LVL UP’s Retirement Is Also a New Beginning for Dave Benton

LVL UP’s Retirement Is Also a New Beginning for Dave Benton Photo by Daniel Dorsa

Dave Benton is learning to walk away from what feels comfortable. For the Brooklyn-based songwriter, this means stepping out on his own with his new solo project Trace Mountains, and saying goodbye to the projects that led him to this point in the first place. Two years ago, Benton began the process by stepping down from indie beacon Double Double Whammy, the record label he co-founded in college. And in June of this year, LVL UP— the beloved DIY crew that Benton has been playing with since 2011 — announced their retirement with a final string of tour dates this fall.

Amidst all these changes, Benton was quietly working to release his first solo full-length as Trace Mountains. Self-released this March via Benton’s new label, Figure 2 RC, A Partner to Lean On puts a pastoral spin on the crunchy indie rock Benton honed with LVL UP. Bucolic images of “Rising water through the trees” and “Thunder trails under the mountain range” rise against the sound of pulsing drum machines, and Benton’s folksy, guitar-rooted arrangements oppose the record’s icy synths. The juxtaposition depicts an artist in transition, taking a personal leap of faith into new forms of songwriting.

We caught up with Dave ahead of his show this weekend to chat about his new work and the freedom he now experiences as Trace Mountains. Catch him supporting Corey Flood at Alphaville this Saturday, August 4 and listen to A Partner to Lean On, out now via Figure 2 RC.

How did Trace Mountains start for you?

You know Calvin Johnson’s band, The Hive Dwellers? My friend asked me to play this show with them, and I was just like, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” But I just started playing some of my earlier songs at that show. So the inception of the project was very spur-of-the-moment, with a friend just asking me to perform solo. It was a long time ago, though and [Trace Mountains] is pretty different now.

In past interviews, you’ve described Trace Mountains as a way for you to tread in more vulnerable territory. Do you still feel that way now?

Yeah, ideally. I guess it can be hard sometimes to not have things be veiled, lyrically. But yeah, that’s still what I’m going for with my words, at least. 

When you talk about vulnerability in your music then, what does that mean for you specifically?

I’ve gone through some different phases with lyric writing: [at first] I wrote more cryptically as a defense mechanism—or at least that’s how I look at it now. I probably didn’t feel that way at the time that I was writing some of that stuff. So I guess for me it’s [now] just about stripping away those kinds of things and trying to write more clearly and explicitly. 

It’s also a time of new beginnings for you. What’s been the scariest or most difficult part of all the transitions in your musical life, and on the flipside, what’s been most exciting about all of it?

I’ll start with what’s exciting: It’s been really liberating to not have those frameworks [LVL UP, Double Double Whammy] to work within. I’m not really sure why, but it was holding me back in terms of being able to write stuff. So now this is a super positive thing for me; it’s motivated me to write a lot and try to pursue this project more. I’ve actually noticed it with everybody in LVL UP, at least— everybody seems so much more productive now. 

But yeah, it’s also scary to step away from something that’s a little bit more of a sure thing. LVL UP was a low-level band, but things were easy; we had our booking agent, we had our label—all that stuff. So practically speaking, it’s a little bit more difficult [now,] but it’s not so bad. It’s been fun. 

At the same time, you still have a foot in the past— A Partner to Lean On recycles a lot of old material, and this fall, you’ll be heading out on your farewell tour with LVL UP. There’s a lot of nostalgia there; moving forward, are you looking to maintain some of that? Or do you see yourself becoming a more independent artist?

Not actively in either way. I don’t want to be held back by any sort of expectation of what I should be making, really. At least at this point, my primary focus is just to write the songs and see what happens with them. 

As far as exploring new things, that happens for me more in the second stages [of composition.] I write the songs the same way, but I get to have fun with them when I’m arranging them. It just inevitably comes out differently than it would with LVL UP, because the other guys did their own arranging with that project. 

Now it’s just me, and it’s nice to completely control the context of a full album without having my songs influenced by anyone else— but that was also the cool thing about [LVL UP.] 

Now would be a good time to talk more about A Partner to Lean On, as a lot of it is definitely a step away from your work with LVL UP. What was working on the new material like for you? 

Well, the most recently written song on that record was the song “Soil,” so I guess that’s a good reference point for what things seem to be like moving forward, at least lyrically. As far as sound goes, I’m still sort of all over the map. I don’t know what my future work is going to sound like, but I’m excited to find out. 

I read somewhere that the political climate really influenced this album. Have you ever hit a point where it all felt like too much? Or do you feel a responsibility to create even more during moments of chaos or upheaval? 

I definitely feel that all the time. I’ll be writing something and feel a little bit stunted by current events. Like, “Oh, this isn’t what I should be writing or talking about.” You’re always thinking about how people are going to read it, and I think that’s where it can definitely get you to start second-guessing yourself a little bit. 

It’s hard. Right now, I’m just trying not to think about it so much, and I’m working on writing some more personal songs. But they always end up being more political than I think they’re going to be. You can’t really control it, I guess. And it’s letting go of control that, for me, usually brings out the best results. 

On my favorite song on the record, “Thunder Trails,” there’s a moment that always feels political to me. You sing about “a landscape that destroys all that it creates.” What were you thinking about there? 

That one’s actually pretty old, and it’s funny that you say that because I definitely wrote that before Trump— but I finished it in 2017, so some of those later lines in the song probably inform those earlier lines I wrote four years ago. 

I also love that song, and this project more generally, because it seems to capture an interesting paradox: You work in the city now, but so much of this record feels bucolic. Why’s that? Do you feel a connection to nature in some way, or does it inform your work deeply? 

I’m not from here; I’m from New Jersey, so maybe that’s where it comes from. I was also a big Mount Eerie fan; that could be it. 

And you know, I live in the city, but I’ve been feeling really stunted by the city as well, lately. I’m trying to move; I love the Hudson Valley. For me, I’m more of a loner and I guess I feel like I don’t get as much out of the city as I could. Our bass player, Sean Henry, he’s super inspired by New York. I could just see him being here for a long time, and I kind of wish I could be that way. But when I’m here, I just feel like I’m spending so much money, working as little as I can so I can spend time on this project. I kind of just wish I had a place with a little more space: Somewhere to go outside and not spend money. 

Overall, what are you looking forward to next as Trace Mountains?

I’m feeling really good about the band that I’ve got right now, and I’m just always setting goals to get new stuff done. I’m trying to have a new record next year, [and I’m] going on tour soon so that’s fun. It’s all good right now.

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