LVL UP Turns '90s Influences to Something New

LVL UP, a New York quartet that mines its sound from '70s power-pop, '80s punk, and '90s alternative rock, began as a happy accident.

Having met as students at SUNY Purchase, Mike Caridi, Dave Benton, and Nick Corbo got their start working on what was supposed to be a split release, one side given to the songs Caridi and Benton were writing and the other to Corbo's songs.

"We didn't plan it to be a multi-songwriter band, but it just came that way. We didn't have any idea what we were doing. Nick had the idea of putting the songs together because they worked well, so we did," Caridi says.

Fast-forward to the next recording by LVL UP (which includes Greg Rutkin on drums) and the now cohesive, quickly rising band has a song featured on Rolling Stone's top songs of 2015. "I Feel Extra-Natural," from the band's sophomore release, Hoodwink'd, is a loping and bittersweet lo-fi tune that name-checks the Silver Jews and recalls Beck's off-kilter melodicism.

On the heels of Space Brothers, a scrappy and haphazardly recorded DIY cassette release meant to kick off the band's Double Double Whammy record label, Hoodwink'd captured the band for the first time working together start to finish.

"It's more of a cohesive effort than a compilation," Rutkin says. "The second one was written with the intention of being a full album from a specific band, and I think that more defines our sound, rather than the other one, which was more of a happy mistake."

But even though the band had a clear purpose from the beginning, its second record represented a big step up in terms of stress and expectations.

"[Space Brothers] was just hanging out in people's houses and recording. It was very low stakes because nobody had ever heard of us. We'd never played a show until after that full-length was out. Writing Hoodwink'd felt like more pressure to make something good," Caridi says.

But, writing separately like they did at the band's inception, the songs piled up quickly. Caridi, Benton, and Corbo each write and record demo versions, which they call first drafts of the songs, before bringing the tunes to the rest of the band.

"Over the years, our styles have melded a little bit. Some of us have our own solo projects, so it's hard to figure out when I'm writing. I'm not completely thinking about where I'm going to put a song, so after the fact I have to decide," Benton says.

Though the band appreciates comparisons to cornerstone indie rockers like Guided by Voices, Pavement, and Built to Spill, they don't necessarily fit with the ever-present tag of "'90s rock."

"We're fans of it, but I wouldn't say we're striving to sound like it. We all listened to the same stuff in college and that wore off on us a bit, but we all draw from a lot of other influences," Caridi says. "It feels like people have been calling bands '90s revival bands for more than half a decade. At what point does it stop being a revival?"

While the band is continuing to tour on Hoodwink'd, they have a new three-song seven-inch record to tease the songs they've been working on for a followup. And while Hoodwink'd was an attempt to build on their first effort, the next project is a chance to break away from that. And maybe find another happy accident along the way.

"I feel like all the songs sound pretty different. For me, it wasn't about making a change happen specifically; it happened on its own," Corbo says. "A lot of the songs will sound different from one another. It might even be a little more along the lines of the first record, in its weird way."

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Eric is a freelance writer covering music, travel, science, and food and drink.
Contact: Eric Swedlund