When Miss May I frontman Levi Benton relocated from his home in Troy, Ohio, to Cincinnati earlier this year, he fully expected that people might recognize him on the street. After all, his Metalcore quintet has been the recipient of some potent buzz recently, including a cover feature in Alternative Press, a headlining slot on the current AP Tour and a rising profile thanks to big stage slots on the Warped Tour and circuits with The Devil Wears Prada (whose guitarist, Chris Rubey, was MMI’s first manager) and others.
In fact, Benton has been spotted constantly since becoming a Cincinnatian, not because of his band but rather because of his mother.
“No joke, nine times out of 10, I’m walking around the city and so many people are like, ‘Are you Levi? I know your mom,’” Benton says with a laugh. “It’s never about the band. I always think, ‘Here comes someone about the band,’ and it’s ‘I know your mom.’ It’s crazy. And I give away my cover because my hair’s huge.”
Benton’s music-loving mother may have been a regular in the club scene at one time, but her son is on the verge of eclipsing her local fame with the recent release of Miss May I’s third album, At Heart.
The band (unclean vocalist Benton, guitarists Justin Aufdemkampe and B.J. Stead, bassist/clean vocalist Ryan Neff, drummer Jerod Boyd) coalesced six years ago in Troy when the members were all still in high school. The quintet recorded and self-released two demos and began attracting a sizable and unexpected fan base.
“We never really thought about getting signed, we’d just found something fun to do on weekends during high school,” Benton says. “It was crazy. Any other local band, it would be 50-100 kids, but when we played, it would 500 kids and they’d move us to a gymnasium because there were so many kids coming. We were like, ‘Something’s really happening.’ ”
Neff left to join Cincinnati’s Rose Funeral in 2007, and Miss May I recorded its full-length debut Apologies Are For the Weak with new bassist Josh Gillespie in 2009. Apologies created a sensation within the Metal community and Miss May I was quickly signed to Rise Records; the band’s parents had to sit in on the contract talks because none of them were of legal age at that point. Gillespie decided that MMI’s increased tour schedule was untenable and split, so Neff returned to the lineup in time for the band’s heavy road schedule and the recording of its sophomore album, 2010’s Monument.
For At Heart, Miss May I decided that some fundamental changes were in order. The members broke with their usual studio team and started exploring outside producers, eventually contacting renowned Metal producer Machine with the intent of making music the old fashioned way.
“We wanted to be a real Metal band, not like some of the bands coming out today where everything‘s digital,” Benton says. “Instead of plugging into a computer, we plugged into real amps and played real drums and sang into real mics. We came out like a whole other band.”
Working with Machine was not a given. The respected producer had one opening available in his schedule and three bands wanted it, so he interviewed each group to determine which one he would produce.
“We flew to New Jersey and had dinner with him and talked out the record,” Benton says. “There were just two of us and he’d ask us questions, and every time we answered, I was like, ‘If we answer wrong, we’re going to screw this up.’ It was pretty terrifying, but it ended up working out good. By the time we got off the flight back home, he’d emailed our manager and said the record was a go.”
To take full advantage of Machine’s skill set, MMI came into the recording of At Heart with almost no finished songs, writing the bulk of the album during the pre-production process. The new procedure and the distant location (The Machine Shop in New Jersey) gave MMI a fresh perspective and a creative jolt.
“We had little snippets, no songs done and no lyrics,” Benton says. “We knew we wanted to work on it with Machine because that would be the big difference. He wanted mandatory pre-production, no matter how long it took. We recorded, listened to it, went back and re-wrote what we didn’t like. It was real Rage Against the Machine old school; we put on headphones, miked a little room, sat in a circle and jammed. When we got the songs where we liked them, we started doing the real deal.”
Since the June release of At Heart, response has been overwhelmingly positive, with most reviews noting an uptick in Miss May I’s lyrical and musical maturity. Although the band’s members have just entered the ranks of adulthood, Benton doesn’t dispute the observation that there’s greater depth and breadth in At Heart than MMI has previously displayed. He credits the group’s relentless road assault for their growth as musicians and as people.
“I think the biggest thing is we tour so much and we see all these bands, we know where we want to go and what we want to do,” he says. “We tour with bands and it’s like, ‘That’s what I want to be like. I want that respect.’ Being weathered on the road really set our minds straight.”
One of the biggest shifts for Benton was in his lyric-writing process. His mindset during the creation of At Heart was diametrically opposed to the blueprint that was used on the first two albums.
“I didn’t want to be the Metal band with the sickest breakdowns or the scariest lyrics or the toughest stuff,” Benton says. “I went into it with a Hip Hop mentality. I wanted to write about real stuff and not be vague about it. I like the other (two) albums, but some of the lyrics are about lions and stupid stuff. It’s metaphor and it sounds really cool but I didn’t want kids to have to read the lyrics 10 times to figure out what the song was about.
“I wanted them to listen to it once and know exactly where I’m coming from so they can relate to it.”
MISS MAY I comes to Bogart’s Wednesday, Nov. 21, headlining The AP Tour with guests The Ghost Inside and more.