Brendan Lukens first saw the rock band Say Anything at the now-closed downtown venue Sonar in November 2010. On Sunday, Lukens, a native of Brunswick in Frederick County, and his own group, Modern Baseball, are set to return with Baltimore Soundstage headliners Say Anything.
That jarring shift in roles — from fan to tourmate in less than five years — still feels surreal to Lukens.
"We did a few cool features with them [to promote the tour], where we just talked about each other's bands, which was insane," Lukens said on the phone last week, traveling through Arkansas en route to the first show in Dallas. "It was weird having your role model talk to you about how much they love your band. We still list Say Anything as an influence on our Facebook [page], so the fact that we're touring with them is kind of crazy."
This tour placement is the latest indication Modern Baseball's profile continues to rise. The group's sound is more niche than mainstream — punchy bursts of emo that lean on early Weezer's pop sensibilities and humor — but Modern Baseball has emerged as an exciting act to watch in a genre experiencing what many call a revival.
The band began in 2011, when Lukens and songwriting partner Jacob Ewald self-released "The Nameless Ranger," an acoustic EP. After the Brunswick High School friends moved to Philadelphia for college — Lukens followed his family's footsteps to Chestnut Hill College while guitarist and co-singer Ewald attended Drexel University — they quickly met bassist Ian Farmer and drummer Sean Huber.
With the band in place, the now Philadelphia-based group released its debut album, "Sports," at the end of 2012. But it was the follow-up, 2014's catchy "You're Gonna Miss It All," that made Modern Baseball a cheeky underdog to root for in emo's latest resurgence. Larger touring opportunities followed, as did positive reviews from surprising national outlets like Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork and Grantland.
Sales were modest (it reached No. 97 on the Billboard albums chart) but the exposure blew Lukens away.
"What was most surprising to us is just how many people heard it," Lukens, 22, said. "We really poured everything that we had to give into that [record], and to get any kind of positive reaction was so fulfilling to us."
One listen to "Miss It All" reveals the band's youth. On "Rock Bottom," Lukens worries that a girl he likes might be making out with someone else, and he handles it with the melodrama and detailed eye you would expect from an insecure adolescent.
"My head is on the verge of exploding / No amount of aspirin or pizza could help this from hurting," he sings.
Modern Baseball's members, except Huber, still have a year left at college because band obligations caused them to skip some semesters. Regardless of remaining credits, Lukens said, he already feels the subjects of newly written lyrics expanding and maturing from previous releases.
"It's definitely weird to say that I feel way older than I felt when I was just 20, but I feel like I've learned so much," Lukens said. "I'm more self-aware, and that's definitely become a theme that I've been growing on."
Lukens is optimistic about new material, calling recent writing sessions "the most comfortable" and "tightest" Modern Baseball has been yet. The band's musical abilities have grown, he said, and its members are experimenting with song structure.
"We're trying to take a step away from our normal songwriting, like our verse-verse-chorus-verse concept, and break into a less formatted kind of songwriting," Lukens said.
While he has many ideas swirling for the next record ("Be a little louder" is a stated goal, Lukens said), do not expect to hear Modern Baseball's third album in the near future.
"We're writing a lot, but we have no plans of recording anything soon," he said before adding a cryptic note. "We definitely have a few surprises in store for people. But yeah, can't talk too much about it."
In the meantime, Modern Baseball has more milestones to accomplish. In August, the band heads to London for the huge Reading and Leeds Festivals. Afterward comes the group's first tour in Australia, a fact that seems unfathomable to a guy still trying to finish college.
As strange as it feels, this is Modern Baseball's new reality, and if their trajectory continues, Lukens might have to get used to it. But not yet.
"It's really weird," Lukens said. "I've never been to Australia. The shows are selling out, and we're really confused."