Trace Mountains Becomes His Own Partner to Lean On

Dave Benton has quietly—and perhaps reluctantly—played a key role in shaping indie rock throughout the 2010s through collaborative work. Now he’s stepping out on his own.

Dave Benton has quietly—and perhaps reluctantly—played a key role in shaping indie rock throughout the 2010s. Between the understated influence of his band LVL UP, which signed to Sub Pop for 2016’s Return to Love, and his co-formation of the now-burgeoning DIY label Double Double Whammy, whose discography boasts albums from Mitski, Frankie Cosmos, Porches, Florist and Ó, Benton’s fingerprints are present on some of the best songs of the decade.

After a handful of regionally lauded releases with his first band Spook Houses, Benton and his three bandmates in LVL UP became important figures in the 2013-ish burst of downstate NY indie acts—dropping splits with the likes of Porches and Krill, and boosting their friends on the family imprint (Benton started DDW with LVL UP member Mike Caridi). After becoming somewhat disillusioned with the business side of running a label, however, Benton decided to amicably depart from DDW in 2016 to focus on his own artistic pursuits—namely his solo project, Trace Mountains.

“I got a ton of satisfaction out of doing the label,” he says. “It feels so good when someone we’ve championed is able to make a career of what they’re doing. But I find now, stepping away from the music biz, I’m just happier. It definitely shaped the way I looked at things for a while and I’m still trying to figure out what I actually think sometimes,” he adds.

Trace Mountains is Benton’s medium of choice for such self-exploration. Growing out of a desire to experiment on his own, the project was initially just a series of demos that he would informally upload to Bandcamp one or two tracks at a time. It wasn’t until 2016, three years after he began the sporadic releases, that he compiled them all into Buttery Sprouts & Other Songs, put out via tape under his own imprint, Figure 2 Records.

“Figure 2 is pretty much just the Trace Mountains record label,” he says. “I found myself able to fund it and it’s always been something that I like to do. It’s just nice to be able to control all aspects, if you can.”

Unlike the fizzy power-pop of LVL UP’s Hoodwink’d (2014) or the expansive climaxes of Return to Love, the songs that would become Buttery Sprouts are softer, subtler, and more lo-fi in nature; it’s clearly the work of an individual, not a full band. But for the first proper Trace Mountains release, A Partner to Lean On, Benton collaborated with some friends in Sheer Mag and Slight with the intention of making it a bonafide album. Although the nine-track opus includes a few reworked Sprouts songs, as well as a completely revamped Spook Houses track dating back to 2011, the record feels fresh and unique within Benton’s collective catalog.

“I focused a lot more on making it sound good, or something,” he says. “Not that I don’t think the old stuff sounds good—it was just more scrappy.”

“I find now, stepping away from the music biz, I’m just happier.”

There’s a strong presence of lush, electronic production on Partner that turns up in the dense opener “Cary’s Dreams,” the spacious closer “Thunder Trails,” and in the auto-tuned freak-pop standout “Turn Twice.” There’s also ventures into Alex G–esque folk-rock, neo-westerny slow-burners, and even thick splurges of distortion recalling some of the best moments on Return to Love. Between the detailed arrangements and crisp textures, the record is an enormous progression from where Benton was on Sprouts. Yet despite being one of his most accomplished works in a long lineage of musical endeavors, the process itself was still an exercise in the unfamiliar.

“This project kind of holds a special place for me,” he says. “I think primarily what I take away from it the most is running myself through the steps of writing a song. And then recording a song. And sort of being present and doing it all myself. I don’t do that a lot in LVL UP, ’cause we share it so much. And it kind of is a learning experience, to do all that on your own.”

In this sense, Benton truly did become his own partner to lean on—a phrase he said was inspired by a Palace Brothers (Bonnie “Prince” Billy) song, and a methodology he aims to continue employing for the foreseeable future.

“I thought setting the goal to make the record would be like a little bit of a self-confidence booster,” he says. “That’s my main motivation for making these songs, anyway. Because it makes me feel good about myself. It’s more self-serving than anything. Therapeutic, in that way.” FL

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