The Max Levine Ensemble
by Interviews

Spoonboy is gone and in his place is the return of David Combs and rest of the The Max Levine Ensemble! After seven years away from the LP game, the DC "power trio" has blasted back with Backlash Baby (their best release yet).

The band has always made their trade in revved up pop-punk (with a smidge of hardcore for good measure) but the new record is band's snappiest to date. But, the new record ain't no "let's kiss at the sock hop" kinda jam. Rather, over top of the bopping beat, Combs gives Death the middle finger, cries out for Mother Earth, and talks about the cops kicking in the doors of activists. Heavy stuff.

So, Punknews' John Gentile spoke to Combs about the new record, the end of Spoonboy, and the Grim Reaper himself! They also talk about Fugazi, because, you know, Fugazi, dude. Check out the interview below.

The release of the album comes at the retirement of your Spoonboy persona. Who was Spoonboy? Is he just you? Is he an act you play? Is he an aspect of you? Spoonboy is still me. Spoonboy is just a nickname I got as a teenager. When I started playing solo, it was what people would put on a flyer because it was my nickname. But like any musical project, it started to build its own identity, which was important to me. I explored a lot of pretty personal stuff, relationships with trauma, gender, sexuality and depression. At some point, last year, I realized that while that was a very important expression of myself, that musical identity wasn’t what I wanted to be focusing on anymore and it made sense to let that body of work speak for itself, let it rest, and move onto other things.

Did you ever have anyone come over to you and say “Oh David, I really liked how you sang about XYZ” and you thought to yourself, “Oh man! I really didn’t want people to know about XYZ!” No, I mean, if I didn’t want people to know about it, I wouldn’t have done public art around it. Certainly there have times when people interpreted something I was working on and I was like “I wish you didn’t interpret this thing into a way that didn’t fit my own personal idea or ethics.” But you can’t control that. That’s what happens with art.

Did you ever have someone come up to you and say, “David! How dare you write this song about me!” You know, that has happened, but only by someone who assumed that the song was about them when it wasn’t!

What did you do in that scenario? I guess… I don’t ever write songs… scratch that! With a few prominent exceptions, I don’t write songs with the intention of dissing somebody, especially somebody I care about. I hope that if someone realized that the song was about them, or a composite of them and other people, they would take it in a warm light. I never had anybody I was actually writing about saying everything. There was just that one time where somebody said something and I was like, “nah!”

Were they happy? Did they not believe you? I think they were… relieved…

What prompted the new album after seven years? It’s always been active. It’s funny, occasionally you see things online “Max Levine Ensemble has reunited!” We’re based in DC, but Ben lives in Baltimore and Nick works a lot of the time out of Brooklyn. After the past bunch of years it has been harder to get people together. That’s why songs we started writing a bunch of years ago, we didn’t actually have a chance to fully fine tune and record until recently. We would be like, “we’re gonna work on it! We’ll do it in the Spring! We’ll do it in the Fall!” it kept getting pushed back until we were like, “Okay, we’re all taking off work and we’re gonna record it! We’ll take a whole week off to practice!”

We did that in 2013 and it still took two years to finish! That’s just the way it goes sometimes.

On “Backlash, Baby” it sounds like you are foreboding something really bad is about to go down. That song is pretty specifically inspired by friends of mine who were organizing the Republican National Convention protest in 2008. They were organizing free speech protest activities and were subject to their doors being kicked in by the cops and being arrested under Patriot Act Terrorism laws. It’s basically the reality for people who are trying to radical activism. It’s also the reality for a lot of Muslim people in the United States who are just trying to practice their religion. It’s the same repressive tactics that the police use against communities of color, but those protests were the events that inspired the song.

It's like, "I’m sick of all the shit. Sick of all these oppressive power structures. I feel like I need to do something." You get pushed and you’re part of the backlash, but then you’re also miserable about people trying to stop you from doing activism. You question whether it's worth it from the two ends- feeling like even when you are trying to do something, you still get squashed. In that sense it’s a pretty pessimistic song about having this kind of inherent gut feeling that you need to do something to change the world but you feel powerless to do anything.

Do you foresee a radical change in the American system? What is David Combs’ prediction of the future? You know, I’m not in the prophecy business, per se. I think we see promises politically right now of things changing. If you look at the presidential race, clearly there are a lot of far right wing people ready to support a Candidate who openly talks about trying register Muslims. There’s a groundswell support for them. Then, there’s a groundswell of support for a candidate that openly identifies as a Socialist. People do want change. To prophesize what will happen, I can’t say. I do swing towards a pretty pessimistic look, especially given due to our ineptitude at dealing with climate change, which obviously and completely affects everyone, and we do nothing.

