Sonic Activism: Isaac Levine discusses his new LP, "A Death So Obsessed With Living"


Isaak Levine and album cover

Photo by Kit Parks; album cover sketch by Hillary Butterworth.

Isaac Levine is a restless creator and organizer. Whether it's fighting against unsustainable development, booking DIY shows at houses and small venues, or making music in numerous bands and solo projects, this Washtenaw County resident's proactive drive is admirable.

Levine's latest recording is the guitar-centric A Death So Obsessed With Living, which is his third album in the past 365 days, following May's auto-chord organ LP Cloudpleasers under his own name and last December's Pee on These Hands with one of his bands, The Platonic Boyfriends.

A Death So Obsessed With Living was recorded in November by Spencer Tweedy, son of Jeff and a member of his dad's band, Wilco. We talked to the Levine about the story behind recording the new album, the themes on his last two LPs, and the pros and cons of living in Ann Arbor.

Isaak Levine + Friends celebrate their record release with a concert at Unity Vibration in Ypsilanti on Friday, December 21.

Q: How did you end up recording A Death So Obsessed With Living with Spencer Tweedy and how did he influence the album?
A: The Isaac Levine tiny keyboard tour went to Appleton in the first half of 2017 and Spencer saw us and told me that he was interested in recording some of my music. We decided on a weekend in November. I then assembled a group of best musician friends -- Klayton Dawson, Amber Fellows, Spencer Haney -- to practice a few times, and play a few shows leading up to the weekend when we would drive up to Appleton and record the album in a weekend in Spencer Tweedy's studio. Spencer has a studio in the basement of a former Franciscan church and was excited about doing it with a "band in the room" sound in which mistakes were kept and bleed between microphones was unavoidable. He's a scholar of old-school and newer recording techniques and we discussed liking the feeling of a band that sounded very live, musicianship well represented, in its humility. The rig at the space was an indoor pop-up tent with sound insulation on all sides and an array of microphones, guitars, and amps. The insulation worked great. Spencer was encouraging and very present. He wanted our musicianship to shine and encouraged us not to fuss over the takes too much while picking out choice moments in each player's part that he thought he would emphasize in the mix. He was warm, solid, and collaborative, and there is no doubt this album wouldn't have happened without him. I'm so appreciative he took the time to work with us. And so appreciative of Klay, Amber, and Spencer H. for taking that journey with me. They all had colds the whole car ride and I wore a scarf over my face to not catch it and mess up my throat.

Q: Where does the title "A Death So Obsessed With Living" come from, both for the song & how it captures the spirit of the album?
A: Something about the root of capitalism being a lack of imagination, using natural resources and others' cultures as a canvas of self-expression. Being insecure with your senses. I think the song describes it well. It's about a millionaire who traps flowers and mercurial humans in economic systems and storage rooms. I'm writing a way-too-long 'zine about how DIY music is a space in which people's bodies get chopped up and re-packaged for cash just like in the Catholic church that will contain the full theory. It's called "The Estate of the Creep." Here's a sample of that writing:

You have to generate garbage to make the things of value and every artist knows his, But if the assignment of value goes to those objects which require Garbage For absolution OR Existence I beLieve that theRe should be an elimination of value so that Art and Garbage CaN be the same, and by extension be eliminated as well.

All these Men who once were just men but Now are CREeps Say that Now is a good time to listen Now that every listening portal will tell them that they are indeed a creep and there are None Left which won’t tell them that they are A creep. 

At this point, many creeps are vying for the title of most Trustable Creep and it is a very fine title indeed if anyone awards it it and you yourself have been a man, a cReep and theN ultimately tRustabLE. 

The ListeNER presents Findings without Revealing the PersonaL InformatioN of many conFidantes. Their safety is the #1 priority and people are safest when No oNe knows that they took the time to bear their soul to the cReep, because the creep is a creep and steals soULS. 

The creep creates Homes for Souls inside of his mansion. There are many Gardens and Efficiency apartments from which souls can see out to the undeveloped wilds. The creep’s imagination sees the existence of souLs as a Useful tooL for Looking Outward and Understands that they RequiRe an engagement with wildNess & GarBage iN ordeR to deliveR theiR VaLuable meRcuRiaL behaviouR  to the estate of the CREEP, which stops the creep’s estate from appearing so creepy.

Q: Your recordings always capture a really loose vibe. The music isn't sloppy but it also doesn't sound overly rehearsed; the performances are elastic. Is this an aesthetic you strive for or is it more a practical thing based on the amount of time you have to record and rehearse?
A: Wish it was the former, hehe. I do write songs with loose tempos because I'm very lyric oriented and want to emphasize the lines. I'm trying to find a happy medium now. I want the next record to be maybe even dance-y. 

Q: Generally speaking, the songs on A Death So Obsessed With Living seem more socially pointed -- especially to Ann Arbor-related issues -- whereas Cloudpleasers explores more personal topics -- not that politics isn't personal. Was either album's loose theme based on a conscious decision to write a certain way, or do you tend to be less planned when constructing a body of songs?
A: I tend to write about new issues or subjects I'm grappling with. With Cloudpleasers, it was definitely about taking ownership of my destiny post-college. This one is about struggling to live in Ann Arbor and pointing fingers a bit. The summer and fall of writing Death So Obsessed, Amber Fellows and I were part of a broader coalition of people attempting to stop a development in Ypsilanti called "International Village" by bringing critiques of unsustainable development in front of Ypsilanti city council and information about an international scam to the public. Amidst this, the songs I was writing began to take a turn for the political, and Amber and I wrote a song called "Neoliberalism Explained." I wrote politically for this record because the possibility of eliciting changes in belief systems through agitation was very exciting and somewhat new to me at the time. In retrospect, there are moments where I observe a moral high ground to make an argument -- i.e., taking my body out of the space of the point I'm making. I don't like this very much. Listening to "High (Rises)" makes me cringe sometimes but I must let it be attributed to the character of the moment for me. Usually, I don't think of the album as a thematic exploration until there are 10 or 11 songs and then I'm like "Oop. It's a thing. It's obviously about _____." 

Q: Cloudpleasers was all written on an auto-chord organ and the songs on A Death So Obsessed With Living seem to be composed on guitar. How does the choice of instrument affect the way you write songs?
A: That's really thoughtful of you to notice! I tend to write 12-13 songs on either keyboard or guitar at a time over the course of couple month periods. I consider there to be keyboard and guitar eras in a distinct way. This is a total guitar album.

Q: You first recorded "Don't Move" on the Platonic Boyfriends album. Why did you decide to re-record it for the new album?
A: It's a song I'll always return to because it presents a test of character that I can't pass either way. It stays relevant in my psyche. A song that's useful for reflection. Maybe it's like a nihilist version of "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" No, you can't stay. No, you can't go. Funnily enough, I moved away to Pittsburgh this summer and came back a few weeks ago. I'll totally move and not move forever, I swear.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

The Isaac Levine Band plays at 8 p.m. on Friday, December 21, at Unity Vibration, 93 Ecorse Rd., Ypsilanti. No cover charge.