Shawn Brackbill

LVL UP On God, Magic, And Return To Love

The New York band discusses the life, loss, and spirituality behind their latest record

The New York band LVL UP posed a question on 2014's Hoodwink'd: “So am I being hoodwinked to even think that I could love you?” That was two years ago, and while some of the themes on that breakthrough album — witches, hexes, original sin — are still on the band's mind today, they've moved on to a much different era with their latest release.

“There’s not a lot about romantic love on this record," guitarist Mike Caridi says of Return to Love, out today. "At least, not as much as there was on Hoodwink’d. It’s the sort of thing that’s going to be open to interpretation.”

LVL UP met in college at SUNY Purchase, in New York's Westchester County, with Caridi and guitarist Dave Benton first playing together in a basement in Ridgewood, New Jersey. ("We covered The Mountain Goats song 'Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,'" Caridi recalls. "No one cared.") After a move to New York City and the birth of the band's own label, Double Double Whammy, LVL UP's presence within the Brooklyn DIY community grew, as did the dudes themselves. Now in their mid-20s, they've signed with Sub Pop to release Return to Love, their third LP and the first they haven't put out themselves.

If Hoodwink’d was a coming-of-age record, then Return to Love is the messy, murky reality of what comes after. LVL UP — Benton, Caridi, bassist Nick Corbo, and drummer Greg Rutkin — explore ideas of nature, spirituality, and mysticism across ten sprawling tracks, ranging from the folky, instantly embraceable melodies of “Hidden Driver” to the grand euphoria of “Naked in the River with the Creator.”

Return to Love is an emotionally tumultuous listen. Nostalgic and reflective, its stories of life and loss knit together effortlessly, sounds drifting into each other like one long, ecstatic fever dream. But it also has a confrontational, even biting edge: On "Pain," Caridi shows zero compassion when he deadpans, "I hope you're cold / I hope you grow old / And never find love." The record asks questions because its creators are still searching for the answers, and that's not just relatable, it's totally okay. "How long until I believe?" Benton begs tenderly on "She Sustains Us." Return to Love finds LVL UP examining not just love and heartbreak, but the bigger existential dilemmas facing a generation that often struggles to believe, especially when it comes to themselves.

For the listener, Return to Love can inspire a type of self-reflection that's necessary but ultimately terrifying. And there's really just one place to go to discuss those weighty themes of human existence: the mall. So that's where we went.

MTV News: So here we are at the mall in Queens. LVL UP is a New York band, yet Return to Love seems heavily influenced by nature. How connected do you feel to nature while living in a major city?

Nick Corbo: There’s probably a loss of nature in my life right now. I can still access nature, but I have to try harder. Where I grew up [in Torrington, Connecticut], I didn’t have to try. There were parks around; I had a backyard; I could go on bike rides. In New York, you can still get to nature, but you have to try a lot harder, so maybe I grew some sort of appreciation for it.

Mike Caridi: I grew up in a really rural area. I grew up in the woods, basically. But I think living in New York was the best and most practical move for all of us after SUNY Purchase. If you’re gonna do the band, and the label, and all those things, this is where you need to be. But it’s not permanent, at least not for me.

"God" is referenced often throughout Return to Love, the first time in "Hidden Driver": "God is peeking / Softly speaking / Breaking every thing / Until I slowly do see." Are these intentional religious themes? I think a lot of people in their 20s start to think about or seek out religion, but often in nontraditional ways.

Benton: I’m not religious. But I feel more ... I don’t know, I wouldn’t say "spiritual," because I don’t practice anything. I’ve just begun to relate the creative process to being kind of emotional. Not anything really connected to tradition.

Greg Rutkin: I feel like I’m recognizing a trend among people I know who didn’t grow up very religious but who are now becoming more interested and connected and willing to explore ideas that are outside the normal context of religion. Finding more spirituality within everyday practices: something artistic, or something like yoga or tarot cards.

Benton: Trying to find peace in everyday life.

Corbo: It makes sense. There’s no real semblance of organized religion [on the record], but there is magic, and ghosts.

