Last year, when up-and-coming Philadelphia pop-punk quartet Modern Baseball was asked to go on an early-2014 tour with The Wonder Years — a big tour with a much bigger band that would expose them to a much bigger audience and, in short, be their biggest break yet — they almost said, "No."
Actually, they did say, "No." And not just once: they refused a few times.
Three of Modern Baseball’s four members were in college when the tour proposal came; two of them were skeptical of taking time off from school to pursue their rock and roll fantasies for a band that, realistically, probably wouldn’t exist a year later. But The Wonder Years kept asking; eventually, after some deep deliberation and a bit of infighting, Modern Baseball came to consensus.
Yes, they would take a semester off, put down the books, pick up the instruments and hit the road.
If the goal of having a band is for the band to succeed, then this was the best decision Modern Baseball could’ve made. Thanks to that tour, they played huge venues all around the country (and in Canada), and the exposure has led to some other big opportunities, including a recent date at Chicago’s Riot Fest.
Just before tour, they released their excellent second album, ‘You’re Gonna Miss It All,’ through Run For Cover Records. It has been praised by many publications, including Grantland, Pitchfork and Red Bull Music (it was on our list of the Best Albums Of 2014 So Far), and having it available at all those merch tables certainly helped boost sales. Modern Baseball was also able to pull off a sizeable European tour this past summer (with Real Friends and You Blew It!), plus a short US tour (with Tiny Moving Parts and The Hotelier). And that Wonder Years thing went so well the first time, now it’s happening again.
Today (October 1), Modern Baseball head out to support The Wonder Years for another huge tour (also with The Story So Far, and one date with Taking Back Sunday). Then, in November, they leave for their biggest headlining tour yet (with Knuckle Puck, Crying and Somos), which will keep them gone until mid-December.
All this action means another missed semester for Modern Baseball. But they've learned that this is the sacrifice you have to make when you start a band and then, suddenly, BOOM, your band blows up. The alternative is to stay home and miss it all. But, once again, Modern Baseball has chosen the road.
WATCH: Modern Baseball - 'Your Graduation'
Back in July, I met Modern Baseball — guitarist/vocalist Jake Ewald, guitarist/vocalist Brendan Lukens, bassist/vocalist Ian Farmer, drummer Sean Huber — at the house where Jake and Brendan (and a few friends, including the band’s tour manager) live. Located in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia — a few blocks north of Drexel University, where Jake and Ian are both students in the Music Industry program — the house has a name: the Michael Jordan House. Many shared homes in West Philly have names, and many of them have basements where shows happen. These basements are where bands like Modern Baseball, and their local friends, such as The Menzingers and Cayetana, make a name for themselves.
When I arrived at the house, Ian and Jake were there; Brendan and Sean were missing. Jake said they partied too hard the previous night with The Menzingers while celebrating a few close friends’ birthdays. He leaned, hungoverishly, up against the kitchen counter to eat a sandwich while Ian called around searching for Sean and Brendan. “We’re usually on time,” said an apologetic Ian.
The inside of the house looked exactly like what a house lived in by college students tends to look like: messy and random. In the living room, a marlin was mounted above a black sofa that looked like leather but probably was not leather. A framed photograph of Michael Jordan dunking a basketball sat atop a removable van seat, probably from the band’s tour van. The walls were stained. The chairs were stained. The carpet was stained. Everything, even the mounted marlin, was stained. Magazines and books and lamps were scattered upon small tables that looked as if their previous owners were either dumpsters or sidewalks. Jake showed me his room in the basement; there was a sheet hanging from the ceiling between his bed and where Modern Baseball practices and where other bands play shows. Jake literally sleeps backstage.
It smelled bad in the kitchen, like rotten food. I did not look in the refrigerator, but I would be willing to bet big money that it was filled with Styrofoam takeout containers and that those Styrofoam takeout containers were filled with half-eaten sandwiches and either fries or onion rings. There was a stained Joyce Manor sticker on the side of a worn coffee machine and the sink was filled with dishes. Kevin, a street cat they’d been feeding, was clawing at the backdoor that led out to a deck and then a small, fenced-in backyard filled with debris and knee-high grass. Jake took a break from his sandwich to Vine Kevin clawing at the door, and Ian finally located Brendan at his girlfriend’s house a block away. Still no sign of Sean.
Brendan, donning an Into It. Over It. T-shirt, showed up 10 minutes later. He told me he was late because he dropped his phone in the toilet. “The good thing,” he said, “is that it still works.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or what. Brendan, a student at Chestnut Hill College, updated me on the charity record label he started, Big Footprints (Red Bull Music premiered the label’s first release, W.C. Lindsay’s ‘Easy Victim, Charitable Deceptions’), and Ian and Jake talked about the summer classes they were taking. One of the consequences of touring during the regular semester was that Jake had to take five classes this summer to catch up. “This is my summer,” he said, sadly, “but it’s worth it.”
Sean finally arrived. Unlike his 21-year-old bandmates, he is 23. Also unlike his bandmates, he graduated from college (also Drexel) a couple years ago. So when The Wonder Years popped the tour question, Sean was ready to rip. Brendan was too. Ian and Jake? Nope. At least not at first. Back when they were bonding in cramped dorm rooms over Weezer and Motion City Soundtrack, and playing a couple basement shows on the weekends for kicks, they never imaged they’d be in a band that anyone would care about. It was all fun and games, but then it quickly became something more, something bigger, some for realer.
“At first we were like, ‘Wait, are we a real band?” recalled Brendan. “And then it became obvious: ‘Yup, we’re a real band.’ And this is what real bands do.”
