Some time in the 90’s two boys from the upper westside befriended each other based on their mutual love for death metal. Eventually they ended up at the University of Chicago together and started the band Astomatous. Here is Nicholas McMaster and Lev Weinstein’s friendship story.
When and how did you meet?
NICK: I honestly don’t remember a specific instance. Lev was in the year below me in high school and his brother Zach was in the year above me. I had some mutual friends with Zach and just remember always being aware that he had a younger brother.
LEV: For serious, I have no idea. I mean, I do but I don’t. We went to the same high school. Nick was in 10th grade when I was in 9th and when you’re 14 and retarded, that seems like a big gulf, so I don’t recall us having too much interaction at first.
I started playing in a band and remember seeing him at some shows, but the span between that and us starting to hang out and nerd out about metal all the time is pretty hazy to me. Mike from Genghis Tron was definitely involved in the process. I think they had discovered Napalm Death and Cryptopsy through noise music and were like, “we should ask that kids who’s into metal about stuff.”
What was your first impression of each other?
NICK: Honestly, the main fact I always knew about Lev was that he was into metal. He was wearing Metallica and Pantera shirts for as long as I was aware of him. My musical focus in my early teens was industrial, idm and noise bands, and I liked some metal stuff, but I remember thinking that Lev “really” liked metal. Later in high school, when I grew more curious about the genre, I knew whom to ask about bands and borrow CDs from; I’d say that sort of marked the beginning of our friendship proper.
LEV: He was older and definitely cooler and wore huuuge fucking jeans. I think I kind of figured he would be a dick, and have a vague memory of being surprised at how affable he was when we actually started talking. Mike and he had recently discovered extreme metal and wanted to pick the brain of the one kid (me) they knew was into that stuff. I was really happy to have someone at school with the slightest interest in it.
At what point in your friendship did you realize you were best friends?
NICK: That’s kind of a tough one. I mean, as you get older you realize that certain early experiences are not reproducible. So for us, having been friends in high school, playing in several bands throughout college, then joining Krallice right after graduating and all that came with that– it’s like, that’s a depth of experience and bond that would be impossible to replicate with someone else whom I were to meet at my current age. At a certain point it’s like, of course Lev! Who else? I mean we even have the whole rhythm section thing going for us.
Being male, we’re typically unexpressive about our emotions, but at Lev’s 29th birthday celebration last year, after a few whiskeys, he said something like, “it’s been really cool playing music with you throughout the years,” and I concurred. I think that was the first time we’d ever acknowledged it, ha.
LEV: For me there was no Step Brothers moment. It was just a gradual process of getting more and more sort of entwined with each other, realizing I liked the dude immensely. I feel like the year when he left for college and I was still in high school was kind of a catalyst. He started shredding on bass, we traded music all the time, and had deep stupid AIM conversations. And my visiting him at school was huge in my decision to attend the same university.
Also, when he started to play bass at the end of high school, and managed to get really decent by the time I came out to college, that galvanized things for sure, as we wouldn’t just be generally hanging out, but constantly playing music together.
What is the most embarrassing thing you have done to each other?
NICK: At some point in college we were out drinking and around 3 AM ran into a guy with some mushrooms and of course decided that the best possible idea would be to each take a whole eighth. I had a really bad trip, as I usually do because I just don’t do well with psychedelics, and became convinced that I was dead, that the Christian paradigm was correct, and that our dorm was purgatory and I was awaiting judgement. Lev had left the room as I decided all this, and when he came back I looked at him and said, with utter seriousness: “why didn’t anyone tell me that Jesus was the answer.” Oh boy it took a long time to live that one down!
LEV: Fuck, I’m sure there’s a great and terrible story I’m forgetting. The first thing that comes to mind for me is when I was visiting him in Poland and got super duper wasted at the bar to the point where I passed out in the hallway and a dude had to come up to Nick and be like “your friend from America, he cannot stand.”
