Modest Mouse

20,000 Leagues Under Normalcy

Music Features Modest Mouse
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BLIZZARD OF ODD

Welcome to Sony Pictures Studios, serving all your production needs now and in the future.

This cheerfully innocuous sign greets visitors to Sony Pictures Studios’ famous Stage 27 in Culver City, Calif., essentially Glitterville’s Ground Zero, and the site where the Wizard of Oz’s Munchkinland scenes were filmed nearly 70 years ago. It’s a place that has witnessed more than its share of cinematic oddities over the years (Under the Rainbow, anybody?) and, in this context, the project currently occupying the mammoth 32,000-square-foot facility is just another brick in the wall of historic Tinseltown weirdness.

Formerly-indie rock sextet Modest Mouse has been filming the video for driving new single “Dashboard”—from its first LP in three years, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank—in the cavernous soundstage since the wee hours of morning. (Frontman Isaac Brock even endured a two-hour makeup routine, starting at 7:30 a.m.). By late afternoon, it’s clear that the band members and the roughly 70-person crew are listing heavily toward “punchy.”

As if spending the holidays in Hollywood—replete with Santas in boardshorts and blinged-out, Hummer-sized roadside menorahs—weren’t surreal enough, as I walk through the gigantic sliding door to the stage, the winter sunlight behind me gives way to the dusky greys of the building’s interior, where a set replicating a ship’s below-decks mess area occupies both the center of Stage 27’s vast concrete floor and the crew’s rapt attention as the morning’s filming concludes. Brock, having completed his required scenes, has stalked off in his Amish beard and seafarer’s get-up, temporarily leaving behind the Captain Hook-like microphone that serves as his character’s prosthetic hand. There’s an actor who strongly resembles Kirk Douglas chatting up the crew, and, between takes, a salty-looking extra sporting ZZ Top-length facial hair grazes the food-service tables, which are stacked generously with snacks from the local Ralphs market. In a far corner sit the only comfortable chairs in the entire football-field-sized room, a pair of worn-in couches occupied by various PR types; a friendly looking dog; Brock’s girlfriend, Naheed Simjee (who also manages his record label, Glacial Pace); and Modest Mouse manager Juan Carrera. They slouch in silence, fixated on a large-screen TV piping in “dailies” from the morning’s shoot.

Meanwhile, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, the group’s newest conscript—and at a relatively sage 43 years, its most senior member by about a decade—strolls nonplussed through the insanity cradling a steaming cup of tea. He looks every inch the rock star in his Aladdin Sane-era yellow face makeup with pink lightning bolt and matching Technicolor trench coat, goggles perched jauntily atop his head. Calmly surveying the chaos unfolding around him, he adjusts the tonearm on his flying-robot-maid guitar while attempting to put his new gig into context. “Modest Mouse doesn’t discuss direction, its future or even the past,” he says with a wry smirk, recalling his introduction to the group in summer 2006. “When we went down to Mississippi to record the new album, I saw their gold record in the studio (the group’s ubiquitous 2004 alterna-rock staple “Float On”). The entire six months I’d been playing with them, they’d never once told me they’d had a #1 record. With these guys, it’s all about this cacophonous soup of ideas floating about. And they’ve encouraged me to stop using the word ‘outsider,’ which feels good,” he adds, as if the line in his job description about looking like a French Legionnaire on acid was as intuitive as tuning up and plugging in.

Plans are now being hatched for the next big push of the day—a scene, to be filmed in front of three giant green screens, involving the band marching an incapacitated Brock around on a gurney, trying to find him urgently needed medical help. The group is dressed in what could best be described as “Sgt. Pepper goes to hell” costumes: Bassist Eric Judy is wearing an orange highway-cleanup-crew jumpsuit modi?ed with a Major Tom-issue space helmet and a confusing array of tubes protruding from his mask (behind which, in “blueface,” he periodically complains and/or pleads for a cigarette); the band’s two percussionists, Jeremiah Green and Joe Plummer, and utility instrumentalist Tom Peloso, all look like refugees from an ’80s Adam & The Ants video that went terribly wrong and resulted in their premature deaths, only to find them reincarnated as Burundi drummers-cum-zombies. And let’s not forget the Mardi Gras parade of Raggedy Ann-looking background dancers, the scary-intense mask-wearing guy on stilts or the strangely mute psychedelic Vikings purposefully striding to various corners of the set. All the while, some kid named Eric glides around stealthily with a handheld camera, documenting the whole bewildering affair for a behind-the-scenes video to be posted on the band’s MySpace site.

