LVL UP Says Goodbye: After Nearly 8 Years, the Sub Pop Band Talks Breaking Up and What’s Next

Interviews, Sub Pop 30
08/06/2018
Dusty Henry
photo by Niffer Calderwood

When a band announces it’s calling it quits, it’s normal to get a surge of nostalgic feelings. As music fans, many of us count certain bands as eras of our own lives. Their songs soundtrack key moments, their albums become close companions, and shows are sacred encounters with your heroes in the flesh. I know I felt that when LVL UP announced their breakup in June after nearly eight years together as a band. I remember the swell of emotions I felt watching the group play an inspiring set to a packed crowd at Black Lodge here in Seattle, listening as the band effortlessly segued their song “Pain” into Elliott Smith’s “Roman Candle.” I remember stuffing a copy of what would become their final album, their 2016 Sub Pop debut Return to Love, in my luggage on a trip back from the band’s hometown of New York with some of my closest friends. Little fragments of moments implant in our psyche to be unearthed again and again. Sentimentality can get the best of us, making it hard to let go.

“I kind of like saying goodbye to people,” LVL UP bassist and vocalist Nick Corbo tells me over the phone from New York. “I've never been one to hate on farewells. I think it's a great opportunity to really let your cheesy flag fly and hug it out and feel really good, nice and tender.”

Breaking up has been a part of the “LVL UP narrative” since just before the release of Return To Love when the band jokingly told a writer in an interview that the while recording the LP they decided that “if we're even gonna do another record, then we should do it on a cool label. Like Sub Pop.” It’s part of what the band describes as their own self-deprecating humor, Corbo adding, “It's because we're so boring that you need come up with your own narrative to even find one.” The quote was picked up and began to define LVL UP in music media as a band that could break up at any moment. While that wasn’t true at the time, here we are at the end of the band.

Talking to Corbo and drummer Greg Rutkin about LVL UP ending is much more hopeful than I had imagined. In a break-up, there’s the cliche notion that often gets thrown out: “We can still be friends, right?” It doesn’t always pan out that way. But with LVL UP, you can really feel that the bond between them extends far beyond just performing under the same moniker. Together the two discuss the reasons for ending the project, the new works some of the members will continue to collaborate on, and how they plan to say goodbye to the fans who’ve supported them throughout their career. I don’t normally like to say goodbye, but Corbo and Rutkin make it seem not so heartbreaking.

 

KEXP: Before Return to Love, the band had contemplated breaking up before you decided to "go big" or get signed by a label like Sub Pop – which obviously worked out. The record was excellent and it seems like it was really well received. Why did you decide to end it now?

Greg Rutkin: Well, that first part of that story was a dramatized version of a joke. The first article blew up into a real thing and then every other thing that happened from the Return to Love album cycle copied off of that. We've tried to put out that fire because it's not necessarily true. Like we weren't planning on breaking up or anything like that and we weren't like, "Unless we get signed to a big label we're gonna break up." We were just kind of wondering where we were gonna be and feeling a little hopeful that maybe something would come from the next album, but it wasn't it like, "This or nothing" type of deal. And honestly, the fact that Sub Pop get involved was completely an unintentional fluke.

Nick Corbo: I think that situation was more of us trying to determine what direction things were gonna go in. Because at that point in time I think that we were thinking about putting out another record, but if it was something that was just to be sort of this "fun and friendly thing," then we would have treated it as so. But if it was something that was gonna have maybe have more resources backed into it and be on a bigger label, then it would have been something that we could have pursued professionally or something. That was the real question in that moment. We had a conversation with somebody, with the person that was going to do that interview, and then when it came out... we have a sort of dramatic, self-deprecating sense of humor about the project. When that headline came out for that one, we were all very taken by surprise and then when people really picked up on it and repeating that over and over again, it became this weird narrative where everyone was like, "Oh you guys are on the brink of breaking up all the time." And it wasn't necessarily like that.

KEXP: That definitely seems to be the narrative: "LVL UP, the band that can break up at any time."

Corbo: It's because we're so boring that you need come up with your own narrative to even find one [laughs].

Rutkin: We are very self-deprecating, I think that's extremely accurate… It's a joke that maybe we didn't realize how our words were going to be perceived or written about in that moment. And that's part of the growing experience of being on a bigger label or getting more attention in general.

KEXP: So it seems like there was at least this feeling of "Is this going to be something we do for fun with friends or is it going to be a career?" Am I getting that right?

Rutkin: I mean, I think that some of us – if not all of us – have always seen music as a career choice. But we were kind of unsure of how the band would fit into it in 2014 or 2015. Before we got approached by Sub Pop, we were just unsure. But you know, we have three different songwriters and inevitably, as we now see, things might be easier for three people to write their own songs.

