Modest Mouse are an unconventional success story. While constantly operating from the outside looking in, the band remains one of North America’s most successful alternative exports. Having topped the Billboard Chart with their 2007 album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, Modest Mouse failed to capitalise on new-found mainstream acclaim and, instead, they waited eight years to release a follow-up. Now, five years on once more, the Portland-based group have returned once again with The Golden Casket.
The movement of creation feels incidental to Modest Mouse, and nothing is ever planned more than a cigarette break ahead. Likewise, rarely have they set out any grand plans for world domination. It feels like, at times, that Modest Mouse even tried their hardest to squander the glimmer of opportunity that they had carved out. Singer Isaac Brock and drummer Jeremiah Green remain the only constants in the line-up and, between them, they’ve seen eight members either be pushed – or jump – from ship Modest Mouse while they clung to the railings.
However, this time around, it wasn’t an eight-year wait as seen before on Lampshades On Fire. Modest Mouse took their time before getting into the studio. Nevertheless, the wait is a worthwhile one, and The Golden Casket sees Brock show that he still has that experimental cannon in his armoury, and producer Dave Sardy coaxes out the stadium-filling choruses from the frontman along the way too.
Modest Mouse, thankfully, refuse to play it safe on the new album. The opener, ‘Fuck Your Acid Trip’, is as weird and boundary-pushing as anything else the band have cooked up throughout their career. The song seduces you from the second the needle drops and draws the listener into relinquishing The Golden Casket your full attention, taking you on a pulsating journey that’s full of optimism.
In an idyllic world, The Golden Casket would have arrived some time ago. However, just one week after they began work on the album, the pandemic struck, and suddenly they were back at square one. “Over the weekend, just everything was shut down,” Brock tells Far Out over Zoom from his Portland home. “I don’t even think the word pandemic had got introduced into the conversation, and having a grasp on what that was wasn’t available to me yet.”
Adding: “I stayed in Portland, and Dave stayed in LA for two months waiting for it to clear up and let the clouds clear on it. Then as time went on, it was becoming obvious, ‘Oh no, this is this is going to be going on for a little while’. We figured out a system to make it work and went down there, drove gear down, flew my family and went into an isolated AirBnB where we self-isolated.”
Of course, recording an album in the middle of a pandemic brought about its difficulties. Still, nothing is ever straightforward in the world of Modest Mouse or Brock, so creating The Golden Casket was plain-sailing by their dysfunctional standards.
Brock embraced modern editing during the recording process and used an array of bizarre household utensils, which the band then transformed into sweet instrumentation through experimental technology. “Along the way, I was just like, ‘What? I’m not getting away with this.’ A lot of it is just layers of collage sounds, opening bottles, tin cans, well and then itching it,” he explained.
“I’ve done a lot of records where, as a band we wrote, I held the guitar, we played at each other and worked it out, and shit, but I kind of didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get to really enjoy what modern editing and what all the tricks and traps of the current recording world offer,” Brock adds with a pinch of sincerity.
“I went in kind of avoiding using the guitar too much, and I wanted it to be the seasoning rather than the fucking meal,” Brock analogises. “And then as it went on, it kind of shifted back, so that worked out OK.”
Brock isn’t the kind of artist who tends to talk up himself too highly. He’s self-deprecating, and during our interview, he apologies to me for both being a “jerk” and “full of shit”, so him describing The Golden Casket as “OK” is about as positive as you’re going to get from the frontman.
The experience of making their last album, 2015’s, Strangers To Ourselves, Brock says, “Was difficult, but only because I made it difficult.” The record was marred with problems from the start, and they didn’t slow down. Firstly, they got a six-month lease on a warehouse, but by the time the rent was over, all they had managed to do was turn it into a studio.
“We then wanted to take a road trip, so we built a car, and that’s what made that trouble, but this one wasn’t troublesome. Recording is inherently boring because it’s just a lot more science involved,” Brock says like a man who has been in a band for 29-years.
It will be 2020 that marks 30 years since Brock formed Modest Mouse as a teenager, and when I bring this up, he stops in his tracks for a moment before muttering, “That’s fucking strange, dude. I mean, it’s been my life, so they’re not necessarily two separate things. I think being in a band is a little like farming, where you live if you live on the same property as you do all your work and shit.
“It doesn’t feel like a long time. I mean, I’ve got pretty high expectations of how long I’m going to live. I’m aiming for a solid 150, but I’ve done a lot of shit to make that not happen,” the singer acerbically says.
2004 was the year that everything changed for Modest Mouse. The success of Good News for People Who Love Bad News brought them to a mainstream audience as they stepped out from their cult following. Soon enough, they were performing on Saturday Night Live and had numerous Grammy nominations to their name. “My relationship with the idea wasn’t the same as when I started in music when I would have been mortified to become a mainstream act,” Brock says on their 2004 breakthrough.
“I would have seemed like I’d become a tool to the trade, but then about 12-years into it, I came to terms with the fact that most of the bands that got me into music, whether it’s Talking Heads, The Clash, or Pixies, they were all on major labels, and accessible. I didn’t want to be something that people only liked who lived in cool neighbourhoods or some shit like that.”
Johnny Marr joined the group in 2006 after Brock called him on a whim, and their first telephone conversation consisted exclusively of the former Smiths guitarist providing him with tips on how to stop smoking rather than anything music-related. “When we started working together, I don’t think either of us thought we’d try to do more than a couple or three tracks maybe,” Brock explained. “That went well, and when we met up, we just kept making them. Johnny was pretty clear; he said I’m not interested in touring, and in the back of my mind, that’s great because we’ve got a touring guitarist. Coming to the time of the record getting done, we were just having too much fun, and it didn’t make sense for him not to tour.”
Adding: “The main reason Johnny actually ended up leaving the band, and it was a pretty valid fucking reason, was that we just kept on touring. Eventually, he had to checkout and made new music.”
Marr’s time in the band was a resounding success, and their star continued to rise even further. Modest Mouse had become more successful than they ever wished it to be, and the weight of the situation took a minute to dawn on Brock, who buried his head in the sand rather than breathe in the magic. “I didn’t feel like I was adapting to anything. Therefore, part of the time, I was just doing taking a new opportunity and using it poorly,” he openly revealed. “It took me some time to get into the mind space of that. If you are standing in front of 10,000 people, and you’re kind of faded because you’ve had too many ales or whatever — shit, you just wasted 10,000 people’s time and money.
“People got babysitters, and people took time off their new job. It took me a little while to adjust. Even if only one person shows up to watch you play, it’s your obligation to fucking do what you do as best you can. I think getting into the limelight made me realise the importance of not fucking off on my job,” Brock adds honestly.
After years of self-sabotage, with Brock still acting as though he was playing to 200 people in half-full clubs at an inconvenience to his evening, there seems to finally be a shift in that mindset, even if it could have happened ten years sooner.
The Golden Casket sees Modest Mouse delicately balance their want to keep pushing forward while still unashamedly producing anthems of a similar vein, the type of tracks that made them a bastion of alternative music in the first place. After a decade in the dark with little music from Modest Mouse, The Golden Casket is a timely reminder of why they are revered.