Isaac Brock is in full paranoid rockstar mode. The Modest Mouse frontman, video calling NME from an AirBnb in Topanga Canyon, where he’s working on new material with producer Jacknife Lee, has a pair of huge headphones plonked on his bedhead (it’s 11am in California) and, before explaining why, deadpans: “This section we’ll call ‘tinfoil hat’. Welcome to The Tinfoil Hat…”
The headphones, it transpires, are primed to pump out “binaural beats” – meditative, ghostly sounds – that can “play like gamma rays”. Why? “We’re lookin’ into this – there’s actually professional people workin’ with me on this – but basically someone is fuckin’ usin’ my head like a fuckin’ cellphone…” Brock says, his trademark lisp subtle but distinctive. The binaural beats, it seems, help to ward off would-be infiltrators: “If I feel like they’ve turned up the knob… I put [the headphones] on and they bring my focus back down. It’s like a microwave attack.”
Brock doesn’t know who’s trying to intercept his thoughts, but thinks it might be related to the fact that he was previously ‘gangstalked’, whereby an unspecified group of people follow your every move: “People would walk by my car, point at it and shit and then I’d get followed throughout the day by same the people.”
As part of the battle against these unknown forces, Brock purchased a hyper-sensitive scientific microphone designed by the Japanese company Sanken to capture snails’ heartbeats: “I wanted to record blank rooms where nothing was going on so that I could see if any of this fuckin’ information – like the thing where it feels like somebody is using my head like a cellphone – was audible. With, like, forensic audio shit, we were able to get some of these things where it’s like, ‘Isaac Brock! You will obey our commands!’ – corny shit like that.”
The 45-year-old indie icon certainly has grounds for paranoia: he has had two undeniably real stalkers imprisoned in recent years (one for burning the security cameras at his home in Portland, Oregon). “I attract crazy, apparently,” he shrugs.
Such is the price of the cult fame that Brock has courted with Modest Mouse since their debut album, the 1996 indie-punk masterpiece ‘This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About’, heralded them as one of the most original and compelling bands of America’s Pacific Northwest post-grunge scene. The group, originally a trio, combined Brock’s barked vocal and unspooling, eerie guitar playing with Jeremiah Green’s loose drumming and Eric Judy’s spacey, looping basslines to weave wildly unique tales of rural desolation, mall-fucked towns, urban alienation and crushing self-loathing.
Now, 25 years into a career that’s seen them translate enormous critical acclaim (2000’s ‘The Moon & Antarctica’) into mainstream success (2004’s Grammy nominated ‘Good News For People Who Love Bad News’), they’ve turned in album seven: a psychedelic pop masterwork.
‘The Golden Casket’, unlike Modest Mouse’s early albums, is lushly produced – we have Jacknife Lee to thank for that, alongside veteran producer Dave Sardy – with the focus as much on exquisite soundscapes as the raggedy guitar riffs they’ve become known for. Brock channeled some of his distrust of the outside world onto the record, which sees him sift through information overload (the burbling ‘Transmitting Receiving’), data-grubbing tech (‘Never Fuck A Spider On The Fly’, a gnarly avant-punk rager) and social media bullshittery (‘Wooden Soldiers’).
Yet that last track also ebbs with a sense of contentment, the frontman reflecting on those close to him and concluding, over a plaintive chorus, “Just being here now is enough for me”. A newfound serenity flows through ‘The Golden Casket’, which is peppered with optimism and references to the home. On ‘We’re Lucky’, he looks at birth and death and decides: “These are some places that we’re lucky just to be between.” Brock now has two daughters under the age of four, as well as a 19-year-old son, and pays tribute to his youngest children on ‘Lace Your Shoes’, an ode to his overwhelming feelings of love: “Things were hazy, but that all stopped with you.”
Modest Mouse are celebrated for his ingenious lyricism, the songs’ meanings often left open to interpretation; did he feel any trepidation about sharing something so simple and direct?
“When I was first working on the record with Dave Sardy, we were getting music together but I didn’t really have a lot of words,” he says. “I really liked the music but I realised that I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I didn’t just do something completely embarrassing and earnest. If I didn’t own something I truly felt, then the rest was all for naught.” He went against his “better judgement” in recording a track that sacrificed his privacy and put his children front-and-centre, given his issues with overzealous fans: “It was a hard song for me to wanna put out at all.”
