Modern Diet is a Brooklyn based Indie Rock Band. The dynamic trio- Jake, Dan and Bernardo- are making big waves in the NYC music scene, and are working on their most recent album, SIT DOWN AND DANCE, due out Fall 2016.
How long has Modern Diet been together as a band? When and why did you start playing?
Jake: I created “Modern Diet” in high school as a vehicle to experiment with songwriting and music production. Back then it was just me and my Macbook. I met the rest of the guys circa 2012 at New York University where we used a couple of my existing songs as a jumping off point to start playing as a band – the rest is history!
Dan: Jake and I starting making music together just a few weeks after we met. I think the musical chemistry between us was very apparent even back then. His production/songwriting skills and my instrumental abilities made for a really creative relationship.
Bernardo: I joined the band in the winter/spring of 2014 – Jake and I had been roommates for about a year and a half, and my evil plan of winning his favor and joining the band by living with him paid off [insert devil emoji].
Which instruments do you play?
Jake: Vocals and guitar and some keys!
Dan: Bass (I’m starting to sing a few harmonies here and there)!
Bernardo: Guitar, Vocals, and I’m starting to play the synth for a couple of songs.
What was the first song you wrote and how did the lyrics come about?
Jake: The first song I ever wrote was called, “The Invisible Masquerade,” in the 6th grade – it utilized all 5 chords that I knew at the time and the lyrics described a savage tribe of invisible warriors… I sang it with an English accent. Where did the lyrics come about? Everyone is a little weird in middle school. I was SUPER weird. I’m sure, regretfully, that those recordings are still floating around somewhere…
Dan: I actually didn’t write a full song on my own until halfway through my junior year of college. The song is called ”Refrigerator,” and I wrote it for a school project. The lyrics are very autobiographical. It’s about not knowing how to cook anything and instead resorting to drinking. It’s true but it’s also funny. I enjoy trying to incorporate humor in my songs.
Bernardo: The first song I wrote was about being undead but still having feelings for someone. I was 11 and really inspired by anime/manga, especially Megatokyo and DNAngel. I don’t write songs about being undead anymore.
How do you find inspiration for your music? How do your life experiences change the trajectory of what you seek to explore through your lyrics?
Jake: My lyrics usually involve some cocktail of personal experience and literature. I love to read. I guess I think of music as a derivative of narrative – Not so much a literal story as a sort of impressionistic interpretation of characters and events. That way, a song that’s “about” characters in Capote, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy etc. can really be inspired by personal experience and vice versa. I don’t know how to write fiction so my songs tend to wind up being extremely personal.
Up until our first full length album, I was writing all the music. Our first EPs, Commuter and Chemicals… Hmm… I guess they were about struggling to figure out how seriously to take things. In high school I guess I felt disillusioned by what was, and looking back, probably in a typical angsty teenage way. Back then I couldn’t figure out how to approach relationships (platonic or otherwise). We all knew we were going to leave home eventually. Graduating high school was like this impending doom to every kind of connection I might build so I did a lousy job building any for a while. Anyway, I think a lot of our earlier music came out of that see-saw of debauchery and earnestness inherent to an attitude of impending doom! There’s definitely still a little of that theme on the first full length album. It’s funny because we learn these songs and we play them together and all sort of know what they’re about because we know what’s going on in each others lives (more than we probably should) but we NEVER talk about it. So here we go – exposé!
Echo Parade is about a tumultuous relationship that grew and changed and evolved and devolved but was ultimately cyclical. New Waves was about an old fling that moved to Los Angeles and would talk about it as if it was the coolest place on earth. Which is crazy because New York is way cooler. Firelight is actually a little ridiculous. It’s a six and a half minute long song about someone that I was in a class with once. We might have spoken all of three times. I think they got married recently… Bummer.
Nardo: I’ve always gotten musical ideas. Sometimes I’m just noodling on an instrument and I’ll like the way something sounds and try and develop it. Sometimes I’m just biking/walking/running/taking a train. Rarely do I try and force an idea to appear. I’ve done it and it makes me feel bad. Being in different environments and experiencing different things kind of shuffles the ideas. I think they come from a subconscious place, so it makes sense that with a change of scenery comes a change of musical ideas.
