A Vulture series in which artists judge the best and worst of their own careers.
Isaac Brock is trying to remember his band’s old songs. It’s been 25 years since Modest Mouse released its first album, 1996’s This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, and closer to 30 since the Washington band has existed. The front man isn’t used to thinking about their back catalogue, he’s used to playing it during concerts; just because he hasn’t gotten to do the latter over the past year doesn’t make him any keener on the former. He scrolls through his catalogue as we speak, seeing which song titles can jog his memory. At one point, I mention that “Dramamine” was the first track on Modest Mouse’s debut album. “Was it?” he replies. “Well, I’ll be goddamned, it sure was!”
For a band with such a long, odd history, from making quirky, heady DIY rock in Issaquah, Washington, to finding a commercial indie smash in 2004’s “Float On,” Modest Mouse remains focused on the present. It may not look that way from the outside — after it took eight years for Modest Mouse to release its sixth album, Strangers to Ourselves, in 2015, Brock promised a follow-up “as soon as legally possible,” and then stalled for six years. He’s still working on that album and “trying to make it feel right,” but in the meantime, Modest Mouse recorded an entirely new record: The Golden Casket, released on June 25.
The joke among Modest Mouse fans, especially after the subpar Strangers, has been that this great band hasn’t made music worth listening to in years. The Golden Casket puts that notion to rest. It exceeds expectations for a Modest Mouse album in 2021, from its adventures in synthesizer performance to some great Brock-isms (“You should never fuck a spider on the fly,” he warns on one song). At the end of our conversation, I note that fans argue over whether the sprawling Lonesome Crowded West, the spacey Moon and Antarctica, or even the Johnny Marr–featuring We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, is the band’s best. Brock has already dodged naming a favorite song, but I ask anyway if there’s one album he wants to be his band’s legacy. “No,” he replies, “otherwise I wouldn’t really be putting out the other ones.” After a tangent about old music and new music, he admits, “I try to stay away from vain-sounding, and this sounds like a perfect opportunity to sound vain, so I’m going to weasel out of this line of questioning, by saying those words.” Still, Brock reviewed Modest Mouse’s history as best as he could, telling Vulture about the band’s best and worst, and how it’s changed over the years.
That one’s a little loaded, because it’ll probably also be the one that’ll be the hardest for me to play, meaning there’ll be some clunky versions of it in early days but it’s “Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly.”
If I can be completely honest, I forgot the name of the song I was gonna say [first], so since I’m drawing a blank, I just said the next thing that came to mind. “Wooden Soldiers,” that’s the fucking song; thank you, Isaac, for having such a memorable name on that song. [Laughs.] Yeah, that one’s gonna be interesting to play. Some of the sounds, they were made by a chain of equipment, like modular synths and shit, and getting back to that exact spot’s gonna be pretty tricky. You know, if somebody sneezes on something, that alters the sound enough to make it not the right thing. The songs were, in general, kind of more collaged than performed. So that’ll be tricky. And I’m looking forward to it.
It kind of depends on the occasion, really. I’d say if someone wanted to vent or [was] feeling an angry way, there’s one song, and — I don’t know. I don’t spend that much time in the Modest Mouse catalogue in this way. I go back and visit them to play them. [Pauses to look through his songs.] Honestly, man, I think this is a question for not me, ’cause uh … I really like “Guilty Cocker Spaniels.” For one reason or another.
I’m looking at the band’s discography like, I think I like this band! Yeah, I like a lot of these songs.
Honestly, that never comes up. I wouldn’t do that. I’d feel like an ass, just being like, “Here’s a little bit of me. Oh! What’s that song? I didn’t know that was gonna play! Here’s the best song by me.” [Laughing.] I think I’d let someone else do that. I’m not trying to be evasive at all, man — or am I?
You know what? I’d make them listen to “Dramamine.” That’s easy on the ears, kind of trippy. Taking its time till some guy with a lisp starts yelling at you. Yeah, I think that’s a nice song.
I’ve had a few favorite songs to open with. I really like starting one of two ways. One is with the song “Strangers to Ourselves,” ’cause it’s so mellow and plodding. There’s something about starting with that song that I feel like really focuses our intention, and allows us to be quiet before things get chaotic.
