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Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock on 'The Golden Casket', the Metaverse and Being an Indie Elder-Statesman

Thursday, 14 July 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: James Joiner

When you’re dealing with musicians of a unique ilk, long-winded introductory preambles are mostly pointless. It’s best to let such characters speak for themselves. Having led Modest Mouse for nearly 30 years, and overseen their transition from cult nihilistic alt-rock outsiders to mainstream indie-rock icons, Isaac Brock is the perfect example of someone who needs little fanfare.

Prior to arriving in the UK for shows at Bexhill-On-Sea's De La Warr Pavilion, London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Glasgow Barrowland and Manchester’s Albert Hall in support of last year’s psychedelic and, in spite of a simmering undercurrent of conspiratorial paranoia and creeping dread about modern technology, upbeat indie-pop masterpiece ‘The Golden Casket’, we were intrigued to hear Brock’s thoughts on plenty of things you might expect and a lot you definitely won’t. 

You’ve mentioned that your view of the universe and personal belief system have changed over the last two years. Can you expand on how they’ve shifted and what triggered that re-evaluation?

How do I dig into this? It’s really hard for me to unbox this conversation. Do you have another question that’s easier that I can fucking ease into, because that’s a lot? Unless you’ve got five minutes to sit and wait while I figure out which door to open first here.

Sure, no problem. You wrote ‘Good News For People Who Like Bad News’ when you needed some positivity in your life and ‘The Golden Casket’ is very much in that vein too. Did you also realise people might need that from your music after the last few years?

I brought two more people into the world and everyone I knew was finding it a very hard time. I’m sure a lot of people were having a hard time finding any silver fucking lining. Silver linings were basically priced out of gold at that point. So I felt obligated, in some way, to justify not just saying things are shitty. Causative projection does account for something. I’m not saying positive thinking is gonna stop stars from burning out, or things from quitting being mortal, but I do believe it’s important for everyone to be able to try to project something positive.   

What’s the difference between building up a sound collage, as you’ve done on ‘The Golden Casket’, and your previous ways of recording?

It’s convenient because you can move a whole bunch of stuff into the scene, live with it for a while, and then decide it’s not right and poof, it’s gone. Writing in a linear way, me and a group of musicians are ‘I’ve got the first part of the song, now we’ve gotta figure out how we’re gonna get to the second part.’ That means we’ve got to come up with a piece of music that somehow makes sense, in a playing it sort of way. Collaging it, you find something that makes sense in a collaging way. That’s where this DAW computer editing programme is such a treat.

Writing a record by using a bunch of pieces that you move around, it’s pretty freeing. I’m probably getting even more haywire with it. I’ve just started working on this project where I’ve recorded a bunch of frogs and pitched them down so they’re like seven different instruments that are made out of one recording of frogs. You can’t do that in a room with a band. I’m probably going to get more into that because I really enjoy it.

Many musicians have said it’s challenging to do something new as, essentially, it’s all been done and there’s no new territory to mine. What’s your approach to keeping things fresh and forward thinking?

I guess I never got good enough to do any specific thing. I don’t know, man. Am I making new shit? I guess that’s flattering but I’m not sure what we’re writing is jumping off the page and is brand new. One thing I try to be aware of is if I’m using the same formula. Meaning the same instrumentation, or asking has this happened before, am I too familiar with it and too comfortable?  After that don’t be afraid of any fucking tool because you can take anything basic and make it seem pretty fresh with something strange. Often it’s like ‘What have we got? We’ve got a piano part...what else can we do with it that’s slightly more interesting? Let’s try.’  

I’m worried if I don’t do that. So somewhere in my wiring I try very hard to somehow alter it. One of my fears is I’m gonna, at some point, step away from my whole catalogue and look at it and be like ‘I did the same song every record.’ But I hope that doesn’t happen. I’m consciously and subconsciously aware of the dangers of that and the possibilities. 

Fuck Your Acid Trip is a telling way to kick off the record. As someone who hasn’t been shy about his drug use, what do you make of the often repeated claim that many of the best bands made their most innovative and influential music whilst on drugs?

I haven’t. Most of the time I was heavily on drugs I didn’t make music at all. Most drugs don’t lend themselves towards instruments. Psychoactive drugs, everything’s kind of new to you. Dust on a desk, you look at it with a newfound joy or appreciation. White drugs like speed, and all that shit, is death to imagination. I don’t believe most people make their best music on drugs. I’ve seen very little of that. You can’t write while you’re nodding out. Drugs are a roadblock to accomplishments.  

But they do have a purpose. That stuff opens you up and did open me up, in my spirit. Which is part of what changed my view on the universe. You can alter the frequency that you are personally on using that stuff. There are some dark entities in the world and they will make themselves available to you. And I’m not talking religion. I’m just saying there’s more that we don’t know and can’t see than there is that we can.

Can I revisit the earlier question about how your view of the universe and belief system have changed?

Sure, I can try and answer. I don’t believe in death in the way I used to. Or permanence. That, alone, goes into vastly altering your expectations from life and everything else. I don’t think that I, Isaac Brock, or you Simon, fuck, I forgot your last name, drift around as our whole selves as we are right now, remembering this interview, birthday parties or any of that shit. That stuff’s important for this part of the ride, but the ride doesn’t stop. We’re all beings of energy and I think once the facility, the vehicle, that our energy is driving around in gets used up, then the energy’s still there but how it exists, and what’s going on for it, is different.  

