“I don’t know how to explain what I do, I really don’t. I just write songs”
Modest Mouse’s discography reads like a guidebook to Northwest indie cred, with a dozen or so records on labels like Sub Pop, Up, and K. Singer/songwriter Isaac Brock began the band as a personal outlet, recording song after song in his bedroom, in low-fi glory. Years later, they’re attracting worldwide attention and currently touring behind their latest release on Up Records, The Lonesome Crowded West. The prolific writer has worked on a number of side projects, including an upcoming release from Califone (with members of Red Red Meat and Rex), and they also had a recent single released through the newly-revived Sub Pop mail order singles club.
Modest Mouse are introspective, but not too self-important; religious-influenced, but certainly not preachy. Many of their songs are half-sung, half-shouted loose musical collages, built around a single riff until it transforms (or falls apart) into a new groove, slower and sparser, building and collapsing again. The very best songs (like “Convenient Parking”) repeat and loop hypnotically over themselves, both lyrically and musically. Cynical observations about life, religion and the world pepper the lyrics, and the story/songs are populated with characters taken from life and Isaac’s imagination.
Besides Isaac, the band consists of Eric Judy (bass), Jeremiah Green (drums), and recently-added Chris Majeras on keyboards. I spoke by telephone with Isaac recently; he was waiting for friends to arrive and blissfully unaware it was Labor Day. Seemingly a little evasive at first, Isaac gradually warmed to the interview and our conversation flowed and faltered, not unlike a Modest Mouse song. I half got the feeling he was making up stories as we went along, but the tangents were as interesting as the characters in his songs.
The insight and songwriting talent apparent in Modest Mouse (and Isaac’s other side projects) promise to mature and grow with him; I look forward to seeing what the future holds for this band.
Can you tell me about the band? I’ve heard a couple of the records and know a bit about your background, but I just want to hear it from you.
That’s kind of a vague one. You should ask questions, I’m not too good at blathering on offhand.
How did the band start?
I’m not really sure, it’s been quite a while, I don’t really remember. It’s been a long time — we just kind of hooked up randomly — things fell into place, then it fell out of place. I’d been playing music in my shed, and I’d made these three tapes called Modest Mouse with like forty-something songs each on them, really bad “adolescent guy hanging out in his room” recordings, yelling into 1940’s reel-to-reels and shit — kinda weird, kinda bad. Then I tried playing with different people and eventually played with them [Eric and Jeremiah], and it worked out. Then it kind of just dissolved — I dropped out of high school, went to DC and kicked around there, showed back up and put the band together with just me and this drummer. Then I tried playing with different people and … to make a long story short, there’s been a lot of members and then it finally, like, four years ago, re-settled down.
So you’re sitting in your room with 40-50 songs on a tape, why do you think it started pouring out like that?
I don’t know, it just did.
What’s the songwriting process like — do you come to the band with complete songs, or does everyone contribute?
Whenever we manage to write a song, I’ve brought a complete song, but then we fuck around and stuff, but the songs on the albums are mostly songs that I came with completed.
You did the cover art on a couple of the records, do you like doing that?
I love doing cover art — that’s the best part. Usually what I do is get all the pictures and photos and stuff, then I go work on someone else’s computer while they do all the work — I just sit behind and tell them where to put what. You work with someone on that, just like a band.
It seems like there are a lot of common themes in your songs and the artwork from record to record.
It’s not really for me to say what it’s about, if you know what I mean. It’s pretty much up to whoever’s listening to it to decide what it’s about for them.
Do you feel like most people pick up on the ideas you’re trying to get across?
I hope so. It doesn’t really matter. It’s supposed to mean something to them personally, it’s not like reading a biography or something — you should make it your own when you’re listening to music.
You seem to do a lot of side projects, do you like working with a lot of different people?
Yeah — you learn from it, you know what I mean? You make sure you don’t get stuck in your own rut. Also, it’s just nice to try and be part of someone else’s thing and not have to be behind the wheel entirely.
My other side project is called Ugly Casanova, and it’s just like Modest Mouse, but the songs I don’t end up doing with them, or just stuff I do by myself and don’t feel like having a full band or playing with different people.
Do you prefer recording or playing live?
They’re both great and they’re both different. Actually, I think I might like recording more. Live’s hell for fun, too, but I like me recording.
What are your live shows like?
Live’s fun, it’s a good thing. I don’t know what you’ve heard. Do get at the live thing, man, it’s hell for fun.
How did the Sub Pop thing come about?
Sub Pop? Oh, the single. I was really into the singles club when they did it originally, I found out about a lot of music through that, so it just kind of came together.
[yelling in the background]
No one’s into my new sneakers. I got ’em at Niketown. You know what a Niketown is? Ours is like this crazy big three-story building, Niketown, attached to a GameWorks — do you have one of them? It’s all sorts of video games, partly owned by DreamWorks . There’s one game that I really, really liked that I played at one of those places where it’s got hydraulics and shit to make you feel like you’re having a good time — it was this boat racing game — it’s just messed up, it’s so fun. It’s got this song, “YOU GOT A BOAT, YOU LOVE TO RIDE, KICKING IT OUT INTO OVERDRIVE” over and over again. Sort of like a bad ZZ Top number or something.
Reading through the lyrics it seems like you’re observing people – are these people you make up, or do you grab scenarios that you saw on the street?
Lots of people, like Cowboy Dan’s a real person then I made up a fiction story — it’s a mixture of both, reality and made up. You’ve gotta have both going on.
What makes a good song for you?
I have to feel super good about the lyrics; it doesn’t have to be hell for long, but for some reason I’m a lot more satisfied when it’s got a few different songs in the same song. Let’s say, “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” for instance, it goes from one thing into the other and whatnot but it kind of flows into them, I think. I like that, instead of just having the song be the loud part entirely or something.
