Interview: Mondo Cozmo
“Don’t worry Dan, it’s tea not whiskey.” Josh Ostrander aka Mondo Cozmo jokingly says to his tour manager as we are about to sit down for our chat. When I ask him why it’s not whiskey he tells me it’s because he likes drinking so much that he’s trying not do it so much. It's tough when you have to sing he tells me. "As soon as we're done here we can head over there. It's a 7 minute walk but we can be a couple minutes late," he tells Dan, who is exiting the room. He doesn't reveal to that he's actually headed to meet Lance Armstrong for a podcast-taping when we're done talking. "Yeah, I have to go meet Lance Armstrong. He has a podcast now?" sounding equally puzzled and amused.
There's a palpable intensity to Ostrander, but his presence is calming as he sips his tea and I ask him how long he's been hustling in the music industry. "Jesus Christ, I was telling the boys yesterday; I think it’s been like 15, 16 years? Which is fucking nuts. I started really young, I was in high school when I started touring and playing in New York City -I grew up just north of Philly. I just remember going up to New York, playing, then coming home and having to go to school the next morning. Like, I’d get home at like 4AM. It was awesome though, it was great! And nobody knew what I was doing in high school it was just like-he pauses-it was so cool." He continues on tell me about the various musical projects that have taken up most of his adult life. "Right out of high school I was in a band called Laguardia and we were on the road forever; then I left that band and I started a band called Eastern Conference Champions and I did that for a decade. And then I finished that a couple years ago, which was really tough and then I just started recording songs in my guest bedroom and now I’m here."
Nearly two decades deep in the music industry but there isn't an ounce of cynicism when Ostrander speaks. He's as wide eyed and excited to talk about music as any "new" artist out there. We discuss the changes that have taken place in the music industry since he began his journey years ago. "It took me awhile to come around to the streaming stuff but now I love it, I use it too -I’m just a fan at the end of the day. When we started releasing songs just to put them out as Mondo Cozmo it was cool because each time you put a song out it would get its own little life instead of putting an album out. He takes a sip of his tea before finishing his thought. "Like we’d do a video for it and there’d be a build up and people would be excited to hear it and that was really cool, I embraced it. Then we decided to do a full-length and that went back to my old school mentality of loving full lengths." Having played in two bands before becoming Mondo Cozmo, he's no stranger to major labels. When I ask him about these experiences over the years, he takes a lengthy pause before speaking. "I’ve been signed several times -I, um..." he pauses again before continuing, "my main thing is just, nobody is gonna do anything for you, you just-you have to do it yourself and you have to be obsessed. You have to eat it and sleep it and just do everything for it cause you’ll be outworked if you’re not. Nobody’s gonna do anything for you and that’s the truth."
I direct him back to the notion of being obsessed with music and ask whether there was a moment in particular when he realized music was what he'd eat and sleep for the rest of his life. "I mean that’s been my whole life. "I think what’s cool is like," he stops himself, "well, looking at it now it’s cool, but when I left ECC, my last band, I was working two jobs and I was recording songs at night in my guest bedroom," His tone changes and you can hear the desperation in his voice as he continues. "It was kind of a dark time because I didn’t know if anybody was gonna hear these songs and that broke my heart. I was coming to terms with like, I won’t be able to tour anymore or play out and that just like, killed me because it’s my favorite thing."
"Shine," is one of those songs written during the dark time he spoke of and the song that put Mondo Cozmo on the map in late 2016. It's an anthemic track with a message of hope and a reminder that we're all lost and trying to find our way. It also ended up being the song that kept him going as he worked two jobs and recorded music at night. "I was pretty much just writing songs for myself and they’re just love letters to me and my wife to just be like I don’t know what’s gonna happen next and I’m scared, you know? But when I finished 'Shine' I knew it could be something really big, I knew it right away and I was like I have to get this out, I have to keep trying. So that was a pivotal moment for me with 'Shine,' that was big." Other songs written during that time period all made the final cut for his album, including “Hold Onto Me,” “Plastic Soul,” and “Higher.” "These songs were just pure. Not thinking anybody was gonna hear them and now they have millions of plays and people email me saying “wow this song, we played it at my dad’s funeral” or “we played this song at my friend’s wedding” like, you’re impacting people’s lives and I don’t take that lightly, it’s amazing."
