For a band still in its infancy, Modern Baseball conjures a lot of folklore.
The majority of their mythology is steeped in a very powerful conversation about mental health: for one of its frontmen, Brendan Lukens, the band saved his life. The same is true for many of their fans. In four years, they've gone from writing songs as personal journals to being what a lot of people would consider an important band.
Their third full-length album, Holy Ghost, is a detailed account of that journey. At moments, it's a hard listen—nothing is off-limits. We shadowed the band around New Jersey on their record release day (May 13) to learn about the album from the guys themselves. Here's what happens in 10 hours with Modern Baseball.
“I feel like a million dollars,” Brendan Lukens shouts as he emerges from the green room, guitar in hand, “that’s been crinkled up and shoved into a very small pocket.” His band, Modern Baseball, is celebrating the release of its third full-length album, the masterful Holy Ghost. The record is easily the Philadelphia emo band’s most dynamic to date, a two-part, 11-song, 30-minute journey of love, loss and forgiveness.
Today, Lukens is stressed.
We’re in Asbury Park, New Jersey, a town known for a short list of attractions: There’s the nearby Pinball Museum, the boardwalk, the Bruce Springsteen-owned Stone Pony venue, the recently shuttered Asbury Lanes (the famous locale is being turned into a hotel of some sort, a perfect imagining of the America the Boss rallied against). At the heart of all of this is the Wonder Bar, an appropriately dingy dive bar with a 325 capacity. In roughly 10 hours, Modern Baseball will take the tiny stage in the venue’s left-most corner after six acts made up of their best buds, an unusually intimate evening for a band that will play to a sold-out crowd in their native Philadelphia to a room of 3,000. That's in less than one month.
Long before Lukens and crew, co-frontman Jake Ewald, bassist Ian Farmer and drummer Sean Huber arrive at the Jersey institution, the venue’s staff is complaining about the all-ages designation placed on the gig that evening. Modern Baseball rarely play a 21+ show; their music’s performative earnestness isn’t one for the drinking crowd.
Soundcheck begins. The band's front-of-house guy, Jake Katz, plays a few new Holy Ghost tracks for the guys to play over, like a metronome of their own work. It unravels into a heavy, nu-metal-esque breakdown of “Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind,” a song that, in its true form, is a loving, darkly danceable number about trust and lack thereof.
While waiting to see if his mic is operating properly, Lukens checks with “one, two, where’s Cam?” referring to his roommate and close friend Cameron Boucher of Sorority Noise. Both acts operate in a space dependent on the extra-musical: Most of their work, now, is directly related to a conversation of mental difference that has never really happened in this way, within this genre, before. Instead of resting on the seemingly celebratory ethos of “sad boy” culture that permeates emo, these guys are dedicated to glorifying openness and conversation toward betterment. In the mid-aughts, Say Anything frontman Max Bemis became one of the first (and one of the only) artists in the space to talk about his struggles with bipolar disorder. It seems all but coincidental, now, that Modern Baseball would score one of their biggest tours with Bemis’ band.
We load into the band’s van for the 45-minute journey to Fords, New Jersey, home to Vintage Vinyl, where the guys will play a short in-store for a few hundred kids who bought Holy Ghost on release day. It quickly becomes apparent that Modern Baseball (“MoBo,” for those in the know) are the kind of friendly guys who find curious comfort in every situation. It’s equal parts confidence and humility, something totally free of pretension. Getting in a car with people you’ve just met for an hour, it’s not as strange as it could’ve been. It helps when Beyoncé’s Lemonade plays faintly in the background.
“It used to be just Jake and I,” Lukens talks about the bands earliest days, “and we’d bring [what we’d written] to the band. Now we write all of our parts. I think that had a big part in Holy Ghost, all of us bringing our own sounds to it.”
“We had a growth period, together, at the same time. We definitely learned a lot,” Ewald adds. “We definitely stole a lot of shit from each other. That makes it incestuous.”
Lukens finishes the thought: “We influenced each other a lot. Definitely the most, in songwriting.”
The band’s first two LPs, Sports and You’re Going To Miss It All, were a hodgepodge of Lukens and Ewald originals. Holy Ghost is truncated into Side A, Jake’s and B, Brendan’s. All three albums manage cohesion, each progressing from the last. To the untrained ear, their voices are indistinctive from one another. They play to the power of familiarity and wholeness.
