BY JONATHAN VALANIA Joshua Ostrander, aka singer-songwriter-producer and one-man-band Mondo Cozmo, is having a moment. After years and years of dues-paying obscurity grinding out laudable-but-doomed-to-the-cutout-bins music in bands called Laguardia and East Coast Conference Champions, Ostrander is finally enjoying a turn in the sun. Born and raised in Bucks County, and a resident of Philadelphia until 2006 when he pulled up stakes and headed to L.A. in search of fame and fortune, Ostrander spent the better part of the last decade working dual landscaping gigs by day, and feverishly recording in his bedroom at night, living on little more than ramen, fumes, and faded dreams.
In 2017, he released Plastic Soul under the nom de rock Mondo Cozmo, and on the strength of infectious, anthemic singles like “Shine,” “Plastic Soul” and “Hold On To Me,” made the world finally sit up and take notice. Because sometimes nice guys do finish first. In advance of the June release of New Medicine, the follow-up LP to Plastic Soul, Ostrander is playing a string of East Coast dates that includes a completely sold out trifecta local residency. He plays the Ardmore Music Hall tomorrow night, next Tuesday (March 17th) he’s at Johnny Brendas and then Friday March 20th he’s at Boot N’ Saddle. Last week we got him on the horn.
DISCUSSED: John Waters, rescue dogs, his pal Anna Farris, growing up in a retirement home in Southampton PA, The Velvet Underground, cruelty, dementia and empathy, Bruce Springsteen live albums, Fishtown, his pal Chris Pratt’s house, mellotrons, Joshua Tree, “Bittersweet Symphony,” Erma Franklin, three-legged cats, the apocalyptic Malibu fire, Semisonic, David Bowie’s Young American’s, and why Aesop was so right when he wrote that “no act of kindess, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Now more than ever.
PHAWKER: Let’s start with your hometown connection. You are born and raised in Philadelphia, tell me about that — where were you born and where did you grow up?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Sure, I was born in Bucks County Pennsylvania, in a town called Southampton. And I was there til about 17 and then I moved to north Philly and then I went to South Philly for a little while.
PHAWKER: I read in an interview that you grew up in a retirement facility or near one?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: (laughs) Yeah, I did. There was this gigantic estate and my father was the administrator at a place called The South Hamptons Estate, it’s right there on Street Road in Southampton and we had lived there, so like, you know we would have dinner with the old folks. It wasn’t weird to me at the time because I was so young and we did it for so long and I thought it was a normal thing. But looking back when I tell people that they’re like “Oh, that’s so weird” but I don’t know, it was nice.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, yeah that sounds about right. That was the first band I got on board with and stuff. We signed to Republic Records and we put out one record, and man, we were probably on the road for three years, we went out a lot with bands like Brian Jonestown Massacre, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Yeah, we were gone for a long time, it was fine, but I think that is when I started writing my own stuff and that’s when I quit that band and started my own band called Eastern Conference Champions.
PHAWKER: Right, okay, that was my next question. Before we move on from Laguardia, was there a Laguardia album that was out there or released on the internet.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Man I don’t even know if it’s on there. I assume it is on Spotify and stuff but that’s a good question, I don’t know.
PHAWKER: Since you were touring with Brian Jonestown Massacre I assume you guys were doing some variation on the heavy swirly psych dream-pop kinda stuff?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Man, Laguardia I didn’t really . . . I was just trying to essentially mimic whatever I was listening to at the time which was a lot of Radiohead, Ok Computer was such an influence on me.
PHAWKER: I hear the Radiohead in some of the ECC tracks I’ve heard. Well, one last question about Laguardia, wasn’t the brother of Kevin Morpurgo of Dandelion fame in the band?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yes, Mike Morpurgo. Hell of a dude, he’s great. Yeah, that’s awesome I love hearing that. It was after Mike left Dandelion, or I guess they just broke up, and then we started writing tunes with Mike.
