I credit Chris George (of the Living Room Studio) as the sperm that lead to the birth of my relationship with Mike Levin. In the summer of ’95, Chris had just returned from stumbling upon Shyster at the Tampa leg of the inaugural Van’s Warped Tour. He told me they were going to be in town to open for Face to Face and Guttermouth at the Rendon Inn in a couple of days and insisted I see them. Chris George’s words weigh heavy with me, because not only does he have impeccable taste, he could also build you a new heart out of an old toilet paper roll if you needed one. It would totally work and would probably have some killer racing stripes painted on it. So I looked past my disdain for all things Guttermouth and went to see what Shyster was all about. I’d seen some incredible acts at the Rendon Inn—Jawbreaker, the Descendents, All, Smoking Popes—but this energetic burst of guitars, high speed, crazy technical drumming and raspy, intelligent vocals were certainly not outclassed. Their debut LP, Say Uncle lived inside my CD player. Songs like “Hum,” “Ride,” “Gutwrench,” “Follow” and “Homecoming” were staples on my mixtapes.
Months later, Deborah Toscano of Devil Dolls productions put on a Shyster show at Monaco Bob’s— where they headlined after talking their way into an opening slot on the Ten Foot Pole gig happening at the Faubourg Center earlier that night. Despite playing to a huge crowd hours before, they still brought incredible energy and enthusiasm to tens of people. I felt like I was Tony Wilson seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time, like I had stumbled upon the next big thing in its infancy. Since most of the punk rock community was on Frenchmen watching Epitaph’s flavor of the month, I took the opportunity to talk Mike Levin (guitar/vocals) into letting me book their next NOLA show.
We did a few shows together and they crashed at the original Living Room Studio (when it was still a living room), but they soon lost members and had to regroup, a theme that has since re-occurred in Mike’s life as a songwriter. Despite releasing February, a follow up to Say Uncle on Man’s Ruin, Shyster soon fizzled into obscurity.
In the early 2000s, Mike had put together a primitive version of The New Lows (featuring a few Shyster replacement players) for a short tour, which included a stop at the Dixie Taverne. Much like Shyster before it, this formation also faded away and Mike moved to New York to get his masters degree. He became an English teacher, but never stopped writing and trying to find some way to keep a band together, a real struggle in New York. In 2008, en route to and from his step-brother’s wedding in Indonesia, he visited me in Singapore. I introduced him to nasi padang (a coconut milk, spicy chili and curry-infused cuisine from Indonesia). We ate our way across the island and biked across a small fishing village off the coast. He left me with demos of his new songs, which blew me away. When Mike returned to New York, he went into the studio to record with Wes Snowden (Shyster’s original bass player) and Russell Simins, a hired gun of a drummer who is best known for his work in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I was working for the Singapore branch of Bunch Design and Branding at the time, which lead to me designing the packaging for this record, Atlantic/Pacific.
The stress of trying to keep a band together and a long-distance relationship led to Levin moving back to Orlando. After some initial band member juggling and the violent death of another, he was able to construct a four-piece that was made up of friends and even Snowden, who had also returned to Orlando. Last year, he brought Snowden Bobby Pino (guitar/keys/percussion) and Greg Lightfoot (drums) to the Living Room Studio to record some of his best work yet, I Couldn’t Sleep. The album embraces his punk roots while exploring several other avenues, like mixing one part dance to one part stiff drink (to chase the depression away). I Couldn’t Sleep is gaining more attention and momentum than any of Levin’s previous efforts, which I would credit to the songwriting—had that not always been there. Instead I’ll credit Craig Mazer who, like me, grew tired of watching this songwriter go unappreciated and does what he can to change that. Craig has taken on the role of manager and has directed all of the New Lows social media since the days of Myspace. He was also instrumental in nudging Bryon from Kiss of Death Records to release I Couldn’t Sleep as a 12” in time for their summer tour, which culminates in New Orleans this month. Fellow AG contributor Kevin Comarda and I had a phone chat with Mike about how he writes, how he wishes he could write, his rotating door of bandmates and what it’s like being a Socialist novelty and a real life version of Dewey Finn. –Kevin Barrios
Kevin Barrios: Shyster was one of my favorite punk bands of the ‘90s. You guys played the first ever Warped Tour  and toured with huge draws like Face to Face and Guttermouth. I was always perplexed as to why Shyster never went on to greater commercial success in that Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph era of dominance. What do you think happened?
