“So how’s the band going?”
Inside downtown Akron’s Radisson, an out-of-town businessman overhears our conversation and moves in for the kill, gliding from the hotel’s bar to the lounge area. The four women of Level-C are indeed an irresistible target: blond hair, pierced lips, tastefully tattooed arms, skimpy black summer clothes.
“Good,” answers singer Christine Maynard, flashing a pearly white smile.
If the guy’s interruption is agitating, she doesn’t let it show. Neither do her bandmates. Toting a cocktail glass, the mustached fortysomething schlub slides his portly torso into an empty chair, filling a gap in a circle of brown leather furniture, where the band is conducting its first major interview to talk about the imminent release of its debut album.
“So what kind of music do you play?” he asks.
“We’re a metal band,” says drummer Misty Everson, leaning forward.
“Creepy McCreeperson!” yell the intruder’s friends from the bar. The taunt is an appropriate one. Seconds later, the guy says he’s from Detroit and is a very close friend of Motor City rock celebs Eminem and Kid Rock. Plus, he has tons of advice for four up-and-coming young women.
The girls are used to this, so they meet every advance with an act of verbal jujitsu. Inviting and friendly, but not flirty, they counter each comment with a plug for their band — they play Detroit; they rock hard too — until Creepy’s irritated wife or girlfriend grabs him by his overstuffed white T-shirt. “Come see us,” says Maynard as he’s pulled away.
And there’s the challenge, curse and blessing of playing in an all-girl band: Level-C may turn some heads and invite some gawkers, but once people realize that the four women onstage won’t be dancing around a shiny brass pole, holding listeners’ attention can be one mean feat. If Level-C is going to reach the next level, it won’t be because they’re hot blondes. And, as women’s prospects in the rock world slowly improve, it won’t be in spite of it. Yes, they’ve got the looks that kill -– but they’ve got the songs too.
CLEVELAND METAL CITY
Level-C formed in 2002. At first, the band’s name was the longer and more awkward DNA Level-C, “Cleveland” backwards. Based in the Stow-Kent region, the group proudly boasts its ties to Northeast Ohio, where trends come and go but nothing ever totally goes out of style and hard-and-heavy is always in.
“I see Cleveland as a metal city,” says guitarist Christina Crago. “Out of all the cities we’ve been in, this is the most metal town. Maybe that’s what they breed here, from the steel companies. Cleveland was a town of factories, hard-working people. It’s a good outlet, the clubs and people that come see it.”
Crago is the only member of the band who’s not a native Ohioan. The diminutive guitarist first came to Cleveland while following Drain STH — a Swedish all-woman grunge-metal band — on tour. Tired of playing blues in South Dakota, she moved to the Rust Belt, where the music scene seemed more open to guitar-wielding women.
She’s also the toughest-looking member of Level-C, a genuine metal girl. Tipping a Blue Moon draft, she’s tired from her day job as a warehouse worker. Still, she took the time to trace her eyes with black eyeliner before she left the house.
Level-C came together at a transitional time for heavy metal. Standard-bearers Pantera were still a fresh memory. It was socially acceptable to listen to nü-metal bands like Korn. And hard-shredding neo-heshers like Lamb of God had yet to bring the guitar solo back in vogue. The band blends all those styles into a sound that’s as eclectic as Crago’s body art — a combination of black Celtic and tribal designs that ring her china-white left biceps. A Native American feather bracelet underscores a band of Asian characters on her right ankle.
By 2006, Level-C had worked out its kinks. The group beat hundreds of other bands from across the country to land in the Top 10 of MTV’s Battle for Ozzfest contest. But the time spent in the spotlight was brief.
The girls juggled their schedules, working at the same Hudson warehouse while recording their debut album. Between shifts, Maynard tightened the songs, while the rest of the group put the finishing touches on their live set. Finally happy with the material, they recorded Level-C over two gray weeks in December, without an outside producer. They worked the third shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., then drove two hours to John Schwab Recording studios in Columbus. They took turns taking catnaps on the studio’s couch between sessions. Then they’d drive home, change clothes, return to work and repeat.
“The girls have chops,” says Joe Viers, who engineered the record. “I do believe they have the tools and the drive to get them where they want to be.”
