“What is this genre called?”
“Punk. Pop punk. Rock‘n’roll. Something like that.”
“No, I think it has a name. At least, it should have a specified name.”
“Fine, how about you name it?”
“Maybe I will, jerk.”
I was listening to The Max Levine Ensemble when I had the above conversation with a friend. Remember the first time someone told you The Dillinger Escape Plan was considered “mathcore” and your brain exploded because suddenly the world made a little more sense? Seriously, this sound has to have its own sub-sub-sub genre. The combination of music, vocal stylings, and lyrical content are unique enough to qualify for its own classification. It’s catchy, it’s something you love to sing along to, and it’s fun. At the same time, the lyrics aren’t exactly about kissing a girl or beating a brat. They’re politically charged and socially conscious in a way that’s more poetic than the usual “in your face” stance political songs have a tendency to take.
I could ask where the band is from (Washington DC), or how long they’ve been around (since 2000), or why they’re called The Max Levine Ensemble when no one in the band is named Max Levine (fuck, dude, don’t you have internet access?) but I’d much rather have everyone listen to one of their albums and ask, “What would you call this genre?”
My current suggestion is “Intelli-Politi-Posi Punk.” Too bad it’s the stupidest genre name ever thought up by anyone in the history of ever. “Pop punk” is it.
Interview by Donna Ramone
The Max Levine Ensemble is:
David Combs – Guitar/Vocals
Ben Epstein – Bass/Vocals
Nick Popovici – Drums
David “Franco” McGrath–MerchHottie
Donna: You guys are on tour again. How’s it going so far?
Nick: Goin’ great.
Donna: What is this? I’m trying to break the ice and you guys…
David: We’re doing good!
Ben: This is good for us.
Nick: This is great journalism, right?
Donna: He’s wiping his nose on the back of the headrest!
David: I had to wipe it somewhere.
Ben: That is why tour is not going well.
David: No, tour is going great. We’ve been having a lot of fun. We’ve been on tour for most of December. We’ll be on tour for all of 2012.
Donna: And before that, you guys played The Fest…
David: Yeah, we played Fest…
Ben: We played a whole bunch of fests.
David: Maria Fest, Plan-It-X Fest, Insubordination Fest. We’ll play any fest.
Nick: Asian Man Fest…
David: Best Friends Day…
Nick: We’ll do it all.
Donna: Just keep crossing the country.
David: Sometimes, yeah.
Nick: Mostly just the East Coast.
David: We came to the West Coast. Asian Man Records is on the West Coast. We’ll do this thing where—since my schedule is more flexible—I will play solo shows, and then they’ll just come and meet me for the cool Max Levine Ensemble shows.
Franco: Ben has to fly back home for work sometimes.
David: He works for the Baltimore Orioles. Can’t tell you what he does, though.
Donna: It’s like the CIA, but baseball. Have you recorded much during all this touring?
David: We just recorded a four-song EP. We put it out ourselves on 7” and (cassette) tape. It’s called Elephant in the Room.
Donna: With your new song “Adventures in Petsitting”?
David: Yeah. We made a couple music videos.
Donna: You guys are one of the few bands I know of that actually goes out of your way to make music videos. Do you make them all yourselves, or do your friends make them, or…?
Nick: No, we make them all ourselves.
David: Among us, there are a couple of us with training in videography and editing. I’m not one of them, and also we have other friends who are always down to do video projects. It’s fun, so we do it.
Donna: Anything from this current run at all especially memorable?
Nick: Today was great.
Ben: Today was great!
David: Let’s start with today. [laughs]
Nick: Start with today, then we can work our way back. San Diego, today, we hung out with our friend Brendan. We climbed a… well, we were going to go on his usual run trail, and we decided to veer off the trail and climb to the top of this mountain, where there was an American flag.
David: It was a real tattered American flag, where all the stripes were separated, just torn at the seams.
Nick: There was kind of some rock climbing at points.
David: Yeah there was rock climbing.
Ben: Ninety degrees—vertical!
Donna: It’s rock climbing if you have to use your arms.
Nick: Definitely used arms.
David: I had to use both of my arms.
Ben: David had three arms and he lost one on the way up.
Nick: I noticed that. I noticed when you lost that arm. So we got to the American flag. It was really cool, but then we saw…
David: We thought that was the high point—when we got to the top of it and got to the American flag and were taking some picture we went—“Wait, there’s a higher point right there. Let’s climb to that point.” And when we got to that point, we realized there was an even higher point! So we climbed to the top of the mountain.
