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.
AdHoc: Why do you think that you write songs?
I have a couple reasons why I write songs. I’ve been doing it for a while with at least semi-positive results. I think it’s cathartic, for sure— and emotive and a really nice creative outlet. I have a lot of nervous energy, too, and music also satisfies things like ligamental energy. So that’s definitely a part of it, too: just playing things over and over again, working on your dexterity and stuff like that. That sort of manual part of it has gotten bigger for me recently.
Also, I would be wrong to ignore the social aspect of it and the people I’ve come in contact with.
You can tell from listening to LVL UP records that different songs come from different members of the band.
You’d be surprised, honestly. I’ve talked to some people who don’t know that it’s three writers and think that all the voices are the same person.
As writers and performers, they’re complementary voices, but they’re distinct in my opinion. How do you guys foster an environment where these different layers and tastes can co-exist as LVL UP?
I think the process for us changes, and has been changing since we started doing it. When we started the group, I think I was like 20. At that point, we weren’t really thinking about it. We were all in college, and playing music was part of hanging out. That’s how it kind of started with me and Mike and Dave.
But now it’s definitely different. I’d say each record has a different process or variation on the process. All the songs [on Space Brothers] were completely separate from one another—actually, not all of them, but for the most part, we recorded them in separate places and separate environments and with separate people, and then we brought them together.
For the two records after that, Extra Worlds  and Hoodwink’d . we got together and recorded them in one go. So that was a big difference. When you’re doing it like that, you have to start listening to what other people say, because it’s a group project. It still retained a lot of individuality on the songs, but it felt like more of a band/group sort of thing.
And then Return to Love was completely in the studio. Sometimes we wouldn’t all be there at the same time, so that was a totally different process. It’s not as though we all go in and be like, “I’m going to play the bass, Dave’s going to play his guitar thing, Mike’s going to play his guitar thing.” We kind of fool around with the instrumentation a little bit, and we all record separate things. But it’s funny that you ask that, because I’ve been thinking a lot about how we make music as a group and how it’s maybe going to change. We haven’t talked about this or whatever, but I would like to try maybe writing some songs together.
So more collaboration from start to finish, rather than bringing in odds and ends and finishing them together?
Yeah. I feel like we all usually write the general chords and melody. We definitely don’t jam, though I know people who have a small idea and develop it over time together. Someone will have a little tune and bring it in and [the others will] help with structure and how the instrumentation is going to happen and who’s going to play what.
What is it like being in a band with some of your best friends? Do you find that your relationships with them have changed over time?
It’s an extremely intense situation to get into with a group of people. It’s surprising to me how many long-lasting bands there have been. The odds of finding four people who want the same thing and who are able to spend that much time together is unusual, but it’s pretty common at the same time.
But, yes, it’s definitely changed. I think it’s become more familial for me. All of a sudden, these were more like brother-type relationships for me, versus in college, [when] we were just hanging out. All of sudden, you’re on tour and it’s been a month-and-a-half, and you’re doing the same thing over and over again. You react in more of a family way, where you’re like, “I’m so sick of you. I’m so sick of being around you, but I love you and my life is entwined with yours in this way where we have to follow through.”
That’s kind of why we took this break. There was a while where we did not hang out for a week or two. Then I started hanging out with Dave and Greg. Now, I’ve been hanging out with Mike a little more, and we’ve all been hanging out together. I think you deserve a break, and you deserve an opportunity to get back to normal. You’re in the car with them a lot.
You shared that you were a very different person when you started this band. How do you think you’ve grown as a person being in LVL UP?
Damn. That’s a huge, personal question. It’s funny, because I’ve been doing this for so long—I’ve been playing in bands since I was in high school. And then after college, I was doing it with more intensity, and now, I’m deep into it and it’s kind of my job. That trajectory is entwined with my life and who I am. So I don’t feel like I could ever separate [who I am as a musician and who I am as a human being]. [Those experiences are] a big chunk of my personality.
There’s a lot of traveling. It does a lot to your personal relationships and it dictates the kind of personal relationships you can have, and it’s fucking scary sometimes to leave all the time. But at the same time, it brings a lot of people into your life in interesting ways. I’d say it makes it more difficult to keep lasting relationships and devote yourself to people, but easy to meet a lot of people on a more superficial or peripheral level—people you see often, but who you don’t know the same way. They’re not inside of your life in the way that other people who are close to you are.