The Second Incubator
Brooklyn rock quartet LVL UP find a new home to keep going from.
Interview by Joseph Leroux
There is a sense of rejuvenation in the LVL UP camp. After five years of growing pains, fanbase gains, and working hard at releasing their music on their own label Double Double Whammy (not to mention albums by Frankie Cosmos, Liam Betson, and everyone else in the DDW family) they have earned the attention of the iconic Seattle label Sub Pop Records. On Return To Love, LVL UP’s first Sub Pop release, we hear vocalist Dave Betson sing on album opener “Hidden Driver”: ‘God is peeking / softly speaking / breaking everything / ‘till I slowly do see.’ What follows is a record of similiar spiritual revelations, pop ephemerality and open-chested noise. “Hidden Driver” echoes Sub Pop indie alumni Neutral Milk Hotel with fuzzed out bass and blocky acoustic chords; guitarist Mike Benson’s chops-laden licks hook the ear in the single “Pain”. Closing track “Naked In The River With The Creator” is awash with angelic synths, slowly collected by bassist Nick Corbo’s yearning quarter-note chug. ‘Light river / black water/ gaining purpose / moving stronger’. This is the first of several final mantras, all of which could be heard as self-affirmation for the four young men as they gather momentum and themselves, heading into the unpredictable future of a now hyped and newly signed band.
I got to chat with them after their show at The Analog Cafe and Theatre in Portland, OR, and talk about the label, the record, and the songwriting behind it all.
HOLY SMOKES: How do you go about songwriting when your band essentially has three frontmen?
NICK CORBO We kinda do it for the most part on our own, jamming things out at home. They’re usually at various states of completion, but never one hundred percent, and then we bring them together sometimes with the group and figure out like, ‘Is this part going to be loud? Is this part going to be quiet? Should we end it here or here?’ You know, that kind of thing. Sometimes that happens in the studio. It happened a lot in the studio this time.
So how do you go about lyrical composition then?
DAVE BENTON It’s also pretty separate.
GREG RUTKIN There have been very few moments where someone has made lyrics or a melody for someone else’s song.
DAVE It’s never a true collaboration in terms of writing. More in terms of arranging. I think we respond to each other’s songs. Someone will show the group a song, and then someone will come back a month later with an idea that’s inspired.
Was there a time when songwriting-wise you realized it was all becoming more cohesive? When did you get a sense of what this band was going to be?
DAVE I feel like we never really figured it out.
NICK It’s getting more cohesive as time goes on.
GREG Recording this record and having time in the studio there were moments where it would be like, ‘ok, this guy is really good at writing a guitar lick. Let’s add that to the song.’ I think it became a little more cohesive in that way. Dave’s been really into the synths. Things start to come together within terms of ‘who’s good at what?’ is what we usually say.
NICK There’s times when I’m like ‘oh, there could be a guitar solo here, and Mike could play it cause Mike’s good at guitar.’
He is good at guitar.
NICK (Laughs) Right? And I’m not good at guitar. Or I’m not good at lead guitar. A lot of times where there’s a solo, someone will be like ‘okay Mike, write something.’
What are your individual strengths then?
DAVE I’m not really that good at playing music, I think I’m better at writing music.
GREG Dave writes songs.
NICK Mike’s really good at guitar. Also, I feel like --
DAVE You’re like, good at everything dude. You’re kind of a jack of all trades.
NICK Kind of a jack of all trades yeah. I play all the instruments on my demos usually and we all learn them. Playing bass you can move things around, control the dynamics of chords and where things are going to go. When I write the songs, I might write the guitar parts. When [Dave] writes a song, there’s a bass part, but he’s more just like ‘oh just play whatever you want.’
NICK I’m a little more anal with figuring out parts on my own and wanting them to be played. But also having to try more to be more like, ‘no that’s okay.’
Your practice seems very collaborative in spirit.
NICK Especially when we all write the song, and then, in the studio, we collaborate on making the arrangement happen and then usually there are usually too many instruments to be played live and so we have to figure out how to the song play live, so there’s another step that we work together on.
How do you feel about that gap between the studio recording and the live performance?
NICK I think it’s fun. Cause they’re not so different. I think on [the track] “I” it’s a good thing, cause there’s like a different version or something.
MIKE CARIDI It’s fun to switch it up. That’s all I gotta say.
Talk about being in a big studio for the first time.
GREG We recorded in Park Slope Brooklyn in a studio called Seaside Lounge. It was a severe luxury. We just had two and a half weeks to geek out every day. We were fucking living large by our standards, as in the last record we were in my dark living room ruining everybody’s lives. It helped us create something we are actually pretty proud of.
MIKE It gave us the opportunity to make it sound exactly what we wanted it to sound like.
NICK They had really nice stuff.
