Deep Discipline and Passion Drives Tour de Force Mod Sun
PHOTOGRAPHY by JESSIE LIROLA
Mod Sun is a tour de force, not just on stage where his hectic performances send crowds into a frenzy, but in real life where he immediately launches into our meet- ing by complimenting my fashion before he starts telling me about the time Machine Gun Kelly kicked in his windshield. It’s a fast segue but one that’s completely relevant to his artistic approach.
Certainly his friendship with Machine Gun Kelly has been a pivotal collaboration. As his story unfolds, it’s clear there’s a camaraderie driven by a love of music and the world of music to which they both relate. “Me and him moved out to LA at pretty much the same time around eight years ago,” he says when we meet near his base in Malibu.
We made it a point to think about how we want the greats to be tuning into our story by living wildly and trying to carry the torch for them, you know? He was wearing this big ring on his hand and he hit my windshield which broke into a big spider web. I could see the wheels turn in his head where he was like, “yo bro, this is what we live by, we’re going make this the most ridiculous, memorable moment ever.” So then he kicks out the windshield in the most Machine Gun Kelly manner ever.
Mod Sun considers this a fateful moment. Their ensuing video went viral and caught the attention of Avril Lavigne who’s now his girlfriend and latest collaborator. This year will see him release a new record, a movie, a clothing line, as well as a recently released feature-length documentary about his life.
All of this speaks to an incredible sense of discipline. Watching his documentary Remember Me Just Like This, one learns his history as a teen hockey star. “Discipline is something that lives so deep within me, definitely in the last three years,” he says over the steady thrum of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Discipline has become maybe the only reason I’m alive. I’m about to hit three years sober right now. What it really did is instill a temperament inside me as well as a stubbornness and desire to be the best. Initially that played out as pure competitiveness but as time went on, there was a realization that “obviously the only competition that you have is with yourself”, and that’s how it should be.
Another thing he took from his hockey days was the importance of practice and honing craft. “The 10,000 hours rule is so real to me. Just trying to get there with every part of my craft has been like the driving force of knowing I gotta do this over and over and over.“ All of this has led to a prolific profile as an artist but rebellion seems to be an equal motivation. “I’ve always believed I was that one in a million. There are, I don’t know how many people in the world, billions, whatever! So there can be plenty one in a millions. It’s not me being like, I’m the one.”
He wants to be remembered as a writer as well. During the course of our conversation, he quotes Kerouac and Rimbaud. Mod Sun is a true multi-hyphenate but where things have really changed for him in recent times is collaboration. “For so long, I had that need to do this all on my own. Then I just realized from writing songs for other people that sometimes, some- one else can help you explain how the world sees you.”
His own writing process is an intuitive one. “I try to make songs in a flow state and in a couple hours the song is done, you know?“ His recent monster of a track, “Flames” is one he wasn’t initially sure he liked but one Lavigne gravitated towards. Her involvement was trans- formative for him: “I’ll never forget when Avril started singing on it. I was just like, ‘oh my God! I get it, I under- stand this song now.’ Without her on it, I would’ve just looked at it like just another song. And now it’s something that’s totally changed my entire career, my entire life.” In reflection, his innate spirituality surfaces:
There’s something really special about being guided through something by someone else. It’s like the shaman thing, we’re all here. We all have a heartbeat, but then there’s something extra that can guide us to the promised land. So I try to take that journey now as much as possible and I’ve had so many light bulb moments but that one is special.
Their symbiosis is clear. Avril was a guest on his record and he produced her latest album. “We wrote a lot of songs together in the last year,” he says. “And there’s definitely this duality that happens between both our voices. I don’t think I’ve ever sounded more myself than when it’s her voice and mine at the same time. It’s pretty incredible.”
Outside of his athletic discipline, there’s also an unlikely source of inspiration in his world. When he as 18, he watched The Secret, on a bootleg DVD.
