Following their 2003 debut LP My Love, My Way, the Marshalltown, Iowa, hardcore band Modern Life Is War quickly became a cult favorite. The band was becoming the vanguard of North American hardcore that would be lauded critically just a few years later in bands like Fucked Up–melodic, heartfelt, raw, honest, political by default as a result of their station and perspective. It was the kind of music kids fought to share because it was so invigorating and new and somehow prescient. By the time their third album Midnight In America came out on Equal Vision in 2007, Modern Life Is War had figured out the power in their passion and pushed it just a little too far–they imploded within a year of that release. But they reformed just this year, not in “reunion,” but in continuation. They’ve released a new LP, Fever Hunting, another document of desperation and desire and absence that almost tops at the same level as their impeccable 2005 record of small-town ennui, Witness.
We caught up with Jeffrey Eaton, the band’s frontman, in advance of two New York City dates on one day, Saturday October 12: Modern Life Is War plays The Studio at Webster Hall with Night Birds, Deathcycle, and Wet Witch at 7:30 p.m.; they’ll then head over to Brooklyn’s St. Vitus for a midnight set with openers Incendiary and Survival.
You’ve started playing shows again. How has that been going?
We’ve actually just played one show so far and that was This Is Hardcore festival in Philadelphia. That was our first show back in nearly five years. In two weeks we do Des Moines and Chicago. The following weekend we do D.C., two shows in New York, and then Boston.
I saw the videos from This Is Hardcore. How did it feel to be back on stage with that band?
It felt incredible. There was a lot of anxiety on our part just preparing for the show and knowing that we were going to be playing in front of one of the largest crowds we’ve ever played to, on our first show back in so long. It was a little bit nerveracking. But there was so much energy in the room and so many people excited to see us and people that had never gotten a chance to see us the first time around. So it was very exciting. I was actually almost crippled with fear until we actually started playing and then it kind of all melted away.
I had seen you guys a bunch a few years ago. It seemed like you had so much confidence then. What were you so anxious about this time around?
I don’t know what it was. I didn’t really anticipate feeling that way. I’ve never been a guy that’s felt nervous on stage at all. I don’t know what it was. I think that we really wanted to put our best foot forward as much as we could in terms of playing very tight, having lots of energy, and playing together the way we used to. And I know that was important for us with the record and coming back and playing shows. We really I think just wanted to prove to ourselves more than anyone else that this is the right thing to be doing. I think I just was overthinking it a little bit. But once we started playing it felt very natural and everything came together nice.
Is that sort of what you guys were tackling on this new record? The opening track, “Old Fears, New Frontiers,” seems to get at what you’re talking about.
Yeah definitely. I think that rather than shy away from the subject at hand I just wanted to lay it out right away. The first song more thematically lays out what’s to come on the record for sure and kind of what we’re all going through right now.
What have you all been up to in the last five years?
We’ve all led different lives since then. Chris, our bass player, actually left the band after we recorded our second LP, Witness. He fell in love, got married, and is now living in Phoenix, Arizona. Our guitar player John, who was with us up until the very end, and is still playing with us now, he actually became a long-haul trucker. So he kind of stayed on the road after we got off the road. And he’s still doing that. I spent almost two years in California not really doing anything notable in terms of work or anything. Just skateboarding and kind of getting out of Iowa for awhile and clearing my head a little bit. Matt, our guitar player, has been in California and he’s been playing with Only Crime. He plays with Bill Stevenson and Russ from Good Riddance and Aaron from Bane. Tyler is still living in our hometown of Marshalltown. Everyone went their own separate ways to some extent. But then again we all stay in pretty close contact and talk on the phone, even throughout all those years.
How did you all get together if you’re scattered across the country?
Me and Chris, the bass player, we were talking on the phone one night. We had never really talked about the “reunion thing” or anything concerning the band for a long time. It’s just kind of been in the dirt for awhile. I think he’d probably been drinking a little bit and said, “You know man, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I miss playing with you guys. I miss being on stage.” And he sort of posed the question to me whether I would consider doing a reunion show. I basically said no, but that I have the itch to be creative again in terms of writing songs, writing lyrics. That was what I was itching for. It was really as much about getting on stage as it was about wanting to write songs. So I basically said to him, that I won’t do a reunion show. But if all the original guys would consider getting together and trying to write songs and we all felt that something good was happening and it was something that sounded like our band, then I would consider writing a record and then talking about what happens next from there. He got ahold of everyone I think that night, or at least by the next morning. And everyone was kind of immediately on board. Matt, our guitar player, is super prolific and always writing, recording his ideas and songs that he comes up with. He actually had a wealth of ideas from all those years in between. We just started with things that he had come up with. There were literally hundreds of ideas. We just kind of added his filter and tried to narrow it down to something good. Within a week of Chris and my phone call, we were back to the drawing board working on a new album.
