Life after LVL UP: members discuss staying prolific with new projects
LVL UP was a band from 2011 through 2018. The band members were Greg Rutkin (drums), Nick Corbo (vocals/bass), Dave Benton (vocals/guitar) and Mike Caridi (vocals/guitar). This interview piece serves as both an endcap of their time together as LVL UP and as a survey of the music they are creating now--together, individually and everywhere in between.
“It’s just fucking hard to start over,” Dave Benton says of his new musical outlet, Trace Mountains. “And I think any of the guys will tell you that.”
Admittedly, “new” might not be a strictly accurate description of the Trace Mountains moniker, under which Benton has already released two LPs and what he describes as a “compilation record of lo-fi songs.” Benton released the first proper Trace Mountains record, A Partner to Lean On (with LVL UP’s Nick Corbo on bass), in March of 2018, five months before the final LVL UP tour trekked across the continental U.S. A Partner to Lean On polished up some of Benton’s coziest songwriting (including re-treads of a few songs from the prior compilation like “Salty Sweet” and “Thunder Trails”) against an eclectic backdrop of drum machine, acoustic guitars, synthesizers and vocal effects. At the time, the record felt notably more intimate than the distorted wash of LVL UP’s later material. In some ways, the arrangements across A Partner to Lean On drifted toward a return to LVL UP’s early days as a demo-swapping “recording project” as opposed to a full-on rock band. “I don’t always really think about arranging for the live set when I’m recording, because I just don’t want that restriction,” says Benton. “So a lot of the time, songs will come out and be pretty difficult to adapt to a four piece rock band.” Live videos from this time period show Benton and company figuring it out with the help of some auxiliary instrumentation onstage.
When gearing up for the second Trace Mountains record, Lost in the Country, Benton took a step closer to putting the laptop down and getting the proverbial “band” together. This included enlisting a familiar presence on the drum throne, LVL UP’s Greg Rutkin. “Greg is one of my best friends so it makes sense to have him in the band,” says Benton. “He was in the Trace Mountains band even before LVL UP broke up. It’s kind of a natural thing with him--very easy. He’s very open to trying new things and trying out new styles.” Benton’s creative chemistry with lead guitarist Jim Hill also enjoyed a step forward between records, the natural outcome of passing time together, both while writing and on the road. The songs on Lost in the Country feel more “lived in” than the Trace Mountains efforts before it, seeking out grooves a little more intentionally in songs like “Falling Rain” or trying out extended, swirling instrumental passages that border on “jams” in “Lost in the Country” or “Absurdity.”
House of Confusion, Trace Mountains’ third proper LP and second for Philadelphia’s Lame-O Records (Hurry, Gladie, Slaugher Beach, Dog), arrives this week. House of Confusion sees Benton and company leaning further into the organic, animate facets of the band’s sound. “It’s a little scrappier, a little looser, but I think it fits with the general vibe of things,” Benton says. Where he previously might have reached for electronic flourishes like a keyboard or vocal processing, Benton deploys lap steel on “If You Do” and marimba on “Seven Angels”--a song notably elevated by Rutkin’s soft-handed percussion treatment. Hill’s lead work on “On My Knees” and “IDK” channels Mike Campbell. At the same time, Benton does not shy away from a tasteful drum machine or synth part in songs like “Late” and “America”--which, along with opener “Seen it Coming” and “Eyes on the Road,” rehash the hypnotic instrumental outros that punctuated a number of Lost in the Country cuts. In that way, House of Confusion strikes a thoughtful balance between the two prior Trace Mountains LPs. Lost in the Country, a record seemingly made for and by the road, only fell short in the instances where it simply sounded like four people playing instruments--which might very well have been “the point.” Conversely, where A Partner to Lean On might have landed a little “too cute,” or was difficult to recreate live because it drew heavily on Benton’s bag of studio tricks, which, again, was likely not an accident considering the near-decade he spent onstage surrounded by distortion pedals. House of Confusion, a record that (not inaccurately) might be tagged as Benton’s “Americana record” or “Tom Petty arc,” actually sees him drawing on the entire spectrum of his catalog. The outcome is his best record yet, and it is not particularly close. The highs are higher, the louds are louder and the quiets are breath-taking.
“When we started [Trace Mountains], I wanted to pay attention to playing more dynamically,” says Benton. “LVL UP was a rock band and I wanted to be like ‘oh let’s think about playing quieter instead of getting louder’--very simple things like that. I think I got burnt out on the distortion and wanted to think about how to be a quieter act or something like that.” By their last tour, LVL UP performed using notably smaller amplifiers.