I think what happens when anyone watches that is, they’re like, “oh, I’ve been doing this my whole life.” But there’s so much power in some- one telling you flat out that it’s real, you know? If you watch The Secret, it’s all older people. So I’m an 18-year-old kid watching all these older people say these things and then I decided I gotta be that voice for younger kids.
Initially writing and songwriting have been his means to do this but even in his creative career he’s already had several phases.
There’s this idea that every great artist will rein- vent themselves every 10 years. I knew I was going to do this, I always had this planned. The first 10 years of my life, I was a drummer. The second 10 years I was rapping and in this 10 years I’m singing. I also know what I’m gonna be doing after this 10 year stretch, I’m gonna really be on my Bob Dylan folk-kick with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica.
It’s this combination of ambition and emotion that makes him so compelling. Even when talking about music he’s more drawn to the emotion of the medium than the technical aspect. “You can’t hold a song in your hand. Yet here we are continuously pulling these things out of thin air. Quincy Jones was like ‘we have 12 notes.’ Every day we’re making new songs out of the same 12 notes. How is that happening? It’s just this magical thing.”
Mod Sun was always in love with music even before he had any experience playing. There’s a scene in his documentary where he’s patiently downloading a video of Travis Barker playing with Blink 182 live, so he can learn how to play the drum parts from sight. Later on came the realization, upon meeting a local drummer kid, that he might not be as proficient as he’d thought. It wasn’t a deterrent though.
I knew I wanted to be in music for certain reasons. It’s like Vivienne Westwood said about punk being a style and an attitude before it was a sound. I saw these people going on tour. I saw these people creating their own world. I think that’s more what it was than anything. It was like when you are in a band or you’re an artist, you’re creating your own world. I grew up on a farm with no friends. I just lived in my own head and created my own world since I was a kid. So it just seemed natural that I was gonna go into somehow creating a community and why I chose drums.
That Westwood philosophy and DIY spirit is a big inspiration for No Safety, his new clothing line of shirts and studded belts. The collaboration with Machine Gun Kelly can be seen in MGK’s punk rock opera, Downfalls High.
His ambitions in fashion aim as high as those in music. He cites the Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren partnership as an inspiration: “Those times they operated in? Changed the look of the entire world. And then Raf Simons creating those pieces that would stand the test of time. I’m collecting pieces from him that are from 1998. I love the whole idea of archive pieces. The tailoring and silhouette and all that is something that’s so important to me. It’s that culture that I’m so engulfed in.”
It’s not the end of his collaboration with Machine Gun Kelly though. This year they release their debut feature film, Good Mourning, featuring a stellar cast that includes Megan Fox, Pete Davidson, Dove Cameron and GaTa. Described as a “stoner comedy revival”, their intention was to create a great looking movie that was also entertaining. “Often with these types of movies, you lose the visual aspect. So we tried to take all those things that we believe in and really kind of make a new landscape for that. I’m crazy about color palettes. I’m crazy about framing. I’m crazy about visual stimulation. There is not a color in this movie that would clash.”
I ask if it wasn’t a lot to learn an entirely new discipline but it seems a part of his motivation: “It’s kind of like the whole, ‘wake up a student, go to sleep a teacher’ every day. That’s the basis of how we do this art stuff. We know that if you come into something without confidence, you’re gonna lose and we also know that if you come in feeling like everything, you’re gonna lose.“
Getting signed was daunting but after the success of Downfalls High, more doors opened.
We stood hand in hand with it. We were involved in all the editing, sound design, scoring and the music. We also put together the entire cast ourselves by getting on the phone and calling people. To get this cast together, we had to have a great script and we’re really proud of what we wrote. It’s something that I’ve been saying since I was a little kid: “I’m gonna have a movie in theaters one day! I’m gonna make a feature film!” So in a sense this movie is for all those kids who say those things. Like the day you give up on those dreams are the closest you ever were, you know? It took me a long time to make that little dot become a full circle but it couldn’t have happened in a better way.
It’s clear that behind Mod’s overwhelming sense of pride, lies the realization of a long held dream.