When the four dudes in Modern Baseball venture out for their new 34-date tour later this week, they'll do so ensnared in the typical minutiae that comes with being a band on the road. There's the 11-hour trek to Indiana to fetch the "fake bus thing" they'll use to traverse the country, singer Brendan Lukens tells me over the phone, all the while navigating publicity for the band's third album, Holy Ghost, released on May 13. All standard procedure.
And then there are the less common errands, like creating a hotline fans can text or call during a show if they feel unsafe in the crowd -- which the band set up specifically for this tour. Lukens and his mates took a cue from bands like Speedy Ortiz, who piloted a similar program last fall, and PWR BTTM, who require gender-neutral bathrooms at the venues they play, to create an inclusive space at every tour stop from Nashville to Tampa.
To get the word out about the hotline, the band paired with Screaming Females singer Marissa Paternoster to create an explanatory video teeming with crude animation and wonky typeface. It's not unlike the band's endearing 18-minute documentary, Tripping in the Dark, which cleverly told its origin story via a Freaks and Geeks parody intercut with poignant tales of the band's darkest hours.
MTV News talked with Lukens and fellow band coleader Jake Ewald about the Holy Ghost tour (which also includes a gender-neutral bathroom policy) and what it means to make rock shows a safe environment for everyone.
What about your shows led you to set up a hotline like this?
Brendan Lukens: I feel like enough people were just coming up to us after shows and hitting us up via Twitter in general and just giving us subtle hints or just flat-out telling us that they were having a weird time or an uneasy time at our shows. So after we saw bands like PWR BTTM and Speedy [Ortiz], all these sick bands, do really great things to help their fans out, we thought we could hopefully do something similar.
Jake Ewald: Yeah, and a show is such an overwhelming environment to try to have control of anything in, and it’s extremely difficult to take care of any situation like that on the fly without, you know, without having a hotline or something. But even with, like, people crowd surfing, if they get too weird, and having to yell something from the stage — it just doesn’t work very well.
How will the hotline work logistically? If someone sends a text or makes a call, where does that message go?
Lukens: That just goes to our camp, and obviously every situation will be different. Our tour manager will be in contact with the venue and security at the venue and the production manager, and so have you, to be able to report back to them about any serious issues. But if we’re able to handle anything that’s going on, we will.
Ewald: We’re going to learn more about it every day from trying it every day. Hopefully it’ll get better as the tour goes on and we’ll start figuring stuff out.
Sadie [Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz] tweeted out last fall about her band's own hotline: "If this hotline help system does seem to work, we hope other bands will set them up too." How much conversation and back-and-forth did you have with them about creating your own?
Lukens: Oh yeah. We definitely talked to them a little bit about it, and they’ve definitely steered us in the right direction for all of this. It’s obviously, like Jake said, it’s pretty challenging to try to accomplish, and there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of people that need to be on board, so we could use any advice we could get, really. And they’ve been so helpful.
Considering this hotline, it seems like your mind has to be in six different places while you’re playing onstage.
Lukens: I mean, I’m sure that’s nothing not normal to us [laughs]. I feel like that’s me normally anyway. If it’s something that’s going to help out our fans and make them more comfortable, I think we’re all willing to make the sacrifice and time to make everyone feel cozy and at home.
Ewald: And if we start doing it on this tour and a couple other bands are doing it, it’s obviously going to be kind of complicated the first few times. But if everybody starts taking the steps to actually figure out a really good way to handle these kinds of situations, then it could be a huge benefit in the future and something that, like, a ton of bands could do.
Being early adopters of this strategy, you guys can pioneer how it’s done.
Ewald: Yeah, then we won’t have to [make those mistakes] next time.
Lukens: Yeah, it’s just a giant book that Sadie started writing and we’re all helping out writing it.
Just a massive binder that everyone keeps adding onto.
Ewald: We’re gonna have one really long Xanga page that everyone’s gonna add to.
You retired the song “It’s Cold Out Here” because it uses the word “bitch,” and though it’s presented in a self-deprecating way, you said you didn’t like the way it would be shouted back at you by fans when you performed it live. This hotline seems like a step further in the conversation that maybe sprung up after that happened. Is that fair?
