A haunting tenor, offset by complex finger-picked guitar, resonates through the twinkling cavern of Portland Center Stage lobby. Wow; who’s playing? As you look around for the sound’s source, you finally spot a stocking-capped, black-bearded character in the corner—who looks more like a cabbie, than a sensitive craft-pop maestro. Actually, Levi Ethan Cecil (aka "Leviethan") is both. In fact, during his month-long residency at PCS, he’s been dressing for driving, because he hops straight into his on-duty cab, right after he plays. Culturephile caught up with him between the mic and the meter, to talk shop.
How’s the residency going?
Well, the first week it was scheduled during the Rose Festival Starlight Parade, so it was pretty dead in here. The next time, it picked up a little more. These lobby shows are free, and they happen in the early evening, before any of the main Saturday-night entertainment kicks off. So it’s a good chance for people to catch an early show. Hopefully we’ll have a good rest of the run.
What do you try to bring to a performance?
For these shows, I’ve kept it simple, just straight-up acoustic. I’m alternating between flamenco guitar, regular guitar, and ukelele. (And singing, of course.) This has been really good for me, playing solo at regular intervals, working up a comfort level.
It’s funny; can play with a band and not get nervous at all, but by myself I’ve typically had a harder time. I can be kind of a perfectionist, and sometimes I get wrapped up in my own feelings and trip all over myself. I’m trying to remember that this is not about me; just trying to connect with people and have a good time and play songs, and not obsess over the details—like, ‘Oh, I need to tweak these levels,’ or ‘I flubbed that note.’
I’ve been doing some weird uke covers, too—Zombies, Kinks, Captain Beefheart. That helps draw people in, get their attention so that hopefully they’ll listen to the Leviethan songs too.
I know you stay busy. Update us on your recent music projects.
Well, I just joined up with Portland Ukelele Project, and for the last couple years I’ve been doing drums and sometimes guitar for The Brothers Young. We put out their record (The Sun Says He’s God), as well as the two Leviethan releases ( Monuments, Everything Is Fine) on my label, Emeritus Records.
For a long time, I hosted a Friday-night KBOO show called the Midnight Mixtape, and as you know, I did some studio work on the Grey Anne record, Facts n Figurines.* I’ve sat in with Ali Ippolito, Blue Cranes, and recently for Carcrashlander’s upcoming release. God, they’re good. I think they’re my favorite band in Portland right now.
What constitutes good music to you? Tell us a little about your musical philosophy/priorities.
Wow. Well, I’ve experimented with different styles—I mean, Heroes & Villains** were vaudevillian and circusy, and System & Station** was post-rock, almost metal.
But mainly I just like stuff that sounds like itself, that has its own stamp. Most music is derivative, whether it means to be or not, and I’m not claiming that my work is above that—but that’s what I aim for. I just want to listen to stuff that’s really unique, and making that as well, is sort of my goal.
Music is music. It exists on its own terms and it’s important in its own rite. In fact, it’s more important than the people who are making it. I don’t mean to say musicians are unimportant; after all, a lot of the best music is created by fascinating people with wild personalities, but I’m not one of those people. I’m just some guy with a guitar, but hopefully what I’m doing is a little bit interesting.
Leviethan will be playing something interesting at PCS this Saturday and next, from 5-7pm.
Your Culturephile blogger also worked on this record.
*Cecil’s previous bands.