The Max Levine Ensemble routinely describes itself as "pop punk," but there seems to be a certain ineffable something that sets you apart from what you might call industry standard pop punk. Maybe not so many resounding choruses, a bit more of a willingness to go charging off in unpredictable rhythmic or melodic directions? Can you give us an idea where you see yourselves fitting - if at all - on the pop punk continuum?
I'm probably not the first person who figured, based on nothing more than their name, that The Max Levine Ensemble were some artsy, pretentious, jazz-tinged project put together by angst-ridden 20-somethings in those crucial gap years between graduating college and applying for law school. I should know by now what a mistake it can be to let oneself be swayed by initial impressions, and boy, did I feel foolish when I met them and discovered that not a single member of TMLE had ever attended law school!
Since then I've seen them at least a dozen times, in venues ranging from grotty squats and basements to the big stage at Baltimore's annual Insubordination Fest, and they've never ceased to inspire me. I normally expect Washington DC bands to be weighed down by a certain gravity of purpose, what I call the Dischord and/or Fugazi effect, but while TMLE display the intensity and passion of other legendary DC groups, it's leavened by humor and high spirits. You get the feeling that they take their music very seriously, but themselves, not so much.
The Max Levine Ensemble are: Nick Popovici, Bepstein, and David "Spoonboy" Combs (who also performs as a solo artist). In case you're wondering, yes, there is a Max Levine, and no, he's not in the band. If you go to enough shows, you may get to meet him, but if you want to know the full Max Levine story, you're going to have to ask the band yourself, because we've got too much other important stuff to cover in this interview. So let's get started!
David: When we first started the band, I didn't even know there was such a thing as pop punk. When we were teenagers listening to the Queers or Minor Threat, Propagandhi or the Clash, Rancid or Fugazi, there wasn't really a delineation. It was all punk. But we do love the Ramones. We love a catchy melody, and we love pop music, especially pop music from the 60's so that's all in there for us. If pop punk is an easy descriptor that's fine, we'll use it, but I'll usually attach "weird" in front of it, because we are kind of a weird band. I'll usually say, "weird catchy punk." I'm always really impressed when a band can write a great song without using a traditional song structure or without even having any kind of repetitive hook. So you'll see that a lot in our song writing, or rhythm changes that catch you off guard a little bit, stuff that's a little outside of the traditional world of pop songwriting. But you asked us for a song with a chorus so that's what you got for The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore!
Bepstein: We play fast songs with high pitch vocals. I'd say we fit in snugly with all the other pop punk bands of 2002.
You guys have been around for a while - over 10 years, I believe - and while you've always had a passionately devoted base of fans who seem willing to go anywhere or do anything to see you play, you've mostly managed to stay below the radar in commercial and mainstream media terms. Do you see this as a result of conscious choices on your part? Or maybe because you don't fit into an easily defined niche or genre?
David: I mean, I think our music is weird enough that it's not easily digestible in a commercial kind of way. It's our choice to write songs like that, so that's a part of it. But also, we've always really identified with DIY punk culture and ethics, and though I'd love for as many people as possible to hear and appreciate our music, it's never been a goal to attain some sort of mass appeal. I think the relationships we make through DIY music are much closer and more meaningful than they would be if we were operating through some kind of mainstream media outlet.
You grew up in Washington DC, an area long renowned and much influenced by the Dischord Records aesthetic, and yet your music doesn't fit very easily into that slot, either. In fact, if anything, it would seem as if you drew considerable inspiration from the West Coast. What role, if any, do you think geographical factors played in the type of music you play and/or the values you espouse?
Bepstein: Geographical factors play a huge role for us. If we didn't live in a place that got freezing cold in the winter, we might never go on tour to escape it.
David: I think we are for sure influenced by Dischord bands. Especially some of the bands that were playing around 10 years ago, when I was starting to go to shows - Fugazi, Black Eyes - they were doing really interesting stuff with music. Ted Leo's always been big inspiration and he started doing his current thing when he was living in DC. At the same time we for sure listen to a lot of west coast and midwest punk like the Bananas or Cleveland Bound Death Sentence and those bands have permeated our songwriting too, then you mix that all in with the Beatles or whatever and that's us. As far as values… Dischord and Fugazi are huge inspirations in how they were able to do great things, and do it themselves on their own terms. There have always been a lot of politics involved in the DC punk scene and for me that's been a very nourishing thing as well.
Nick: Also, I don't know what effect this has on us, but for most of the time we've been a band, we've been the only pop punk band in DC. DC is a lot more of a hardcore town.
The Max Levine Ensemble is frequently associated with political causes, playing a lot of benefits, and using its records and website to disseminate information that some might consider "radical" or at least fairly confrontational. Is this a vital aspect of how you see your band and your reasons for being in a band, or is more a reflection of individual members' values and goals?
David: For me personally, I view the world in a pretty political way and I can't help but express that in my music. I try to write everything from a personal perspective whether it's a political song or a love song, and if you think about things critically and systemically all those things are all mixed up with each other. Getting to express that is crucial to me, but I think we have our own individual reasons for wanting to play music that aren't all the same.
Bepstein: There is no set of rules on how to be a band. We're just friends playing together. Inherently, each of our own personalities will be reflected in our personal creative outlets.
The title of your song on The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore, "Anthem For A New Morning After," seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to that of an album by the band Screeching Weasel, who were popular in the 1980s and 90s. Since you're all quite young and thus might not remember every band from that era, I was wondering if your choosing that particular title was a coincidence, or if it referred to a special connection you might feel with that band?
Bepstein: Did our song get re-named? I thought we did a cover of "Come On Feel the Noise."
David: Wait, Screeching who?
It wouldn't have anything to do with the singer of that band having once said, "If The Max Levine Ensemble were a horse, I'd take it out and shoot it," would it?
Bepstein: For the last time, no, Boy George would have never said that about us and the song title is not a reference to Culture Club.
What keeps you going? Is it the rewards and glory of being underground punk rock stars, or is there something ineffable about the music and the people who love that makes you continually willing to pile into a van and drive all over the country with only the vaguest idea of what might be waiting for you out there? Do you ever question your life choices and wish you'd taken up stamp collecting or model car building instead of punk rock?
David: What other life choice is there but punk rock? For me, it's a no brainer. Playing a great show is about one of the best things you can do. I've made some of the most important connections with people in my life through playing music. From time to time when someone tells me that one of my songs had a positive impact on their life, that's about the best you can ask for. If you're affecting other people positively, that's the most important thing you can do. As for the rewards and glory of being underground punk rock stars, I think we're still waiting for that fruit basket to arrive…
Bepstein: Not a day goes by that I don't wish I was building model cars instead of playing in a punk band.