Do you think you’re improving as a songwriter?
Yeah, I just started writing songs again. I’ve been having a lot of trouble for a long time and it’s ’cause I live in this house that I think is cursed, cause whenever I’m here I can’t write songs. This is the first five days in over a year that my roommate and my girlfriend have both been absent, so I’ve actually been alone.
I just got back from Chicago from messing around with Califone, working at the truck stop, cleaning out meat trucks. That’s fun, that was the most fun job I’ve had in a while. Livers and shit on the floor, huge big chunks of fat the size of your head that are all kind of hard like butter. It gets sweaty hot once you turn on the spray gun especially, ’cause there’s just all the moisture in the air and you’re blasting blood off the walls and floors. It gets hot. You wear gloves, then there’s this layer of like mink grease or dead cattle all over your gloves that doesn’t let your hands get all wrinkly and puckery.
Wow — thanks for sharing. You guys are traveling and getting more attention, are you happy with how things are going with the band?
Yeah, I like how things are going. I’d like it more if was writing as many songs as I used to, but I think I’m getting back there. Getting back writing songs, and reading a lot.
Do you like to bounce new songs off the audience when you’re playing live?
I just play new songs cause I’m psyched on them. Yeah.
What would you say to people that haven’t heard your records?
Usually if people are asking me about it, I just tell them to listen to it. I don’t know how to explain what I do, I really don’t. I just write songs, dude, I don’t really spend much time describing ’em. If I could talk about songs, I wouldn’t need to write ’em, you know?
Well, it’s probably better to be good at writing songs than describing them, cause then you end up being a rock critic.
Oh, I’m a rock critic. I’m quite the rock critic. I can criticize the shit out of anything.
Yeah? What sucks these days?
Harvey Danger. I got the guy’s autograph last night. He wrote, “with all the love in my heart,” and then he asked me why we hate them. I was like, “I don’t have a personal problem with you, I just don’t like your music.” He’s a nice guy, but he used to be a rock critic himself — he blames it on the editor and says it’s not what he meant to say, but in Alternative Press he called me an “idiot cum naive-savant” and when he did that, I called and threatened to kill him. But now he’s a multi-millionaire.
You’re touring the States for a while, and then headed for Europe, right?
We’re going to England in December, and I’m kind of — not nervous about it, but it just doesn’t seem like they’re too into rock anymore. Have you ever been over there? I’m not really excited about it. To be honest, the only place in Europe I’m really curious about is Ireland and I guess Scandinavia. British people really don’t interest me one damn bit.
And France, I’m really not that curious about that, either. French-speaking Canada was a weird enough one for me. That was just depressing to see a bunch of people on the wrong continent, really, really wanting to be French. I’ve never understood the East Coast/West beef they had going on there, or whatever — the French/non-French thing? Now I know why the non-French are so annoyed — the French there are so fucking annoying about it. They’re not into being nice about the fact that they’d rather be French. They’re pissed at you for them living in the wrong place. Good old people.
Let me ask you about some of the songs, like “Jesus Christ was an Only Child”?
It’s not true, he had a brother. He did have a brother.
I don’t know, maybe like Elvis. I don’t know much about the Elvis story. His mom had a kid with old Joseph.
I don’t know too much about Bible stories.
It’s all just allegorical shit, you know? Just a bunch of stories with little messages, you know? Might as well be Dr. Seuss.
I spent some time in this Christian gospel cult when I was a kid. My family was part of this thing called Grace Gospel. It’s a branch off of — there’s a main church in Texas, the Branch Davidians were a crazier branch, and then the one we were part of was a crazy (but not psychopathic) branch of the thing. I was around religion a little with that. It’s just interesting to me.
I’ve been an atheist for quite a while — I’m getting a little more agnostic as I get older and more superstitious, but I’m trying to figure out where they do put atheists in heaven, where you end up working. Probably just washing halos and stuff like that. Baking manna. Cleaning out meat trucks at the gates of Hell.
It’s supposed to keep going on like that … you drive through the country, you end up looking at the same thing, different city to parking lot to whatever. You know what I mean? It is what it is, there’s not much hidden there. The song’s about what it sounds like it’s about.
That’s an idea I had about the Mafia killing you by making you walk on water, but upside down.
Do you meet a lot of people on the road?
I’ve met some damn good people, but the best people I’ve met in a long time are those Califone people — really interesting, really fun to be around. When I got out there, they were super-disorganized. They were supposed to have a studio all ready, and we were just going to do tracking. They didn’t have it so I just played with them a few times and it felt like I was way out of my league.
They’re all pretty old, got a good ten years up on me — the first practice I was playing with them, and I was like, “I can’t figure out why nothing sounds right — it all sounds so out of tune,” then I realized that every single one of them had their guitars tuned differently. So that’s something I learned, and I just started writing songs that way, and it’s fucking awesome. It takes it to a new level. I’m looking forward to having the next album come out and get quite a few different guitar sounds going on.
The Califone album is super-good. The new songs are really, really good — it’ll be more like Red Red Meat, but also with a trippiness — not that Red Red Meat wasn’t trippy in their own way.
Most have your records seem to have pretty much straightforward guitar sounds, without too many effects. Do you like playing around in the studio?
I’ve been fucking with effects a lot more, to other people’s chagrin (or maybe not). You can only do the same thing and work with the same sound so many times before you want to fuck with something else, so the new stuff’s a bit weirder like that.
I guess my brother just showed up, I should probably roll. I’m sorry I’m not too good at giving the answers, I hope you can salvage something out of this. Just say what you think about it, man. What I think doesn’t mean jack shit.