Modest Mouse: Only the Strange Remain

Emily Zemler on March 6, 2015

On “Pups to Dust,” a surging track wedged in the middle of Modest Mouse’s first album in eight years, Strangers To Ourselves, singer Isaac Brock intones, “The way we feel about what we do is by who has watched us.” As a musician, Brock refuses to explain himself, denying any literal translation of his lyrics because he hopes to retain the inherently personal experience of a song. But that line, juxtaposed with existential quandaries that are seeped in self-doubt, feels like it’s in reference to Modest Mouse’s relationship with their fanbase, a collection of listeners who have been expectedly waiting for the band’s follow-up to We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank since 2007.

“I started getting a guilty conscience about a promise I’d never made,” Brock says, calling from his home in Portland, Ore. He’s jovial and engaged, quipping that he has to go run pieces of wood through a planking machine after the call, something that he “figures will be therapeutic.” Brock’s house is infamous itself, having appeared in a 2011 video clip that toured his expansive collection of taxidermy. When asked if it looks the same, the musician chuckles and says, “I will vainly say it looks a lot cooler now. But I don’t really have anything invested in people knowing what the inside of my house looks like.”

He is, though, invested in the band’s general relationship with their audience. Brock and the rest of the group are aware that fans have become frustrated with the lack of new material over the past seven years. “I didn’t have a calendar that said, ‘Every third year we release a record in February,’” Brock says, reflecting on what it meant to grapple with that guilty conscience. “I wasn’t late for something.
I hadn’t made a date with everyone where I was going to show up with a record. But you can’t help but notice when folks are complaining to you about it. Especially if you are going out and playing live and you don’t stop doing that. Sometimes they don’t understand why you bother leaving your house and coming to their town without bringing them a new record.”

There were several delays, and by Brock’s account, they were fairly nondramatic and quotidian. After releasing We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the group’s fifth album and their only record to include Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, the musicians took a short break in early 2007. They continued to tour and started seriously considering a new album in mid- 2012, when Brock rented a studio space in Portland. “We were thinking really bare bones—rent a warehouse, put mattresses against the wall to deaden it, stacks of used books around the engineer,” he notes. “Just knock it out. I rented a place for six months and, six months later, we were done building an actual studio. The lease was coming up. I got carried away. So I had to buy the building at that point because I’d dumped so much money into building an actual studio.”

Brock purchased the building, dubbed Ice Cream Party Studios, in December 2012, and the recording continued there off and on whenever the band members could get together throughout 2013 and 2014. The overall process took nearly three years. Initially, Brock planned to co-produce the album, but he “fired himself” after only 10 days. (Brock is still credited as the album’s producer, though he received additional production help from Andrew Weiss, Tucker Martine, Clay Jones and Brian Deck.) Throughout, he had a concern that things weren’t moving as quickly as they could be.

“We’re very good at wasting time,” founding Modest Mouse drummer Jeremiah Green says a day later. He’s calling from his car during a two-hour drive to the airport, and it is his first interview about the new album—a fact he apologizes for several times. “We’ll hang out and smoke until somebody tells us to do something. When we’re recording, we’ll wait for the person that’s recording us to say, ‘OK, it’s time to go. Let’s go record some music.’ But for some reason, people are afraid to tell us what to do. Eventually, we were like, ‘Hey, please tell us what to do because we’re going to stand here all day otherwise.’ We just like hanging out with each other too much.” The drummer especially felt that outside pressure from fans. “The album took a long time,” he says. “There were a lot of stops and starts. And yeah, I got frustrated. I was like, ‘I want this shit out.’ I wanted it to be magically done.”

Ultimately, the reason Modest Mouse didn’t spit out a new record three years ago is because the songs just weren’t fully developed yet. The musicians didn’t enter into the new music with any sort of intention or vision in mind, instead allowing the music to create itself along the way. In the early stages, Brock found himself interested in a certain type of song that he eventually dismissed.

“I was really enjoying writing long songs that went nowhere about absolutely fucking nothing,” he notes. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to write a record version of Our Town.’ I was just going out of my way to not be interesting, and I got a little distance on it. I got about five songs into that and that was enough for me, and I shelved most of that stuff. The mood changes as the record writes itself. Rather than it becoming an intentional concept that I’m steering, I find ways to convince myself I had a plan.”

