What is it like to have a conversation with Isaac Brock? Actually, it’s a lot like listening to Modest Mouse — he’s somewhat erratic, often explosively funny, and, just when you least expect it, brutally honest and insightful.
Believe it or not, but Brock now qualifies as a true indie-rock elder statesman. Modest Mouse’s seventh album due out June 25, The Golden Casket, arrives 25 years after their 1996 debut, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About. Back then, Brock was a few months shy of his 20th birthday, and he sounded like it. His early songs were rough-hewn, combustible, and filled with pointed observations about small-town blue-collar life that still seem utterly unique in the largely bourgeois world of indie music. (Brock’s insistence on saying his band was from Issaquah, Washington rather than nearby Seattle had as much to do with his trailer-park allegiances as his aversion to being associated with grunge.)
The next two Modest Mouse albums, 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West and 2000’s The Moon & Antarctica, are landmarks of modern indie. Then came 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, which shockingly transformed them into a multi-platinum mainstream rock band. While their output since then has come slower — just three albums in the past 17 years — Brock remains committed as ever to not repeating himself.
For The Golden Casket, “I didn’t go in with any plan except I told them I wasn’t going to play guitar,” he says. Instead, he set out to make “a sound effects record” in which he assembled various exotic sounds (“fucking kalimbas and weird tinkery shit,” as Brock puts it) into a sonic collage with big-time rock producers Dave Sardy (LCD Soundsystem, Band Of Horses) and Jacknife Lee (U2, The Killers). In the end, however, Brock did end up playing some guitar, though the album ultimately hews closer to the layered production of later Modest Mouse records as opposed to the band’s more feral early work.
Thematically, Brock’s concerns have remained remarkably consistent over the course of Modest Mouse’s career. Just as The Lonesome Crowded West ruminated on the early effects of urban sprawl on the Pacific Northwest, The Golden Casket evinces deep skepticism about how modern technology has turned against its human masters. Brock freely admits that his thoughts on this subject veer into “tinfoil hat” territory — he basically believes we’re all in the midst of a secret world war being waged with a combination of disinformation and underhanded hacking of essential forms of personal and political infrastructure. But even at his most conspiratorial, he can still crack a well-timed joke.
“I don’t believe that we are very restrained in our usage of anything,” Brock says. “I mean, if someone were to tell me right this second that, definitively, using cellphones gave me brain cancer, I’d still just be like, ‘But they also give me cellphones.'”
While he’s not overly fond of looking back (or doing interviews in general), Brock did agree to reflect on Modest Mouse’s seven albums, and explain how they all lead up to The Golden Casket.
This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (1996)
I don’t know that I would have continued making music if I and Eric and Jeremy hadn’t managed to come up with a song like “Dramamine.” I’ve never been able to make another one like that. I’ve never heard another one like that. I love that song.
When I started Modest Mouse I didn’t want it to be confused with the Seattle scene. The Seattle scene was defined by this “Why be normal?” bullshit. Everyone was dour, and fucking had green hair, and would just party their asses off a fucking cliff. So I was more interested in making it harder to pinpoint what the fuck was going on with us. And so I talked about the town we lived in. Which, there are special things about it, but it’s not like it’s a magical alpine village.
I wasn’t reacting against grunge, because I really liked what I considered… these are the sort of things I don’t give two shits about at this point in my life. As a grown-up, what was really grunge and what wasn’t seems pretty fucking pointless. But at that time I didn’t think what was going on, when it hit the radio, barring Nirvana, was really grunge. I was like a Tad/Mudhoney person. I had very strict rules as to what made you grunge.
Everyone wants to matter for forever and shit. That’s just built into being, I think. But I don’t think I had a very clear idea of what 10 years really looked like, much less 20 or 25. I wanted it to make sense right then, and I didn’t really give a shit if it made sense the following year. Although, that’s kind of bullshit. Because I remember when writing the lyrics I’d specifically go through and weed out words that had too much attachment to the time, or so I thought. I didn’t succeed, but I thought I did that.
I didn’t put any photos of us on the record. There were discussions, I was like, “We’re going to look stupid.” And at one point I also tried talking us into not putting our names on it because I said, “It doesn’t matter.” But I lost that one.
The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
For years, starting probably when I was 14, the house that I was living in and the property — it’s actually still where my mom and stepdad live across the street from — would get flooded. As in, there was a river running through our houses every fucking winter, once or twice. Because the people up the hill had just clear-cut shit, and they were just like, “All right, here’s a little flood for you.” So I didn’t have to be well-researched or well-taught on matters of the ecological impact of putting up fucking strip malls.
