LVL UP (Photo: Shawn Brackbill)

In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.

LVL UP’s third album, Return To Love, feels a bit like a do-or-die proposition. The band has admitted that it was close to hanging it up before Sub Pop Records signed the band, and the album sees LVL UP holding nothing back. Return To Love is wildly expansive, jumping from indie-folk jangle all the way to doom-metal dirges. It’s the product of the band’s three songwriters—Dave Benton, Mike Caridi, and Nick Corbo—writing on their own, without regard for what a LVL UP album should sound like.

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Lyrically though, LVL UP is surprisingly in sync on Return To Love. It’s been pegged as a religious record, with numerous references to God and “the creator” and spiritually charged imagery popping up time and again. The A.V. Club spoke to Benton, Caridi, and Corbo independently about one of the songs they wrote for Return To Love and their influences, none of which ended up being the least bit religious.

Song: “Pain”
Influence: The zen nature of driving

The A.V. Club: You mentioned that you like driving and find it very calming but that “Pain” was based on a much scarier experience?

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Mike Caridi: The idea for “Pain” kind of came from driving with my little cousin who I was picking up from a piano lesson. He’s got pretty low-functioning autism, and we had this scary moment where we were run off the road at night. We were driving on a two-lane road, and one car tried to pass the other car, so they were coming in our direction, and the car in front wouldn’t let them pass. So it was this thing where a car was speeding down our lane and they just weren’t stopping. We ended up swerving off the road and into the grass, and it was a really scary moment. And since he has autism, he didn’t really understand what happened. A lot of the song is reflecting about his experience in that.

I haven’t purposely done this, but there’s this joke that almost every song I’ve written for this band mentions driving in some capacity. I think “I” is the first song where I don’t explicitly talk about it.

AVC: It’s interesting, because the song starts off fairly calm both musically and lyrically then gets darker and angrier toward the end. Was that to mirror the experience of being in this relaxed state while driving then getting run off the road?

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MC: No, actually. I don’t want you to think that the song is just about that. The anger isn’t focused on that driver or that incident. That moment made me start reflecting on other personal things. I’ve not talked about what it’s about, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about what it’s about, but people haven’t been that far off. It’s me reflecting on somebody who has hurt a loved one.

AVC: Does it make you worry that people are going to misread who that anger is directed at?

MC: A few people have talked about it like it’s about an ex-girlfriend or something, and I think that’s stupid. I get a little annoyed by that, because there’s not a single romantic idea in it. It’s about my cousin, realistically. But it’s fine with me to leave it open to interpretation to people.

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The way that I write when I say “you” when I’m referencing somebody, sometimes I’ll say it twice in a sentence and that “you” is not the same person. I feel like that can be misconstrued sometimes. It’s really just a lot of separate thoughts that came together in this ambiguous story.

AVC: It’s similar in that people tend to think that a song is always from the songwriter’s perspective if they use the word “I” in a song. Do you not have much concern for sticking to a narrative or perspective that’s easy for an audience to digest?

MC: I like the idea of it being more ambiguous, where the pronouns, or whatever I’m using, don’t follow any sort of rules. I try to write in a stream of consciousness way, usually. I pick things out of that and pick things out that work together. But there’s no formula that I follow. For “Pain,” I started with this driving bit, and then it took off from there.

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Song: “Five Men On The Ridge”
Influence: European and Japanese fantasy novels

AVC: How did you discover these types of novels, and have they been a fairly consistent source of inspiration for you?

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Nick Corbo: In a weird way, it’s one of those things where I didn’t really think about it until I found myself having to answer questions about it. That’s when I was like, “Wow, I do really appreciate these images and themes.” I had to really look at where these themes were coming from in terms of my interest in them.

A lot of people were simultaneously asking about religious influences on the record, and there are none, so I was trying to think of where those came from and also divert that energy elsewhere. Because I wouldn’t think of it as a religious thing, even though God is mentioned and other spiritual things are mentioned. So the answer that I came up with was fantasy. It got me thinking of how long I’ve actually been interested in these themes. I dug really deep and realized that I’ve always been a total nerd and been into anything from The Lord Of The Rings to Harry Potter—those mainstream things—but also down to playing games when I was a kid. I was really into Magic: The Gathering. I was full-blown into that. Then getting into RPGs and stuff like that.