Franco: And this time it was the top.
David: It was the peak of this mountain. We said, “We should erect our own flag.” And luckily there happened to be a pole lying there.
Nick: We noticed some metal poles and we put two and two together. The pole, I would say, was fifteen feet high.
Franco: Yeah, at least.
Nick: But we needed to find a flag. We looked around for a flag, but couldn’t find one, obviously.
Franco: And then David volunteered.
Nick: David volunteered his underpants.
Franco: That he’s had for seventeen years.
David: They were my oldest pair of underpants and they had just ripped this morning. I thought, “These are on their way out and we need a flag. What better way to eulogize my most trusted and favorite pair of underpants than to hoist it atop a mountain?”
Nick: I can tell you really didn’t want to tell that part.
David: Well, hopefully the interview will represent us more evenly than just the band that put underpants on top of a mountain.
Nick: So the underpants were waving, and when we got down from the mountain you could still see them from far, far away.
David: It was awe-inspiring.
Ben: Definitely an accomplishment.
Donna: Salute your shorts.
David, Nick, Ben and Franco [at the same time]: Exactly!
Nick: We also got naked on top of the mountain.
David: That’s off the record. [laughs]
Donna: No, that’s very on the record. Since your last EP was self-released, what determines what label, if any, you might release with?
David: We release with a lot of different labels, especially our friends’ labels. We’ve worked with Plan-It-X records, Asian Man, No Brakes…
Nick: To name a few…
David: We take it release by release, whatever just makes sense.
Donna: If you’d like, you can talk about what the songs are about—political meanings. Or, you know, you could talk about Ben Weasel some more.
David: We’ve talked about him enough.
Donna: I think everyone has talked about him enough.
David: The new record has a themed lyrical direction. Most of our last few releases have been written around concepts—I wouldn’t call them concept records. This one is kind of about patriarchy and how sexism manifests itself on a day-to-day level. The four songs are actually songs that I’ve had laying around for a while and it made sense to get them together for an EP. There’s been a lot of discussion, like online essays, about sexism in the punk scene and being aware of patriarchy and being critical of gender roles. So we tried to do a record that was themed around that.
Donna: I stole this from Ben Snakepit, but based on that internet meme “Shit Girls Say,” people started coming up with stereotypical phrases “Shit Plan-It-X Punks Say,” which were funny but was stuff we’re probably guilty of saying anyway. For example, “Who brought their dog to this show?”
David: “Can I borrow your acoustic guitar?” [Everyone laughs] There’s the stereotype of what a Plan-It-X punk is. It used to be more of a cohesive ground of friends and bands, but it’s always just kind of been a record label and there are tons of different releases on the record label. The stereotype is a super-posi folk punk kid, but as far as the people in those bands and the people putting out those records goes, it’s a lot more diverse than that.
Nick: You have the kid with the acoustic guitar who dumpster dives and whatever and is in to that punk stereotype, but Plan-It-X has put out a lot of not-folk punk music that is really good, like The Bananas. So some guy will be making fun of Plan-It-X folk punk kids, but have you ever listened to The Bananas? They’re a great pop punk band. And a lot of other bands, like Carrie Nations, who don’t exist anymore, but you get it. There are only a few folk punk releases on there.
David: Though, we do have an acoustic guitar in the van and we did go dumpster diving last night. [Everyone laughs] Which is a good story! We got out of the car to go check the dumpster and went, “Aw, shit, there’s somebody in there.” And this guy pops his head out and comes over. He’s this middle-aged dude wearing a security uniform because he was the security guard for the Trader Joe’s. And we go, “What are you doing in there?” And he says, “I was lookin’ for some produce. Maybe some apples or oranges.” “Are you serious? You’re the security guard.” “Yep. Yeah, we got people coming through here, about twenty people a night, thought I would check it out myself. I gotta kick twenty people out a night. I guess they made some kind of documentary about dumpster diving. I don’t know what it’s called but they got some kind of new word, it’s called, uh, ‘free-gan.’ They say it’s this new thing but I’ve been sayin’ it for years—“GET IN THE FREEGAN HOUSE! GET OUT OF THE FREEGAN DUMPSTER!”
Nick: We really did dumpster last night.
David: It was good. Pasta with peas. Kale.
Donna: Good on you guys, just completely smashing those stereotypes.