Mike Levin: That’s a good question. It could have just been that people with purse-strings and connections didn’t think we were all that. A lot of it probably had to do with timing. We did tour, but I don’t really know. Maybe we didn’t have enough tattoos. Also, we were kind of weird and didn’t really fit into any specific genre enough. We were an emo band with a punk rock drummer, so maybe that threw people off… We did lots of cool stuff, but touring got a little depressing. After being on the Warped Tour, we did tours by ourselves that didn’t go very well. Then people started quitting. We were also changing a lot. We didn’t stick with that Say Uncle sound for very long. Maybe if we did another album like Say Uncle, someone would have taken note.
Kevin Comarda: And what happened with the original drummer?
Geoff [Lackey] left Shyster to join Diesel Boy and that took a little wind out of our proverbial sails. I didn’t realize at the time how big Geoff was in our identity. He tore it up. We had good drummers after that, but we could never replace Geoff.
KB: You released Atlantic/Pacific (The New Lows’ second LP) while living in New York, and I Couldn’t Sleep was released years later after you returned to Orlando. What are the main differences in this band since the shift in area codes?
Atlantic/Pacific was really just me working on a solo album. I played with a million different people in New York, lots and lots of combinations. When I started making Atlantic/Pacific I really didn’t have anyone in the band. I got Wes [Snowden] from Shyster, who had been living in New York for a while—but we had never talked about playing together. When I told him that I really wanted to make this album, Wes got onboard to do that. I didn’t have a drummer so I put an ad on Craigslist— everyone I met in New York was just Craigslist, Craigslist, Craigslist… so then this pseudo-celebrity, Russell Simins [Jon Spencer Blues Explosion] contacted me and said he wanted to play; I hired him to make the album. The bass tracks and drums were recorded in a studio in Midtown, which was like an office building. It was all hurried and stressful, but they had really nice equipment.
Then I went to a really beautiful studio in upstate New York called the Artfarm, in an old renovated barn in the woods and finished the record there, which was really just me by myself. Atlantic/Pacific was a product of that hodge-podge. It was disjointed and really a studio project. It wasn’t a show band at all. You can tell from the product… Then I came back [to Orlando] and it was just all about getting with friends. I started playing with my friends Mickey and Matt who both quit. Then I had Ralph [Ameduri] and Ralph was shot in a robbery, so I was by myself again. It always happens like that. So I started grabbing more of my good friends to play with me. We played a tribute to Ralph and that lead to a bunch of shows. Six months later we headed to New Orleans to make an album in a totally different way. I Couldn’t Sleep is more organic. It’s more like a bunch of dudes that hang out all of the time and play shows together and went to bang out a record. It was a totally different effect. In terms of the style, they aren’t completely different. Both have obligatory Americana numbers [laughs] and some punk rock numbers. I Couldn’t Sleep has a little more of a punk rock edge to it because that’s where I was personally at that time. I wanted it to be more raw and more live sounding.
KB: What moment as a musician has made you the happiest?
Within the last year and a half I’ve opened up for Smoking Popes and the Forgetters [Blake Schwarzenbach of Jawbreaker’s current band]. Both of those times were so special for me. I had really cool conversations with people in bands that I have just eaten up their shit—not literally—but I have just been so influenced by them, so impressed and so emotionally affected by Smoking Popes and Jawbreaker that to have played good shows with them and have them in the audience for me and me be in the audience for them, I was just ear to ear. Especially the Forgetters show because that just went so well and it was really cool conversing with Blake… And going way back in the day, doing the Warped Tour was pretty unbelievable. Just the sheer volume of people, having that huge crowd moshing and going ballistic was unforgettable. It was one of those “I can’t believe this” moments where I can do nothing but just smile like an idiot and try to play. [laughs]
KB: What’s been your lowest point?
