Modern Baseball Hits Harder, Talks Mental Illness, Makes Punk Shows Safer

“Hope is definitely a huge theme on this record,” says Modern Baseball’s Brendan Lukens (second from right).
“Hope is definitely a huge theme on this record,” says Modern Baseball’s Brendan Lukens (second from right).
Courtesy of Modern Baseball

The last track on emo-punk band Modern Baseball’s newest release, Holy Ghost, is about co-frontman   Brendan Lukens deciding to get help for his mental issues, which had culminated in suicidal ideations. “Just Another Face” ends the album, but it also welcomes a new era of Modern Baseball, one in which the band is done fucking around.

“It’s time to confront this face to face/I’ll be with you the whole way,” Lukens yells on the chorus. Those lyrics are both heartbreaking and all too familiar — the kind you yell along with in your car but also have running through your head when life gets terrifyingly real. The chorus is as raw and direct as anything the Philadelphia-based band has written. But Holy Ghost is a far cry from 2012’s Sports, which included songs about girls only liking jocks and being afraid to tweet in case your girl notices that you’re at home on Twitter instead of out with her. “Just Another Face” is Modern Baseball all grown up and confronting its demons.

Regarding Holy Ghost’s new direction, co-frontman Jake Ewald says, “It was more of a by-product of trying to analyze things more effectively. As opposed to analyzing the situation, we would normally write about it on the surface level and just complain. With this record, we decided to dig deeper and figure out why we’re feeling certain ways about certain things.”

The album is arguably the band’s darkest. Split into two halves, with Ewald and Lukens each taking songwriting duties for a half, it deals with the kinds of issues that hit twenty-somethings in the face: dealing with death for the first time, learning to move past your first love, realizing that you, or someone you love, might be seriously ill.

Ewald’s half focuses on trying to make it work with his girlfriend while being in “Nebraska or Austin, Texas,” and the passing of his grandfather, who’s a “holy ghost hovering over me.” Lukens’s half deals with getting out of treatment for his depression and addiction issues. “Now that I’m older I see what I’ve been/Ruthless, ungrateful,” he howls. The songs are still as specific as past material, as well as occasionally funny, sarcastic and sad. But this is a serious shift in overall tone and message.
“It’s 70 percent us progressing as songwriters and 30 percent us having a lot to say, and we wanted to say it a specific way,” Lukens explains.

But as dark as the album may be, it’s also the band’s most positive. The songwriters are no longer drenched in the nihilism that comes with being over the college crowd but not yet ready to enter the real world. Instead, the band members are looking at their problems not as permanent situations, but temporary ones that can be resolved.

“Even though it was dark stuff, the fact that we put more thought into it made us realize, ‘Oh, I guess everything is going to be okay,’” Ewald says.

“Hope is definitely a huge theme on this record,” Lukens agrees.

That doesn’t mean the band is done discussing difficult issues, however. Lukens’s half of the album is about his treatment, which he and the rest of the band have been open about ever since Modern Baseball cut an international tour short last year.

“We decided we wanted to [be honest about what was happening] after we canceled Reading and Leeds and Australia,” Lukens says. “We owed it to all of our loving and supportive fans to let them into our world and let them know what was going on.”

He says that in other parts of the world, mental illness isn’t a secret, and he didn’t want to treat it that way.
“We’ve been to different countries where mental health isn’t so much a taboo or hush-hush conversation,” Lukens says. “So being able to bring any positive light to it and open that door in the U.S. [was important]. For us to be a part of that, we’re very proud.”

The most heart-wrenching song on this topic isn’t even on Holy Ghost. Shortly before entering treatment, Modern Baseball released MOBO Presents: The Perfect Cast EP featuring Modern Baseball. The track “The Waterboy Returns” was written by Lukens and channels the voices of loved ones who were trying to reach him. “Hey, you, there’s no way out/You can’t find help in a bottle or cut/They’ll choose the wrong words to remember you/They’ll find the wrong words to say,” Lukens quietly sings, backed by guitar strums.

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“Most of the lyrics are colloquial takes on my friend Cameron, who would text me and try to check in on me, trying to make sure I was okay,” Lukens says. “Most of the time I would ignore him; I was like, ‘Dude, fuck you.’ So it was a lot of understanding that I needed to get help — understanding that my illness was taking control of me, but kind of wanting to tell everyone to shove off.”

Thankfully, Lukens did seek help, and he’s now able to talk about those dark days with a bit of a chuckle. His songwriting has grown because of it; he’s no longer writing about unrequited love for a girl. He and Ewald are both singing about themselves, about others, about being adults and taking responsibility for their actions.

A 21-year-old listening to Sports could easily relate to lines like “No monumental moment ever came from saying/‘Come on, dude, just take one more shot.’” That same person, now four years older, could see themselves in more expansive lyrics, such as, “I want to make something good/I want to make something better/Something that cannot leave the ground/Unless we lift it up together.”

Modern Baseball is putting these lyrics into practice, and seeking to help its fans and community. In an attempt to ensure safety at its shows, the group took a cue from the DIY tradition of safe show spaces and a recent effort by fellow punk band Speedy Ortiz, launching a hotline to be used during its U.S. tour. Anyone can call or text the number if they are experiencing something uncomfortable or unsafe so that the band’s tour manager can alert venue security.

“We were having a lot of issues where people were coming up to us after shows and saying, ‘Hey, that was a great show, I had a great time, but also this guy was groping me the whole time and then also I got kicked in the face a whole bunch of times,’” Ewald says. “It’s like, ‘Whoa, I’m sorry, that sucks.’ It leaves a really bad taste in your mouth to know that someone was really uncomfortable the whole time and you couldn’t do anything about it.”

While Modern Baseball was only on day two of the tour when we spoke, the hotline had received thousands of messages.

“Half are like, ‘What’s it like being in Modern Baseball?’” Lukens says. “But a good ground-level one is someone asked to be walked into the show last night, and our tour manager was able to meet them at a time and walk them inside. Even the little things like that that make you feel more comfortable at a show.... If we can help you get there, we’d love to.”

Modern Baseball is still a goofy group of kids using autobiographical lyrics to discuss both the mundane and the significant, drawing from influences as various as Fall Out Boy and the Postal Service. But they aren’t eighteen anymore. They’ve released three albums, toured the world and spent time in a psych ward.
Now, after some very good songs, performances and work, Modern Baseball is finally grown up enough to be great.

If you feel unsafe at Modern Baseball’s show, please call or text this number to alert venue security: 201-731-6626.

Modern Baseball plays Summit Music Hall with Joyce Manor and Thin Lips on Saturday, June 11.

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