The musicians accumulated around 37 songs—some that didn’t necessarily feel cohesive with Modest Mouse’s current collective identity. There wasn’t a direct desire to change things up or explore new sonic territory, but the band inevitably does bring the album to places they may have previously avoided. “Pistol” is a gritty, angular number that surges with sexual innuendo as Brock growls, “I’ve got a pistol that I need to unload,” and stands in notable contrast to tracks like the meditative, titular opener and the introspective “Ansel,” which harkens back to early Modest Mouse. As the band has toured, they’ve offered up versions of several new tracks, whether the audience realized it or not—most notably “Sugar Boats,” which Green says has gotten the best immediate reaction with its “polka- like dance feel.”

“The songs are all together on an album and they’re out there,” he says. “I feel like they’re all cohesive, but I don’t necessarily know what makes them cohesive. That’s the hard part when you have a bunch of songs. When you have 35 songs, some of them are too happy-sounding or something. There was one song I really liked but it was so poppy and happy, and we felt like it didn’t fit. It’s not a bad song, and maybe it will come out sometime, but it didn’t fit this time. A lot of our records are all over the place and that works for us.” But if you ask Brock to explain the correlation between the album’s 15 tracks, he will not. The singer isn’t interested in ruining any conception the audience has about the music. Brock isn’t exactly being difficult in his refusal, but unlike many musicians, he’s aware, by this point, how much he will say about his own songs.

“That ruins a record for me, frankly,” he replies. “That’s a standard rule I stick to after the Pixies ruined the song ‘Debaser’ for me. I found out it was just about some old film and, basically, they’re just singing about what happens in the movie. I still love them, but now, when I listen to that song, all of my imagery was taken from me and replaced with footage from a film I’ve seen a little bit of. I like to think that the things I’m writing songs about and their plots are great, but I don’t want to fuck it up for other people. Listening to music is something that really is personal. People get to put themselves in it and invest themselves. Music is some- thing you put yourself into and personalize, somewhat. That’s my long-winded reason for why I’m not going to give you an answer.”

Brock isn’t completely shut off from revealing the creative process behind the songs. He admits a deep interest in the natural world and the environment, and he spent three years of the album process beekeeping. He forages and hunts for mushrooms, and refers to himself as “on the team of shitty monsters” when it comes to man’s relationship with the animal world. So when Brock sings, “Mankind’s behaving like some serial killers” on “Coyotes,” the second track to emerge from Strangers To Ourselves, there is a sort of revelation contained in the lyric.

It’s also not that Brock won’t inspect his songs for continuity, but he does seem disinterested in any sort of typical artist self-reflection. “What have you created and why?” isn’t the type of question he’ll be responding to thoroughly any time soon. When queried about his voice, with its distinctive growl, he refuses to think about it. “For all I know, I still sound like I did when I was eight,” he says simply. “I’ve been stuck in this vessel the whole fucking time. The changes seem really gradual. I have no perspective on that.”

Despite their sometimes coy replies, Brock and Green have some perspective on what’s allowed Modest Mouse to continue to create and release music since 1996’s This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. That record’s complexly wrought indie-rock contained its own sensibility and tone—one that has felt completely unique to Modest Mouse since, regardless of the sort of songs they release. Brock’s lyrics, often filled with self-doubt and more questions than answers, have been narratively poetic throughout each album, standing out notably on 2000’s moody effort The Moon & Antarctica. Band members and touring musicians have shifted since 1996, with Brock and Green as the only real mainstays. Tom Peloso, who joined in 2004, has been integral during the past decade. But Eric Judy, who had been the band’s bassist since Modest Mouse began in 1993, decided to leave the group while they were gearing up for Strangers To Ourselves. There wasn’t any drama, just adulthood.

“He finally had enough,” Brock says. “He has three kids. He didn’t feel like leaving his house as much as is required. He left right before we started recording, but some of his writing still exists throughout the record. Making a record without him was really fucking hard.”

