Miracles of Modern Science Made of Spacesuits and Strings
Once upon a time, a cowboy named John walked into a saloon in the Old West. Having just arrived to the town, he was unaware that occupying the bar was a group of bandits who had been terrorizing the townspeople. John was not a fighter, but he had on him a deadly weapon: his lips. John’s whistling could in fact kill a man, and as soon as he pushed air through his “puckered kissers,” a sweet melody lulled the bandits to death. The people rejoiced, and the mayor insisted that John marry his daughter. But at their wedding, when a gust of wind brushed his mouth, disaster followed. John soon found himself amidst the lifeless bodies of a whistle-torn ghost town, and rode on sadly into the sunset.
This hilariously heartbreaking tale, from the song “524,” is but one delightful concoction of Miracles of Modern Science, a string-based band boasting expertly crafted, inordinately dynamic pop rock creations. Their lyrics contain unique collages of chemiluminescent substances, human organs, sheep-eating robots, and whistle-wielding cowboys. But words here are simply treated as adornment – it is a focus on composition and instrumentation that truly sets MOMS apart. At the heart of Miracles of Modern Science is a passionate musical appreciation that results in some of the most creative, catchy, and purely fun music in New York City.
While the instrumentation of many bands is dependent on the core ideas of a principal songwriter, MOMS operates from the ground up, fleshing simple song skeletons with the collaborative input of a mandolinist/vocalist, upright bassist/vocalist, cellist, violinist, and drummer. In pop settings, classical instruments are rarely used to their fullest potential, but MOMS views their respective strings outside of these confines, constantly challenging traditional formats and exploring new sounds. Thanks to MOMS, we now know how a mandolin sounds through a digital delay pedal and an overdrive tube amp, we’ve experienced the sizzling of a distorted cello, and we’ve learned how extended techniques – plucking strings (“pizzicato”), slapping necks, etc. – can be employed to achieve a range of dynamics unparalleled by electric instruments.
Although their songs are typically over five minutes long and do not adhere to standard structure, MOMS consistently delivers danceable rhythms and spirited melodies, integrating the intensity of post-rock bands with more light-hearted pop to create a sound that is elaborate and cinematic, but also immediately appealing. Over an impenetrable backbone of stomping beats and pulsing upright bass, soft rivers of cello and violin flow beneath shimmering mandolin notes. Layered vocals and teams of strings create enchanting melodies. The songs break down into exotic movements of classical-inspired strings breathing rich, earthy harmonies, before bursting into captivating choruses, crashing cymbals, and choirs of resonating voices.
When MOMS performs live, their energy is multiplied. Although each of its members is a highly proficient, trained musician, the group is far more interested in bringing their craft to the stage with passion and excitement than displaying technical ability. “A big part of what we do is connect with the audience,” says mandolinist, vocalist, and songwriter Josh Hirshfeld. “We’re not in a music theory ivory tower. We wear space suits, we have a good time and the audience has a good time. We usually end with yelling, ‘get up and dance!’” To close their shows, MOMS is known to do a chanting, waltz version on “Shout” by Tears for Fears, each time telling a different story about pirates. When fans remark, “I really like you guys because you’re good at what you do but you don’t take yourselves too seriously,” cellist Geoff McDonald considers it a show well done.
At a MOMS show, unless the crowd is blocking your view, the first thing you’ll notice is matching silver spacesuits. The band first wore these one-piece suits at an early performance, with no intention of the outfit being a permanent look. But when they returned to the stage without the suits, the disappointment of their fans overruled. “Over the years, the suits have lost their silver luster, sweating it out through washing,” notes Evan Younger, bassist, vocalist, and songwriter. (They’ve been washed four times in four years.) Only drummer Tyler Pines’s outfit is different, and the reasons have nothing to do with allowing the drummer a more aerodynamic, formfitting outfit. “Tyler lost his suit at the first gig. It disappeared, or he didn’t put it back in the bag,” recalls Josh. Tyler now wears a silver unitard, hued slightly different than the cloth of his bandmates. “It’s not logistically possible to always wear the suits. If we ever went on tour they would get destroyed,” Evan points out. “They don’t sell the same ones online, so we’d all have to wear unitards.”
