A Big City Drummer at Home on the Ranges
Leaving the bars and bands of New York behind him, Mark Levy found a completely new music career under the big sky of Montana
On July 10th 2015, Mark Levy’s band Ranges will play their first ever live concert. The venue is the Masonic Temple in downtown Bozeman, MT and their performance will be part of Night & Day — a music and arts event curated by Mark and the other two members of Ranges, CJ Blessum and Wilson Raska. It'll be a huge night for everyone, but especially for Mark. Five years ago he made the decision to move to Bozeman, leaving his home town of New York and the last vestiges of his music career behind him. Or so he thought.
Mark has been a fan of rock music since as long as he can remember. “I got into it watching the Paul Lynde Halloween TV Special in 1976. A rock band came down in an iron rod elevator and broke into Detroit Rock City. My parents were out, and so I asked the babysitter ‘Who’s that?’ He said, ‘I think it’s Kiss.’ ”
Mark begged his mother to take him to a record store to buy him a Kiss album. He was only seven years old and too small to reach the records himself, so his mom had to flip through all the Kiss LPs and read off the titles. When she landed on Destroyer, he shouted “I want that one!” Back at home, Mark sat down right in front of the speakers and his Mom put on record. “That album scared the shit out of me,” he remembers. “But I was hooked.” He decided then and there to become a rock drummer.
The story of Mark’s drumming career throughout high school and his first gigs in and around New York City could fill a book. So in the interests of brevity, I'll just stick to the edited highlights:
Mark began playing drums aged around eight or nine. “I started taking my Mom’s bird perches and hitting things in what I thought was a rhythm.” He was a member of numerous rock cover bands throughout high school, playing Judas Priest, Metallica and basically anything heavy. At 17, his parents helped him to land a job as a roadie and trainee sound engineer with a “sensible” and hardworking jazz band. It turned out they weren't quite as sensible as Mark’s parents had hoped. “Those guys partied like they were Mötley Crüe,” he remembers. “It was ridiculous.” He lasted eight months.
Back in New York, he played drums for a succession of bands but soon realised that none of them were going to go anywhere. With his money running out and his father’s patience wearing thin, he put his music career on hold and enrolled in college: first studying business administration Westchester Community College, then Marketing at Ferris State University in Michigan. He continued to play drums as much as his academic workload would allow.
“Senior year at Michigan I got a call from a guy who was playing bass in the band Stanley. He said, ‘we lost a drummer!’ ” Mark travelled back to New York during spring break to play the gig. It went so well that he decided to join the band as soon as he'd graduated.
Mark regards his time in with Stanley as one of the high-points of his career to date. And also the lowest. The band was quickly signed to a small indie record label, recorded their first album, went on a US tour, wrote more music, recorded a second album, persuaded Shepard Fairey to create their album artwork, and then attracted the interest of a large, multinational label. Things were really looking up. Then they weren’t. The new deal fell apart and Mark and his two band mates were left, angry, deflated, and completely out on their own.
“That whole situation killed us. We tried and tried. We toured and we recorded new demos for another record. But it destroyed us.”
Stanley was dead. The bass player moved to Japan just to get away from it all. Mark was back in New York and consumed with fury. “I was having the most intense, violent dreams, it really screwed me up.” He secured some work as session drummer, but his heart wasn't really in it. By his own admission he rarely followed up on the work he got, or pursued the many of the new leads he was given. Session work became sporadic and he began to drift, even taking odd jobs as a model and landing a minor role in a movie — as a drummer. But he was barely making a living and so Mark did what so many out-of-work musicians do in New York city: he became a bartender.
When I first met Mark in 2007, he was working at Lucky Strike in SoHo, a bustling, noisy, French Bistro on Grand Street, which often had as many actors and musicians working there as paying customers. In addition to bartending, he also worked as a DJ for a couple of nights of the week. “Lucky Strike let me play whatever I wanted unless it was completely obnoxious. So I left Slayer at home.” His DJ sets would include an eclectic mix of heavy metal, jazz and Hip-Hop — the Cocteau Twins, to Led Zeppelin, to Supertramp, to Public Enemy etc.
Like many regulars at Lucky Strike, I got to know Mark through his playlist. It turned out we are both die-hard Rush fans, and so he would indulge me by letting me suggest tracks for the mix — Rush to Deep Purple to ABBA was my personal favourite. His knowledge and appreciation of different musical genres made him genuinely popular with the crowd. But even though he'd been playing with bands outside of work — in Katy Mae (with former Stanley guitarist Phil Doucet) and in Gimmiehead, a Motorhead cover band amongst others — he was deeply unhappy that his music career was still going nowhere. He began to seriously question how long he could keep it up.
