Two years ago, around the release of Miss May I’s breakout recording At Heart, HM Magazine sat down with vocalist Levi Benton for a typical interview about a new record. At the time, Benton had recently become a self-proclaimed Christian, and he and his girlfriend had been together for five years, followed by a three-month fight and break-up, which led to much of what we heard on At Heart.
Back then, Benton was short but candid that his faith had changed much of how he looked at the world, quoted as saying, “The way my faith affects me and the way that I put it in my life doesn’t have anything to do with fronting a band.”
Now, with Miss May I’s fourth studio release, Rise of the Lion, in the public’s hands, we caught up with the Cincinnati native to talk about the now immensely-popular band and the meanings behind their new record.
We try to keep Christianity out of our conversations because they’re not into it. They’re the polar opposite, in fact, so we don’t bring it up at all. But they’re not judgmental about it.
Catching up on the last two years since we spoke, the singer was focused and laid back. True to his word, Benton’s faith is still an integral part of who he is, but that doesn’t necessarily bleed into the band. “We try to keep it out of our conversations because they’re not into it,” Benton said. “They’re the polar opposite, in fact, so we don’t bring it up at all. But they’re not judgmental about it.”
When you’re the only believer in a band, it can change how fans and audiences see you, especially when Miss May I’s fan base has grown exponentially since 2010’s groundbreaking Monument. While on tour, the frontman has had the chance to meet tons of fans and get to speak to them about his faith. “It’s been cool,” he said confidently. “I’m still the only Christian in the band, but I’ve met some pretty cool Christians on tour. I’ve never met anyone…” He changes course: “People are just super cool about it. I try to be as normal of a dude as possible.”
Besides being on tour, Benton pulled back the curtain a little to talk about his personal life. Some important things have been happening outside of his full-time job. “I got married, and my wife has been my strong point,” he said, referring to his then-girlfriend now-wife whose break-up resulted in an inspired album. “She’s definitely the main reason (I’m a Christian). I was a very bad person before I met her. She definitely changed everything. We’re still kids. I can’t imagine seven years ago how much of a bad kid I was. My little brothers are that age, and I’m like ‘When I was your age, I was a piece of crap.’”
After some laughter about the things we would never attempt again, he continued: “I have a shop now at home, and even when we’re off tour, I’m sitting at the shop all the time, even though fans are always in there and coming in. It’s like my night job, and I try to think of it that way, too. It’s not my whole life; I try hard not to let it become that.”
The shop Benton is referring to is Vursa Unlimited, a boutique clothing store on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. He and his wife opened the doors in October 2013. “When I’m on tour, my wife is there every day, and when I get back, those are her days off. So I never stop working.” I hadn’t heard of it, so I prodded him a little more. “We don’t have any employees yet, but we will be looking soon. It’s cool that it’s on campus, too, so we get to go to all the concerts and sporting events. I’m part of their community now. I’m even on the City Council at University of Cincinnati.”
I took a second. “You’re on the City Council?” I asked. “It’s hilarious,” Benton laughed. “I’m a tattooed, long-haired band guy. And I’m on the city council and a bunch of communities to help the city get better. Everyone’s wearing suits, and I come in with tattoos and long hair. I’m weird, but it’s fun. I just look at these guys in suits, and I’m like, ‘Dude, I’ve traveled the world. You can suck it.’ They’re always looking at me with disdain.”
Probably the coolest thing about Vursa Unlimited besides the name (Benton purposely made it up), is that Benton and his team at the store design every article of clothing they sell. “It’s all urban. I design everything. It’s all positive, ambitious and dream-filled. The whole thing is based in positivity. We do jeans all the way up to big, thick jackets. Everything but footwear.”
I asked Benton about their relationship with Rise Records. The band has been signed to the label since 2008, and recently resigned for the new album. “They’ve been like family, ever since our first record,” he said. “They let us finish school, and they were cool about it. There was no pressure, and they’ve always believed in us. They have a good family vibe, since we worked with them back when they were in a little office. Now, they’ve got a whole floor of a building and they’re killing it. It’s cool to grow up with them.”
The band had the chance to leave Rise behind and follow the DIY model, but ultimately came back because of their loyalty. “We met with a lot of people,” Benton said. “At the end of the day, we don’t like the corporate vibe. We don’t want to forget that we’re doing this to have fun. For (Rise), it’s still a bunch of dudes just hanging out.”
