An hour before I see Modern Baseball play the last show of a sold out UK tour in the outskirts of Derby city centre, dozens of kids are queued outside in the torrential rain as they wait for the doors to open. Modern Baseball, or MOBO as they’ve dubbed themselves, have always elicited this kind of devotion from fans – from their very first acoustic shows performed to family and friends when the band was comprised of just songwriters Jacob Ewald and Brendan Lukens, MOBO have won hearts with their honest and hook-driven flavour of indie rock.
As expected, in the weeks leading up to their third (and arguably finest) album Holy Ghost, MOBO are as energetic in the face of exhaustion as they’ve ever been. I get a chance to say hello to Jake before the show, and he’s all too happy to tell me how tired he is in a chipper voice. It’s unsurprising – just before their stint in the UK, the band brought their tour to Australia. At some point it must be hard to keep track of the timezones, but it’s a testament to how hard this band works to keep on growing.
The headliners bring only the finest tourmates with them; the filling venue is broken in by Philly four-piece Three Man Cannon (whose vocalist and guitarist Matt Schimelfenig mixed Mobo’s last release The Perfect Cast EP), swinging effortlessly into slow rock jams such as ‘Pushing People’. An end refrain of “what’s it take to be what you want?” offers introspection that MOBO will later mirror in their set, carried by a noodling piano line and vocals curiously similar to The New Radicals’ Gregg Alexander.
Toronto’s PUP are the next to take the stage, provoking an unprecedented energy from the crowd – highlight tracks ‘DVP’ and ‘Reservoir’ pack as much punch as the circle pits that ensue during their 9 song set. Considering that only last December the band dropped off the end of a tour due to led singer Stefan Babcock’s haemorrhaging vocal cords, PUP’s tenacity is incredible, and well deserving of the packed halls.
PUP aren’t the only band playing that have endured hardships as of late. Towards the end of summer 2015, MOBO called off an Australian headline tour and slots at Reading and Leeds festivals in the wake of Lukens’ struggle with bipolar disorder. After months of drug/alcohol abuse and self-harm, things came to a head; Lukens admitted himself into an outpatient treatment centre for the better part of 5 weeks, coming out in time to record Holy Ghost with no new songs ready. He wrote all of the 5 tracks on his side of the album in the last days of recording – and admirably, they’re among the best he’s ever written. What’s really admirable, though, is how open Lukens has been about his struggle. Like fellow Philly band and close friends Sorority Noise, Modern Baseball have been doing their best to raise awareness of mental health in a scene that often keeps mum about it. It shows a much-needed changing attitude towards mental wellbeing in punk rock – as more and more organisations arise like Punk Talks, a pro-bono organisation dedicated to providing therapy and mental health services to music industry workers, hopefully the stigma towards it in a demographic where it seems all too important to talk about will fade away.
Modern Baseball take the stage around 9:30pm. The crowd start singing even before then, though – but the off-key howling of fuck-the-future anthem ‘Fine, Great’ soon gives way to the real thing, the band effortlessly ripping through that and a couple more fan favourites (‘Broken Cash Machine’, ‘Tears Over Beers’) before turning things skywards with the interestingly titled ‘Alpha Kappa Fall of Troy the Movie part Deux’ from 2015’s Perfect Cast EP. Ewald yelps through spiderweb metaphors in full Weakerthans fashion, following it up with big hitter ‘Apartment’ before passing the torch to Lukens for ‘Rock Bottom’. Pandemonium ensues; the crowd can barely contain itself as Ewald and bassist Ian Farmer drop to their knees and crouch face-to-face in an act of tongue-in-cheek theatrics. This is a band having pure fun on stage, completely authentic and honest in who they are – and that’s what’s earned them the label of being “relatable” from so many different publications. It’s impossible not to have a good time here.
As Ewald is about to begin ‘Two Good Things’, he admits apprehension; having messed up the intro guitar line on the last night of their previous UK tour, he’s been concerned about doing the same every show since. But tonight, the curse is (thankfully) broken. The track and the rest of the set goes off without a hitch, with the true highlights being the two singles from Holy Ghost, ‘Everyday’ and ‘Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind’. ‘Apple Cider’ is the best performance of the night, with Lukens belting out introspection after introspection on a relationship past over Killers-esque chorus riffs. It’s fitting, then, that they close out their set with a medley of 2012’s ‘The Weekend’ and the Las Vegas superstars’ ‘All These Things That I Have Done’ – “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” never sounded sweeter.
As a musician, I sometimes find it difficult to establish a good rapport with the audience; truly engaging with the people listening to you without being poisonously sincere is a tough balance to achieve, and one that Modern Baseball teeter casually on top of without ever falling off. They’re unafraid to ask what everybody had for breakfast before launching into spinning narratives about the exhaustion brought about by honesty, and still have the crowd hanging on every word. Enthusiastic, unapologetic, and ecstatic to be there; Modern Baseball are getting stronger every day.
Modern Baseball’s new album ‘Holy Ghost’ is out now on Run For Cover Records and Big Scary Monsters.
Photos by Isobel Howe.
By Jowan Mead