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Modest Mouse Go Digging For Fire On The Golden Casket

Isaac Brock invites us into his warehouse to talk parenthood and embracing optimism.

by Luis Minvielle

Isaac Brock is sitting in his warehouse studio, just off the Columbia River near Downtown Portland and the decor visible behind him is about as quirky as you might expect. There’s a colourful coffin-shaped stained glass painting behind him, an assortment of ravelled plants with greenery above, and a beeping baby monitor just in front of him. Brock himself is sporting an appearance as disheveled as his warehouse: his beard scruffy, hair messed-up, and his blue sweater decorated with cartoons of mushrooms. Better known in the indie realm as the founder and frontperson of distinguished indie rock band Modest Mouse, Brock seems laid back, comfortable, and in good spirits. This impression contradicts his reputation as an unpredictably cranky curmudgeon, which makes for a great day to talk with him about his band’s legacy and their new album, The Golden Casket.

Brock’s warehouse may look like a hoarder’s zany dream, but in 2020, Modest Mouse selected it as their workplace. One year ago, the band and their producer Dave Sardy set the warehouse up as a recording studio to take on the new album. However, as for most people during 2020, things didn’t turn out as anticipated. “We tried to record our last album in this warehouse. It was all set up. But then the world got sick,” Brock says, throwing his hands up in the air emphatically. “So we just went to Los Angeles with my whole family and recorded the album there.” 

The Golden Casket is Modest Mouse’s seventh LP and their first one in six years. Based in Portland but originally from Issaquah, Washington, the band first struck in 1996 with their debut record, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About. The anxious, sarcastic, lo-fidelity rock masterpiece turned 25 just a month ago. Brock is surprised when reminded that a quarter-century has gone by since its release but he doesn’t dodge the fact that he’s no longer a ravaging, guitar-shredding twenty-something. The press release for The Golden Casket even includes a picture of Brock in golf apparel. “For the record, I don’t know how to play golf. That was me jokingly acting my age,” he admits. “Golf’s a fun thing to do though,” he adds. “You get to drive tiny little cars and drink and swing wildly at shit.”

Instead of hitting the links, parenthood is primarily what defines Brock and how his day-to-day episodes unfold. “My day starts early — at dad hours. It’s super cute. Good days involve the woods and my kids. Bad days involve too much sleep,” he says just as his baby monitor makes a noise that distracts his attention. 

Modest Mouse, for its part, needs no monitor: the band and Brock are one entity. Reflecting on their origins, Brock can’t split his life in a pre-band era. “It never felt like Modest Mouse had never been there,” he says. “Modest Mouse started when I was so young that it just seemed like a natural step. The band is the sort of thing that I wouldn’t ever say has stopped or is dead, you know? Even if I didn’t do it for 20 years. To stop with Modest Mouse — it’d be as easy as it would be for me to stop being myself.”

From an outsider’s perspective, the turning point could be 1996’s “Dramamine,” the first song on This is a Long Drive. Brock claimed that he’d “never been able to make another song like it” in a recent interview. “I’ve never heard another one like that. I love that song”, he says of the track he composed with Modest Mouse’s founding bandmates, Eric Judy and Jeremiah Greene. 

The song’s lyrics and the album’s title hint at a sensation that Modest Mouse has repeatedly convened throughout their career: an unpleasant feeling of blue-collar ennui, a girdling combination of solitude and boredom that becomes quickly obfuscating. Brock’s recollection of the album’s origin story matches the album’s anxious, overwhelming instinct, but not so much its drowning undertones. “That recording session went really quickly. I didn’t go into it with a title, you know? I remember I drove every night after we’d recorded from Issaquah to Olympia. What is it, an hour and a half drive? Not that brutal, honestly. But yeah, that’s how that came to be,” he says.

Indie stalwart Calvin Johnson — known for establishing Olympia’s K Records, penning the classic track “Indian Summer,” and being Kurt Cobain’s pre-eminent hero — participated in the album’s recording sessions. Upon consultation by RANGE earlier this year, Johnson claimed he does not recall anything about it, but he believes Modest Mouse “still rocks.” Brock is visibly delighted to hear this. “To have Calvin be a musical guest was a big deal to me. I still have some sort of contact with almost everyone who had anything to do with Long Drive. And that was 25 fucking years ago.”

Johnson is just one of the notable musicians to have ever recorded with Modest Mouse. Johnny Marr, distinguished guitarist and founder of the Smiths, played with the band from 2006 to 2009 and joined forces in the studio for their 2007 album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. James Mercer of the Shins is also a regular guest, providing backing vocals to Brock’s distinguishable lispy drawl. “He’s the best singer in my band,” jokes Brock. “I’d invite James on at least one song every album. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it on this one, which is kind of sad because I like having him on.”

The changing roster may help explain how the band went from a home-brewed, lo-fi sound on celebrated indie rock staple The Lonesome Crowded West (1997) to a layered, burnished production style that defines their major-label debut, The Moon & Antarctica (2000). “A good band, I think, is like a living organism that is fed by and reflects what’s around it,” Brock says. “Bands have always been kind of fluid. People are in and out and back in, and everyone I know is part of me, if that makes sense.

“For The Golden Casket, I wanted to have a smaller band. So I shrunk the band down a bit. I think Modest Mouse it’s just me and robots. Me singing with a bunch of robots, you know?” Upon being told that Mark E. Smith, the late (and notoriously grumpy) frontman of the British post-punk band The Fall, famously once said, “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, then it’s the Fall,” Brock chuckles.

“Mark E. Smith was a lot more ballsy than I am, so I wouldn’t say something like that, mostly because my grandmas are both dead. I’d say it’d be really hard for me to get them on stage,” he says with a laugh.

Would Brock’s grandmother be able to get on the stage in a golden casket? “No, because it’s not a coffin,” he explains. “It’s misguided goals. It’s knickknacks. It’s shit that doesn’t matter,” he emphasizes. And to Brock, people matter. That’s why he set out to make an optimistic record. “When I’d be too mired in negativity, I told myself: ‘if that’s the problem, then what’s the answer?’ I noticed everyone around me, everyone’s moods, just sinking so fucking low. I’ve seen some of my friends be their least happy during this period,” he admits. “I didn’t want to make something that just fed that.”

It’s not the first time Modest Mouse went all out to shine a bright light. In 2004, upon releasing their commercial breakthrough Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Brock admitted that he’d made a “conscious effort” to create a “positive record,” but that, in the end, despair had prevailed. “I think we managed to make a quarter of the record positive, and the rest is either kind of dark or into things being how they are, resigned,” he told AV Club. This defeatism seems inherent to Modest Mouse’s rhetoric: their records portray desolation, long distances, derelict shopping malls, urban decline, rural lethargy, and plain unhappiness. Their album titles, for their part, paint the Pacific Northwest as a vast, bleak space without a horizon or purpose. In the end, The Lonesome Crowded West or The Moon & Antarctica refer to places where one will be inevitably alone. But when confronted with this thesis, Brock reacts.

“I do not feel lonely,” he says vehemently.

Although he admits that the fact that millions of people spent a year locked down and alone did influence The Golden Casket, he insists: “I do not feel lonely. And I didn’t feel lonely.”

Perhaps, the hopeful hues and colourful artwork behind The Golden Casket will mark a new phase in Modest Mouse’s development: a timeline in which Brock and company crank out positive messages without any effort. If it turned out that way, the band would be curiously mimicking a mantra they first put together on their song “Gravity Rides Everything,” off The Moon & Antarctica: “In the motions and the things that you say / Everything will fall right into place.”