Nick dutifully dragged my ass back to the place we were staying and then went back to the party. I’m sure there’s worse that I’ve repressed.
My guess is on his end this would be when I tried to talk him down from a mushroom trip during which he was straight up convinced he was dead and my dorm was the really shitty afterlife.
And how did the other person come to forgive you (or vice versa)?
NICK: Well that was not really a forgive situation, as Lev was just extremely concerned. you’ll have to see the fist fight question for an example of Lev forgiving me.
LEV: We’ve always been pretty good at taking each other’s shit in stride. There have been a couple times over the years where we probably haven’t been each other’s favorite people, but we get over our bullshit pretty quick. For instance, when I was leaving Poland on that trip out I asked Nick to be my alarm clock that final night as my phone was dead. Woke up super late, missed my train, fucker put me on a subsequent wrong one, and I literally was within a minute or two of missing my flight (The airport in Warsaw let me straight up run through security). When I saw Nick a few months later I punched him hard on the shoulder and then have him a hug. I think that works as some bigger fucking metaphor or something.
You guys have known each other for a REALLY long time, have you ever gotten into a fist fight with each other? (If so, how did you guys make up?)
NICK: We haven’t. I thought really hard about this and this is the closest example I can think of, though I’m a little reluctant to share it because it shows what a little twerp I was when I was younger. Nonetheless, I lived in Krakow for 9 months and Lev came to visit for a week or so at some point. Generally we had a great time going to shows and drinking Polish beer. However on the last night before he was to leave, we were just sort of having a night in when a lady friend of mine texted me wanting to come over. She did and we all hung out for a bit, though it was tough because she didn’t speak any English (my Polish was actually decent at this point), so I had to translate between her and Lev.
Anyway we all decided to turn in and the only alarm clock in the house is my cell phone. Lev needs to take a train from Krakow to Warsaw to catch his plane, and catching the right train is important since the train and plane schedules don’t align that well. So he asks me please, please set an alarm and wake me up at the correct time. So of course I’m like, dude, no problem, I got you, then proceeded to have extremely loud, uh, relations with my visitor friend that keep Lev up half the night and caused me to completely sleep through the alarm, if I even remembered to set it. I woke up hours later than I was supposed to and woke up Lev, who realized he’s probably totally fucked now and rushed out to get the next possible train. On his way out, Lev said, “Dude, I like you, but if you’ve made me miss this plane, I’m going to kick your ass when I see you again in America.” Thankfully, he just barely made it, and so we’ve never had a fistfight.
LEV: Never once Have we had a physical altercation. We’re both pretty easy going people and neither of us are mean drunks. If we ever did fight it would be shades of Manute Bol versus refrigerator Perry and would probably be pretty fucking hilarious.
One time you guys had to fight skinheads in Poland. How the fuck did that happen? Who was the hero?
NICK: So this is during that same time period as the fight example. I was studying in a language program with lots of other people from all around the world, though mainly Americans and people from other European countries. A big group of us from the school was drinking at a bar near the town square in Krakow. At some late hour we decided to depart and were walking back to the dorms as a big group. One of the people with us was a guy from Africa. We see a group of five or so young men with shaved heads and boots who certainly look like skinheads eyeing us across the square. They get closer and start harassing the guy, yelling “black shit” in heavily accented English and sieg heiling.
So our group is like at least 25 people so I have to sort of admire these little nazi shitheads’ balls for challenging us. Basically it turns into a shouting match between the two groups. The African guy aside– who wanted to just ignore them and get out of there, our group was about half American and half Western Europeans. It was 2004, so early days of the Iraq war, and I remember thinking that the Americans were way more “interventionist”. They were the ones clearly looking to actually fight these guys for the principle of anti-racism. The Western Europeans were hanging back and wanting us all to just move on without violence. Eventually this one guy, I think his name was Andy, who was a Cuban immigrant whose family had escaped Castro and settled in Florida when he was a kid, threw the first punch.
