Labor of Love

For 10 years, Mike Levy led the local band the Sneetches. It took half that time to put out his first solo album.

By all accounts, Mike Levy should've been happy. His band, the Sneetches, was doing well. The quartet had toured the U.S. twice, played a prestigious French music festival with John Cale, and completed a jaunt across Japan. Its records, while not selling huge amounts, were critically acclaimed for their mix of sunny melodies and prickly lyrics. By 1993, the group had developed a dedicated fan base of people who longed for the kind of well-written, carefully arranged pop that seemed to get drowned out by the prevalent noise and grunge of the times.

But something was wrong. The band, once the most important thing in Levy's life, had become the least important. He was preoccupied with the messy breakup of a long-term relationship, among other difficulties. Levy was, in his own words, "not a happy camper." After the release of the Sneetches' Blow Out the Sun, he and the rest of the group decided to call it quits. His guitar, which he'd once felt a compulsion to play every day, now went untouched.

Then, after almost two years away from music, he began writing a different kind of song, deeply pained and minimalist in structure. "I wanted to write something truer to what I was feeling and make the arrangements sparser -- try to make it more intimate," Levy says. Back in 1993, he'd been told by Brian Kirk, owner of the small but influential Bus Stop label, that Kirk would be interested in putting out a Levy solo effort. Spurred on by a new crop of songs and a new way of recording, Levy set to work on demos for the album. That was in 1995.

Erik Auerbach


Saturday, Feb. 3, at 10 p.m. Andrew Sandoval opens the show and Ray's Vast Basement closes. Tickets are $7; call 861-5016.

Sample of Mike Levy's "Away from My Head," from the CD Fireflies. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

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Find more information, or order the CD, at

Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market (at Sanchez), S.F.

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Now, more than five years later, the record is finally being released. Levy didn't plan for it to take so long. But sometimes with songs this personal you've got to get it just right.

Mike Levy was born in 1962 in Los Angeles, in the shadow of Hollywood near Century City. His mother's show business aspirations were never fulfilled, so she concentrated on her children instead: Levy's sister acted in commercials while Levy took piano lessons. By age 7, he was writing songs about pollution and girls who didn't know he existed. "I tended to do things to amuse myself," he recalls. "I enjoyed just spending time alone -- I've always been that way." Levy was a big mimic: If he saw something, he wanted to try it. "There seemed to be a lot of music around. There was this car wash near my grandfather's house and one day there was a band playing [there] on a makeshift stage. I was so excited after that I had my grandfather buy me a toy, plastic electric guitar."

When his family moved to the Bay Area in 1972, Levy lived near members of the rock groups Ace of Cups and Fairfax Street Choir. When the bands would perform in Golden Gate Park, they would bring the further accomplished, 12-year-old Levy along to open for them. But it wasn't until 1979, when Levy was in high school in Novato, that his desire for a band manifested itself. "This friend played me the Sex Pistols and I couldn't believe it: Here were people saying the same things I was feeling."

After graduating, Levy left Novato and took up filmmaking classes at L.A. City College. He began writing punk songs with John Newman, the friend who had introduced him to the Pistols, and together they recorded a demo tape under the name Tentative Sound. Because they had difficulty finding other bandmates, the duo moved to San Francisco in 1981 and changed the band's name to the Wow. When the group broke up in 1984, Levy began the Sneetches with guitarist Matt Carges, whose previous band, If Then Why, he'd played with.

The Sneetches were a distinct change of pace for Levy. In place of aggression, anger, and noise, the band offered joyful melodies, ringing guitars, and pretty harmonies. "We set out to play what we wanted to listen to," Levy says. "In the early '80s there just weren't a lot of exciting things that I wanted to go out and buy. Every time you'd turn on the radio, you'd hear the same stuff. Nobody else that I was aware of was doing [intelligent pop music] so we felt we'd just do it ourselves."

With the release of the 1988 debut Lights Out! With the Sneetches,comparisons to '60s pop groups like the Zombies, the Association, and the Hollies came fast and furious, much to Levy's chagrin. "The thing we tried to stress with the Sneetches was that we were very heavily influenced by the punk movement even though we played pop music," he says. "We really believed in the whole idea that you could do it yourself. Plus, we would do a Wire cover, a Saints cover, the Easybeats, the Buzzcocks. ... I think we got too easily dismissed -- you know, "The Sneetches are a '60s retro band,' which was not what we set out to do at all."

Alec Palao, who'd joined the band on bass by the time of 1990's third album, Slow, laughs at how the group was described. "Critics would compare the songs to ['60s psych bands] like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Mike had never even heard them."

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