So take Little White Pill… I wrote that song when I was back home in Jersey after my first year of college. I was trying really hard to condense my experience of living in New York City and trying to find myself and feeling a lot of doubt and uncertainty about the future. But I was also inspired to write music that matched the quality of the music that I saw being written by my friends at the time. Being back home in Jersey was jarring after all the stimulation of New York, and it gave me time to think and be alone. I started noodling on a guitar, and then the melody came soon after. I tried to make the lyrics very to the point – I wanted to match what I was thinking and arrange it in a way that people could identify with and enjoy.
What famous musicians do you admire? With what musicians do you identify?
Dan: The first CD I ever bought was Millennium by Backstreet Boys in the first or second grade. I quickly moved away from pop music during middle school towards classic rock and later into punk and hip-hop. Things changed a lot for me when I discovered The Killers and Third Eye Blind in early high school. I loved how both bands had guitars and real drums like the classic rock bands that my parents introduced me to as well as synth-y elements from early 2000s pop. As I got older I really found myself drawn to good songwriting. I studied music composition at NYU. I need to know what makes for a great song on the atomic level. I’m a huge fan of Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of the twentieth century.
Jake: Really into Chet Baker at the moment. I’ve had Chet Baker Sings on repeat for months…One of my favorite current bands is Young the Giant. I was enamored way back when they were “The Jakes” and have followed their evolution since. I love the way their sound evolved yet maintained the same spirit and energy. It was also super exciting to watch them go from this unheard of local band to playing at the VMAs to selling out Radio City and other huge venues around the world! (I will 100% be at their Radio City show in September!)
Nardo: I’ve listened to Wilco for most of my teens and all of my adult life. I really value Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting ability, musicianship, and his selflessness when it comes to letting others shape his musical thoughts. I think that’s why Wilco really thrives–it’s a combination of the best musicians alive right now, including jazz guitarist Nels Cline and classical composer Glenn Kotche, not to mention the rest of the band, and whoever is helping them engineer and produce their records. That shines through records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born, and Sky Blue Sky. They have a lyric on their self titled song “Wilco” about being a sonic shoulder for their listeners to cry on, and I often found myself alone listening to Wilco feeling understood. They’re not afraid of talking about things that are uncomfortable or dark, but they do it in a way that’s utterly genuine and vulnerable. They were a great example for someone learning to write.
Say what you will about the industry, but a lot of new artists are putting out really heavy records.
What are your fondest musical memories? How did experiences throughout your childhood and growing up impact the ways that you connected with and involved yourself with various types of music?
Jake: The Beatles really did it for me. I remember hearing “I Am the Walrus” for the first time in the car when I was about 11 years old. At some point, consuming Beatles was not enough. I had to learn to play guitar so I could get closer to the music. At 12, I played music (mostly Beatles songs) with some friends for the first time. (I played guitar and sang with a terrible english accent). I remember coming home and telling my Mom that playing music with other people was amazing! What a rush! Her response was something like “Well, duh.”
Dan: I bought a bass guitar from a friend in middle school and joined a local punk band soon after. I think we only played one show together at the community center in my town. There is a small but very tight knit local music scene in my home county. To this day, a lot of my favorite music is made by my friends. I feel like knowing the people behind the music really helps me connect with it.
Bernardo: Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was eager to find new venues and places to play. I remember cramming into small basements of churches with about a zillion other kids and dancing to punk bands. I looked up to the kids in those bands that were usually one or two years older than me. I loved the environment – everyone was so interesting, and approachable, and it seemed like at a show, people could really let their guard down and be themselves. I knew that I wanted to be someone in a band like that.
Recently, I was in Maryland and I played a small show for 10 or so people in an abandoned house while we were seeking shelter from the rain. It was just me and a guitar, and then I would trade it off songs with some other kids. I had my friend Stern do some impromptu violin playing over some of my tunes. It was really intimate and respectful and I was so grateful to be playing for them.
I love the places that music takes you. I love the spaces that music can create.
Tell us about some competitions and shows that you have been involved in. Which shows or competitions stand out to you and for what reasons?
Bernardo: We’ve played some SoFar shows. SoFar is an international company that provides artists with a room and a full audience. At the beginning of the show, whoever is in charge of that specific night reminds the audience that the night is about the music, so they have to be respectful and silent while the artists are playing. That, added to the fact that the sets are usually more stripped down than our average set at a bar, makes for an interesting dynamic. I have a handout in my room from a time that Chick Corea visited Berklee in 1983 where he tells his students that music is made when you make the people playing with you sound good. I feel like those Sofar sets forced us to listen to each other, and might have been our best sounding sets as a band, which we have then translated to our more indigenous setting (namely, the New York City bar/venue). I feel like they’ve really influenced the way we play with each other in a hugely positive way – hopefully we’ll do some more in the future.