Lukens: There’s definitely been, especially from our peers, a very natural progression toward …
Ewald: Becoming more aware, kind of.
Lukens: Exactly. And being more aware of what we want to say and what we want to stand for and want to talk about. And people give us crap for cutting “It’s Cold Out Here” all the time, but I think it’s one of the best decisions we made. Definitely something that makes us feel more comfortable, and we hope that other people feel more comfortable because of it.
Brendan, you’ve been pretty candid about your struggles with mental illness during the making of the record and how that impacted the songs on the second half. Did you also think about that when you set up this inclusive space?
Lukens: I mean … [pause] There’s definitely a portion of it, yes. My own anxiety has stopped me from feeling comfortable at shows before, even our own shows, so when Speedy and Eric, our manager, approached us with this amazing idea, we were — let’s say not hesitant [laughs]. We understood how beneficial it could be to our fans, but we also understood how beneficial it could be to us to make us feel more at home and us feel safe as well. We know it’s a give-and-take with our fans, forever and always, and we hope that we’re continuing that now by doing this.
You guys keep coming back to the idea that this is for the fans, but also for you, for the band, and that’s a cool conversation. A lot of young bands out on the road will make mistakes, fuck around, and so on, but you guys are taking a lot of agency in making sure that you’re doing OK yourselves, too.
Ewald: Doing things like that definitely makes it feel more sustainable for us, which I guess in turn makes it sustainable for the fans in the long run. But yeah, we just try to stay on top of thinking about how we can always make touring better and make the shows better and never get stuck in a rut where we’re pretending that everything is fine and trying to roll along, because that would not be very fun at all.
Lukens: I feel like a big thing for us was the decision to really buckle with barricades, because for a really long time, we were really centered in, I guess you could say our DIY ways where we really didn’t want barricades, and then when we realized our shows were becoming more rowdy, we knew that we had a responsibility to tend to our fans’s safety by making sure there were barricades at all these shows.
Ewald: And it just got so stressful at one point. It was like, it was the only thing you could think about the whole show, just people falling all over each other and kids getting bloodied up. We’re not even that kind of band! [Laughs] So it just didn’t really make sense in the first place.
So you made this video with Marissa Paternoster from Screaming Females. How collaborative was it?
Ewald: [She came] up with a storyboard that she sent over to us for approval. But we’re very excited about it. It properly gets the message across while also being entertaining, and it’s pretty cool. We’re really stoked. I’ll just say it’s gonna be really cool.
Lukens: It feels very much like the documentary, the earlier part of the documentary where it’s fun-loving but you can still tell that we’re trying to get something across. We weren’t going around like, "Stop being a fucking asshole!" [Laughs] I feel like everyone would be like, "All right, I don’t know if I want to go to the show."
You also have a gender-neutral bathroom policy on this tour. But how do you think that will that play out in somewhere like, say, North Carolina, where you have a show at the end of June?
Ewald: We’ve realized with all this stuff that when you first have that kind of idea, like, oh, we’re going to try a bathroom policy, or we’re going to try this hotline thing, this really scary idea, and you’re like, oh my god, I have no idea how this is going to work. But then once you start taking it apart and individually, you know, talking to people to put together the video, talking to Speedy to figure out how to do the hotline, talking to venues individually to figure out where we can have a gender-neutral bathroom — you just take it in small steps, and you realize that sometimes it’s going to work perfectly, and sometimes it’s not going to work so perfectly. But you just kind of take it one thing at a time, and we’ll do the best we can.
Lukens: I feel like a good example of that is how certain artists are handling North Carolina now. You see a lot of really large artists like Bruce [Springsteen] and Beyoncé and stuff like that canceling shows, but then you have Laura Jane Grace who’s like, "Fuck you, North Carolina!" and burning her birth certificate.
It’s all about figuring out the scale of what you can do.
Ewald: Yeah, figure out what’s within your reach that best suits you and what’s going to help your audience and what’s going to help your band to get your point across.
Holy Ghost is out now on Run For Cover Records and available here.