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Labor of Love 

For 10 years, Mike Levy led the local band the Sneetches. It took half that time to put out his first solo album.

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
By all accounts, Mike Levy should've been happy. His band, the Sneetches, was doing well. The quartet had toured the U.S. twice, played a prestigious French music festival with John Cale, and completed a jaunt across Japan. Its records, while not selling huge amounts, were critically acclaimed for their mix of sunny melodies and prickly lyrics. By 1993, the group had developed a dedicated fan base of people who longed for the kind of well-written, carefully arranged pop that seemed to get drowned out by the prevalent noise and grunge of the times.

But something was wrong. The band, once the most important thing in Levy's life, had become the least important. He was preoccupied with the messy breakup of a long-term relationship, among other difficulties. Levy was, in his own words, "not a happy camper." After the release of the Sneetches' Blow Out the Sun, he and the rest of the group decided to call it quits. His guitar, which he'd once felt a compulsion to play every day, now went untouched.

Then, after almost two years away from music, he began writing a different kind of song, deeply pained and minimalist in structure. "I wanted to write something truer to what I was feeling and make the arrangements sparser -- try to make it more intimate," Levy says. Back in 1993, he'd been told by Brian Kirk, owner of the small but influential Bus Stop label, that Kirk would be interested in putting out a Levy solo effort. Spurred on by a new crop of songs and a new way of recording, Levy set to work on demos for the album. That was in 1995.

Now, more than five years later, the record is finally being released. Levy didn't plan for it to take so long. But sometimes with songs this personal you've got to get it just right.

Mike Levy was born in 1962 in Los Angeles, in the shadow of Hollywood near Century City. His mother's show business aspirations were never fulfilled, so she concentrated on her children instead: Levy's sister acted in commercials while Levy took piano lessons. By age 7, he was writing songs about pollution and girls who didn't know he existed. "I tended to do things to amuse myself," he recalls. "I enjoyed just spending time alone -- I've always been that way." Levy was a big mimic: If he saw something, he wanted to try it. "There seemed to be a lot of music around. There was this car wash near my grandfather's house and one day there was a band playing [there] on a makeshift stage. I was so excited after that I had my grandfather buy me a toy, plastic electric guitar."

When his family moved to the Bay Area in 1972, Levy lived near members of the rock groups Ace of Cups and Fairfax Street Choir. When the bands would perform in Golden Gate Park, they would bring the further accomplished, 12-year-old Levy along to open for them. But it wasn't until 1979, when Levy was in high school in Novato, that his desire for a band manifested itself. "This friend played me the Sex Pistols and I couldn't believe it: Here were people saying the same things I was feeling."

After graduating, Levy left Novato and took up filmmaking classes at L.A. City College. He began writing punk songs with John Newman, the friend who had introduced him to the Pistols, and together they recorded a demo tape under the name Tentative Sound. Because they had difficulty finding other bandmates, the duo moved to San Francisco in 1981 and changed the band's name to the Wow. When the group broke up in 1984, Levy began the Sneetches with guitarist Matt Carges, whose previous band, If Then Why, he'd played with.

The Sneetches were a distinct change of pace for Levy. In place of aggression, anger, and noise, the band offered joyful melodies, ringing guitars, and pretty harmonies. "We set out to play what we wanted to listen to," Levy says. "In the early '80s there just weren't a lot of exciting things that I wanted to go out and buy. Every time you'd turn on the radio, you'd hear the same stuff. Nobody else that I was aware of was doing [intelligent pop music] so we felt we'd just do it ourselves."

With the release of the 1988 debut Lights Out! With the Sneetches, comparisons to '60s pop groups like the Zombies, the Association, and the Hollies came fast and furious, much to Levy's chagrin. "The thing we tried to stress with the Sneetches was that we were very heavily influenced by the punk movement even though we played pop music," he says. "We really believed in the whole idea that you could do it yourself. Plus, we would do a Wire cover, a Saints cover, the Easybeats, the Buzzcocks. ... I think we got too easily dismissed -- you know, "The Sneetches are a '60s retro band,' which was not what we set out to do at all."

Alec Palao, who'd joined the band on bass by the time of 1990's third album, Slow, laughs at how the group was described. "Critics would compare the songs to ['60s psych bands] like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Mike had never even heard them."

Slow was arguably the apex of the Sneetches' career. Musically, the band shifted from the swirly bounce of "Over 'Round Each Other" to the power-chord bop of "What's in Your Mind" to the dreamy bongo-and-strum of "Heloise." Meanwhile, Levy undercut the melodies with lyrics that pointed out the dark clouds surrounding those silver linings.

