In an ideal world, Isaac Brock will be wrong about all of this shit.
The Modest Mouse frontman is worried about technology and the harmful effects it’s having on us. Very worried, in fact. In the time since his band’s last album, 2015’s Stranger to Ourselves, Brock has listened to concerning TED Talks about mind control and watched documentaries like Third Eye Spies, which delves into the phenomenon of remote viewing. He recently bought a microphone allegedly strong enough to capture a snail’s heartbeat in order to record rogue soundwaves. And while he still plops a tablet in his young kids’ laps, he frets about what that’s doing too.
Brock has channeled these fears about invisible frequencies and the like into Modest Mouse’s new record, The Golden Casket, out Friday. The paranoia manifests itself most prominently on the album’s centerpiece, “Transmitting Receiving.” For nearly six minutes, Brock runs through a list of the signifiers of our environment, both natural and electronic. Everyday items sound threatening as he rattles them off with resignation—most of us know at this point our smartphone addictions are troubling, but Brock makes you wonder about vacuum cleaners, stop lights, and even crock pots. On paper, the chorus to “Transmitting” is more hopeful—“Nothing in this world’s gonna petrify me / We are repeating, always vibrating, we are transmitting”—but delivered in Isaac’s trademark warble, you’re left wondering whether he’s convinced of that or trying to convince himself.
This would all sound less concerning if it didn’t also worry people more in tune with this stuff than some indie rock musician. It would also perhaps be a little less concerning if it weren’t coming from the mouth of this indie rock musician, the one who so presciently broke down the strip-mall-ification of America and mocked the idea of “working real hard to make internet cash” a quarter-century ago on The Lonesome Crowded West. But Brock doesn’t consider himself some kind of Guitar God Nostradamus. Rather, he wants history to prove him wrong on this one.
“I’m not a mystic man,” Brock says via phone earlier this month. “Based on the information I’ve been given and the things I sing about, I sure as shit hope that I sound very wrong in the future.”
The through line of the degradation of America makes The Golden Casket somewhat of a spiritual successor to The Lonesome Crowded West. But Modest Mouse’s seventh proper full-length isn’t all anxiety and rejected Black Mirror plotlines. Elsewhere, the band sounds more serene than they ever have before—and that includes the mostly airy megahits “Float On” and “Dashboard.” Lead single “We Are Between” plays like it was made by a metaphysical LCD Soundsystem, while the follow-up “Leave a Light On” is a pure pop song focused on the good times, which no longer seem to be killing Brock.
Where so much of his lyrics in the past have been shrouded in parables and aphorisms, Brock speaks plainly about his contentment on tracks “We’re Lucky,” perhaps the most immediately infectious moment on the record, complete with a signature Modest Mouse melody, booming horns, and something approaching cheerful optimism. (The opening lyrics: “These are the stars and these are the seas / Well, these are the places that we’re lucky just to be between / This is our bed and these are our sheets / Da-da-da-da-da-da.”) The man who once wrote a song named “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset” is now consoling us with “The Sun Hasn’t Left,” which he says is about learning that “even if the horizon is filled with bad shit,” some things still look really good.
“It’s about as Zen as I’ll ever get,” he says of another song, “Wooden Soldiers,” which ends on the mantra “Just being here now is enough for me.” “I actually hope to be more Zen, but it’s just about that. It’s about being happy to be here with you and everyone else. That’s all I need.”
Maybe this inner peace among all the technologic dread is the result of age (Brock is now 45), or maybe it’s parenthood (he has two young children, and his relationship with them is the basis for the tender “Lace Your Shoes”). But it’s comforting to hear from someone whose personal life seemed to have so much chaos early on, and who just a few years ago seemed to be struggling to release the album that became Strangers. And that joy can be infectious on Casket, Modest Mouse’s best record since their 2004 breakthrough Good News for People Who Love Bad News.
Over the course of a wide-ranging interview, Brock and I discuss this newfound serenity, how being a dad has affected his life, and the origins for tracks like “Fuck Your Acid Trip,” which Brock says is very literal. We also get into some of the forces that led to songs like “Transmitting Receiving”—he half-jokingly refers to this part of the conversation as getting “into the tin-foil hat”—and even the Modest Mouse tattoo on my left leg. (Consider this the journalistic disclosure.) One thing we don’t get into too much is the big-picture context around some of his classics, or how he feels about songs like “Working on Leavin’ the Livin’” 20-plus years later, because as Brock says, sometimes talking about art you’ve created is difficult.
