“Is this good here, am I in the shot?” Greg Rutkin calls out with an out-stretched arm, latex gloves on both hands, and a big slab of tenderloin steak in his right, which is currently being aimed directly at Nick Corbo’s face. Rutkin (drums) and Corbo (bass) of LVL UP are in the middle of shooting the new video for their single, “DBTS”, an acronym for the show and living space in Bushwick, David Blaine’s The Steakhouse, also the roof location we are standing on. Earlier that day Corbo told me how he came to find himself at the Steakhouse: “I was living in Hartsdale, New York when I had this really crazy week where I lost my girlfriend, my house, my job and my car and I had to move out. I didn’t have a place to go and was feeling hopeless so I called Greg and he said ‘you have to come here’.” Corbo lived there for two weeks during which he wrote “DBTS”; now him and Greg both live there permanently.
“F that place dude, they won’t miss you/They won’t love you like we do/If you need a place we can share this bed/Promise my brother I wouldn’t bother him/But prison might be fine if it were private.”
Above, the opening lines to “DBTS” deal with shitty realities that inevitably sneak their way into our lives at some point or another, but most importantly it’s about how friends can be there to help. I can’t forget the first day I stepped foot in DBTS with warm happy feelings emanating from the room, and I don’t regret how cheesy this piece turned out because life can be like that sometimes.
David Blaine’s The Steakhouse is in shambles from the night before when I arrive for the interview. The aftermath of the one year anniversary party is a graveyard of beer bottles and cans. Fake money, confetti, and various articles of trash are scattered on the floor and a big “Happy Birthday!” banner still hangs above the drum set in the middle of the room (aka the stage), yet to be disassembled. None of this is surprising to me, but I don’t expect the collection of smiling faces from the party goers who still haven’t left, greeting me warmly as I ascend the stairs to the second floor—one big family gathering. Steve Hartlett of Ovlov is there, Porches. keyboardist Seiya Jewell, Jim Hill of Slight, Becca Rstkalcyzk of Bethlehem Steel, and the rest of the LVL UP crew and more are all sitting around in a big circle, obviously recovering from the night before. Later on Painted Zeros join us for the video shoot.
“We slept in that tent last night,” Greg tells me, pointing to the collapsed pile of tarps and tent poles on the other side of the roof as we sit down for our interview. The roof is covered in even more beer bottles and cigarette butts, and Dave Benton offers me a sip from a bottle of lemonade full of butts and tar—and who knows what else—left out overnight. I couldn’t help but think of the romanticism behind the image of the post-party carnage. A hangover is always more manageable when shared with friends.
LVL UP’s sophomore record is undoubtedly a marker in time for the group, a remarkably heart-warming body of work by a band taking their art to the next… wait for it.. level. LVL UP has done so with Hoodwink’d, and like the title suggests, the album embraces the self conscious years when we think we know ourselves and the world until we find out what it’s really all about. As if to say we’ve all Hoodwink’d ourselves. Their debut, Space Brothers, was recorded in 2011 at The Stood, the all-student run event/practice/assembly space at SUNY Purchase in White Plains, New York. They did it all themselves, right down from the recording to the cellophane wrapping of the tapes. The lyrics on Space Brothers are vague, although maybe just as sad as on Hoodwink’d, but with the context of the new record, Space Brothers obviously was a band still trying to figure it out. With Hoodwink’d, LVL UP are a group of buds coming together, after almost two full years of not releasing anything, a more mature versions of themselves, and with that, ready to face the next chapter head-on.
But more than anything it’s the cohesion and togetherness that brought this album to a higher standard. Minus Greg Rutkin, guitarist Mike Caridi, Nick and Dave all bring their own pre-written songs to the group, a process indicating the connection between the four, it’s at a point where they know each other’s songs and styles forwards and backwards. LVL UP as a band molds the three songwriter’s music into a single entity. Greg Rutkin’s description of how they achieved that cohesion is satisfyingly simple: “We spend all of our time together, we like each other a lot and we have this really nice family sort of thing going on. There’s just a lot more cohesion in our friendship… mad love.” Later that day this mad love would be tested on the roof as they lobbed slabs of beef at each other’s faces as part of the “DBTS” shoot.
With closer listens you can begin to tell which songs come from who. Michael Caridi’s sound slightly more upbeat, like on “Medication”, a song with lyrics that don’t match the joyful melody, but relate a modern struggle of the drug-pumped millennials: “You walking dead/You bag of bones/Repeating yourself, ‘so are you home?’/no one knows if you’re in control of what you’re saying/Or is it your medication?” Dave Benton’s songs are highly visual, where illustrations become clear: “Who are you, and why are you in my room/The moment that I come to, you’ll be around growing shapes in the air, resurrecting the spirit there.” This is “Primordial Heat”, a song that weaves dream like images of musky dorm rooms, car wrecks and the oh so familiar experience of waking up in a bed next to someone you don’t know, or maybe thought you knew.
The filming of the video for “DBTS” is a flashback to an earlier LVL UP chapter; a video for the song, “Nightshade”, off their first album, where the entire video is a super slowed down shot of Nick Corbo having chocolate syrup poured over his head. In the new chapter, we’re throwing steak, mashed potatoes and peas and carrots at the whole band. As I stand on the roof of David Blaine’s The Steakhouse, frozen peas and carrots in hand, aiming for Greg’s face, I think about… well to be honest I didn’t think about anything deeply profound at all, I was just happy to be there with a group as friendly as the people at DBTS. Hoodwink’d, more than anything, feels like a new chapter in what is sure to be a prosperous story with LVL UP. My first listening of the album was so focused on the sadness, but as I look closer and closer it’s clear that this is not a sad story. It is a celebration of what’s to come, a chance to reevaluate what was, and a reminder of what is now.
The following evening I head over to Death By Audio to catch Ronald Paris (of Porches), Ovlov which for this edition includes Greg and Nick filling in on drums and guitar, and a new supergroup band called Voice Coils (members of Porches, Extra Life, and Mitski) who were releasing their single that evening. Not to my surprise, the whole crew from the day before is in attendance. The show is a blast and although the eclecticism of lineup is somewhat odd, each act compliments one another excellently. After the show I am invited inside to play the turn-based hand-slapping game of “ninja” after Nick Corbo tells me “we’ve been trying to play a game of ninja in every venue… we’ve already got Silent Barn, Cameo Gallery and Palisades.” As we all stand in a circle ready to compete for Ninja champion of Death By Audio I think about how it’s the same old song and dance as the day before, only this time we’re aiming at each other with our hands instead of slabs of beef.
LVL UP’s Hoodwink’d is out now on Double Double Whammy/Exploding In Sound.