Mondo Cozmo: An overnight sensation … after 15 years

Mondo Cozmo (Photo by Jessica Hanley)
Mondo Cozmo (Photo by Jessica Hanley)

Less than two years ago, Josh Ostrander routinely woke up before the crack of dawn to work two landscaping jobs. Three weeks ago, Ostrander, aka Mondo Cozmo, performed the set just prior to Muse in front of 90,000 people in Quebec.

The story of Mondo Cozmo — the name came from Ostrander’s dog, Cozmo — is one of perseverance and moxie, but also of sadness and regret. The buoyant rockers on Mondo Cozmo’s debut album, “Plastic Soul” (out Friday), were started in a makeshift home studio in the East L.A. neighborhood of El Sereno. They enter the world almost exactly two years after Ostrander announced the breakup of his former band, Eastern Conference Champions.

The chances of Ostrander ever becoming a player in music seemed slim in the days of tending greenery and sprinkler systems. “I’d been signed to two record deals and here I am on the wrong side of 30,” he thought, wondering at times whether his future might be in songwriting for hire (he’d had some success at that; an ECC song appeared on one of the “Twilight” soundtracks). But he had one song he thought was special, “Shine.” He had some connections he’d made since he moved to L.A. in the mid-Aughts after the demise of his first band, Laguardia. He had a supportive wife, Aria Pullman. Not to mention Cozmo, who ended up making an appearance on the album.

“Here I am on the wrong side of 30.”

The speed at which Mondo Cozmo went from funny band name to a rock band playing festivals (they’re at Lollapalooza this weekend) is mind-boggling. It was only April 2016 when Mondo Cozmo crept into the public eye with the touching video (featuring Anna Faris) for “Hold On to Me.”

A key player in the band’s ascent has been Steven Melrose — “Mels” or “my manager,” Ostrander says in his Philadelphia accent — a veteran music executive and manager who’s worked for major labels and with artists such as Sam Sparro, Hockey, Sky Ferreira, Katy Perry and Crystal Method. The Scotsman managed ECC back in the day. He’s quite a character.

On a recent afternoon between Mondo Cozmo tour dates, Ostrander and Buzz Bands LA picked up an old conversation:

Buzz Bands LA: I remember once we were talking about horrible day jobs, and you told me something from your boyhood in Bucks County (Pa.). Something like, “Pops always told me, ‘You gotta work.’”

Mondo Cozmo: That’s the truth. That’s how I was brought up. I played in Philly in January and I saw my buddy Paul who was in a band called The Cobbs. They never broke through, but they had success going out with Black Rebel, and NME loved them for a minute. It was a sold-out show in Philly, it was a good night, and he came up to me, and said “I’m so proud of you …” He and (ECC drummer Greg Lyons) were in a band, and he kinda taught me how to write songs. I told him, “You know, this is all because of you.” I thought he was gonna start crying, and he said, “What you have is the drive.” That’s true.

I wouldn’t stop, even when I was working the two jobs. Landscaping … I’d have to buy plants, I’d have to spend all my money. And then I’d have to wait two weeks to get paid. I was a terrible manager. And I always felt bad about asking for money up front.

You mean you even needed a manager when you were a landscaper? (Laughing) I don’t know any manager who would take on a landscaper …

I don’t know anybody who would take on an artist who was working two landscaping jobs.

Then there was the time you were on a crew working on the USC campus …

I was working at USC, and one of my co-workers Edwin who always wanted me to keep doing music stuff spotted a kid wearing an Eastern Conference Champions T-shirt. Edwin — I just loved him — said, “Look at that, you should go talk to him!” And I was so embarrassed. I was so beaten down. I sat there and watched the kid walk by.

It wasn’t too long, though, before some things started to happen, right? You had written the theme song for Anna Faris’ podcast “Unqualified” and there ended up being some reciprocity.

Yeah, when things started picking up, Anna asked me, “Josh, will you come and do the live version of the theme?” And I said, “Yeah, if you can get the USC marching band to back me.” Then the USC marching band said yes. I remember going to rehearsal, and I parked in the same lot and wore the same boots I did when I was working there. I used to hear them rehearse when I was watering the plants. This time, I’m walking up and they’re rehearsing my song. I just froze there.

At that point, you had, what, three songs?