Much like being in the military, filming a video can be summarized as lengthy periods of inactivity punctuated by occasional panic attacks of frenzied action. So after an hour of unproductive dithering, there’s movement afoot—the stage’s giant klieg lights are fired up, the band haphazardly assembles and Brock suddenly appears in Perfect Storm-wear lying on a stretcher, looking dazed as his Modest Mouse compatriots carry him like pallbearers from one side of the stage to the other, guided by a stagehand’s barked cadence (“Left, right, left, right!”) to ensure they remain “on the one” as the funky, Talking Heads-like death disco of “Dashboard”’s middle eight blares overhead on giant speakers for the 40th time of the afternoon. When, after several attempts, the take is finally completed, Brock lands the ironic final note of the line “I just wanted to catch the last laugh on this show” and then resumes his leisure posture, lying on his back amidst the chaos, asking one of the stagehands, “How do you think it’s looking so far?” as heavy equipment is lugged within inches of his head.

The two directors become increasingly hands-on as the hours roll by; it’s now sometime after dinner and the crew still has another day of filming ahead in San Pedro Harbor tomorrow, where Brock will resume his role as captain of whatever highly conceptualized ship he’s piloting for the video. “They’re gonna let me drive the boat!” Brock enthuses, flipping through a pile of storyboards. “The whole thing’s just so f—in’ weird—even if it turns out really cheesy, it’ll look so f—ed up that it can’t become dated. It has tremendous potential to be really strange.”

One of the directors shoots right back at him: “I would only do this for you, Isaac,” he laughs. “I get seasick just looking at the ocean. I’m taking extra Dramamine tonight.” To which Brock replies, in full pirate growl, “Arrr, I’ll be bringing the booze, then.”

For his part, Marr doesn’t find anything about today’s circus-like vibe any more unusual than the balance of his tenure with the band thus far. “It wasn’t casual at all,” Marr insists of the all-for-one, one-for-all creative process behind Ship Sank. “We clicked instantly, but it was intense—we were all on the balls of our feet every day, playing for our lives. I just wanted a situation where I could play with the Fender amp cranked all the way up. Thankfully, it fit.”

Sony’s now and in the future sign finally begins to make sense. Judging from the tangle of power cables, duct tape and make-believe musical gear left lying around toward the end of the shoot (which doesn’t entirely wind down until 1:00 a.m.), I’ve just spent the last 10 hours witnessing a particularly dystopian view of the future, an introduction to the Brave New World of a more well-adjusted and democratic Modest Mouse. Strange days, indeed.

FOLLOW THE YELLOW-BRICK ROAD

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple phone call to begin a lifelong partnership.

But hearing Marr’s recounting of the call that brought him into the Modest Mouse fold—and then hearing Isaac Brock’s take on the same conversation—is akin to a split-screen description of a blind date.

“[Former Modest Mouse guitarist] Dann Gallucci said my name would occasionally come up in conversation, and I guess Isaac must’ve figured ‘Hey, maybe it’s worth a shot,’” says Marr, explaining the phone call that led him to Portland, Ore., for a few days of unscripted jamming in Brock’s rehearsal space. “I told him ‘I’m not into doing sessions; I’m into collaboration.’ I wanted to be part of something genuinely altruistic and unusual, so when Isaac explained to me, ‘It’s a blank slate, we’re doing this one completely from scratch,’ that fit with the personal agenda I wanted to follow. I thought to myself, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work, then I’ve had a week of a good time trying to play with these amazing musicians. What’s the worst that can happen?’”

“I intentionally didn’t want to throw him in with the whole band right o? the bat,” recalls Brock of his strategy to manage the “what if Johnny says ‘yes?’” scenario. Improbably, Brock hadn’t even considered “no” as one of Marr’s available options, and had plotted his steps carefully enough to determine that the initial encounter would consist only of the two guitarists trading ideas to see if anything clicked. “At Stage One, I just don’t think it’s a great idea to have someone stand in a room with a bunch of people they don’t know and try to get their musical bearings. Because a lot of us in the band hadn’t played or written together in quite a while either, so we were gonna have to find our sea legs regardless. I don’t remember who had which riff or exactly how it all went down, but I do know that from the time we first started playing together, the songs started coming really easily—‘Dashboard,’ then ‘We’ve Got Everything.’” Brock chuckles sardonically, as if remembering something private: “And that’s how Johnny launched us into being the big happy family we are today.”

