Living up to its name, Brooklyn-quartet, LVL UP had indeed powered up to the next level with their sophomore effort, Hoodwink’d. It was released last September on their own Double Double Whammy label and several tracks have been well-received by the music press. One of their singles “I Feel Extra-Natural” made it to The Rolling Stone’s recent “25 Best Songs of 2015 So Far”.
LVL UP is Mike Caridi (guitar), Dave Benton (guitar), Nick Corbo (Bass) and Greg Rutkin (drums). They will be in the Bay Area tomorrow, Aug 1, playing at Berkeley DIY space, 924 Gilman St. One of the oldest DIY spaces in the country, it gave bands like Green Day, AFI and Rancid a stage to cultivate their fans in those early days. It’s a mindset that LVL UP too subscribe, recording their first LP themselves, and subsequently setting up their own label to distribute it.
Hoodwink’d is more sophisticated in its songwriting, themes and overall sonic sheen, the entire album penned by the young band’s three songwriters is more cohesive than their 2012 debut, Space Brothers. There is still a load of mumbling or Seinfeld’s equivalent of the ‘low talker’ in song form, on tracks like “Stone Alone” and “I Feel OK” but that is offset by their brightening guitar melodies. You have to wonder what it would be like if they did open the vocals up a little.
“I Feel OK” for instance, opens with such promise – a gorgeous, feathery guitar melody, then the low drawling vocals enters and takes away from the sparkle. Sure it’s an aesthetic a slew of ‘90s bands from Pavement to the band’s own favorite The Silver Jews made their own, and it has its deserved devotees. However, even with those lo-fi bands, lyrics were always audible, golden in fact, their slacker-vocals gliding above the noise of guitars so you heard the true nature of their malaise and discontent.
“Ski Vacation” has a Johnny Marr-lightness of touch with the fretwork but the vocals are a downer. “Black Honey” again proficient guitar melodies of crunchy noise reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins but with none of that verve of a singular frontman like Billy Corgan.
“Medication” in its theme echoes “Novocaine” by the Eels and does better, as its vocals are delivered with a clarity that reminds you of early Weezer.
They are probably aware that the low drone can get tiresome across an album of 15 songs albeit short ones. Only one song clocks in over 3mins, with the title track only 39 seconds – so the use of female vocals across several tracks does alleviate the musical undertow.
Perhaps part of this problem stems from its homespun production, the right producer/mixer might just be able to boost the low baritones with the flick of the right knobs. The band do hail from an incredibly fecund Brooklyn DIY scene that places value on community, evolution of their music and giving a voice, over how shiny their final efforts are. So it’s hard to fault them for that. And will be interesting to see where they go next.
Still, where they really succeed is with “Hoodwinked” and “Soft Power” when you can actually hear what is being sung. They do have a way with their lyrics, trading in a vulnerability and honesty that always scores no matter the age demographic. “DBTS” is particularly charming with it’s almost Interpol-esque guitar intro, and though in parts the vocals are still drowned out, the bits you have caught “There’s that place dude, they won’t miss you, they don’t love you like we need you. If you need to, we can share this bed…” is enough to captivate.
The band took time out of the tour to speak to atombash.com from Seattle mid-week. Looking forward to playing in the storied East Bay DIY venue, they shed light on LVL UP’s evolving sound on their latest EP, Three Songs; running their own label; and why they got steak thrown at them in their video, “DBTS”?
You guys are in Seattle now, how has the tour been so far?
Nick: It’s been great we’ve been on tour for nine days now. It’s been surprising how cool the kids have been. We’ve been back to some of our old favorites – places in Chicago and Montana, very nice kids out there.
What’s it like being in a band that’s on tour and also running a label – a proper label when you are putting out the music of other bands too?
Mike: Yeah, Dave and I, we run the label Double Double Whammy together. It’s really a difficult thing going on tour. We use to run the label out of our apartment, now we have an office behind this space called The Silent Barn. It’s much easier now because we have friends and interns running the mail order and other errands. It’s usually boring but we like it. You know like records take a long time to press and there’s e-mails to get through, and calls to make. We started the label because we recorded our first LP, Space Brothers and we didn’t have any way to get it out there.
You’ve also released your latest EP on a different label, is that to take some of the edge of doing everything yourselves?
Dave: We started working with Run For Cover and have entered into a partnership with them. Our new 7’’ is going to be like a trial where they are going to distribute for us. We recorded it pretty quickly but we are happy with it and Run For Cover have got it together.
What’s it like performing these songs which were written separately – do you ever get protective of the songs you write?
Nick: I think Hoodwink’d as an album was very cohesive. We’ve been playing together for five years now and we are a tight unit. We are all at the same level and even though we write separately when we bring it in, we all work on it together. There is definitely a certain individuality to each person’s writing…
Greg: We all learn to play each song together and I feel we have been cohesive for a long time. I also work on other things with Nick and have other projects.
Nick: I’m waiting for the moment that Greg writes a song, I think it will be great.
One of you (Mike) said early on that playing on stage isn’t one of your favorite things – why is that? And has it changed since?
Mike: For me, I love touring and being on the road but my favorite part is recording the four of us and other bands. We have been making music for a decade but I have always been self-conscious about singing even though I sing about a third of the time. It’s the anxiety of being on stage. It is getting easier as more people have been coming to see us. As the band gets more steam, I guess there’s that sense of feeling secure that they already like us. If I could, I would just play my guitars all the time. And I have raised this with the others but almost every time I mention it, I get shut down.