Four totally different backgrounds yielded four stellar performances. Everson attended Youngstown State University on a jazz-performance scholarship. An obsessive-compulsive streak and training — which ranges from polka to classical — make her double-bass drum kicks sound mechanically precise. Janean Buch’s five-string bass recalls Korn’s downtuned grind. Between tense titanium riffs, Crago’s restrained solos nod to the time she spent playing blues jams. In person, Maynard comes off like a friendly tomboy; on the album, she’s a pit bull, a pugilist and a princess, who barks threats one minute (“Suck a Fist”) and sings floating, breathy melodies the next (“Misery”).
In a beat, cuts like “Chain Melody” organically flow from nü-metal groove to thrash sprints. The city hasn’t produced a bigger potential breakout since Chimaira cut its teeth.
IT’S A GIRL THING
If Level-C is going to make it, there’s that whole girl-band thing to deal with first. In hard rock, from Heart to Kittie, women are either on the A-list or unranked altogether. There are very few female rockers in between.
Typically, rock music embraces only one woman-centered act at a time — the Runaways, Joan Jett, Girlschool, 10,000 Maniacs, Lita Ford, L7, No Doubt, Evanescence. Metal hasn’t been nearly as choosy. Doro Pesch has been a marquee name since the ’80s, while bands like Nightwish and Arch Enemy clawed their way from clubs to theaters to — occasionally — small arenas. For the past decade, femme metale’s reigning queens have been Canada’s Kittie, who’ve spent the better part of the past 10 years on the road.
“It’s definitely a battle, trying to prove yourself,” says Candace Kucsulain, singer for co-ed metal band Walls of Jericho and one of the genre’s most-recognized women. More women than ever are on the scene, but they’re still fighting for the acceptance that men often take for granted.
“We’ve done it for 10 years, and it doesn’t get any easier,” says Kucsulain. “The fact that I get the question ‘What’s it like being a woman in hardcore or metal?’ [proves] it will always be an issue. For some reason, people won’t ever look at us as a frontperson; it’s always us being a frontgirl. It’s hard to get [recognition], and it’s frustrating.”
Nobody so much as blinks when four dudes form a band, but four women? It always qualifies as an earth-shaking event. Female musicians are rare; all-women groups are practically nonexistent.
“There are a few more female bands and players that seem to get a little more respect, but it’s still a struggle,” agrees Anna K, who helped raise the all-girl bar in Drain STH and is now the bass player for Opiate for the Masses. “We realized that we had hundreds of young guys at every show, singing along and thinking we were the coolest band ever. Those guys will hopefully never think it’s weird for a girl to pursue anything she wants to. But there is still a long way to go. People still say, ‘They are pretty good for girls,’ with surprise in their voice, as if it is expected for a girl band to suck. What about all the thousands of guy bands that suck?”
The women in Level-C say they’re totally over the whole girls-in-a-guys’-game thing. But really, it’s hard to get past it, when everybody feels the need to talk about it.
“I don’t know that we think about bands in terms of female-male,” says Everson. “It’s hard enough to find musicians, period.”
“We don’t see it as a male-female thing, because we’re not treated like that,” says Maynard.
“A lot of these all-girl bands are a gimmick,” offers Crago. “We didn’t put this together as a gimmick.”
As a marked minority, girls in bands occasionally have to deal with a special brand of bullshit. “I’ve been in a band with a guy drummer, and [audiences] have been like, ‘Show us your tits!’” recalls Maynard. “But it’s not like that [with Level-C]. I don’t know why. Sometimes, we’ll have tank tops on, but we never get that.”
“I think it’s the vibe,” says Everson. “They can tell we’re real musicians. All bands at some point get labeled for something. I don’t think this is any different.”
Level-C’s record company, Locomotive Records, thinks the group is the real deal. The label wanted to put a picture of the girls on the album cover, but the gals vetoed the idea. They wanted it to be about the music.
“The band is great,” says Tom Smith, Locomotive’s U.S. managing director. “The world is ready for a balls-out, all-female U.S. metal band. The girls can hold their own against the men of the genre. [The challenge is] breaking the stereotype. If we did all T&A, we’d be the flavor of the month, and then they’d be a footnote in history. We’re looking to build their long-term career here.”
But, Level-C concedes, the femme factor does play into it. The album cover features a cartoon close-up of a woman’s teardrop breasts and flowing hair. The band’s moniker frames the image. It all screams “METAL BOOBS!” The illustration wasn’t the girls’ idea, but they approved it.
