Modern Baseball’s Sports at 10: How DIY ethos and Tumblr-era popularity launched the emo rockers into the spotlight
In his poem “Having a Coke With You,” Frank O’Hara wrote “I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world," and I am certain it was that idyllic portrait of romance that galvanized the “You got a smile that could light this town and we might need it” line in Modern Baseball’s “The Weekend.” O’Hara, much like Modern Baseball’s Bren Lukens and Jake Ewald, was a storyteller of the small details in a world brimming with eccentric minutiae and a purveyor of what amour lurks among friendships in the fine-toothed crevices of our greatest heartbreaks.
When I started calling myself a poet in college, I was first inspired by Modern Baseball, not O’Hara or Kenneth Koch or Sylvia Plath or anyone you’d find on the syllabus of an entry-level English course. It was listening to their debut album Sports where I learned how to conjure an image out of words that don’t belong together. Take “Re-Do” for one: “Maybe I could just move away or go extinct like triceratops/But I love loving, watching movies, sitting back and also breathing.” Sports is poetic, with its lines about using the brightness of teeth as a lantern, the linguistic curiosity within the word “reckon,” poor grammar in Facebook statuses and cellphone contacts pillaged like vast landscapes.
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After playing some acoustic shows together, graduating high school and moving to Philadelphia, Ewald and Lukens met the ska-loving bassist and producer Ian Farmer and made their first record in Drexel University’s recording studio. On Nov. 27, 2012, Sports landed in the laps of a budding fanbase cultivated through DIY shows around the city. At 12 songs and 31 minutes on the dot, the three Philadelphians changed emo rock in Pennsylvania forever. They weren’t as heavy as their counterparts in the city, like the Wonder Years, the Menzingers, Everyone Everywhere and Hop Along, but they had the same passion and intensity for the DIY community, and hoped to discover their own potential within a flourishing region.
Ewald’s Instagram account was truly a time capsule of that time, with many of his posts documenting those early shows in low-resolution with relic photo filters. It feels like a lifetime ago, when Modern Baseball had not yet blown up on social media with their seminal 2014 record, You’re Gonna Miss It All. Everything seemed simpler then, when acoustic emo bands were getting popular on apps like Tumblr, where accounts would paste their lyrics in cursive font over stock photography.
Romance, wasted time, friendship and goofball semantics — this was the promised landscape of Modern Baseball from the get-go. What more could you expect, or need, from two kids barely out of high school? At the time Sports properly entered my orbit, I was the same age Ewald and Lukens were when they wrote it. Four years after its release, every story on the tracklist kept similar levels of urgency. But by then they’d put out more records and left Sports in their own bygone era — which is a testament to the emo genre, where everything stumbles over itself.
If you were a teenager in the early 2010s, you most likely participated in sacred rituals of Tumblr, when thousands of emo lyrics were pasted atop stock photography and shared in droves. Reblogging those posts, that’s how I, and so many other rural kids, discovered music that lived beyond the margins of the top-40 zeitgeist. It was as if each emotion I ever felt was universally defined by some lyric to a song that someone else had already claimed as their own. I didn’t grow up with siblings, so I’m not familiar with the architecture of close-proximity lineage or the cherished gesture of passing an interest down to a brother or sister. So it was the endless utopia of social media, in the years when it hadn’t yet consumed our lives completely, that put new, exciting work into my own sightline.
Before my best friend Jessi and I became close, we sporadically reblogged each other on Tumblr. It was her page that often shoehorned me into another dimension, one full of American Football, the Wonder Years, the Front Bottoms and, of course, Modern Baseball. It was far from my own microcosm, one full of Nirvana, Drake and the Beatles. We went to the same high school, though we didn’t talk in person until after she graduated in 2015, when I was about to go into my senior year. With three other people, we formed an inseparable friend group and spent most of our time together in the summer of 2015, parading Burger Kings, basements and the local mall’s Hot Topic.
If you are a Modern Baseball fan like me, I’m sure you remember where you were when the band made that heartbreaking post on Instagram. I was in my college’s dining hall, doom-scrolling before another class. The band were preparing to maneuver across the country on a spring tour with Kevin Devine and the Goddamn Band, Sorority Noise and the Obsessives to mark the first birthday of their third LP, Holy Ghost. First, Lukens came to social media to announce they wouldn’t be touring with the band because of their mental health. Then, nearly a month later, Ewald announced their hiatus, notably spurred by everyone in the band feeling like the project had become more a source of anxiety than friendship.
Jessi and I, in particular, bonded over Modern Baseball. Holy Ghost was our record of the summer in 2016. When she went to college in Akron the fall prior, the friend group unsurprisingly went on the backburner, save for our group chat. By the time I’d gotten to college that fall, I found new people in my dorm and began purposefully flaking on my hangouts with old friends. We were in different parts of Ohio at the time: Akron, Hiram, Southington, Ashland. The smallest inconveniences and jokes were leaving fissures in our conversations. I was to blame for a lot of the fallout, because I believed I was irreplaceable, that I could blow off our plans and never lose them.
The final straw came when the rest of them were together and kept calling me, daring to show up at my dorm. I was with my shiny new college friends and wanted no part of it, so I freaked out and told them to stay away. They, rightfully, kicked me out of the group chat, and we didn’t talk for months. When I apologized, they did welcome me back, albeit hesitantly, into their lives. But things were never the same. None of them came to my grandmother’s calling hours, and group chat messages went unanswered for days at a time. We did our annual Christmas gift exchange over winter break, but the small, cheap gifts reflected the emotional turbulence in the air. We’d never be the same, and I’d continue tumbling further into the social economy of college’s unrelenting food chain and leaving my old life behind.
