Music, Mateship and Mental Health
Brendan Lukens is dressed in a parody X Files shirt, cargo shorts and Batman styled Chuck Taylors. Despite any stage persona of extroverted behaviour, the 23 year old is private and reclusive by nature. With Holy Ghost, his band’s soon to be released album, there’s no longer the anonymity as his vulnerabilities are laid bare. The songs of breaking up are replaced with songs of breaking out and he doesn’t flaunt his blemishes as much as share them.
Three weeks prior I met Lukens for the first time at a share house in Washington D.C, a DIY space above a fancy New Orleans styled restaurant. His other band, Broken Beak are touring and play second on to a capacity room of no more than 40 people. The address for the makeshift venue is not made public and instead Lukens shares it with me across social media. I introduce myself to him in the stairwell as people sit crossed legged in my path and a waft of marijuana floats up the walls. He is hesitant towards Modern Baseball’s upcoming Australia tour but it’s more to do with his humility. Aside from the tedious air travel he is anxious as to how Australian fans will react to the band cancelling a tour less than a year earlier.
In the coming months and when things, if ever, slow down with Modern Baseball, Broken Beak will release their album, an album recorded and produced by Modern Baseball guitarist Jake Ewald and mastered by bassist Ian Farmer; a metaphor for how tight knit they are as a band and the support they afford each other.
Our interview was supposed to happen a long time ago, in August of 2015 in fact, a couple of weeks before the band were due to head to Australia for their debut tour. On Friday, August 21, 2015 at 1:19am Australian time, I receive an email from their Australian record label Cooking Vinyl simply reading: “I’m terribly sorry but I need to cancel your chat this morning with Brendan from Modern Baseball. Management can’t tell me much, but we’re trying to re-schedule. Sorry!” It’s not uncommon for band’s to cancel press appointments, however this was different, something didn’t seem right.
It would later emerge that days earlier, Lukens had tried to take his own life, before fate would have it, a text message from Ewald would take him out of harm’s way and safely down from the three story roof. With the support of a small circle of friends and family, and of course his band, he self-admitted to a Maryland facility where he was diagnosed as bipolar and manic depressive.
The following week details of Lukens condition would become public, as the band cancel their Australian tour, along with festival appearances at Leeds and Readings. “I’ve spent most of my life struggling with anxiety and depression, and after the last few months it’s evident that it’s time to put everything else aside to focus on making steps towards positive mental health,” Lukens wrote in a carefully worded, but sincere statement released from the band.
I’m nervous to meet Lukens again. I don’t know why, you couldn’t meet a more genuine and caring person. Perhaps it’s because Holy Ghost had hit me so hard during the week and I wouldn’t be able to articulate myself or the fact that their documentary, Tripping In The Dark, where Lukens reveals the depths of his depression and anxiety had bought up old wounds that I had tried to suppress.
After doing press photos for a music publication in Richmond, Lukens and his band mates, along with manager Eric Osman arrive at their Prahran accommodation and the place for today’s interview. He embraces me out the front with a hug and grin, “good to see you again,” he says, “how was the rest of your holiday?” Any nerves are instantly gone.
I’ve had their new record for three days and in that time have had eleven favourite songs. To call the album more mature is too dismissive of their previous works, but there is something distinct about Holy Ghost. On paper, it’s a tale of two halves. The first written by Ewald and the second by Lukens. For a band that is so tight knit, it could be fraught with danger but instead they have perfectly created a complex and coherent record that mixes themes of heartbreak, loss and personal struggle with hope and at times, humour.
In late October of last year, Modern Baseball surprised the world by, out of nowhere releasing their The Perfect Cast EP, an EP that replaced the apathy of their Whatever Forever mantra with brutal honesty. Everything was out in the open and there was no turning back.
There’s an old Harlan Howard quote where he says the ingredients for a great country song is three chords and the truth. Change it to five chords and a punk song and you have the EP’s opening song The Waterboy Returns, which in the first ten seconds bluntly alludes to Lukens alcohol abuse and self-harm. The honesty never subsides and three tracks later he tells of pushing loved ones away in The Thrash Particle, singing ‘too drunk to lie, too drugged to be alone.’
