Labels We Love: Modular
- Words: Andrew Parks
This Years Model
As the music industry scrambles for a magic bullet, Modular Recordings keeps doing what it's done for the past decade: taking risks, one release at a time.
Don't fall asleep the first day after touching down, because you won't wake up. Not anytime soon, at least. That's the first thing you need to know about surviving the transatlantic flight from New York City to Sydney, a trek so tiresome it leaves iron-willed passengers incapacitated, and the rest of us begging for bottom-shelf Shiraz. Me? I slept through half of the 15-hour leg from LAX to SYD, only to realize I’d lost an entire day by the time Heath Mawson—one of Modular Recordings' main multi-taskers—arrived at the airport to pick me up.
Dazed and confused in his car, I ask Mawson how he’s doing. “I’m alright—how are you?” he asks with a smile. There’s a hint of anxiety in his eyes, though, likely stemming from the looming launch of 2008's roaming Nevereverland festival. Headlined by Daft Punk the previous year, this one's a celebration of the label's 10th birthday, featuring most of Modular’s roster and such close friends as The Whitest Boy Alive and Hercules & Love Affair.
I’m here to witness the Sydney stop and get a sense of how an indie imprint with tenuous major-label ties became the “American Apparel of Australia,” a record company with its collective feet firmly planted in fashion, touring, marketing, and consulting.
But first, a brief nap at a Holiday Inn, situated between million-dollar homes, a hostel-heavy backpacker area, and the red-light district. Such questionable lodging seems appropriate given the fine cultural line Modular walks between being a curator of what’s cool and being a multi-million-dollar company with offices in New York, London, and Sydney—a line I’ll explore later tonight when Modular’s owner, and one of Australian music’s love-or-hate icons, derails my deep sleep with dinner plans.
YOUNG & RESTLESS
When I finally arrive at a restaurant known for fresh-off-the-boat seafood, I’m welcomed by what looks like a middle-aged music fan, clad in relaxed clothing and exuding carefree surfer-dude vibes. Give the guy a quick glance and you’d never know he's a music-industry vet who first pissed off concert promoters 17 years ago by scoring a coveted Nirvana booking just weeks after Nevermind conquered the charts.
At the time, Steve Pavlovic, the lord of Modular Recordings’ cross-continental empire, was in his mid-20s and managing Golden Sounds, a booking agency that specialized in rising alt-rock stars like My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, and Beck. "Pav," as many call him, controlled every aspect of his tours, too, from marketing to managing a band’s entire trip. And since he was much younger than many of his competitors, word quickly spread about his ability to oversee a sold-out show one night and bring a band to a koala-dotted beach the next.
“One time, we were sitting by the fire with Fugazi and these big fucking kangaroos appeared,” Pavlovic later tells me in a follow-up interview. “We gave them some food, and when that ran out, one of them kicked [guitarist/vocalist] Guy [Picciotto] in the back. He freaked out and ran, while the rest of us cowered by the beach.”
Thanks to two decades in the business, Pavlovic could tell stories like this for days. (If you ever meet him, ask about the time Kurt Cobain switched the “Do Not Disturb” sign on his hotel suite to “Please Burn Down My Room.” Or the night around $12,000 was stolen from Mudhoney's motel room. Or…) And since he’s eminently likable, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy the anecdotes without saying a word.
Nonetheless, Pavlovic’s work ethic—a tireless balancing act between success and credibility—has made him a marked man back home. That's because many Australians believe in “tall poppy syndrome,” the idea that anyone audacious enough to rise above the rest ought to be cut back down to size. Which is ridiculous, really; although he appears confident and relaxed at all times, Pavlovic’s career has had its fair share of peaks and valleys.
The first dip was during the final stage of Golden Sounds, when Pavlovic tried to outdo the Big Day Out, a festival he helped launch in 1992 with Australia’s other major concert promoter, Ken West. To put the pair's tumultuous, tide-changing relationship into perspective, Craig Mathieson devoted much of his 2002 book, The Sell-In, to it. In one passage, he writes, "The dynamic between Ken West and Steve Pavlovic was fraught, to say the least. They swung between friendship hinged on mentorship to jealously and annoyance. By 1995, Pavlovic had become the indie entrepreneur with his touring company... but it was the biggest venture he was involved in, the Big Day Out, that was upsetting him."
