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Modest Mouse: Only the Strange Remain

by Emily Zemler on March 06, 2015

On "Pups to Dust," a surging track wedged in the middle of Modest Mouse’s first album in eight years, Strangers To Ourselves, singer Isaac Brock intones, “The way we feel about what we do is by who has watched us.” As a musician, Brock refuses to explain himself, denying any literal translation of his lyrics because he hopes to retain the inherently personal experience of a song. But that line, juxtaposed with existential quandaries that are seeped in self-doubt, feels like it’s in reference to Modest Mouse’s relationship with their fanbase, a collection of listeners who have been expectedly waiting for the band’s follow-up to We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank since 2007.

“I started getting a guilty conscience about a promise I’d never made,” Brock says, calling from his home in Portland, Ore. He’s jovial and engaged, quipping that he has to go run pieces of wood through a planking machine after the call, something that he “figures will be therapeutic.” Brock’s house is infamous itself, having appeared in a 2011 video clip that toured his expansive collection of taxidermy. When asked if it looks the same, the musician chuckles and says, “I will vainly say it looks a lot cooler now. But I don’t really have anything invested in people knowing what the inside of my house looks like.”

He is, though, invested in the band’s general relationship with their audience. Brock and the rest of the group are aware that fans have become frustrated with the lack of new material over the past seven years. “I didn’t have a calendar that said, ‘Every third year we release a record in February,’” Brock says, reflecting on what it meant to grapple with that guilty conscience. “I wasn’t late for something.
I hadn’t made a date with everyone where I was going to show up with a record. But you can’t help but notice when folks are complaining to you about it. Especially if you are going out and playing live and you don’t stop doing that. Sometimes they don’t understand why you bother leaving your house and coming to their town without bringing them a new record.”

There were several delays, and by Brock’s account, they were fairly nondramatic and quotidian. After releasing We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the group’s fifth album and their only record to include Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, the musicians took a short break in early 2007. They continued to tour and started seriously considering a new album in mid- 2012, when Brock rented a studio space in Portland. “We were thinking really bare bones—rent a warehouse, put mattresses against the wall to deaden it, stacks of used books around the engineer,” he notes. “Just knock it out. I rented a place for six months and, six months later, we were done building an actual studio. The lease was coming up. I got carried away. So I had to buy the building at that point because I’d dumped so much money into building an actual studio.”

Brock purchased the building, dubbed Ice Cream Party Studios, in December 2012, and the recording continued there off and on whenever the band members could get together throughout 2013 and 2014. The overall process took nearly three years. Initially, Brock planned to co-produce the album, but he “fired himself” after only 10 days. (Brock is still credited as the album’s producer, though he received additional production help from Andrew Weiss, Tucker Martine, Clay Jones and Brian Deck.) Throughout, he had a concern that things weren’t moving as quickly as they could be.

“We’re very good at wasting time,” founding Modest Mouse drummer Jeremiah Green says a day later. He’s calling from his car during a two-hour drive to the airport, and it is his first interview about the new album—a fact he apologizes for several times. “We’ll hang out and smoke until somebody tells us to do something. When we’re recording, we’ll wait for the person that’s recording us to say, ‘OK, it’s time to go. Let’s go record some music.’ But for some reason, people are afraid to tell us what to do. Eventually, we were like, ‘Hey, please tell us what to do because we’re going to stand here all day otherwise.’ We just like hanging out with each other too much.” The drummer especially felt that outside pressure from fans. “The album took a long time,” he says. “There were a lot of stops and starts. And yeah, I got frustrated. I was like, ‘I want this shit out.’ I wanted it to be magically done.”

Ultimately, the reason Modest Mouse didn’t spit out a new record three years ago is because the songs just weren’t fully developed yet. The musicians didn’t enter into the new music with any sort of intention or vision in mind, instead allowing the music to create itself along the way. In the early stages, Brock found himself interested in a certain type of song that he eventually dismissed.

“I was really enjoying writing long songs that went nowhere about absolutely fucking nothing,” he notes. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to write a record version of Our Town.’ I was just going out of my way to not be interesting, and I got a little distance on it. I got about five songs into that and that was enough for me, and I shelved most of that stuff. The mood changes as the record writes itself. Rather than it becoming an intentional concept that I’m steering, I find ways to convince myself I had a plan.”

The musicians accumulated around 37 songs—some that didn’t necessarily feel cohesive with Modest Mouse’s current collective identity. There wasn’t a direct desire to change things up or explore new sonic territory, but the band inevitably does bring the album to places they may have previously avoided. “Pistol” is a gritty, angular number that surges with sexual innuendo as Brock growls, “I’ve got a pistol that I need to unload,” and stands in notable contrast to tracks like the meditative, titular opener and the introspective “Ansel,” which harkens back to early Modest Mouse. As the band has toured, they’ve offered up versions of several new tracks, whether the audience realized it or not—most notably “Sugar Boats,” which Green says has gotten the best immediate reaction with its “polka- like dance feel.”

“The songs are all together on an album and they’re out there,” he says. “I feel like they’re all cohesive, but I don’t necessarily know what makes them cohesive. That’s the hard part when you have a bunch of songs. When you have 35 songs, some of them are too happy-sounding or something. There was one song I really liked but it was so poppy and happy, and we felt like it didn’t fit. It’s not a bad song, and maybe it will come out sometime, but it didn’t fit this time. A lot of our records are all over the place and that works for us.” But if you ask Brock to explain the correlation between the album’s 15 tracks, he will not. The singer isn’t interested in ruining any conception the audience has about the music. Brock isn’t exactly being difficult in his refusal, but unlike many musicians, he’s aware, by this point, how much he will say about his own songs.

“That ruins a record for me, frankly,” he replies. “That’s a standard rule I stick to after the Pixies ruined the song ‘Debaser’ for me. I found out it was just about some old film and, basically, they’re just singing about what happens in the movie. I still love them, but now, when I listen to that song, all of my imagery was taken from me and replaced with footage from a film I’ve seen a little bit of. I like to think that the things I’m writing songs about and their plots are great, but I don’t want to fuck it up for other people. Listening to music is something that really is personal. People get to put themselves in it and invest themselves. Music is some- thing you put yourself into and personalize, somewhat. That’s my long-winded reason for why I’m not going to give you an answer.”

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