Nathan James

MOD SUN’s Reflections

There’s a lot to be said about musicians, poets, artists, and filmmakers. They’re temperamental, self-absorbed, both exhausted and exhausting. MOD SUN, born Derek Smith, is all and yet none of the above. In fact, he might just be the antithesis of any negative assumptions about creative beings with a new alternative rock album out, a tour underway, movies and books to his name, and a tattooed hand on the pulse of reality.

When we got to talking with MOD SUN, the like-minded intrigue was evident. We got along swimmingly, comfortably, as if we were cut from the same cloth and in the same room together rather than being (at the time) virtual strangers on opposite ends of the country. The singer-songwriter was kind, personable, forthright, and courteous with both his in-depth answers and his time. In between performing in a snowy Aspen for the X Games and rehearsing for a headlining tour, he hopped on a Zoom call for a conversation about art. What we learned is that artistry is not strictly a pen-to-paper or brush-to-canvas medium (or, in MOD’s case, mouth-to-mic or fingers-to-keys). Art is a well-rounded concept that is found in the way we carry ourselves, seen in the people we surround ourselves with, and sprinkled in our day-to-day conversations… like the following.

The album artwork for God Save the Teen is phenomenal. It’s seemingly just as vital to the story that the album is telling as the songs themselves. It is kind of in the vein of yungblud’s cover for Weird! while also definitely taking inspiration from Sergeant Pepper and The Beatles. 

I’m glad you see that. I love it. 

I love every piece of how this came together. How did the vision for the artwork come about in terms of the recording of the songs and piecing the visuals together?

First off, thank you. No one has really talked to me about the cover yet, but I put a lot of work and thought into it. The album is named God Save the Teen. It is a play off of a Sex Pistols song called “God Save the Queen” and what that time and everything was like with rebelling against the current culture. When I look at this album, I look at it as duality, of a take on being a messenger of what I see in culture right now, as well as a total love letter to this time. The side of that that I really wanted to tackle on the cover is the definite play on the last few years, right now, and how that would look with culture. With the album being God Save the Teen, I’m being a messenger for what I see – a detriment to the young people of this world. I think that if there’s any responsibility for anyone to help out the future generations, it is to the older generations. 

Right now, looking at the people that come after us, I think there’s this giant danger in the idea of constantly comparing your life to other people and the idea of what beauty is right now. I think that being a young person in this world, you’re given these filters and you’re looking at yourself with these filters that are trying to cover up all your flaws, and I think that there’s just a really big danger of that – of people feeling like they’re ugly without these filters. It’s talking about that on the album cover. It’s talking about when you see…. Let’s say an act of violence, right now so many people’s first intuition is to pull their phone out and film it rather than help. It’s talking about how easy it is to become addicted to things from over the counter drugs to vapes to all these things that we’re handing the young generation, and I just wanted to be a messenger for those things. I wanted to be a messenger for what I’m seeing. 

In no way am I wanting to be some self-righteous preacher that’s like, “These are bad! Down with these, down with these!” I’m just being a messenger of what I feel like is potentially really hurting the young generation and I want to open up the conversation of how to rebuild what the future is instead of destroying it.

I think as a young person, but also as someone who is constantly interpreting art both personally and professionally, you did exactly that. In my research, I noted that the cover art holds a mirror up to modernity, and I believe that is exactly what you just said.

I wish I had said that – just like that! Oh, man. You might have a new quote for me for the rest of this year! I can just say that! Wow… very well put. That is truly what I was going for. Again, I think when you say the whole idea of holding a mirror up to it – that’s when it becomes something that’s not telling the world, “This is bad. You’re bad for doing this, you’re bad for taking part in it.” It’s really just, like I said, being the messenger for what I’m seeing and what we’re all seeing.

Yeah, exactly. What you’re doing is kind of just reflecting it back to them. “This is what I see and this is you.” Sure, you could take it personally and be like, “I’m offended!” You could also take it and say, “Hey, I might want to change this for me and the people around me.”

Again, very well put. And there’s a bit of controversy involved in it, too; there’s a bit of a risk in this reflection that I gave. Obviously, touching anything with The Last Supper or that [visual] is dangerous ground, but I think that uncomfortable art is often my favorite. I really was ok with taking a risk and doing something somewhat dangerous, you know?

100%. Something else that could be a bit of a risk and is also on this record is the cover that you did of “Iris.” I adore it being right in the middle of the tracklist, too – this cover of such a beloved song, a song that many people have really close connections to. In a live setting, as well, the reaction when you hear it is visceral. Then when you hear it stripped down, like your version, it has a kind of transcendental intimacy in the way that you evoke emotion through it. Why that song, for you? Why put it on like right in the middle of the album and not like a bonus track or just utilize it as a live performance? Because it fits the record flawlessly, but it’s a risk.