PHAWKER: Right on, and Eastern Conference Champions, where did that name come from?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: So, my drummer and I were huge sports fans, obviously growing up in Philly you are monster Eagles, Phillies, Flyers fans, you know. So, when the Flyers would win their conference or whatever they were called the Eastern Conference Champions, and we just thought it was a great name. But it became such a drag because it was so long, and people could never remember it. If anyone ever Google searched it they were just bombarded with[sports articles]. It was definitely a learning experience with that name holding us back almost in a weird way.
PHAWKER: Maybe it’s because you were the singer in that band but it doesn’t sound radically different from Mondo Cozmo.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: No, not at all. There is a ECC record called Speak-ahh which I still think is really good. It was tough, we didn’t have a label, but the songs on there, that’s when I started coming into my own as a songwriter. That’s when I started writing songs on my own, learned how to deliver the lyrics, that’s when I started doing that.
PHAWKER: ECC went on for almost 10 years?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, man. We released a couple albums and a couple EPs — I loved that band. It got to a point where it was really hard for me, we had been in LA, and around for so long, we didn’t have a label, we didn’t have much money. It got to a point where we were all working day jobs, it was just like, I was writing so much stuff that would later become Mondo Cozmo songs, but I was frustrated in the sense that I couldn’t get new music out, and I couldn’t tour, and we couldn’t do anything. That was really tough for me, quitting that band — it was very much a family situation — so leaving that was tough. It was really hard, but I just felt like I needed to do something on my own without having to go to three other people for a decision. I just felt like it was easier for me to just go and do it, and it was really hard, it still is.
PHAWKER: Understandable. Just so I understand the timeline here, ECC started in the Philly area and eventually translated to LA, or went out to LA and that’s when the band started, I’m not clear on the timeline.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: The Eastern Conference Champions signed a deal with Geffen Records, and that was the first time I ever had any money in my pocket. My drummer and I were just like, “Let’s get out of here,” we had played at every bar in Philly about a thousand times, and we just thought it was a great chance to go somewhere different and try something new, and I’m glad we did.
PHAWKER: So when did you leave Philly?
PHAWKER: And just to recap on something you had said earlier, you lived for a time in North Philly and in South Philly, like as a kid with your family or later when you were grown up and doing Laguardia?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, no I was living on my own. I mean, I was living with friends with the bandmates and stuff like that in North Philly, and then when I moved to South Philly, I was in an apartment with some friends, but I was mostly on the road non-stop, it just didn’t make sense to be paying rent. So I might as well live somewhere warm.
PHAWKER: Do you remember where in north Philly you were living?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, it was Fishtown just off of Girard, it was on Hope Street. And it was this huge factory, it was before the town started flipping over, it was really shitty. And then I moved to south Philly, I really liked it in South Philly. It was nice down there, I liked it.
PHAWKER: So let’s move on. At a certain point you’d become Mondo Cozmo, were you calling the project that when you had recorded/ had your first break-out?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, so what happened when I quit Eastern Conference Champions, I was working two landscaping jobs, I didn’t really have a plan I just knew I wanted to get music out. So, I started recording music and I think the first song I recorded was a song called “Higher” and then I did “Hold Onto Me” and “Plastic Soul” and that’s when I was like I got a couple tunes I want to send this out, but I needed a name. And I just wanted something simple, especially coming from a band name that was Eastern Conference Champions, it was so long, and no one remembered it. So I wanted something that rhymed and that would look cool on a T-Shirt and I was watching a John Waters movie called Mondo Trasho and I was like “Ah, man that’s such a cool name” and my dog’s name is Cozmo, so I thought “Oh, I’ll just call it Mondo Cozmo.” I just picked it out of the air.
PHAWKER: Okay, so tell me about Cozmo, is he a rescue dog?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, he’s the greatest thing in the world. We rescued him and it was my wife and I’s first dog, and he’s just the greatest thing in the world, and since then, I’ve become a really big advocate for adopting dogs.