“I find it hard to just talk about the music I’ve made, like I’m somehow trying to get a car out of a garage sideways,” he says. “I drive the car in there, or maybe it was built in the garage, and I don’t know how to get it the fuck out. I’ve realized over the years that I find it frustrating not knowing the answers that I should be the foremost authority on.”
But then again, nobody needs Isaac Brock to have all the answers. And like he says, maybe we’re better off if he doesn’t.
I want to start off by saying that I’m pretty sure you’re the first person I’ve ever interviewed that I have a tattoo inspired by.
Holy shit. Is it a tattoo of you kicking my ass or something?
No. That would probably disqualify me from doing the interview. But it’s a baby blue sedan.
That’s something you can get away with. If something horrible happens, I don’t know, like I start a genocide or some shit like that, you could be like, “That’s just a blue sedan.”
Yeah, “This is my grandfather’s car” or something.
Where does that rank in the pantheon of Modest Mouse fan tattoos? Is that a good one or is that a bad one? I’m sure you’ve seen a lot.
It’s a pretty good one. Actually, I want to see it. It sounds pretty. I’ve seen more than my fair share, and I don’t deserve the fair share of tattoos of promo photos or photos of me. And I discourage that. It’s not a great idea. I am me and I wouldn’t get a tattoo of my face on me.
Try to avoid faces, right? Plus if it tries to be too realistic and it doesn’t work, that’s just bad for everyone. My first real question for you: Is “Fuck Your Acid Trip” based on a true story?
It’s a collection of stories, I think. The most recent situation would have been like, four years or so ago.
Were you the one stuck with the person with the bad trip or were you the one on the bad trip?
Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and get in there too, you know? If you’re there and you’re not going home, might as well make some sort of cosmic connection.
Is acid still fun to do?
That is tricky. Acid can still be pretty fucking good. But you’re more likely to get mixed up with something. It’s easy to fake it, I guess. If someone hands you a mushroom, you know what you’re looking at. But vials and blotters, that’s a different thing.
It’s been so long since I’ve done it, so I’m happy to hear that you’re still enjoying it when you can. Speaking of trips, how are you feeling getting back on the road after the year that we just had?
Pretty good. Although I feel like a lot of people had a lot worse time with this year than I personally did. So, I’m hesitant to go on my personal rant about how it wasn’t so bad for me. I mean, you know, at one point here in Portland, there were riots and forest fires. You couldn’t see the sun. Couldn’t go outside and breathe, and if you did, you had to have a mask, blah, blah, blah.
It was feeling pretty real, but at the same time, I was in what a friend of mine calls baby jail. My kids are the age that getting out and getting after it wasn’t really on the docket for me. I was supposed to be on tour during that time, and that would have been good because it helps keep the lights on and shit, but if I hadn’t had the tour canceled, I wouldn’t have gotten this record done. I’m pretty sure I’m happier with having done this than gone on a tour. I’m very excited, all things considered, and much more excited I actually have new shit to play.
You’ve always struck me as someone that’s really interested in interconnectivity between people. Did the past year affect you in that regard?
There had been a couple years a little alienating prior to that. Well, not alienating, but I haven’t seen a lot of the people I used to hang out with for a long time. And the last year made it extra not possible. And how was it? I mean, it’s strange, but again, I’m a dude with two little kids, and by the time the day is done, I’m actually pretty fucking tired, man. Recreational hanging isn’t something I’m feeling right now.
How was your mindset on this new record? It sounds like one of your loosest, possibly one of your most optimistic.
It gets real bright in some spots. It definitely isn’t a record for wallowing, you know what I mean? Although there is some paranoid hand-wringing and just me trying to work out my, your, and everyone’s relationship with our invisible technologies—our sort of silent weapons for quiet wars sort of thing, which is referencing a guy who supposedly had a bunch of scrapped IBMs that used to belong to the Pentagon or some shit like that. And he found a top secret file on it titled Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars. It talks about mind-control shit—an extension of MK-Ultra projects and stuff.
