Smile Politely

Friendship, family and community beats in the heart of Modern Drugs

The five members of Modern Drugs all dressed in black, standing close together against a sky blue background
Modern Drugs on Facebook

In the midst of a global pandemic, a group of friends from Champaign, Illinois, found an unexpected silver lining. They bonded over their love for music and formed the band Modern Drugs. I had a chance to sit down with the band members for a virtual chat and discover the origins of their band and their unique approach to creating music.

“August 2020, was a peculiar time for everyone, but especially for musicians,” said lead singer and guitarist Ryan Groff. “I had been playing music all the time with other people, mainly with my other band Elsinore since 2004, but then the pandemic happened, and I suddenly found myself not playing music. It was really getting to me.”

That’s when Groff decided to reach out to his musician friends, some of whom he had worked with before or knew through his social circles. “I felt like there was a band right in front of me, and I just thought I’ll ask them all to be a band. We could have a COVID pod, a friend group, and try to have a band. And thankfully everybody was not only into it, but we all gelled and figured it out, and just got the wheel spinning,” Groff shares.

When asked about the specific origin of the band’s name, the members were somewhat cryptic, preferring to maintain an air of mystery about the exact moment the moniker was chosen. However, drummer Jim Standerfer explained, “Modern Drugs can mean anything. Drugs are things that make us feel better, that make us healthy, that we get addicted to, that make us feel good, distract us from pain, and bring us pleasure. So it’s a little tiny poem about phones, the internet, actual drugs, caffeine, music, video games – anything that does those things.”

Their process of creating music is a very collaborative one. “I think we’re very equitable and democratic,” said bassist Alan Honeycutt. “We tend to come in with like a nugget, an idea for a song like a song seed, and we’ll present it to the band. We usually write the tune first, then during that process, we’ll hear arrangements and usually, we iteratively figure it out over a few different sessions.”

The five members of Modern Drugs playing on an outdoor stage as a part of Toast to Taylor Street in Downtown Champaign, IL.
Modern Drugs on Facebook

The collaboration doesn’t end there. “Cara [Maurizi] will just write all of your lyrics for you, but is also very gracious and lets us all come in and change her lyrics,” continues Honeycutt. “Jim [Standerfer] plays the role of our quality control. At the end of the day when you’ve got an idea, if Jim loves it, then you feel like you’ve really hit a home run!”

The band’s first-time recording artist, guitarist Mallory Simonds, describes her first experience as both terrifying and magical. Supported by a loving group of people who encouraged her to take her time and get into the zone, she was able to overcome her fears and contribute to the creation of their unique sound.

Modern Drugs is heavily influenced by synth-pop bands from the 80s, such as Depeche Mode and Erasure, however, it can be hard to pin down their sound as being influenced by any one genre or period of music. They often start with a central reference point from this era, aiming not to recreate or mimic it, but to create something brand new. “When we start shooting for something, we know we’re not gonna hit it. But when we land, it ends up being something brand new,” said Standerfer.

Five members of Modern Drugs in their recording studio, all smiling at the camera. In the background you can see a photo of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust hanging above the window to the control room
Modern Drugs on Facebook

Modern Drugs is deeply embedded in the Champaign-Urbana music scene, which has been making a strong comeback after a series of venue closures, even before the pandemic. Groff praises the community for their resilience, especially the team at the Rose Bowl Tavern, which he describes as the “beating heart of our music scene.”

They are also excited about the opening of a new venue, The Space, which, in addition to providing amazing food and good vibes, serves as an all-ages venue due to its kitchen. The band looks forward to performing there this Saturday, May 20th, and Groff expresses his admiration for Doug Hodge, the owner, whom he describes as the right kind of person to step up as a show promoter for a live music venue in downtown Champaign.

For better or worse, social media has become an integral part of promoting music and connecting with fans in today’s digital age. I asked the band about their views on social media and how they approach it.

Keyboardist Maurizi admits that it’s a love-hate relationship with social media. Despite acknowledging the negative aspects, she understands its importance in getting their music out there and promoting shows. The band all points out that Groff has taken on the role of managing their social media presence, although the entire band often collaborates to brainstorm ideas and create content for their online platforms.

As the conversation shifts to new music, the band is excited to announce their new single, “Headlights.” They describe it as a mountain of a rock song that has been their closer song for a while. Recorded at Earth Analog, Matt Talbott’s studio, they decided to film a live in-studio video to give fans an intimate, close-up experience of the song’s recording process.

Another significant collaborator to the band is James Treichler at Wave Upon Wave, the band’s go-to for mixing and mastering their songs. James also shot the video for their song and is currently a vital part of the Modern Drugs team. 

In line with the theme of a musical “family”, the band also mentioned the valuable contributions of Jim’s son Jonas, who has been heavily involved in their production and creative process. From co-writing and producing to engineering, and even partaking in the band’s earliest live shows, Jonas has played a significant role in the band’s journey, even as he moved to Chicago. 

The five members of Modern Drugs playing onstage at Rose Bowl Tavern in Urbana, IL.
Modern Drugs on Facebook

Modern Drugs’ commitment to their values was evident when they played a benefit for Urbana Champaign Reproductive Justice at Rose Bowl Tavern last month. “Carrie from Rose Bowl came to us and said ‘There’s so much going on right now around reproductive rights. And I know that you guys are politically and morally minded as musicians, so we figured you would want to play”, Groff explained, recounting how they were invited. The night was a huge success, raising significant money for the cause.

As our conversation drew to a close, it became clear that the band’s journey was not just about music but also about community, collaboration, and standing up for the causes they believed in. Their deep connections, not just within the band but also with their local community, are integral to their narrative, making them not just a band, but a part of the vibrant fabric that makes up the Champaign-Urbana, and the music scene therein.

Modern Drugs with Squirrel Movement
The Space
1 E Main St, Suite 107
Sa May 20th, 8 p.m.
Tickets $10

Music Editor

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