In addition to their local roster, which boasted the likes of The Avalanches, Bag Raiders, Wolfmother, Cut Copy, The Presets and Tame Impala at its commercial peak, Modular also represented international indie titans like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture and The Klaxons, and even managed to coax Daft Punk into touring Australia in 2007 – the first and last agency to ever do so. The label was considered by many in the industry as being one of the most respected musical entities of the decade, with NME even crowning Modular Recordings in 2007 as ‘the coolest record label in the world.’
Although Modular as we once knew it doesn’t really exist in the same way today, its impact as a record label and, above all, a champion of authentic Australian music is yet to be matched by any other venture since. Today, we’re dialling it back to an era when electroclash reigned supreme exploring the story of Modular Recordings, tracing the impact of the titanic label through the seminal tunes released in their heyday.
1. ‘Prisoner Of Society’ – The Living End
Is there any better way to launch your record label by releasing one of the best Australian rock records of the past 25 years? Arriving in October 1998, The Living End’s self-titled debut album proved to a massive success for Modular in such an early stage of their existence, hitting #1 on the ARIA Album Charts and hanging in the top 50 for a whopping 63 weeks.
While ‘Prisoner Of Society’ itself technically wasn’t released on Modular (it was initially released on the band’s EP Second Solution / Prisoner Of Society in 1997), there’s no denying that its initial success ultimately landed them a spot on the Modular roster, and the rest is history.
2. ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’ – Ben Lee
Arriving a mere month after The Living End’s debut, Ben Lee’s 1998 LP Breathing Tornados was lauded by the music press both at home and abroad, with Lee branching beyond the acoustic folk that defined his early releases to boldly experiment with drum machines, synths and samples – a recurring motif throughout many records released by Modular in the years to come.
Peaking at a respectable #13 on the ARIA Charts, Breathing Tornados didn’t quite match the standard set by The Living End’s debut, but it did feature one certified gem in the form of ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’; Lee’s breakout song, which reached #2 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 1998 and helped poise him for further success in the years to come.
3. The Avalanches – ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’
If The Living End and Breathing Tornados put Modular on the map, then it was Since I Left You that asserted the label’s unrivalled status within the Australian musical landscape. Released into the world in November 2000, The Avalanches’ full-length debut was celebrated upon release as being one of the finest plunderphonics albums ever, with tracks like ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ and ‘Since I Left You’ subsequently going down as some of the most unique Australian tracks of all time.
Pieced together from anywhere from 900 to 3,500 samples, creating Since I Left You proved to be a huge task for The Avalanches, yet as Robbie Chater recalled in a 2013 retrospective feature with Triple J, the band never experienced any pressure to complete the project from Modular. After all, Pavlovic literally minted Modular in 1998 to release the band’s music, with the label boss saying to The Sydney Morning Herald in 2008 that “I think when people are given enough time to develop their own je ne sais quoi, their own kind of magic, their own kind of thing, they’ll kind of get away from the obvious stuff. But that’s a process that takes a bit of time. So we tend to go for things that we believe there’s some kind of potential there.”
4. Eskimo Joe – ‘Wake Up’
It’s easy to forget that Perth alt-rockers Eskimo Joe once formed a key part of the Modular roster in its early days. The band’s 2001 debut album Girl proving to be a huge double platinum achievement for both parties, with singles like ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Who Sold Her Out’ receiving huge attention from Triple J and album cut ‘Sydney Song’ landing placement in a huge Kit Kat ad at the time.
Despite Girl’s success, Eskimo Joe were said to have experienced quite an unpleasant stay on the Modular roster, with the band even flat-out refusing to release their 2004 follow-up A Song Is A City on the label. Thankfully, Mushroom ended up buying out the band’s contract, and both parties were able to go their own ways without losing out.
5. The Presets – ‘Girl And The Sea’
With the release of The Presets’ 2005 album Beams, Modular began to further realise their potential as one of Australia’s greatest tastemaker labels of the ‘00s. While it proved to be contentious with critics at the time, Beams is now seen by many as being one of the most pivotal Australian dance records of its decade, thanks to both Julian Hamilton’s eccentric vocal delivery and the unmatched studio prowess of Kim Mowes.
Decked out with staggeringly heavy dance grooves that were embellished with a glitzy ‘80s pop steez, tracks like ‘I Go Hard, I Go Home’ and ‘Are You The One?’ established The Presets as the festival mainstay we know them as today, yet nothing on Beams comes close to the pure electro simplicity of ‘Girl And The Sea’. Sublime stuff.