Lev was slightly ahead of me. I was kind of between the more forward Americans and the hanging-back Europeans. All of the sudden everyone in front of me had paired up in fighting groups like it was a dancefloor and the beat had just dropped. It was winter in Krakow so the ground was covered with a fine sheet of ice, and Lev was wearing flat shoes. He’d gotten in some shots but the skinhead, naturally, had boots and therefore better traction. So Lev tripped and the guy was behind him. I hadn’t had anyone to fight and honestly am not sure I would’ve jumped in even if one had been right in front of me, but when I saw that Lev was down I rushed in — I saw that the guy had Lev from behind and had his hand in his mouth, trying to fishhook him. I pushed the guy off and we regrouped and by that time the Cuban guy had broken one of the skinhead’s cheekbones and they were sort of in retreat while most of our group had already fled, so me and Lev split.
LEV: The aforementioned trip to Poland was all kinds of fucking nuts. The night before this encounter we went to see the band Yattering play outside Warsaw, and then spent the whole night freezing and miserable in the Warsaw train station due to it being a Sunday and that country being crazy catholic. No trains after 9pm on a Sunday, fucks sake.
We took like a 6am back to Krakow and slept all day. That night we went out with a bunch of people from Nick’s language program, which was a pretty multicultural bunch, especially for Poland.
One of the dudes we were with was a quiet guy who had pretty much just arrived from Africa. We were leaving one bar at closing and trying to find another spot that might be open, crossing the main square of Krakow. A bunch of skinhead kids started talking all sorts of shit, spitting on the ground and calling the kid a black shit, etc.
This quickly turned into a shouting match, which devolved right quick into a fistfight.
Nick was absolutely the hero, at least pretty literally for me. I can’t remember if it was currently snowing or just had snowed recently, but at any rate we were fighting on this iced over cobble stone surface, and drunk. I remember throwing punches, sliding and falling, throwing more punches, etc. Until I went down hard on my ass and one of the skin heads came around my back and started trying to fish-hook me. I remember dimly thinking that this could actually kind of end really poorly for me and trying to get back on my feet but I kept sliding right back down.
I then heard a bellowed (he’s always been a good vocalist) “get off of my friend!” and Nick shoved the dude off of me, certainly saving me from a mangled face. I remember jumping back into the brawl, though the cops came and broke it up very shortly thereafter.
We were all ‘arrested’ but Nick, myself and this Flemish dude Jeremy simply kept going straight when everyone else made a left for the police station. I think we felt guilty and headed back to encounter the rest of our group, who had been pretty immediately released.
What’s your favorite thing about each other?
NICK: I guess the thing I view as most singularly Lev-like is that he’s moral, honest, fair-minded and loyal to his friends. I have never once in 15-odd years doubted his intentions or integrity. How many people can you say that about?
LEV: I can’t really think of anyone else I know that I can have as fulfilling a conversation with about pretty much anything. The dude is super smart and super thoughtful about anything ranging from musical composition to I dunno, Italo Calvino.
I feel like he comes off as just as enthusiastic when talking about music now as a decade ago, which is something I certainly can’t say for myself. For the last million years he’s pretty much been my taste maker and advisor and there’s a somewhat strong possibility I’d still be listening to some terrible shit (or at least not discovered a lot ( a lot) of really good shit without him basically being like, “Dude. Listen to this.”
Now that you guys have been friends forever, what do you talk about?
NICK: Ha, good point. One of the nice things about writing music together is that each new song we generate sort of serves as the basis for more, genuinely new, conversation. But yeah, sometimes I think we’ll be in the nursing home still going, like “yeah, Vader’s De Profundis is the shit” for the millionth time, through false teeth.
LEV: Same shit, really. Probably aided by man-child existence, we pretty much still talk about good art and good music, or our own shit. What’s refreshing about growing up is that when these conversations occasionally segue into some heavy shit, it never feels weird or awkward. I think there’s a level of trust there which has to come from so many years and experiences.