West eventually prevailed in the festival wars, as Pavlovic's Summersault venture faded after two summers (1995-1996) and Golden Sounds faced a "voluntary administration" ruling. Pavlovic describes this process as "an outside party taking over your business and going over all the accounts, assets, and creditors to find out the best solution for everyone involved."
In Pav's case, the conclusion was clear: He was done with concert promotion and already onto the next phase of his career—Modular Recordings.
PAV-ING THE WAY
"All these people are pushing the panic button, especially in America, and we're actually excited about the future," says Pavlovic, when I ask him what sets Modular apart from major labels. "A&R people are afraid to sign a band because if it doesn’t work, they get fired. Of course, not signing a band could result in someone else becoming successful. Basically, everyone’s scared to do it and scared not to do it. Decisions are driven by money, not creativity, which is just retarded."
While Pavlovic has a point—that the only way to survive this sinking ship is to take risks—Modular's big-budget approach has resulted in some rough patches along the way, most notably in 2006 and 2007. As reported by Melbourne's Herald Sun in a widely circulated story last year, the label lost $5.9 million by the tail end of 2007. Pavlovic is vague when asked what caused such drastic losses despite the impressive starting-gate sales of Klaxons and Wolfmother. (The latter's self-titled debut has gone five times platinum back home.)
One detail is disclosed, however: the Sun's writer, Ben Butler, is apparently Modular's mortal enemy. This may sound like a persecution complex, but ask any Australian or the internet—it's true. The guy hates Pav—has for years.
"He was in some shitty band that sent me a demo 10 years ago," explains Pavlovic. "Then he became a writer. I remember when The Avalanches came out and he wrote something like, 'Look at these fucking fools! Who do they think they are, The Beastie Boys?" [laughs].
Pavlovic's muted response is to be expected. After all, Modular responded to Butler's claims with a fake newspaper called The New York Thymes. Dated two weeks after the Sun 'exposé' and plastered across the front page of Modular's website, its lead story declared "Modular Records Lose Gazillions!" and stated ever-so-satirically that "despite having two Australian #1 albums this year, it seems Modular boss Stephen Pavlovic's penchant for 18-foot skiffs, Cuban cigars, and 18-carat gold cock rings has finally sunk the company."
"We thought that writing a press release would get an 'Oh, sure' sort of response," says Pavlovic. "So instead we took the piss out of the situation, as if it were as absurd as a spaceship landing on a duck's head."
NEW AREA CODES
“Pav has probably got the best set of ears of anyone in the Australian music industry,” longtime promoter Michael Coppel told The Australian in 2008. “In terms of the acts he’s signed and broken, his track record is pretty much unparalleled.” Said track record started in 1990 with Golden Sounds and Mudhoney, right before grunge defiled runways and the cover of Time. As the band's frontman, Mark Arm, tells me from his post in Sub Pop's mail room, “People weren't booking us to make money back then. They booked us because they were passionate about the music.”
As a former employee of SST, Astralwerks, and several major labels, Brian Long knows just how important passion is to the longevity of record labels—that you can't just throw money at music and hope for the best. “Pav is a very visionary person,” says Long, who helped plan Modular's New York office in 2003 and stuck around through 2006. “For instance, the whole tight fluorescent shirt, pants, and sneakers look that we take for granted now started in Australia first—around 2004—so Pav wanted to help bring it over here.”
Speaking of obvious Australian exports, Modular's biggest North American breakthrough happened in 2006, via the ravenous riffs of Wolfmother. The way Pavlovic sees it, "even a monkey could have sold Wolfmother." He's probably right—Andrew Stockdale's arena-sized anthems are like pirate broadcasts from classic rock stations, a fitting left turn for a label otherwise known for DayGlo-doused dance-rock. In other words, Wolfmother made Modular 'safe' for major labels who didn't see dollar signs in Cut Copy or The Presets... yet.