There’s so much I don’t understand. Anyone who can claim to actually understand everything, even to the smallest level, has just decided they only wanna understand shit that far. Everyone’s got a pant full of bone right now about multiverses and things. Maybe. Fucking maybe. But I feel that’s one of those concepts that might not matter. Whether you’re in a parallel way, fucking existing with an infinite amount of yourselves and shit, if it’s not because of you it doesn’t really matter does it?  But I don’t have a fucking coherent thesis about this. It’s not like I can sit down and say ‘Hey, this is my fucking view of the universe and shit.’ It’s wobbly, at best. I guess I’ll just keep trying to write fucking songs about it and maybe I’ll figure it out.

Wooden Soldiers talks about iPhones and new technology creating a kind of unreality. What do you think of the Metaverse and prospect of people living in a controlled virtual reality bereft of proper social interaction?

There’s no fighting this shit, man. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It’s done, it’s out, this is what we’re doing, for better or worse. So my goal is to figure out whether I can upload myself into a computer, as wholly as possible. The kind that makes fucking scans of my brain, every stupid thing I’ve ever said and whatnot. And just get ready to be part of the big fucking party.  

Not too long from now artificial intelligence is going to take off. At some point you’re going to be able to ask your phone any goddamn thing you want about anyone that has any information.  Including the US government or Chinese government. You just have to know what to ask because there’s a lot of questions. But the Metaverse? Yeah, let’s swirl this thing together and see what happens. It could be a real boom for the planet. Maybe we’ve all moved in there and shit and we just don’t know it.       

What are your views on Twitter and the like, given how you’ve touched on invasion of privacy on the record?

I don’t give a fuck. Who gives a shit about any of that? We’ve poisoned ourselves, we’ve poisoned each other, the fact that everyone gets to have this safe hidey hole opinion about everyone and be mean spirited all day long.That’s garbage. Even cancel culture. The idea that without any solid conversation, proof, you can decide someone’s a bad person. You don’t even have to have anyone vouch for you. You just have to put it loud enough and often enough on line and no one’s gonna fuck with it. I decide tomorrow you’ve grown a Hitler moustache and you love genocide, it doesn’t have to be true, I just have to tell enough people and no one’s gonna fucking touch you. Anyway, that’s my old man rant.   

In spite of ‘The Golden Casket’s’ optimism, a lot of what you’re saying seems bleak and dystopian. 

There’s good people doing wonderful things. There’s all sorts of good in the world. I don’t have to make this shit up. I’m not trying to convince myself or other people because it feels nice to say it.  Most people give a fuck about something, to a degree, that matters and makes the world better. I don’t think everything sucks. 

Is it about finding a balance? 

Fuck a balance. If you want to give too much of a shit, go for it. That’s fine, too. Not giving enough of a shit, yeah, find a balance. I’d gladly give too much of a shit. 

On Lace Your Shoes you sing about working to be a better person so your young kids get to do the same. How challenging is it going to be for you when they can use the internet and find out all about you and your past? 

I’ve also got a 20 year old son and he knows more about me than anyone should know about their father at that age. With my two younger ones, the end goal will be to make sure the person they identify with at home, that I’m fully in their mind as this person that I am. Because other people’s filter is not the same. Today you’ve gotten a crabbier me than my kids usually get. I’m on week two of not smoking and also the worst flu I’ve ever had and it’s put me in a fucking mood today. I miss breathing. Do you remember what breathing’s like? 

It sounds vaguely familiar. But with regards what your kids know, I was wondering if you might try and control the narrative by putting pen to paper on an autobiography?

I find myself regretting my answers to shit so often. I have these VIP pre-show question and answer things I do with an audience in the room. They’re fun and I try to answer as honestly as I can. One of them recently asked ‘What were you like as a kid?’ and I basically just said I was an asshole. Then I realised, why didn’t I say I was nice then puberty hit and I turned into a dick? Because that was a pretty simplified view of it.

Everyone turns into a dick when they’re an adolescent on some level, it doesn’t mean you’re inherently a dick, it just means you start doing stuff with hormones and not enough information. I really regretted my answer there. Not that anyone should give a fuck, but if I’m gonna move properly into the Metaverse, I wanna make sure that it’s me moving in. Not some trumped up douchebag avatar of convenient answers. So, yes, I think I’d like to write something and have someone who’s better at writing linear stories help me.

You’ve been described as an indie-rock elder statesman. How does that make you feel and how might the young Isaac who started the band in the early ‘90s have reacted to that?

It sounds respectable, so I’ll take that. Indie-rock elder statesman? I liked it when I heard that and was like ‘Yeah, I can handle that’ but I dunno, it’s fine, what are you gonna do? Younger Isaac? People like people to think that they’re older and respectable, so I probably would have liked that.   

And finally, I believe you’ve been working with Jacknife Lee again on some more new material. 

Yeah, we’ve got a seven song companion EP [to ‘The Golden Casket’] that’s gonna come out in a couple of months. I’m really fucking excited about it.

Modest Mouse Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sun July 17 2022 - BEXHILL ON SEA De La Warr Pavilion
Mon July 18 2022 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire
Wed July 20 2022 - GLASGOW Barrowland
Thu July 21 2022 - MANCHESTER Albert Hall

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