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It didn’t seem like too complicated of a setup: a simple, over-the-shoulder shot of Priests’ Katie Alice Greer—dressed in full James Bond regalia—running blindly into Ilsa bass player Sharad Satsangi’s villain character, knocking her to the ground. But David Combs and Ben Epstein are having a back-and-forth over how the shot should be framed. Combs wants it one way, while Epstein has something different in mind. It doesn’t take long for them to compromise; they’ll film it both ways and see what works best while editing.
It’s a balmy April morning and Combs and Epstein have assembled a squad of friends to help them make a new music video for their band, The Max Levine Ensemble. For anyone else, the minor squabble could’ve easily escalated into a petty argument, ending the shoot for the day, but after nearly two decades of friendship—most of which has revolved around their long-running pop-punk band—Combs and Epstein know each other about as well as any two people could. They know to hear each other out, to try each other’s ideas, because each knows from experience that the other might have a better idea.
This is the first in a trilogy of music videos they’re releasing to promote Backlash, Baby, the group’s first full-length album in nearly a decade. They’re releasing them in reverse chronological order because… well, there is no good reason. It’s just one of the band’s weird quirks, like its members’ obsession with Monopoly Deal, kickball, and a terrible energy drink called Rumba that isn’t even produced anymore. In many ways, this band is ridiculous: It’s a high school punk band which—its members now in their early 30s—never stopped being a high school punk band. But dig a little deeper and the Max Levine ethos becomes clear: Have a good time. Make sure everyone around you is having a good time. And then, when the good time is over, let’s stop and think about what’s going on in the world around us. Question authority and convention, but make sure you’re doing it in a way that’s constructive.
Above all: Think for yourself, be yourself, and never let anyone make you feel bad about that.
After 15 years, five full-lengths, three EPs, two split 7-inches, two compilation records, 20 music videos, and 570 shows across the U.S. and U.K., the group has prevailed with an ethos that has helped shape what D.C.’s DIY punk scene is today.
But none of the band’s members would ever admit to that. In their eyes, they’re just doing the thing they’ve been doing since high school: Hanging out, playing music, making silly videos. It’s just that everyone has since joined their party.
It’s hard not to feel like we’re all back in high school when The Max Levine Ensemble meets up for band practice on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Combs, Epstein, and drummer Nick Popovici are unloading their gear into a house deep in the Potomac suburbs just as the elementary school down the street lets out.
In the last 15 years, they’ve practiced in dozens of weird places: from their various group houses, to DIY spaces, to friends’ houses, to their own parents’ houses, to—perhaps the weirdest, given that they’re all in their early 30s—the houses of friends’ parents in the suburbs, where they are today.
It’s fitting, really. After all, it’s a band born out of the basements of friends’ parents’ houses.
Their friend Dan greets them at the garage. His parents, who have let the band practice there on occasion for the past several years, are at work. The Max Levine Ensemble’s got the whole afternoon to get ready for its record release tour. It’s the first time the band’s members have gotten together to practice in several weeks and the only chance they’ll have to do so before they leave for tour.
“What’s our objective for this practice?” Epstein says. “Let’s try and get ready for the release show and tour,” Combs responds in a let’s-get-down-to-business manner. “Speak for yourself, I’m already ready,” Popovici jokes. “As a unit, Nick,” Combs fires back. “We need to be good as a unit. If I play bad, then you play bad.”
For the next three and a half hours, The Max Levine Ensemble charges through the songs on Backlash, Baby—as well as some older fan favorites—polishing the ones it will most likely play on tour. The tour is short, just a five-day trip along the East Coast, but after more than a decade, touring isn’t as easy as it was when Combs, Epstein, and Popovici were younger. Plus, there’s a lot of hype riding on their new record. NPR Music did a coveted “First Listen” of the album last week, potentially introducing the band to a legion of listeners not plugged into the world of DIY punk.
With a nonchalant focus that appears to shift between disinterest and intensity, Popovici, 30, pounds on his kit with speed and finesse. His shaggy black hair slowly creeps over his face as he appears to stare off into the distance. Whether he’s practicing or playing live, he exudes the same sense of aloofness, as if he’d rather be doing anything else. It’s all a faÃ§ade, though: He loves playing in this band.
Epstein (or Bepstein as he’s affectionately known to friends), 31, bounces up and down—his thick, curly black hair ricocheting back and forth—as he diligently plucks away on the bass, every so often looking back with his wide, bearded grin. He’s by far the band’s most animated member, with an ultra-positive outlook that was endearingly captured in a 2011 documentary about his attempts to make the most of a long summer and write a song a day.
