Josh Ostrander is acting like a kid on Christmas morning, darting around the inner workings of Agganis Arena in Boston. He’s been playing music professionally for the better part of 20 years, but it’s the first American date for Mondo Cozmo, his newest musical project, on a tour opening for Bastille, and he’s clearly psyched.
“I’ve never had T-shirts at the merch table before,” he says, beaming as he approaches a full wall of Bastille gear, and finds a panel on the far left. He quietly says, “alright,” as if Santa Claus had come through for him, but then his face falls.
“They spelled the name wrong,” he says.
It’s three hours before showtime, and 300 shirts that say “Mondo Cosmo” (instead of Mondo Cozmo) are in the arena. It’s like the part in Spinal Tap where the band arrives at the venue only to learn that a puppet show has received top-billing. But where Spinal Tap was once on top, and slowly sinking into “where are they now?” territory, Ostrander is the opposite; finally on the ascent after decades of almosts.
“It’s a 20-year plan,” he says. “And I’m on year 19 now.”
He’s constantly straddling the line between bullshitter and straight-shooter. He tells me he hardly ever learns journalists’ names; he just hugs them and calls them “buddy.” The title of his debut, Plastic Soul, simultaneously pays homage to David Bowie and works as a disclaimer if anybody criticizes Ostrander for not being the real deal.
He asks the woman working the merch booth if he can borrow her Sharpie and crosses out the “s” in Cosmo and replaces it with a “z” on the display shirts. He has me film it for Instagram. Ostrander handles all socials himself, posting multiple times per day.
2px); width:calc(100% 2px);">
Before reaching the merch table, Ostrander had hugged me hello and expressed excitement about seeing his tour bus for the first time—another career first.
“I just hope it has four wheels,” he deadpans now.
The T-shirt misprint feels like the last in a long line of setbacks for Ostrander. It’s as if the music industry is a video game he’s been playing forever: he’s memorized how to get past the earlier levels and learned from his mistakes. In three months when I meet Ostrander again, he will have brought Mondo Cozmo to a higher level than in previous tries, playing nearly every festival under the sun—quite literally, with a daytime slot in most cases—leading early arrival sing-alongs of “let ‘em get high, let ‘em get stoned,” the chorus of his smash hit, “Shine.”
But for now it’s March, there’s still snow on the ground and Mondo Cozmo’s debut, Plastic Soul—which arrives on Republic on Aug. 4—is a long way away. Much of our conversation on the bus (which does indeed have four wheels) is centered around Ostrander’s ups and downs in the industry. He started the band Laguardia as a teenager. They eventually signed to Republic, and were dropped after one album.
“When I wrote ‘Shine,’ I was like, ‘I’m gonna go back to that fucking label and I’m gonna spend all their money!’” says Ostrander, with a sly smile. “If we’re gonna screw up, let’s make it massive!”
He occasionally delivers one-liners that I’ve heard him say in other interviews, like “I’m not sure if I ever finished high school.” But he does this with just as much conviction as the handful of songs he performs over and over on tour, playing “Shine” on any morning show that will have him.
“Dude, if I ever fucking complain, just punch me in the face,” he says, kicking back, taking in his surroundings. “Because I’m sitting here on this bus and talking to a nice gentleman and I’m going to play in front of however many thousand people tonight, and I ain’t fucking digging holes today! It’s my time. I can really feel it!”
A year ago, digging holes was exactly what he was doing. He’d broken up his band Eastern Conference Champions, and was working two landscaping jobs. This struggle manifests itself spiritually in “Shine,” and lyrically on “Higher.” (“I’ve been digging these holes for these Beverly Hill girls, I’ve been dancing my ass off on their Persian floors, but after tonight girl, I ain’t gonna work no more.”)
As Ostrander explains it, he was shopping around the last ECC record—previous releases were on Geffen and Interscope—and couldn’t find anyone to release it. Label heads told him there was “too much history” with the band.
“I knew I had to change,” he says, “and I had that moment where I was like, ‘am I not good?...Am I just a really nice guy that people keep signing?’”
The “too much history” branding wasn’t just a marketing stance. It was emotional as well.
“My drummer was my best friend. It weighs on me that we put all that time in—I played with him for 15 years, beginning with Laguardia—and we had moderate success,” he says. “But it kills me that he’s not sitting on this bus with me right now. We don’t talk that much. My wife and I talk about how terrible it is.”
Ostrander’s wife is Aria Pullman, who leads the band Some Go Haunting, and delivers a honeyed harmony to complement Ostrander’s gravelly voice on “Shine.” She also gets a co-writing credit on that song. Ostrander says that an exchange with Pullman at Coachella in 2015 led him to create Mondo Cozmo.
“She turned to me while we were watching Jack White, and she goes, ‘Do you think Jack White gives a fuck what his bass player thinks?’ and I realized that he’s a boss who is handling his shit!”
As Ostrander mentions his Coachella epiphany, his own bass player, Chris Null, walks down the aisle of the bus and pipes up: “I was at that show!”
But the difference is, Ostrander does give a fuck what his bass player thinks. The two take a moment to discuss how spiritual it was to witness Jack White. Even though he’s vowed that this phase of his career will be on single-player mode, the live incarnation of Mondo Cozmo—Null, guitarist Drew Beck, drummer Andrew Tollman and keyboardist/sampler wiz James Gordon—are quickly gelling as a band. The biggest threat to Ostrander’s leadership may be himself.
“My manager is super protective of making sure it doesn’t get too collaborative,” he says. “Because if you put me in the studio with these guys, I’ll just make a really good rock ‘n’ roll record. And they’ll tell me too that I need to go by myself and just figure this out. Because something weird and cool happens when I’m doing it by myself.”
“Weird and cool” samples threaten to derail the sweeter moments his songs conjure up, but instead they create a chaotic beauty when the textures come together. They are what set Mondo Cozmo apart from previous projects. On Plastic Soul’s title track he samples Erma Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart.” When he plays it live while opening for Bastille, the entire Boston crowd responds by waving glowing smartphones. Ostrander seems overwhelmed when he thanks the audience, and announces that he’ll be giving away the misprinted T-shirts after his set. They’re all gone within an hour.
“If we’re gonna screw up, let’s make it massive!”
When I meet up with Ostrander months later, at the Boston Calling festival, Mondo Cozmo is the first act of the day. From the looks of it, the crowd has arrived early just for his set. The band is a tighter unit now, rocking harder, jumping higher and drawing out a longer pause before the last refrain in “Shine.”
“I started doing that midway through the Bastille dates,” Ostrander says. “Just singing those lines like that, we made a whole arena shut the fuck up. There’s something to that.”
It’s a long way away from where he was when he wrote the song about a year ago, but that desperation and fear of starting over are feelings he can still tap into. His bandmates tap into it too.
“Chris led the pre-show warmup today. I think we’ll let him be the new hype man,” says Ostrander about his bassist. “He was like, ‘It’s 1 o’clock in the afternoon, we ain’t digging holes, we ain’t serving people. Let’s do this!’ I’ve got a good group, dude, I really do. If you look at it, based on the response we’ve gotten so far, we played Kimmel without a record out, we’ve done Bastille without a fucking record out. When that record comes out and people get to hear the whole thing, in all its glory, I’m excited for it. I think we’ve got a shot.”