As I kept looking for that influence, you find that in metal, which I think is super interesting. Those heavy doom bands are talking about fantasy stuff, which is interesting.

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AVC: It’s interesting to think about how accepted these kinds of things are in metal without it being construed as being about God.

NC: You’re talking about an ogre; no one thinks it’s religious. I guess some of it is because you can’t really hear what they’re saying, for the most part. But a band like Wolves In The Throne Room, for example, that’s a band I really like right now that’s a contemporary American black-metal band. Their lyrics are insane. They’re super cheesy—and I love them so much—but they’re so dripping with that fantasy thing. It’s all a person in the woods wearing an animal skin bathing in blood in front of an altar. It’s so explicit. And I guess I started to toy with trying to get away with being that explicit with some of the songs on the record. I was like, “I’m not going to have any sort of self-consciousness about this. I’m just going to go for it because I’m really into this.”

Do you know who Matt Pike is?

AVC: Yeah, from Sleep and High On Fire.

NC: There’s a really funny YouTube interview with Matt where he equates doom metal to a warrior—and I’m paraphrasing—to a warrior in the field with a battle ax. It’s so cheesy that he explains it in that way, but I feel like it’s really accurate. It’s the fantasy thing playing into metal, specifically with High On Fire. And I think it does sound like that. It’s overindulgent and it’s funny and I think it’s really fun and I actually sincerely like it.

AVC: It’s definitely way less common for bands that exist outside of metal to play with this kind of imagery and narrative structure. Did you have any concern that putting this out there would feel alien to your audience and the scene you’re a part of?

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NC: Yes and no. I feel like “Five Men On The Ridge” is a pretty accessible track, mostly because of the juxtaposition of the nice middle part with the louder parts. More so with the last song, “Naked In The River With The Creator,” I think it’s nice and meditative and has a nice ambiance, but if I’m not feeling super self-confident, I think, “We are punishing the audience with this song.” I think that’s where a bit of queasiness came into it for me. Like, are we going to pull this thing off? Can we do this thing that we never experimented with before? But I really like music like that.

Song: “Hidden Driver”
Influence: The name of the website hiddendriver.com

AVC: How did you happen upon this site and how did it become something you wanted to name a song after?

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Dave Benton: My friend Liz [Pelly] who plays drums for my other band, Trace Mountains, she runs a website called Fuck The Media. She interviewed Astra Taylor, who is a writer, filmmaker, and activist. I sort of found out about Astra’s work through Liz, because she was really excited about this book The People’s Platform. I wound up reading that book on her recommendation and was just really excited by it. I was surfing the web one day and happened upon Hidden Driver and thought the name of it was really compelling in a couple different ways.

AVC: What did you find compelling about that combination of words?

DB: I guess it was the layers of possible meanings of those two words together. Hidden Driver could mean an unknown force moving something forward and it’s also a computer term. I thought it was a cool name for a website for activists who are doing their thing. I tried to model the song off of that and the activists’ spirit.

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AVC: Was it surprising to have written a song based around activist ideology and then have it be interpreted as religious?

DB: I guess I’m not surprised that people are latching onto that, because it’s the most immediate and easy thing to pick up on. At that time when I was discovering that work and getting a little more interested in following activist campaigns, I was thinking about it as discovering a new moral or ethical foundation. I think that’s where the religious themes crept in there.

AVC: Do these types of political themes generally inform your work with LVL UP?

DB: I think it’s more this specific incident of writing this song. Obviously, I think writing about personal stuff can have a political tinge to it. But I wouldn’t say that the rest of the songs that I’ve written for this record, or that anyone else has written for this record, are expressly political.

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I think that with this one in particular, I was interested in taking a little bit of a more political approach, however vague—because it is pretty nonsensical, stream of consciousness stuff.

AVC: You all seemed to be writing from wildly different perspectives. Were you surprised when the album ended up feeling as cohesive as it does?

DB: Usually I’m not too concerned about it, but it always is surprising how things come together. Outside of all picking the songs that we want to use and curating the tracklist, we don’t really strive for anything in particular. It’s just an intuitive thing where we like a song and think it works with everything else. It’s all kind of based on everybody’s intuition. But yeah, it’s always surprising.

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