Judy’s departure left a hole that Modest Mouse initially wanted to fill with an exact replication of his playing. They auditioned musicians for several months. In the end, though, they went with touring member Russell Higbee. “It turns out that Russell is a really good bass player, so in the end, it was Russell,” Green adds. “Eric’s shoes are hard to fill. The live show now feels great. It was good before, too, but we’re all buddies and it’s a good scene.”

The chemistry between Brock and Green is, for both musicians, one of the most important factors in Modest Mouse’s continuation. Green states simply that the connection he has with Brock is better than with anyone else, and both reference the group’s instinct to just hang out together instead of actively doing any work. They like each other too much to keep the band unwaveringly productive all the time. And once they do get into the studio, things just work. Songs, often, write themselves.

“We don’t have to think anymore,” Green notes. “There’s a little bit of a psychic connection and it feels comfortable. Especially when you’ve been friends with somebody for 20 years and you go through all sorts of shit together—we know how to get along. I always wanted to be a musician and I’m doing it. I’m happy about that.”

“Like any relationship, you find ways to keep making it interesting for yourself,” Brock adds. “You get creative to keep it engaging to yourself the whole time, the best you can. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s by completely sabotaging yourself like, ‘Oh, look at this awful mess! I better clean this up!’ Sadly, that’s stop number one for me. Like, ‘Maybe I’ll make this interesting by making it really difficult for myself.’”

Brock is a perfectionist, both by self-definition and by outside reputation. He is always looking for the small shifts that will bring a song perfect balance. Even now, as he discusses the solidified, final album, Brock continues to tinker. He can’t stop himself from going back into the studio and remixing songs that have already been sent to the band’s label. Green says a weight has been lifted off his shoulders now that the album is actually coming out, but Brock doesn’t feel a similar sense of catharsis.

“I’m pretty sure I can still make them sound a little better,” he says. “It’s too late but it’s not too late for me. We found ourselves, toward the end of the project, mired in me remixing songs over and over again. The mixes were fine—it’s just crazy- people shit. I was hearing crickets and getting too weird. I had to cut it loose. But I still don’t feel relieved. And after other records, I have. At least a few times, I think I might have. It wasn’t an option for me this time. But I am happy with the record.”

As for the perfectionist thing? “I try to do things every bit as good as I can,” he muses. “If shit sounds out of time on any song or something, I did try to not have it be that way and that’s as good as we got. I’m fairly relentless with getting whatever idea I have in my head to sound the best it can, which is difficult sometimes. It’s not always clear and sitting in front of me where I can be like, ‘That’s what I want.’ It’s a bit nebulous, but I know when I ain’t got it. I have to stumble around in the dark until we find the thing it was supposed to be.”

For Green, there is a fine line between delays for no reason and changes that still benefit the eventual product. “Of course, I wanted it to be done quicker,” he says. “But I trust Isaac to know. I understand his not wanting to let go and I felt the same way, too. But it has to come out. It’s going to have to come out at some point. And it’s always weird—you put something out and you think it can be better.”

Modest Mouse will discover the real result of their efforts only after the public has heard the songs on Strangers To Ourselves. It’s as Brock poses in the aforementioned “Pups To Dust”—art can’t exist in a creative bubble. It only finds itself once it is reflected by its audience. This particular album requires several listens before judgment, mostly because the songs are deeply varied and layered, which are aspects that are typical of Modest Mouse, but the vast space between albums does feel like it’s opened a new chapter in the band’s musical sensibility. Both Brock and Green like the record, but it doesn’t necessarily represent the pinnacle of their artistic achievement. In other words, this is not the final stepping stone for Modest Mouse.

“I’m proud of what we did,” Green says. “And I promise our next record will come out sooner. We have a bunch of songs and we’ll probably rework them. They are good—they’re just not finished. We might put out something really strange next.”

“I feel like I need to keep trying,” Brock reflects. “I’m happy with the songs—I raised them the best I could. I’m not disappointed, but I’m not sitting in a big, old chair being like, ‘I did it! Fuck that duck. Done and done. I made my perfect record.’” He seems to have mixed feelings about being asked to reflect on his career or to offer grand sweeping statements on himself as an artist. And, anyway, there should always be something to strive for. “That would be fucking sweet if we did make a perfect record,” he adds. “But then what?”