Having toured the U.S. in 1989 with legendary wall-of-noise-pop combo My Bloody Valentine, and having been the first American band to perform at the Les Inrockupibles festival in Paris in 1990, the combo decided it was time to sign with a major label. But after a year and a half of showcase gigs and schmoozing in L.A., Levy and company gave up and put out their fourth and last full-length on indie stalwart spinART in 1994. Although Blow Out the Sun was a decent record, it lacked the invention and collective oomph of past efforts.

"I had really high expectations for the Sneetches," Levy says. "I thought, "Everybody's going to love this. What's the difference with what's on the radio?' And I just burnt out. It got to the point where it wasn't fun anymore. Writing the songs got to be confining and frustrating.

"But I'm very proud of the Sneetches and what we did. I'm probably our biggest fan," he chuckles.

After taking his long break from music, Levy set out to make an album that sounded more like his Sneetches demos. Unfortunately, before he could finish recording the songs, Bus Stop's owner ran out of money. Levy spent much of 1996 and 1997 trying to get someone to finance the rest of the album. "I was going to abandon it," Levy recalls. "I'd written other songs and thought maybe I should scrap it and start something else. But then Matt and others convinced me to finish it.

"Also, I don't generally like putting myself in the spotlight," he continues, "and I decided it would be good to complete something I'd done that was just me."

So Levy worked slowly on the tracks, recording whenever he had the time and money. Carges played drums on each of the songs, and the rest of the Sneetches appeared on a couple of numbers. Other friends, such as singer/songwriter Alison Faith Levy (no relation) and David Immerglück and Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven, stopped by to add color to the tunes.

In late 1999 Brian Kirk convinced his former co-workers at Urbana, Ill., label Parasol Records to help finish the recording. Parasol's Michael Roux explains why: "We loved the rough mixes of what had been finished to date. Just beautiful songs with a heartfelt, yet not clichéd-sounding, approach. Also, at that point we had enjoyed success with another piano-driven, melodic pop album, June & the Exit Wounds' A Little More Haven Hamilton, Please, and felt that we could get Fireflies into the hands of the same general fans -- people seeking a current album that would fit comfortably next to [their] Harry Nilsson reissues."

Of course, limiting your audience even to people who've heard of Harry Nilsson -- much less those who own his records -- might not be such a good idea. Still, one listen to Fireflies and the comparison makes sense. While Levy's songs lack the absurd jokiness of Nilsson's tunes (remember the inane hit "Coconuts"?), he shares the singer/songwriter's love for intimate recording and tastefully arranged, piano-led soul. In fact, Levy even jokes that he "tried to make this record as soulful as a white Jewish kid from Novato could."

But it may be Levy's other muse that best exemplifies Fireflies. During the bleak period when most of these songs were written, Levy listened to a steady diet of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, a record that still stands as one of the all-time great soul-baring musical statements. On Fireflies, Levy seems to be looking at the world from the bottom of some woman's shoe, trying to make sense of how she left him so wrecked. Several of the songs consist of little more than Levy's voice, his piano, and a few somber string parts. "I Need to Tell You" is so raw that you half expect to hear Levy fall off his barstool at the end.

Even on the more upbeat numbers Levy's pain is right on the surface. On "Away From My Head" Levy recounts a need to escape from his overwhelmed mind over a background of cooing vocals, slide guitar licks, and bluesy piano rolls. With its rumbling bass, thick melodies, and swelling harmonies, "Too Many People There" is Sneetches-like power-pop, with Levy singing about an almost pathological shyness. Things don't improve much on "Some Days," as he describes an inability to view the sunshine, let alone venture out into it.

Only on the last two songs -- written after Levy had escaped his depression -- does a feeling of hopefulness creep in. "Take This Child Away" is a big soul number with horns and a funky backbeat that Levy wrote with Al Green in mind, while "Fireflies" is a sweet lullaby that drifts on a bed of thick organ and female backup vocals.

One of the amazing things about the record is how the final tapes still hold so much emotion, five years after they were begun. Considering the time it took to make it, it's ironic that the collection sounds like a live record -- albeit one recorded surreptitiously and late at night.

Levy will perform in public for the first time in ages at his long-awaited record release party this week. He'll be playing his own material, first with a band that includes Palao, Carges, Alison Faith Levy, and guitarist John Moremen, and next joining the Sneetches for what may be the last time (Carges is moving out of the area). And then?

"I would like to do another record at some point -- maybe by 2007," Levy says with a smile. "I find that when I'm happy I don't tend to write as much. I'm fine with that."

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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