This article appears in AdHoc Issue 22. Download a PDF of the zine at this link, and look out for physical copies both at our shows and at record stores, bookstores, coffee shops, and community centers throughout the city. If you happen to live outside of New York, you may order a copy as well.
Nick Corbo apologizes that he’s the only member of LVL UP on the phone. “We typically try to get at least two people on, because everybody’s opinions want to be heard,” Corbo says. “So I can’t speak for everybody, but I can at least speak for myself.”
When we chat, Corbo is just coming off a few weeks of relative solitude, describing it as “an opportunity to get back to normal” after tour. But his reluctance to speak on behalf of bandmates Mike Caridi, Dave Benton, and Greg Rutkin is testament to their close bond, as musical co-conspirators and friends.
Thanks in part to the fact that Corbo, Caridi, and Benton all write and sing in equal amount, LVL UP is much more than the sum of its parts. There is no de-facto frontman or leader calling the shots. They’re a team.
LVL UP formed at SUNY Purchase and dropped their 2011 debut, Space Brothers, on Double Double Whammy, the label that Caridi and Benton launched their sophomore year. That album was originally intended to be a split cassette between the band—then featuring Caridi, Benton, and former drummer Ben Smith—and Corbo’s solo material, but instead they released it as one band. Rutkin would join the group slightly later, for LVL UP’s first show.
Though there may be a lot of cooks in the kitchen, LVL UP’s music—especially their 2016 LP, Return to Love, on Sub Pop—highlights the members’ common ground. Heavy, distorted guitars and reverb-soaked vocals reign supreme on Return to Love, with occasional nods to ‘90s lo-fi rock heroes like Built to Spill and Guided by Voices. But whether it’s Corbo’s slow-burning grunge-mumbler “Naked in the River With the Creator,” Caridi’s bruised-yet-buoyant “Pain,” or Benton’s Neutral Milk Hotel-adjacent Biblical meditation “Hidden Driver,” it still all sounds like LVL UP.
Gearing up to reunite with the band for a short fall tour, Corbo spoke to AdHoc about what happens when a rock band grows up—and what happens when you grow up in a rock band.
LVL UP plays Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn on October 6, with Yowler and Slight, and October 7, with Long Beard and Yucky Duster.
For IAN SWEET’s Jilian Medford, touring is a form of therapy.
“I feel like I have to tour and play these songs constantly and live with them in order to be meditative and be able to process my mental health issues,” Medford tells AdHoc over the phone.
After playing solo shows in Boston’s DIY scene as IAN (a throwback to her high school skateboarding nickname), Medford teamed up with drummer Tim Cheney and bassist Damien Scalise to form IAN SWEET.
The band’s debut album, Shapeshifter, which dropped in September 2016 via Hardly Art, sees Medford processing and pondering those issues—anxiety, depression, panic attacks — on lo-fi, guitar-driven anthems referencing Nickelodeon and Michael Jordan. While Medford’s plaintive, reverb-drenched vocals anchor the record, Shapeshifter is enriched by the trio’s sheer musical chemistry, transforming complex arrangements into undeniably hooky garage-pop.
“It’s IAN when I’m on my own, but they add the SWEET,” Medford says, pausing for a second before cracking herself up.
Jilian Medford: Some of my heroes were people my parents were listening to, like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. They’ve always been heroes of mine as far as music goes, and they’ve shaped the way that I approach and think about music—a more “freaky” way [laughs]. Also, the way they involve theatrics, but not in an over-the-top way, was really influential.
Also, a big hero of mine that comes up in a lot of our music and art that we make is Michael Jordan. My dad was a basketball referee while I was growing up and was always taking me to games and involving me in that world.
The jump from Peter Gabriel to Michael Jordan is pretty funny.
With its blend of dissonant guitar clashes, raging synth chords, and frontman Jamie Stewart’s morbid imagination, Xiu Xiu is daring in a literal sense: it dares listeners to keep their headphones on and endure—rather than necessarily enjoy—what Xiu Xiu has to offer.