As a whole, Plastic Soul is an eclectic album filled with a wide range of various sounds and musical stylings that collectively create a cohesive piece of music. When I ask Ostrander where he finds inspiration, he unabashedly professes his love for all types music. "Honestly, at the end of the day I’m just a fan of music. I love Justin Bieber as much as I love the Dead Kennedys. I run the gamut of liking a lot of different sounds. So when I found myself recording, I didn’t have a band it was just me, I had to find drum loops and I had to pull samples and try different things out and when it all came together I let the song do the work. I didn’t try to be like 'I’m gonna write a rock song today, it’s gonna go like this' or 'I gotta do this I gotta put a guitar solo in there.' There’s no guitar solos on my record, it’s just like- there’s just noises, [laughs] you know? And I love that. Sometimes I listen back and I’m just like I don’t know how the fuck I did this, I really don’t. That makes me think something bigger was at work because I really don’t know." He tells me he'd love to work with Pharrell or DJ Shadow, artists that bring skills to the table he doesn't possess. "I would just love to get in a room with a six pack of beer, or a 12 pack, and just make some noise and see what happens. I work with a lot of songwriters sometimes and it’s great, I love it but there is something to be said for someone doing things I don’t know how to do. I’m like wow, that’s cool how do you do that?"
We move on to talking about the birth of the title track (and my favorite track) to his album, "Plastic Soul." "It was the weekend David Bowie passed away, we were cleaning the house, it was a Sunday and my wife just puts on this playlist, and whatever playlist it was, this song came on, I’d never heard before and it was these opening piano chords that were just haunting, it was beautiful. And I was like wow, I’m just gonna make a loop of that and put a song on top of it and just see what happens, so I did and I wrote the song real quick. And we [he and his wife] were talking just about, with Bowie passing away, about time travel and how cool would it be if we keep meeting up in the next life or if we've met in past lives and maybe we’ve been falling in love for a million years, I just love that idea."
However, due to the piano sample he used, he couldn't get the song cleared by his label for release. He took matters into his own hands and posted a short clip of the song on his Instagram with the caption: "“Due to potential lawsuits we are not permitted to release this song. It was written for David Bowie. It’s about time travel. If you e-mail my lawyer, he will send you a link to the download.” "I sent all those emails to my label and then we got it cleared, I just thought that was so cool." If you scroll through Mondo Cozmo's Instagram, it becomes clear that being transparent maintaining a close relationship with his fans is important to him.
In his Instagram Story, he'll post candid conversations of him talking to his manager on speaker phone. Other times he'll post screenshots of text conversations, including one exchange with a fan he'd met and drunkenly offered music festival passes to. And recently he held a contest on his Instagram, "Two free tickets to Voodoo Fest tomorrow to whoever leaves the best voicemail. 1-866-MONDO-COZMO. Go." "I see other artists -and I understand it’s not for everybody- I see how people interact with their fans and I always just wanted to be really hands on and do stuff like that. I remember seeing bands like Pearl Jam do like the Ten Club and they’d send out a Christmas sampler or vinyl and I was always like man, that’s so cool- that’s a band that really loves what they’re doing, really loves to give back to their fans and they don’t take it for granted. So yeah, I come from that world of like, I’m gonna do as much as I can. And it’s been so cool," he takes a long pause before continuing, "It’s such a buzz to give a song away for free, I think that’s like," he laughs, "I love that, it’s so cool."
Mondo Cozmo recently concluded a year of nonstop touring with what he considers the greatest band he's ever been around. "They’re so good. And besides being great players they’re just good dudes. And that’s the thing, man when you’re on the road this much, it only takes one bad attitude to make this whole thing suck and there’s none of that, there’s none of that. It’s a good group I’ve got." His favorite part of touring though, is the intimate interactions he gets to have with his fans. Just going back out and standing by the merch and just, just talking to people about rock and roll and life, I just love that. Because I always wanted to do that but nobody ever wanted to talk to me," he laughs, "I love that, I really do."
As we start to wrap up our conversation, I ask him what's kept him going through all the ups and downs in the music industry the past decade and a half. "I just get off on making noise, I really do. It’s just my thing. I love recording, I love writing songs," he pauses, "I just-I love the whole thing, you know? The worst day of doing this is better than any day of digging holes or working a normal job." His voice deepens as he continues, "I swear to God, like this is like," he shakes his head in disbelief, "I shouldn’t be here, I should be digging holes somewhere but I’m not. I’m sitting here talking to you about to do a headlining show in DC where I’ve never played before. I'm really excited."
All photos by Xavier Dussaq for Capitol Sound DC
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