Meanwhile, Combs strums and works his fingers up and down the neck of his guitar—he’s a much better guitarist than he lets on. He’s 32 but looks 22, and his distinctively high-pitched tenor only adds to his youthful demeanor.
You can barely hear him, though—no one brought a PA. It’s a DIY band after all, so such things aren’t a necessity, and its members make do with what they have. That’s how they’ve always done it.
The first thing you need to know about The Max Levine Ensemble is that no one in the band is named Max Levine. The band’s origin story goes something like this: As ska-loving high school sophomores at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Combs and friends Alex Mazer, Adam Soffrin, and Ari “Rejy” Jacobovits started a band to just play covers. At some point, a punk-obsessed junior named Max Levine took notice of the group and befriended Combs.
“Max Levine was like ‘Oh, I’m into punk rock and I notice that these kids a year younger than me are into it. I’m going to show them the good stuff,’” Combs says. “He made me a whole CD wallet of burned CDs, with Minor Threat, Fugazi, Propagandhi, The Clash—some classic stuff that leaned a little more political.” He would encourage Combs and friends to cover more punk songs, but they were in a ska band—punk wasn’t really their style.
In the summer of 2000, Combs—who had just been playing guitar in his ska band—decided he wanted to know what it was like to be the singer in a band. He figured it’d just be another cover band that hangs around at one of his friends’ parents’ house and covers Green Day songs (“It’s just what we did for fun in high school,” Epstein recalls), but also “cover the songs that Max wants to hear.”
So he called up Epstein and asked him if he wanted to start a band. “‘You want to be in a band called The Max Levine Ensemble?’” Combs recalls asking Epstein, “And he was like ‘Yeah.’ And I was like ‘Cool. Who else should be in it?’”
Their only other friends who played music were Combs’ other bandmates, so it was only natural that Mazer, Soffrin, and Jacobovits would also be in it.
They played their first show in December of 2000 at their high school’s “JDStival”—a Battle of the Bands-type thing, covering Green Day, Propagandhi, and whatever other songs Levine wanted them to play. Shortly after, they stopped being a cover band and “started writing their songs without really making a conscious decision,” Combs says.
In 2001, The Max Levine Ensemble recorded and released its first album, a collection of 13 blisteringly bouncy pop-punk tunes titled Songs That Make You Wanna Jump Up, Run Outside, Grab a Donut From a Cop and Yell Chach Rules!!! With songs like “Pizza Guy” and “Curly Brown Hair Love Affair,” it’s an album made by goofy high school punk kids almost exclusively for goofy high school punk kids (luckily, Montgomery County was teeming with them in the early ’00s).
Not long after high school, Soffrin left the band, leaving one of their friends, Mat Lewis, to take over drums. Somewhere in 2003, Mazer and Jacobovits faded out of the picture, just as Lewis’ commitment to the group was waning.
At this point, Lewis was splitting drum duties with Popovici, who also drummed in The Bowlcuts, a Ramones-worshipping pop-punk outfit that played often with The Max Levine Ensemble in its early years, including the band’s first big (two and a half weeks) tour in early 2003. By the end of 2004, Lewis had left and the lineup of Combs, Epstein, and Popovici was solidified.
Over the years, the band has become known for abrasively socio-political lyrics—calling out everything from racism, sexism, and homophobia to police brutality and capitalism—as much as it has for its demeanor. That’s been there since the beginning, a symptom of early music influences from outspoken DIY punk bands like Propagandhi, The Devil is Electric, and Operation Chris Clavin. Combs moved to Bloomington, Ind., toward the end of 2003 to be a part of the growing anarcho-punk scene. There, he became deeply involved in the music and activism centered around influential folk-punk label Plan-It-X Records (who were early champions of bands like Against Me! and Andrew Jackson Jihad). That interest carried over into The Max Levine Ensemble’s music, and the band’s songs took on a more overtly political nature.
One particular song, “Fuck You I’m Not PC??,” is perhaps most emblematic of the band it would eventually become. Clocking in at barely a minute, it’s a prime example of a song you might hear from a group of teens beginning to question convention and society. In it, Combs takes a step back and looks at the language and jokes his peers use in a seemingly innocent fashion and says “You know what? That’s not cool.”
I don’t think it’s OK to say that something bad is gay/ To imply there’s something wrong with that sexuality/ And I don’t think it’s funny when you joke about race or sex or money/ So determined to offend, and you defend it when you say/ “Fuck you, I’m not PC”/ Well is that all that you can see?
For Bobbie Dougherty, now a librarian at the D.C. Public Library and one of the co-founders of the D.C. Punk Archive, it was just the kind musical message she needed to hear from a band of her peers at that age.