In 2009, his girlfriend Erin moved to Bozeman, Montana to go to art school. Though he'd visit her as often as he could, it was never long enough. That winter, he saved up and went west for three weeks. “Erin wanted me to come out in the middle of winter to see what it was like out here, especially knowing that I had re-discovered my passion for snowboarding.” Back in New York after three weeks of “playing house” and snowboarding nearly every day, Mark was even more miserable.
“I asked myself ‘what am I doing here? The girl I want to be with is out there!’ I'd just had so much fun. Bozeman was just was so mellow, it was everything that New York wasn't any more. I was so angry; everything in New York annoyed me. I decided to go.” He moved to Bozeman, MT on June 1st 2010.
Mark truly believed leaving New York would be the final nail in the coffin of his music career. It was a price he was willing to pay, but he was far from happy about it.
“I wasn't OK at all. I didn't pick up a pair of drumsticks for six months. I tried to accept that whole “death of a dream”. I tried to figure out if I could just drop it and move on and just become, what I would call, ‘a regular guy’.”
BIG SKY, BARS AND BANDS
Out in Montana, he found bar work in a resort in Big Sky. It was the last thing he wanted to do, especially as the mountain was an hour’s drive from home, but it was regular paying work and it came with benefits: he managed to spend nearly 100 days snowboarding that first winter. “I was a 41-year-old ski bum for a season. I could now check that off my bucket list.” But he couldn’t be a ski bum forever, and so he applied for a job making acoustic guitars at Gibson’s factory in Bozeman.
Though he was glad to be working at Gibson, and was even building his own custom snare drums (Duradero) in his down time, making instruments wasn't the same as playing them. “It was killing me not playing. I had to play, drumming is my therapy: I felt that I'd been a fool to give it up.”
Luckily for Mark, it turned out that Bozeman had a vibrant music scene. When he was asked to play drums for a couple of local cover bands, he accepted without hesitation. Soon he was playing two or three paying gigs a month. He was never asked to rehearse; just to turn up, play and get paid. It was perfect.
He also played with two local bands writing their own original music, This Word is Weapon and Abelina Valley. Playing with those bands introduced him to CJ Blessum (a talented guitarist who'd also built a recording studio in his basement) and Wilson Raska (who in addition to being a musician had partnered with CJ to launch a A Thousand Arms). Mark, CJ and Wilson began to collaborate on an eclectic range of music, design and merchandising projects. Working together they soon realised that they shared a deep passion for the natural landscape surrounding Bozeman.
SOUNDSCAPES AND RANGES
When he lived in New York, Mark would often ride the subway to work, angered by the constant noise and insanity of the city. To drown out the cacophony, he'd listen to ethereal soundscape music through his headphones and try to relax. “I would daydream. The music would take me out of the subway and give me this hopeful feeling that some wonderful place was out over the horizon.” He knew he'd found it that first winter snowboarding in Big Sky.
A few years later, CJ asked Mark to listen to an experimental instrumental guitar track inspired by the mountains. Mark immediately loved it, as did Wilson, and Mark knew that this was the kind of music he wanted to play. “The music and the vibe reminded me of stuff I would listen to on the subway back in New York.”
Ranges is a true creative collaboration — and one that has already grown beyond the three founding members to include videographers, photographers, and artists. Ranges second album, Solar Mansions was launched as an audio visual experience at the Museum of the Rockies’ Taylor Planetarium; a track from Ranges third album Bonhoeffer was used to accompany a dance performance live on stage at TEDx Bozeman. On July 10th 2015, Ranges will play live at their own event in downtown Bozeman that will also feature over 20 visual artists and two other local bands: Modern Sons and Liv.
In the five years since he left New York, Mark Levy has not so much resurrected his old music career as created an entirely new one. He became a founding member of a band that is as unlike Kiss, Slayer, Metallica or Rush as is possible to imagine. Ranges certainly won't be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s hardly the point; the band is a perfect fit for Mark. Now 46, he’s left the anger demons riding the New York subway and is now genuinely happy living in Bozeman. But he still has big plans. “I'm not done. I still think that I deserve my shot and I know that when that time comes, I'll prove to everyone who’s listening that I am worthy of it.”
Personally, I have no doubt that he is.