“Pav parlayed the interest in Wolfmother into the idea of Modular as a brand,” explains Long, who now manages The Juan MacLean and José González. “People wanted Wolfmother and Pav’s A&R ears.”
What a weird pair of ears to toss major-label money at, though. While Modular's first round of releases were vanilla rock tunes from the likes of The Living End, it only took a year for The Avalanches to blow up Pav's spot with their sample-happy buffoonery—Paul's Boutique-caliber blends of Blowfly, The Osmonds, Madonna, Sergio Mendez, and a million others. In the nearly nine years since the group's brilliant barely legal debut, Since I Left You, Modular has released the following: heady hip-hop (Bumblebeez), innocuous indie rock (Ben Lee), beach-bum balladry (Jack Johnson), playful Swedish pop (The Tough Alliance), and the Australian pressings of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Chromeo, MSTRKRFT, and more. Not to mention such roster-defining dance-rock acts as The Presets and Cut Copy, who first appeared on Modular in 2003 and 2001—much earlier than most people realize.
"If Pav likes something, he'll champion it no matter what other people tell him," adds Axel Moline, who worked in Modular's Sydney office for nearly two years before relocating to New York in 2008. "He also has a borderline maniacal attention to detail. For example, when we started making our own shirts, he must have reviewed the sleeve length about 50 times."
To give you another idea of how Pavlovic’s mind operates, he asked Klaxons if they’d join him on a trip to Croatia mere minutes after meeting them at an April 2006 gig in Liverpool. Sheer madness ensued over several days of “eating squid testicles, drinking moonshine, and heaving cars into the Adriatic,” as detailed in “Dirty Weekend,” a feature in the first—and at this point, only—issue of M is for Modular (available at modularpeople.com/magazine). Six months later, Pavlovic released the first widespread Klaxons record, the hotly tipped Xan Valleys EP.
COMING TO AMERICA
As we sit down for an early morning chat in Modular's main conference room, Kim Moyes and Julian Hamilton of The Presets honestly can't remember the last time they were here. They don't recognize most of the staff, either, although that doesn't keep Moyes from telling anyone within earshot that originality is overrated.
If The Presets seem a tad out of touch, it's because they spent most of 2008 touring in support of Apocalypso, a surprise crossover smash that generated three hit singles ("This Boy's in Love," "Talk Like That," "My People") and went triple platinum (more than 210,000 copies sold). In Australian terms, this means Apocalypso has pulled in more listeners than the following LPs: Beyoncé's I Am... Sasha Fierce, Eminem's Relapse, Metallica's Death Magnetic, and Britney Spears' last two comeback records.
Aside from generating staggering sales numbers, the duo took home six trophies at the ARIA Awards (Australia's Grammys) last October, including Best Group, Best Dance Release, and Album of the Year. "It felt as if we were suddenly welcomed into this club—the bullshit showbiz side of the industry," recalls Hamilton.
Listen closely to The Presets' two LPs—especially their last one—and it's easy to see why their widescreen synth-pop would appeal to fans of major acts like Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. Yet no one predicted The Presets’ Top 40 turn. Maybe that's because it came nearly five years after their Modular debut, 2003’s Blow Up EP.
“Of all the things we’ve signed," admits Pavlovic, "I would have thought something like the Van She would have done that well."
But they haven’t. In fact, Van She’s LP debut, V, never had an official release in America despite peaking at No. 10 in Australia. That'll change soon, when Modular releases a double-disc reissue featuring a completely remixed "Van She Tech" version of the band's new-wave nods, but will people—or the group itself, which is already busy with its second album—still care a year later?
As I run into him backstage at Nevereverland, Van She frontman Nicholas Routledge appears happy overall, but ambivalent about the whole Aussie-invasion thing. This despite the group's successful remixes for Klaxons, Feist, and The Presets. “It’s weird being big here," he says, "and then playing to 200 people in the U.S."
“I like America—it’s fun and everything,” adds Gus Da Hoodrat of Modular’s Bang Gang DJs crew, when I meet him at the office/studio of Bang Gang's own 12-inch imprint. “But we don’t feel the need to break the market there. Why should we try and compete when we have such a good audience in Japan and Asia?”