I’d seen some TED Talks talking about being able to start latching into people’s minds just directly. And I figured if there’s a TED Talk saying that they’re about to, that means 15 years ago they probably did, you know? My view of the universe is fundamentally different than it was probably two years ago. Which is to say, I fucking don’t know anymore, but I’m aware of a lot more things.
Does this concern you more these days, being the parent of young kids? The iPad is the best babysitter these days. How do you balance that?
I lasted maybe a year of like, “My kids are not going to have their face in this shit.” Now they’ve got matching ones for flights. I bless the maker of the tablet. Because it’s pretty fucking handy.
When my first daughter was born, I read this thing called Brain Rules for Baby. There’s no speculative science, no emotional or opinion-driven facts of parenting, observational this or that. It’s based on peer-tested, reviewed science. That’s kind of hard to fuck with. In the world of child rearing, everyone has an opinion about every fucking thing.
So Brain Rules for Baby talks about, basically, how if kids get handed tablets or TV before they’re 2, it stunts their mind quite a bit. I know that, but I don’t really practice what they preach as much as I’d like because I’m a sucker for convenience like most people and shit. I’m not living in the woods, churning butter, chopping all my own trees, living life as I should.
Even the best of us still use Amazon for some things, you know?
Right. Your beard wax and your milk churner.
How do you decide when it’s time to drop a new Modest Mouse record? It’s been six years since Strangers to Ourselves. It was eight years before that. How do you know when the time is right?
I like to make sure that the amount of information or life that’s gone through my brain is enough to make it worth putting words into a song. I spent like, two years making things that I enjoy, musical pieces that I enjoy that I don’t feel anyone should buy. I didn’t record most of it, but I just made a lot of fucking music that I think on paper is unlistenable, but it was what I wanted to do. The benefits from that are simple, but they’re there. Like the squelchy feedback in “Transmitting Receiving.”
Besides that, when do I know when it’s right? I don’t know. I’m not going to put together a record that’s two bangers on it and then fill the rest up with something, with shit I’m not truly proud of. If that takes 20 years, it takes 20 years. Plenty of people are making good records. There’s no need for half-assed records.
How was the energy going into Golden Casket versus Strangers to Ourselves, which took nearly eight years to come out?
Strangers, I barely remember. It was such a different process. It went on too long, you know? I went into Strangers thinking that it was going to be pretty quick and having a pretty good idea of how it was going to be done, and then for some reason I could never come to terms with mixes, and I kept remixing the record for months and months and months, over and over again, with different people. Eventually I just stacked one mix on top of another and I was like, “There it is.” And it kind of worked. It shouldn’t have, but it did.
I just couldn’t let it out of my teeth. And this one, I went into the studio with one intention, which is, I know I’ve got enough stuff inside of me to write and sing about. I feel good about that, but I don’t want to approach this how I have other things. I wanted to just go in and start building from the ground up and collage it because that seemed like more fun. And it was, until you’ve got to get meticulous at some point.
The truth is, making records can be pretty boring. It’s a lot of little details. I was much happier this time to truly embrace the fact that we’ve got the editing technology. I didn’t have an ax to grind regarding keeping it analog.
Was that a difference in approach?
Usually I want something to be as analog as possible. This time around, I was just like, “You know what? Fuck it. They make some pretty amazing digital equipment these days. Let’s fucking use it.” Which is funny because that kind of frees you up to actually make very analog sounds with digital shit. This becomes significantly easier with a fucking computer. You get to make all your trash sound real nice. Turn them into magic.
“We’re Lucky” on the new album really jumped out at me. It felt no less whimsical than some of your most philosophical work, but it seemed to be coming from a real serene place.
It came from looking at serene on a horizon. There is so much fear involved in life that the edge needs to be taken off with the reality that it’s just so fucking wonderful to get to even worry, you know? Life can be unbearable, but generally it’s not, and we’re lucky.
When Cormac McCarthy put out the book The Road, I read that and I was like, “Fuck me.” And then they had the movie. In interviews people were asking him whether this bleak outlook was how he really felt. And he was like, “What do you mean? No, I mean, things are that great.” I’m paraphrasing and/or misquoting, but that was the general thing. It’s like, no, this horrible, dark, depressing book is supposed to make you celebrate the life you have.
Do you ever revisit your old material?
Sometimes if I’ve been drinking I’ll put it on to play for someone, if I’m hanging out with someone, I’ll be like, “Let me play this for you.” There will be moments where we’re playing each other something that we’ve each written or something. I don’t revisit it that often, to be honest. But it happens from time to time.