Jake and Brendan went to high school together in Maryland. “We heard it was the smallest school in the state,” said Brendan, who estimated that about 800 students went there. Jake started playing cello as a kid, and bass in middle school, and then guitar. He played in a band with his sister called Purple Shanty Shack, and also in a metal-core band called Living Like Wolves, which only did a few shows. Brendan taught himself how to play guitar, and he was not in any previous bands before he started making music with Jake. “Brendan came over with his guitar and my dad made chili,” recalled Jake about the first time the two hung out. “When my dad came to tell us dinner was ready, we told him, 'We just started a band.'”
The band they started that night and discussed over dad's chili was Modern Baseball, named after a book they found that belonged to Jake’s father, titled ‘Modern Baseball Techniques.’ Before moving to Philadelphia, while Jake was still in high school, the two played a few acoustic shows together. But the band didn’t take off until they met Ian and Sean.
Ian went to high school in East Brunswick, New Jersey. He started taking piano lessons when he was 6, then guitar lessons, then he played bass. Before Modern Baseball, Ian was in a band named Incapable that played Weezer and AC/DC covers; they had one original song he said sounded like “weird Pearl Jam.” Sean, also from Jersey, played in a few pre-Modern Baseball bands, including The Bootleg Flyers and Wild Rompit. Though the two did not know each other at the time, Sean and Ian went to the same Jersey punk shows as kids.
Around 2011, all four met in Philadelphia, primarily around the Drexel campus. Sean owned a van, and their first official hang (minus Brendan) was when he drove Ian and Jake down to Richmond, Virginia, for the Stay Sweet Festival (where bands like Waxahatchee, The Front Bottoms, Tiger Jaw and The Menzingers played). “I wasn't going to Drexel, so they didn't fuck with me too hard,” joked Brendan. “Then we became a band. Then I slept on their couch for a year, and that couch became my life. Eventually, they let me move in and I got my own room.” (Later, when Brendan walked me out, he pointed to the couch on the front porch of the Michael Jordan House and said, "That's the couch I used to sleep on.")
Modern Baseball started playing shows on weekends so they wouldn’t disrupt their weekday school schedule. They booked the tours themselves, playing basements and houses in Philly, Baltimore, New York City and Jersey. After their last classes on Friday, they’d load up the van and play shows until the bell rang on Monday. (There aren’t really bells at universities, but you know what I mean.) They quickly got into the swing of doing a mini-tour every couple weeks, and playing house shows in Philly on alternate weekends.
In 2012, Modern Baseball’s first album, ‘Sports,' arrived. It was also the first release on Lame-O Records, the label started by their friends Eric Osman and Emily Hakes. With the money Brendan and Jake saved up from working various non-band jobs (construction, dishwashing, security at Merriweather Post Pavilion including at the Vans Warped Tour), they made ‘Sports’ and pressed 300 vinyl copies for just over $1,000. The album has since been reissued five times, and the first four pressings have sold out.
Osman, Lame-O founder and Modern Baseball’s tour manager, also studied at Drexel’s Music Industry program. For one of his classes, he put together a five-year-plan that ended with Modern Baseball signing with Run For Cover Records, the Boston label that has released albums by The Wonder Years, Man Overboard, Fireworks and Title Fight. The plan was way too modest: less than a year after the release of ‘Sports,’ Modern Baseball heard from Run For Cover.
The email came on New Year’s Day, the afternoon after Modern Baseball played a house show in New York. “We were hungover and going to get food, so we went to Outback because we had a gift certificate,” recalled Sean. “We got the email from Run For Cover when we were in the parking lot.”
Brendan remembered it differently: “I think we got the email first, and then we were like, 'We need to go to Outback to celebrate.'”
“Either way, Outback is where we go to celebrate stuff now,” added Jake.
“And Olive Garden,” said Ian. “That’s another really great place.”
“We were supposed to just be a DIY band,” said Brendan. “But things started to really speed up and we were like, ‘Huh.’”
Brendan was coughing in the backyard of the Michael Jordan House. He still had traces of pneumonia, which he picked up during the band’s European tour, and which prevented him from completing the short run Modern Baseball did this summer with The Hotelier and Tiny Moving Parts. Between coughs, he recalled the debates the band had about skipping school for the Wonder Years tour.
“They asked and we said ‘No,’ and they asked again and we said ‘No’ again,” said Brendan. “They were like, ‘Wait, are you guys sure?’”
“They should’ve told us to go fuck ourselves,” joked Sean, “but, thankfully, they didn’t.”
“We thought that if we skipped a semester of school, we’d never go back,” added Ian. “But we also knew that this opportunity would lead to even bigger opportunities.”
“I remember Jake was in my room putting his feet on my wall and shit and he said 'I don't want to go on this tour,’” remembered Brendan. “And I said, ‘Fine, throw my dreams out the window.' It was a dark day for us. But we eventually decided to do it.”
After Ian and Jake talked to their college advisors and set up a summer class schedule that would help them graduate on time, it was official. In March, Modern Baseball left along with The Wonder Years, Defeater, Citizen and Real Friends for a tour that took them up to Canada, down through California, across to Florida and back up to Philadelphia, where they played the Electric Factory, one of the city’s largest venues. After a couple years of booking DIY tours in basements and small clubs, the professionally organized tour was a totally new experience for them.
“We've always had such an underground fan base in Philly, but all those people came to the Electric Factory, too, they just brought along like 2,000 other people,” recalled Sean. “All our friends were there, and that’s important for us.”
“One venue we played on that tour had a hot tub in the green room and Buckcherry was in there the night before us,” said Jake.
“Weezer was in the tub the night before them!” added Ian.
“Same water as us!” concluded Brendan.
There's no telling who they'll share dirty hot tub water with next, but the sky's the limit.