On his first day at Washington University in St. Louis back in 2005, Erick Lee clearly remembers crossing paths with future bandmate Mickey Novak.
“We met right when I walked into my freshmen dorm for the first time,” adds Lee. “I was just bringing stuff inside, and he was literally bringing his guitar and amp up the stairs.”
Their initial band name was so terrible, according to Lee, that he won’t utter it now. After Lee and Novak wrote their first song, “Aphasia,” around 2007, the two guitarists subsequently recruited other musicians — among them keyboardist Alex Schiff, Lee’s childhood friend — and settled on a different moniker.
These days, they’re known as Modern Rivals, and the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based band is about to release its atmospheric, ambitious and absorbing debut album, Cemetery Dares (highlights include “Angel Bones” and “A Shade Hesitating”). Lee and Schiff recently checked in to discuss some significant music firsts, both individual and shared.
Medleyville.us: What’s the story behind the first album you ever owned?
Alex Schiff: “My first album was Green Day’s Dookie, which I got in fourth grade. I remember being really psyched about the cursing in it. It was a really cool album at the time.”
Erick Lee: “My first album, probably around when I was 8 or 9, was CrazySexyCool by TLC. I remember thinking it was pretty awesome. I also remember listening to it on a plane for the first time with my Discman. … I was psyched I had this shock-resistant one that wouldn’t skip every time I moved it.”
And how about your first concert?
Lee: “Well, if you include going to concerts with my parents, I think I went to see Tower of Power and Average White Band. There were, what seemed to me, all these super-old people at the time because I was 10 years old. It was a seated concert, but they were dancing in the aisles.”
Schiff: “I don’t remember what my actual first concert was, but I remember in middle school, my friend’s older brother, who was in high school, was really into ska. And there were all these concerts at the Wetlands Preserve in New York, and we used to go to all these shows, and it was the coolest thing in the world.”
What were your first impressions of each other?
Lee: “It’s funny that you ask that because recently [I told Schiff this story]. We went to the same high school; he was a couple of years older than me. Alex was in the jazz band and played saxophone. And I remember seeing him in the auditorium after the stage band played; I thought the stage band was really cool because it was all the kids who could actually play music. And I remember thinking, ‘That kid looks like a cool dude’ (laughs). So that was my first impression of Alex.”
Schiff: “I remember Erick was really little in high school. And I remember hearing him sing for the first time: He was singing a really low part, and I couldn’t believe that a guy so short was singing so low and bombastic.”
When and where was the first Modern Rivals show, and how did it go?
Lee: “I think it was at the Annex, which is now Tammany Hall, on the Lower East Side of New York [circa 2010-11]. I think it was fine (laughs).”
Schiff: “We had a lot more people in our band back then.”
Lee: “We used to have a violin player as well, and I think with that formation, we had one other person playing glockenspiel and sampling stuff.”
Schiff: “We sounded a lot different back then.”
Lee: “I remember my parents were there. That was cool.”
Schiff: “We played about 45 minutes.”
Imagine a fan comes up to you after a show and says, “Hey, you guys kinda remind me of The Walkmen and The Shins.” What would be your first words in response to that?
Lee: “ ‘Thanks. I like those bands.’ There are so many comparisons that people throw around all the time, it’s always good when they say bands you also like.”
Schiff: “And you can’t really take it personally, no matter what they say. They’re probably saying it as a good thing.”
You only get to make one first album. So with Cemetery Dares, did you and your bandmates have any first-album do’s and don’ts in mind?
Lee: “There were definitely some older songs that we chose not to put on it, and there were also some older songs we chose to put on it because they were in line with the more recent stuff we had been writing.”
Schiff: “There were definitely some older songs that we adapted to work better with the rest of the album.”
Lee: ‘The Ice’ — that’s one we changed a little bit and rewrote the lyrics. And ‘Moon Dust’ is also pretty old. But all the other ones were written in a pretty short period of time. We had already put out two EPs before that, and we didn’t have that much other material that we liked, so we ended up writing a bunch of new stuff.
“We did think about lots of different albums that we thought were great and thought about how they were structured and what made them so great, if there was a main idea behind them that threaded everything together.”
Schiff: “It’s also tempting to put what you think will be the biggest single as the first track, and we decided not to do that because we just didn’t like how the album felt in general after we did that.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Modern Rivals on tour (schedule subject to change):
* April 22: Glasslands Gallery — Brooklyn, N.Y. (album release show)
* May 3: Vassar College — Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
* May 13: Rough Trade NYC — Manhattan
* June 5, 12, 19 and 24: Pianos — Manhattan
From left to right: Erick Lee, Mickey Novak, Alex Schiff and Alex Raderman