When you do, do you feel like that same person? Do you recognize the person who wrote those songs?
Yes and no. I’m the same person with different contents and shit. I think at one point I would have said I don’t feel like the same person at all, but now I don’t feel like it’s fair to compartmentalize your life in that manner. I identify with a lot of the old songs, but the songs are flexible enough that I can actually use it to deal with what life currently hands me, you know? I could look at anything as this, and rather than it being a journal entry from way back when, take it as advice from someone who didn’t know well enough.
Do you think it’s possible for a young band in 2021 to have a similar trajectory to Modest Mouse?
Our thing relied heavily on interconnected lives, playing small house shows. It’s different. People have found new avenues. It’s not better, not worse. Shit. Maybe it is [the same] and I’m just not doing it. I’m not living in a van, or staying in a room in some person’s house, to play shows throughout the country anymore. Maybe some people are. Based on what I know, people are a lot more engaged through all the various different platforms on the internet and shit, which, some of them seem to be pretty fucking cool.
I also think there’s something there to you guys spending so long working that circuit, and then when you signed to a major, they gave you a couple albums before you had a real big breakthrough. I’m curious about that with the way that the music industry is set up right now, where everything feels like it has to be so immediate, and whether bands are afforded the opportunity to grow, and when they sign to a major, whether they get that little bit of a leash.
I mean, there are still independent labels out there that are doing a pretty fucking good job, like Sub Pop, Matador—they’re all still going. In that way, there are still some decent incubator labels. It makes it sound like fucking raising livestock here. But I don’t think that there’s any reason why if you start a band today and give them the current tools and environment, if you will, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t have the slow grow, too.
Let’s say you never went out and played one single live show but you kind of engaged with enough people online that it kind of slowly happened. So yes, despite what I said at the beginning of this tirade, now I believe you could have a similar trajectory. It’s just, you wouldn’t use the same tools.
Going back to the new record, what’s harder to write: something like “Transmitter Receiving,” which discusses your technological concerns, or something that’s very earnest like “Lace Your Shoes,” written to your children?
Neither of those would have been the hardest. “Leave a Light On” was hard for me to write because it wanted to be a pop song, and it is a pop song, but I was feeling uncomfortable in those clothes—in the pop-song outfit. Lyrically, it took me a bit to own the fact that I was like, “I really just want to list other people’s houses.” I want to make a festival-shouting pop song that lists people’s houses. So I think the desire to have it be deeper than that made it harder to write because it doesn’t want to be fucking particularly deep, it wants to be comfortable in your living room, you know? Which is kind of deep.
Do you have specific hopes for the new record?
It would be strange not to have hopes and expectations and things. But more often than not, my experience has been that people tend to like the records I make about 10 years after I make them. I’m not saying that they’re that cutting edge, or they take that long for them to sink in or something. But basically, by most people’s accounts, the best record I ever made was whatever I made eight to 10 years ago.
That’s kind of the way it works, right?
Yeah, I get it. Once I’m comfortable with a record by someone and I really like it, when the next one comes up, it will not be that record I already was familiar with. And you can’t fast-forward that. The only way to really get in there is to get in there.
Before we go, I have to ask about the golf photos that came out a few months back. Are you actually playing golf?
I just thought it would be fun. I don’t really play golf. But they let you drive a little car and order drinks and have fun. You get to wear one glove like you’re Michael Jackson, but without the stigma. You get to swing a metal rod with a big metal ball on the end of it. It’s fun. I approve of the activity.
When I saw them, I thought, “I can’t picture you playing golf, but I can picture you with a metal rod.”
I had to let a lot of people play through. No one’s in any danger of me stealing their fucking golf career, that’s for sure.
I think that the well-manicured moonscape with grass and shit is pretty cool. Actually, I do believe this: I believe golf courses are funny little giant board game versions of our shrunk-down realities. You get to drive on roads. You’ve got your other areas. That’s why miniature golf is great. They need to combine the two golfs. Like whack your ball towards a miniature golf set, and then you have to play through that.
I mean, how good is Phil Mickelson if he can’t hit it through a windmill and off a trash can?
Or off of Abe Lincoln’s forehead or something, right? That would be great.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.