DIY bands seem to have gone the way of the buffalo – but Washington, DC’s The Max Levine Ensemble have been going strong for almost 10 years. They give their music away on their website, they play benefit shows, and they’ve never signed a record contract. At the same time, they’re opening for Anti-Flag, playing Insubordination Fest (again), and getting distribution through Asian Man Records. I sat down with singer/guitarist David Combs to get some insight on what makes The Max Levine Ensemble work. Check it out here!
Is it true that The Max Levine Ensemble started off as a cover band?
David Combs (guitar, vocals) : Yes – it was a long time ago, we were in high school, and a couple of us were in a ska band and just starting to get into punk rock, especially political punk rock. And there was this kid, Max Levine, and we started this band where he would write the set list of other bands’ songs that he wanted to hear. We didn’t stick to that plan for longer than one show, really.
And you’ve been going ever since?
David: Yeah, it’ll be 10 years this December. Which is funny, because we’re still attached to the songs we wrote back in high school, and we’re very much a different band. I’m not embarrassed by any of it, but it’s interesting having been a band this long and having changed as much as we have. You run in to people who have an opinion of you based on what they heard five years ago, and are not going to check out what we’re doing now based on that.
What’s changed the most for you guys in that time span?
David: We started out when we were 16, 17 years old and we had all the values and problems of high schoolers, and in the past 10 years we’ve all evolved as people. Also, lineup-wise, the only people who were around from the first few years are me and Bepstein [Ben Epstein, bass guitarist] – we had a trumpet player, a few different drummers, and a bass player because Bepstein used to play second guitar. We’ve had the same lineup, more or less – me, Bepstein, and Nick Popovici [drums] for the past 6 or 7 years.
So now you guys have all of these releases, and you just give them away on your website? That’s not really “by the rules”is it?
David: Are there any rules? I mean, the internet is such a weird and anonymous thing that I have no idea how it’s affected us. I don’t know who’s downloading our songs and whether they would have ordered our record otherwise. We’re just not trying to deny anyone from having our music. On the internet, you can find any music you want for free if you want to – so why not make it accessible?
Are you guys okay with internet piracy, in general?
David: To varying levels, we’re all on the same page with the fact that the internet has changed the way that people consume music and that that’s an okay thing, for people to control their own access to music. Before the internet, people would make tapes and it wouldn’t be called piracy. Now it’s just a little more free-flowing.
So you think of it as just a new form of friendly sharing?
David: Yeah. I mean, as a band we do need to make money to cover expenses. We do appreciate people buying our records or donating online if that’s an option. Ultimately we’re not trying to make music to horde it and sell it – we want people to hear it.
Are you able to cover the band’s expenses that way?
David: It’s a fairly self-sustaining band economy. We own a van that we up-keep and we put out some of our own records. All the money that we make on shows or merch just goes back into the band.
But you guys have never signed a record deal?
David: We’ve never signed anything. We’ve put out records with Plan-It-X Records, No Brakes Records, Asian Man Records. But all of those are just agreements with people that we’ve met through playing music and they’re wanting to help us out. They sell our records and it helps them out with their project.
It’s just never been necessary to sign anything. We’re not closed off to anything – if there were a label that we were friends with and they wanted to do a record with us, we wouldn’t not-sign a contract on that principle. It’s just the level of things we do, when you work with people who are on the same wavelength it just works out like that.
Do you guys handle your own recording then? Like, GarageBand style?
David: No, there’s a great guy in Baltimore that we do most of our recording with named Joe Mitra. We’ll go up there and record with him. We have to pay for it and stuff, he’s got a lot of expensive equipment and that’s how he makes his living, but that’s all within the band economy.
So you guys have some big shows coming up – opening for Anti-Flag and The Menzingers, then playing Insubordination Fest the next day. How’d that end up happening?
David: We played Insubordination Fest last year and we’re psyched to do it again, and we’re all excited to be playing with Anti-Flag. Anti-Flag is one of those bands that you were into as a teenager, and while what they’re doing now may not be your cup of tea, it’s still great – which is not to say I’m not into what they’re doing now. I appreciate that they’re doing something political and have continued to make political music. That show is with Positive Force, which has been putting on punk shows for 25 years to support political causes. We’ve done lots of shows with them – some small shows, and some opening for bigger bands.
We’re also playing a show this week at the Black Cat with Hot New Mexicans and Shitty Darkness, which are two bands from Georgia that we’re friends with. Not to diss Anti-Flag, but I’m much more excited to play with bands that we’re friends with and whose music is really exciting to me.
You guys do some interesting things with song structures – what got you away from verse/chorus/verse?
David: Boredom. Propagandhi is a good example of a band that very rarely ever has a chorus. And I appreciate a good chorus here and there. I’m all about hooks, all our songs are about the hooks. We also grew up in DC with Dischord Records – Fugazi and all these bands who were re-working how punk songs could be played, and so that’s certainly an influence as well.
How would you say the DC scene has changed over the past 10 years?
David: There have been ups and downs, but this is an up period. I think that past the early 2000’s people outside DC may have thought that things died off because Dischord scene stopped having as much of a presence. There’s always good bands playing, but it’s been a tough period for venues – we had a couple of good house venues that shut down in the past year. There’s been a really good amount of people interested in going to shows, so if you can just find a place to put them.
Ben Weasel has had some choice words about you guys – what’s the story there?
David: Through some strange series of events, he got into an argument with someone about who was better – The Max Levine Ensemble or U2. Apparently he’s a big U2 fan. So he spent 10 minutes bashing us on his radio show, saying some pretty awful things, like that our fans should have their ears ripped off and screwdrivers shoved into their heads to see if there are any brains in there. So we put out a 7” in retaliation – a few songs that we wrote about him and the B-side is a collection of quotes from his rant juxtaposed to show how ridiculous it is.
His main criticism of us is that my singing voice isn’t palatable. I can deal with people not liking my voice, but the thing about punk rock is that you’re not supposed to worry about fitting someone else’s standard. That’s the point of being in a punk band.
What music are you digging right now?
David: There’s a new Masshysteri record that’s really great. The Rvivr LP is awesome. The Shout Out Loud mixtape has all these awesome bands that I’ve been wanting to hear more of – Two Hand Fools, The Phermones, a bunch of bands from the Midwest that I’m just learning about. The last record that I went to a record store for was Ted Leo and The Pharmacists’ Brutalist Bricks.
Do you have a favorite place to tour outside of DC?
David: There are lots of great places everywhere, but if I had to choose a favorite, I’d say the Midwest. Bloomington, Detroit, Columbus, Louisville, Chicago, Minneapolis – all those cities are awesome.
Do you want to give a shout-out to friends or bands?
David: I don’t want to forget anybody, so all the great bands and the great friends in them.