It’s the scenario every newbie band dreams of: Four friends get together, start playing music, and less than a year later are opening for the Strokes at a 20,000-person venue. For Modern Man, this year’s Sweetlife Festival it was quite literally a dream come true, as well as the chance to showcase their songs to a much wider local audience. (The opportunity to share billing with the likes of Lupe Fiasco, Girl Talk, and Cold War Kids didn’t hurt, either.)
The DC-based band consists of three native Washingtonians: vocalist Lee Cain, bassist Matt Dosberg, and drummer Paul Withers. The fourth member is Zach Goodwin, a Chicago transplant and graphic designer who founded the band after a beer-drinking session with Dosberg in his bedroom. Modern Man’s retro-influenced, guitar-based sound won it plenty of fans at Sweetlife, where it represented DC along with US Royalty. For Goodwin, Sweetlife was a glimpse at life in the big leagues: “When you play at a 600-person venue, no one carries your gear,” he says. Lack of roadies aside, Modern Man supports fellow local band Shortstack at the Black Cat Friday night; tickets ($10) are available at Ticket Alternative.
We talked to Goodwin about haunted rehearsal spaces, Columbia Heights, and overenthusiastic roadies.
How did the members of Modern Man meet?
Three of us were living in Columbia Heights at the time, and we had all played in previous bands—Matt played in a DC band, Telegraph, and I’d just started writing songs again and was desperate to find someone to play with. A girl I knew was good friends with his girlfriend, so we met for the first time in my Columbia Heights rowhouse, and he came by with a six-pack of beer. I think I played him one totally awful song, and he felt like maybe there was some potential, so we started building up the rest of the band. That was maybe around nine months ago. Lee Cain grew up with Matt and has been a songwriter and played in bands all his life. Paul had also previously played with Matt Dosberg, the bassist, in a piano-pop band, so everyone was a known quantity to some degree.
How did Modern Man get to Washington, and how long have you been here?
Lee, Matt, and Paul are all from DC originally, or Maryland. I’m from Chicago but I came here in 2007.
Tell me about where you rehearse.
We play in a house in Maryland that was built in 1750. Not only did George Washington visit that house during his time in the Revolutionary War, but it was taken over by the British and used as an infirmary. There are rumors of ghosts in the practice space. It also doubles as office for the Anacostia Watershed Society—they do river reclamation—so it’s not just our practice space. If you’re there late at night, you can genuinely hear some weird noises, which our more spacey members like to think are made by ghosts.
Does that influence your music at all?
We have kind of an Americana, rootsy rock-and-roll sound, and there’s definitely a ghostliness to a lot of the tracks, a lot of delay and reverb, so maybe the ghosts are creeping in there one way or another. I have heard us described as spooky, which I’m not sure is really all that apt, but whatever.
How would you describe your sound?
We always say it’s analog rock and roll. We started with a manifesto because we felt like every band had two members, one of whom played synthesizer and the other played a laptop or a drum machine, and it always felt very serious and kind of arduously trendy. There wasn’t much freewheeling rock-and-roll/punk spirit that was getting a lot of national indie attention at the time. It since feels like it’s changed a little bit, like there’s a return to rock and roll. But our goal originally was to be all analog—two amps, old Gibson guitars, giant amplifiers where possible, and just really raw stuff. But it’s always an evolving thing.
How did Sweetlife come together for you?
If you play in the DC music scene, you’ve probably met the Sweetgreen [owners], who are fanatical music fans and have really great taste. They’re always going to shows. We heard that it was happening and we gave our best pitch, and we told them that we would be otherworldly excited to participate in any way. When we got an e-mail telling us we were in, I called everybody and they were very, very excited. But until our name was actually up on the Web site we didn’t tell anyone—not even family members—because we wanted to make sure it was actually happening before we started celebrating.
How was Sweetlife?
We play a lot of clubs that are in the 400-to-600-person range, and that’s sort of what we’re used to. The DC clubs are always really cool to bands, but at the same time it’s very earthy, very no-frills. When we arrived at Sweetlife, we came in our van and started unloading equipment. As we came out, squads of men in workers’ outfits started grabbing our amps and guitars and drums, and we were like, “No, you know, don’t worry about it,” and they were like, “This is our job.” That for me was just totally surreal. And then we saw the scale of the stage, and that was really a special moment.
Best local bar for music?
I am a big proponent of both the Red Derby and the Raven. The Red Derby is really more my brunch spot, and they always have fun music, and sometimes it breaks out into fun sing-alongs. And the Raven has a really good jukebox, and the customers usually have cool and interesting taste.
Describe Washington’s music scene.
It’s pretty intimate, and it’s been very welcoming to us. We’re still new. It’s a cool place to play because it really does feel like one big family of bands. I feel like I know or have met or am somehow connected to in some capacity just about all of the bands that are playing regularly. I’ve never heard of any animosity, and Washington’s not very cliquey, which I think a lot of music scenes can become. There’s great support from the local blogs and media—BYT, All Things Go and Vinyl District. All those places are really encouraging and put your music up online or write stories about you, which helps get the word out and get people to your shows. I think maybe we could use some more labels. I feel like it’s a small select group of people who producing music full-scale to the point where they’re putting it out on vinyl or pumping out CDs, so you’re kind of left—in my experience—to do that in a DIY fashion.
Finish this sentence: When I’m not making music, you can find me . . .
During business hours I’m a graphic designer by trade, so often behind a computer screen. And then either riding a bicycle or eating. Between the band and work, that right there’s about 80 to 90 percent of my waking hours.
Rolling Stones or Beatles?
Definitely a Beatles man. I feel like the Rolling Stones have mastered a sound but the Beatles have an unbeatable breadth. It’s like the Stones mastered one particular sound and the Beatles invented rock and roll.
Rolling Stone or Spin?
Club shows or festivals?
Club shows, definitely. I enjoy the festival thing, but I like being close to a band, and I’m not huge on a 60,000-person crowd. For bands, festivals are exceptional, just because the scale thing is so different. From a fan perspective, the thing a festival gives you is an amazing lineup you could never see in one place, but you’re not going to be close and you’re not going to hear the same sound you would in an intimate club. So from that perspective, club shows are always better.
What’s your favorite part of the city?
I live in Columbia Heights and I’m a big Columbia Heights booster. I live at 16th and Monroe and that whole little section is kind of goofy but interesting, and full of unexpected happenings. Somewhere between Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant is where I spend most of my time.
Favorite local band other than yours?
Gosh. We’re big fans of Rival Skies—they just played the Black Cat, and we’ve played with them before at Rock and Roll Hotel. They have kind of a Radiohead-
y, post-rock sound, which is not necessarily our sound, but it’s great. The Moderates are a really cool band who split their time between here and North Carolina. We haven’t played with them, but we’re big fans. They have more of an alt-country, Wilco-y sound, and they’re very talented songwriters.
What’s the best thing about being in Modern Man?
I would say that if there’s ever an opportunity for you and anyone in the continental United States to start a band, then you absolutely should, because it’s the most fun thing you can possibly do in your free time. There’s really nothing more fun than making music with your friends in front of people who, in theory, might enjoy it.
For a taste of Modern Man’s sound, check out the song 1957 below.