-length.
“Before, our sound was a lot softer,” Ryskalczyk admits. “Through the anger of everything, we were able to transform the sound of the band.”
Bethlehem Steel’s current tour plans were rearranged following the departure of Prusinski. Peter Katz has filled in, but there aren’t any definitive lineup changes to be announced for the foreseeable future. And while Docking brought Bethlehem Steel into the collective consciousness of New York music and beyond, next year is looking even more promising for the trio. It’s been over four years since Ryskalczyk and Gernhart left Buffalo for Brooklyn, and in that time Bethlehem Steel have become known for their feisty live shows. Despite cutting it short, Bethlehem Steel plan on going on an extensive tour in the spring and getting back into a studio quickly to lay down the next album.
“We have two songs so far,” Ryskalczyk says. “But we’re getting there! I honestly don’t know where we’d be on Docking if we hadn’t had the people at Shea Stadium, especially when I was going through things, and having my friends here. It made me a better writer and made us a better band.”
Bethlehem Steel play Bohemian Grove on December 15.