Corbo: The way that our creative process has always worked is that, for the most part, the spark of a song and sometimes all the way up to almost a completed song is coming from one of the individuals and then it gets sort of filtered – not filtered, but processed through this lens of us as a group and then they become LVL UP songs instead of just being songs made by these individuals. And that was definitely really fun and definitely worked out for us for a while, but some people were sort of surprised to hear about this but... I mean, we've been playing together since we were like 19, going on eight or 10 years of being in the band and being in this group and watching it start to take off and become something that is sort of working out. It's not so much that we wanted to see that go away, but I think that we've all been curious as individuals to see what would happen if we focus on something that was maybe more centered around individuals. And I think that that's sort of how this came about.

Rutkin: I also think that just as we grew up, Nick, [guitarist/vocalist] Dave Benton, and [guitarist/vocalist] Mike Caridi's musical interests morphed a bit more. Which was cool, but – I don't want to speak for you, Nick – 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.

Corbo: 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!" There's no expectations of what this is... well, I guess there are probably some expectations of what it will sound like. It's all on you to get across that and figure it out.

Photo by Niffer Calderwood

 

KEXP: I think that's one of the most fascinating parts of the band – having three different songwriters molding a vision together from a bunch of different ideas. How did you go about workshopping those different song ideas together and compromising and building together?

Rutkin: I think we got into a comfortable groove with Return to Love where some of those songs were being written while we were in the studio. People had ideas of things and they knew what other members were good at. That's usually the way we describe it, where it's like, "Oh this part could use a nice riff-hook." And Mike is really good at writing a guitar hook. Or like a little odd melody and Dave's really good at that or a good groove and Nick's really good at that. It's sort of like we're able to almost use each other as tools to help build a song or the sound of a song.

Corbo: It's definitely something that developed over time. Like I said, we've been playing for like eight years about now. Maybe at the beginning, it's pretty clear if you look at Space Brothers and how on Space Brothers none of my songs are collaborative at all. I kind of just made the recordings and brought them to the table and we put them all together. And then with Hoodwink'd it was a little bit more and then with Return To Love it obviously was a lot of collaboration and a lot of writing things together. Maybe not writing a song – like determining a structure or writing lyrics or writing a melody – but definitely figuring out how they go and arranging them was definitely something that we started to work on together and I think that's what made them LVL UP songs instead of songs by individuals.

KEXP: Was there an energy or an idea you guys had or a feeling in the studio when you were working on Return to Love of what you wanted this album to be?

Rutkin: I think that maybe the coolest part of our whole career was being able to have the opportunity to just sit in the studio for a really long time and sort of get comfortable in there. I think that we had ideas, but I don't know how much we talked about it beforehand. I think that the sound came through what was available to us in this new playground of sounds.

Corbo: I think we were just going into it trying to make something that was good. There wasn't like a thematic arc or anything like that. I mean, within the different writers I think everybody had their own little thematic arc and then I think as a group, we've been friends for so long and I think that we all grew and developed musically together and around one another. I was listening to the record the other day and I was like, "Oh my god, Dave's talking about all this stuff that I'm talking about in my songs too." Like literally images that pop up. And I think that that just comes from us being close together all the time and being influenced by similar things and similar ideas. I think that sort of happens silently.

KEXP: In nearly eight years as a band, you guys put out records on Double Double Whammy [ran by LVL Up's Mike Caridi and Dave Benton], singles on other DIY labels before signing to Sub Pop. I'm curious if you guys had any big takeaways ofbeing an artist that started super DIY and then having this larger independent label backing you, and the difference between those.

Rutkin:I think Double Double Whammy is a lot different now than it was... I mean, that record label and this band were basically born at the same time for almost cross promotional purposes [laughs]. Double Double Whammy was a fake label that put out a this fake band's first tape, basically. I think that was all we knew was the do-it-yourself thing. We were really lucky and had an extremely strong community of friends and a big performance space to offer outside touring bands to come through in college and play with us, and through that we were able to make connections in an underground sort of sense. That's how we operated for the first five years of our existence. Sub Pop is just some sort weird dream of an idea that we really comprehend at the time.

Corbo: Those were the resources that were available at the time. We were in college and it's not as though we were like, "Let's make this band and we have the opportunity to go big or small – let's go small!" It was a small operation and we were insanely lucky Mike and Dave were interested in running a label at the same time as starting this band. And then we were super lucky that labels like Evil Weevil.. I mean, they put out our record before we played a show. It's outrageous. So things like that where I can't believe that that happened.

