Rock Ain't Dead ... Yet

How Modern Chemistry rose from Jersey basements to the big stages

It's taken Modern Chemistry half a decade to go from the basements around Rutgers University that vocalist/guitarist Joe Zorzi, guitarist Brandan Hourican and drummer Jesse Slachman all attended to latching onto one of the biggest post-punk package tours of the year alongside Taking Back Sunday and Every Time I Die.

If there was a plan, then everything has gone according to it. In fact, the growth has been more organic than that. Initially, the three then-students just wanted to make cool music and be, well, cool.

"We all loved the idea of being in a band," Zorzi says. "I hadn't been in a band in a long time, and I was dying to get something together. So we just wanted to be in a band and play music that we thought was fun. It's taken us to a really cool spot right now."

Sounds so damn easy.

He's not wrong. Hard work and a dedication to craft has seen Modern Chemistry find a sound moodily reminiscent of dark nostalgia bands like Joy Division and Depeche Mode while rooted in contemporary post-punk. Deliberately dynamic songs ride mellow-to-crunch waves, and the melody kicks. It's a "cohesive ride," Zorzio says. That kind of singable songcraft requires a deceptive level of discipline. The frontman says that the band learned their live chops in those New Jersey basements.

"We really got good at being at-one with the crowd in those basement shows," he says. "I think it did a lot for us with networking and getting comfortable with who we were as a band. When you start there, it gets a little weird when you then start playing on actual stages at venues. Like, 'oh, now we're separate from the crowd so we have to just perform without the crowd in our faces.' There was a learning curve when we went to actual stages ... We love playing basement shows still to this day."

Yeah, the guys can't resist the basements and attendant grime back home in Jersey, or in other select cities like Philly. It's a sort of welcome change from the larger national tours, which are growing in frequency. The band's first U.S. tour was in 2015, and they've not looked back.

"That was exciting for us," Zorzi says, with all the enthusiasm of a kid at Christmas. Just when you figure that rock is dead you meet these guys.

"It was our first tour, and at the same time it was the entire U.S.," he says. "We really had to learn everything on the fly. We didn't know how anything worked. We bought a van, settled in, and we were told where to go and when, and we just did our best. Got there when we could. We made it out in one piece. It was as much fun as we could have asked for. This is the first time we're going back to many of those places, so that's exciting."

Sure, there's a lot about being on the road that isn't particularly glamorous, and that's an age-old dictum established long before you or I were born. Just the squalor of life in a stupid van with fetid feet of pals gets old very quickly. It's also been proven that when a bunch of young musicians hit the road to play their rock n' roll music across the country, they can put up with about anything short of murder. Shit, the Rolling Stones made that one a cliché.

"You really feel like a road-dog when you're sitting in a Walmart parking lot at 3 a.m.," Zorzio says. "It's hot, you're getting bit by mosquitoes, and you're sleeping in the front driver's seat. That's when you really go, 'Yeah, I'm doing this for real.' But you never regret those nights. Those are some of the best memories you have."

Zorzi's prepubescent enthusiasm is as apparent in conversation as it is listening to the band's debut album, Everything in Gold, self-released July 7. Song titles like "Pretty Death," "I Can't Take Myself Anywhere" and "Fever Dream" suggest Morrissey-esque satire, but there's an inherent optimism that's old-school, pre-Trump America—a natural optimism that Zorzi's vocals carry delicately. This is one reason why the band, among countless faceless white American "rock" bands, is so worthy of attention. The title song is a thing of humming beauty that rises to a heady downstroked modern anthem, and Jimmy Eat World would've eaten the world to have penned "The Moment." There's a kind of hypnotic and mathematical, almost linear, balance to the tunes, which brings us, in a roundabout way, to that play on an academic-sounding band name.

"We were about to play our first show, and we still didn't have a name," Zorzi says. "One day this just came into my head. I really like the idea of 'modern chemistry' meaning the way humans interact with each other, the way everyone communicates, and the chemistry that we have with each other. I just love that way of describing human interaction. Unfortunately, we didn't realize how many science jokes would come out of it."

Tucson will see Modern Chemistry for the first time, when the Taking Back Sunday and Every Time I Die tour hits town. At the time of this interview, the tour had yet to start, but Zorzi couldn't wait. It's that kid thing again. Rock music can only exist in that level of youthful let's-conquer-the-world exuberance. It was never intended to be an old man's game. The exuberance is another thing that makes the band worthy in a sea of unworthiness and suburban white noise.

"Our manager called and asked if we wanted to play this tour ... I was just like, 'Yeah, I can't believe this. It's a real opportunity' It's going to be a pretty eclectic show. It'll be pretty wild to play before one of the wildest bands around."

Yeah, an impressive package, and music heads not getting there early enough to catch Modern Chemistry are doing themselves a disservice. These guys have that thing that makes rock music vital still, founded on youth and eagerness. They're raring to go, and they've done their work and so far they're winning the lotto. And this is just the start of the album tour cycle that'll see them explore every filthy nook and cranny, every theater and dive bar, this country has to offer, in their stupid, smelly van.

"You'll get a lot of loud, loud rock," Zorzi says. "All of that pure energy and excitement is gonna be there. We'll be like little kids having the best time."