GREG And we still got to work with our really good friend Mike Ditrio. He’s our friend from college and has had a hand in all our recordings. And to have him come with and have access to all this fun stuff… we were a bunch of kids that got access to the toy store after dark.
What has changed now that you are a Sub Pop band?
MIKE Not really too much.
DAVE There are more people weighing in on what we’re doing.
MIKE They’ve got us a way larger reach. They let us have the resources, and we got to do whatever we wanted still.
NICK They made nice screen printed art for us, I don’t know why, it just got made.
GREG There’s all this stuff and special tools and things they just make happen. It’s almost like, what is this stuff even for?
NICK They have an in-house art department, so it just gets made.
So then what’s special about this release to you compared to your other releases?
MIKE The last records, we’re still proud of them but, you know, when you’re recording in your living room you’re not going to get the cool sound that you want. Like, I like all the songs on Hoodwink’d but it sounds like we recorded it in our living room.
GREG Which I think is the charm for some people. But for us it’s like, I can’t hear the kick drum or oh the snare drum just isn’t in this song, like what the hell it doesn’t matter to most people, but I know that I was playing it.
Has studio access made you more detail-oriented with the material you create?
NICK I think it’s always been there. It’s just satisfied more.
GREG I remember before there were a few times when we decided it was good enough.
NICK We scrapped [Hoodwink’d] two times and then the last time we just fucking rushed it. But this time it wasn’t rushed. We gave ourselves plenty of time. And then that paired with the record going out to more people and getting received by a larger audience is just, it’s just more. We’re really happy with it, it wouldn’t have happened without a label and the label is getting it out to these other people and those people are into it for the most part. It’s a big cool thing. It feels good.
GREG Also everyone at Sub Pop is just really fucking cool. They’re all really nice, normal people.
When you dropped the record, you did an interview with The Fader that was written around the idea that LVL UP was a band that no one would let break up. Do you find something powerful in that tension?
NICK No. We’re going to squash this every time it comes up. It was an anecdotal, self-deprecating comment and it like--
DAVE It was the first interview we did for this record. We were just joking around like, “oh yeah, we’re going to break up” or something. We were getting kind of beat down a little bit. We were like ‘oh, this is hard.’ It’s hard to get motivated and it’s nice when someone motivates you.
GREG I think touring as well as having such a large hand in putting out our records, which we always have a large hand in, was just more stressful.
So you feel relieved now that you have more support; what are you going to do with that next?
NICK Keep it going as best we can I guess. There’s a longevity thing that comes into play and I think that’s what we meant when we were talking with The Fader. We tour a lot, and it does kind of take away from some parts of your life. We have friends that have career-type jobs that make a lot of money and we can’t hold jobs like that because we tour. And maybe you lose your apartment, or maybe you lose your personal relationships or they get strained or something like that. So it’s like, am I going to keep putting in the effort to doing this thing if we’re going to be playing in places where people aren’t going to come, or we aren’t making any money, or we’re losing money, or I’m sleeping in some kid’s shitty basement --which we don’t mind doing-- but the longevity. I’m 26. Eventually, I’m going to be 29. The longevity goes away and you can’t keep doing it if it doesn’t keep growing. That’s what we meant. But, the growth happened. And it feels, not rejuvenated, but re-upped.
NICK (laughs) yeah.
That touring culture is a reality for every band.
DAVE Yeah. Unless you’re just making music and putting it out online.
NICK Which is fine, but if you want to be touring.
DAVE But we won’t be pursuing this forever.
NICK Unless it’s awesome, but, for example, the guy who played first [Sleeping Blood] has a family. I’m sure that he’s playing shows, I’m sure he’s recording, but we’re going to go on tour for two months in a row, and he can’t do that because he has a family. And you make that choice. And he can’t go on tour so easily because he’d have to put it on hold. But we can, because we don’t have that.
What are you guys excited about now?
NICK We’re going to Europe for March and April.
GREG Going to Europe has been a goal of ours forever.
You guys have really identified with being a New York band. How has being there impacted your music?
GREG I think it’s impacted it greatly.
NICK I think it’s the second incubator.
What do you mean by that?
NICK I feel like our college was the first incubator. There was a student centre [at SUNY Purchase College] where we would spend a lot of time and you could keep your gear there, you could practice there, and you could play shows there without leaving the campus, and there wasn’t really a town around the campus, so that was this thing where you would like play, get ready, kinda let people know about this thing that you were doing and then you could kind of like, shoot out and try playing real shows in the real world. And I also kind of feel that way about being in Brooklyn, where we can play Shea Stadium, we can play at these places and we can practice at these places. Then we go on tour out and it’s like that’s the scary thing.
GREG We know so many people that are doing the same thing If we lived in Missouri or something like that, it’d probably be a little harder for anybody else to know what was going on. It’s just a natural growth from being where we are.