The Level Heads: We put ourselves through a songwriting boot camp

The Level Heads: We put ourselves through a songwriting boot camp
Photo courtesy of the artist

Since connecting in college over a mutual hunger for creating music, rapper Lipset and producer Lokes have built a name for themselves as the Level Heads. Currently, they're  gearing up for the official release of Head's Up, built from a running series of monthly releases. The album features a different local artist on every song, bringing a fresh approach to each track.

Ahead of Saturday's release show, Gimme Noise met with the Level Heads at their studio to discuss the record and their approach to recording.

Gimme Noise: So the album Head's Up came together through a series of monthly online releases, with a new feature on every track? How did the idea for that process come together?

Lipset: We had the track with Rich [Garvey], "Decoded," that sort of inspired the whole thing. We were looking for a way to put ourselves through a boot camp: track-making boot camp, beat-making boot camp, songwriting boot camp. We acknowledged the only to get better is to just do it. Make the music, put it out, get people's responses, critiques, and feedback. It also allowed us to expand our artistic network and work with more people. We dropped "Decoded" as our first feature and aimed to have a feature on every release we put out, thereby enabling us to not only expand out artistic network but have those artists put our name in the ear of their fans as well when they push that song to their people. It was a really strategic idea. In the end, we got out of it what we wanted to. We hit all four seasons but we only made art for three of them.

Lokes:  But here in Minnesota it's usually only three seasons anyway. We made an effort to always be out on the scene and attend as many events as possible, especially with artists we were featuring with. We want to be able to work with some of these cats, pretty much all the artists we already knew. From there, the features brought themselves out, it was more of a mutual thing I think. Every time was different. Every single song has it's own trials and tribulations, ups and downs, scheduling malfunctions, it's a story behind each one of them. You don't know what to expect when you're in bootcamp. 

Lipset:  Except that at the end of every month, Lokes knew he was pulling all-nighters. Every song.

Lokes: Looking back, it's fun. That's just part of engineering. Even that I got better at. You realize when to stop, you're killing yourself, it doesn't make sense to go any further.

This record really reflects Minneapolis' collaborative spirit.

Lokes: One of the things that really inspires me about this city is anybody who's really out there grinding. There's a certain feel when you're around people who are on their grind and that gets me going. They're doing something, we gotta tighten up on our side. The minute the Twin Cities doesn't have that type of feel when you walk into a show, that's when the Twin Cities will die out. The Twin Cities scene has grown exponentially in the last year as far as skill set. Everyone's gotten better.

Lipset: It's like Shakespearean England. There's all these writers, all these artists. We learned you can't rush progress. The only way to progress is to put in the time and the work. 

What were some of your favorite experiences working with the artists?

Lokes: Freez was the biggest refresher on the album in my opinion. We were working on the track and he came out of nowhere...

Lipset: Soon as he spit his verse were all just like, fuck...On "Eye of the Storm" with Felix and Mastermind, we sent them the beat, just the barebones beat that Lokes put together in the original moment of inspiration. We said we wanted to call the song "Eye of the Storm", and thats all they had. Felix showed up with 8 bars and wrote 12 on the spot, he did it in like 5 minutes. Literally, in 5 minutes he was in the booth with 20 bars, just snappin'. Then Mastermind came in a different day, he had his 16 already written, he had never heard me do my verse or Felix do his or Lokes do his hook, he just went in. But he had the beat and the idea.

Lokes:  We would send them out in advance before I touched them up. When they started writing, I would take that time to further develop it, and by the time they were scheduled to come in, half the time the beat would be in a pretty different place than where they first had it. Once they left, I would have the inspiration to finish the track. Their added element was the missing piece to bring it to its full form. Although the majority of the artists weren't in here pushing keys with me, they definitely contributed to the production because without them I wouldn't be able to put my finger down on the right keys or pick out the right measures on the basslines or whatever. 

The Level Heads also plays with a live band. Has that influenced the structuring of songs at all?

Lokes: The majority of the beats at least had some type of barebones structure months before we approached the artists. It gave me the opportunity to look at what I've made in the past and use the production skills I've gained since then to make those come together. That segued into what we do live band-wise because I started to understand a little bit more about composition, like here's how we can tap into both sides of the Level Heads music spectrum. Two-track stuff and live band stuff, we're still trying to figure out those two.

Lipset: Big picture, we're still only like a year and a half into the Level Heads, in terms of when we teamed up and decided to call it that. As long as the band's been together, the Level Heads have been together, but they're both still relatively young, so we haven't actually taken very many two-track songs and adapted them for the live band. As a band, we've written all new music, and that's our next release, the live band album. We've kind of made it a point to use different genres as dynamically as possible. We've got songs that are reggae, R&B, hip-hop, rock, and beyond. We're making balanced music. Lokes is from the West Coast, I'm from the Midwest, and those two sounds come together on our two-track stuff. We try to keep it as dynamic as possible, and that is purposeful.

Lokes: We've already done the majority of recording for it, so now we're going through the process of stitching together a live production. We've kind of fine-tuned and gotten more efficient at using our production skills and recording techniques. Now we're a whole different beast.

The Level Heads play a CD release show for Saturday, August 31st, with Freez and Manny Phesto at the Nomad World Pub, 501 Cedar Ave S, Minneapolis. Hosted by Rich Garvey, DJ'd by Taylor Madrigal. 9pm, 18+, $7.

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