“That EP was a fuck-you to myself and the people who were trying to help me,” he reveals. “Waterboy for example is almost direct quotes from my friend Cam Boucher who plays in a band called Sorority Noise and Old Gray, and he would text me to check in on me. He’s a very positive and outgoing guy, and there’d be days where I’d be like, ‘get the fuck out of my face.’ He was trying to check up on me.”
I push Lukens a bit further and ask if he feels now, that through his writing and sharing his story so openly, a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. He pauses. “I definitely didn’t have that feeling until we wrote Holy Ghost. I feel that with Holy Ghost a lot came out, from all of us. We went through all of that together and left it on the table. I’ve never felt like I was part of a team so heavily before, a group of people that truly respected each other that much.”
A week before their Australian tour, the band released Tripping In The Dark, a documentary, described by their label as “harrowingly vulnerable.” As Ewald speaks of the loss of his grandfather, Lukens talks of his darkest times and Farmer and drummer Sean Huber tell of the band comradery, I fight back tears. One thing is becoming evidently clear: family.
Intentional or not, a soundtrack momentarily underscores the documentary and couldn’t be more perfect; Bad Reputation by Joan Jett and the chorus, ‘I don’t give a damn ‘bout my reputation. You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation.’ With everything that was been poured in to the band since August, Holy Ghost is a significant new era for Modern Baseball.
“I feel like since August it has been,” says Lukens. “We got back from our tour with Say Anything, who are a huge influence on us and a band who pushed us to start a band, so doing that tour and that down time until now, I feel like it’s a completely new chapter,” he says, with an invigorated sense of energy.
On Re-Do, the first song from the band’s first album, Lukens sings, ‘the future freaks me out.’ In one week the band will play at The Sugar Factory in Amsterdam, the first of ten European and United Kingdom dates, then a month later there’s a 33 date tour across the United States with Joyce Manor including a performance at Lollapalooza at the end of July. Also in there is the release of their highly anticipated third album. I ask Lukens if the future still freaks him out, and without hesitation, the answer is a resounding no. “This time around I feel like it’s the first time I’m not stressing too hard. We’re just excited,” he says. “We’ve been on top of everything and we are doing exactly what we want to do.”
“We’re four people who like making music together,” says Farmer in the documentary. “Everyone in the MoBo team is pretty much a family.” As a casual observer from the other side of the world, the more time I spend around them and the more time I just sit and listen to them talk, the more that becomes abundantly clear.
These days everyone in the band writes their own parts, there’s four microphones on stage and all media commitments are handled by the whole band. It’s a united front and they have each other’s backs. “It’s cool that you noticed that,” says Lukens proudly.
“The original premise of the band was that me and Brendan would write the songs and the music and Ian and Sean would learn the parts,” says Ewald. “Then over time it was like, these are our best friends and they’re so talented, so it’s been such a cool transformation into an actual unit doing everything together.”
“Leading on from that, I think that’s why we’re all so proud of Holy Ghost,” continues Lukens. “Ian and Sean were saying the other day in an interview that we were doing that it’s so trivial to be like, ‘our new record is our favourite record ever…’ but I think it’s more than just that. We worked so hard on it. We worked up until the last second that we could work on it. Our producer had to leave for tour at 5am,” they all laugh.
It was April 8, 2015 that the press release for the Poison City Weekender was released to the media and subsequently dates for Modern Baseball’s first Australian tour. Exactly one year and one day later, Modern Baseball would finally be in Australia and play the Corner Hotel, the venue they were originally scheduled to play at. Cancelling the tour was obviously not ideal, but the reaction that followed, would change the band forever. “That was amazing,” says Lukens, on the support and understanding from Australian fans. “That definitely bought us closer together and helped us find our voice as a band; what matters to us and what we want to say, in our music and outside of our music.”