I had a few songs, “Shine,” “Hold On to Me” and “Higher” … I knew “Shine” could be great as soon as I wrote it. But I’d been signed to two record deals and here I am on the wrong side of 30. I’m like, “How am I gonna get this to where people are going to want to hear it?” And my wife said, “You have to ask Anna to be in the video.” Because I knew nobody would want to see a video with me in it. So we devised this plan where we were going to shoot videos without me in them and call in every favor we could. In one week, we shot the “Hold On to Me” video on a Monday with Anna at an old folks home in Santa Monica, for zero dollars. On Wednesday, we shot the video for “Higher” with Paz de la Huerta. We purposely didn’t shoot anything for “Shine” because we wanted to save that.

We eventually got a meeting at Universal with Avery Lipman, the president of the label, who signed me when I was 18 years old — although I don’t think he realized that, and I certainly wasn’t about to bring it up. I sat there and watched him watch the “Hold On to Me” video, and at the end he turned and his eyes were welled with water. And he was just like, “This is so good, you need to put this out. People need to see this.” Before we even talked a deal. I liked that attitude.

That started that relationship … again. It was so funny to go back in there and sign another deal with Republic Records. I think my first was in 2001.

But after that, nothing really went according to plan, right? You initially were going to release an EP and try and build some momentum …

Jason Bentley at KCRW starting spinning “Hold On to Me” — a song I made in my somewhat-soundproof space in my back room in El Sereno — before we had a deal. It made me feel like I was on to something. Then he got ahold of “Shine” and played it — in fact, he played “Shine” too early. We weren’t supposed to put “Shine” out until February, but it was September. It forced the label’s hand [to release it]. And then it just went, man, and it just started going up the chart.

Then he started playing “Plastic Soul,” a song we weren’t even supposed to release.

OK, OK, let’s detour a little bit and talk about “Plastic Soul.”

I wrote it the weekend that David Bowie passed away. My wife and I were cleaning the house and she put on some random playlist. I hear this piano riff [the intro to the original version of “Piece of My Heart,” recorded by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s older sister, in 1967]. And I’m like, what the fuck. This was during the time I was just making music to make music. I’m using samples, I’m using whatever. I’m making it so I can listen to it while I’m making dinner.

I go in and plug my phone into my computer. I record it, I make a loop of it, I write the song. It took six hours to do. I remember lying back and talking with my wife about Bowie passing away, about how cool it would be to time travel. How cool would it be if you and I could keep meeting up in the next life and fall in love again? Maybe we’ve been falling in love for lifetimes already. I just love that idea. So you know, “Didn’t I see you fighting in the war back in 1942? Didn’t I see you tearing down the wall in 1989?”

When I played that song for my friends, you could see the girls react … You know, the party was just getting going when that one comes on. I thought, “Man, there’s something here.” And I was told, “We’re not going to get [the publishing rights] cleared.” It’s one of the biggest songs ever written — not a well-known version of it, but still the publishing of it is a nightmare.

And you still decided to do a stealth “release?”

Yeah, Melrose and I were having one of those crazy talks where we come up with ideas. I was like “Fuck it, man. I’m just gonna put this song out for free.” We figured we can’t put it on YouTube because it’s monetized. We can’t put it on Facebook. We can’t put it anywhere. I said, “What if we come up with a fake email address and just sent people a Dropbox link?” They can download it on their own. There’s no way we can get in any trouble for it, because we’re not making any money off it.

So we waited until 5:15 on Friday when I knew New York was closed and I made a little video clip and put it up on Instagram saying, “I can’t release this song. Email my lawyer and he’ll send it to you.” We set up an auto-response and a couple hundred people downloaded it. I could see who did because their email would show up. You did. I saw Jason Bentley’s name come up, and I thought “awesome.” Then he emails my manager Sunday night saying, “Can I play this?” and my manager says, “I can’t tell you not to play it.” Monday morning, he plays the song. Then again and again. And I start getting all these emails.

The thing is, people had to search it out. Because when people Shazam-ed it, it came up as Erma Franklin, “Piece of My Heart.” … Thousands and thousands of people downloaded it. Overall, that could have gone so bad for me. I could have gotten in so much trouble. But I guess the point is, take the risk if you have to, just to get the music out. The mix that’s on the record is my original mix.

Some purists are not fond of this kind of appropriation, though. It’s more than a sample — you basically took the spine of the song and wrote a new song off it. You peeled the original skin off and put a new layer on it.

I know. And I love it. I don’t want to put rules on music.

Back to the timeline — the initial plan was to put out an EP?

