Since its improbable 2004 mainstream breakthrough via the single “Float On” and the accompanying album “Good News for People Who Love Bad News,” Modest Mouse has released just two other full-lengths in the ensuing 17 years. During that time, the Isaac Brock-led outfit has further established itself as a compelling, no-two-shows-the-same live act and something of a standard-bearer for the legion of critically acclaimed rock bands who jumped from indies to major labels in the early 2000s without sacrificing creative control.
Indeed, Modest Mouse has now been signed to Epic for more than two decades, and on the new “The Golden Casket,” out June 25, the group continues to make inscrutable and unpredictable music far removed from the pop charts. Ahead of a North American tour starting July 30 in Madison, Wisconsin, Variety called up Brock to discuss acid trips, cell phone tracking, embracing dad rock and a host of other subjects that inform the latest LP.
Based on the promo photos for this album, we should ask you: How is your golf game is coming?
I just thought I should take photos that made it look like I was acting my age. It was fun. It turns out they let you drive the little carts around and drink and then swing at shit. I just didn’t know how great “golfing” is. I think I’m going to keep showing up.
Under normal circumstances, do you find that you can write on the road?
Not really. Not historically.
So how did the pandemic impact your creativity?
There wouldn’t have been a record without it. I wouldn’t be talking to you about it. If I’d gone on tour last summer, that would have meant I wouldn’t have been in the studio working. I basically sleep on equipment in the back of the bus in a pile of cables and gear. But it never amounts to anything other than being able to sleep on top of it. Or sleep around it.
When did this batch of material take shape?
There’s a couple things on here that had started many, many years ago, between the last record and now. There’s two of those: “We Are Between” and “We Are Lucky.” That’s actually one song that we divided into two. The rest, I set myself a goal. I just wanted to make it all up in the studio. It was kind of great. Nothing had a chance to get too overwrought. I mean, there’s some “wroughting.” I went in with an empty head and started from scratch. We started here at my studio, but then the pandemic hit and we had to change venues for logistical reasons. We did the rest down at Dave Sardy’s studio.
On this material, you seem to be thinking pretty intently about the impact and danger of technology.
I was thinking about the idea of a “targeted individual,” where someone is basically using my head like a cellphone. We can file this under “tinfoil hat” and call it good. I was just thinking about those sort of possibilities. It’s getting real close, which to me means they already have it but the private sector doesn’t know about it. Just as it’s easy to tune into this phone gadget right here, they’re getting it figured out how to directly access our synapses. That was on my mind. I’m not sure I believe it.
As people, our track record with how we tend to deal with potentially useful shit isn’t great. The internet — it’s just real estate and advertising. It’s just a giant fuckin’ manipulation machine anymore. Project failed! You start hive-minding the whole joint. Trust me, the people with this shit aren’t interested in making a harmonious hive-mind, but like, “Hey, can I get everyone to dig a hole faster?” Maybe that’s just the way things go for us. I’m not really dying to be part of a hive-mind. I don’t feel particularly secretive, but i don’t feel like having 24-7 company.
The last Modest Mouse album had five different producers. This one just has Dave Sardy and Jacknife Lee, who add a lot of cool production elements. How did this impact the album?
Dave was very classically doing the producer job, full throttle. There was no question as to who was producing. He has an ear for pop, and I have an ear for strange. He doesn’t shy away from weird shit. Any idea we had could somehow get turned into music, and that was great. When I was working on these songs, I’d be pretty content for them to not have much of a pop element to them. Like, “Yeah, this is dirge-y. This is a mean song.” He’d say, “What if we tried this?” And I realized, “OK, that’s also nice” [laughs]. He was good at tuning my ear back toward pop, or casually playing something like a Beatles documentary. I’d get the hint. It was valuable. It helped with the depth of the record.
Can you give me an example of a song that came out almost fully formed, compared to one that took a long time to arrive at its final incarnation?
“Walking and Running” basically is the best of both worlds. The main verses fell together almost instantly. This one existed before this record. I couldn’t figure out what to sing. I wanted a chorus in it, and then I didn’t want a chorus in it. It was the biggest struggle of all these songs. It just needed something and I couldn’t figure out what the fuck it was for years. That one wasn’t written in the studio. That was my headache. I had the song ready to go, but not. Do I put a funny hat on it, or what? Eventually Jacknife helped us figure it out. I had to call in the troops to help me figure out what was wrong with this song.
True or false: the opening song on the album is the best song ever written about being forced to stick around while other people trip on acid?
