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In this interview, I talk to David Combs, who plays in the Max Levine Ensemble and as Spoonboy. The Max Levine Ensemble just released a new EP Elephant in the Room, which has some great songs like “The Last of the Assholes” that deal with issues in sexism. In addition, they also put out the full-length OK Smartypants and the Ben Weasel EP— a response to Ben Weasel’s dissing of the band on his radio show and a prescient piece of work, considering what an asshole he proved himself to be. We talk about Elephant in the Room, Ben Weasel and running into Ian McKaye at a vegan pastry shop.
Red Rover: What was the recording process like for your newest EP Elephant in the Room?
David Combs: Okay, our friend Matt Tobey, who’s played in a lot of awesome bands and currently plays in Good Luck, he’s going to school at Indiana University for recording and so he needs practice recording bands. So we drove out to Indiana for a weekend and recorded four songs for this EP and a couple of songs we’re putting on a compilation at a studio space called Russian Recordings in Bloomington, Indiana.
RR: With the album, all of the songs seem to be dealing with issues of sexism.
DC: Yeah, several of the songs were actually from scraps that been laying around for a long time, and I kind of wanted to do something themed around how people experience sexism in everyday life. Part of that was experiencing sexism in the punk community because that’s the community I’m part of. There had been a series of essays about sexism in punk that appeared online earlier this year and I wrote one for it, and it just seemed like now was a good time to pull those songs together and record them. So we pulled them together to do it for a tape and a 7-inch also that we released ourselves.
RR: What strides do you still think need to be made in the punk community to deal with sexism?
DC: I think the steps that need to be taken are not specific to the punk community, though patriarchy exists in our culture overall and punk is not immune to that. I think overall, we need to be trying to create a culture where people think critically about patriarchy or don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Make it more comfortable for men specifically to be self-critical about their roles within patriarchy and have everyone be critical about the way gender is socialized and start to think of ways to interact with each other outside those socialized gender norms.
RR: Speaking of sexism, did you ever hear back from Ben Weasel about the EP you guys released?
DC: Yeah. Well, we sent him a copy of the record and we figured he got it and was just ignoring it, which was probably fairly smart on his part to not make any bigger of a deal out of it than he already did. But then maybe a year ago or so, we got an email from his co-host on his radio show where he was like, “You know, we realized we were kind of jerks on our radio show, trying to reach out, we thought it might be funny to play your EP on the radio. We haven’t heard it and we didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” So I wrote back saying that he hadn’t hurt our feelings, we just thought they were assholes. I think they talked about it on their radio show a little bit and Ben Weasel put it into this light that we were oversensitive and probably like because he was our hero, we were so sad that he shit on us. When really, none of us have really been that much of Screeching Weasel fans and don’t really take well to bullying.
RR: What do you think about the Ben Weasel debacle and how it probably, correctly, took him out of the pantheon of punk rock heroes?
DC: I would hope so. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of faith that the broader punk scene cares enough to take away that punk legend status from him. I just think that it’s fucked up to resort to violence in a situation where you’re in a position of power, where you’re provoking people and using bullshit sexist and homophobic language. Then when people retaliate against that, to assert your power through violence, I think that’s complete bullshit, complete macho masculine shit. I think of a lot of people saw that incident and saw it for what it was and will stop supporting his musical career, but I think a lot of people won’t care.
RR: What was like being interviewed by NPR on their article about Fugazi?
DC: Oh. It was great. I grew up going to Fugazi shows, and they’re one of my all-time favorite bands. Definitely some of the most amazing live shows I ever saw were Fugazi shows. They asked if I would tell a story about seeing Fugazi for their blog and I was like, “Hell yeah, I love Fugazi.” I ran into Ian McKaye at this vegan pastry shop like shortly afterwards, and I was like, “Oh yeah, I talked about you.” (Laughs)
RR: Was he impressed?
DC: Impressed, I don’t know about that, but he’s a nice guy. It was funny because I didn’t realize I was going to be quoted next to the members of Fugazi. They’re like, “Oh, we’re asking local musicians to tell stories about Fugazi” and then it’s like Ian McKaye, Guy Piciotto, Spoonboy.
RR: What do your favorite places in Washington D.C. beyond venues and where you play shows?
DC: I don’t have a lot of free time. I like to go to the monuments at night, that’s a nice thing to do in spite of the kind of national monument buildings having this sort of imperialistic subtext to them. It can also be really pretty. There’s a great park in Washington D.C. to hang out in. Otherwise, I just try to spend time with my friends and work a lot.
RR: What’s in the future for you, either with The Max Levine Ensemble, Spoonboy or any other projects?
DC: I recorded two older Spoonboy songs with a full band I’ve been playing with. They’re supposed to go on a split with The Boy Who Could Fly, who’s a musician from Bloomington—it’s going to be a split 7-inch, not sure when that’s coming out. The Max Levine Ensemble has a long backlog of partly finished songs, so if we can get organized, we’re hoping to put a full-length out sometime within a year from now. We’re all living in the same city for the first time in a while, so hopefully that will make it easier.