“We’ve all had really personal relationships with our favourite bands before,” adds Ewald. “So I think that whenever we would talk to our fans about how they would connect to the music and we connect to them, it was a really neat feeling. But I think that when we started to talk about the things that led to the cancellation of the Australian tour and that kind of connection we realised we had, that was something completely different, I’ve never experienced that before.”
“It’s so cool to hear and see people who have been working with us on the record and interviewing us, be like, ‘we can legitimately see and hear a growth in the band.’ People come up to us and say, ‘we’re so proud of you.’ It’s not just like, ‘hey, sick record.’
Up until two weeks ago, half the band was still in college; now music is a full time commitment. Where for other bands college would stifle them, for Modern Baseball, it complimented it. Early in their career they booked weekend tours or built them around holidays and worked part time jobs to fund recordings, the sacrifices have only strengthened the band. “We have officially graduated, everyone is officially done. It only took six years,” laughs Lukens. “Jake and I were in a program that was named Music Industry but we were in the tech side of that, so we had mostly recording classes,” says Farmer. For Huber it was film editing and for Lukens it was communications, all fields that have been used to benefit the band.
Outside of Modern Baseball, what do the members do? Well… they play in other bands.
Lukens plays guitar in Broken Beak, Ewald sings and plays guitar in Slaughter, Beach Dog and Huber sings and plays acoustic guitar in Steady Hands, while Farmer records and produces local bands. “Working with different people on music just helps you learn so much more about music in general and how you approach music yourself,” says Farmer.
Modern Baseball was originally an acoustic duo for Lukens and Ewald whilst in college in Maryland, before they relocated to Philadelphia in 2010 and along the way teamed up with Farmer and Huber. “When we were in high school we were all we had music wise,” says Ewald of his relationship with Lukens. “So if one of us didn’t know about a band, then we never knew about them,” they laugh.
I reel off some of my favourite bands at the moment: Cayetana, Hop Along, Petal, Tigers Jaw, Title Fight, Beach Slang, The Menzingers, Spraynard, Dogs On Acid, Slingshot Dakota and Thin Lips, and the fact they are all from Pennsylvania. Something that Ewald says, they are forever motivated by.
“It’s such an inspiring place to be in,” he says, of the State he now calls home. “Everybody is working their butt off all the time. When you’re hanging around everyone who’s doing that you feel pushed in a friendly way, not in a competitive way or anything. You just get inspired by everyone around you and there’s so much opportunity to share what you’re creating all the time, with house shows and people who runs blogs and all kinds of stuff. So there’s no reason not to push yourself and get your art out there. It’s really exciting.”
“The cool thing is everyone’s in a million bands. No one is just in one band,” says Farmer. “There’s the community aspect as well,” adds Huber. “You’re either friends with someone, or you already play in a band with them.”
Extending their family and continuing the Philadelphia connection, for the first time in their career, the band enlisted a producer in Joe Reinhart, who has previously worked with the likes of locals Hop Along, Restorations and Alex G.
If the lyrics to the album’s title track weren’t heart wrenching enough, Reinhart’s production takes it to another level. With the haunting echo of distant voices and resonating steel strings of an acoustic guitar, it sounds like a ghost is hovering in a cupboard. “Funnily enough the way you achieve the haunting ghost sounds is by putting Jake in a bathroom,” says Farmer. “With the window open and one mic,” Ewald clarifies.
“Jake and I went to school for recording, and we tracked the first two records ourselves and most of the other music that we’ve put out,” says Farmer. “I was pretty nervous going in to it. We’d never had anybody ever in the studio with us before, it was a conscious decision. We wanted to be in charge and not have anybody saying what to do. But it went really well.”
For Holy Ghost, the band spent some 23 days in the studio, with much of the album unwritten before entering. “I remember a specific meeting that Jake and I had with Joe, where Brendan was in Maryland at treatment and Sean was away in England,” recalls Farmer. “It was less than a week before the record. So I showed up about half an hour to an hour late like I usually do and I walked in to a conversation with Joe and Jake and the first thing I hear Joe say is, ‘… so you don’t have any songs?’” They all laugh.