Rutkin: And then also when we all moved to New York, we made really good friends with the Exploding in Sound people and we were only playing with bands that were on that record label. When Hoodwink'd came out, even though we had the plan to do it on Double Double Whammy – which was just our home label – we also really wanted Exploding in Sound to be involved too because they were there every single show and had such a strong community. That's just sort of what was there and what was friendly and family at the time. When we started working with Sub Pop, I think it really was a shock. It went from a team of two people who were in the band to being a 40 person team. I think that there were some weird, funny growing pains with that but for the most part it was a really cool experience.

KEXP: I've always appreciated that there's continued to be this DIY commitment with the band. I would see you guys come through town at Black Lodge here in Seattle and definitely creates this sense of community. Like, "this band's not a part of this scene, but they're supporting DIY spaces on tour." Is that something that's important to you guys?

Rutkin: Yeah, definitely. This kid came up to me at one of our last shows in Boston. He was pretty young and he was just like, "How do you get people to care about your band?" At first I was like, "Ugh, just leave me alone." But then I was like, "Actually, I can answer this." And I was like, "You need to be involved in community and if there's no community, then you need a place to foster a community to grow. And then through that you can all help promote each other and lift each other up." I don't think that you'll ever get anywhere without that life strong, organic friend effort. That support system of sorts.

 

KEXP: So you recently put out the song "Orchard," which is your final release as a band. How did that song come about and why did you want to have that song as your final statement?

Corbo: We were working on that song together before we started talking about stopping. When the Sub Pop record came out, we hit it really, really hard. We did a lot of work. We played a lot of shows. Then we took a long break and then "Orchard" was the first song that we started putting together when we were like, "Oh, let's get back in the saddle! Let's demo out some new songs." But it's mostly a demo that we were working to try to help Mike pull that song out of his head. Before we finished it, we started talking about stopping and it sort of just became the last LVL UP song. We decided to finish it. I think it was fitting that it has a sort of like a sentimental temperature and has very sentimental sounds and it has sort of become this goodbye, "swan song." That's a romantic-ass way to talk about it. But I don't know, making that song was really fun. It was really nice that we recorded that ourselves which is like how we used to do everything.

Rutkin: I definitely look back at those couple of days as been extremely nice, full circle, fun moments.

KEXP: You guys are all embarking on other projects. What are those and what's next for you as individuals?

Corbo: We were sort of joking about that the other day. I don't mean to set anything in stone, but I think it's pretty likely that each of us will probably put something out next year. It might be a full length, type release from each of us. We were joking around how if all that stuff is on Spotify, we should just make a playlist and shuffle it and that'll be the next LVL UP record. It'll essentially, probably provide the same sort of sonic experience.

Though we may be interested in moving on from this project, I don't think any of us are interested in making music anymore. It kind of feels like we're really hitting the ground running, actually, with these new projects. Just trying out different things and trying out different recording environments or writing environments, different groups and playing different shows. Like I said, this has been our band for like eight years during our 20s and it's been essentially the only band that some of us have been in for the past three or four years. It's nice to try out new things and experience a little bit and work with different people. Playing with another musician is a bond that's sort of hard to explain and it's something that you get really accustomed to and really used to. And then when you're playing with a new person, it's like, "Wow!" I guess Greg is definitely the type to play in a bunch of different bands, but me, Dave, and Mike haven't really been playing in other bands for the past while. For me to play guitar with another person, it's such a new experience. It's definitely made me very excited about making new music and I'm having a lot of fun. I think we're all sort of in that same boat.

Rutkin: I'm recording drums on Dave's solo stuff with Trace Mountains and Mike's solo stuff with The Glow and Nick just sent me some of his stuff under Spirit Was. I think that hearing all those things in this early stage is really, really exciting. People are like branching off into what they are really, really just trying to explore in. And it's been really cool for me to watch. Also we all just started going in on a practice space to get there, even though we're breaking up. So all that music is also centered and coming out of this physical space. [laughs] I don't know that means, but there's something kind of funny about that.

Corbo: I feel very blessed moving forward that none of that is spawning from any sort of bad blood or any bad things. So we're all just sort of moving on. And we're all still very much intertwined with one another. All these musical projects are going to be like cousins or something. My band played at the Trace Mountain's record release. They're all going to be involved with one another and we're all sharing this music with one another. I think it's really nice and I'm very, very lucky that we're not doing this because something bad happened. We're not doing this because we're sick and tired of each other.

Photo by Niffer Calderwood

 

KEXP: Later this month you guys will embark on the LVL UP farewell tour. Do you have anything special planned for these shows? How do you know want to say goodbye to the project with this tour?