Hell, not even The Presets seem dead-set on breaching our shores. “The shows keep getting bigger in the U.S., but more people need to take notice of us,” says Hamilton. Moyes continues: “Yeah, people aren’t buying our CD at Walmart or anything."
IT'S THEIR PARTY
Last year's four-city, 10th-anniversary Nevereverland fest was a little misleading; the company didn’t really establish its stranglehold on taste-making teens and cooler-than-thou 20-somethings until Wolfmother's arrival in 2004. Around the same time, Modular began holding can't-miss parties like Christmas gatherings with Ksubi, an Australian fashion label co-founded by Bang Gang DJ “Dangerous Dan” Single.
"They attracted the Vice-kinda crowd, where the chicks take their bikinis off and there’s a photographer taking snaps of everyone,” says Kris Moyes, brother of Kim and the director of many striking Modular videos (Cut Copy’s “Going Nowhere,” The Presets' “Are You the One?”).
“It’s more than that though, isn’t it?” I ask.
“Yeah, Pav’s building an empire, an entity,” says Moyes. “That’s really fascinating to watch. There’s a point where it becomes one big machine, though.”
Maybe, but Modular’s far too understaffed to be considered a mind-crushing corporate entity. Try the other recurring word that’s crucial to Modular’s ongoing success: their brand, as epitomized in the gleaming disco ball logo created by Cut Copy founder Dan Whitford. (He’s the co-owner of a graphic-design company called Alter, and threw the Modular logo together for an ill-fated tour with Bumblebeez and The Avalanches.)
“I was always a designer, not a musician,” admits Whitford, speaking outside Nevereverland. “The early-’90s sample-based stuff coming out of the U.K. is what really inspired me, because it seemed like something I could actually do. I fit into that tradition of electronic musicians that don’t necessarily have standard skills.”
Hercules & Love Affair producer Andy Butler, one of the only non-Modular acts at Nevereverland, immediately noticed the connection between the company and Australian kids. “It was wonderful to see massive crowds of young people so enthusiastic and enamored with Modular while we where traveling there," he says. "It makes sense to me, as they have a tight-knit group of artists that have a real knack for writing hooks and being highly stylized in a good way.”
I ask him if there are any links between Hercules’ label, DFA, and Modular, since LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture were two reference points that Pavlovic shared with The Presets way back in 2003, saying, “There’s some cool shit going on around the world and I reckon you can be a part of it.” (Note: The Juan MacLean's 2009 album, The Future Will Come, was once in consideration as a DFA/Modular co-release. Internal politics between EMI and Universal likely killed it, though.)
“The most obvious similarity is the intentionally eclectic roster,” says Butler, “and seeking out artists that present a challenge to the average consumer. Those Modular guys are younger and cuter, though.”
Twenty-four-year-old Heath Mawson and 27-year-old Glen Goetze were barely out of high school when they got hired at Modular. Considering Pavlovic is 43, the age gap between Modular’s primary employees says a lot about why they understand young consumers. Especially Mawson, a former marketing employee at General Pants—the Australian equivalent of Urban Outfitters. As it turns out, the store still lets Modular curate its music every month, from emerging acts like Tame Impala (see sidebar) and Ladyhawke to outside artists such as Deerhunter and Gang Gang Dance. “It’s all about infiltrating the youth market,” explains Mawson, “And the different angles of getting the music out there.”
It’d be easy to pretend it’s 1991 and scream “sell out” when presented with such information, but the truth is Modular figured out how to weather the music industry’s End Days years ago, attacking non-traditional revenue streams, like clothing stores and various licensing deals. They’re finally getting recognized on a grander scale for it, too, with the Australian edition of GQ calling Pavlovic its Entrepreneur of the Year in 2008 and ’boards magazine featuring Modular as part of a recent cover story about music in advertising. The publication praised the company’s “Modular Ideas” branch for its brand-consultant work, especially a BMW commercial that featured an exclusive Lifelike remix of “Are You the One?”
“The ultimate goal is to walk the line,” says Goetze. “We’re a business and need to sell records to survive. At the same time, we’re trying to do so without putting out any shitty ones.”