“It’s so simple, so high school, but that song spoke to me so strongly,” Dougherty, 30, recalls. “And their music still says that. It just says that in a more refined, intelligent way.”
In many ways, The Max Levine Ensemble is the same band it’s been since “Fuck You I’m Not PC??” That’s not a slight against the group: Combs has evolved into a vivid lyricist who can turn a phrase (“Kava kava chameleon/ Boswellia geranium/ They call her the setting sun/ But she’s my valerian” he sings on “My Valerian”) just as well as he can write a sobering rallying cry for the disenfranchised (“If we’re the core, the uninformed/ We are the ones whose votes are counted/ We still do nothing about it” he shouts with conviction on “Fall of the Constellations”). Its three members manage to write catchy, often anthemic music that gives pop-punk a new sense of urgency—something rarely achieved since the genre’s mid-’90s heyday. It’s just that they’re more experienced with an expanded world view and, well, they’re better at playing music than they were as teenagers.
Despite its local roots, The Max Levine Ensemble never quite fit into the D.C. scene. It still doesn’t, really, which makes its longevity all the more curious. Just look at what came before it: Fugazi and the Dischord sound propagated dozens of angular post-hardcore bands whose music was as self-serious as the scene it spawned (“Thanks to Fugazi, D.C.’s rock scene is a steady diet of boring,” argued Michael Little in a now-infamous 2003 City Paper story).
What place does a snotty punk band with song titles like “Poop Farm” and “Aren’t All Songs Political? Aren’t All Songs Vaguely Self Referential?” have in all that?
“They’re very D.C.,” Dougherty contends. “They’re part of a lineage that came before them.” It’s not obvious in the style of the band’s music (“We’ve always kind of been the only pop-punk band in the area,” Popovici says), but it’s very much on display in Combs’ lyrics, and in the way the band conducts itself: primarily playing house shows and touring the national DIY circuit, ensuring that its shows are accessible to anyone and everyone who wants to see them, and giving Combs time in between songs to explain their social message.
And those messages resonate with kids. Over the course of The Max Levine Ensemble’s tenure, its members have managed to win over legions of dedicated teenage fans. It’s a total Matthew McConaughey in Dazed & Confused paradox: They get older, their fans stay the same age.
“David is this person who is very important to a lot of significantly younger people, and people look to him for political beliefs,” says Shira Pilarski, 30, who plays in the band Maneuvers and has been a fan and friend of the band since 2001.
Perhaps it’s because The Max Levine Ensemble retains, in some ways, the same ethic that its members had as teenagers that it’s still so resonant with punk kids across the globe (scan its Facebook page and you’ll see recent love notes from fans as far as Indonesia). It’s deeper than that, though: It goes back to what Dougherty said about the band being “part of a lineage that came before them.”
Erica Freas, whose label, Rumbletowne Records, is releasing Backlash, Baby as a co-release with Philadelphia’s Lame-O Records, also sees the band as a continuation of the D.C. punk tradition. “The way I see D.C. is that it has the old reputation from the ’80s and ’90s,” says Freas, 33, who plays in the Olympia, Wash., punk band RVIVR. “I see people being more and more connected in each other’s projects in a more involved way—like a longstanding friendship.”
Like their punk forebearers before them, The Max Levine Ensemble’s members are not in it for the money. In the 15 years they’ve been in the band they’ve never paid themselves, Combs says. “All the money we make goes to a band fund toward van maintenance, recording, props for music videos, stuff like that.”
But unlike those forebearers, they know not to take themselves too seriously.
“Fugazi have this really austere, severe image, whereas The Max Levine Ensemble play around with their own image a lot,” says Larry Livermore, the co-founder of Lookout Records, the influential Bay Area punk label responsible for putting out early Green Day and Operation Ivy albums. Livermore, 68, is a longtime fan of the band and was responsible for what’s perhaps its biggest brush with controversy, when Ben Weasel—former frontman of the influential Chicago pop-punk band Screeching Weasel—publicly ridiculed the group on his radio show.
In 2008, Weasel—a longtime friend of Livermore’s—asked him what new bands he should be paying attention to. Livermore told him he had to check out The Max Levine Ensemble (“If they were around in the mid-’90s, I would’ve signed them,” Livermore says). Weeks later, Weasel played the group on his radio show and called it “the worst band in the world,” saying that “if that band was a horse, I’d shoot it.”
Combs, Epstein, and Popovici took the massive insult in stride, firing back with a deep level of trolling: They released a split 7-inch “with” Ben Weasel. The A-side featured original songs including “Ben Weasel Thinks We Suck,” while the B-Side comprised sound bites from Weasel’s radio show condemning the band.
