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MOD CON on The World-Weary Rebellion of ‘Modern Condition’

“I’m not necessarily offering answers but I’m sure asking a hell of a lot of questions,” MOD CON’s Erica Dunn says of their second album.

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Jamie Wdziekonski*

It’s been a long time between drinks for Melbourne trio MOD CON, and with lockdowns in their native Victoria finally ending, the group have unveiled their latest album, with Modern Condition arriving as something of a light at the end of the tunnel for everyone.

It was just back in June that folks got a taste of new material from MOD CON, with “Ammo” serving as their first new single since 2018’s Modern Convenience (save for a pair of split singles with RVG and Moody Beaches). A ferocious look at why humans choose to wreak conflict, causing destruction by hurling ammunition at one another, it was soon followed by the likes of “Learner in An Alpha” and “X-Ray”, all of which appear on their second album, Modern Condition.

Equal parts frenetic, resonant, and powerful, Modern Condition found itself slowly budding prior to the advent of a global pandemic, before the remainder of the album was created with its members stuck in the enduring despair of COVID-inspired lockdowns.

Since then, Erica Dunn has found herself keeping busy with her role in Tropical Fuck Storm, while bassist Sara Retallick and drummer Raquel Solier have eagerly awaited the return of normalcy that an album such as this provides. Combined, it’s a masterful showcase of their collective talents, and one that shows the world just how missed MOD CON have been in the last few years.

Recorded with acclaimed engineer John Lee in Melbourne, Modern Condition showcases the sort of post-punk industrialism they’re known for, along with the sort of sharp-tongued lyricism and word wariness that envelopes us all as we look around. It might feel as though the world is a difficult place to live in at times, but at least an album like Modern Condition exists to help us make sense of it all, or at least soundtrack our attempts.

With Modern Condition out in the world today, Dunn spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about the events that preceded the album, and the inspiration of the tracks that make up one of the year’s finest releases.

It feels like the standard question to ask these days is ‘how have you dealt with the events of 2020 and 2021’, but Modern Condition arrives alongside a little bit of newfound normalcy for folks – especially those in Victoria. How does it feel to be releasing a record such as this one, at a time like this?

It’s absolutely bizarre all round isn’t it? It’s been like “put the blinkers on and forget life” & then “rip the shutters open quick & get it together” on & off ad nauseam! Aside from all the other existential effects, there have been a lot of barriers to making music including any sense of stability.

We made the album in what now seems like a tiny oasis in a desert of lockdowns and to have the album comin’ out as we are all getting out sort of seems appropriate. We’re all getting spilled out and blinking our eyes in the collective sunshine. At least it means we’re one step closer to being able to play in front of an audience.

The best thing is about it really is that Sara and Raquel and I will actually get to see each other to celebrate! I’m getting misty eyed thinking bout it.

It’s been three-and-a-half years since we last received a new album from MOD CON. Band members have obviously been busy in that time, but what has changed for the group? What does the MOD CON of today look like compared to the MOD Con that unleashed Modern Convenience a few years back?

It’s outrageous how quickly that time disappeared! So much has changed it’s hard to quantify but relating just to our musical relationship, I feel like that first record was a real frontier for us; we had some new found inertia born out of starting afresh with a new direction (having just released the tape as a trio as Palm Springs which I continued as a solo project) and it seemed we could push each other in a multitude of new ways.

There were no expectations on our sound and the blank canvas was really liberating but there was also a tentativeness about who we were as a musical concept and which direction we really wanted to lean into. Those songs had only really been hashed out in a few dive bars before recording them and when we play them now theres’s a whole lot more complexity. So that record is kinda like an etching of what we are now.

Having had a few years on the road and really exploring playing together, this new album is a more chiseled document of our ideas. The decisions we were making in the studio this time round were very intuitive and reflect very clearly our live sensibilities.

How far back were the seeds for this record first sewn? Obviously you’ve personally been busy in recent years with the likes of Tropical Fuck Storm in recent times, but when did MOD CON first start looking towards album number two?

In 2019 between seven months of TFS touring, somehow MOD CON managed to shoehorn in a tour of France and there was a big flurry of activity to get some new songs road tested on that tour so we could come home and record with really smacking chops that you only get from playing everyday on tour.

The bummer was that when we got home, Raq sliced off a bit of a finger (I think she was jet lagged) and we couldn’t get in the studio for a bit! You can’t drum with a missing bit of extremity! Anyway, then the pandemic hit when we were about to have another go and whaddya do? Just had to sit tight! When we finally got some studio dates for early this year we just jumped at it and I feel so lucky we did!

Some songs had been given a bit of a live debut ahead of time, but the rest weren’t really wrapped up until COVID had hit. How difficult was it to write within these two headspaces? Did it feel like there was a definitive switch between the two?

I feel like it’s a bit of a luxury in retrospect. You know, all recording sessions end up being a bit of a scramble no matter how organised you think you are. Well that’s how it is for me anyway! Having a break between all that writing we did in a live context meant I could actually spend time really mulling things over and scrubbing up lyrics and shit. I think the hardest thing was waiting for opportunities to collaborate with Snazz & Raq.

I’d write four versions of something knowing full well that it’d be totally different and get rearranged when we all finally got together but I had to keep at it anyway, keep the momentum up, otherwise I was scared I’d fall fully into the existential abyss.