"Growing up, I was the one person in my family who didn’t sing," Ewald explains. "My mom was a minister, so we went to church every Sunday and obviously singing is a huge part of church. I was the one person in my family who just refused to sing in church. I didn’t sing anywhere else, either. It wasn’t until I met Brendan and we got into songwriting together and that was like, ‘Oh, if you’re going to write songs, you’re going to have to sing them.’”
Lukens’ story is similarly happenstance: “My mum-mum, which is my mom’s mom, heard me singing and said, ‘You should do this if it makes you happy.’ And she bought me my first guitar. I guess the right people pushed me.”
Talking to the two defacto frontmen of Modern Baseball, it becomes apparent that they are each other’s biggest supporters. Within that structure of natural fandom is a certain kind of sincerity. In the media, it’s often presented as this bewildering thing—and the guys are very much aware of it.
“When we first started the band and we were saying whatever about whatever and doing stuff with punk blogs, people weren’t really surprised [by our songwriting style], but they were like, ‘Oh, this is really cool that you wrote this honest stuff,’” Ewald explains. “And now that there’s grown-ups writing about it, they’re like—'Why are you writing this honest stuff?'
“When people try to write intentionally relatable metaphors by generalizing, in a way, [they] are doing it to relate to more people which only works sometimes...but it’s also isolating because your dehumanizing yourself,” Ewald continues. “When you are very specific and true to yourself, people might not be able to relate to the actual, specific thing, but they can relate to your connection to the specific thing really well.”
It’s not honesty that makes Modern Baseball so great, but their presentation of it: All relationships—romantic, familial, friendly—are treated with the same intensity of kindness and love. While it may feel unique to the sort of youth they inspire, it’s available to everyone. I tell them this, and it’s met with humor: “The main goal of our band is to inspire old people to make friends,” Ewald jokes, allowing Lukens to add, “Are you over 60? Do you like Modern Baseball? Find a pal!”
We're late. We enter Vintage Vinyl through the back of the store where Jake and Brendan take the stage. Upon entry, a teenage fan shouts, “I came from the Philippines just to see you!” He’s well-behaved and head-bangs when he doesn't need to.
Midway through the performance, when a very 'metal' customer interrupts the performance by scouring through the racks of heavy music in front of the stage, he films that encounter while continuing to sing along to Sports cuts. During the meet-and-greet, he continues filming. Bassist Ian Farmer says he called both him and Sean "John," in some joke that doesn't totally land.
We load into the van and start following a large red Jeep. The man inside the car is a former police officer, the very same who stopped the metal dude from loitering in the midst of MoBo’s performance. He escorts us through Jersey back roads to take a short-cut to the parkway. After about 15 minutes of twists and turns in a residential area, I joke that he was posing as a record store clerk and is actually a diehard MoBo fan, planning on murdering the guys and wearing their skins as suits. It’s Ian who runs with the gag: “He appears on stage, alone, wearing all of our skin like…we’ve got our next music video!”
As our journey back to the Wonder Bar comes to an end, conclusions become a topic of conversation, namely, the emotionally wrought end of Holy Ghost, Brendan’s own “Just Another Face," a song about seeking treatment after a recent suicide attempt. The song has a strikingly linear yet disjointed narrative structure. In the verses, Bren sings from the perspective of someone who recognizes that he needs help but is unable (or perhaps, unwilling) to give into that reality. The chorus is his voice mimicking the actual chorus of voices who helped him into treatment—Jake, his mom, everyone else—recognizing that this ailment wouldn't be his end.
“It's not that I [had] to write [it]… I guess for myself, yes. Not so much, ‘Modern Baseball needs this song,’” Lukens explains. “I wrote all the songs after I was in treatment so I had pretty good perspective on everything. ‘Just Another Face’ is the longest song on my side. I like the idea of having a ton of short songs. I didn’t necessarily know how many... and even having a longer song to encompass everything I was dealing with as well as the final chapter of moving forward, [that's] why all the rest of the songs are these little quick, short stories of my illness. This was the final step back, coming to the realization that I can’t do this by myself, that I wouldn’t be here without the help of everyone else and that is enough to get up every morning.”