On the subject of kids, I tell Brock that my friend’s four-year-old daughter is a massive Modest Mouse fan, and that she has a question for him: What did you want to be when you were a little boy? Did you want to sing on the stage? “I wanted to be a Jedi,” he replies, straight-faced. “I wanted to be able to do flips all the way up to the roofs of buildings… Singing was just something I always enjoyed doing. I didn’t ever think I would do it publicly – I didn’t know it was a thing when I was a little boy.”
Brock’s own childhood, largely spent in Issaquah, a small city outside Seattle, was notoriously turbulent. His family were part of the right-wing, fundamentalist Christian church Grace Gospel in Valier, Montana, and as a child he was discomfited at being encouraged to speak in tongues; when their house flooded, he chose to stay behind and live among the wreckage, holding up in a shed that became a practice space for him, Judy and Green. The Brock family lived briefly in a trailer park, a period he immortalised in the classic, melancholic 1997 Modest Mouse track ‘Trailer Trash’.
“We were dirt-poor,” he told Rolling Stone in 2004. “People had to put boxes of food at my mom’s front door so the family could eat. One of the reasons I moved around so much is because there was never really room for me at home.”
Green, who grew up in Washington state and recently became a father himself, had a difficult upbringing too. “[My father] threatened to kill me on a regular basis,” the softly spoken 44-year-old tells NME on a separate call, smoking a ginormous spliff and roaming around Ice Cream Party, the band’s hangar-like, plant-filled bespoke studio in Portland. “He called me a ‘little f****t’ and shit.”
Green’s father – who has since apologised for his behaviour and reconciled with his son – was an “angry” alcoholic who, upon being thrown out of their house by Green’s mother, lived in the family’s back garden for five years, even when her new husband moved in. The unresolved trauma contributed to Green’s depression as an adult, for which he was prescribed Effexor, a powerful antidepressant he misguidedly combined with alcohol and magic mushrooms. The results were disastrous.
“I was so manic,” he says, later adding: “I was so pumped, dude. I was crazy. I was weird… I had drawn all over my clothes and I was making all of this crazy art. I felt like I could speak Spanish pretty good for a while even though I didn’t know Spanish.”
Green’s nervous breakdown began in 2003, when America was two years into the War in Afghanistan: “I felt like something bad came into me – not bad, but like a spirit… I started acting really rebellious… I was out for trouble. I was really anti-war and if [other people] weren’t down, I would just go nuts – weird revolutionary type stuff. I was like, ‘I’m gonna do something about this Afghanistan war! It’s bullshit!’”
There was another side to the experience, though, he says: “Some things happened during that time that I still remember and hold close to my heart. Some weird things did happen – that were real – because I was so opened up, probably from drinking and taking mushrooms while I was on antidepressants… Some cool mystical stuff.” The musician explains that he learned to comprehend ‘The Green Language’, a folkloric term that means “you’re able to understand the language of nature”. Green adds: “There were these birds calling at night, and I understood what they were saying but it wasn’t like English or anything… It’s hard to explain.”
This period coincided with Modest Mouse’s work on the bruised but defiantly optimistic ‘Good News…’, their second album on a major label, Epic Records, which – thanks in part to gargantuan lead single ‘Float On’ – went Platinum, selling more than 1.5 million copies in the US. Green quit the band before its recording and was admitted to a “mental institution” (though he only stayed for six hours) upon his mother’s advice, after Brock had emphasised that her son needed help. “What actually saved me,” says Green, “[was that] Isaac was looking out for me… Isaac was one of the few people who actually knew what was going on with me.”
It was during his time away from the group that Green, while out clubbing to drum’n’bass one night, met a shaman who helped to straighten him out. “He’s not, like, a fake shaman,” the drummer says. “He calls himself a shaman because that’s what he’s doing – shaman work, you know – but he was also a trained counsellor. He helped me out; he got me out of the hole.”
When Green returned to Modest Mouse in 2004, the band was morphing into a free-flowing collective. It’s currently a six-piece, and Judy – ironically, given the new album’s themes – departed in 2012 to spend time with his family. Johnny Marr famously joined the line-up for one record, 2007’s ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’, and in 2018 the former Smiths guitar don told NME that of the countless bands he’s been in, Modest Mouse is one he’d like to rejoin the most, adding: “it’s a chapter that’s yet to be finished”.
