Modest Mouse, Now 22, Still Actually Good
On the road with Modest Mouse, whose last album still feels fresh, even after an eight-year hiatus and a quarter-century after they first formed.
“You know what? I don’t care. Who do they think they are? Fuck those guys.”
Modest Mouse front man Isaac Brock is standing outside his tour bus, smoking a cigarette in the cold blue glow of morning’s very first light, somewhere on a Chattanooga, Tennessee side street. Hours earlier, he and his band played a triumphantly loud show to a beyond sold-out crowd in a venue that was, frankly, too small. Earlier in the day, the cashier at a downtown store had told me that he’d wanted to attend, but that tickets had sold out in minutes and were now going on Craigslist for hundreds of dollars.
The decision to play these smaller theaters was intentional. A short run up the coast from a festival in Florida, working out the kinks en route to a spate of shows and press in New York the following week supporting the band’s wildly anticipated sixth album, Strangers to Ourselves, their first new release in nearly eight years, and one that’s taken five to create. It’s the pre-release press barrage that has Brock up in arms as we talk by the bus, in particular what he sees as a trolling take by a once-relevant music mag.
Formed in 1993 by a teenage Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green, and recently departed bassist Eric Judy, Modest Mouse has had more than two decades to feed the sort of rumors and shallow non-controversies that culture bloggers salivate over, but it’s Brock’s opinion that such things ultimately have no bearing on the music, especially not on this newest record. And if there is one thing that he is focused on—a focus so laser sharp it cuts through the morning’s haze and the lack of sleep and the looming hangover—it’s music.
Just talking about the songs on the new album invigorates him, straightens his posture, brings a fire to his eyes. Soon we’re sitting back on the bus as Brock fiddles with a collection of Bluetooth speakers, delving into Strangers while the rest of the band and crew sleep in a nearby hotel and Chattanooga itself starts to stir. We cycle through a few of the tracks, then go deeper into some of the songs that didn’t make the initial release but have been rumored to be a part of a soon-to-come second new release, which Brock claims will arrive “as quickly as it’s legally allowed,” some of which feature big name collaborations, including Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic.
Brock’s excitement grows with these—he’s sitting on the bench seat in front of me, a speaker module in each hand, held aloft next to each of my ears after being unable to find any other configuration that he felt did the music justice. The few outtakes that I get to hear are different from those that appear on Strangers, heavier. He’s making unwavering eye contact, watching my reaction to what I’m hearing, an intensity I admittedly have to occasionally look away from.
He’s this passionate with more than just his own music. He also insists that I listen to tracks from the evening’s opening act, Mimicking Birds, who release records under Brock’s Glacial Pace imprint. It’s this level of dedication to music that has ultimately fueled his band’s twenty-some year journey, dragged Brock and company through ups, downs, rumors, drugs, friends, fame and all of the other detritus of lives lived hard and on the creative edge, obsessively chasing, or perhaps channeling, the stuff that makes tunes millions of fans connect with.
“I don’t answer that kind of question,” the thus far gregarious singer tells me when asked about the meaning of his often abstract, metaphoric lyrics while we’re sitting in a hotel room in New York City, at a press day a couple weeks before the tour starts. He is seated by an open window and smoking American Spirits, drinking whiskey from the mini bar.
“Honestly, I don’t even always know what they mean when they come out,” he says. “I’m working it out as they come, figuring it out along the way.”
The rest of the hour-long conversation focuses on things like photography, journalism, and the environment, a topic of particular interest (and vehemence) for Brock.
“I want to hire Blackwater or one of those security firms to go and shoot poachers. Poacher poachers,” he tells me, absolutely serious. “What we’ve done—are doing—to this place is just fucking unbelievable. I mean, what right do we even have to be here at all now?”
The pro-Earth, fuck-humans theme is apparent throughout Strangers, particularly on “Coyotes,” which calls out the hypocrisy of so much of our culture’s approach to conservation.
Mankind’s behavin’ like some serial killers
Giant ol’ monsters afraid of the sharks….
And we say, “We’re in love with all of it”
And we say, “We’re in love with everything”
And we lie, we love to lie.
Our hour of conversation sat well enough with Brock that he extended the invitation to tag along on this tour. I met the band in Athens, Georgia, the day before our bus listening session, and immediately dove in by taping an interview with multi-instrumentalist Tom Peloso, who resembles a Civil War reenactor with his immense beard and lanky frame, He’s been with the band officially since 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News.
“I think people need to step away from themselves for a minute and enjoy something that is a universally awesome thing,” he tells me, as we stand in the warm air outside our hotel.