I'm interested in that idea of trying to find God in the minutiae of everyday life. Can you explain that a bit more? It's obvious in the references to spirituality that "God" isn't a rigid concept, but something much more mystical.

Caridi: I only mention religion once, in the first line of “Pain.” A very basic way of explaining my own personal thoughts is that I’m not religious, I don’t practice anything, and I don’t believe in God. But that line references a lot of moments I’ve had ... it’s when a thought enters your head at a time when you’re processing something like a death in the family, or a scary experience, which causes you to step back and think about what you actually believe in. That’s how I, at least, reference the idea of God on the record.

Corbo: "Spirit" was a word that I started using a lot because I stole it from Dave. [To Benton] You said it in some song, and I liked it. I’ve heard you talk about tying it into the creative process, and I like that too. It helps explain the creative process. Sometimes you’re sitting down and approaching something academically, almost like a crossword puzzle. But sometimes you’re just like, "I have this idea! Here it is!" and you didn’t have to think about it all. Sometimes I equate this — and I’ve heard other artists equate it to this, too — to being in touch with something else.

Benton: I don’t really want to align with any sort of spiritual bullshit, because I don’t think any of us in our everyday lives really give a shit. But I did become interested in God, just because it’s interesting to think about. It’s interesting to take that concept and apply it to something a little bit more normal. Maybe everyone has God in their lives, but they’re not seeing it in the right way. Maybe it’s just when you’re making something cool that you like, and it makes you feel a certain way. For me, that’s what I’m thinking about whenever I’m mentioning God.

Corbo: I would say that the religious themes in my songs, if there are any, are more tied to fantasy. I love fantasy shit. If you’re into that, you know that there’s a lot of higher-power stuff going on, which isn’t necessarily related to God but more to a type of powerful person. Even just Lord of the Rings is an example of that. I’m really into [Hayao] Miyazaki. Those are the types of themes I like. It’s probably more about ancient aliens than anything else. I like thinking about big things, about omnipotence.

What does the phrase “Return to Love” mean? I have a theory about what I gleaned from the record, but it could just be me...

Corbo: Can we hear your theory first before we answer that?

I think that someone, maybe everyone, had a bad experience with love in whatever capacity, as we all do, and has now taken the leap to try again under new circumstances. And that there’s some analysis of how the concept of love actually factors into the bigger picture of life.

Caridi: “Return to Love” is the name of a song I wrote that we didn’t end up using [on the record] ... thematically it was a lot about self-loathing and anger. A lot of the themes, at least in my songs, are about a lack of love, although not necessarily romantic love. “Pain” is about death and losing a loved one; “I” is about self-loathing; “Blur” is about losing another relationship. None of that is romantic. When I wrote “Return to Love,” it was a lot about self-reflection.

Benton: Maybe it’s about close relationships.

I particularly connected to one line in "Naked in the River with the Creator": "How do you know when love is a wellspring? / Does it give your life meaning or does it bind you?"

Rutkin: [To Corbo] We definitely started a little closer to Loren’s interpretation. Hoodwink’d was kind of a bad experience with love.

Corbo: That’s true. There’s also kind of a story behind it. Mike and I did a “Song a Day” project with some people — including Gaby from Eskimeaux — and I had never done anything like that before. Mike writes a lot, but I don’t write so strictly, or as often, so one of the ways I was able to make myself write every day was to create this story outline. It was very loose, and I never really figured it out. But that’s where “Five Men on the Ridge,” “Cut from the Vine,” and “Naked in the River” came from. It’s hard to describe, because I never really figured out the story. But it involves someone dying and reflecting on their life, and being close to someone else, and then returning to them post-mortem. The person speaking in “Cut from the Vine” is a ghost. I never really figured out the ending.

The conclusion of the record does feel open-ended. I like that the last song sort of trails off. It plays into the idea that there’s more to figure out, and it’s all kind of just waiting there in the void.

Corbo: Yeah. One thing that’s been said to us with this record is that it’s a little bit more vague. Not as specific as the last one.

A lot of the lyrics are questions.

Corbo: And there might not be answers to those questions. You can make your own answers.

Return to Love is out now on Sub Pop.