Corbo, however, took his tones in a different direction.
“I took my time with this project,” Corbo says of his upcoming debut full-length under the name Spirit Was, Heaven’s Just A Cloud (also out this week). Corbo wrote and performed all the guitar, drums and bass on the record himself, arranging the songs using software instruments over approximately a year and a half, beginning in 2018. “A lot of my writing happens in my head with this sort of mental voice,” he says. “I tried to take advantage of the songwriting that you can do when you're in the shower, when you're laying in bed before you go to sleep or washing the dishes.”
Corbo’s background as a multi-instrumentalist stems partially from his hometown of Torrington, Connecticut, where he often had a hard time simply finding other people to play with--“so I just ended up learning how to play drums, bass and guitar,” he says, in order to record his “little songs.” Corbo, however, is quick to highlight his underlying appreciation for each instrument’s “different character” and the “different role that they play.” Corbo’s careful allocation and treatment of each core instrument is a foundational tenet of Heaven’s Just a Cloud. Across the record, tectonic slabs of drop-tuned guitars collide above an intricate, sure-footed rhythm section. Fingerpicked nylon string guitar breaks and a strong dash of cello accompaniment, seemingly at odds with any record primarily in Drop-C tuning, fit in perfectly--a testament to the fully-realized and cohesive nature of Corbo’s vision. “I love thinking about how songs are arranged and how all the pieces fit together,” he says. “I just tried to really think about everything having its own place.” While he played drums and bass on the record, Corbo has formed an established live lineup for Spirit Was featuring Dave Medina and Alberto Casadevall.
Heaven’s Just a Cloud follows "Golden Soul" / "Olive Branch & Brown Dove," a two-song single that Corbo released in December of 2018, both sides of which found their way to Heaven’s Just a Cloud, albeit re-tracked with more “widescreen” production as well as few other tinkers. The 2018 single also sees Corbo recruiting former Crying bandmate Benji Santos for vocal contributions, a collaboration he rekindled on the new record. “They're just a phenomenal artist in general and just such an effortlessly talented singer,” Corbo says. “They have an amazing, characteristic signature voice.” Santos, who also appears on the Trace Mountains compilation, recorded all their vocal parts remotely from Olympia, Washington and sent the parts to Corbo for inclusion on the record.
The name “Spirit Was” itself, originally a LVL UP song, ended up being a revelation for Corbo. “My whole life, I have been trying to think of a moniker and find something that feels representative and feels like something that I can just doodle on my notebook all day long, and maybe write on the bathroom stall if I want to,” he says. “And that was it for me, it kind of turned into this incorporated portfolio that I could just deposit ideas into, whenever I wanted, which was really gratifying, and really felt really great.” The first Spirit Was release, which also shares a name with a LVL UP song, evinces Corbo’s search for a suitable title, originally bearing the previous mark of Corbo’s guitar pedal company, Totally Ruined Circuits. Corbo now uses the Spirit Was umbrella for all his creative endeavors, including handmade distortion pedals and visual art, which LVL UP listeners are sure to recognize. Trace Mountains fans will, too.
“I think of the first Spirit Was song as ‘Cut From the Vine,’ which is a song that I wrote on the final LVL UP album,” says Corbo. “When I wrote ‘Cut From The Vine,’ it didn't really feel right to tell either Dave or Mike ‘okay, I was in love with that guitar part--it was dedicated. It followed the melody. I needed it to be played kind of specifically.’ It didn't really feel right to have to tell somebody ‘this is how your guitar part is going to go.’” “Even before we stopped playing together, I started to kind of compartmentalize music ideas that I was coming up with into two categories,” says Corbo. “One being, okay, here's a song that I wrote that melody and harmony. I don't need to finish the song and worry about how it's gonna go, I can bring it to the group, and we'll write it together. And that'll be fun.” This first category represented songs that Corbo would play on bass and use as LVL UP songs. “Or, this is a song that I wrote on guitar that has this sort of dedicated, fingerpicking pattern that incorporates the melody or something like that,” he continues. “And after ‘Cut From the Vine,’ I was like, ‘oh, you know, I can kind of put these into a different category, maybe that'll be for a different project.’ And I didn't really think about it too much at the time, but then when we stopped playing together, I was like, ‘okay, well, here's that project.’” The second category became Heaven’s Just A Cloud.