Offstage, Miracles of Modern Science possesses an immediately apparent intelligence, eclecticism, and sense of humor – and between all of its members, an almost palpable sense of kinship. MOMS was formed in 2005, while its members were undergraduates at Princeton University. Evan and Josh started playing together in 2004, as a duo, and a year later, cellist Geoff, drummer Tyler and violinist Kieran Ledwidge completed the five-piece group. Josh concocted the name Miracles of Modern Science in the early stages of the band’s life. He doesn’t recall how or from where it came precisely, but the name and abbreviation, MOMS, was simultaneous. “There’s sort of an ‘ironic’ element to it since we’re playing much older instruments that aren’t very modern,” says Josh. Considering the band’s “pulpy, B rate kind of kitsch factor,” Geoff adds, the name works well.
Though the band’s first official show was at Café Vivian, an on-campus café at Princeton, MOMS gained much of their experience playing shows at the Terrace F. Club, one of the university’s twelve “eating clubs.” Many notable bands have taken the stage at Terrace, including The Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, Vampire Weekend, and Girl Talk. Despite their current geographic separation (Tyler, still completing his undergraduate degree, and Evan both live in Princeton, while the rest of the band resides in New York), MOMS plays together about once every two weeks, and has performed at such notable venues as Mercury Lounge, Pianos, Cake Shop, Death by Audio, NYU, and Rooftop Films. Earlier this year, they were sought out by theater arts collective, Ars Nova, insistent that they could put on the band’s “ideal” show. MOMS has now begun to offer headbands as merchandise at performances. “They’re catchy for the eyes, they make you curious,” Josh says of the MOMS-branded apparel. “‘What does that mean? Why are you wearing a sweatband that says MOMS?’” “We wanted to have the whole band name wrapped around, but they told us it couldn’t be done,” adds Kieran. “It’s beyond what technology can do at this time. Maybe we’ll make a MOMS belt.”
MOMS has only one proper recording, a four song self-titled EP (available for free download on the band’s website), and is actively producing a new collection of songs. The existing EP was recorded partly at Terrace, and then in Josh’s dorm room over the course of many months, where additional instrumentation was added. “Josh and I used to send ideas back and forth or between dorm rooms, really simple scratches on GarageBand,” recalls Evan, “but lately it’s been more of a band-collaborative process. In our first recordings, we would layer a lot of string tracks and make it sound like a mini orchestra. In our newer stuff we’re running the strings through amps. Our sound has progressed from ‘rock band with strings’ to ‘string based rock band.’”
When the timing is right, MOMS will take things to the next level by performing beyond NYC. For now, with one member still in school, and without transportation of their own, taking their theatrical craft to the road isn’t an entirely realistic option. “With the economic situation, it’s harder for people our age to take a huge risk and just go try and make it as a rock band,” Evan comments. Testing the waters of the changing industry, MOMS experimented with releasing their first EP online for free, and not pressing any hard copies. “We’ve found that at shows people are always coming up to us and asking if there’s a CD they can buy,” says Evan. “So we started making CD-R’s and handing them out, something tangible to take home.”
For Miracles of Modern Science, the future is wide open, ripe with possibility. Three and a half minute pop singles will always have an audience, but many of the bands that popularize them will quickly become as useless as an empty soda can. For those who prefer a more enduring satisfaction, somewhere between chamber folk and post-rock, there exists a string-based band that puts a mandolin through a tube amp, dresses in uniform silver jumpsuits, demands dancing of its audience, and populates its following each time it performs.
“We’re just very excited right now,” Josh says. “We feel like we’re very close to having something happen. We’re getting better and hopefully getting more fans at every show.”
by Dan D’Ippolito