It took a whopping eight years, but in March, US indie rock linchpins Modest Mouse finally delivered their sixth album.
AUGUSTUS WELBY reports.
While new Modest Mouse album is called Strangers To Ourselves, the title is something of a misnomer, as the record bears all the hallmarks of the Modest Mouse we know and love.
There’s Isaac Brock’s eccentric lead vocals, which shift from pretty melodiousness to outrageous yelping at the blink of an eye, plus plenty of aggressive guitar tones and danceable rhythms supplied by drummer Jeremiah Green (the only other remaining original member).
The band’s music – which revolves around Brock’s songwriting – has long inhabited a distinct stylistic realm. This is a meritorious feat, but like most musicians, Brock began his songwriting career by trying to replicate those he admired. “I was just really piling on a bunch of different influences,” he says. “You never really truly own anything. It’s just a combination of a bunch of other people’s shit. You take what you know and make it your own. I don’t think I was ever good enough to directly imitate the people I would like to, so I always ended up doing my own thing accidentally. Early on, I would probably much rather have really nailed someone else’s shtick.”
Being a master of imitation is a noteworthy skill, but anyone with a burning artistic impulse quickly moves beyond pure emulation. However, there’s no guarantee that the creative juices will flow on endlessly. In the eight years since Modest Mouse’s previous LP – the Johnny Marr-featuring We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank – Brock did become concerned about his creative well-being.
“There were points where I’d be like, ‘You know what you’ve been doing for the last six months, Isaac? Not creating shit, man’. I worked pretty hard during those eight years to get most of my catalogue onto my own label (Glacial Pace). And also to lodge everything that should’ve been lodged – master tapes and reels and shit. It all ended up surfacing, but it was a lot of work. So I was kind of stuck in this mode where I was doing an incredible amount of work to put shit out that I’d already done, which was by far not as rewarding.
“That actually took probably two or three years,” he continues. “There was stuff done in the meantime – I’d satisfy myself by helping other people produce shit, so as to get to be creatively involved in something. But there was moments where I was like, ‘Holy shit, man, you’re just going to write a record about all the shitty things that you’ve been listening to. You’re going to regurgitate some Jello Biafra-style political record’.”
On top of reissuing their earlier records, in the midst of making Strangers To Ourselves, Modest Mouse built a recording studio near Brock’s home in Portland, Oregon. Having unrestricted studio access inspired an unforeseen perfectionism in Brock, which ultimately delayed the album even further.
“Being in my own space allowed for a brand of fucking craziness that I have not really had the luxury of before,” he says. “I also know myself as someone who’ll just fucking let things fall how they may. I don’t think the people working with me can ever know which way we’re going. Like, am I going to spend three months working on the simplest fucking thing, but then let something that should be probably better thought out just happen?”
In spite of the various hold-ups, upon its release, Modest Mouse fans around the world quickly embraced Strangers To Ourselves. This positive reaction effectively redeems the record’s over-long gestation period. However, Brock is uncertain about whether it was time well spent.
“To be honest, it was kind of a round trip. I’d spend an incredible amount of time just getting bogged down with the minutiae of shit and find myself back where I was a couple of months earlier. I might have gotten a bit too precious. If I’d called it maybe a year earlier, I think I probably would’ve been almost in the same spot. And I’m still not happy with it even though it’s out, because I am a crazy person.”
Brock’s obsessive studio nitpicking contrasts sharply with the way Modest Mouse recorded their first couple of albums. Both 1996’s This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West featured a vastly looser and comparatively lo-fi aesthetic, but that hasn’t prevented them standing the test of time. Of course, the circumstances were entirely different; Modest Mouse were then a young, relatively unknown band, signed to the Seattle independent label Up Records. Even so, they were no less committed to creating quality work.
“We were always doing as good as we were capable of,” says Brock. “In our eyes, we weren’t putting together wobbly yet charming messes. That was as good as we could get. I mean, Jesus Christ, Long Drive –we recorded and mixed that thing in 17 days. I think The Lonesome Crowded West took about the same amount of time. If you put both of those records together and the couple of EPs that happened around them and a bunch of singles, it still didn’t take as long as it did for me to make this record. I hope this isn’t a lasting trend, because fuck me, that took a long time.”