“I’d be playing and think to myself, ‘Is that a banjo I hear over my shoulder? Is Jeremiah adding a sample right now?’” Marr chimes in. “I say: wherever two or three Modest Mouse people be ye gathered together, let a song ring forth in a few minutes’ time.”

This your-peanut-butter’s-in-my-chocolate approach to collaboration may not have seemed entirely intuitive to outsiders—particularly not for a band whose previous release, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, sold nearly 1.5 million copies (more than the group’s 10-year back catalog combined). But for Modest Mouse, messing with what’s working is all part of the master plan—another chapter in the band’s long, strange trip toward the mainstream, which has inched ever closer even as Modest Mouse continues following its own woolly, fevered instincts instead of tracking the latest Billboard charts.

“On their previous records, Isaac had written all the songs in advance, and Dann fit his guitar parts into the gaps that remained,” remembers producer Dennis Herring, who worked with Modest Mouse on both Good News and Ship Sank at Sweet Tea studios in Oxford, Miss. “This one was deeply affected by the fact that they all wrote together. So there was a communal, dual-threat guitar dynamic to consider, a super-active left/right guitar trip happening the minute the tracks came o? the floor. To me, their interplay is a lot like Television’s—intertwining guitars that form puzzle pieces to be fitted together. Precision and fire.”

“We didn’t know how it was gonna go, you know?” laughs Brock. “There was a lot of dueling, but in a non-competitive way. Johnny’s really conscientious about how he plays. If there was a guitar part of mine that seemed to be the dominant one, he’d play something complementary rather than stepping on it. That actually seems like a neat way to make music—find someone who does something completely different than what you do and see what happens. So there might be a couple of us dicking around who could come up with anything at any point. Someone might be making a sandwich, and someone else could be doing something that sounded really good, and then we’d all scurry over there to make sure we’d get a chance to play on it. Sometimes we’d stop and say, ‘We’ve been playing for 45 minutes on what I’m guessing is a song—what does anyone remember that’s good?’ Then we’d pick apart the things we could trace back; those were the songs.”

If it all sounds too reductive for words—like Can, recording every musical scribble and then splicing the best bits together to form a pre-digital Krautrock mashup—Ship Sank is still a significant leap forward for Modest Mouse. The record’s angular guitars, half-hollered/half-sung vocals and precision-strike meditations on the vagaries of life signal a return to the more expansive, wild-eyed improvisation of the band’s ’90s-era indie albums (such as The Lonesome Crowded West) that first captured the imagination of a growing cult of admirers. But the new album’s melodic sense also retains a healthy dollop of Good News’ pop sensibility. And if Brock’s fans have, by now, gotten used to his Captain Deathtrips fascination with mortality and the afterlife—this is, after all, a guy who grew up in an itinerant circle of Midwest quasi-religious communities and has penned the songs “Bury Me With It,” “Satin In a Coffin,” “The Good Times Are Killing Me” and “Dark Center of the Universe”—Ship Sank could accurately be labeled a collection of nautically themed fight songs or what Brock himself has described as “a nautical balalaika carnival.” And if this sounds like a concept record, Brock may or may not argue with that assumption. He hasn’t really made up his mind yet.

“There’d be times when I thought ‘I have this narrative, and now I’m gonna find a way to make a short film, too.’ The same f—in’ thing happened with The Moon and Antarctica!” Brock laughs about his aborted grand scheme for the band’s 2000 major-label debut, firing up a cigarette after bumming a light from one of the stagehands. “But I don’t think it’s the best thing for me to wrangle all that. It’s not exactly a concept record, but it’s a concept within the record, with some common lyrics and themes. Water’s the biggest one.” He puffs out some smoke, thinks for a minute, then finishes his thought. “Some people seem to have a good deal of clarity about where their songs come from and how they write. That’s great, but I always feel like such a ponce when I talk about my music so clearly, like I know what the hell I’m even talking about or doing. That’s not really how I work. I have my own way of operating.”

