Modest Mouse: Being Here Now
Photo credit: James Joiner
A key moment in the making of Modest Mouse’s new LP— and, from the sound of it, Isaac Brock’s entire life—was the burning of ibogaine, a hallucinogenic African tree bark.
“I wanted to get past some recovery things and quit smoking—shit like that,” the songwriter recalls. “The pandemic hit and, by the time I showed up [for the ceremony], I wasn’t smoking or anything anyway. But I was like, ‘I have this appointment, so I might as well do it.’ It was really meaningful. I was warned by the guide, going into it, that some people get really emotional—sometimes even violent. It kinda depends on what’s inside there. But I just dissolved into actual love. I thought about how much I love everyone who’s important to me.
“I know this delves into the trippy, hippie zone,” he adds. “I’ll just say what it did for me: It showed me that love is basically the only thing you can get more of by giving, besides hate. I know which side I’m going for.”
The Golden Casket, Modest Mouse’s seventh album, isn’t one big love-in. It’s filled with apocalyptic touches—nodding to the 2020 Oregon wildfires, the sinister implications of smartphone technology and humankind’s endless craving for distraction. But Brock often writes with a surprising brightness, most notably on “Lace Your Shoes,” a love song to his young children.
Brock even approaches his darkest moments with a hint of wisdom and encouragement. “Wooden Soldiers,” a song inspired by that tree bark encounter, starts with some surreal ramblings but ends with a true moment of Zen: “Even death just may not be/ We’ll cross that bridge sometime and see/ Just being here now is enough for me.”
“Being Here Now” could have been the album title. While many of Brock’s classic songs convey modern angst through vivid, cartoonish imagery—sinking ships, wild packs of dogs, cowboys firing rifles at God—The Golden Casket mostly pats you on the back as the world crumbles, whispering, “Enjoy the good stuff while it lasts, my friend.”
The timing, philosophically, was fitting. Brock and company started recording the LP, their first since 2015’s Strangers to Ourselves, just as the grim reality of COVID-19 began to settle in. “We set up in Portland right before the pandemic hit—spent a week miking everything, got everything just ready to go,” Brock recalls. “[Producer Dave] Sardy went home for the weekend and never came back.”
Naturally, the sessions were messy and somewhat piecemeal, bouncing between the band’s Portland, Ore. recording spot and stints with Sardy and co-producer Jacknife Lee in Los Angeles. Some contributors, including singer/multiinstrumentalist Lisa Molinaro, sent in their parts remotely—never even entering the studio.
“All of the same people are actually on the album,” Brock says. “Even [former guitarist] Dann Gallucci contributed to it—though, at the last minute, there was a remix of the song he was on. But, through the nature of how this thing was recorded—people kinda sending stuff in through the mail—it was fun. I wasn’t in the mood to approach writing the way we usually do. [Before], it was like seven people in a room trying to write at the same time. I used to have to remove a lot of people’s parts in order to make space for an actual song. After having written so many songs in a ‘standing together writing’ sort of way, it seemed tedious. I just wanted to explore the wealth of technologies that we now have available to us and start weaving together shit rather than doing classic songwriting. With this one, because it was so woven together, if I needed something, then I just asked for it without having people write parts I wasn’t looking for.”
That process of curation—of recording and muting and erasing and remixing— neatly dovetailed with Brock’s original vision of a more production-heavy album based on unusual sounds. The Golden Casket is layered with synths, the occasional brass or marimba part, and some tasty percussion courtesy of longtime member Ben Massarella. In short, it’s their most cut-and-paste, digitalsounding record, and intentionally so.
The tinkering began with the assistance of Sardy (LCD Soundsystem, Oasis), whom management suggested as a compatible option. During his initial visits with Brock, the producer was keen to experiment— he wasn’t even scared away when the guitarist started “banging on metal bowls and making a really awful sound.”
“The idea was to go in and meet him and start messing around,” says founding drummer Jeremiah Green, who notes his fondness of Sardy’s old noise-rock band, Barkmarket. “I had a CD when I was a teenager. It reminds me of a more melodic Helmet.”
Brock and Sardy started The Golden Casket on their own, building soundscapes just to get some basic ideas down. “We played through drum machines for a minute,” Brock says, “and then we started building [with live drums and other instruments].”
The singer/guitarist was eager to travel somewhere strange. Though he’s long been known for his distinctive guitar sound—utilizing bent notes and wild effects—he proclaimed early on in the sessions that he wouldn’t touch his trademark instrument this time around. “It was vague,” he says of that mission statement. “I had a moment of putting my foot down. I made the declaration that I wasn’t gonna play guitar on the record. I didn’t believe it. [Sardy] didn’t believe it. And I ended up playing the guitar anyway. [Laughs.] But it gave us a few days of sticking to that script, pretending that was real and making all kinds of funky sounds.”
The duo molded loops into bed tracks— foundations for the rest of the band to pile onto. It was liberating for Brock, even if the vast majority of their weirdness didn’t make the final mix.
For example, as the members of Modest Mouse gear up to rehearse for their upcoming tour, they’ve been sorting through their files and have discovered loads of Tuvan throat singing—on almost every song. “We could make a full-on Tuvan throat-singing record,” Brock says. “We know this guy Enrique, who I think was on America’s Got Talent or something like that. He’s a taxi driver in Portland who’s pretty cool. He also won the Tuvan throat-singing competition for Tuva itself, which isn’t bad for an American dude. But I don’t think Dave was as onboard with our throat-singing leanings. He barely humored us.”