PHAWKER: What is his backstory before you got him, did you get him at a rescue proper, did someone just abandon him, they couldn’t take care of him anymore, how did he get to the rescue?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: I think they found him on the street, and it was sad because we didn’t know it when we got him, but he had had a broken leg, and we didn’t have a lot of money when we got him, and the first thing you do when you get a dog you run them into the ground, you get a ball . . . and after a couple days we were like “Man, his leg is gimpy” so we took him to the vet, and they said he had a broken leg, he must’ve gotten hit by a car while he was on the street. And a hip surgery costs about 10 grand and we were like “Oh my god, like what are we going to do?” But they had this other procedure where they can just cut off the bone connecting to the hip joint and that only cost like a thousand or so, we could afford that one, but yeah he has been great ever since.
PHAWKER: Is he walking and running okay now?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, he does great. It’s funny since there is no bone connecting it is just all muscle, and if I take him to the park and he’s really running hard you see that leg kinda just go flying.
PHAWKER: And what kind of dog is he?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: We don’t know. We did one of those DNA tests on him, and he is just a pure mutt of every dog known to man.
PHAWKER: Those dogs are usually the best dogs. Moving on, I have some very specific questions I wanted to ask you about the song “Plastic Soul” and some of the sounds you created on there, but before we get to that, is it true that you recorded your debut LP, also called Plastic Soul, in just two weeks in the desert?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yep, I did it in two weeks. I mean, most of the record was already finished, I had 5-6 songs completed, and then we released “Shine” and that just started to blow up on the radio, and my record label were like “This is going to go to #1. We need a record now, how much time do you need? Can you do it in two weeks?” and I was just like “Fuck. Yeah, I can.” so yeah I went out to Joshua Tree and turned it around in two weeks.
PHAWKER: Yeah, so tell me about that, why did you pick Joshua Tree?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: I just think I really needed to focus and not be distracted, because the studio I have — it’s not even a studio. I record everything out of the guest room in my house in LA, and I usually stop around 7-8pm because I don’t want to drive the wife nuts, or the neighbors nuts. So I was like “Fuck man I need to go non-stop and get this done, and I need to not be distracted” I rented an Airbnb in Joshua Tree were I knew I would be alone and secluded and I mean, I don’t know if you’ve been there, but after you’ve been there for three or four days in complete seclusion it starts to get a little wonky out there. You know, it helped me focus and get it done.
PHAWKER: It’s really sounds beautiful out there. Almost Biblical.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: It is man. It’s gorgeous, especially at night when the wind starts going. Yeah, I love it.
PHAWKER: So I wanted to ask you some questions about the song “Plastic Soul.” First, is the song title a reference to David Bowie’s description of the music he was making on Young Americans or is that just a coincidence?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, it was the weekend that David Bowie passed away, and I was cleaning the house, and I heard this Erma Franklin song come on and it was “Piece of My Heart” which later on Janis Joplan would go on to make super famous, but it was her, like original version, and I just heard it while I was vacuuming, and I was like “Oh, my god!” And I went into the studio, and I just completely plugged my phone into the computer, and just made a loop of the piano, that little piano rift and I wrote the song and recorded it in one day, it was so quick it was like magic. I was reading a lot about David Bowie that weekend, and I was reading the reference where he made the “Plastic Soul” reference and I was just like “Wow, that is so cool!”
PHAWKER: If you will indulge me, I want to ask you about some specific sounds on the recording. That “Woo!” sound? What is that? Is that you? Or is that also a sample?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: No, that was a sample. That was the coolest thing, ‘cause with Mondo it was when I started messing with samples and with drum loops, because I can’t play the drums, and suddenly I am without a drummer. So, it was this really exciting time for me to be going through and finding samples that I liked. And vocal hooks and stuff like that, and yeah, I don’t even know where that is, but I found it, and had to make sure it was clear-able and shit, which was a nightmare. The funny thing is when I turned the song in the label, they passed on it. They didn’t want to put it on the record. And I was like, “Dude, it’s a cool song, you have to put it on!” That song has gone on to become a complete fan-favorite and I’m happy I was right and they were wrong about that.
PHAWKER: Absolutely, and I can kinda understand the label’s response. When I first heard it, I didn’t like it. I think it’s because of that “Woo!” thing, what’s so interesting about that “Woo” thing is that it’s like the lamest “Woo!” ever. And it seems like such an odd choice, but it gets under your skin, you know. And then the second time I heard it, I was like “No, I don’t hate this song. I love this song!” Now I love how lame the “Woo!” is. What about that giggling sound on the song — sounds like a toy that you pull a string and it makes that sound. What is that?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Uh, man, I don’t know, at that time I was kicking stuff up so fast, I don’t know. I would do this thing where I would record my wife making noises and just distort those sounds with pitch shift and stuff like that, that I really don’t know I was moving so quick.