Brock’s “own way” turns out to be a perfectly imperfect vehicle for his finely honed sense of post-millennial angst: Lyrical fragment after lyrical fragment paints a portrait of the singer raging against the dying of the light, flailing his fists at a world that doesn’t understand him and isn’t likely to be investing the effort any time soon. Whereas on previous records the tightly wound Brock seemed to be courting death, daring it to come near and touch him, Ship Sank is the sound of Brock flipping the Grim Reaper the bird as he whistles down the wind—“It took so much effort not to make an effort,” he sings on “Florida,” a pop-flavored mover recorded in partnership with The Shins’ James Mercer, one of Brock’s Portland neighbors and his first signing as a former Sup Pop A&R man. The vibe continues throughout the record: “It didn’t seem we’d lived enough to even get to die” (dub/funk groover “Education”); “Who in the hell made you the boss?” (the layered “Parting of the Sensory”); “We’re crushed by the ocean, but it will not get us wet” (the midtempo, Clash-like “Invisible”). This album, like Brock’s psyche these days, is overwhelmingly defiant. But don’t mistake his insubordinate attitude for nihilistic contempt; he remains very interested in having his music heard by as many people as possible.

“Modest Mouse made so many records that were sprawling, and I thought it was time for us to try one that was easier to assimilate,” Brock says of the poppier Good News, the band’s attempt to whittle down its musical approach. “I wanted us to make a record that was fun to listen to, not something you had to work at. So that makes us that much more available to that many more people. [The new] record is like a merger of Good News and Lonesome Crowded West; a meeting of those two worlds—all the long, older records with all their weird shit, and the easier-to-listen-to record. Like they had a baby. Because I don’t wanna make music for the f—in’ hipsters anymore,” he says insistently. “They’re welcome to it, too, but not exclusively. I’ve met a lot of kids who can only get their music at places like Wal-Mart, and I’m more than happy to try to be the kind of band that can reach them there. Kind of like the Talking Heads—they had some great pop hits, but then you listen to the records and there’s some f—in’ weird shit on there, too.”

Insofar as the early returns are concerned, it seems entirely likely that Modest Mouse, Inc., will continue apace with its quest for world pop domination. “‘Dashboard’ has been #1 on our People’s Choice countdown since the very first night it came out,” enthuses Mark Hamilton, programming director for influential Portland, Ore., indie-rock station KNRK. “Up until recently, it’s been hard to imagine any truly alternative band cracking the Top 40. But now we have platinum artists who are exclusive to the kind of music we care about. We think this album’s gonna be massive.”

Brock and Marr’s partnership has wrought the band’s most accomplished work to date, and this has validated the difficult journey required to see it through to completion. “It’s definitely not the easiest way to work,” chuckles Brock about the group’s experiment in democracy. “The easiest way to run anything is one person with an iron constitution and metal fist, because that person knows how it’s going to turn out and what they do and don’t want to hear. That’s definitely different than this f—in’ roundtable deal we have going: ‘Hey, maybe we should do it like this?’ But it’s a goddamned good way to do it. It was the right way to approach this record.”

When the band was rehearsing in Portland, Marr says they even consulted the small crew of homeless people living outside the studio. “Sometimes we’d go outside and talk with them, maybe share some food or a beer,” he says. “If they were shouting for a certain song or grooving around to something we were playing, we knew we were on the right track.”

PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

“Now that I have a Coke in my hand, this beer just feels like work,” Brock says, eyeing both simultaneously as we recline, drinks in hand, on the two couches at the far corner of the set.

It’s now well after midnight, the stagehands have begun breaking down the equipment from the day’s lengthy shoot, and Brock and I are sitting on two of the only items that haven’t yet been packed into a trailer. He’s had two hours of sleep in the last 36, but, amazingly, looks no worse for the wear.

Brock’s beverage conundrum—hmmm, quick pick-me-up or a slide toward a long midwinter’s buzz?—is in some ways analogous to the warring impulses that have governed his 31 years on Earth. There have been very few stories written about his group that haven’t included at least passing references to Brock’s unusual upbringing, his struggles to deal with it (and corresponding run-ins with the law), and the lasting impact it’s had on his music.