Sports was utopic for a kid like me, as Modern Baseball toed the line between self-reflective and self-obsessed. The songs are accessible, especially in how you can both live within them and consider them through retrospect. Maybe you are not in a place of heartbreak anymore, but surely you remember what it was once like to be, and that is why there is immense emotional wealth in the wordplay of Lukens and Ewald. When Lukens sings “You stole my heart like I stole your hometown lingo” in “Re-Done,” or when Ewald sings “Eight hours on the top of a bus/Just to find out in the end/I will never stop falling in love” in “Coals,” you can touch the hope, and you can reach far back into your own percussion and find the beats of a beautiful youth.
At 24, I’ve finally made it to a place where I can accurately assess how bad of a person I was seven years ago. Most emo records don’t speak to the reckonings of adulthood, but Sports does. When you outgrow the overstimulation of spending uneventful hours getting stoned in dorm rooms you’ll never see again, the ash settles, and you can see your wrongs. Sports, amid the laments of fallen relationships and college debauchery, is a record about the friendships that outlast the breakups. When the final strums of “Coals” cease their melancholic vibrations, all that’s left are Ewald and Lukens, presiding over their grief together.
So when Modern Baseball announced the spring 2017 tour the next month, just as starting the band forever kept Ewald and Luken’s friendship in the same binary 10 years ago, my companionship with Jessi clicked back into place. We planned on going to the Columbus show together; we had a future to look forward to, even if the course of our lives that would unspool afterward was full of uncertainty. When the tour was canceled, our friendship turned a corner, and, miraculously, we became closer than ever. To this day, I never got to see Modern Baseball play live, but I think I prefer it that way.
After Sports started getting attention in late 2012, Ewald, Farmer and Lukens played shows in support. They’d never done anything beyond low-key sets in friends’ basements, and, since Ewald had recorded all of the drum parts himself, they needed a drummer. They tapped local Sean Huber to play percussion with them, and, before even turning 21 years old, the band embarked on their first American tour, doing DIY gigs in basements, VFW halls and bars across the country.
Lukens and Ewald were each other’s great equalizer: Lukens had this nasally tenor and played their guitar a bit sporadically, while Ewald had a monotone, balanced vocal delivery and a patient poise in the way he performed. They traded vocals on songs like “Tears Over Bears,” “Hours Outside in the Snow” and “@Chl03k,” and perfected a unique versatility that was untapped in the emo DIY scenes they cherished so endlessly. They wrote a lot of songs about being young and going through various romances, which weren’t necessarily themes that emo and pop punk were lacking. What made them so different, though, was how genuine they all were.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Georgia Maq and Kelly-Dawn from Camp Cope, the Australian punk trio that opened for Modern Baseball in Sydney in January 2017 mere days before the announcement of their hiatus. I couldn’t help but ask them about their time spent with the Philadelphians, because the music of Modern Baseball had meant, and still means, so much to me. They humored my interests by gushing about the small acts of kindness Ewald, Lukens, Farmer and Huber showed them while on tour. Most palpably, when some of the venues they played at weren’t paying them fairly for their opening sets, Modern Baseball gave them part of their own take so they could afford to buy food and keep doing shows together.
Modern Baseball wrote a lot about girls, but not in ways that fed into the disenfranchisement of young women in emo culture. The genre’s problematic, male-dominated apex was reached long before the #MeToo movement found the spotlight, around the time Sports and You’re Gonna Miss It All came out, which meant the stories of women being groped in mosh pits or groomed by predatory band members were often hushed by the industry. Modern Baseball approached it differently, though, by caring for the people buying tickets to their shows, whether it was through pausing shows to do wellness checks or cultivating inclusive environments around their music.
In early January 2017, Lukens, Ewald, Farmer and Huber took the stage at the Metro Theatre in Sydney. While tumbling through a rendition of “The Weekend,” Lukens laughed through their line deliveries while Farmer and Ewald danced with each other across the stage. The four of them were having so much fun, as the crowd moshed themselves into a catharsis draped in red stage lights. One month later, the band would cancel their upcoming tours. Nine months after that, Modern Baseball would be gone.
After you’ve spent any chunk of your life with one specific group of people, you can never fully let go of them. I imagine Bren, Jake, Ian and Sean feel similarly, wherever they are. An old friend texts me and I leave him on read, uneager to rekindle any sort of bromance in fear that we’ll never get back to what we once were. But when he says “I love you,” the familiarity is all the same, and, within that, there is this long, enduring hope that someday, somewhere, we will reconvene.
Sports came out in 2012, when I hadn’t yet learned what it meant to fall in love with someone for the sake of knowing them forever. I think back on the years when my friends and I were inseparable, and I can’t tell if I miss that part of my life or not. I don’t speak to most of them anymore, and there doesn’t seem to be a world where Modern Baseball play music together again. Yet I can still smell the basement we used to hang out in, just like I can still hear Bren Lukens singing “The Weekend” at a now-closed record store in Lakewood. “Though the white jacket didn’t fit/The friends I came with did, perfectly,” they sang, as a Northeast Ohio dusk came to rest above Madison Avenue outside. It was poetry. Four years later, I log into Apple Music and see that Jessi is listening to Sports, and I remember why we stuck it out.