PHAWKER: I love the horns, too. Are they real or also a sample?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Brother, I have an IPad that has a mellotron sound on it…. Yupp, that’s all it is. I just record on that, yeah I love how it sounds like the real thing.
PHAWKER: I also love how the song climaxes with a crescendo of ecstatic noise before the drums kick back in. I know you did a cover of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which “Plastic Soul” reminds me of — I mean that in a good way. I know everyone loves that Verbe song but just for the record your song is better than that song.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Aww that is so sweet of you to say. I completely disagree but thank you.
PHAWKER: I also liked the lyric. The song is sung from the perspective of somebody or something supernatural, this ghostly spirit that was around in 1942 and fought in World War II and then in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and then now. And there’s this line that “I shapeshift into that form”; tell me about where you were coming from lyrically when you were writing that.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Again when Bowie passed away my wife and I started this conversation of how cool it would be if the person you fall in love with is the person you keep meeting through every different lifetime, you just keep falling in love with each other and you don’t, you don’t even realize it. So I thought it would be cool to reference certain years within the song, like reference WWII and that is where, like, the two fight in the war, and then another lifetime in 1989, at the Berlin Wall or something like that. And I was like, ah, I just thought it was such a cool idea for a song.
PHAWKER: It is such a cool idea.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Honestly, man, I wrote that in like eight minutes. Man, it just bled through, and I listen to it back and I’m like “How did I fucking do this?” You know, what I mean?
PHAWKER: Aren’t the best ideas the ones that are effortless?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: That is so true. A lot of times with songwriting it is the songs that come really fast are the ones that are meant to be, the ones you labor over forever usually don’t make it.
PHAWKER: I just have a couple more questions and then I’ll let you go. So the “Hold On” video with Anna Farris, shot in a retirement home. Before I saw it, I read about the video and I was like “Oh, I’m not going to like this at all, this sounds so trite and manipulative” and then I start watching it, and by the end — don’t tell anyone — there were tears rolling down my cheeks. It was just so beautiful and so pure and kind and real. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that the reason I reacted so emotionally is that we are living in such cruel and inhuman times and this video is the perfect antidote to all the assholery of the moment. This ultra-sincere display of empathy and kindness extended to people at the end of their lives who society no longer has any use for just slayed me. The almost over-the-top, operatic emotionalism feels earned and so much of that is communicated through Anna Farris’ eyes. She’s such a great actress. You wanna tell me a little about where that elder care facility and why you set the video there?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, um, it’s located in Santa Monica and it’s like a daycare center for mentally-challenged elderly people. Like people suffering from dementia or stuff like that. And, Anna was really sweet. When I hang out with Anna, wherever we go, she gets recognized and people wanna talk to her about stuff. But it was interesting because when we went to that place to shoot and there was no script, lets just shoot you interacting with the people, and see what happens. And it was stressful in a sense, like “Oh, I don’t know how this is going to turn out” you know, but when they did the dance, towards the end of the day, everyone would get together and dance. And when she was dancing with that one old guy, we were like “Holy shit, this is just so powerful” and it was all unscripted and completely real and we were just so proud of that.
PHAWKER: I don’t know if you’ve seen the YouTube page for the video recently, but in the comments, that guy’s daughter chimes in and says: “That’s my dad dancing with Anna! THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!! 93 years young. Love you, Dad! Keep smiling at all the world. – Julie Gail.”
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Oh, look at that. That’s so cool. Oh, I love that, I’m going to go check that out.
PHAWKER: Yes, it is very cool. And I love that you are barely in your videos, just this ghostly presence on the edge of the frame. You know, you’re all the way in the back, out of focus at the very end of the “Hold On” video. And then in the “Come On” video you’re standing by the pool in the beginning facing away from the camera for like second. That’s you, right?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, yeah. And then at the end, yeah, I really don’t like being in videos.