“Sex sells,” shrugs Crago. “It’s marketing.”
“Good marketing,” adds Everson.
“But it’s not marketing gender,” says Crago. “If you see that on [a store display], it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to pick it up and look. And no matter what way you see it, Level-C is there.”
Locomotive calls the group “America’s heaviest all-female band.” That wasn’t their idea either — but they certainly don’t object to it.
“I think we are,” says Crago.
Maynard offers the qualifying distinction: “Kittie’s from Canada.”
Before “America’s heaviest all-female band” was Level-C’s dream, it was Mitch Karczewski’s. Since 1975, Karczewski promoted local shows and managed bands as the head of Spotlight Talent. As owner of Lorain’s Flying Machine and the Red Parrot, he helped keep metal alive in Northeast Ohio throughout the lean years of the 1990s. He had the venues, and sometimes he had the talent.
Karczewski helped break Mushroomhead and Bobaflex nationally, shepherding them from regional phenoms to major-label recording artists. Neither group took him along when they hit the big time, but Karczewski didn’t give up. His biggest goal: to break an all-girl band. In the ’80s, he worked with pop-rockers Lipstick; in the ’90s, he backed Cherry Bomb. Over the years, he continually tried to pull together female musicians. Lipstick achieved modest regional success, but that was as far as any of them got.
In 2004, the Flying Machine closed, and Level-C was there, performing at the club’s final night. Maynard knew Karczewski from the scene and was aware that he was always on the lookout for female rockers. The band treated its Flying Machine gig as an audition. After the set, Maynard met with Karczewski, and both were beaming.
Maynard says the connection was immediate. “[With my previous bands,] he was always impressed by my willingness to get out there and promote. And he was like, ‘Look at you, singing now.’ We were what he was looking for.”
Karczewski and Level-C began working together. He coached the girls and aggressively hyped them to anyone who would listen. When they were hot, he’d work the phones to secure shows and press; when they weren’t playing so well, he’d send them back to their basement practice space.
After being burned by bands in the past, Karczewski took his time with Level-C. He’d become a grandfather a few years ago and was spending more time with his family. He carried over this nurturing role to the group. “He gave me faith that we could be a band,” says Buch. “He’s the one that held the door open for us.”
At every meeting, Karczewski hammered home his hard-won lessons about the business, repeating his core rules:
No drama between band members. If tempers are running hot, go your separate ways and don’t talk about it until the morning, when everyone’s cooled down and sober.
No negativity — vibes or verbal. Don’t say anything bad about other bands, clubs, anybody.
Maintain a mystique. Don’t let people know how old you are.
Be professional. No drinking before the show or onstage.
Most of all, take the pressure. Nobody’s going to sign a band that broke up.
Karczewski shopped Level-C to labels and managers. He regularly dealt with Michael Mazur, a public relations and management vet who had worked with Ozzy and Slayer. Mazur eventually became a partner in Locomotive Records. With offices in America, Spain and Germany, the indie label has a catalog that includes metal queen Doro Pesch.
By Fall 2007, Level-C was ready to move beyond Cleveland. Locomotive looked like a good match. Karczewski and Mazur hatched a deal. Thinking like a proud father, Karczewski decided to save the good news as a Christmas present. “He said, ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to get you signed,’” says Maynard.
In September 2007, Karczewski died of a heart attack. Internet memorial notices drew emotional responses from record-label executives and local promoters, as well as a former member of Megadeth. The girls in Level-C were shell-shocked. At his funeral, they made a pact to take the band all the way. They were going to make it for Mitch.
At the time, Crago told Scene: “He was our father, our friend and business partner, all wrapped up in one. Mitch was the man with the answers to all questions we had. Mitch’s dream was to sit up front on the tour bus while we were all asleep and watch the sun come up. That was our dream for him as well.”
They still stand by those words.
Now that Level-C is taking the national stage five years after its inception, the band’s career is really just about to launch. Still, its modest success comes as a surprise to some local tastemakers. The group isn’t a big name in Northeast Ohio. In fact, even though the girls regularly sweat through four-hour practice sessions, Saturday’s CD-release party at Peabody’s is a rare live gig. “It’s unleashing four animals,” laughs Maynard.
It all comes down to making periodic big moves rather than constant small ones. The girls call it “dropping Level-C bombs.” “Instead of exhausting ourselves for little shows, we go for the big-bang shows,” says Maynard.