In naming the album God Save the Teen, I immediately think back to what saved me as a teen, and there was a song called “Iris” by the Goo Dolls that has lived with me since the day I can remember really hearing it. It was when I was truly allowing music to be a savior in my life… and when I think back, that’s probably the first song that made me feel understood. It made me feel so seen as I grew up in a suburb in Minnesota, when I decided to embrace what – at that time – was the absolute counterculture. I’m talking about skateboarding, punk rock music, dressing differently than everyone else in my city. I came from a suburb where it was like jocks, preps, and cheerleaders. That’s really what my city was like. When I decided to stop fitting in with those people around me, I think I was in maybe seventh grade, and I remember that it was “Iris” making me feel seen and making me feel understood and like there was a place for me outside of my city. This was long before the eruption of the internet where you could go and find friends all over the world that made you feel seen and understood. That song did that for me. That song lived with me.

I think the idea of timeless music is something that not only transports you back to where you heard it the first time, but also lives with you your whole life. Still, to this day, when I listen to that song, it does the exact same thing that it did for me when I first heard it. I felt like paying homage to something that saved me. Also, that song is just such an incredibly written one that it could have came out yesterday and it would’ve still had the impact that it’s had.

That is very, very true. It’s such a stunning song. I love the way that you said it kind of reminded you of what a community is and what a community should be, because it doesn’t have to be the people around you in the social hierarchy of your small town. This huge world is so much different than what you believe it is in your youth. It’s a little bit nostalgic, “Iris,” but it still has an air of hope to it.

Absolutely. It’s such a hopeful song and I think that so many people, regardless of age, feel like they don’t fit in where they are. To be reminded that you’re not alone? I just think that the number one tool in curing yourself is to remind yourself that you’re not alone with any of the things you’re going through.

That comes down to the lyricism honing in on that message, although the musicianship is great.

Yeah, feeling like you’re constantly being misunderstood and then hearing someone say, “I don’t want the world to see me, ‘cause I don’t think that they’d understand,” it’s like all of a sudden you’re here. It’s that beautiful dichotomy of hearing someone else say that these people would not understand me immediately makes you go, “Oh, well this person then would understand.” Isn’t that just the beautiful duality of this universe and life of ours?

Speaking about songwriting, I have to say that I picked up your book, My Dear Pink, maybe five years ago. I picked it up not knowing who you were, but seeing the cover and knowing that I collect typewriters.

Oh, you’re so cool.

I collect typewriters and I have a pink one myself. I had no idea what I was getting into, the level to how you wrote about Paris through poetry. It could have been a book about anything. It could have been blank pages and I would’ve picked it up for the cover. They say to not judge a book by its cover, but I absolutely did that day [Laughs]. I grabbed this book and I loved how you made not only yourself, but this typewriter, sort of introspective characters in this people-watching scenario. Those are poems, though, so I’m curious, having read them but also being a fan of your music, how do you decide where your words go? If they go into a song alongside melody, or if they go into poetry and a book? How do you figure that out and walk that line?

That’s so great. That’s such a great question. You know what, when I’m creating music, that lives within a sonic landscape. I try to not be in ownership of the things I’m saying. What I mean by that is that I think that the experience of making music is when I don’t write things down and I allow the music to push me to an emotion. Then I start investigating that emotion.

How I create my music is I hear the music that’s being made, being given to me, then I put headphones on and I go get behind the microphone, but I have no idea what I’m going to do. In that moment, I let go of it all. It’s my beautiful moment where I’m able to feel and channel something. 

When I’m on my typewriter and I’m writing poetry or I’m writing stanzas for books or any of that, that’s when I feel like I’m physically putting something together that you can hold in your hands. That’s like a piece of my body. When I’m making music, I’m trying to give you a best friend – that doesn’t have to have my face involved. It doesn’t have to have me or MOD SUN on it at all. The music can provide you something that channels you to whatever is your higher power or feeling or anything like that. It is a way to be saved or a way to feel seen or understood like we were just talking about. When I’m making music, that is the one time I think about so little words. I really try to not own what’s being said and I feel totally free as if it’s not even me speaking. There’s no pressure on me when I’m making music because I really feel like it’s not even necessarily me that’s singing these words.

It is so interesting for me as a writer to think of words being purposeful and tangible in one context, but then in another it’s completely organic and free of pressures, as you said. To be able to have that kind of dichotomy in the words you string together can mean a lot of things. It really depends on how it’s being put out and the setting it’s in and the package it’s being put out into the world as. I appreciate you sharing that.

Since you’re talking about the use of a typewriter and collecting them, you know that writing in that form… it is kind of a life or death situation because there’s no erase. There is no backspace. You’re really, really conscious of the words that you’re writing and thus the words become extra important; whereas I think that a great song is often made when the lyrics come second. I mean that in the most respectful way because I am obsessed with words, but, really, a melody is sometimes more important than what you’re saying – it’s almost building up to get to an idea, to get to the story. You know, I’m sure some of your favorite songs are not complicated, are very surface level lyricaly, but that’s what music can do: it can be this very relatable [story] the surface and it’s that melodic idea around [that story] that makes you fall in love with it. 

There is a different level of intention behind it and that definitely resonates stronger, and if not stronger, makes for a longer lasting impact. You can always shut a song off, but when you’re reading something, it’s sort of hard to stop mid-sentence or mid-stanza.