[Or] just completely on fire. And that is pretty fun, too; that would be something like “Invisible.” But, like any exercising, if you just start sprinting at the beginning of the workout and shit, you’re gonna probably be playing catch-up and stuff for the rest of the time.
Oh, screaming, screaming, screaming. I smoked for many years, and I stopped recently, over the last year. So I’m feeling pretty optimistic about screaming now. I haven’t played it in years, but “Beach Side Property” is pretty fucking hard to sing. In general, “Shit Luck” is kind of hard, even though you don’t even have to scream in key. It’s the closest to a thrash-metal song or thrash-punk song that we fucking have. Hats off to guys who do that for an entire frickin’ show.
Most of them are more fun to do with a bigger group of people. I’ve heard the songs a whole lot — it’s just more fun to add another thing to it, to everything. And not just on a particular song, but to everything. Even, you know, “Wild Packs [of Family Dogs],” which was just at one point an acoustic guitar, me, and shit getting banged on. And [now] it’s pretty different every time because, well, for one, we never discuss what anyone should be playing [laughs], and I think we’re still, as we go, trying to figure it out.
Easy peasy. Worst show I think I ever fucking played was right after Good News [for People Who Love Bad News] came out. A surprise to us, there was a lot more people that showed up. We were playing some parking lot in Kansas City, to I think around 10,000 people. And I got shit-faced in a way that I don’t like being, which involved my brain watching me try to say words and sing and play my instrument, knowing what should be happening, and it was just like, Why is my hand not doing any of this stuff that I, the brain, am telling it to? I couldn’t even finish most of the lines, it was pretty bad. From then on, I started getting my act together in that regard. I was doing the math after this thing, of how much effort everyone [in the audience] had put in to showing up, be it time off work, travel, getting a babysitter, whatever fucking makes up life — people carved out the time, and it’s supposed to be good for them, and I got fucking wasted. So that one I remember pretty well.
Not our best song [but] — what was that fucking called? “Novocain Stain.” And you know, I don’t really like the name of that song. I get it’s been many many years, but I don’t like the name. But it does remind me of Issaquah.
Oh jeez, that’s an interesting question. That I regret putting out? Let’s see. Well, I mean, not really [any]. It was the right thing at the right time. Some of them, at this point in my life, I won’t go near, for reasons of being overly familiar, or something or other. The beginning of tours are actually probably when we’re most likely to play some of these things. Some of them are just one and done, and I’m like Oh, yeah, okay. Well, I’m still sick of that song, so we’re going to move on. It’s time for one more time and then it’s back in the chest.
I wouldn’t say this was a weird place, but it was kind of overall strange. Somehow I’d gotten gifted pretty nice seats at a [Portland] Trail Blazers game. I think the premise was, “Hey, rock star, why don’t you get season tickets?” or something like that. I don’t spend that much time in sports. I enjoy going to them occasionally live, in real life, because these events are fun. Lots of people watching, excusable bad snacking, this kind of shit. But I remember, I had smoked a shit ton of weed. I’m sitting, watching the game, and I was cheering when either team had scored. And someone was like, “Hey, you’re sitting in the friends and family seats for the Trail Blazers, you should probably not be cheering for the other [team].” And I was like, Oh, right, yeah, yes, my team, now I have a team.
And then there was this Costanza moment, where I had just gotten some hot dog or something, and I couldn’t figure out how to eat this fucking thing. And what should happen but “Float On” comes on, and there’s a picture of me on the Jumbotron. And I’m supposed to be like, “Oh, hey!” or what the fuck ever, and instead, I just ducked. [Laughs.] I did not have any interest in being on the Jumbotron when they were playing this song. I think it was a move to sell a guy some season tickets.
The beginning of the song [“King Rat”], I just say “well” like fucking five times. I’m kind of aware that there’s some running joke with that, but I didn’t know it was, like, memes. [Laughs.] I really enjoy that part every time I get to play that song during a show. It’s actually super fun and funny to me. I think I saw [a joke] at one point, and I thought it was people kind of making fun of how good I am at lyrics, and it was just “well” over and over.
I think I would be surprised by so much more, if you were to just fly me 25 years into the future from back then. One would be that I let my politics sag and shit. Like, Why are you not angry about everything? Well, I am, it’s just a percolating kind of anger. There’s just so much to be angry about. [Laughs.] But I don’t know, man. I’m trying to think of these songs. No, I don’t know. I don’t think so.