By accident rather than design, Isaac Brock, the lead singer of Modest Mouse, gives a Zoom tour of his studio in Portland, Oregon, as he searches for a location to sit with his laptop and tea. It's flooded with light and homely, crammed with plants, knick-knacks, electronic equipment and instruments, although he humbly describes it as "a warehouse full of crap right now".
It’s where Modest Mouse began writing the follow-up to 2015’s Strangers to Ourselves, an album that reintroduced their abstract indie rock after an eight-year gap. The Golden Casket took almost as long, with its six-year interlude spent touring and working on a potential companion piece to Strangers to Ourselves that included a contribution from ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, before Brock paused it and started afresh.
“Those eight songs still exist, but my head was somewhere else and I didn’t want to put them out as this particular album and I decided to move them down the line,” he explains, finally settled in one spot.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the obvious and not so obvious ways that seemingly simple technologies, from phones to radios, can affect everything's brain on earth
In which case, where was his head at, and where is it now?
“I have no idea where I was at, but the last five years has taken numerous turns, some of which I don’t want to talk about, some of which I will,” he says.
The part that he doesn’t want to talk about, I suspect, is to do with his sobriety. What he will say is that fatherhood has come to the fore in the intervening period. Already a dad to a 19-year-old son, his baby daughter was born in 2018. That’s worked its way into the song Lace Your Shoes (“I can’t wait to see you go to school/I can’t wait see which path you choose”), and shifted his approach to music.
“More often than not it meant I leaned away from being too abrasive,” he says. “There’s a lot less yelling involved, and in a couple of songs, I at least try to tear at the subject matter to something I wouldn’t feel bad about my kids hearing.”
Otherwise, Brock has been wrapped up in “conspiracy theories, largely. I spent a lot of time thinking about the obvious and not so obvious ways that seemingly simple technologies, from phones to radios, can affect everything’s brain on earth”. This fed in to the lyrical themes of the album, as heard in Transmitting Receiving and lead track Leave a Light On.
Wooden Soldiers, meanwhile, “begins as a telling of our observed spiral as a species. It’s a hand-wringing, worrying thing. But then the key portion of the song is me taking a breath and it’s okay, and zen-ing out on it.” Seeing positives “is something I have to work towards. You can wallow in the idea that we just helplessly f**k things up, but you can also project the positive. You can use your mind to create a good scenario, but it all takes work.”
Though musically broad with a myriad of instruments, sounds and effects, The Golden Casket is punchier compared to previous albums, from its zany start (the Super Furry Animals-esque F**k Your Acid Trip) to its lush, guitar-laden finish (Back to the Middle). “I didn’t feel like stressing anyone’s patience and take a loose, wandering trip with this. I wanted to get to the point most of the time,” Brock explains.
The sound was crafted by producer Dave Sardy (LCD Soundsystem, Band of Horses), with Dublin-born Garrett “Jacknife” Lee (U2, Snow Patrol and REM) brought in to give it a second sweep where needed.
"It was the first time I worked with him, and it was fun," says Brock says of Jacknife Lee. "Last week I went down to California and started to do more work with him. It moves fast. Within 10 minutes of starting, without a song in our belly, we had a lot to work with, like kettle drums and an instrument his daughter out of pickle jars and a big string.
“I’ll try not to speak for him, but he did say at one point he’d got very professional and producing records started to lose its fun. So he figured out that it’s best not to get hung up on being too meticulous, and just to get in there, make it interesting and keep it going fast.”
In all, The Golden Casket is arguably Modest Mouse’s most accessible album yet, and that’s a feat given 2004 Good News for People Who Love Bad News gave the band a new audience with monster tracks like Ocean Breathes Salty and Float On. The latter particularly caught fire. It was nominated for a Grammy, featured in The OC and One Tree Hill, and endured longer than these TV shows with a remarkable 242 million plays on Spotify to date.
How does Brock reflect on Float On now? “I still feel good about it because I’m okay not playing it in every show – I try not to let it take priority over other songs when playing live,” he says. “I imagine our trajectory would have been significantly different without it, but we would still be going. It would just have been a lot harder. Float On afforded me time between records, so who knows, maybe I would have been more prolific without it.”
It's like anything when you're in the thick of it: it can be a grind and you complain for pleasure. But then you get away from it and you think, that was great, why am I not doing that?
Still, seven records is not to be sniffed at, especially given they had no game plan at the start. The group formed in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, when Brock was just 15, and met bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green at local gigs. Though sonically separate to Seattle’s grunge scene, the group still benefitted from its rise, signing to influential label SubPop to record their first single Broke, with Seasick Steve as producer, who’d continue to be a close collaborator. (Brock eventually became an A&R scout for SubPop, helping to launch the careers of Wolf Parade and The Shins.)
Over time and with a flair for a catchy festival tune, Modest Mouse rose in prominence, attracting ex-The Smiths Johnny Marr into the fold for 2007's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, a recording that was Judy's last before departing the band. The rest of the members persevered, and next year marks 30 years together.
“It doesn’t feel like it will be 30 years, by any stretch of the imagination,” reflects Brock. “When we started, I wasn’t looking at it like I was going to college, like it’s four years. There was no set idea of what this was going to be, or whether it was even going to be my main thing. I did it with intention, but not with a goal. I still like doing it, so I still do it.”
Brock admits the pandemic has dented the band – “a year of not working is f**king sketchy” – but there’s already a hefty tour in the works, which he’s looking forward to even with all the miles under his belt. “I can’t think of any time except for when I was on tour that I didn’t like touring,” he says. “It’s like anything when you’re in the thick of it: it can be a grind and you complain for pleasure. But then you get away from it and you think, that was great, why am I not doing that. Let’s go and hang out behind a building all day.”
Though an autumn tour that included Ireland fell through, they’ve announced a slew of North American dates for the next few months, kicking off at Lollapalooza in Chicago at the end of July.
Before then, the collaged sound of the album means there’s prep work to be done to translate it to the stage. “Trying to figure out how to play it live has been an undertaking,” Brock says. “We’re in the process of finding out what to bang and what to scrape to make these sounds. We could just record tracks and clicks, and sing over it but that’s not entertainment.”
And we wouldn’t expect anything else from Modest Mouse.
The Golden Casket is out on June 25th via Epic Records