Rutkin: Well, we put out feelers to people and asked for requests. We have kind of a large catalog. Honestly, I've never really learned a lot of our songs to play live. So we've been trying to build the requests of people that want to see us for the last time. And I think that that's been kind of fun to learn some of these songs they we've never played before [laughs]. What else do we have planned, Nick?

Corbo: I'm very excited for this. I really want it to be cheesy, man. I want it to be so cheesy and so overly sentimental and so special. I love going to a show and it's like... sometimes when you go to a show, and even if it's a band that you totally love, they're just playing. And that's cool but sometimes you see a band and it's like, "Wow there's a very magical energy and like it's feeling very special and like this is a weird moment" or something. I want to have the shows have a little bit of that type energy of being fun and being sort of a celebration of nostalgia and being this satisfying experience. I kind of like saying goodbye to people. I've never been one to hate on farewells. I think it's a great opportunity to really let your cheesy flag fly and hug it out and feel really good, nice and tender.

Rutkin: We have some really good friends playing with us at our last show and, I don't know, I just feel good about it. Our Sub Pop A&R person, Nick Duncan, is driving on down with us from Seattle to L.A.. I think that's gonna be a really special moment just because I think he quite literally is our biggest fan ever. I think it'll be nice to have him in the way that [Nick Corbo's] talking about in terms of nostalgia and cheesing it up. Adding him will be a really positive addition to that sentimental feeling.

Corbo: Honestly, I think it's going to be a really fun trip because – not to toot our own horn – but the shows seem to be doing very well. I think that people are going to come. It's not the tour that we went on when we were 19 and we were super struggling and you go to a show and nobody comes and it's a drag and then everyone feels all whacked out for the whole night. I think it's gonna be this victory lap kind of feel. I think the shows are gonna do great and going to have a high energy and I think we're gonna go on this fun trip and have fun. We haven't been out on the road like that for a long time. There's a lot of places I'm really excited to go. I'm really excited to go to the west coast. I'm very excited to go to Seattle, of course.

Rutkin: I feel like when you are in a band that is trying to make in your career, you stress a lot about things like attendance and sales and things like that. All that sort of like it doesn't even matter. So it's literally just like us hanging out with each other. Not having that pressure like anywhere around also feels really relaxing and nice.

Corbo: I got to tell you, doing a farewell tour is an amazing promotional activity [Rutkin laughs]. Because when we said all that shit online about it being a farewell experience, there was like this outcry of positive reinforcement that came with it and it felt so amazing. So many people hit us up being like,"I was going through this insane thing and this record was amazing and helped me trhough this insane thing." We got a Facebook message from a guy that like couldn't make it to our show the last time we went to Vancouver, B.C. because he got super sick and then he had to have this really gnarly surgery and his life was in danger and, swear to god, he said that the record helped him through it all. As a person who secretly is always hoping that people give a shit about this, to hear literally that everyone gives a shit about it so much... it's super nice. It's super vindicating and affirmative and positive. Also everybody was like, "Wow I'm so bummed about this!" But nobody would like, "I'm so bummed about this, I can't believe you're doing it. How could you!" Everyone is bummed about this but super excited for the future and super excited for everything. People were saying "good job" and stuff like that. It's so nice.

Rutkin: I think you spend so much time on the Internet, this growing platform of hate and negative feelings, and to actually interact with it in a way that is so positive and supportive was very refreshing. I was feeling so sad before we announced that thing. The first couple of days, a food of positivity came through. It was so nice. It was so refreshing.

KEXP: Is this definitely the end? Do you see LVL UP coming back some day?

Rutkin: I think that it's it. We're all on good terms. I don't know. What do you think, Nick?

Corbo: I think the fact that there's no like gnarly thing that happened that drove a wedge into this thing means that I would probably won't say it is a zero percent chance that we would play together again. Just because I know personally that I'm such a nostalgic person and I just love playing music sounds much that I can't see a world where in four years something asked me to do this and I had the resources to do it that I would say no. But I think that it's definitely not the idea that we're taking a pause. We're definitely interested in not doing this anymore. So the intent is to not do this anymore.

Rutkin: I definitely wouldn't tell anybody to hold their breath or anything like that.

Corbo: Like I said, I'm such a sucker for that cheesy shit. I'm so into super cheesy nostalgia that if I was ever playing some kickass Madison Square Garden show in the future when I'm rich and famous, we're all going to play the show. It's gonna be amazing.

Photo by Niffer Calderwood

Catch LVL UP this Saturday, Aug. 11 at Sub Pop's SPF 30 anniversary celebration at Alki Beach. They'll return to town one last time Sept. 5 at Barboza.

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