6. Van She – ‘Kelly’
Two months after releasing Beams, Modular doubled down on the electro front with the release of Van She’s self-titled EP. Touted by Modular at the time as being a “new band from Sydney fresh on ideas, fresher than Flavor Flav, fresh like coriander, fresher than the Fresh Prince, fresher than fresh eggs”, Van She’s sultry blend of synth pop and shoegaze proved popular with the masses, with cuts like their irresistible debut single ‘Kelly’ setting them up to be the next big thing Down Under.
After touring with the likes of Daft Punk, Phoenix and Bloc Party and releasing two full-length albums in the years that followed, Van She seemingly called it a day in 2012, with the band’s members breaking off into more dancefloor oriented projects like Nicky Night Time and Touch Sensitive. Thankfully, their music is always available to stream online for whenever you do need a fix of mid ’00s dreamy electro rock.
7. Wolfmother – ‘Mind’s Eye’
2005 proved to be a mighty year for the Modular cohort – first it was The Presets, then Van She, and finally, Wolfmother. The Sydney trio took Australia by storm with their self-titled debut album, which was re-released internationally in 2006 to even greater acclaim. At the time, Australian audiences couldn’t get enough of Stockdale and co.’s vivacious (if slightly derivative) blend of hard rock, blues and stoner metal, with tracks like ‘Mind’s Eye’, ‘Woman’, ‘Colossal’ and ‘Joker and the Thief’ sending them soaring up the charts and into the stratosphere.
Modular backed the album with every effort they had, and it paid off: Wolfmother sold over a million copies worldwide, and while Wolmother’s subsequent releases really weren’t much to write home about, their debut still makes for one of the most exhilarating releases in Aussie rock history.
8. Cut Copy – ‘Hearts on Fire’
By all accounts, Cut Copy’s second studio album was a massive triumph for Modular. In Ghost Colours saw Cut Copy move further into a sound that was undeniably their own, with a support slot on Daft Punk’s Australian tour and the release of blog house hit ‘Hearts on Fire’ a year prior hinting at the epic electro-rock that was soon to follow.
Recorded at DFA Studios in New York with revered electro-producer Tim Goldsworthy, In Ghost Colours captivated the world upon release in 2008, with its catchy melodies, angular guitars and squelchy synths striking a chord with rockers and ravers alike. While lacking a standout moment like ‘Heart’s On Fire’ the group’s 2011 follow-up Zonoscope proved to be just as intriguing and danceable, underscoring everything that a good Modular album should set out to achieve.
9. Ladyhawke – ‘My Delirium’
As someone who was still buying NOW compilation CDs and listening to commercial FM radio in the late ‘00s, I can personally attest to this song being one of the best songs of its era. Drawing heavily from synth-pop hits of the ‘80s, ‘My Delirium’ is a certified banger, with Ladyhawke’s catchy chorus refrain sending the single skyrocketing up the charts both at home and abroad.
However, the success of Ladyhawke’s debut did see some critics double down on the view that Modular was simply microwaving old sounds for new ears, as did their signing of one particular psych-rock project from Fremantle: a band that would ultimately prove to be their biggest success yet, as well as the catalyst for their eventual downfall…
10. Tame Impala – ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’
Kevin Parker had already hinted at the behemoth Tame Impala were soon to become with the psychedelic revival of 2008’s self-titled EP and Innerspeaker in 2010, but surely no one could have predicted what he’d bring to the table with Lonerism. Peppered with hyper-compressed grooves, lucid soundscapes and sugar sweet hooks, Lonerism proved to be one of the most enchanting Australian records of the 2010s, and Modular lapped it all up – albeit, possibly a little too much.
In 2015, Parker went public with revelations that Modular had mismanaged his royalties, claiming that he’d never been paid for any album sales outside of Australia and that someone ‘high up’ had spent the money he was owed. Although label founder Steve Pavlovic expressed his dismay at Parker becoming involved in the situation and asserted that the error had come from a misunderstanding between royalty processing actions in Australia and the US, the ensuing legal drama ultimately saw Modular become integrated further into the Universal Music Group.
While the Tame Impala lawsuit would be dismissed later in 2015, the damage was already done, and Pavlovic would go on to resign from his position at Modular in March 2016, bringing an end to his 18 year reign at the top of what was once known as Australia’s coolest record label.