It’s amazing that it could come together so quickly after such a long time off.
Yeah. And for the first number of months it was all talking on the phone and sending demoes to each other through email. Matt and Chris were getting together because they were both on the West Coast. They would get together over a weekend and play together all weekend and come up with song ideas. Tyler and John and I would all do the same thing since we were all in the Midwest. And we just started working in small groups and sending things back and forth. By the time we actually got together, which wasn’t until September of last year, we had nine days together where we had nothing morning, noon, and night to do but play music and try and finish the album. But we came into that with like a ton of material. We had ideas for basically all the songs that were going to be on the record. We just had to all be together in a room so we could hash it all out.
Did it feel as comfortable as it did back in 2007?
It did and even more so. In a lot of ways, I think that everyone has grown up a little bit in the sense that it was easier to criticize each other and also take that criticism. Everyone was more comfortable with being open about something you didn’t like, what you didn’t like about it, or on the flip side of that, yeah that’s great we need to develop that idea. The chemistry of our playing together pretty much felt exactly the same. But personally and just communicating with each, it seemed like a lot better than it had been in the past. There was a little bit of tension that seemed to be gone and everyone was so grateful to be doing it again and so happy to just be around each other. We’re all legitimately great friends. I think we were so excited about the opportunity that we had to play together. It felt a little bit lighter and a little bit more fun in a way.
Is that tension you’re describing what led, in part, to the dissolution in the past?
Yeah to some extent. I mentioned that Chris left. Just to prior to him leaving, Matt left the band for kind of personal reasons. But as I mentioned, with this new record, Matt wrote a lot of the music and we felt he’d always had a very important role in the band creatively… [indistinct talking in background] One second, I’m actually working right now. [off-mic] What happened? Oh shit. Wow. It must have split right there when you went under the train bridge. Somewhere around there. In two different directions. Oh we just need to turn around. [on-mic] Alright Dale, back with you sorry about that.
What’s going on? What do you work on?
I’m working on a little film project with some people. We’re in Colorado right now. We’re chasing a train actually. And we thought we knew which track it was on but apparently we did not.
Is this a documentary?
Yeah, kind of. I can’t really go into too much detail on it but it’s basically chasing a train around. We started in Kansas City and going all the way to Sante Fe, New Mexico and following it as closely as possible.
I’ve seen your band on every tour you’ve done. There was something so crazy and desperate about the time when Witness came out and then something that seemed kind of mean about the time when Midnight in America came out. I remember one show where the bass player was making fun of the crowd for being afraid of each other. It just seemed like something changed between Witness and Midnight in America. Was that something you perceived or was that just the crowd getting larger and more aggressive?
I think a lot of things changed and that was apparent in the sound of the record for sure. Tim, who you’re referring to, was Chris’s replacement in the band. And where Chris is a relatively–I wouldn’t say relatively shy person, but in the context of people he doesn’t know. In general I would say he’s kind of a reserved person, certainly would never be on the microphone at a show, almost under any circumstance. And also Matt’s replacement, Sjarm… Matt’s generally kind of a quiet and I’d say somewhat Moody kind of guy. And Sjarm is much more fun-loving and I think a little bit of a troublemaker. So I think just replacing Matt and Chris with Tim and Sjarm totally changed the dynamic, not only in the sound of the band, but also just in the way people perceived on stage. It’s very interesting. But at the same time, although we essentially hired them to be in the band the were both friends of ours whom we had played with before in their other bands and we had travelled with them. They weren’t strangers. We were of the mindset that if they’re going to play with us then they can an should feel free to represent who they are and speak their mind and be whoever they want to be. I think that was maybe unpopular for some people. I know the general atmosphere did change. Things around the time of Witness I think just got so heavy kind of like personally for everyone in the band but also relationships within in the band. Things came to a head and almost break apart then. But we for some reason forged on. In doing that, things had to change. The amount of fun, for lack of a better term, that we had writing Midnight In America versus Witness is not even comparable. Writing Witness was a miserable experience for basically everyone in the band. Writing Midnight In America actually was a lot of fun. I don’t really know what to say beyond that but I think your observation is basically correct and you’re not the only one who had that feeling. Although, from my perspective, I love Tim and he’s a total rebellious crazy fucker and I love him for that. He likes to rile people up and he likes to incite conflict sometimes. I love him for that. I think that’s great. In the context of our band, people weren’t accustomed to that so it threw people off. I was just of the mind that we were going to embrace it for what it was and really make no apologies for it. Whether that’s bad or good is up to each person to decide.