“As much as major labels keep talking about 360 deals, one thing Pav learned from touring is that it’s not just about dollars and cents,” adds Mawson. “It’s about having a vision of how you’re going to have all these different hubs. We’re a brand with a good leader that knows where he wants to go. If the industry changes, we will change with it, but for now the good ship is sailing good.”
"We're back in business with the devil," says Steve Pavlovic, as I catch up with him six months after our original meeting. The "devil" is Universal Music Group's Australian branch. As of June, it's nabbed a 50-percent share in Modular for the next three years. The difference here being that Universal used to spread its stake over several different labels. Now the eventual fate of every Modular artist is simple: Universal has the option to release whatever they want, and if they pass, Pavlovic can go the DIY route he's excelled at all these years.
"They supply us with distribution and the capital that allows us to do [certain] things," explains Pavlovic, "Sometimes we absorb the [negative effects] of how they do business, but the bands we sign, the art, the videos—it begins and ends here."
The coming year is an important one for Modular, as they prep Wolfmother's second LP (more than 15 new songs were recorded in Los Angeles recently) and the first Avalanches full-length in almost a decade. "The architecture is complete," insists Pavlovic. "We just need the final details, like getting some artists to sing their parts rather than sampling them."
As for whether Modular will expand its stateside reach now that their New York office is back in full-swing (it was put on hold last year as the Universal deal was finalized), Pavlovic says his "expectations are high but realistic... I don't think we've ever been able to do everything we want there. Hopefully that'll change."
One of the U.S. initiatives that didn't work out for Modular was the L.A. office that lasted between 2006 and 2008. While some reports have alluded to disgruntled employees, one former west coast worker, Celeste Tabora, could be seen backstage at Cut Copy's co-headlining tour with The Presets, hanging up flyers as if nothing happened. Now that's devotion.
"The thing about Modular is it's authentic," says Bang Gang DJ Jamie Doom. "It's not some bullshit company Sony wanted to embed cool products in." "Not everyone loves Modular," adds Moline, "but that's fine. We aren't trying to create music for everyone. I'm not sure that this has changed much over the past five years, either. Not everyone loved The Avalanches, Wolfmother, Ladyhawke, or The Presets. Pav is the guy at the top, so some people love him and some want to take him down. It's just like Nicole Kidman and her frozen forehead—everyone has an opinion."
The Beautiful People
Pav's perspective on three of Modular's most promising 2009 acts.
"Some other local labels find what we do trendy, as if everything we do is a 'Modular thing' with a 'Modular sound,'" explains Modular head Steve Pavlovic. "There's actually a thread in the indie-rock community of people referring to our fans as polo-wearing 'bogans,' which is basically the same thing as a redneck."
Ouch. And you thought our message boards were nasty. The truth is, Modular isn't as dance-centric as its disco-ball logo suggests. Some evidence from over the years: various releases from Ben Lee, Jack Johnson, Bumblebeez, Robyn, and the label's first signing, The Living End. The way Pavlovic sees it, "When I started Modular, I wanted it to resemble Blue Note, SST, or Sub Pop—labels with a really strong identity. I have really eclectic tastes, however, so it's all about whatever I'm listening to at the time.”
Here are Pav's thoughts on three new members of the Modular family.
These guys are a three-piece—sometimes four—from Perth, where it's a five-hour flight to any other major city and isolated as hell, and the music they make kinda sounds like it. That, or a bunch of dudes sitting on a tin roof in their undies under the melting-hot Perth sun, smoking bongs, and just riffing whilst suffering from extreme heat stroke.
Canyons are originally from Perth, too, but they moved to the east coast about a year and a half ago so they would be closer to the best gay clubs in the country. They're really talented producers, making some timeless, mostly dance-y music. It's fun and swampy and creative and trippy as hell, which, for me, are all the best ingredients for getting down.
Bag Raiders have been kicking around for a couple of years now, releasing records through our dear friends Bang Gang 12 Inches and stepping aboard the wonky Modular ship to release their debut album. They're doing a crazy Russian ballet along the tightrope of brilliantly pretty, poppy dance music that works in a club, and you can sing in the shower. And we love it.
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