Brooklyn quartet LVL UP reached a crossroads early in their career. They earned a cult-following and some critical success with their 2014 record Hoodwink’d, which they released by themselves on their own Double Double Whammy label. Still, the uncertainty that comes with being in an up-and-coming band pushed the four college friends to contemplate their future together.
“We were either gonna sign or break up,” guitarist Mike Caridi said in an August 2016 interview. “We narrowed it down to like, three labels: Sub Pop, Merge, or Matador.”
Things fell into place and LVL UP ended up signing with Sub Pop to release Return to Love, which sees Caridi, guitarist Dave Benton, bassist Nick Corbo, and drummer Greg Rutkin flex their fuzzed-out indie aesthetic on a prestigious label without giving up what’s always worked for them.
“Sub Pop has been so supportive of our previous efforts as a band operating heavily with a DIY ethos that the transition to working with them has been fairly smooth,” guitarist Mike Caridi told Indie88 ahead of the band’s Toronto date at Lee’s Palace.
“Realistically, what they’ve allowed us to do is work with that same mentality and aesthetic, but have given us the resources to reach a wider audience. The way they’ve been so hands off and given us as much room to still craft the band in our original vision has been really amazing.”
That original vision comes through on Return to Love with a noticeable uptick in production value. From the surging build of album opener “Hidden Driver” to the literal lyrical exploration of “Pain,” and the mythical wordplay and thundering climax of closer “Naked in the River with the Creator,” there’s an elevated sense of cohesiveness with LVL UP.
While they collectively wear their 90s indie rock inspiration on their sleeves, it might be surprising to the uninitiated that the band features three principal songwriters and vocalists. Caridi, Benton, and Corbo share duties, while maintaining a commitment to the band’s sound. One can listen to Return to Love and not even realize that three different vocalists are at work.
“We’ve been writing, living, and making music together for so long that at this point it feels natural,” Caridi said. The band is definitely a product of each person’s involvement, meaning even if one of us writes a song or has a very specific sound, once each person steps in and gives it their own flair, the song ultimately falls into place as a ‘LVL UP sounding’ song.”
“We leave room in the writing process for each person to have an effect on the end product, while not encroaching on each others original vision for the song. Usually each person working on it together makes it way better in the end!”
As for the potential of Rutkin getting in on the lyric-writing process, Caridi jokes that LVL UP is “waiting for the day when Greg writes our masterpiece.”
There’s an apparent sense of maturity to Return to Love compared to Hoodwink’d, but the band’s breakthrough remains integral to LVL UP’s identity.
“The songs on Hoodwink’d definitely feel more juvenile in a way — a lot is about heartbreak, transitioning after graduating from college, nostalgia, etc. While those subjects never quite lose their relatability, sometimes where we are in our lives currently, it can be hard to feel as close a connection anymore,” Caridi said.
“That being said, a lot of those songs are still really fun to play, so luckily we aren’t burnt out on that aspect of it. We even continually revamp old songs into new versions for ourselves to keep it interesting. We’ll be playing 3 old songs on this tour that we totally rewrote!”
LVL UP play Lee’s Palace Friday night in support of Cloud Nothings.
Image via Sub Pop/Shawn Brackbill