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Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse

Interviewed by
Ben Coley
Wednesday 18th March, 2015 10:59AM

Quality over quantity is something Modest Mouse focus on. Since forming in 1993, the Washington band have released a restrained number of records, the latest being sixth studio album Strangers to Ourselves, an offering that plays with the concept of having one eye on a microscope and one eye on a telescope. It's a refreshing listen after a long eight years between drinks. The last time the world heard new material from Modest Mouse was in 2007 when they unveiled We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank.

The band has always been volatile, giving the sense it could implode at any moment, but somehow, more than 20 years after coming together they have managed to weather all storms and emerged out the other side more popular and better loved than ever before. To coincide with the release of Strangers To Ourselves, UnderTheRadar spoke with the band’s charismatic, enigmatic (and sometimes misunderstood) singer Isaac Brock about kauri trees, corporate greed, recording the new album and future albums that are up the band's sleeve...

UTR: Hey Isaac, how are you doing?

IB: I fucking don’t know dude…I think I might be doing pretty good, how are you doing?

I’m good, just been reading the news.

Oh yeah, what’s going on?

Well today’s big news is about an old kauri tree which people are trying to protect and not let get cut down.

Why do they want to cut it down?

To redevelop and build on the land.

Fuck that noise! Here is my theory. I get that it’s been a long walk through history to get to this point. But we now know what we know now, which is don’t build on the nice shit. Find yourself somewhere which is travelling distance of the nice shit and visit it. You guys in New Zealand are great, you seem to have your shit together. The fact you are even having a conversation about it is telling. In the US the “conversation” just gets settled inside the court.

I read an interview recently where you talked about wanting to move your family down to New Zealand, what's the appeal?

Well, I live in the Northwest of America, and New Zealand is kind of like an island of the Northwest. It’s got everything I like and weird animals. I fucking love animals, period. I also like mountains, bays, tiny islands, clean air, and I also like tin roofs and you have a lot of them. I also like smart politics. I am so exhausted with racism and as far I know you seem to have your shit sorted. I don’t hear much about you being sons of bitches to the native people, maybe I am wrong though and there is a chance that I have this inflated idea of you all.

No, I think you have the right idea. We definitely have our problems, but it could be worse. It sounds like you may be a little disillusioned with America and the world which also comes across in some of the lyrics throughout Strangers to Ourselves.

There is this globalisation. Businesses are selfish mother fuckers. Money is an animal that is always hungry for more of itself, despite it not even being useful to itself anymore. A billionaire wants another billion dollars just in case the first billion wasn’t enough and they will do it for any cost, but that’s the world. The thing that makes living on this planet worth a damn doesn’t matter to them. It’s like we have this great place to live and they have just spray painted over the windows.

There is a line which has stuck with me that makes me think a little about what you just said. It’s from the song 'Pups To Dust' and it goes "We don’t belong here, we were just born here" I took quite a deep meaning from it and was wondering if you were talking about the human race or am I reading too much into it?

That one is micro and macro. The concept for the album is one eye on a microscope, one eye on a telescope which are both looking at the same thing. A line like that can apply to someone, on a personal selfish “poor me” angle, but at least that’s a foot in the door of the bigger picture. I try very hard when I write lyrics to phrase and talk about stuff for people who are only interested in themselves, and sometimes that is me. I am a petty son of a bitch sometimes and I can get carried away. It’s hard not to. When I try and say something meaningful I say it with three stages in mind. You can look at it for yourself, someone else or everyone. You have only got two windows to this world and they are both coming out of your head.

I guess that all fits in with Strangers to Ourselves being the album title. We are constantly learning about ourselves and we don’t really know who we are...

I don’t want to sound too heavy. I don’t personally or psychologically live in a world of sadness and shit but I’m frustrated all of the time. People shouldn’t be unhappy, but they should be aware. The choice of feeling unhappy is always an option to us. Taking a good thing and making it shitty is easy, but taking a good thing and making it better, or leaving it the hell alone, requires a lot more self control, but pays off in the long run. The collective happiness of our species is tightly tethered to the happiness of everything else.

Very interesting. Let’s move on to the new album... since the last album you have built your own studio called Ice Cream Party. How has that changed the way you recorded this album compared to others?

On the downside I started taking time for granted. Usually you go into a studio that you’ve booked for a month-and-a-half and you are prepared. You have to go in and get it done. However if you own the studio, time and days become meaningless. The sun may have not risen one day and I wouldn’t have noticed. I found myself living in a very strange vacuum because of that. I could have easily done a My Bloody Valentine and I don’t need that extra spoonful of crazy in my life. I am crazy enough as it is. On the plus side, if there was a song or part that didn’t sit right, for example the bass on 'Sugar Boats', I got to re-record and try every instrument I wanted to get the right vibe. I also now know more about recording than I ever wanted to. I can hear a fly fart on a track at this point in time. I spent my life savings working on this project. I was seriously inches away from being homeless.

Before going into the studio to record, you cut 37 songs or ideas that you had. What I found interesting about that was you also completely deleted them. Why?

There was just way too much material. We had a lot of stuff to work on and it was going nowhere. I said to the guys I am going to delete these and if anyone actually remembers a song or part that they really like then we will revisit it, and no one did! So obviously it was the right thing to do. It is one of the many safety mechanisms I have to make sure there is no filler on a record. I try not get too attached to the work I put into something versus the song itself.

Did you go into the studio with a vision? I read that you have another album in the works as well?

The new album has 15 songs and I think we went into the studio with 22 more so I had to prioritise. I went in with the idea that I was recording two albums and I didn’t want to tell anyone that. I don’t want to be telling you this but I can’t help myself because I went in to record two albums and I did that. The companion piece to this record, the other side of this coin is fucking strange. The reasons that I put this record out rather than the second is to not weird people out to much.

Can you tell me a little bit about the cover of the album? Is there a story behind it?

Kind of. Actually, going off topic for a bit, but being on a major label has been nothing I was afraid it would ever be. It has been cooler than being on every independent label who has screwed me over in some way.

Interesting, you may be the first person I have ever heard say that…

Right! It’s been great. They leave me the fuck alone. Partly because they don’t have any idea what to do with us. They never have. Anyway… so I had this one concept and was talking to the label and they were like, you can do whatever you want but no store will carry that, we will not be able to give it to anyone. It’s just way too out there. I was disappointed but I am still going to do it in the future! So I was mocking up all these other images. I knew I wanted it to be surreal, but I was over thinking it and grasping at straws. I asked my friend Matt Clarke who did the 'Coyotes' video for some help and if he had any ideas and he showed me what is now the album cover. I had made a personal promise to myself that I would never have another building erode on the cover and it was never meant to be suburban sprawl commentary, but there it was. It was exactly what I wanted and it fit with the one eye on the telescope, one eye on the microscope concept and the title Strangers to Ourselves.

Are you looking forward to getting out and touring the music?

When it comes to playing live or displaying these songs as a live work it is hard. There are now eight people in the band and that still isn’t enough. At some points all of our techs are playing on the songs too, which is one of the pitfalls of having a studio, because you can add all these extra little parts to songs which you can’t play live. I work so hard at making these songs a recorded thing that I am a little uncomfortable with how they might be live. I am excited about it touring but also aware that it’s not going to sound the same.

Will you make back over to New Zealand?

Yeah, we are hoping to come back out sometime soon, the last shows we did there were great.

Strangers To Ourselves
is out now via Sony Music.


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