We return to the venue. Now the backroom is littered with Philly’s finest, the kind of tight-knit music community that’s completely envy-worthy. It's a cosmic blessing to find like-minded people who share in a mutual, incredible talent for a particular musical form…and personality.
“There definitely isn’t a Philly sound," drummer Sean Huber explains. "Everyone is on board to be like, 'You do you.' We played so many mixed shows, we still do. We’re just homies with people in all different sorts of bands. Maybe because there are so many bands in New York it becomes [gentrified]? In Philly, there’s a lot, but it’s still manageable.”
It’s why they can book a dynamic show of seven bands without leaving the boundaries of the city of brotherly love. Brendan adds, “It’s easy, on our end, to love your friend’s bands. I feel like if you’re too close to them you can be like, 'I don’t like your band anymore.' Or you can be like, 'Wow, your band is the best band on the planet.' A good example of this is the band Superweaks. Our relationship continues to grow with them where it’s like 'you’re the heaviest band to exist.' Sorority Noise is the same way. They’re such nice, nice people.”
I look over Brendan’s shoulder and he’s reading the A.V. Club. Holy Ghost earns a 91/100 score; his band passed with flying colors. Meanwhile, Sun Organ takes the stage in the background.
“I wouldn’t be here without the help of everyone else and that is enough to get up every morning.”
The Obsessives are next on the bill. The band currently resides at Michael Jordan (lovingly dubbed “MJ,”) the DIY art space/venue that housed Modern Baseball in the band's earliest days. In a way, it gave birth to the band. The Obsessives are the latest to enjoy the lineage, and their sound a bit math-ier than their MoBo brethren.
Before launching into their penultimate song, they stop to thank the headliners. They mention that Holy Ghost has quickly become one of their favorite records of all time, and that they’re so grateful everyone gets to hear it now. They launch into a Modern Baseball cover, “The Weekend,” a track from the band’s debut LP, Sports. They won’t be the only of the evening to elect to do so.
Ian Farmer joins the Superweaks onstage. I hear the announcement from inside the ladies' restroom. A teen abandons her mother with a simple, “I have to go, he’s getting on stage.”
Sean joins W.C. Lindsay for what the frontman refers to as “the rap song.” (From my novice ears, most of the tracks could've been dubbed "the rap song.") I walk outside to have a lengthy conversation about breakdowns with their tour manager, Jake Overholt, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of mid-00s metalcore. His interest in music began when a friend gave him Thursday’s War All The Time, released in 2003. He wears a back patch on a denim jacket in honor of the record. That sense of loyalty imbues these guys.
Sorority Noise launches into a fiery set, with half of the band wearing the same shade of green t-shirt, the kind of accident only close friends could make. They open with the first verse of Modern Baseball’s “Fine, Great” from their second record, You’re Gonna Miss It All. It bleeds into “Dirty Ickes,” a track from SN’s first album. It’s remarkable how the songs work together.
Both bands are enjoying something of a maturation period, as those undeniably catchy and momentously bratty records have bred much more dynamic, inclusive ones. Half of their journeys are in the recognition of the voyage. Ewald joins the band for “Art School Wannabe,” an anti-pretension anthem.
Modern Baseball takes the stage. They rip through the majority of Holy Ghost and some classics. “Broken Cash Machine” feels especially poignant in a room full of 300 sweaty-somethings screaming along to lines like “Fuck you, why did I do that?”
Before the encore, the band ends with the last song on the record, “Just Another Face.” The phrasing reflects an early MoBo song, “How Do I Tell A Girl I Want To Kiss Her,” wherein Lukens croons that an unnamed other is not “just another face.” In 2016, it is his own life where he finds value.
Sometime After Midnight
Ewald’s drink of choice is a double bourbon cocktail. The club is empty, save for a few band members, managers and Run For Cover Records execs. I watch Modern Baseball load the van and am met with hugs. In a weird way, it feels like the end of summer camp.
It’s both implausible and understandable that these friendly guys are the same who wrote a truly, masterfully heartbreaking album. It will be unfortunate if Lukens' suicide attempt is fetishized as a singular, isolated moment when depression and bipolar disorder are ongoing battles. It's part of the story, but not the whole of it. Nothing is singular. Holy Ghost is exceptional.