In fact, they discarded so many sounds that Brock and Green would both love to create a brand-new version of The Golden Casket using only discarded overdubs. “I wanna do it!” Green says with a laugh.
“We could probably go back in there and, if we muted what’s on each song and combined that with shit that we didn’t use, we could make another really interesting record with the exact same songs,” Brock adds. “I keep finding stuff and I’m like, ‘Damn!’”
However, the frontman has had earned the right to be bored, at least temporarily, with typical band songwriting. For most of Modest Mouse’s lifespan—dating back to 1992, when he and Green formed the group in Issaquah, Wash., with original bassist Eric Judy—Brock has been at the helm of a traditional studio-to-stage act. Of course, they’ve weathered numerous line-up changes over the decades, including a brief union with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. And the Modest Mouse of 2021 is more of a shifting collective than a classic “band.”
Several other contributors appear in the Golden Casket liner notes—including multi-instrumentalists Tom Peloso, Jim Fairchild and Russell Higbee—but not always on the same song, with Sardy and Lee handling a fair amount of parts themselves. (Eagle-eyed fans may also notice a familiar name in the credits: Judy, who left in 2011 to spend more time with his family, is credited as a co-writer on the shout-along slow-burner “Walking and Running,” which the group started years ago, during the bassist’s tenure.)
Brock loves working with such a wide cast of characters, but he also recognizes the necessity of shrinking down the touring lineup.
“Things are easier with fewer people— decisions are generally easier,” he says. “I really like everyone I play with. Most of the time, when people leave the band or I decide to have someone else have their role for a minute, it’s not because I don’t absolutely adore all these people. I just want to try something different. I like that it’s a community and that no one’s ever out out. No one has really ever been banned from the band. Our band was starting to get a little too big, and I just had to shrink it down—it was just a numbers thing. There were just too many heads for the time being. That sucks. I like having all these people around. However, at some point, I was going to end up with 50 people on a bus, all of us splitting a sandwich.”
Soundscapes and headcounts aside, Brock still needed songs for Casket—and the real writing only trickled in at first. He found the solution by looking close to home.
“I guess I was having writer’s block because, despite having a lot going on in my mind, I couldn’t find any way to put it into a song,” he says. “I realized there was this major obstacle, which is that the only thing I wanted to talk or sing about was my kids. I was like, ‘OK, the only way I’m going to get on to anything else is to write as earnest a love song as I can to these people.’”
That tune became “Lace Your Shoes,” a moist-eyed meditation on fatherhood: the pride, the fear, the joy and the feeling of powerlessness that comes from watching your children grow up. But as fans might expect from Brock, it’s also not a conventional daddy-kid song—an early lyric mentions strolling past headstones, though fans probably shouldn’t read too much into that.
“We actually spend a lot of time in the graveyard by our house—it works as imagery, but it’s just reality,” he says. “It’s nice—the kids can run without me having to tell them not to touch shit or stop every few feet for traffic.”
Blunt honesty comes in many flavors on The Golden Casket, whether Brock is plainly expressing his wonder at the natural world (the churning, hornheavy “We’re Lucky”) or venting about a psychedelic experience gone awry (the suitably trippy “Fuck Your Acid Trip”).
The latter song is an amalgamation of real-life stories—and, curious title aside, Brock still insists that psychedelics are worth the journey for most people, under safe conditions.
“It’s good to have someone with you who’s got their head on straight, and they can always bring you back down,” he says. “But even the moments of a trip that are stressful end up making you a better person.”
On the album’s most jarringly blunt song, the grinding “Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly,” Brock glances over his shoulder at “peeping toms,” proclaims his distaste for politics and declares, “I don’t like being watched by the TVs.”
“My experiences in life have led me to believe—and I’m researching my ass off trying to prove this stuff—that people can actually access your mind,” he says. “I believe people can get in, just using a cellphone. Basically everyone knows MKUltra was real. They’ve gotten a lot better at it over the course of 60 years. It’s an abuse. My thinking is: We’re all spiders. We all have a web. Stay on your own fucking thread.”
Green doesn’t delve into those complicated themes, but he does note that he “loves” “Fly,” calling it his “favorite song on the record.”
Even the most paranoid moments on The Golden Casket somehow come across as grounded. The album often feels like Brock surveying his life—and the context of that life—without extraneous commentary. A line like “it takes a lot of pay no mind with our cellular gadgets on,” which appears on “Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly,” somehow feels at home next to lyrics such as “I can’t wait to see you go to school” on “Lace Your Shoes.”
Brock knows that he is living in a fucked-up world full of evil, but he is still capable of finding plenty of beauty when he slows down and looks for it. “We’ll ditch our phones in the rest stop bathroom/ When can we leave?” he pleads on the art-punk rave-up “Japanese Trees”—the sound of a man fed up with the complications of digital life and eager to sprint into the woods.
In fact, The Golden Casket might be the most optimistic Modest Mouse LP yet. And no song better fits that description than “The Sun Hasn’t Left,” an arena-sized show piece. “You’re not wrong, things are a mess,” Brock sings over a snappy, chopped-up marimba loop, crunchy percussion and streaks of synthesizer. “But there’s still something left.”
“I had no idea that song was gonna end up being so brutally honest,” Brock says.
“That was surprising to me,” Green adds. “It was written nine months into the pandemic or something.”
“Lyrically, it wasn’t initially as optimistic,” Brock interjects. “It was one of the last things we were working on for the record. There were so many frowns out there, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna look for the silver linings.”