While that experience may not pervade Reeves' lyrics--"Humans all have a rollercoaster of feelings. Anyone who dwells on one thing needs to get their shit together," the native Texan notes--that same fearless independence and will are undeniably evident in the band's go-for-broke approach.
"When you sign to a label, it doesn't always mean you're a priority," contends drummer Nicco Villalobos. "Anything we do, we want to be the priority. Because we know if we're not the priority, it's not gonna get done. So we're working to put ourselves in that position." Far from an anti-label sentiment, Villalobos's assertion reveals neither defeatism nor defiance. In a Hollywood rock scene where bands pay to play and pray to get noticed, LEVEL has simply opted to take matters into its own hands.
Strangers to idle time, LEVEL will release its self-titled, self-produced debut on independent Z Records (distributed by Sony) September 16--with more than just the usual help from the band's six members.
"Our radio promoter needed the CDs by a certain time, and the people we had hired to do our CD covers were a week behind," recalls Reeves. "So we drove up there, loaded a couple trucks worth of boxes, went back to our bass player's house and sat in the living room all night putting CDs together. Even though we already paid other people to do it, we just wanted it done." That desire to plunge ahead where others might just sit back with crossed fingers is evident even in the band's genesis.
Rather than waste time searching for the perfect band, Reeves and guitarist Ed Faris jumped straight into recording in December, 2001 after connecting through a Recycler ad. Bit by bit, the rest of the lineup--Villalobos, bassist Alley Useless, DJ Primer, and second vocalist Christopher Wight--fell into place, and the band made its live debut at the Viper room in late Spring 2002. An aggressive schedule of gigs followed, including opening slots with Suicidal Tendencies, Cypress Hill, Body Count, and Kottonmouth Kings, as well as West Coast dates on the 2003 Vans Warped Tour.
At the same time, the band maintained its ties to the studio.
"We have a trippy way of writing," explains Reeves. "Ed will lay down some ideas on a CD, and I'll vibe on it for a few days. I'll record a few different choruses, hand them back to the band, and we'll go back and forth filtering through the ideas. Usually the song is done, and the band is sold on the song, by the time we get to rehearsal."
"Before I ever give it to him, I make sure it's a whole song," echoes Faris. "Once the vocals start happening on top, we start deciding what's working and what's not. We'll take the entire track and start dissecting it."
The end result can be anything from the lilting acoustic track "Surrounded" to "Supa Hero," which shifts seamlessly from its tempestuous opening lines to a tranquilizing groove to a driving chorus and back again. Equally at ease with the pulsing flow of "Living Inside Of Me," the frantic "A.T.V." and the hypnotic "Wondering Star," LEVEL find the melodic match for even their most pummeling riffs.
"I write from the guitar first, and then start building around it," explains Faris. "There's a 'just right' mix. I want stuff to breathe, so all the parts work with each other instead of against each other. If a song isn't dynamic, there's no feeling of relief or release. It just keeps going without taking you to different places."
For Reeves, there is plenty of relief and release to be found in songs like "Surrounded," a convoluted-but-true tale of friendship and betrayal, and "This Decision," a surprisingly hopeful take on the singer's teenage suicide attempt.
"Imagine if you were in a car accident, and everyone died in the car except for you," Reeves analogizes. "You feel like you got a second chance. I thought to myself, in a sense, I'm already dead. So I'm gonna do whatever I want to do, suck it dry, and go for it. To be honest, I might not have even had the balls to do that otherwise."
One of a handful of tracks to showcase both vocalists, "Supa Hero" is a playful tribute to that dual vocal dynamic as Reeves and Wight, who've worked together off and on for nearly seven years, "felt unstoppable" after reuniting, says Reeves. "Shattered," which appears once as a moody electric track, and again as the delicate unplugged album finale, presents the darker side of that coin.
"When you have that going for broke outlook, and then it breaks, that's the worst feeling you could ever have," Reeves says. "It feels like you're falling off the edge of the earth. Like there's nothing left." While Reeves' lyrics typically reflect the good and bad in his own life, introspection itself is the subject of the kinetic first single "Living Inside Of Me."
"When you're around different people, you're still yourself, but you might pad things a little and play it safe. But then there's that other side of you that's completely raw," Reeves explains. "I was trying to find that raw part of myself. How deep can I dig into myself and figure what I'm really about? How cocky am I, how sensitive am I, how much do I care, how much do I not give a shit?" Those same themes of self-exploration and discovery are mirrored in LEVEL's musical approach.
"We go through all the angles that we possibly can before we settle on something," says Reeves. "We argue about it. We fight, and rewrite verses and melodies and try to make the best song we possibly can."
As important as the meticulous craftsmanship that results from LEVEL's studio tinkering, the fluid recording process ensures songs that have the approval of the entire band.
"I write the music, and Bobby writes the lyrics and melodies," says Faris. "But we allow each other the leeway and the freedom to make mistakes. We come up with stuff and allow other people to criticize it, and then change it until we have a song the whole band feels." That, says Reeves, is the ultimate goal--one they achieve throughout this bracing debut album. It's a record which promises to "level" the playing field.