Jake: My favorite shows have been at other colleges: Wesleyan, Middlebury, George Washington etc. We all went to NYU and sometimes I feel like I missed out on the quintessential US college experience living in the city… every time we adventure to another school it’s a crazy time – I don’t think I could do the real college thing for four years though! Last time we went to Wesleyan University, we went with a couple other NYU bands and played at the “Nature House” (I think). The show was super DIY but it was such a good vibe. Everyone was really welcoming and into the music… By the end of the show, everyone was also wasted. Townies had wandered in and were picking fights. Cops were called. Someone peed on our drummer’s cymbal bag (inside the house)… Not that I want any of these things to happen but I just loved the scene. The anarchy and chaos that is liberal arts higher education. It felt like a scene in a Bret Easton Ellis novel.
Dan: My favorite show of all time took place during the winter of our sophomore year. It was at a grimy little DIY venue in Williamsburg called Muchmore’s. We filled the bill with other bands from the thriving NYU music scene and invited all of our friends. The place was packed even though it was December we had to keep the door open because it got so hot in the venue. We began a tradition of shows at Muchmore’s that continued through our senior year. That show really solidified my faith in taking on music as a career. I saw music, friendship and a few beers create something much greater than the sum of its parts. It was a show I’ll never forget.
What is it like to perform in public? How is it different to perform in public as opposed to writing and performing in private? Has performing in public ever changed the meaning or lyrics of a song for you (and if so how)?
Jake: You know, in a perfect world, a song should probably be performed consistently with a healthy indifference to the audience in question. That being said, I think that as a performer, I am really at the mercy of the crowd’s energy. If they’re not feeling it, it’s pretty difficult to keep the song alive – it becomes a sort of act or party trick rather than a genuine realization of the music. As for private – there’s really no such thing in New York City. Thankfully, our neighbors are very encouraging! Thanks neighbors!
Dan: During college I was in several other bands and worked as a sideman for a few other artists in addition to Modern Diet. So I’ve spent a lot of time on stage. I usually do over 100 gigs in a year, sometimes two in the same night. I’ve seen a lot of different performance situations so I’m not really shocked by anything anymore. For me the most important thing is to give your all. If it’s a packed club or an empty basement, I always try to leave it all on the stage. If I never get another gig it won’t because I didn’t give 100% at my last one.
Bernardo: Performing in public can be the worst or best experience of your life. I’ve had shows where I’ve felt like walking off halfway through and then crawling in a hole and not talking to anyone ever again. You keep doing it for the shows where you walk off feeling like you’ve done justice to your music and yourself and your audience. It’s super different from writing, but I’m not sure if I can articulate that – when you write or record or produce you want to get that same feeling of having done justice to yourself and your music and other people. But it’s a different energy. I wouldn’t say that one is better than the other.
Check out their live performance for ‘In C Minor’ for the Sofar Sound sessions in NYC.
How do you handle performance errors? Have you ever had a negative performing experience and how did it change the trajectory of your progress? What do you do to combat negative experiences in order to stay true to your music?
Jake: When we started, I would forget the lyrics to a song at least once per show. It was really embarrassing. After something like that happens a couple of times, you either learn how to avoid making the mistakes or you do what I did and learn how to make the mistakes sound intentional. I still forget lyrics every once in awhile but I’ve gotten pretty good at coming up with new ones on the spot. I know that I’ve gotten away with it when the band has no idea! Negative performances are important. I guess you could equate it to cooking. If you make a particular dish and put too much salt in it, you don’t refrain from every cooking the same dish. You put less salt in the next time. There’s no way you’d know what amount of salt is the right amount unless you fuck it up big time once. The negative performances are a necessary evil.
Bernardo: After the show that I mentioned in the last question (and other wonky musical experiences) I realized that I had to make a choice. After the sting of disappointment, I usually find that what happened was not as bad as it was in my head, and that mistakes are opportunities to learn as a musician and human being. It’s like Jake said – you can’t know what to change unless you have a reference. And that involves pain and quite a bit of embarrassment before you get it right.
Dan: We all studied music in college and we’ve been together for four years but we are very much still learning. Mistakes happen on stage and the best thing you can do is learn them. I’m more conscious of errors now more than ever. People are coming to our shows and singing along and requesting specific songs. So they know the music. There’s a little more pressure to nail the parts when people are expecting to hear exactly what they heard when they downloaded the recording.