As the band’s popularity continues to grow, so does their team. “We just made a music video the day before we got to Australia, with the same guy who made Your Graduation, the Rock Bottom video and the documentary; Kyle Thrash,” says Ewald of the song Wedding Singer.
“For this band, we’ve always taken our video work very seriously,” continues Huber, reverting back to his college days studying film. “Just like we have a team for recording music, we have a team for our videos. What’s really exciting is that we’ve done enough videos now that when it comes to extras you’ll notice the same people in a lot of our videos. Every time we’re shooting a video, it’s kind of like, contacting 20 friends and being like, ‘want to be in our video?’”
After almost an hour of talking, the line between interview and conversation is blurred. Ewald tries out his Australian accent, Lukens discusses The X Files and Farmer talks about Lookout Records. The band are jet lagged and are coming off three shows in three different states. There’s still five hours until sound check and without transport, not a whole lot to do. “Do you know where the nearest gas station is?” asks Huber, in search of a drink. “Sorry,” he corrects himself, “you guys say service station.” Lukens and Farmer chose to take a nap, while Ewald has life duties to take care of. “I’ve got to find some Wi-Fi and do my tax return,” he says. Modern Baseball aren’t your typical band.
Walking down Swan St in Richmond later in the evening, Modern Baseball shirts soon begin to outnumber football scarves; after all, like any good sports team, this band too has a cult following. Half an hour before doors open the line begins to snake around the corner. The show is already sold out, so rather than tickets they are vying for prime position. The advertisement board above the venue reads: The Wonder Years, 12/5. It’s fitting they are playing the same venue as the band from Lansdale, a 30 minute drive from Philadelphia, whom can be firmly credited for putting them on their trajectory for success.
With a capacity of 800, tonight’s show is considerably larger than the previous show at The Reverence Hotel; three times larger in fact. Taking in the East Coast of Australia, this is the band’s fourth consecutive sold out show in the country. Lukens had alluded to me earlier they plan on returning to Australia before the years end and given their reception, that couldn’t come soon enough
Tonight, the band will perform 17 songs and just two from Holy Ghost. “We pride ourselves on playing as many songs as we can in the hour to hour fifteen that someone gives us,” says Lukens. “We’ve got to the point as a band where we have enough material that we end up spanning our career with one set, naturally,” adds Ewald, before Farmer jumps in, “we went so long where we couldn’t play more than 30 minutes because all our songs were so short.”
“We played with The Menzingers once,” reflects Lukens. “It was the first time we played with them and it was a huge moment for us and probably the biggest show we’d played at the time. They were all watching and we were like, ‘ok, we’ve got one more song,’ and they were like, ‘no, you guys have 20 minutes left.’ It was literally dialogue happening on the stage,” they all laugh hysterically.
“Against Me! did 23 songs in an hour and I still want to beat that,” he finishes.
Lukens stands stage left, as if not to be the centre of attention. He commands it anyway. In the encore they reference The Killers’ All These Things That I’ve Done, as he passionately sings the refrain ‘I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier.’
Last year at The Fest in Gainesville, Florida the band performed a Halloween set of Killers covers. On Holy Ghost, The Killers influence is prevalent, particularly vocally from Lukens.
“We all have wildly different tastes in music and there are only a few bands that we all universally agree on,” says Farmer earlier, wearing a Merge Records hat and a Superweaks shirt. “The Killers are probably at the top of that list.”
Whether they are emotions of sadness or happiness, or most likely a combination of both, it’s hard not to be overcome watching the band and being drawn in to their lyrics. Whatever the writer, Brandon Flowers initial intention, be it the struggle and inner conflict of finding your place in the world, an act of defiance, or simply coming to terms with mortality it seems particular pertinent hearing Lukens bellow the words out. Soul is what he and his band mates are made of.