Absolutely, and you’re in charge of creating the visual for it. You’re in charge of creating what you’re hearing in your head when you’re reading these words. However, in music, you’re kind of being given something. “This is what it is!” You can take the words any way you want, but you can’t change the music you’re hearing.

Definitely! The narrative is written and you can interpret it, so while music is expression and art is expression, the musicality at large is kind of set in stone.

[Laughs]. Exactly. We just came across a really good conversation right there.

I love that so much – thank you. Speaking of lyrics that I love, I just have to say that on your last album one of my favorite lines from the title track was, “I had the whole world in my head, remember me just like this was the last thing I said.” I remember when I first heard it, I texted one of my friends saying, “I wish I was in high school and I could use this as a yearbook quote, because this is what I want to be mine!”

[Laughs] Oh, that’s awesome. I love that you felt that because that whole song is paying tribute to me, my youth, and me in high school when everyone was telling me, “No, no, no, you’ll never make it, you’ll never be able to do this.” The sentiment of remembering me, “just like this is the last thing I said,” was really based upon kind of what we opened up with talking about: feeling like the outcast, like no one understands you around you, but one day… you’ll see. One day you’ll understand.

You’re not changing who you are to get where you are today, too. You’re the same person you were and that’s what brought you to this level of success and enjoyment and fulfillment in your career and in your livelihood.

That’s what it really is. I love that you say that, too, because, more than anything, the word success and the [phrase] “making it” are very dangerous to try to define. Being fulfilled, though, is not, and I am consistently being fulfilled by the art that I make. It makes me very proud. It makes me feel like I am leaving things behind. That is a lot of my philosophy of life: to be leaving as much behind as you are creating. That’s really what I try to do with every output of mine; whether or not it’s understood in this very moment when I’m alive is not at all important to me. It is to potentially be much more important and great after I’m gone.

Clearly you put a lot of thought into every project you take on. You are an artist who can stand on his own two feet better than most in terms of being creative. Still, you’re a fierce collaborator. On this record you have Royal & the Serpent on a song – who is one of Jersey’s very own. You and MGK have done songs and scripts like Good Mourning and Downfalls High. You worked with Avril Lavigne on the hit song, “Flames.” One of my favorites of yours is actually what you did with blackbear, a track called “spent all my money.” 

Oh my! Classic! 

I love that song. You also work really diligently and beautifully with John Feldmann, of course, producing and writing. How important is it for you to have that sense of camaraderie with other artists and creators? Even being someone who is so independent with their talents?

That’s another really great question. Let me think about the importance of this.

I obviously think that there’s a beautiful thing that comes from someone else pushing you. I think that’s great. I believe it’s also great to have multiple perspectives on a song. Most importantly, when I think specifically about music, when two voices collide, it doesn’t always work. I’ve tried at times to work with other people and it doesn’t come out right, and you have to be non-negotiable with your gut instincts when it comes to art. You always have to be thinking about that, so that when it does work, you feel it. I believe that there’s a different sense in a human ear that opens up to hearing two different voices come together on one piece of a sonic landscape. There’s something really special about that. Looking at the hippie dippie energy in the universe that I believe in, I think there’s something special that happens then.

Oftentimes when I’ve collaborated with someone, it’s always been to push something to make myself better and opening myself up to that. I work with people that I think are brilliant and really good at what they do. Like I was talking to you about earlier, I don’t sit around and tell myself that I’m talented. I believe that I’m a great student, you know? Wake up a student, go to sleep a teacher. I just really enjoy learning how other people do it – do this – because I’ve spent so long making music by myself in a basement at 3:00 A.M. with no one else around. For so many years, I just knew how to do it like that, so I love to learn from other people. That right there is what I really get to do when I work with these great artists. I get to see that everyone kind of does things differently. I am always watching, I’m always researching, I’m always trying to learn more about how to be an artist. I think that’s my biggest takeaway from collabing with people on anything. 

Specifically with me and Machine Gun Kelly, I think we’ve collabed together more than I’ve collabed with anyone else on so many different things. With him, we’re both great on our own, but we have told each other over and over again that we’re better together. I think that is this sense of community that we were talking about, as well. It’s not about just trying to take on the burdens of the world by yourself, but when you have other people to do it with, it’s better. Every time we do something together, we create something that I believe will stand the test of time, so not only do I get to learn, but I often become better.

This resonates deeply, because all of these different things that you’ve done collaboratively I am a fan of. That’s not to take away from what you or them have done as individual artists, but I do think that when you can see and feel that connection as a fan – when you can see it in a video, you can hear it in a package, you can see it even in artwork – it’s special. People want to hear it in the tone and in the harmonies and even the way the lyrics get bounced around. There is another level of heart to it because it shows that people who are different, in different realms of artistry, can be in the same space working together. You’re not pinning people against each other. 

It reminds me of when I started playing music. I started as a drummer and drums are oftentimes just noise until you bring in guitar, bass, and a singer. That feeling of us against the world? I think that’s what is encapsulated in collaborating. It is such an identifiable and great feeling to say, “Us against the world,” instead of, “Me against the world.”