A lot of my politics were born in rhetoric taken from Crass records. I was pissed off at people — it wasn’t even their fault — about where they were standing with class and shit. I drew a line in the sand, which I don’t think is necessarily the way to fucking solve shit. But I was very cognizant of the blue-collar angle.
Personally, I struggled with the idea of being a sellout. Like, “Ah, this is very un-Fugazi of me.” I remember my friend Sam Jayne, he was the first person I was in a band with, he passed away this year. But him and I started our first band ever, and that band became Lync, on K Records. I dropped out, went to Arlington, Virginia, and they kept the band going. But I remember when I was in the band with him, he and I were arguing over the premise of, if someone offered us a million dollars to be on a major label would we do it? This is what teenagers fucking do, apparently. And I was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” He’s like, “Nah, where’s your integrity?” And I was like, “I have two dishwashing jobs, where the fuck’s my integrity right now? I’ll take the money and be not poor for a minute.”
The Moon & Antarctica (2000)
I did have a bigger budget, but it resembled the other budgets because that budget, it turns out… this was my first time really experiencing this, it was our first major-label release and I learned that the way that the recording budget thing worked is whoever’s working on it says, “So what you got in your pocket?” And you’re like, “This much.” And they’re like, “That’s how much it costs.” Which is fine when you don’t have anything in your pocket. But then you get to be the bigger dog and they’re like, “You’re paying to support other bands like you, so they can get in here for nickels and dimes.” So it didn’t necessarily feel like I was allowed more time because of a bigger budget.
A couple weeks into it, during basic tracking, I got my face broken by neighborhood kids. To quote them, “Fuck you, cowboy.” That’s after my jaw was broken and I was walking away. They were throwing beer kegs and bottles and saying, “Fuck you, cowboy.” I looked down and I was like, “Oh, I’m wearing a cowboy shirt.”
I was in Cook County Hospital, which is a fucking nightmare. I felt happy to be the one who wasn’t handcuffed to his gurney, bleeding to death. Got out and stayed in the apartment in the neighborhood where my mouth had been broken long enough to realize that the neighborhood kids were pretty psyched and they were coming back to do it again. Sort of like revving their engines all night and shit. I’d hear old neighbor ladies like, “Yeah, Johnny and the boys fucking broke one of those guys in the apartment, something to do with the face. And they said there’s a recording studio down in there. It’s nothing but some piles of garbage and dry wall.” Anyways, they were circling the property all the time, ready to just finish the job and shit.
I went to Del Prado, Indiana, where Benny [Massarella, Modest Mouse’s percussionist] was living. Got my face operated on, got my mouth wired shut, and then went back to the studio. I couldn’t go anywhere, and the rest of the band had left, and it was just me and the intern. And I couldn’t sing. On all these tracks, I was just stuck there and I got to do way too much layering.
I was left alone there to build that fucking record, with another guy who felt pretty happy to just be left alone. I obviously didn’t go forth and get my jaw broken for every record, but that was a better record because of it.
Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004)
We had done Antarctica, and it had done fine but not major-label fine. It did really good as far as we were concerned, but below expectations, I guess. No one who was at the label really knew who we were, except for someone in the art department. While we were recording they fired our A&R guy, so at that point we didn’t even have a liaison to the label. No one was asking us about the record. We’d send in our budget saying, “Okay, we’re working on this thing. Can we do this or that?” And I thought they were going to just boot us off the label or shelve the record.
When we gave it to them it just happened to be in this particularly dry period for Epic. And the current president of the company, Steve Barnett, was storming around from office to office, throwing paper in the air or whatever you do to get shit done. And he was like, “Oh, this just came in.” And he put it on. He was like, “That! That’s the one!” There’s a kind of fairytale rock story there, just because nothing else was going on, and we happened to be.
We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (2007)
Around The Moon & Antarctica, we started incorporating a percussionist and a violin player on stage. We had so much of that going on, it was pretty easy to just adopt the idea that Modest Mouse is a revolving door. I think it’s pretty positive. It’s there for folks if they need to come back. If I hadn’t kept a revolving door kind of community thing going on with this band, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish a lot of what we have. I think some people see … well, it’s not all positive, what people seem to feel about that. Because no one likes to be the person who disappears from the picture. Although oftentimes the person who disappears from the picture is themselves why they disappeared. It’s just an optics thing where there’s a lot of assumptions made if you’re not in the picture. Then there’s a lot of explaining, “Oh no, there wasn’t bad blood.” And sometimes there was fucking bad blood, but you know what they say, “There was no bad blood.”