But it’s that challenge—the masochistic exercise of listening to a Xiu Xiu record, paired with moments of undeniable beauty—that makes their music all the more alluring.
“Wondering” features Stewart’s signature, trembling vocals imploring listeners to “swallow defeat” as a pulsing, club-ready beat chugs toward something of a rarity in Xiu Xiu’s catalog: a bonafide pop chorus.
But groovier tunes don’t necessarily mean Stewart is beginning to lighten up. At its core, FORGET is ultimately an exploration of frailty and loneliness, ending on a poem read by the drag artist Vaginal Davis. The poem closes with lines that are peak-Stewart: “It doesn't matter what you think/ Do anything you like/ Because I was born dead/ And I was born to die.”
Over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Stewart seems reluctant to explore the roots of his fascination with darker topics, less because he's scared and more because he's worried it could ruin his creative process.
“A lot of ‘whys’ in music I think fuck music up,” he says
Some people write songs because they like to write songs, but James Jackson Toth writes them because he needs to.
“If I didn’t have to write songs, I wouldn’t,” he told AdHoc over the phone from his home in Richmond, VA. “If they didn’t pester me the way they do, I’d just do something else."
Since the mid-2000s, Toth has released a near-perpetual stream of music under the moniker Wooden Wand. The sheer volume of his output has freed him to dabble with a wide variety of scenes and sounds—freak folk, outlaw country, free jazz and psych rock, to name a few—without ever coming across as an artistic tourist. What ties that work together is Toth’s idiosyncratic lyrical stylings, and his refusal to linger for too long in the same sonic space.
Creative freedom doesn’t necessarily yield financial freedom, and Toth is no stranger to the necessity of side hustle. He explores the concept on “Mexican Coke,” a song off his most recent LP, Clipper Ship, singing, "Where there's a will, there are ways."
Although Toth admits he once viewed the side hustle as a somewhat romantic notion—doing something menial in service of pursuing your passion—he now believes it's assumed a darker significance in the age of the sharing economy. It’s a question that we kept coming back to during our interview: just how much hustling can one soul take?
James Jackson Toth: I guess I feel compelled to do it. I think it’s a misunderstanding that a lot of us enjoy doing it. I mean, it’s definitely satisfying to write songs. But it’s certainly not something I set out to do. I just started really young and kept on doing it. If I didn’t have to write songs, I wouldn’t. If they didn’t pester me the way they do, I’d just do something else. I’d probably sleep a lot better.
It makes sense that Jesse Jerome Jenkins V finds solace in isolation.
As a member of the celebrated Austin band Pure X, Jesse is well-versed in crafting hazy, pining noise pop. But on his debut solo album Hard Sky, Jesse trades the collaborative ethos of his band for a solitary, personal undertaking. It's a record full of songs about loneliness, and creating it was a lonely process, too.
Hoping to grow as an artist, as well as “cope” with the “noise” of the outside world, Jesse decamped to his Corpus Christi studio to lay down tracks between 2014 and 2016. Rather than setting out with a high concept, Hard Sky is a collection of songs that see Jesse coming to terms with (and sometimes shrugging off) heavy concepts like impermanence and loss over a backdrop of Americana guitar licks and pillowy synths. On the surprisingly buoyant “De-pression,” Jesse ponders, “What happens when you lost the time that you had before?” It’s a question that Jesse never really answers, but he still leans in to the beauty of not knowing.
Jesse: I grew up in Northeast Texas in a little town called Emory, which is between Dallas and Texarkana. It’s a town of like 1,000 people—super small.
How do you think where you’re from and how you grew up affected your perspective as an artist?
That’s a good question and actually something I’ve been thinking of recently. I think I’m seeking isolation now because that’s how I coped with things growing up. I was in this tiny town and I really hated it and I wanted to get out of there so bad. Now, I kind of realize that it was a really good place for me to grow up as an artist because it forced me to create my own world and my own fun.