Mmm, there’ve been a million. When band members quit, especially ones that you have been playing with for a long time, it’s difficult. You always have to restart and restart and restart. The record release show for Atlantic/Pacific… was awful. It was a real low point. I had come down [to Orlando] from New York and played with the New Lows in Orlando and had great shows in the past. But something about this date and everything else coming together… it was on July 4th, which for some reason I thought people would be out, but there was nobody there. It was a lot of work and energy involved to put this record out, then to have a show in a hometown scenario and then to feel like nobody actually gives a shit at all… but I go through that cycle of self-loathing regularly. I’m always sort of bumping bottom and bouncing back… The experience with Russell Simins was kind of depressing. I realized that the whole production and recording in this office space was outside of my control; it wasn’t fun. So to be spending all of this money to make a record that wasn’t fun… and I had one rock star band member that didn’t give a shit about anything and another who was a good friend, but who was not involved in the project that much at the time and had all kinds of other shit going on, I felt like I was just kind of scraping by. I did so much of the shit on my own that it made me realize that I really needed someone else to play with. I’ve never really considered quitting because you’ve got to eat; you’ve got to play.
KB: Speaking of low points, how did Ralph Ameduri’s death affect the band, and how much did he matter to you and Orlando?
Oh my god; yeah, when Ralph was killed he and I were the only people in the band. I was so excited to be starting over with Ralph, and then to have that violently ripped away, it was a shocking loss. It was probably the most depressing thing I’ve ever experienced, but it was also a moment of inspiration on a musical and artistic level because I knew that losing Ralph only meant that his presence was going to be even more significant because of what he meant to everyone in Orlando. He played in and recorded numerous bands of all sorts of genres. He’d also record young kids who were in punk bands. His tastes ran in every direction and he was so generous. He was all over the Orlando music scene from every spectrum. He was a little older than me. He was in his early forties when he died, and it was inspirational to have someone that was a little older who was so wrapped up in making cool shit. I recorded in his house many times. He wasn’t like a super gifted studio guy, but he always worked his way through problems. He was phenomenal. A real special guy, it’s crazy that it’s been over a year now.
KB: I Couldn’t Sleep musically mixes some really danceable poppy tunes with some somber dirges, but is predominantly dark, lyrically. Yet, when I think of Mike Levin the person, I think of a very cheery, positive and likable guy. Is this contradiction the result of our natural male tendency to not want to burden others with our problems, or is it just that those moments of struggle breed our creativity?
I’m usually not shy about burdening people with my problems. [laughs] I channel a lot of [my problems] into the music, so it gives me the opportunity to work shit through like that. I’ve always seen the music as my therapy. It allows me—when I’m playing shows and working on songs—to feel just fucking great about my life because it becomes so focused on this creative process that other people can listen to and just to satisfy my own needs. I haven’t found a lot of joyful type of inspiration in my writing, even though it’s always there too. Even in the gloomy ones there is an awe or amazement at what living is all about even in its darker moments. The number one thing that I like to consume in terms of culture is dark comedy. I don’t really get a lot of humor in my songs for some reason. I’ve always wondered why I don’t, but instead I go for darker amazement. It’s not suicidal, it’s mixing in the gloom with inspiration…as represented in Ralph’s death: the horror of it, the sadness and misery but also the re-recognition of the craziness and beautifulness of everything that’s around us.
KB: Being a liberal Jewish guy who cut his teeth in the punk scene and still spends his nights and weekends playing gigs in bars— while spending your days teaching in a conservative Christian school— what kind of issues have arisen from this duality?
The school views me as this cute exception. The kids like my rebellious spirit, and because it is a private school, as long as the kids and parents are happy, the administration is happy. I have been talked to a couple of times by my bosses about the “socialist” maybe, “anti- patriotic” rhetoric that I purportedly could be espousing. Kids are freethinkers; I don’t care if they are conservative or not. They shouldn’t just accept things without question. There has been a little bit of conflict and maybe I sometimes feel a little too free to speak my mind, but we all have to censor ourselves to some extent. I do feel relatively free to question authority and run my own show in the classroom, so I have to give my school credit for putting up with me.
