The doors that connect the Red Zone to the Annex venue were crowded by eager concertgoers as security guards signaled the doors are about to be opened. Fans chatted and laughed, wearing tie-dyed clothes and neon apparel.
Mod Sun — an acronym standing for “Movement on Dreams, Stand under None” and the stage name of Minnesota native Derek Smith — has accrued a loyal fan base with his free-spirited nature and “hippie-hop” music — a mixture of hip hop and psychedelic rap.
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His show at the Annex in Madison is one of the first stops on his “Your Favorite Movie Tour” running through spring and features support from Pablo Dylan (Bob Dylan’s grandson), Aye B, Jimmy Bennett, Winter Havens and LostInVegas.
Mod Sun’s career has spanned over a decade, though he is still waiting for his “breakout hit.” This past year, he announced his sobriety after years of addiction. He hopes that without the addiction holding him back, he can take his career to the next level.
In a small, red-walled room in The Annex, Mod Sun discussed his Midwest background, the roots of his career, and sobriety.
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The following interview has been edited for style and clarity.
AW: We are here with Mod Sun tonight at the Annex in Madison!
MOD: Yaaaaaay! We made it to Madison!
AW: I feel like I’m just going to be laughing this whole interview.
MOD: Good, that means I’m doing my job. I’m all of a sudden a huge comedy fan. I’m mad funny. I’m trying to show the world I’m funny. I think I’m gonna blow up on Tik Tok.
AW: So, you’re from Minnesota, are you excited to be back in the Midwest?
MOD: Very. I played in Lacrosse yesterday, and I’ve literally played in bands my whole life. I’ve been playing a lot of these venues since I was like 15. The Midwest is my biggest support, obviously. Most people wouldn’t want to go on tour in the winter, but I’m just like, I’m fucking sick of California, the weather is just beautiful. I don’t know if I’ve ever been to Madison. I’ve played in Milwaukee, that’s where the Rave is, and I’ve played Lacrosse. I don’t think I’ve ever played Madison. So hopefully, this is my new favorite place. Follow me on Tik Tok.
AW: What would you say your favorite part about the Midwest is?
MOD: I was touching on weather. I think that mother nature will teach you lessons that your real mom can’t. Part of the first building of my positive mindset was … I’ll never forget, standing at a bus stop and it was freezing cold, and my sister was at the bus stop with me. She was making fun of me because I was just like,“Florida. Standing on a beach. It’s super hot right now. I’m on an island.” And she’s like, “What are you doing? It’s fucking freezing!” I’m like, “Nothing can get to me. I’m hot right now. This is great.”
Right then, I kind of figured out — first off, it made her mad, so I was like, tight, I’m on to something — but also, I was like, oh, cool, I’m gonna learn how to enjoy everything. That’s the Midwest attitude — yo, you might not like doing this, but you’re doing it, so find a way to fucking enjoy it. You know, the winter’s gonna be there tomorrow, the snow is gonna be there tomorrow. And eventually, it won’t be there. And everything will be great. And then you’ll probably miss the snow. And so just enjoy it.
AW: I know there’s a lot of students at UW-Madison trying to be musicians and trying to come up from the Midwest. It’s pretty tough in general to get out of the Midwest. You’re kind of lucky your mom sent you away. It’s hard to get out of here. What kind of wisdom do you have when it comes to trying to make it in the music industry?
MOD: Have you seen the movie “Yes Man?” It’s this dude who agrees, or maybe he’s cursed, I don’t know, but he has to say yes to everything, right? That’s kind of what my mentality was at the beginning, like whether I was like in a position to do it or not, if someone was like, yo jump onto this or do this, do that, zero dollars don’t give a fuck — like this is for my career.
Every opportunity is valuable at the start. And leaving home is so important. Go play a show in another state. Don’t get on stage and be like, yo, I have no friends in this city. I’m trying to build this shit up. You have to remove the bone of embarrassment from your body to really make it, especially at the beginning. You gotta believe in yourself before anyone else. It’s a blessing when your friends don’t like your music. I could not get my friends to come to my shows, and I couldn’t pay them to come. And now they’re like, please get me on the guest list! It’s a blessing when people don’t believe in you, so use that.
And like I was saying, remove that embarrassment feeling. That’s what it is to be an entertainer, you got to be able to perform. On tour last night, there was probably like 200 kids there. Two nights before, Minnesota was like 1,000 people. I’m gonna perform the exact same way. There’s no difference from getting onstage in front of this many or that many, it’s like you got to understand how valuable each person is. Go and do the work. And the internet’s not going to do everything for you. It’s definitely changed, you could blow up on the fucking internet now. I couldn’t when I was a kid, like, MySpace had just started. I was on MP3.com, goddamnit. I was putting my music on Napster.