“The option’s available to him!” Brock says today. “I hope [it’s an unfinished chapter]. I love being in a band with Johnny; it’s fuckin’ fun… One thing I don’t think people expect because of the history – you know, The Smiths were a moody band and shit aesthetically, so people expect poetry not comedy – but Johnny’s fuckin’ hilarious. He’s one of the funniest dudes I know.”
The last Modest Mouse album, 2015’s ‘Strangers To Ourselves’, which thrums with ecological angst, endured a messy birth that included sessions with one Krist Novoselic, once the bassist in a little-known Seattle trio named Nirvana. After Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Novoselic formed the alt-rock band Sweet 75, who once opened for Brock’s group at Capitol Theatre, a 1,500-capacity venue in Olympia, Washington. That’s right: the man who’s sold more than 75 million records worldwide and helped to send alternative rock into the mainstream was second on the bill. “I remember asking him, ‘Dude, you should… why don’t you headline?” says Brock. “’RID – respect is due, buddy.’ He was like, ‘Oh, no no no – we’re a new band.’”
On Brock’s invitation, Novoselic spent a week or so contributing to the ‘Strangers…’ sessions at Ice Cream Party; much has been made of the collaboration, which didn’t make the album. “We had this kind of heavy metal song with Krist,” says Green. “I don’t know why we didn’t… I guess we were a little afraid of it because it doesn’t sound like us. It sounds like Nirvana, sort of, and we tried to make it not sound like Nirvana. But in the end it kind of sounds like it could be Nirvana. I mean, musically it does – Isaac doesn’t sound like Kurt Cobain or anything like that. It could come out sometime.”
“If I didn’t own something I truly felt with this album, then the rest was all for naught” – Isaac Brock
‘Strangers…’ was the first Modest Mouse record to feature the Portland-based multi-instrumentalist Lisa Molinaro; she and Brock were in a relationship at the time. They split up around four years ago, though she appears on two tracks on ‘The Golden Casket’: the post-punky ‘Walking And Running’ and ‘Wooden Soldiers’, which she co-wrote. “We were in a relationship for a long time and it was a good relationship and I absolutely just fuckin’ destroyed it,” Brock says. “There were some mistakes made.”
Molinaro may not have worked on ‘Lace Your Shoes’, but was it tough to collaborate with a former partner on an album where he sings about domestic bliss and his children from another relationship? “I was mindful of the fact that that was probably…” Brock trails off. “You know, we’re grown-ups; that shit gets talked through. Or not. The reality is that I have two little girls, and the song’s about them.”
It’s a very Modest Mouse answer in 2021. After 25 years of bottling doom, despair and life’s mistakes, the band have crafted an album that captures a kind of serenity, albeit one that’s tempered with suspicion that the world at large might threaten it.
Brock, infamously prone to self-lacerating perfectionism – hence the six-year wait for this record, and the eight-year wait for the one before that – seems to be in such a good place that the new music is flowing. He says of his current work with Jacknife Lee in Topanga Canyon: “We showed up with nothin’ in our pockets, like, ‘Let’s start makin’ somethin’… Working with Jacknife, it’s fast and it’s fun. I forgot shit could even move fast.” (A disclaimer: while talking about ‘Strangers…’ in 2015, he promised HMV that its follow-up was readymade and would arrive “as quickly as it’s legally allowed”).
For now, though, we’re lucky to have ‘The Golden Casket’. Could this be the most optimistic Modest Mouse album yet?
“I think so,” Brock says. “I found optimism where it actually existed because I needed it; my friends and family actually needed it. Y’know, I got three kids… I don’t think shit’s gonna get easier for everyone. Just the math alone… There’s seven billion-ish of us and things get easier for people if there’s a lot less of us, but that’s a fuckin’ nightmare. How do you get there? That’s not a good scene. Or they get a lot fuckin’ harder because there’s so fuckin’ many of us.”
The frontman pauses, as if to reflect on the peril potentially outside his family’s door, be it ecological disaster or someone usin’ his head like a fuckin’ cellphone: “And I just had to kinda look at that and find a way to make it sound OK.”
– ‘The Golden Casket’ is released via Epic Records on June 25