To say that Isaac Brock is the center of the Modest Mouse maelstrom is an understatement. Nearly every decision, from music to packaging to press photos, runs through him. He records his albums on his own dime, to keep the label out of it – “this one left me almost homeless before it was done,” he readily admits – and protects his crew and managers and band members fiercely, both from outsiders and, when needed, from each other, acting as arbiter of internal disputes. He takes his role as king and provider very seriously, to the point of even considering backing off his duties as singer, recently, and slowly removing himself entirely from the band.
“What if I get hit by a bus, or bust my head open? These people, their livelihood, their families, depend on me being able to do what I do,” he tells me as we walk outside the crowded venue in Athens, just far enough away from hundreds of gathered fans awaiting entry.
It is a plan he has, at least for now, abandoned.
Brock himself is an unlikely rock star. Even tonight, clad in a brightly colored windbreaker and running shoes, just yards away from die-hard fans of his music, he doesn’t draw a crowd. In fact, when approached by two smiling fans asking for a photo, it turns out they simply want one of us to snap their pic in front of the marquee with the band’s name on it as a keepsake, with no idea who it is they’re asking.
“Modest Mouse is totally our favorite band,” one of them gushes, handing over his phone. Brock’s dread at potential discovery soon melts away to amusement, especially when they thank us and disappear back into the throng.
While his battles with self-doubt and paranoia are well documented by the press and in his music, in person it’s less apparent than one would expect. Based on descriptions in the media, or late night ponderings of his lyrics, you expect a man wracked with neurosis, frozen in the headlights of his own mind. Yet, at least to me, Brock is gregarious and open, if a little twitchy from time to time. What nearly 40-year-old lifelong rock star doesn’t have a few battle scars? He’s like an old Econo Van, battered and a little scary, probably not safe for kids, but comfortable once you’ve accepted the ride.
Brock is at moments reserved, but then explodes into rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness dissertations riddled with both insight and dark humor. It’s often as though he builds up all of his energy in those quiet moments, then expends it quickly, burning hot, until he has to seek a respite to recharge. His moods can seem to shift just as fast.
On stage, it’s a different thing. This is where he comes into his own, leaving whatever baggage and stress behind, or at least channeling it constructively. Where most bands, especially ones who have been around for decades, will get in and out with surgeon-like precision as far as time slots and sound checks, Brock and company are noticeably excited at the prospect of pushing a show past the normal conclusion when a venue’s curfew is later than usual. Similarly, their sound checks can be hours long, social events on the stage that cover more than a setlist or dialing in mics and monitors.
“These people are my family,” he tells me. They enjoy hanging out with each other, from crew to band members to management, and are all, for the most part, friends. It’s a chemistry that is hard to falsify. But with his fierce loyalty comes an equally fierce expectation for everyone to carry his or her own weight.
It’s a weight that has grown heavier, with the band, originally a three piece back in the early 90s, swelling to its current incarnation of a stage-crowding seven-plus full time members, with the most recent addition being affable, all-smiles Russell Higbee replacing founding bassist Eric Judy.
While on the surface ambivalent about the critical reception of Strangers, which has been generally good with the expected hold outs who don’t want to go the same way as everyone else, you can tell that, on some level, Brock cares. He cares what all of the fans think as well, a large part of what has led to his historic refusal to allow press along while touring.
“Why give a distraction? None of what we do, who we are, matters,” Brock says. His tone is flat when he tells me this. He says he doesn’t like to tell people what the lyrics mean to him. He doesn’t want the music to be categorized or pigeonholed by the appearance or behavior of the people behind it. He wants his songs to stand on their own, only dirtied by a listener’s personal, untarnished connections and interpretations. It’s a quest for purity in an impure world.
There are those camps, especially in the media, who would argue that who they are is what the music is. But after watching him, over the course of a few hours, mingle with fans post-show, agonize over critics, spend an hour counseling a long-time friend and employee, text with other interviewers, give long dissertations on songs, and, finally, pass out on the bus bench, well into the morning hours, I both agree and don’t.
Isaac Brock and the rest of Modest Mouse are the channels for the music—their passion and camaraderie and weirdness and creativity are the bones of it—but once that music is out in the world, their roles can be considered done, complete, the conduit closed except for live shows.
Unlike pop music, so bland and generic it requires trumped-up personalities to drive and differentiate it, Modest Mouse builds the kind of environments that stand on its own individual merit. And that, in itself, is the sort of achievement that gives a band the legs to march some twenty years, and maybe on into the future.