ND: You talked a bit about how Bob Dylan is one of your idols, and I believe you have a tattoo of him. What’s it like touring with his grandson [Pablo Dylan]?
MOD: I’m only interested in interesting people. Like, that’s the truth. I just remember a story about meeting him. He was at the studio in California. I didn’t live there yet. He was just like, yeah, pull up. Usually, when you go to the studio, you walk in the studio, you try to make some music. He met me outside and was like, let’s go on a walk and talk. And we just became such good friends. I was like, yo, we’re gonna tour someday together.
I just want the best for that kid, I think he’s gonna be one of the best out there. I’m gonna tell you the truth, having him on my tour, you should see me smiling when he’s playing. Because it makes me just feel like music is alive and in full wind again. He plays with a full band, there’s no tracks, like it’s made this an incredible experience, and it just makes me happy. My crowd loves him.
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ND: So I think it’d be a bit remiss if I wasn’t to congratulate you on your sobriety.
MOD: I love the use of “remiss,” vocabulary is important, kids. Thank you very much, 301 days today.
ND: Congratulations, that’s awesome. So how does it feel? Do you feel like it has had any impact on your music?
MOD: At first, I thought it was gonna be impacted harshly. I thought I wasn’t gonna be able to be as prolific. I thought I wasn’t gonna be as productive because I wasn’t on drugs, up for days, manic. Being manic is sometimes great.
Then after a while, I had eight new songs, and they were the best songs of my career. “I Kinda Like it Now” — that’s one of the better songs that I’ve released. I have this whole new album, essentially from that, but my album is gonna be a dichotomy. There’s some songs that I was making when I was totally fucked up that I made two years ago that are gonna make it, and then there are songs that I was making totally clear-headed, and you can hear it.
There’s a narrative to everything going on in my life right now, without even trying, and that’s why “Movie” is so important, because I feel like you’re gonna watch your own movie when you guys hear it. I continue to try to turn a caterpillar into a butterfly. My music is definitely insane, whether or not it’s because I’m not on drugs or drinking. I’m just so focused on going harder than ever. I have tons more free time. I’m not fucking out of it all the time. So I’m putting all that into really going to the next level.
ND: You talk about sobriety and clarity together. Do you think your process of actually sitting down and writing music has changed now that you are sober?
MOD: With my music, if I hear something or do something that just comes out of me, I try not to question it anymore. I think that second-guessing yourself is really close to the death of good art. Sometimes you think over a line and it becomes better, but killing the whole idea of it is so close to killing everything good about it. If it doesn’t just naturally happen for me, it’s usually not something I want to do. But being in the moment is a blessing for sure. I’m definitely able to analyze what works best for me now, instead of being so sporadic and changing up. Every time I dropped a song, it was like a different genre. I really want to create a sound for Mod Sun.
AW: What do you think that will be?
MOD: It’s very similar to the last song that I released called “I Kinda Like it Now” — just more dynamics, more variety. My music has been very based around positivity and major chords, so happy-sounding music, happy-sounding lyrics. That can only take you so far artistically, right? Now, I’m using a dichotomy, it’s like my favorite thing. I’m using music that doesn’t sound happy with happy lyrics or music that sounds happy without putting happy lyrics on it.
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ND: So you talk about that contrast of happy and sad playing in the same song at the same time. Do you think that reflects anything about your life, the idea of those two things happening at once and how that contrast is important?
MOD: Yeah, great question. I’ve gone through a lot of really tragic shit in my life, and a lot of people that listen to my music for happiness are sad. That’s why you need happiness, because you’re sad, and you gravitate to happiness. I was basically trying to eat everyone’s sadness, and only return happiness. Now that I’ve accepted a lot of the false things that I was doing were leading me to a road of death legitimately, it now plays a part in the balance. I’m just trying to be more vulnerable and honest as possible with my music. I thought I was gonna lose the support of people that listen to me by being honest, but it’s been the opposite.
ND: Do you think as you become more honest, your music has gotten better?
MOD: Yes. I think that we’re at a point now in history where we have so much music that the only stuff that lasts is stuff that’s honest. My music was very unrelatable because I was all positivity and happiness, but some people are like, no, not today. I’ve become more relatable by talking about real things.
AW: Do we have a release date for your album?
MOD: I want to release it right as summer kicks off, but we’ll see.
AW: After tonight’s show, what do you want everybody in the crowd to go home and remember about Mod Sun?
MOD: How versatile and how much of a showman I am. There’s moments of me singing, there’s moments where I’m playing drums and piano. I want to go to the next level, so I have to bring a next-level show. So my goal is to be the best artist that steps on this particular stage in Madison. I want to stand out.