Modern Baseball saved my life
The impact of music can often feel overstated; but for Modern Baseball, their new record and tight-knit group of friends has helped them battle through some really dark times.
Words: Ryan De Freitas. Photos: Corinne Cumming.
The six or so months towards the end of 2015 weren’t easy for Philadelphia-based four-piece Modern Baseball, we knew that back in January. What wasn’t clear at the start of the year however, was just how dark things had become in the lead up to new record, ‘Holy Ghost’.
Before knowing details, it’s crucial to understand how the Modern Baseball dynamic works. Songwriting duties are split between vocalists Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens, who both bring songs to the table that they’ve worked on separately and so are, inevitably, coloured by their own separate experiences. That’s why the things the band – those two members specifically – went through are so vital to this record. ‘Holy Ghost’, from its title to its alarmingly frank lyrical admissions, is the direct product of those struggles. Or, as Brendan puts it, “For the first time ever, it’s not just about girls.”
Speaking about the album in the downstairs of a pub in Camden the night before their biggest UK show yet at the sold-out Electric Ballroom, spirits are understandably high. However, that doesn’t prevent Jake and Brendan being every bit as forthcoming in talking about their struggles in person as they are on the album.
“I wrote my half of the record mostly about my grandfather dying,” Jake explains. “My family kinda fell apart in the aftermath of that. I would get halfway through writing a normal song about going to school or riding my bike or something, and I’d realise that in the second verse I ended up writing about my grandfather. I realised that the reason it kept coming up was that I never really processed it. When it happened I didn’t really talk to anyone about it. But then as time went on and I was writing songs, I was forced to think about it and the fact that when he left, everything fell apart.”
“That’s where the religious imagery comes in too, because there’s so much religion in my family. My mom’s a minister, my grandfather that died was a minister, my other grandfather’s a minister, and my sister is studying to be in the ministry. It seemed like the whole time my grandfather was sick and when he passed away, all this holiness was actually a substitute for dealing with the problems in my family. So it’s about religion as being this thing that I don’t see as a good thing or a bad thing, but something that can cloud a situation.”
As Jake speaks, his band – completed by bassist Ian Farmer and drummer Sean Huber – are transfixed on his words, offering him reassuring smiles and sympathetic nods as he speaks. Fifteen minutes ago the band were uproarious with laughter, unanimous in the joy found in each other’s company and now they’re just as united in a far more sombre moment. It’s a simple stream of gestures, but it speaks volumes for the strength of the unity within the band.
It’s that unity in fact, from the four people sat around this table, as well the MoBo family’s more peripheral figures, which helped to avert the most tragic of circumstances.
In the recently released ‘Tripping In The Dark’ documentary (which takes its name from lyrics on ‘Holy Ghost’’s title track), it was revealed that at a particularly low point in August last year, Brendan made his way onto the roof of his house with thoughts to end his life. Thankfully, he found himself back downstairs after a “really stupid, really basic” text from Jake and a phone call to Cam Boucher of Sorority Noise – the band that not only play as support for Modern Baseball at the aforementioned Electric Ballroom show, but also act as a key support figure in Brendan’s life.
Looking around at his band and taking a deep breath, Brendan is as blunt as he can be about the situation: “Modern Baseball saved my life. I’ve said it before to press, I’ve said it before to my friends and I’ll say it again to everyone; these guys saved my life.
Speaking in the documentary, Brendan reveals that moment was the culmination of a stretch of time spent drinking heavily and hiding the then undiagnosed mental illness that he suspected he had from everyone around him. Hitting rock bottom also served as the push he needed to get help. Later that month, just weeks before the studio time they had booked to record ‘Holy Ghost’, the band announced that they’d be taking time away from touring in order to allow Brendan to recover.
“There was a lot of drinking, a lot of smoking weed and a lot of cutting,” says Brendan. “It was getting to a really bad point and I personally needed the time off to get a lot of my shit together – and the band fully had my back. We had to cancel some shows that would’ve been great, but instead of being a thing where they were like, ‘you fucked us over’, they just said, ‘take the time you need and we’ll see you when we see you’.”
“In August I admitted myself into a program that was set for my bipolar disorder, my severe manic depression, my alcoholism and my marijuana consumption. It was supposed to be for three weeks, but it went on an extra week and a half and finished three days before we finished the record. I saw these guys for the first time afterwards – people were coming to visit me, but I mean the first time we were able to hang out – the day we started recording.”
Going from a semi-isolated treatment program straight into a recording studio isn’t an easy transition, but Brendan knew it was coming and had been writing music in preparation.
“They were checking in on me while I was there, like, ‘Hey, where you at? How’s songwriting going?’ It sucked, but hey, we got there! Once we got into the studio, it was awesome. It definitely helped clear my head, too. Looking back at it now, most of the things I wrote about were straight up confessions. I think getting into that studio was just such a big moment for us as a band. Us as friends and us as a band.”
“It was a really good vibe, too,” Jake continues. “It was so new and in the moment for us that you got to have that ‘woah, I really like this’ feeling. We always get that when we’re playing new songs, but to get that feeling while we were actually recording was so great.”
It comes through on the record, too. Despite ‘Holy Ghost’’s heavy subject matter, the sheer enthusiasm of the band and how stoked they are to be playing together again is at the core of how every song sounds. Brendan might be despondently singing, “I’m a waste of time and space,” on the verses of ‘Just Another Face’, but when the choruses roll around, the band’s energy emanates from every note and you can feel just how eager they are to start playing. It’s a special, impossible to manufacture thing.
Through it all, things seem to have worked out in the end. Prior to this album, Modern Baseball were a band on the cusp of something great. Now, having grafted their way up from DIY house shows to venues like the one they occupy tomorrow, having cultivated a fanbase that appreciate them for the honest, heart-on-sleeve songs they write, and having recently fought through some of the hardest battles they’ll hopefully ever have to face, they’re sitting around a table cracking jokes and basking in the knowledge that they’ve delivered on that promise.
For all their struggles, the band are more at ease with themselves, their music and its place in the world, too. And it’s not just exorcism of their own demons that drives the band to be so open in their lyrics. “I think our view on it was that if we can do this, hopefully people listening would feel able to be this honest,” Brendan concludes. “If we can talk about our shit – all this darker shit – to everyone, then hopefully they’ll be able to see that they can talk openly to their friends too. If there’s any one thing to take away from this record, it’s that honesty is so important. Be honest with yourself; be honest with your friends.”
Producing an album at all under such trying circumstances would’ve been admirable. Producing one as good as ‘Holy Ghost’, however, is nothing short of miraculous.