How often do you attend sessions? What do you believe makes a successful session?
Nardo: A good amount. A successful session means knowing how to listen and when to voice your opinion. There are times you have to leave your ego at the door. There are other times that you need to be the leader. It’s a balance.
Jake: A session? We live together. Life is one perpetual session these days and I don’t mind at all.
Dan: A successful session is when Jake does his chores and doesn’t leave all the cabinets open.
Jake: Cabinets are created to be opened.
Bernardo: Guys, this is not a successful session right now.
How often do you practice as a band and what do practices look like? How do the relationships between the members of the group influence the music and your success?
Nardo: Usually a lot of jokes are involved. If we’re learning a new tune, we try and get the form down so we can develop parts more fully on our own. If we’re polishing an old one we might pause halfway through to try new things, or run a specific section a couple of times. Wiz Khalifa says something about how the energy of a session behind the scenes affects how people react to a song when he puts it out. When Modern Diet gets together to rehearse or record, we get on the same page. We create an environment where we’re comfortable with each other so that we can trade creative ideas and make something that we’re all proud of. You can’t measure that energy, but somehow it translates to the live show.
Dan: We have a rehearsal shed in Brooklyn which has been a blessing. It’s our own creative space outside of home for music making. We try to keep the mood light in rehearsals. Sometimes we bicker at each other but I think when we walk into rehearsal we all focus making each other sound as good as possible. Personally, I’ve been focusing on playing only what is necessary to make the song sound the best it can. Collectively, we’re working on expanding our sound palette. We’re each familiar with our instrument and voice, now its about finding the right sounds for each song.
Jake: Living together has made the collaboration process much smoother. If we we weren’t friends, the band wouldn’t function. To be able to work together creatively, you have to respect each other immensely so that everyone feels safe – so that everyone is okay being vulnerable. We have a cool dynamic together too. I think we’re all a little nuts but in complementary ways.
Where do you hope to take Modern Diet in the short term and in the long term? What steps are you pursuing to enable the kind of success that you want?
Bernardo: Short term, we’re all really stoked about Sit Down And Dance, our next album. We’ve put our hearts into this record and even now I’m more proud of it than anything else we’ve done as a band. So I’m looking to finish it feeling like, fuck yeah, we worked on these amazing tunes and I’ve done everything I can to get the music in people’s ears. I want people to listen to this and feel the way I felt when I listened to bands that I looked up to growing up.
Long term, I’d really like to find a group of people, like a record label, management company, and booking agency that are as stoked about our music as we are. And I want to be really excited about those establishments as well. I think our music can reach a lot of people, and it’s always been a dream of mine to play bigger venues/festivals, and to travel around the country playing music with my best friends. I’m looking to find ways of carrying out that dream.
Jake: We are wrapping up our sophomore album SIT DOWN AND DANCE. Super excited about the way it’s coming along. The songs are all a good balance of interesting and accessible (we hope) while maintaining their driving emotional resonances. It’s a pretty emotional album. SIT DOWN AND DANCE is due Fall 2016!
We also have music videos in the works with some really incredible visual artists. One collaboration we’re particularly excited about is a video for our song “Red Eye” (off of SIT DOWN AND DANCE) with the artist Jaron Lionel.
What are your spirit animals?
Jake: My spirit animal is black coffee.
Dan: Courage the Cowardly Dog
Bernardo: Space Zombies from the moon.
What advice do you have for musicians trying to make it?
Dan: Show up on time. No shorts or backpacks on stage.
Jake: Who wears backpacks on stage?
Dan: Hipsters…like the real kind.
Bernardo: Obviously I’m going to say listen to others. But just as importantly know when to speak. Be a positive member of your community. Don’t let yourself become callous or jaded from jealousy. Have a healthy definition of success. No one person can tell you what that truly means.
At what point would you consider yourselves to have “made it” and what defines musical success for you?
Jake: Musical success is writing an album that people love or putting on a show that people enjoy. That said, it would be nice to be able to tour Europe. Tour Asia! Tour the world! Sign to a major label! Sell a million records!
Dan: I would love to be a band that people say “I knew them way back when,” a band who grows collectively and as individuals through the music. We’ve had a lot of fun up to this point and in that sense we’ve already made it.
(Photography and Words by Maya Wald)