We’d been seeing the symbol a lot, and I made this whole artwork and album concept, so we ran this competition. We had, like, thousands of entries, narrowed it down to 500, then to 50. We flew the guy out to Los Angeles where we filmed the video for “Gone,” paid for the tattoo and hung out with him all day. It was super fun.
The cover and album concept was designed by Levi, and it was the band’s idea to run a Facebook contest, where one (lucky?) fan would get to have the lion logo tattooed on his back for the cover. “We’d been seeing the symbol a lot, and I made this whole artwork and album concept, so we ran this competition. We had, like, thousands of entries, narrowed it down to 500, then to 50. We flew the guy out to Los Angeles where we filmed the video for “Gone,” paid for the tattoo and hung out with him all day. It was super fun.”
Benton’s songwriting has matured on Rise of the Lion, and his vocal style has evolved as well. The songs give off a more focused metal sound, compared to the metalcore heard on Monument and At Heart. “The biggest reason for that, is we’re pretty much in the position — since we did the transition record last — to go for it and do the whole thing. I feel like where we were at, we sort of had to go with the times. We couldn’t be ourselves yet, so we were still tapping our influences. But we weren’t going for it yet.” Those moments were certainly heard on a record like At Heart. “When we released it, it started opening doors for us to do that. Since it was so well accepted, we went all out (this time) and let our influences show.”
Benton also dives into the diversity on Rise of the Lion, a mature showing on the band’s part as they find their own lane. “That’s where a lot of different vocal styles and guitar solos came in,” he said, referring to the songs on ROTL. We wanted to make a really diverse record, not just a continuation. This is the first time, I feel, we’ve ever wrote a (truly) diverse record. All our records are pretty much thrashing and heavy the whole time. This is the first one where not two songs sound alike.”
The production value this time around was up a notch, done by Terry Date (Pantera, Slipknot, White Zombie, Deftones). “We’re definitely the smallest band he’s done, and it was pretty exciting for us,” he said. “He’s pretty crazy. We did a lot of things differently (because of him). He was hands off, let the band sound like the band — not his rendition of the band. That was exciting because we’ve never had that opportunity. When he was hands on, it was the smallest of things, but they are almost like great Easter eggs in the record. It was awesome.” In response to the title, Rise of the Lion, Benton credits the fans. “The lion in the title stands for us and our fans, how they’re both getting bigger and bigger. Since all the lyrics are fan-based on this record and the cover is fan-based, we figured it’s going to make this lion thing get even bigger. It was a proper title.”
You never work a day in your life, and you’re always having fun. It’s us doing something we love to do. We got lucky it’s a career for us. But at the end of the day … I want to be one of the legendary metal bands. I want people to remember us. When I’m 30 and I go to a bar and let people know what band I was in, I want them to still think it’s cool. I feel our hype faded out a couple years ago, so we’re just this band.
Production-wise, things were different this time around and not just because Date was producing. “We had a lot more time to work on the record. We rewrote songs; we were able to tweak things. We messed with tabs more. Everything was real again, like our last record. Terry had us in different stations and we were constantly working. There was never a day (in two months) that somebody wasn’t working on the record.”
According to Benton, the mission of Miss May I is to have fun, first and foremost. “You never work a day in your life, and you’re always having fun. It’s us doing something we love to do. We got lucky it’s a career for us. But at the end of the day … I want to be one of the legendary metal bands. I want people to remember us. When I’m 30 and I go to a bar and let people know what band I was in, I want them to still think it’s cool. I feel our hype faded out a couple years ago, so we’re just this band.”
I had to take a second. “You feel like your hype faded out?”
“Yeah, I feel like it’s faded out and we’re not that fresh band anymore,” Benton confirmed. “We’re Miss May I. When they hear that name, people know what we sound like. They’re fans because they like our band. People like us because they’re fans, not because Hot Topic tells them to or a certain magazine tells them to. I think it’s mainly because we stuck with it. We didn’t go with the fads. When bands go with the fad, people go with the fad, but then the fad dies out and your band dies out. We’ve been playing the same thrashy metal music since we were 15-years old in a basement. Same dudes, playing bigger stages, a lot more crap and a lot louder.”
Despite thinking the hype is gone, Miss May I is gearing up for a big album release. The collective movement of the Internet is on the verge of hyping it beyond any barometer Miss May I had previously set — with good reason. And while they might not think so, the band is developing into a household name — with good reason.
Miss May I was posted on May 8, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by Justin Mabee.