Well, you do have gorgeous guitar melodies. I know much have been made about how you guys sound like Pavement, Silver Jews and early Weezer but in Hoodwink’d, I can hear Johnny Marr-like riffs and Joy Division as well.
Mike: When we were recording Hoodwink’d, I was listening to a lot of The Smiths, The Cure and Joy Division so a lot of those guitar influences were coming from there too. Since then, I’ve been trying to move away from that so now I need to listen to something else.
Can you guys tell us about “DBTS” – personally that track was one of the standout’s for me but what’s the story behind it?
Nick: The house that we live at and recorded a lot of Hoodwink’d is called DBTS. Occasionally we also have shows there. DBTS stands for David Blane’s The Steakhouse. We care about the space a lot, and it is home to lots of people. For me specifically, I was living in West Chaste, New York last year and certain things happened that put me out of my house. It was all very sad and I had no place to stay, Greg let me come and stay here and now it’s my home.
It’s not a restaurant or steakhouse at all. Why are you guys throwing good steak at each other in the video for “DBTS”?
Nick: Ah that’s a joke. It’s a joke that most people wouldn’t understand but it’s funny to us. We have a weird sense of humor. Greg also has two cousins who live down the road and they have a company, House of Nod that shoots videos. They have a cool slow motion camera. And they shot an earlier video of ours, “Nightshade”. (In that one, chocolate sauce was slowly poured over Corbo’s face and is weirdly entertaining). The space is named after the magician, David Blane and a steakhouse that Greg used to work at. (laughs).
You guys started out wanting to write short, simple songs but with your latest EP, Three Songs they are some longer songs – did you set out to write longer songs?Are you guys experimenting and heading in a different direction?
Nick: There’s a certain amount of change that happens in a songwriter’s growth and that’s natural. Besides, I don’t want to just repeat what we’ve done. I’ve been listening to a lot more ambient music lately. “Closing Door” is Dave’s song but I was happy to experiment what that. I’ve been trying to experiment and incorporate both the long form of ambient with pop tones that people can still get attached to. I’ve been listening to Mount Eerie and drawn a lot from that – to be experimental but also pretty.
Is it true that the band was once named ‘Unholy Strength’ based of the name of a Magic card? I asked my son he said it ‘powers up the card’ – is that where your eventual band name came from?
Nick: That is true. I know it has a weird tone and sounds nerdy But I love that. It’s that fantasy, ghouls and goblins I love that kind of stuff. Our new t-shirt looks like a trading card and we have references to witches and wizards.
Mike: Yes we were on FB chat and we had these demos recorded as Unholy Strength. I don’t know where those demos are now? You know in the beginning we weren’t super serious about the band, it was just Dave and me, shooting the shit and thinking ‘wouldn’t it be funny if we had a band named after the card?’. And then we got a bit more serious and decided to change the name but it was equally as mad as the original. We were just talking about this in the van yesterday. We wish we had a better name.
Could you please tell me what are GC’s – guitar conferences?
We use to call band practice that in school. Our friend, Kyle he has a band the Sheer Mag and he would call it GC if we were in bar and we were getting together to write songs. Throughout college we would call it that. How do you even know this? We don’t say it now. We just say band practice.
Greg: It’s like when you have your guitar and one other person is with you to practice, it’s GC. It’s really intimate.
You have the vocals of Elaiza Santos in quite a few songs – when do you decide that a song needs that lift or added dimension?
Nick: Elaiza plays in another band called Crying. We went to school together. She also has another band, Whatever Dad and now works on 100%. She is an amazing songwriter. We write in parts and see if we can have her come in and sing. I gave her an entire part on one of our songs because I thought she could do it better. We took two takes in the studio but her take just sounded a lot better so we deleted mine and just used hers. We all really dig the recording process. It’s fun and you can experiment. Not that we fake it but we can bend it, we can have all these parts recorded that you can’t always reproduce live. We like to invite people in. Some bands are very strict with that but we like it.
What are you looking forward to when you play in the Bay Area?
Greg: I love the Bay Area, it’s beautiful and we get to play at 914 Gilman St. We are really excited about traveling to a new place. And I’m most looking forward to having huevos rancheros at the Pork Store Café.
For tickets to see LVL UP at 924 Gilman St tomorrow, please click here. To purchase Hoodwink’d or their latest EP, Three Songs, please click here. For further tour details, please see below.
LVL UP Tour Dates:
Jul 29 – Seattle, WA @ The Black Lodge #
Jul 30 – Portland, OR @ Analog #
Aug 1 – Berkley, CA @ 924 Gilman St &
Aug 2 – Los Angeles, CA @ Mayan Theater &
Aug 2 – Pomona, CA @ VLHS #
Aug 3 – Santa Ana, CA @ The Observatory &
Aug 4 – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom &
Aug 6 – Austin, TX @ Mohawk &
Aug 7 – Dallas, TX @ Trees &
Aug 8 – New Orleans, LA @ HOB – The Parish &
Aug 9 – Atlanta, GA @ The Wrecking Ball
Aug 10 – Orlando, FL @ The Beacham ^
Aug 11 – Jacksonville, FL @ 1904 Music Hall ^
Aug 12 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle ^
Aug 13 – Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club ^
Aug 14 – Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer ^
Aug 16 – Boston, MA @ Royale ^
Aug 17 – New York, NY @ Irving Plaza ^
# w/ Upset
& w/ Basement, Whirr, Better Off
^ w/ Basement, Adventures, Palehound