With the music scene in Austin growing exponentially, there is a new band rising to the top almost every month. To make a mark in the overflow of talent, a group has to be capable of bringing a new dynamic to the table. Combining the smooth sound of jazz with the head-nodding rhythms of hip-hop, MODAL is a potential poster-child for innovative music in the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
Story Adam Hamze
Photos by Joshua Guerra
Since the band’s inception in 2013, MODAL has been exploring the realm of musical fusion, and expanding the reach of their style. Rather than being a cut-and-dry mix of two genres, pianist Jack Van Norman says they aim to transcend the boundaries of any style that can be named. “We kind of started off thinking of it as a straight fusion — us playing jazz and Pojo rapping on top of it,” Van Norman says. “We’ve evolved into something bigger than either of those genres, an energetic live band experience.”
Incorporating piano, trumpet, drums, bass and vocals into their music, members of MODAL say they avoid being boxed in by labels or categories. “Jazz hip-hop was the seed, and it’s grown into MODAL, which is its own thing that’s breaking out of the confines,” vocalist Pojo Nick Menchaca says.
Complementing the smooth jazz sound, the band’s lyrics cover topics ranging from self-love, to social justice, to exploring the oft-unasked questions of daily life. While all of the band members take part in writing the music, Menchaca exclusively writes the lyrics.
Menchaca says the world is filled with unnecessary chaos, and producing positivity through artistic outlets is one way to combat the pain. “While being aware of all the challenges and the genocide and the prejudice and the class warfare, I try to also focus on the positive solutions,” he says. “I used to write a lot of music that only reflected on all the terrible things… Now I’m interested in the solution, and focusing on building a greater world that will transcend these problems and grow beyond these issues.”
Even before releasing their first album in January 2014, the band had no problem booking shows in the city. Unlike many other local groups, MODAL says they experienced almost no frustration with the saturation of the music industry in Austin. On the contrary, they welcomed the size of the scene and took it as an opportunity to learn from their peers, an act Van Norman refers to as “cross-inspiration.” “Where is better to play great music than a town full of musicians?” trumpeter Sam Howden says. “It doesn’t worry me to slip through the cracks, because we’re around the people who appreciate it the most. We want to be surrounded by people with similar goals, and that’s exactly where we’re at.”
Over the years, MODAL has made their mark a plethora of venues, including the Parish, Spiderhouse Ballroom and several cooperative housings in UT’s West Campus. Eva Mueller, the talent buyer for Spiderhouse Ballroom, has nothing but praise for the group. “Listening to them is like putting on an old record from 40 years ago,” she says. “The eloquent flow of the lyrics moves so well with the band, and you don’t ever get the sense that either is stepping on toes. They move so perfectly together.”
In addition to their unique musical style, MODAL prides themselves on having a one-of-a-kind stage presence that engages the entire audience. Mueller says they attempt to create a strong bond between themselves and the crowd, citing occasions where people would come inside from Spiderhouse’s patio to crowd as close to the band as possible — something Mueller says doesn’t happen often. “It’s like you throw a ping pong ball in a small room, but then that ping pong ball doubles every time it hits a wall,” drummer Alex Ogle says. “The ideas are just created, flowed, bounced off [the audience] and bounced back, and the end product is something truly amazing.”
MODAL will be dropping their next album, “MODAL 2: Unfolding,” around February of 2015. The band is putting in extensive hours in the studio to finish recording the project, but many of the members expressed their desire to dedicate more of their lives to music. Although they say they are incredibly grateful for their current position, dreams of selling out stadiums thrive in the back of their minds.
Regardless of whatever monetary success lies in the future, MODAL’s greatest desire is to explore their art and share it with anyone willing to listen. “We want to bring something very beautiful and valuable to our community,” Menchaca says. “Hopefully one day our community will be the world.”