The band has done some national touring and will play the Indianapolis Metal Fest in September. The group has been building its fan base by working a grassroots campaign that hits word-of-mouth hot spots like MySpace.
Buch, for her part, finds recruits anywhere — chatting up strangers at gas stations is a favorite tactic. The right kind of T-shirt or bumper sticker immediately identifies a potential new fan. Maynard practices and promotes at the same time, performing karaoke twice a week, sharpening her ability to adjust to different PA systems on the fly and wowing crowds with faves like Bon Jovi’s “Keep the Faith,” Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.” Crago goes to concerts at Peabody’s, where she meets folks, passes out flyers and hangs up posters that show the band in its full, cool glory.
For a while, those flyers and posters posed a bit of a problem. The girls would send stacks to clubs before showtime, and none of them would be hanging up when they got there. At other bands’ shows, they’d put up as many as 15 posters. By night’s end, all but a couple of them were gone. They spent months fuming, fearing the bars were throwing them out or other bands were tearing them down. As the group’s members became familiar faces on the scene, rock dudes started approaching the girls, asking them to autograph the posters they’d torn down.
Right now, the girls are working on building a national network — playing shows from Chillicothe to Texas — instead of performing for the same hometown fans twice a month. “I didn’t get into this to play an out-of-state metal festival once a year,” says Crago. “[I want] what every other band wants — record sales, tours. My goal is to be [known as] The Best Guitar Player in the World, Christine C.”
“You know, when you were younger and you took time to see this one band?” says Everson. “That was your band, that was your life. That’s what we want.”
MEET THE PRESS
Sometimes, management’s job is to make sure a band gets good press. Sometimes, its job is to keep bad press away from a band. Tonight, Level-C is pleasantly surprised to learn that its CD was recently reviewed in the vanguard metal journal Decibel. The girls aren’t so happy when we read the review to them.
It’s the kind of curious write-up that makes readers and musicians alike hate music writers: The first half of the review recounts the circumstances that led to the author’s assignment; the second half is in-crowd shorthand that’s chock-full of references to relatively obscure music that most people haven’t cared about for at least a decade. Before the writer even gets around to mentioning the subject at hand, he concludes, “Women have no business being Alice in Chains.”
“He was having a bad day, I think,” says Everson.
The review continues: “What we have here from this all-female, all-blond Cleveland quartet is a throwback to a slightly later time: that [millennial] parenthesis between Coal Chamber and Otep that most readers of this magazine probably squeeze their eyes tightest to pretend never happened.”
All four members are now visibly confused, rolling their eyes, on the edge of their seat, waiting for some words about, you know, their album.
“It’s because we’re not emo enough,” growls Crago.
“[Had] ‘Rollin’’ grooves and mean-gal/back-alley Hard to Swallow-era Vanilla Ice scattered threats…been unleashed a decade or so ago instead of now, there’s a chance Level-C could have been contenders: major-label deal, MTV, tours with American Head Charge and Disturbed, the works.”
“American Head Charge is good,” says Buch.
“Actually, at their best, Level-C are certainly talented enough — some of Christina Crago’s guitar lines call to mind the proggy atmospherics of [Tool guitarist] Adam Jonesian timbre, and Christine Maynard (yep, yep) has a good sense of grungy melody when she isn’t barking [Coal Chamber singer Dez] Fafara-style: A glossy neo-grunge anthem like ‘Fly’ easily knocks the likes of Godsmack into a cocked hat. In fact, all Level-C really need is a time machine.”
There’s a brief pause of baffled silence, followed by an explanation that the review is over.
“Point is, We’re in there,” says Buch.
“Reviews mean nothing to me,” says Crago, scowling. “It’s one opinion. For our first album, that’s OK.”
“I’m not even blond,” adds Buch. “It’s purple.”
“When you’re new, people need to compare you to something,” offers Everson.
“I can see how we’re a little dated,” says Maynard. “But we were influenced. And I didn’t write these songs yesterday.”
“How can you date something if it’s metal?” asks Crago.
“It’s familiar-different,” adds Everson. “There are so many influences. We’re different, but you recognize certain things.”
“I’ve had comparisons to Fred Durst, [Pantera’s] Phil Anselmo — everybody but me,” says Maynard. “But someday, somebody will be compared to me.”
Women From Cleveland... Who Rock
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