“Nick was always sort of limiting himself in terms of what was appropriate for [LVL UP]--self-regulating, really,” says Rutkin. “This was his first time really making something on his own. It’s exciting, experimental and dense.” Corbo, in a 2018 interview, seemed to agree: “I was definitely feeling like LVL UP definitely had a sound in itself and it definitely had its own set of sonic expectations and stylistic expectations. Now that I'm working on my own projects, I feel like those expectations are... I don't want to call them limitations because they don't feel like limitations, but definitely those expectations of writing something and being like, ‘I really like this. I don't know what to do with it because it doesn't necessarily feel like a LVL UP song, or it doesn't really have that LVL UP energy.’ And I feel like maybe we were all feeling that to a certain extent with some of the music. Now it's definitely very interesting to dive into something and just be like, ‘Well this is just me!’" Rutkin, currently wearing the hat of “project manager” for Heaven’s Just a Cloud will be hosting a joint release show for Spirit Was and Trace Mountains in his role at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right on November 20, and is not the only former member of LVL UP logging hours on the administrative side of album releases.
LVL UP’s own history is intertwined with that of Double Double Whammy (Great Grandpa, Lomelda, Frankie Cosmos), the “tastemaking” (Pitchfork) record label that Benton and Caridi started together in October of 2011 for the purpose of releasing early LVL UP material and their friends’ records while at SUNY Purchase. “I don’t like looking for labels,” says Benton. “I think that’s why we put out our own records--or maybe because nobody wanted to put them out.” After their 2011 debut LP Space Brothers, LVL UP went on to release the 2013 EP Extra Worlds, a 2013 split, a 2014 split, their 2014 LP Hoodwink’d and 2015’s Three Songs EP on the label. Benton stepped away in 2016, but DDW, which Rutkin once summarized as “a fake label that put out a [ ] fake band's first tape,” is now over 80 releases deep and occupies the majority of Caridi’s time. “The last 18 months were very challenging and things very much slowed down, especially in 2020,” Caridi says. “Both in 2020 and in 2021, we will have only released about half the amount of records we were expecting to release.” Those 2021 releases include a 10th anniversary compilation with DDW artists covering each other, as well as two new songs from Caridi’s own post-LVL UP musical venture, The Glow.
Caridi explains that The Glow ���started as a solo project and has evolved into a band,” noting that he handled songwriting, singing, guitar, bass and keyboard on 2019’s Am I, only enlisting Ruthkin to cover drums. “I kind of had a vision for it, held it really close and just kind of had control over every little piece of it,” he says. “At the time, that's what I wanted to do. After putting out that record, I didn’t really like the way it felt to be like a solo act or whatever, so on those two songs that we put out, everybody had equal input [and] the way the songs were written really shifted by the end, which I really love.”
Am I sees Caridi returning to the scraped production quality and churning guitar layers of early LVL UP work, but with a renewed, direct approach to songcraft. Song structures are breezy and immediate, occasionally detouring to center fuzzy feedback and keyboard swells in front of Caridi’s (often double-tracked) vocals. True to Caridi’s LVL UP contributions, most of the songs on Am I’s 23-minute runtime check in around the two-minute mark. Notably, the album’s longest song is a drum machine-initiated re-do of LVL UP’s 2018 swan song, “The Orchard,” featuring an extended, washy coda. It would be hard not to want a couple more passes at those guitar noise freak-outs.
The Glow’s 2021 release, "Love Only" b/w "Heavy Glow," features a sunny, three-minute A-side and a backbeat-focused, seven-minute guitar journey on the B-side--which features guitarist Kate Meizner on lead vocals and improvised guitar solos from all four members of the band. “To be surrounded by so much talent and not be open to collaboration would have been a major misstep on my part,” Caridi wrote at the time. “There’s so much joy in collaboration that I missed a lot while trying to do things on my own.”
In his role as owner/operator of DDW, Caridi often finds himself wedged between a band and the innate musician’s desire to release a new record as soon as possible upon completion--“strategy” be damned. “I very regularly have conversations with bands that I’m working with where a record is done and they’re like ‘let’s get it out’,” he says. “And I’m like--‘here’s the thing, we should wait nine months.’” Caridi then admits to doing the exact opposite with The Glow’s releases. “I really think that it’s been a little bit of a detriment to The Glow because I’ve always purposefully rushed out the record,” he says. “I think on Am I we did one month of press before the record came out, whereas any other band I was working with I would strongly suggest we don’t do that.” “I’ve not treated it the same way I would treat a normal DDW band,” he admits. Nobody is testing Caridi’s memory on this, but the length of the Am I “release cycle” was more like three weeks.