While The Max Levine Ensemble may have always been the odd band out musically—when Combs moved back to D.C., the band would mostly play locally with hardcore and screamo bands at now-defunct house venues like Death Star (where Combs lived for a period) and Girl Cave—it’s nonetheless adored and celebrated throughout the scene.
“The Max Levine Ensemble was one of the reasons I got into the local music scene,” says Jon Weiss, who co-owns the local indie label Babe City Records and plays in the bands The Sea Life, Witch Coast, and Den-Mate. Weiss, 24, was just 16 when he first saw Combs play as Spoonboy (Combs’ longtime solo project that he recently retired) at a pond in a suburban neighborhood in North Potomac.
“Spoonboy played and he kind of blew everything out of the water,” Weiss says.
In August, Weiss invited The Max Levine Ensemble to play on his label’s one-year anniversary show at the 9:30 Club—a venue that most D.C. bands dream about playing. “In my mind The Max Levine Ensemble have always been on this pedestal in the local music scene,” he says. “I kind of thought it was ridiculous a band that’s so influential has never played one of the most influential venues in D.C.”
Many musicians who tour from afar to play in D.C. share that sentiment. Combs has been steadily booking shows since high school, and between his booking efforts and Max Levine tours, the band has a number of music friends scattered across the globe.
And friendship is the key to understanding The Max Levine Ensemble. Its members have been friends for very a long time, which has kept the band going after all these years, although it wasn’t always easy to maintain.
In 2008, the band released OK, Smartypants on Plan-It-X, the group’s first full-length record since moving out of its “high school phase.” Shortly after that release, Combs was convinced the band was done. “I was like ‘I just think we’ve done what we were meant to do [as a band] and made this album that expresses a lot of things that we meant to express and we’re not getting along great.’”
Epstein, who works as a videographer for the Baltimore Orioles, was getting more serious with his job, as was Popovici, who makes a living as an artist. All the while, Combs was getting more and more wrapped up with creating music as Spoonboy. With one last tour booked to promote OK, Smartypants, it seemed as good a time as any to call it quits.
Combs brought it up with Epstein, who didn’t want to end the band, but understood where Combs was coming from. “And then I brought it up to Nick and we weren’t communicating well at the time,” Combs says. “I was like ‘Hey, after the tour, maybe we should plan a last show,’ and he was like ‘No.’ So I guess I kind of got outvoted to end the band,” he jokes.
What they did do was take a break to focus on their own lives and then, when it felt right, started playing again. That’s been the key to their longevity: Knowing when they need to slow down and focus on themselves, and when they’re excited to make music together as The Max Levine Ensemble.
Once they got out of their period of dormancy, they started writing the songs that would become Backlash, Baby in as early as 2011. In November of 2013, the band took a week-long “staycation” at an empty warehouse in Maryland to finish writing and demoing the record. Combs, Epstein, and Popovici emerged with more than enough songs for the record and, over the next two years, recorded and mixed them when they found the time.
Though Epstein sometimes writes Max Levine songs, Combs is the band’s primary songwriter, and one whose powerful messages are pulled directly from his own life experiences. On Backlash, Baby, a number of the songs are based on the time he spent organizing protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., “experiencing really extreme police repression for doing Freedom of Speech activities.”
But it’s Epstein’s songs on Backlash, Baby—like “Going Home Parts I and II,” the sweeping two-part anthemic closer—that capture both the spirit and dichotomy of the music the trio makes together. Whereas Combs uses music to both ponder and interrogate politics and identity, Epstein’s songs are more rooted in the power of friendship and leaning on the people you love to pull you out of dark times. “Things will get better once we leave the winter far behind,” the band and a chorus of friends sing with conviction in the last seconds of the album.
And after 15 years, The Max Levine Ensemble knows that its winter is far behind. You need not look further than its crazy music videos to see it, whether one of its own or a video Combs and Epstein made for another band, like New York’s Worriers, West Chester, Penn.’s Spraynard, or RVIVR. There’s a common theme in these videos: There’s a party, it’s the best one you’ve ever seen, and everyone they’ve ever met is invited. It’s this kind of inclusive positivity that’s kept its members going all these years, and why they’re beloved by so many.
They might have slowed down as they’ve gotten older, but their friendship has never been stronger.
“We’re kind of like brothers or something,” Combs says. “We love each other and sometimes we hate each other, but we’re never not going to be close to each other and that’s certainly something that’s grown out doing this project for so long.”
Flyer credits, from top: Mike O’Brien, Althea Baird, David Combs, Nick Popovici, David Combs, Carni Klirs, Michael Cantor