You just mentioned climate change. The song “Sun’s Early Rays” directly deals with that issue. Are we not doing enough to fix ecosystem issues? I feel that way absolutely. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I know that there has been irreparable damage done. Our technology and science isn’t focused on these issues. That’s my personal opinion and I don’t necessarily represent the band here, but that’s how capitalism works. There are externalized costs like damages to the environment that the market doesn’t account for. It’s a slow burn and you don’t realize the costs right away, so the market isn’t focused on trying to fix the planet. We’re focused on whatever the coolest new Smartphone is or whatever.

Now, the topics we are covering are very, say, Crass-ish or Flux of Pink Indian-ish. Bt, when people talk about Max Levine Ensemble, people say, “Oh, that’s a pop punk band!” Does Max Levine Ensemble not get enough credit for its precise, potent, political lyrics? I can’t say whether or not we get credit, because I don’t know by what measure we would be accredited. Certainly my approach to writing, even when I’m writing personal songs, like a heartbreak song, as a pretty political person, I think about economic ecosystems and how that plays a part in everything. This record certainly had a focus on more political songwriting. We actually have a lot more songs written that we didn’t get a chance to fine tune and record. they didn’t fit as much thematically. But even, like everything, it’s there- you can’t ignore it.

“Shadow of Death” is my favorite song from the album. Do you feel the Grim reaper wrapping his bony hands around your neck? That might be the most personal song on the record, really. It’s interesting. I think that if I can make an attempt at politicizing that, I’ve been pretty obsessed with mortality since I was a kid. I’m not on good terms with the concept. My approach to the concept is that you only get this one life and we should use this life to reduce as much suffering as you can. It’s not just my one chance at life, it’s every other human’s one chance at life on the planet. Within that sense of urgency, we should be making this planet an okay place to live. That song is definitely just a reflection of how that struggle with mortality is something that pushes me through. I want to do as much with this life as I can.

So your opinion is that once you are dead, you are dead. That’s my personal opinion.

Now, you went to elementary through high school at Jewish schools. How has the Jewish identity influenced you as an artist? Outside of school, the Jewish community I was a part of was very music focused. My mom was a songwriter. Growing up around a lot of musicians played a part in my interest in music and social justice. That was my experience in growing up in a very progressive Jewish community, but it’s certainly not inherent in all Jewish communities.

I do appreciate the analytic nature of Judaism. It asks a lot of questions about things. I take that away as a positive. At the same time, I’m not religious and have problems with organized religion. Speaking on your influences, you went to the Fugazi shows back in the 90’s. Yeah, late 90’s, early 2000’s, when I was trying to get into punk music.

Did any of those shows stick out to you? I mean, Fugazi was an amazing live band. I remember specifically there was one show they played at Fort Reno, which is an annual outdoor concert series. The joke was that if Fugazi was going to play, it would get rained out because they played like three years in a row and each time it got rained out. So after getting rained out a bunch of times, they eventually started preparing a little bit better, with some tarps and some weatherproofing stuff. A lot of concerts they would just cancel, but for Fugazi a couple of thousand people would come out in the rain to see Fugazi.

But, they got up to this really climatic part of a song and lightning struck behind them- like a huge lightning bolt and it was a euphoric moment in live music for me.

On the converse side, you are also a Taylor Swift fan, correct? Taylor Swift just straightaway is a good songwriter. I am a fan of pop music. She writes relatable good times relationship music. Obviously a lot of break up songs. She writes about things in a way like, “hey, I can sympathize with you, in this emotional place.”

I think the idea that if you are a punk then you disavow pop music or you are a brainless music consumer has dissolved a little bit with the way music is consumed. The power of a monoculture prescribed to you by the radio- there obviously still is a structural hierarchy of who gets the most exposure in the music world. But, it’s not the same as when I was growing up. You have the Internet and other ways to get music. You don’t need to draw a line as much. You can kind of consume everything equally and people are like “I’m not ashamed to like pop music! I like the songwriting! I like the structure! “ You might say, “I’m a full-on anarcho punk that can tell you about every British band from 1981” and still like Taylor Swift. But, you don’t have to compartmentalize it now.