Sure, it’s easy to pass time in the tour van by tossing around names of dream record labels. But when Sub Pop actually comes calling, and it’s time to get your asses in gear, double down on the hard work and turn in a record that brims with ferocious energy and creative leaps.
What may well be music industry clichés when viewed from the outside can also be the vibrant, beating heart of a band on a mission. For New York quartet LVL UP, the interest from Sub Pop jumpstarted the band out of a lull—one that perhaps might’ve brought the group to a close—and pushed them to their creative limit. With Return to Love, LVL UP met the challenge and has been collecting the band’s best reviews so far.
“We’ve always self-released our stuff, and we really didn’t want to do that any more, but we also didn’t want to settle for a label we didn’t care about,” says guitarist Mike Caridi. “Having Sub Pop actually reach out to us felt like this weird surreal dream. We couldn’t have been more excited for it.”
It’s a long way to come in the short five years since the band began. The group first began as a dual songwriting and recording project for Caridi and fellow guitarist Dave Benton. The original goal was to put out a split release between the Caridi and Benton material and songs from bassist Nick Corbo.
“In the end we decide the split worked so well with three songwriters together that we were just going to call it a band, and that ended up being our first album, Space Brothers,” Caridi says.
So, before even playing a show, LVL UP had an album, and the group quickly added drummer Greg Rutkin to round out the lineup. Since that first record, they’ve stuck with the three-songwriter modus operandi, letting the depth of personality and the merging of styles become the LVL UP calling card.
“From there, we’ve just honed in our sound. It’s a collaborative effort in terms of choosing what songs are going to make it on because we all write a lot,” Caridi says. “But each songwriter has free reign over the content of the songs. We’ll bring a song forward and adjust some things, and that’s why things sound so cohesive. But a lot of the songs are so different because we don’t have any constraints over what each of us are writing about or how we’re writing.”
The band’s second full-length album, 2014’s Hoodwink’d, brought plenty of new attention (including, of course, from Sub Pop), so when it came time to work on the follow-up, the band went through a bit of questioning whether moving forward as a three-songwriter project would be a problem. But with the experience as a band growing in a more collaborative direction, they figured it was best to rely on the style they’d developed.
“It’s always been that way, so we’ve always had moments of wondering if it’s going to be cohesive. The general idea for us is the first record was all over the place and sounds more like a compilation, but as the records have gone one they’ve grown more cohesive,” Corbo says. “At this point, we’ve been doing it for five years, so we’re all in tune with each other’s writing styles. It turns into this unintentional collaboration.”
What emerges in listening to Return to Love is a sense of how deeply the band members have grown to understand the songwriting strengths of each member, and how best to respond.
“Dave’s songs are maybe a little more abstract lyrically. My songs are more based on personal storytelling, and Nick’s are really based in a lot of fantasy and imagery,” Caridi says.
Those distinct songwriting personalities show up most clearly at the end of Return to Love. Written by Caridi, the record’s penultimate song “I” is an energetic, power-pop sprint. Then comes the Corbo-penned “Naked in the River with the Creator,” which stretches past seven minutes, with a meditative early section yielding to a heavy, wild and powerful close.
“Is this too much to go between these two vastly different songs? In the end, we decided it was part of the album, and if you listen from front to back, that jump isn’t as scary. It somehow works,” Caridi says.
The album title comes from a song Caridi wrote that didn’t make the album and for a moment, the band wavered on using the title, unsure about what it might signal for listeners.
“It isn’t by any means a love record or talking about romantic relationships,” he says. “A lot of it thematically is about a lack of love, and that could be traced throughout most of the songs. It’s really the furthest we’ve ever gotten from writing a love record. When we use the term love, a lot of it is about friendship, a lot of it is about self-love or self-hatred, themes like that.”
The theme of love extends deeper for the band. While there are spiritual references on the album, Corbo says those actually point more toward the creative process and the inspiration they feel in making music and working on the visual presentation for LVL UP. Corbo drew the album cover, just one instance of the full measure of creative effort the band devotes to its work.
“I’m really interested in multifaceted creativity, and it’s a thing that we strive for, having a hand in all the different processes that go into making a record. We’ve always had somewhat of a hand in making our album art, music videos, band photos,” Corbo says. “Pretty much every aspect that’s creative, we try to stay involved with. It’s none of us completely, but it’s all of us partially.”