“That actually was a big reason why LVL UP decided to make the jump to Sub Pop,” says Caridi. “It’s really, really difficult to be able to give your band the attention it deserves when you’re getting super excited about putting out the next Florist record or whatever. That wasn’t fair for LVL UP and isn’t necessarily fair for the Glow, but that’s always been something that I’ve struggled with.” Speaking at the time of their signing, Benton and Rutkin agreed. “I could talk about the bands I’m working with all day,” summarizes Caridi. “I’m happy to scream about how good Lomelda is to anyone who will listen for the rest of time.”
Caridi’s commitment to DDW and the bands on the label necessarily restricts the amount of time he can spend touring or otherwise focusing on The Glow. “Everyone in The Glow is in kind of the same position where, at this point in our lives, we all have full-time jobs that really take up an overwhelming amount of our time,” he says. “So The Glow--while we take it seriously and we’re definitely going to put out another album and keep touring and things like that--it’s kind of a fun thing that we’re not trying to make a career out of.” “It’s really liberating,” he continues. “I feel far less stressed about this band and far less pressure than I did in LVL UP--and I really like it because of that. It’s just really nice to be able to go hang out with my friends every couple weeks and just jam and not really have these grand plans or grand ambitions.”
Even among their peers, LVL UP’s “grand ambitions” were unique--the band played a lot of shows. “I feel like if you're a rising independent band, you sort of are chasing a high, in a way,” says Rutkin. “We were all breaking our backs, trying our hardest to make this thing work--and it came at the expense of our personal relationships and our lives at home. While we were experiencing probably one of the coolest moments of our musical careers--like it's incredible to play your silly rock songs and be shipped off to Europe to play them for people--[it] felt like we were all burnt out, miserable and had no work/life balance at all. We were, in a weird way, strong enough to know our limits.” “We had not really been playing for about a year because when Return to Love came out, we toured really hard and pretty much burned ourselves out,” Caridi said at the time. “We did a lot of things we really didn’t want to do but kind of felt pushed into doing.”
Perhaps the core thesis of this article, the members of LVL UP have maintained a prolific release pace since the band broke up. While LVL UP released a number of EPs, singles and splits, the band “only” produced three LPs in seven or eight years. Benton alone has generated three LPs since 2018. In a 2018 interview, he said “I’m not really sure why, but it was holding me back in terms of being able to write stuff. So now this is a super positive thing for me; it’s motivated me to write a lot and try to pursue this project more. I’ve actually noticed it with everybody in LVL UP, at least— everybody seems so much more productive now.” “One of the reasons I think our output as LVL UP was fairly slow, taking two or three years between each album, is, once we graduated college, we really leaned hard into touring as much as possible,” says Caridi. “When you’re together for four or five weeks at a time, when that tour completes, we were kind of ready to have our own space for the next several weeks. And I think that kind of stunted our output a little bit.”
Where the vast majority of bands have one songwriter, LVL UP had three. Each of LVL UP’s three songwriters, as their current projects make obvious, have different influences and different sonic targets for the records they create. How, then, did LVL UP strike a balance between the three visions and function as a band--much less function on a high level? The answer is curation. “We were pretty selective about the songs we would use in LVL UP,” Caridi says. “Everybody has always been prolific, but we wouldn’t always use all the songs we wrote. For instance, the first half of Am I was all written in the LVL UP era between Hoodwink'd and Return to Love, so I had been sitting on those songs for a long time, but they never became band songs because they just weren’t right for LVL UP. And I don’t want to speak for Dave or Nick, but I think they were also selective about what they would bring to the band. I think that played a big role in why we would take so long between records.”
“Some of the new songs that are on the Trace Mountains record are like, honky-tonk songs, and I don’t think it could have worked in LVL UP,” says Rutkin. “Maybe it could have worked in LVL UP, but I don’t think it really would have fit the canon, in a way.” “Same as a song off Nick’s record,” he continues. “It probably would have sounded different through the lens of this project where we all collaborated, in the same way we had always had.”
