Eight years, departing band members, cancelled tours and unused collaborations with Big Boi and ex-Nirvana star Krist Novoselic have given Modest Mouse’s latest release, entitled ‘Strangers To Ourselves’, something of a ‘Chinese Democracy’ bent to it. With the Washington State indie act often touted as something of a genre founder, the album also faced a complex challenge: how were Modest Mouse to remain themselves, but also shrug off the threat of becoming derivative of the many ‘indie’ rock acts that followed?
The answer, it seems, eluded vocalist Isaac Brock and his fluid group for some time: they’ve been busy with heavy touring schedules, re-releasing old albums and trialling enough songs to fill their sixth studio album four times over. The result – which flits through swooning beats, the most offbeat and evocative of lyrics and even a touch of unlikely hip-hop – is all that we could have hoped for, avoiding that ‘overthought’ feel. It even comes with a promise from Brock that the next album will follow “as soon as legally possible.”
Brock is quite open about the difficulties with ‘Strangers to Ourselves, but also points to a period in which Modest Mouse have been far from quiet. “This is a culmination of eight years of work in a way”, he agrees, “but then again there’s probably a good three to four years there where we were either touring or recuperating from touring. It’s eclectic, because eclectic is kind of what we do. It might not be perfect but it’s there, you know, it allows us to keep the band moving along. It’s pretty different from ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’.”
A lot happens in eight years, from fresh influences to changes in the music scene, but it seems to be internal pressure that drives the changes found on this latest release. “There’s a bit of pressure to be something different to what you were a few years ago. It definitely pops into our heads every so often, to ‘steer clear of that thing',” Brock explains. “I’m not positive it’s possible to stop sounding like yourself, but it’s definitely at the back of your mind, the need to evolve. When I started playing some of the stuff it wasn’t for me, it wasn’t that good. So I just had to find a way of getting there. I try not to ever sound like any old stuff, but it’s going to happen sometimes.”
Part of that journey to new pastures – to exploring musical avenues and refining new sounds – came in the highly publicised studio collaborations. Not that they were supposed to be public. “It shouldn’t ever have gotten out that we were working with Big Boi in the first place”, Brock tells us. “When we worked with Big Boi we had enough stuff under our belts that it felt like a good idea to try something on and see, to take a detour in the process and see where we were. There was a sound bouncing around my head and I decided to reach out. But we were ill prepared. We had such a blast and we recorded a couple of songs, but just different versions of tracks that ended up on the record. We were running our guitars through two way amp simulators and stuff like that. It didn’t sound quite right. We had a great time though. He’s a badass man. By the time we got around to recording the record, my plans had shifted, as they did five or six times throughout recording. I’m a fickle, fickle man!”
The most unlikely outcome is a track entitled ‘Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)’, which Brock says “just kind of happened.” It’s out of character in the album, a hip-hop influenced mish-mash that’s slightly reminiscent of ‘Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes’ from way back in 2000, but generally sounds like a wonderfully disparate, clunky mess of a track that hits the target simply by being so weirdly unlike even this eclectic outfit.
By the time we got around to recording the record, my plans had shifted, as they did five or six times throughout recording. I’m a fickle, fickle man!”
There are definitely signs that Modest Mouse haven’t quite moved with the times, though, and perhaps that suits them. The launch of a single through web platform Reddit, for example, which appears the most modern of band promotional tricks on the surface, came as a shock to Brock. “I don’t know how things like the Reddit single release come to be”, he tells us “I ended up there, but I’m not really involved in social media in any way, for better or worse. I don’t have it in me to do it. But it was real odd, it made me feel like eight years is a really long time. I didn’t really get what was going on. The girl who was helping me with that thing, she was like a robot. She was just scrolling through hundreds of comments, slamming on the brakes, and going ‘here’s an interesting question’. How do you read that shit? I don’t have the brain for it. I missed out on that shit. People comment on comments on comments on comments. It’s just so hard to keep up!”
With so much of a reputation and such a wonderfully extensive collection behind them, perhaps Brock is entitled to live in the past a little, even with a sparkling new album under his arm. The re-release of two early records over the past few years has seen him doing just that, and make the early content available to fans again without delving into expensive vinyl rareties.
In fact, Brock wouldn’t pay out for the early records himself, even to reproduce them (An original version of 1997 album ‘The Lonesome Crowded West’ on vinyl will currently set you back around €400). “I really liked those first two records”, Brock explains, “and they hadn’t been available on vinyl in over a decade. A very long time. I don’t own a copy of some of the original vinyls. I went online occasionally as we were trying to put these records back together, and I’m like ‘we need a copy of the original record’. There’s no way I’d pay that much for this asshole’s record! I couldn’t bring myself to spend that kind of money on the thing. I don’t have one and I probably never will. The labels that they were put out on, they were my friends, but the masters for one of the records got lost, and a bunch of the artwork got lost. The company that used to print the records went out of business. We spent an incredible amount of time finding that shit.”
After all the delays, then, recording seems to be back in Brock’s blood, and that might well start with a Modest Mouse tradition: the post album ‘left overs’ EP, the most recent of which, ‘No One’s First And You’re Last’, received almost as much acclaim as the preceding album. Brock’s making no promises, but does admit “I got rid of about 37 songs before we got to the studio to make this album. There are about 17 songs, so nearly two whole records, that I really like. I guess I’ll start working with that.” They might never have been fully away, but with reams of new tracks, a revitalized feel to the music and the promise of a bucket load more output on the horizon, it seems one of indie rock’s finest proponents are very much back. With them, once again, comes a world of unpredictability.
I don’t own a copy of some of the original vinyls. I go online occasionally as we’re trying to put these records back together, and I’m like ‘we need a copy of the original record’. There’s no way I’d pay that much for this asshole’s record!