MOD CON: “It’s a rare and strange time that we’re living in, and music has such an important role to play”

NME talks to Erica Dunn of post-punk trio MOD CON, who are readying their powerfully political second album ‘Modern Condition’

To say that Erica Dunn is a busy woman would be one hell of an understatement. In August, the Melbourne singer-songwriter released an album as part of the art-punk outfit Tropical Fuck Storm. She also splits her talents between solo project Palm Springs and the Tom Lyngcoln-fronted Harmony, and about 10 days from now, she’ll release ‘Modern Condition’, her next full-length with the grungy post-punk trio MOD CON.

Asked on a windy Thursday arvo how she feels to be in the home stretch of the MOD CON album, Dunn takes a lengthy pause, then sighs and admits: “It’s very surreal. There’s so many obstacles you have to jump over to make music right now, so I just feel very happy that we managed to pull it off.”

One of those obstacles was the uncertainty of MOD CON’s very existence. When COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on Australia’s music industry, Dunn was nervous that bassist Sara Retallick and drummer Raquel Solier would grow disillusioned with the group. Both, like Dunn, are also extremely busy people: Retallick has the solo project Golden Syrup and lectures at Melbourne Polytechnic, while Raquel Solier (who makes beats as Various Asses) is a facilitator in a youth music program and mother to a six-year-old daughter.

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At the end of the astonishingly difficult year that was 2020, Dunn braced herself for her bandmates to throw in the towel: “to come to me and be like, ‘Y’know what? I’m fucking broke, I can’t delegate any more of my time to being in a band just for the love of it’”. But when the members of MOD CON all reaffirmed their commitment to the band, Dunn was ecstatic. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” she gushes. “I’m like, ‘Fucking hell, we’re still here!’ It’s just a real testament of our friendship, and our belief in what we’re doing.”

That belief and bond is what grounds the band, who were friends for years before they all played together in Palm Springs, and then MOD CON. On the hotly anticipated follow-up to their 2017 debut, ‘Modern Convenience’, the trio deliver acerbic musings on the grinding malaise of, well, the modern condition. ‘Mouth Of Stone’ is a poignant calling out of politicians and armchair “experts” swearing they know what’s best for the masses, while ‘Learner In An Alpha’ is an astringent rumination on the pitfalls of capitalism and what’s currently being done – or rather, isn’t – to battle climate change.

MOD CON’s metaphors are sharp and witty, but not difficult nuts to crack. Opening track ‘Ammo’ uses guns and bombs to make a point about the weaponisation of political poles (that is, the left and right “wings”), but the song’s also about the literal stockpiling of ammunition that otherwise “liberal” countries have ready at the hip for when World War III breaks out.

Then there’s ‘X-Ray’, wherein Dunn muses on how “secrets that we hold, that they wanna know, are written in code under your clothes”, and asks, “is a mystery worth more than money, and economy a fantasy?” It’s another double-pronged attack from MOD CON: The song is both about government surveillance and the increasingly unnerving accuracy of digital algorithms, but also intimate relationships and the unstable power dynamics that can exist within them. “It’s kind of hilarious that someone could think they can get a grip on who you are and project that back to you,” Dunn says.

“In times like this, if you’re not talking about what’s true to you, or what’s going on with you, then what are you doing?”

When asked about the tag “political band”, Dunn is pensive. Though she’s ultimately fine with fans labelling them as such, she’s reluctant to dub MOD CON a political band herself, as “any category can be reductive”. And instead of leaning on the label ‘left-wing’, Dunn would prefer to specifically outline the group’s stances against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. “It’s more important what you actually do and how you act on your beliefs,” she says, “rather than what you identify as on social media.”

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Dunn continues: “I don’t know if we’re just a political band. I’m aware of the multitude of ideas being rammed down people’s throats right now, and I think artistic expression has a role to play [in] asking questions, exploring nuance, emotions, motivations, perspectives – all that swimming beneath labels.”

And music can be a powerful catalyst for spurring real-life change, Dunn acknowledges. “I can only speak from my personal experience,” she says, “but I can totally vouch for a time when listening to a song changed my day, and therein changed my life.” In addition to Radio Birdman and Dead Moon – who she’d listen to on drives as an angst-ridden teen – Dunn cites Melbourne’s community radio scene as a significant influence, as it introduced her to everything from Trinidadian calypso artist Mighty Sparrow to UK thrash-metallers DeathWish.

“Listening to other voices and entertaining other perspectives is key to change,” she adds. Nina Simone’s 1971 live album ‘Black Gold’, for example, helped open Dunn’s eyes to the visceral pain and anguish that Black Americans felt in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination. She also highlights (defunct) Melbourne emo band Two Steps On The Water, whose frontwoman, June Jones, offered Dunn a new perspective on the idea of nostalgia – that for many trans people, such is a foreign concept; why would someone long for a time when their mere existence would incite rage?

MOD CON see no point in dancing around what they think is right and true, which explains why ‘Modern Condition’ is so steadfast and upfront in its own point of view – though Dunn doesn’t believe in being dogmatic.

“I don’t know whether music should be about telling people to believe X, Y, Z – what’s right, or whatever – but entertaining questions and bringing to the foreground issues that you believe are important, I think that is 100 per cent important. I guess in times like this, if you’re not talking about what’s true to you, or what’s going on with you, then what are you doing? It’s a rare and strange time that we’re living in, and music has such an important role to play in that.”

Although she stresses that anything could change in a heartbeat – as the past two years have made crystal clear – Dunn says MOD CON do have a blueprint for where they’d like to head next. A third album is already in the works, and with the group “fully committed to each other”, “the trajectory is just onwards”. For now, though, their ambitions are rather simple: get ‘Modern Condition’ “out into the cosmos”, then “chuck it on the road and play to as many people as [they] possibly can”.

MOD CON’s ‘Modern Condition’ is out October 22 via Poison City Records

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