Comparing the 2015 version of “Proven Water Rights,” originally released on Three Songs, LVL UP’s sole release for Boston’s Run For Cover Records (Fiddlehead, Citizen, Field Medic), with the new version on Heaven’s Just A Cloud proves Rutkin right. LVL UP’s recording of the song is a straight-ahead ride cymbal and downstroke affair, plodding through its 4:16 runtime with relatively few detours en route to a cycling, distorted bridge. The intermittent lead guitar doubling of Corbo’s vocal melodies is sporadic, bordering on more of a coincidental feel than the deliberate reinforcement throughout Spirit Was’ version. Clocking in under three minutes, Corbo’s 2021 take on the song trims the fat and doubles down on his affinity for a seismic rhythm section lurches underneath snaking guitar leads as Santos’ harmonies waft in and out of the arrangement. Side-stepping the need to dub either iteration “better” than the other, the differences are unmistakable and afford valuable insight into the differences between LVL UP’s collaborative process and Corbo’s individual process.
Over their time playing together, the members of LVL UP developed a writing process that, despite artistic differences and having three “chefs in the kitchen,” allowed them to be productive and to create cohesive, impactful collections of songs. “I didn't really feel the need to write a lot of guitar parts because somebody else is always going to be playing guitar,” says Corbo. “And I had full faith in what what they have in mind, whatever they wanted to bring to the song, it was kind of easy for me to write collaborative songs with them, because I could just write melody and harmony, and not really put a lot of effort into arranging the song. I could kind of like, save that for the group.” “I learned a lot playing with the members of LVL UP,” says Caridi. “Everybody brought something different to the table in that band and we developed this chemistry where we were able to play off each other’s strengths really well.”
That process--which Benton once called “the cool thing about LVL UP”--also had its creative limitations. “As we sort of continued on the path that we were going, when we were starting to write new songs before we broke up, it felt like everybody had their job,” says Rutkin. “The riff person was Mike, the hook person was Dave and these things would come together as a band in a sort of formulaic way. And I think that, in order for the growth to happen, that's happening now, maybe it was ultimately the best decision to sort of break off and become separate from that.” “For me, part of the decision to end LVL UP was because I kind of felt like it was slowing me down,” says Benton. “I knew that [Nick and Mike] had part of it covered. It kind of made me feel like I was getting lazy, which didn’t feel good. But I also didn’t feel like I could do both.” “The sound was becoming more cohesive,” Rutkin concludes. “But in a way, it was a little less exciting or something.”
The band members agree that the LVL UP group chat is mostly quiet now, checking in occasionally to share recommendations for recording engineers or pass along SoundCloud links when a new record is done. “We don't all live in the same location anymore, so it's not as easy to see each other and stuff,” says Corbo. “But we definitely have kept in contact, especially on matters like [Benton referring Corbo to mutual engineer Matt Labozza], asking for advice.” “That’s something that I miss from LVL UP,” says Benton. “No one cares as much as you do, and with LVL UP, at least there were three other people that cared just as much.” “The band breaking up wasn't fun--it was terrible,” says Rutkin. “And I think that there's still this feeling of missed opportunity for some of us and for others there isn't. But I do think that now in our lives, although there might not be perfect communication, we all do support each other.” Ironically, both Benton and Corbo mention spending time recently focusing on fingerpicking--a skillset they might have to yield to Rutkin.
After a few tongue-in-cheek interview responses about it, LVL UP actually did break up. Talking now, at least two of the band’s former members recycle a joke that nostalgic fans could simply put new songs from Trace Mountains, The Glow and Spirit Was on a playlist and call that “the new LVL UP record.” While the joke certainly plays, listeners should be careful to avoid painting with too broad a brush when digesting the new projects, as their differences prove compelling for the same reason that LVL UP was such an exciting band during its time--the contributions of its four members. At its inception, during its height and from the lens of hindsight, LVL UP’s story is one of hard-earned chemistry and collaboration. Similarly, where Corbo, Caridi and Benton each began their post-LVL UP musical journeys trending toward “solo projects” (even if they each decry that classification), they all now continue to work their way back toward being in a capital “B” band, solidifying lineups, revisiting past collaborators and forming trusted working “teams”--and the results speak for themselves. “I also think that just as we grew up, Nick, Dave, and Mike's musical interests morphed a bit more,” Rutkin predicted in a 2018 interview. “I feel like people can now start to dive deeper into those realms without feeling held back or something like that by the framework in which LVL UP existed.” Three years and a bunch of songs later, Rutkin was right.