With Johnny Marr, we had discussed very clearly that we were just working on three songs together and that he would do no touring. But it was too much fucking fun, so we did a whole record. And then that was too much fun, so we started touring together. And it wasn’t until we toured for fucking five years or something, four years on the same record, that Johnny had to basically be like, “I want to be making new music. And we’re just fucking playing the same shit, so we got to get out…” I remember we were in Australia, and he’s like, “Dude, what are we doing here? Let’s go make a record.” And I was like, “Ah, it’s just…” I don’t even remember what my answer was, but it wasn’t as good as, “Yeah, let’s go and make a fucking record.” So he went off, did The Cribs and stuff, which was a good move. There were another two years before we even started trying to make a record.
Strangers To Ourselves (2015)
Well, honestly, substance abuse was part of it, initially. One thing turned into another, and your eyes dilate and you work for a week on something that you have to destroy because it was never good in the first place. So there is a bit of that. It’s not the whole story, but that played into that record.
It turned out great, I love it. But that’s despite of, not because of, my bullshit and staying up. This is a very different conversation that I’d be happy to have at some point. But I was getting gang-stalked, if you’re familiar with that? Google it. Gang-stalking turned into Adderall and stuff like that, so I could keep my eyes on regular stalkers, two of which ended up in jail, one for burning my security cameras at my house. I started losing sleep, and I started taking substances to make sure I stayed awake. So other people’s bullshit made my problems on that one.
I’m starting to feel a little bashful about leaning into the negative aspects of my life that fit into an album cycle. The salacious shit, it’s okay, it makes for a good story. But all the days that weren’t shitty in fact went into making these records good, which I think probably were more important than overcoming obstacles and other shit.
The Golden Casket (2021)
I had no vision at the beginning. I went in with an almost completely blank slate. “We Are Between” was pretty much written, “Walking And Running” was sort of written, and the second half of “We Are Between,” which is “We Are Lucky,” it was two songs made in one song. And so basically there was a handful of songs that were already made. And that led back to the middle.
I didn’t want to stand and have the band showdown where we write fucking like Let It Be, where we’re talking out parts and shit. I started off with just me and Dave the producer so that we could rack up a bunch of weird sounds, and then see what we needed from the rest of the band. I just wanted everything to fucking fall together, and it did.
I wanted to make sure I didn’t accidentally make the same record again. It’s better to not put out many records, and make them all feel a bit different. I try to be very aware of whether I’m doing the same thing, or doing something too close to another thing. My canon of information — what songs are out there, not just Modest Mouse songs, but just songs in the world — I know about a lot more songs. I just remembered a song I was super psyched on with Jacknife Lee last week. I was playing the kettle drum. And I get done and I’m listening to it and I’m like, “This is fucking strange. It sounds like The Simpsons theme song.” And so I’m aware that I can’t cover songs by accident. I’m also aware that I don’t want to accidentally cover my songs.
I could talk for 10 hours bout just the subject of that song “Transmitting Receiving.” Anytime I start talking about this, I have to say, “I call this section ‘the tinfoil hat.'” It’s probably the most important shit that I’ve written about, which is the true scope of what’s going on with technology. Everything from gang-stalking, to fucking targeted individuals, to V2K, all the shit that goes on, is going on, and has been used on me. Someone bought all these salvaged IBM computers from the Pentagon, and in one of the banks of it there’s a top-secret thing called Silent Weapons For Quiet Wars. It’s basically the Third World War which we’ve been all participating in. But I’ll stop now.
I feel really, really optimistic about the fact that everyone’s casually talking about UFOs, and that they’re on the scene. And pretty pessimistic about our ability to handle our own shit. But UFOs are on the scene. And they haven’t turned us into human fondue yet, so maybe they’re here with good intentions. It’s hard to be a dad and be as pessimistic as I want to be. There’s something good about being a parent and just being aware that, not for your sake, you don’t want this place to fucking suck. For anyone. I don’t want other kids to have to live in shitty situations, because I like my kids.
I’m fighting the urge to do a children’s record. We started one which was just a cappella, about Tom The Hillbilly. And then we animated me climbing on him. We green-screened it so I’m just climbing all over his body. Because he’s always crawling and shit, because there’s always sugar or something on him. Anyways, that’s as far as we got, making a video where I’m climbing all over him as vermin.
The Golden Casket is out on June 25 via Epic Records. Get it here.