PHAWKER: Videos are so tired and played by this point, what is there left to do that hasn’t already been done? And do we really need to see another band lip-synching to their recording, playing guitars that aren’t even plugged in? I love that you make your dog and your three-legged cat the star of the “Plastic Soul” video, that you have Anna Farris dancing with the residents in a retirement home, or just have her in a house freaking out on camera. I think those are very effective creative choices.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Thank you man, I really appreciate that. That means a lot.
PHAWKER: So one question about the “Come On” video, it was inspired by the Malibu wildfires?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, yeah I wrote that song with this guy Dan Wilson, I don’t really write with a lot of people. But I like writing with Dan, it’s really low pressure. Most of the time we just sit around and talk about music, it’s cathartic in a way, it’s nice to be around someone who is so accomplished but also is in a low stress situation. And I went over to his house to write a song, and there’s a band called Cracker years years ago and they had a song called, “Low” and that’s the fucking best song. And I wanted a mid-temp rockin’ tune like that, and that kind of led the way to the core progression and the BPM of which we were playing. And we took a lunch break, and went outside, and we were on his deck there, and I asked Danny, he’s kinda up in the woods, “Danny, did you see those fires up there last fall or whatever.” And he was like, “Yeah man, it was coming over the ridge there, we were sitting there watching it” and that is where “Come and watch the city burn” line came from, and I just wrote the song pretty quickly from there.
PHAWKER: Those fires were very apocalyptic-looking on the news, walls of flame on both sides of the highways and entire mountainsides on fire. Again, biblical.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, it’s scary man.
PHAWKER: And this is Dan Wilson of Semisonic fame/“Closing Time” fame?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yes, he is a great dude.
PHAWKER: Yes, and I was reading through the commentary on that video as well. Someone asked if that house where it was filmed was the house Anna Farris shared with Chris Pratt early on in their marriage, is that true?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, so obviously Chris and Anna were married, that was the house they lived in, when we would like hang out with them, and we were ready to shoot this video in a house, and it fell through last minute because they needed some insurance or something to shoot it and we couldn’t afford it, and then Anna was like, “Why don’t we just shoot it at Chris and I’s old house? It’s up for sale, it’s empty right now’’ And we were like okay, but it was the first time Anna had been back to that house since they left, and for her walking around and seeing the house completely different from when they lived there it was super weird for her. It was weird for all of us, but it was extremely weird for her. And I think it really played into her delivery, she was going through so many different emotions, one take she was frantic, and manic, and the next one she was sweet, and we put it together and I edited really quick.
PHAWKER: Yeah, I was going to say if that was the house they lived in, there were probably a lot of ghosts in there, and maybe she was channeling some of that when she is going through the spectrum of emotions on camera.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Totally.
PHAWKER: So “Black Cadillac” — and I mean this in the nicest way — is a great rip-off of The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For The Man” — and that’s not the takeaway from the originality of your songl.
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yeah, I am a huge Velvets fan. Well, I just wanted to have that vibe going, it’s such a great vibe after the live show. I cut that real quick, I wrote the lyrics on tour, we sang the backups in dressing rooms, it was completely recorded on the road. I was really proud of the lyrics on that one. I thought that was some of my better lyrical writing with the imagery and stuff, and that was our first release from the upcoming record, thought it would be a great little taste-tester for what was to come.
PHAWKER: Now, there is a full LP that’s coming eventually?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: Yup, I just handed it in a few days ago. Ten songs and its coming out I believe in June, I don’t know if that’s being announced though.
PHAWKER: Okay, and is there a name for that?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: It’s called New Medicine
PHAWKER: Okay, last question, and it’s a hypothetical one that requires us to pretend people still keep physical copies of music: You wake up in the middle of the night and your house is on fire, there is only enough time to grab one album and jump out the window. Which one do you grab and why?
JOSHUA OSTRANDER: It’s the Bruce Springsteen’s [Live 1975-85] — its the fucking greatest thing in the world, man! The live performances and how he did different versions for each show, it’s just my favorite thing in the world.