Oh, you’ve been there? It was the summing up of multiple stories. Without saying too much, that song is about as straightforward as it gets. I am pro-trip! I’m pro-mushroom, in particular. I’m pro-psychedelic. The more I learn, the better I feel about it. I think it’s just part of us getting our shit together. It is hypothesized that this is also how our brains got so big. The “stoned ape theory” is what it’s called. It kinda just slammed us into a different consciousness and community and so on. This shit goes back 10,000 years or something. I feel like anything I want to find information on, I can find the exact opposite information, too. Something for and something against, both with bulletproof fucking arguments. Someone’s lying, but who? I don’t want Big Legume to come after me, but I did just listen to a podcast saying that since legumes were introduced to the human diet, our brains have shrunk 12 or 13%. I don’t know, man. I’m not remembering us being historically a lot bigger. I thought back in the day people were like 4 foot 10.
Well, on the flip side, there’s a lyric on the song “Making Plans” that may be the nicest sentiment I’ve ever heard on a Modest Mouse album: “just being here being you’s enough for me.”
It’a a very nice thing to believe! Just like with anything — these songs, conversation and life — there’s always the flip side to the coin. The intro of that song talks about us and our predatory ways, and how probably we’re being observed by something not quite human and shit while we doodle around in our sandbox or whatever. I got that far and went and did iboga, which is a psychedelic African bark. It’s a journey. I was walking around with no reception and no ride for miles and miles. Despite all the chaos and bullshit we create for ourselves, it’s still beautiful to be here. I felt truly in love with my friends and family at that moment.
You’ve also gone full-on dad-rock with “Lace Your Shoes.”
When we were working on the music for the record, I wasn’t able to break through the barrier to actually start putting the content in my head into words. What I needed to do to make this happen was think about something I unapologetically, overly earnestly give a shit about, and that’s my kids. I had to embarrass myself as quick and as much as possible: doting and being in love with my kids and getting that out of the way. Once I did, it helped me sing about all the other shit. I had to acknowledge the dad-lIness of myself and how much I truly enjoy that, so that then I could go record a weird song like “Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly.”
“The Sun Hasn’t Left” almost sounds like Modest Mouse’s first beach party song.
Casual Friday Modest Mouse? That one was almost forced optimism. The sky was about blocked out here in Portland due to the fires, plus the pandemic was happening. Every week or two we added a new layer of shit to what was going on. I needed to check into the flip side of that one reality and remember that it’s not all bad. I’m a believer in the power of intention. This is not to be confused with lemming-ism or some shit like that, where you just turn a blind eye to reality. It can’t stop a giant comet from smashing into us, but collectively, thinking toward the positive can steer it that way.
A lot of these songs feel like they will be fun to play live. Is that ever something you think about at the beginning?
If I ever worked on a song and knew I didn’t want to play it on tour, I’d quit working on it. Some of our songs are logistically difficult to perform because of overzealous overdubbing. They required a very large band, which I had. I’ve now slimmed it down a little. While working on the songs, some of them I’m like, “How the fuck are we gonna do this live?” “Wooden Soldiers,” for example. There’s a “water drop/bottle getting played” sound we made with modular synths and a weird little wooden keyboard. That ain’t fuckin’ happening live. Now I’m left with, “OK, what’s a viable plan B?” I get a bunch of Coke bottles and fill them up with exactly the amount of water needed to tune it, and that’s the easy answer. There’s a lot of that shit. We did a lot of really fun sound creation, like with bins full of glass bottles getting shaken and broken. Maybe I’ll fill a garbage can with glass and bring it on stage.
Based on the set lists from the last Modest Mouse tour in 2019, it’s cool that one night you might randomly get five songs from an old album like “The Moon & Antartica” and only a couple from the one you’re out promoting. Do you enjoy adding songs back into rotation that haven’t been played in a long time?
I know that there are people capable of playing the same thing night after night, but I can’t fuckin’ do it. That would require far too much acting. I like to be runnin’ scared a little, so I like trying to get into something that is not as familiar to me — not letting things get played to the point where I don’t have to think about it. I’m more likely to fuck up a song by having played it too many times and my mind is wandering while it’s happening. I find it easier to be engaged with songs if I’m not playing them every night. If it’s different every day, I’m all the better at engaging in the activity, and that’s the deal with the live thing anyways.
Somewhat improbably, given the track record for indie rock bands signing to major labels, Modest Mouse has now been on Epic for more than 20 years. Has it been a good partnership?
I’ve got nothing but good stuff to say. I’ve not suffered any of the indignities or hardships people claim to have gotten from major-label interactions. Most of my music industry fucking came from smaller labels. I’ve enjoyed the friendships. I’ve enjoyed the entire ride on Epic. It’s been pretty fuckin’ good.