Trace Mountains' New Album Is Insular Indie Rock for a World That's Fucked

Dave Benton, one-fourth of the Brooklyn band LVL UP, took a rest and returned to his solo project to reconnect with his community on 'A Partner to Lean On.'
Photo by Daniel Dorsa

Dave Benton needed an escape. As one-fourth of the band LVL UP and a founding member of indie imprint Double Double Whammy, the songwriter’s come a long way since his band’s beginnings in the small college town of Purchase, NY in 2011. Releasing their third album on the prestigious Sub Pop Records just before heading out on their first headlining tour through Europe, the band spent the last few years caught in a whirlwind of runaway success, finding footing alongside labelmates like Beach House and Sleater-Kinney at a time when it feels like big new rock bands are harder and harder to come by. But for Benton, this prosperity has come with new obligations as bandmate and labelhead, roles far from the laid-back demeanor of much of his early music.

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“I kinda just got worn out,” he says, pausing between foamy sips at a sports bar in Bushwick to collect his thoughts on the last few years. “Especially when it started to get a little bit more serious once we started to work with a distributor and stuff. I just wanted to focus on this basically, that was my primary motivator.”

In September 2016, around the same time as the release of LVL UP’s Sub Pop debut Return to Love, Benton left Double Double Whammy to focus on Trace Mountains, an outlet for his softer, more intimate material as a solo artist. “It's always been kind of a fun thing to do on the side, and I guess now I'm kinda realizing that I want a little bit more out of it,” he says. “I want to share it with other people, other musicians, other bands, and kind of work through things in that way.”

Despite its beginnings as a solo project, Trace Mountains has always found strength in collaboration, both in the recording process and in its live incarnation in basements throughout the northeast. Enlisting help from Crying’s Elaiza Santos, as well as early live members Jim Hill and Liz Pelly, Benton released Buttery Sprouts, a 2014 collection of “less thought-out” material that was later reissued with four additional tracks in 2016.

“I made those recordings really quickly, so a lot of the ones that I took a liking to personally, I wanted to re-do like that and put a little more thought into the arrangements,” he says. “I was also sort of looking ahead to making more records and wanting to just flesh out those ones that I feel like I didn't do justice [on the first release] and then be able to save the newer stuff for another record.”

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Now two years later, that next record—titled A Partner to Lean On—is finally nearing release, now with crisp, hi-fi versions of a number of early tracks. Trading fuzzy synths and drum machines for twanging guitars and blown-out distortion, Buttery Sprouts & Other Songs standout “Forgiveness” gets a shuffling, country-leaning lift, while “Salty Sweet” features new palm-muted guitar chords and synth melodies. Working with producer Mike Ditrio and bandmate Jim Hill in the studio, the album marks new ambition for a project once largely overshadowed by the breakout success of LVL UP.

“I still think of this record as a solo record—Jim is a really close collaborator and definitely adds a lot to it, but at this point, it's still kind of a solo thing that I'm doing,” Benton adds. “Moving forward, that might change, because I do love working with other people. I'm not one of those types—like a Phil Elverum or someone like that—who really makes records alone. It's partly how I bond with people and form closer friendships, so I kinda want that for this.”

This sense of community stands in the face of a lot of the darker, heavier moments that permeate the project’s latest release. Where older songs like “Buttery Sprouts” and “I Am Extra Natural” introduced the project with playful wordplay and a soft spot for the Silver Jews, A Partner to Lean On grapples with personal and political fallout and the overwhelming burden such hardships can place on the level of the individual.

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“Obviously the political landscape is fucking terrifying, but I guess I also just meant personally,” he says. “I guess you just know as an artist, this political landscape is something that's on everyone's mind. It's on your mind, it's impossible not to address, or know that people are going to be thinking of a record or song in that context somewhat.”

Photo by Daniel Dorsa

On “Soil,” Benton spills out with some of the sharpest, most pointed lyrics from a project once more inclined to obfuscate things in metaphor. Describing the misty beginning of a new morning, Benton struggles to make sense of cosmic indifference, writing, “The light in the trees outside / well it is opening opening to a new day revealing just how completely fucked we are,” taking aim while still hesitant to describe his intentions in full. “Thunder Trails” continues this meditation on existence, describing feeling small at the foothills of a towering mountain as the ever-shifting landscape is refracted into warmth and comfort and community at the close of long day. “I wrote that one on this little skiing weekend with my dad,” he says. “I guess that landscape of the mountain and going out at night to like a bar after being super tired from skiing and stuff like that. That image sort of informed the song.”

Ultimately the album feels like an attempt to make sense of a moment that’s both incredibly socially isolating and forever at the hands of larger forces. Where earlier songs like “Buttery Sprouts” bask in the sort of playful, good-old-days of a particular moment both for the label and Bandcamp indie pop at large, A Partner to Lean On looks forward with an unflinching gaze, asking important questions about what community can look like in the current moment and beyond.

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“I kinda got to this point where I was feeling like I was just like saying everything was great, but not really believing it anymore,” he says about the last few years. “I think a little bit of my departure from Double Double Whammy was in response to noticing that about myself, that I was starting to make these value judgements on like, ‘This is good, and this is bad, this is what we should be doing with the label’ and really starting to look at music more as a product. I didn't really like feeling like that guy.”

In the face of new obligations with the band and label, A Partner to Lean On feels like an attempt to reconnect with the community that once gave the project life. Looking back on his earlier days with the project, Benton mentions a specific 2015 video from a basement in Boston where the band’s earliest incarnation covered Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Bucket,” an early B-side from their second cassette demo in 1992. The room feels warm and intimate, as the trio exchange glances, not worried about a perfect rendition.

“Back then, I had this attitude that ‘This all is so great, I'm so happy that everybody's just like making their own tunes,’” he says. “I didn't have as many value judgements on it, which was kind of what made it so nice and what made it what it was and that first release was very informed by that mindset. But I don't wanna be wearing rose-colored glasses anymore.”

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Trace Mountains tour dates:

3/30 – Brooklyn, NY @ Alphaville *
4/6 – Washington, DC @ DC9
4/7 – Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
4/8 – New Paltz, NY @ Nachohouse
4/9 – Boston, MA @ Great Scott
4/10 – Montréal, QC @ Casa Del Popolo
4/11 – Toronto, ON @ Burdock
4/12 – Rochester, NY @ Small World Books
5/18 – Kingston, NY @ BSP Kingston ^
5/19 – Burlington, VT @ Club Metronome ^

* w/ Operator Music Band and Spirit Was

^ w/ (Sandy) Alex G

Trace Mountains' A Partner to Lean On is out March 30, but it's available for pre-order now.

Rob Arcand is a writer and editor based between Durham, NC and Brooklyn, and is on Twitter.