Veteran Mondo Cozmo Is the Rookie of the Year

Singer-songwriter Josh Ostrander is just happy to be here.

The artist now known as Mondo Cozmo has just finished an early afternoon set at Outside Lands’ Panhandle stage when we meet up. The fan reaction to the performance was impressive, especially given that his debut album, Plastic Soul, isn’t even a month old yet. Josh Ostrander — his given name — is hyped, riding the buzz of another successful set in a summer that has seen Mondo Cozmo play any stage on which the band is welcome.

“We don’t say no,” he says. “The band that I have now, we’ve been together since March. Our first show was last October, and next week will be our 100th show. We haven’t had a day off in a long time.”

Given the road he’s slogged along to become Mondo Cozmo, it’s not hard to see why he’s hesitant to pass up any opportunity. After nearly 20 years, Ostrander is finally able to revel in the exhaustion of success.

The Philadelphia singer-songwriter first hit the scene in 2000 with the alt-rock outfit Laguardia. After five years and a deal with Universal Records, Ostrander ended the project to front Eastern Conference Champions, an indie-rock ensemble that lasted for a decade and released three albums. But despite landing a song on the Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack, the band was unable to secure any lasting mainstream popularity.

Ostrander says that, by 2015, he knew the end was coming for Eastern Conference Champions.  

“It was very much time to leave, but it was like a relationship that you didn’t want to end because you loved it.

Of all people, it was Jack White who — indirectly — helped Ostrander change course.

“This whole Mondo thing started when I saw Jack White perform at Coachella a couple of years ago,” Ostrander says. “It was like a religious set, man. It was his last show. He was going away for a minute. I remember I was there with my girl, and she turned to me and said, ‘Do you think Jack White gives a fuck what his bass player thinks?’ ”

It’s a moment Ostrander has shared with press before, but one he truly believes marked the birth of Mondo Cozmo.

“I’d lost my way, and I just realized that I needed to do what I was fucking meant to do,” he says. “I remember during that show, Jack talked about how he used to mow lawns — and at that time, I was working two landscaping jobs. He was fucking talking to me, man.”

Ostrander’s revelation has now become Plastic Soul, an album that wears its influences on its sleeve, from Beck to Pearl Jam to U2. Preceded by the Billboard Adult Alternative chart-topping single “Shine,” the record is a joyfully bombastic ode to arena rock anthems and colorful pop ballads. The chorus of “Shine” — “Let ’em get high / Let ’em get stoned” — feels tailor-made for audience singalongs.

Ostrander is all in favor of fans joining in. Quite honestly, he’s simply thrilled that listeners are digging his record as much as he does.

“I love the record because it’s all over the place,” he says. “It pulls from a lot of different things. You’ll hear Primal Scream in one song and Radiohead in the next one. It’s all over the place, and I’m really proud of that. I had to be careful, because I could’ve easily written a whole rock album, but it probably wouldn’t have the heart that this record has.”

During Mondo Cozmo’s performance at Outside Lands, the crowd’s frenzy reached a fever pitch when Ostrander and the rest of the band launched into a highly polished cover of The Verve’s 1997 mega-hit, “Bittersweet Symphony.” Later, Ostrander tells me that he selected the song in part because he relates to The Verve’s legal woes over a Rolling Stones sample featured prominently in the track.

“I’ve had some sample issues, too,” he says. “Like with [title track] ‘Plastic Soul,’ I used an Erma Franklin sample — and I remember the nightmare of that, and how much it sucked.”

However, there is more at play than litigation solidarity when it comes to Ostrander’s feelings for the song.

“I think ‘Bittersweet’ is one of the best songs ever written,” he says. “The idea of it just really spoke to me. Then we played it, and it was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I feel like it’s our song now.”

Ostrander pauses and smiles, running a hand through his mohawk as he soaks in what he’s just said.

“I’ll probably get sued for saying that,” he says, “but it’s a powerful song, man. I’m happy to play it.”

Many artists talk about how excited they are to play a show, but in the afternoon fog of Golden Gate Park, as he straps on his guitar for the 99th time in 10 months, Ostrander is living his words.

Next week it will be a different festival in a different country. There will be a different set of fans chanting along to “Shine” and getting their first glimpse at an artist that, at long last, has finally found his people.

“I feel like all the work, all the years, all the thousands and thousands and thousands of hours that I put into this … To be here, right now, playing in front of a crowd, and to have my record come out — that’s the best shit in the world, man,” he says.

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