Brock was born in Montana and, with his mother, moved frequently between various towns in the state where his then-stepfather could find work through the family’s chosen religious sect (he says that, later, they moved to Oregon to distance themselves from that same church). They were often strapped for cash and sometimes relied on donations to eat. Brock’s mother eventually left his stepfather for a new husband and moved into the man’s trailer, which consequently didn’t leave much room for Isaac; he slept in friends’ basements or on their couches before moving into “The Shed,” an 8' x 10' shelter fashioned by his new stepfather on the family’s property in Issaquah, Wash. (a suburb east of Seattle), which eventually became the practice space for Modest Mouse’s earliest lineup. He named the band after a passage in the Virginia Woolf story The Mark on the Wall, in which she describes the working class as “modest, mouse-colored people.” Such themes of struggle, poverty, mental instability and other motifs typically associated with blue-collar folks have formed Brock’s signature songwriting fodder since the beginning. “I can remember Isaac writing some of the songs that became Sad Sappy Sucker while he was living in a group home [called Positive Force],” recalls manager Carrera. “He would leave them as outgoing messages on his answering machine—he called it ‘Dial-a-Song.’”

Rolling Stone published a somewhat infamous story a few years ago that catalogued the increasingly lengthy list of Brock’s personal issues while framing them against the backdrop of a night of alcoholic misadventure: the deaths of two close friends, bouts of debilitating depression and occasionally injurious self-destruction, various stints of drug and alcohol abuse, the period during the recording of Good News in which longtime drummer Jeremiah Green had a breakdown and essentially walked out on the band mid-recording (after a year’s rest—including a stay in a psychiatric hospital—he rejoined Modest Mouse), and Brock’s several legal entanglements, including a ’99 rape charge that was subsequently dropped and a DUI arrest which resulted in his spending six days in prison and a month working on a road crew in upstate New York. He’s bounced around between Seattle; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Chicago; Gainesville, Fla.; and the rural enclave of Cottage Grove, Ore. (where he still owns an interest in “a chocolate pasta factory located just o? I-5; tours are given daily starting at 9 a.m.”). It’s enough to give anybody a complex, and Brock now finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to address these matters every time some journalist comes rolling in for a discussion. “One thing that tends to happen on a personal level that defines Modest Mouse a lot of the time is when I try to explain the personal things in my past,” Brock says evenly. “I didn’t go to jail for attempted murder, you know? I went to jail for DUI. I was driving under the influence, OK? I was f—in’ 25 years old—mistakes were made.”

Interestingly, all the stories that focus on Brock’s self-admitted misdeeds miss the larger point—that he has evidently undertaken a serious about-face in an effort to spend his energy making music (something at which he’s becoming increasingly proficient) instead of avoiding the long arm of the law. During the 10-hour day we spend together, I witness Brock taking leave of an interview to personally thank the stagehands and wardrobe people on the set; directing his band, girlfriend and manager toward beer and food supplies (“Hey Joe, there’s a beer in that red cooler over there—some O’Doul’s too, but also some ‘real’ beer, go ahead and grab one”); standing completely still and smiling, in costume, while one of the cameramen whips out his mobile phone to snap a photo of the two of them together. Sure, a skeptic could simply argue that it’s all staged for the benefit of the visiting journalist but, despite his insane schedule—the band leaves for a tour of Australia and Southeast Asia in two days—there’s a generosity of spirit about Brock these days that’s easy to miss unless you actually spend time with him; if you do, you can’t avoid it. “I’ve seen Isaac grow as a person,” points out producer Herring. “He’s inspiring to me not only artistically but I also notice him paying attention to what’s going on around him now, being introspective. … Of course, he still doesn’t suffer fools very well—he’s got a big ol’ head, and he’s gonna use it,” Herring laughs about the guy who considers Noam Chomsky “bedtime reading.”

What it all comes down to is this: Brock has sacrificed a great deal to ensure Modest Mouse can continue making the kind of records it’s capable of creating, and he’s not sure that conjuring his distant past (the details of which sometimes provoke knee-jerk emotional responses—“Isaac Brock, tornado bait”) is the most important thing he can focus on now. “Things broke down enough during the recording of Good News that the remaining people in the band had to decide, ‘Do we even want to do this anymore, or is this the end?’” Brock says. “It was hard to get through, because things were so dysfunctional for a while. But it’s like we went through family counseling and decided that we really love this band; we want to do it after all. Lately people have been asking how long we think Johnny might stick around, and I guess no one knows how long they’ll stay in a relationship, or in a job. But I think ‘indefinite’ is an easy enough answer,” he says, smirking.

Brock takes stock of the scene around him, then turns to go. “My life ain’t been tragic, man,” he insists, looking into my eyes for the first time all night, as if to make sure I’m tracking what he’s saying. “I’m really not depressed all the time. I have my moments, as does everyone. But most of the time, I’m just fine.” And on that note, Brock grabs his peacoat and heads for the door, his ship having sailed for the night.

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