Mode Moderne finds balance
If you only caught the tail end of one particularly memorable live set by Mode Moderne, you might have walked away with entirely the wrong impression of the band. When the Vancouver five-piece played an outdoor show on Fourth Avenue during last year’s Khatsahlano! Music + Art Festival, it did so with motorcycles lined up along the front of the stage. At the climax of Mode Moderne’s performance, the owners of said vehicles revved their engines, the sound of which was picked up by the microphones and amplified, creating a seriously unholy racket.
“That was the guys who have the bikes’ idea, for whatever reason,” remembers the band’s singer, Phillip Intilé, interviewed on the Georgia Straight’s fourth-floor patio alongside bassist Clinton Lofkrantz. “I love it; I think it’s totally camp. There’s this group of three guys, who are bikers, and I don’t know how they know about us, but they love it, and they decided to muscle their way to the front of the stage and cause a big stink. It was fantastic, except I breathed in quite a bit of exhaust at the beginning.”
When the din subsided, the motorcyclists hopped on their bikes and rode off down Maple Street. It was the type of spectacle that you might not otherwise associate with a band given to writing lyrics about sipping tea and reading poetry, but this outfit has no interest in being one-dimensional. Intilé has a finely honed sense of irony, which is evident from a listen to Mode Moderne’s first album, 2008’s Ghosts Emerging. Over the dance-floor death-funk of “Disco Ruff”, for example, he delivers a dour castigation of a young girl whose inconvenient suicide has put a damper on his plans to dance the night away. Adopting the tone of someone whose pain and sadness are more painful and sad than yours, Intilé sings, “You’ve got blood on my shoes and it’s ruining my night.”
Lofkrantz says “Disco Ruff” is often cited by those who would label Mode Moderne a goth band: “People always quote that, like, ‘Oh, the suicide song.’ It’s making fun of darkness, and stuff like that. It’s a satire.”
“It’s a joke, because life would be boring if you just viewed it one way,” Intilé adds. “I mean, life is miserable and it’s hilarious. Those are the two things. And there are some other things in there, too. But if you only saw it as being miserable, you’d be a boring, boring person.”
Mode Moderne returned to this same well for last year’s “Real Goths” 7-inch, which was the band’s first release for the Light Organ label. Putting on a mope that would make Morrissey proud, Intilé opens the song with “Real goths don’t dance/We just sulk to circumstance/And sit in darkened corners/And fumble with our hands.”
“Real Goths” was a major leap forward in terms of both songwriting and production. If Ghosts Emerging was a little rough around the edges, however, you won’t catch Lofkrantz or Intilé apologizing for that. As it turns out, the two never set out to start a band when they, along with their friend (and guitarist) Felix Fung, began writing and recording synth-heavy postpunk tunes as a lark in ’08. That what they ended up producing has garnered comparisons to the likes of Joy Division and New Order seems to amuse and frustrate the musicians in equal measure.
“We have grown a lot,” Lofkrantz says. “That was just me, Felix, and Phil having fun. There was no seriousness involved. We did expand over the record, learning how to play songs together, and writing. And I guess we started developing a formula then. I mean, that’s definitely the roots. Yeah, you can say there’s a lot of Joy Division or Cure or whatever, and Phil sounds like this or whatever, but those are just three guys hanging out in a studio with a drum machine and some guitars, and we were literally like, ‘Let’s put out a record.’ ”
For his part, Intilé admits that he didn’t know how to sing four years ago. “I was just not really that great of a singer and only capable of achieving a certain sonic quality with my voice. And then you listen to the stuff now, and I think there’s an evolution—in terms of music, in terms of mood, in terms of bravery and willingness, and all of that.”
Indeed, Mode Moderne’s latest release, the seven-track collection Strange Bruises, demonstrates that the quintet (which also includes drummer Sean Gilhooly and guitarist-keyboardist Rebecca Law Gray) has developed a sophisticated balance between darkness and light. The disc kicks off with “Nightly Youths”, whose chiming guitars and melodic bass line provide a lush foundation for one of Intilé’s most yearning and affecting vocals to date. The searing “Electrocute Me” is a jolt of charged-up death-rock that the black-nail-polish set will love to lose control to, while “Foul Weather Fare” and the bittersweet title track will appeal to those who prefer to dance their legs down to the knees in their bedrooms in those ugly new houses. Throughout the record, Mode Moderne’s debt to its new-wave-era forebears is evident, but the songs are never merely derivative and are buoyed by the group’s growing confidence with pop hooks.
Intilé attributes the polished sound of Strange Bruises to the care that he and his bandmates put into crafting it. “You don’t want to rush things,” he says. “When you come in and you start writing a song—whether you are just writing the song, whether you’re recording, you’re putting down a guitar line or you’re putting down a vocal line or you’ve written a lyric—you don’t want to assume that the first thing you wrote is the one. That’s pretty lazy, and we don’t want to be lazy. We want to be more considered. I think that’s apparent.”
It is, but the question then becomes: will the bikers approve?
Mode Moderne plays a tour kickoff show at the Biltmore Cabaret on Saturday (May 19).
Vancouver band Mode Moderne talks to the Georgia Straight.