“So what do you guys do to prepare for a set?”
“Stretch,” Nick Corbo said as he pulled his arms over his head, and swayed side to side.
“Yeah, I stretch,” Greg Rutkin chimed in, “I also apply my Tiger Balm. Mike hates the smell but I kinda like it, and so does everyone else.”
“It smells so bad,” said Mike Caridi.
We were upstairs behind the balcony of Mississippi Studios, standing around a circular table. It was 7 pm—an hour before the first of three openers.
“Sometimes I drink a Red Bull,” Dave Benton said, which gave Corbo the idea to go get himself a vodka Red Bull.
Almost exactly three hours later, the band took the stage under indigo lights and six mounted bass drums. The room was packed, and the balcony was full. As soon as they struck the first chord, the crowd erupted and began singing in unison with Benton, “One more day, we’ll make some money, honey” — the hook to one of the group’s most popular tracks, “Annie’s a Witch,” off their sophomore album, “Hoodwink’d.” Rutkin’s impeccable timing on the drums created an infectious beat that warranted vigorous head-nodding; Corbo’s bass work vibrated through the massive amplifiers intoxicating the crowd with the nuances that his unique ham-fisted style offers; and Benton and Caridi’s guitar solos were a blatant depiction of their talent. The crowd bounced and crooned to each song, infatuated with the alternating setlist between the three songwriters and vocalists of the band: Dave, Mike, and Nick.
“We all have kind of our own vibe.” Corbo said.
“Mike has a much more straight rock feel, Nick has a behind the beat kind of thing going on for most of his songs, and I think Dave is usually writing things that are a little funkier, in an untraditional sort of way,” Rutkin added.
About six years ago, amidst the abundant creative talent incubated at the university known as SUNY Purchase in New York City, Benton, Corbo, Caridi, and Rutkin found each other and struck gold. They were among a community of artists with similar aspirations, who lived together, worked together, and played together in various DIY show spaces. Caridi, Benton, and Corbo released their first album, “Space Brothers” in 2011, initially intending it to be a split tape for their solo projects, but later deciding to release it as an album under one name—LVL Up.
“[We] feel like ‘Space Brothers’ was our least collaborative album. There were more instances in that record of us making recordings as individuals and then just putting them all into something that felt a little more like a playlist,” the band said in a joint statement. Although the songwriting was often done separately, something about the sound and subject matter of the songs came together relatively cohesively.
Shortly before their first show as a band, Rutkin joined the mix, and in September of 2014, they released “Hoodwink’d,” on the independent record label Double Double Whammy, that was founded by Caridi and Benton. “Hoodwink’d” was a fifteen-track lo-fi/power pop record that featured some of the group’s most interesting songwriting and musicianship to date. Sonically, the record was a buzzy revival of the 90’s rock era, with a sort of vocal reclusiveness that is a trademark of their unique sound. Thematically, they addressed similar topics to their first album of interpersonal conflict, but the record exhibits a recurring theme of looking at these conflicts through the guise of a supernatural motif, using witchcraft, hexes, and casting spells as a sort of spiritual scapegoat for the very real problems that come along with being in your early twenties. The band has referred to this album in past interviews as their first real full-length album release. The reaction to this album was dynamic, and put the spotlight on them in the underground Brooklyn music scene.
In 2015, LVL Up toured with the band The Sidekicks, and caught the ear of Nick Duncan, a radio and college promotion representative from Seattle label SubPop.
“I think I listened to [Hoodwink’d] hundreds of times. For a while it was all I was listening to. I got obsessed with that record,” Duncan said. He spent the next few months giving the band’s music to SubPop’s Artists and Repertoire department and when the band made it over to the West Coast, he brought the general manager to their show in Seattle. After that set, SubPop made the decision to offer the group a contract.
“They stared at the center of this explosive Brooklyn music scene so when they played, they were in a room full of people who knew the band and knew the record, everyone in the venue was singing to every song. Everyone was excited by the set, and as much as they played great, the response from the crowd was great, and I think that won everybody [at the label] over,” Duncan said.
The band had been waiting for an opportunity like this—SubPop was on their list of dream labels they would want to have a contract with and, in their words, “We were feeling a little loss of steam, a little exhausted from releasing our own records.” Naturally, they had a bit of nerves before the Seattle gig. “Our set was late so there was a lot of suspense and lead up time to get the jitters,” Benton said. “After [the show] we felt we gave it our best and we were really happy.”
“It was one of the best shows we ever played,” Corbo added. The rest of the guys concurred.
In early 2016, the band signed with SubPop and began the production of their third album, “Return to Love.” Duncan explained what stood out to him most about the band: “The songwriting in general is super strong. On paper, it’s a band with three guys, who all have their own voice, that don’t really write together, but are writing songs for the same band. That could be a mess, yet everything they’ve put out has felt really cohesive. When three young guys just out of college can do that, they’re onto something really special.”
“I think having three songwriters takes some pressure off us as individuals. It also creates an interesting writing environment where we’re encouraged to bounce ideas off of one another, and share certain ideas or themes in an attempt to make a cohesive product. The cohesion then becomes something you’re actively trying for, rather than a byproduct of a sole individual writer,” Benton said, “We’ve been completing somewhere between 75 to 100 percent of the song before bringing it to the group, and most of the collaboration happens while making the final recording. We’ve been talking about trying to be more collaborative in the writing process for our new songs though.”
“We’ve been trying to write a new song during every sound check,” Corbo said, “Only for like five minutes, but still.”
“Return to Love,” their SubPop debut, was released in September of 2016, and was the most developed, cohesive, and thematically complex project the band had ever released.
“They were very purposeful about making a record that points in a singular direction,” said Duncan. “With Return to Love, there are a handful of songs that are directly a narrative and tie together, but [also], in general it feels like they’re emotionally all tied together. I think that’s something that they took care to do on this record. They didn’t want to make another record that was just a bunch of songs—they wanted to make one single record.”
Recording with SubPop afforded them the resources to experiment more with new sounds and instruments, and after transitioning from college to the real world, they reached a new maturity level, ready to explore more sophisticated subject matters.
“Part of that is you’re not twenty and in college anymore, all of a sudden it’s like, ‘this is the real world, you gotta deal with grown-up problems, and not just the emotional shit,’” Duncan said. The band explains in a joint statement, “There was a certain development in subject matter that can be attributed mostly to age and perspective, or maybe just a shift in a focus of interest.” In “Return to Love,” the occult theme from “Hoodwink’d” is exchanged with a more theological feel, with the opening track, “Hidden Driver,” ringing out with the chorus: “God is peeking, softly speaking, breaking everything.”
“Return to Love” is a turning point in the band’s career. “We have some older fans now. More of a mixed crowd of older and younger people, which is refreshing.” Corbo said. They were also finally able to book their first European tour with the financial support of SubPop. “Releasing ‘Return to Love’ has been a really positive thing for us as a band,” they said, “we’ve grown a lot in the few months since it’s been released.”