KC: When you were working on the record, you told me about the School of Rock club you had started. Is that still going on?
Yeah, we meet during the last 40 minutes of school on Fridays. We’ve been doing it for four years now and it has really built its own momentum. It’s our own little Jack Black, School of Rock deal. We play on the stage in the chapel, which is pretty hilarious. We play a lot of Black Sabbath and Ozzy and whatever the kids want to do. It’s tons of Green Day. We do a show, which is amazing because the whole middle school is jammed into an area where these other middle-schoolers are freakin’ putting on their rock‘n’roll routine. It’s a big gift; it’s a big ego boost. It’s straight up sheer pleasure for all of these kids that just get to stand up on stage and play for their peers. We usually have three to five bands that get formed with interchangeable members. I let the kids choose what they want to play. It’s their club, but I have put my foot down for one song despite their constant complaining about it and that is “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down. [everyone laughs] That is the only song I’ve ever shot down. I mean, we have to listen to each song about 120 times while they learn to play it, and I just can’t go there.
KC: Do you think much of the importance of that class is to help them get over some of their shyness?
Totally. It’s the end of the year now and I just received a note from a student that said, “Thanks for your English classes, it’s been cool, but mostly thanks for encouraging me to get in front of my classmates and sing because it was a really important and memorable thing for me.” So that’s really cool. We started this four years ago and this is an 8th grade club, so now we have kids that are seniors in high school who are alumni of the program. I received a text message from one of my ex-students who said they were playing a show. I went to a venue in Orlando and saw two of my School of Rockers playing in two separate bands and they were both really good. This one kid that I had just taught some bar chords to was just shredding like Yngwie [Malmsteen]. To be able to pass on inspiration like that, it’s fun. It’s really cool. That’s another great thing about that school: while it is conservative, wealthy and mildly Christian, they let us do this School of Rock thing and they don’t wonder what we’re singing about. I don’t need to clear a set list or anything.
KB: If you are involved in any creative field there will always be a moment when you hear or see something created by another artist that makes you wish you had thought of it. What is the moment from any song that gives you the biggest “I wish I had written that” feeling?
I know it’s so outside of my ability or culture or whatever, but the Wu-Tang Clan and their brilliant wordplay, it’s just—how do they do that? It’s staggering; I wish that I had some of that ability. Wu-Tang has a way of playing with words that seems often on the edge of inventing new language. In that sense I’ve always greatly admired the album All Most Heaven by Will Oldham. On that EP he just invents words from sounds like I do with songs before I’ve written lyrics, but he holds them up and writes them out on the insert: “All day so they boge and doh boh/ when they call the name of they sing and they/ I mahl bahl/ hope they leave and fall again.” It’s ridiculous and liberating and fun to sing because usually meaning sucks. I had former students in a band—a duo synth pop outfit called Cherry and Marmalade— and they in their infinite youthful wisdom and naïveté had a song called “Song with a Meaning.” I thought that was brilliant. Also to add other heroes into the mix: Blake [Schwarzenbach], “I lost all my thoughts of angels in an aspirin billboard.” And later in that song [“Housesitter”], “I keep creating errands to talk to people to talk to me/ but still nothing human, money changes hands is all/ this life’s a broken record skipping on the carpet no response.” And the way the song builds a momentum and catharsis while peddling in impotence and futility. That’s my jam. Smoking Popes make me jealous with their unique manner of using irony and humor to approach what’s really real, in ways that make my sincere articulations seem silly. “Not that kind of girlfriend” when he exclaims “I don’t want to fall in love ‘til I’m 35!” His send-up of modern love has added more than anything to my [moments of] hopeless romanticism. The wry way in which the Popes satirize and love the same idea in the same lyric is open and intimate on a level that boils my noodle. It’s the most sincere irony I’ve heard in a pop punk band.
The New Lows will play the Circle Bar Saturday, July 6th with Lovey Dovies, BLCKBLT and the Self-Help Tapes. For more info, check out thenewlows.bandcamp.com