“Having had a few years on the road and really exploring playing together, this new album is a more chiseled document of our ideas.”

How badly did the events of these last 18 months impact the recording of the album? Some folks found themselves marginally affected, while others could barely get things rolling. Which side of the equation did you find yourself in?

Highs and lows etc. I’m sure I’m echoing everyone in feeling that it has been an intense ride. Everyone has got their crystallised moments of madness. Instability with employment and housing and health, they’re big stresses to ride through even though they’re somewhat familiar as I feel that most musicians are already hustlers on some level and are used to juggling uncertainty. But it’s been extreme oscillating between real feelings of despair and then the pendulum shifting to feeling really grateful.

Going from the micro of getting through a day and then the surrealism of the macro; this unbelievable apocalyptic big picture. On top of that, then trying to keep a positive state of mind in there somewhere & support the people around you! It’s a wild stretch for everybody. This record comin’ out which celebrates one of the most important friendships I’ve got going on is truly the silver lining of the year for me. 

The first taste that folks got of this new record was “Ammo”, back in June. It’s a really powerful track with a rather prominent message – especially in an era like this. What were the origins of this one?

This track was actually the last written and the first to be released! While I talked about having a whole year to write lyrics for this album, for “Ammo” I was literally scribbling words on the studio floor in the week of vocal takes [laughs]. It was a tricky one because I had been doin’ demos just yelling out random phrases that were matching up to some of the guitar lines so when I came to write words it was like writing a poem, where each syllable really had to fit, and then on top of that, I wanted the content to match the energy of the song.

It’s a kind of two pronged rant about default defensiveness, what is in our nature that compels us to collect up ammo (whether it be on a nation states level, literally stockpiling weapons, or in a shitty, petty social sense, the need to one up each other) to make ourselves feel safe. It’s a sort of invitation to fuck that off and explore a new way of being, to ‘throw the fight’ and leave the arena and try existing in a different sort of way. Classic me trying to think about a utopia in the most dystopian global context!

Likewise, the approach to current events – including the likes of climate change and greed – can be seen in the likes of the second single, “Learner in an Alpha”. What is the sort of inspiration that a track like this comes from? Is it anger? Frustration? Fatigue? Or is it more of an ‘all-of-the-above’ situation that results in such a vital song?

Well, I think it just became hard to ignore the disgust I felt for politics in this country regarding the environment! It just sort of came out. We’re allowing Indigenous sacred sites to be blown up for mining companies and highways, letting our reefs get bleached and burying renewable energies in favour of coal! The rest of the world wants to slap us in the face with a cold trout for being so pig headed!

It’s just unbelievable to me how long it’s going to take, what destruction needs to take place before any leadership happens that we can be proud of or that leads to any positive change. I don’t often go on a full on rant but I felt my mental health depended on it to let off some steam.

So anyway, got a bit Carl Sagan on it and wrote about it as if the earth has just been knocked outta the great gleaming trophy room in the sky and just imagined us all getting buried in a desert storm of fake Gucci because we always chose to get off on some trashy online sale instead of just looking at the clouds and listening to the birds.

I think that last ep in the David Attenborough witness statement really threw me over the edge. You know the one where all the wolves and plants are back living at Chernobyl? There’s hope for the planet even if we aren’t gonna be involved [laughs]. Anyway, writing this helped me exorcise some demons and then just get back to stirring the compost or whatever.

It was only recently that folks were treated to the latest single, “X-Ray”. This is another one that seems terribly prescient, especially given everything going on with the likes of Facebook recently, and conspiracy theories that have been everywhere lately. Does it often feel as though life imitates art in that sense, or is it more of a sad state of affairs that these issues always find themselves coming around with increased frequency?

Yeah, it’s just a bizarre turn of events in modern life that collected data which classifies our idiosyncrasies and weird habits has become a type of power that can then be wielded over us, or can be used to further grease the big cash wheels that turn only for the behind the curtain wizard of oz types like Zuckerberg.

“X-Ray” is a dig at grand narratives and the slippery intentions of labels and definitions and to anyone who thinks they can put what the hell is going on in my mind in a box. It’s a sarcastic invitation to take a picture, tell me what’s going on and then let me know [laughs]! 

“I think I’m not necessarily offering answers but I’m sure asking a hell of a lot of questions.”

These songs, and the rest of the album, seem to focus on issues in the world, and search for a way to solve them (or at least deal with them), which appears to be the ‘modern condition’ these days. With all this in mind, does it feel hard to look at the world with optimism? Or could it be that an album such as this provides us with the sort of optimism that we need?

I guess Modern Condition can be taken as a barometer of how healthy (or unhealthy) any state of affairs is. Checkin’ the tank or whatever. It’s also a spin on the human condition and an observation of where we are in our current context. I think I’m not necessarily offering answers but I’m sure asking a hell of a lot of questions.

I feel like it’s true, the album deals with some heavy shit and writing about some of those issues has helped me process my thoughts during this crazy time. But getting down to a real foundational level, the optimism comes from actually making music. Literally getting into a room with people you love and creating something weird and unquantifiable that expresses what you’re feeling.

Getting beyond language and getting down to human connection – it’s one of the last things we got! That’s where I see a place of energy and power! Otherwise I would’ve chucked in the towel long ago. Instead I can feel revved up and energised and hopeful even in this maelstrom. 

MOD CON’s Modern Condition is out now via Poison City Records.