It was. But when “Shine” was about to hit No. 1, the label called and said, “We want to do a full-length.” I said, “Great.” And they said, “But you have to finish it in two weeks.” I said, “Oh go fuck yourself … (laughing)” Man, I had four songs. So they gave me some parameters and I thought, if I do this I’m going to be up 16 hours a day and my wife and my neighbors are going to kill me, because the soundproof room I built isn’t soundproof at all.

So I decide to go out and rent a house in Joshua Tree for two weeks. I’m going to take my computer, I’m going to take my dog. And I’m gonna go and try and figure this out. Actually, my wife didn’t want me to take the dog at first, but then I told her how lonely I was, so she brought him out.

Right, how are you going to write a Mondo Cozmo song without Cozmo?

It wasn’t going well until he got there. After that I just knocked it out of the park. I’ve got Cozmo barking on one song, called “Come With Me,” and you know, there are a lot of good songs with dogs barking on them. Tom Rowlands from Chemical Brothers ended up with a credit on one song.

“Shine” is pretty much the centerpiece, though. It sounds spiritual, like you’re almost talking yourself into being hopeful.

It was the one I sent Melrose. I remember something he told me when he was working with Sam Sparro (“Black and Gold”): “Mate, when you have a song, all you do is say no.”

So maybe six years later I had “Shine” and I emailed him — I had seven addresses for him, so I just CC’d every one of them. Turns out he was in Greece on vacation, trying to figure out what his next step was going to be. And I said, “Are you there? I think I have a song.” He said, “Send it.” And three months later he moved back here to be my manager again.

The speed at which this has moved has been so insane, and yet it feels so right. And I think it’s because, coming from a band where everybody had to say yes, I realize that it’s now just me who has to say yes. I can make a decision so quickly. I feel bad for ECC because I lost my way and I stopped being a leader and I was just trying to make everybody happy. At the end of the day, every band needs that dude who’s going to make the decision.

You’d been together a long time, all the way back to your Philadelphia days with Greg. Is it a weird mix of surreal and sad, what’s happening now?

It fucking breaks my heart, it really does. Somebody has to have the vision, and with ECC I lost mine.

On the other hand, if ECC would have put out “Shine,” it might have done OK, but it wouldn’t have gone to No. 1. It wouldn’t have opened any doors. I had to completely reinvent myself, I really did. It was so scary. I was looking at photos of when we first started Mondo, and I was like a deer in a headlights. But I’ve gotten better at it, because I don’t have anybody looking over my shoulder. I used to be terrible at giving interviews, because I would always think about how it would sound to my band. And now I can just be in the moment.

I will say that there’s a song called “Thunder” on the album that has some of Greg’s drums on. It’s a heavy tune, but it’s a proper tune, one of the best things on the record.

Overall, the songs on “Plastic Soul” have more of a classic rock feel? Simpler, maybe, and less beholden to whatever “indie” is?

I think a lot of that is that in ECC, I was always conscious about writing for the band. Now I just write for me. Plus, the tools I have are so limited … I don’t have a drum kit at my house. So I’m forced to think outside the box. I started simplifying chord structures. I start with a scratch guitar track and a melody and I just let the song do the work. And if it doesn’t work, I just stop and go back to it two months later and knock it out.

Now you’re covering Rod Stewart? In this day and age, that qualifies as bold.

We needed a cover to do for a radio show. So we added “Ooh La La” to our repertoire.

And you’re playing Lollapalooza on the day your record comes out …

(Laughing) Pretty cool, isn’t it? I mean …

And you’ve got a manager who co-stars in your videos and who tries his hand at remixes.

He sent that to you too? Geez. He emailed me with [a remix for “Automatic”]. Then he keeps texting me back. “Have you listened yet? Have you listened yet?” I finally said, “Yeah, this is all right.” And he said, “I did that.” I mean, when your manager does a remix. It’s like “Fear and Loathing,” driving to Vegas.

Oh, and the video [for “Sixes and Sevens”]. We came up with this idea where we would go to Mexico and spend $5,000 of the label’s money just partying. And we would get our buddy to follow us around. We submitted that treatment, worded just like that, and they said, “OK.” Two days, two nights, just getting shitty. We were worried about how it would look … But it turned out all right.

And you’ve got that “working-class guy who’s just happy to be here” thing down.

(Laughing) It only took 15 years. Look, I’m playing with a great bunch of guys right now (drummer Andrew Tolman, keyboardist James Gordon, bassist Chris Null and guitarist Drew Beck), there’s an album coming out … so it’s true.

||| Live: Mondo Cozmo headlines the El Rey Theatre on Sept. 26. Tickets.

* Corrected the Cobbs’ band name