- 25 Jun 21
Modest Mouse are back with a brilliant new album, The Golden Casket. In a wide-ranging conversation, frontman Isaac Brock – holed up in his lair in Portland Oregon – talks about their magnificent seventh coming , chews over Mississippi hill country days, and discusses Irish connections that include Jacknife Lee – and The Chieftains!
By day’s end, Isaac Brock, head cat of Modest Mouse, is imparting a Tuvan throat singing rendition. Just for Hot Press. “Did I get multiple resonances?” he asks. “You nailed it,” I reply and we toast the wonders of cider.
The drink, of course, has nothing to do with it. He nailed it because Isaac Brock’s voice is the equivalent of an instrument. Across his remarkable body of work to date – with his main outfit Modest Mouse and side-project Ugly Casanova – his voice splinters into a dozen characters, and roles, sometimes even on the same record. Modest Mouse are often compared to the Pixies, but unlike Black Francis, Isaac has had no Kim Deal on backing vocals to flesh out the sonic palette. Instead, Ray Charles fashion, he duets with himself and where his savage lungs can’t go, his always interesting guitar does.
Dave Sardy, one time producer of Oasis, and Jacknife Lee – originally of these shores – worked on the production of The Golden Casket, this being the latest offering from the mighty Modest Mouse.
“Dave Sardy was great because he knowingly took on a project,” Isaac explains, “where I told him I didn’t want to show up with any songs which sounds like the biggest recording cop out – like I don’t have anything, let’s make a record! And I told him that I wouldn’t play guitar on the record: I just want the whole thing to be based around my playing the kalimba.”
The kalimba being a ‘thumb piano’, invented in 1960, and based on the African mbira, but with a single row of keys and using the European diatonic scale.
“Then my thumbs got sore,” Isaac adds, “and we got stuff built and it was cool but eventually we really needed a guitar. He did a really good job, motivating and facilitating. I really enjoyed working with Dave, he helped me make a great record.”
Life is seldom that simple though.
“However, four of the songs felt like they needed some focus,” he elaborates, “so we were like: ‘Jacknife would you please focus this shit?’ Not because what we had wasn’t good but because he fucking cares. Working with Jacknife, Garrett or whatever, was cool. My working relationship with him has been four songs on this record and we’ve started writing and recording stuff together recently.
“It’s fun to get back to not getting too precious with your recordings,” he ruminates. “My first records, which probably sound pretty sloppy at this point, were poorly recorded because that’s as good as we knew how to do it.”
That, of course, is a form of sacrilege! Those first two records, particularly The Lonesome Crowded West were bibles of loose living in mid-90s Galway.
This, I tell him.
“That’s cool,” he answers.
Isaac is good company. Later we take a long virtual stroll around his impressive, factory-size studio in Portland, Oregon. It contains a jeep which he offers to sell to me. People drift by. He is courteous, mannerly and helpful, even when someone bafflingly asks him where to find an SA-15 fuse.
THE IRISH CONNECTION PART 1
Modest Mouse recorded both their stratospheric record Good News for People Who Like Good News and its chart-topping follow-up We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank at Sweet Tea Studio in Oxford Mississippi. I tell him that an old buddy from those days, John Murry, said to pass on his regards.
“Oh shit! How’s he doing?”
I recount that John is living at a recording studio in Ireland called Transmission Rooms in a place called Longford, and that we had made the pilgrimage to Paddy Kavanagh’s grave in Monaghan the previous day.
“It’s strange that over the years so many people that I have worked with are from Oxford, Mississippi,” he riffs. “It’s not a popular destination for anybody who doesn’t go to the University of Mississippi, so the fact that Fat Possum Records is from there, Dennis Herring and John Murry: it’s cool. I like it there.”
Isaac is the kind of guy you want to shoot the breeze about arcana with. For example, the fact that Modest Mouse worked with Dennis Herring at Sweet Tea Studio and at Easley Recording in Memphis.
“His approach to authority in the studio,” Isaac says of Dennis, “is different than my loose goose ideas of 90s slacker-ism shit versus 80s pro-erism shit. Sometimes it was harsh, but he is such a fucking interesting dude, it was definitely worth it. I like that guy. It’s a strange history: I don’t know how to really talk about it. Denis has an interesting mind and working with him was a goddamn pleasure and education.”
As when U2 visited the Mississippi hill country, I assume juke joints were frequented.
“I went to one juke joint that was cool. I didn’t really hang out with any of the classic dudes. I heard a lot of stories from Matthew at Fat Possum. He’s a fascinating dude. Matt put out T Model, RL Burnside all those guys, at a point when people didn’t really have their mind on it.
“When I was working on Good News, him and his partner Bruce had a shop in a town called Water Valley, which is fifteen minutes from Oxford. It’s a smaller town than Oxford and it had a bar, a used vintage clothes store and they sold decent old amps for next to nothing. Middle of fucking nowhere. They let us practice at their studio, too, which I guess is where RL and everyone recorded.”
THE IRISH CONNECTION PART 2
I sometimes hear snatches of blues in Isaac’s playing. “It’s news to me that I have a blues side of me,” he gently chides me.
Rory Gallagher, perhaps?
“It might sound pandering as fuck,” he states, “but I was raised on The Chieftains. I would put the Chieftains as one of my top ten today. And The Pogues for sure, but I think everyone gets to say that. Also, Nick Drake – but I think he was Scottish or Welsh or some stuff like that.”
I tell him the original bodhrán player of the Chieftains had to hide the then much maligned instrument in the barn, for fear his mortified wife would find it.
The grin gets bigger.
“Why, were bodhrán players just the town douche?”
I inform him that I could be Irish dancing right now, as we speak: that only the bottom half of me needs to be moving. He laughs. He’s heard the gag before.
“I know, you look in the window at everyone partying but everyone is looking normal, just sitting there, having their drink because dancing was forbidden, it’s like Footloose.”
If it was The Chieftains then, I wonder what’s spinning on the Brock turntable nowadays.
“A playlist of my kids called ‘Tolerable Toddlers’. A song called Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom about ten thousand times! Kid’s music mainly and a band called The Drones: their record Feeling Kind of Free might fucking be the best record since Doolittle. I’m really into Rihanna and this band Mass Gothic on Sub Pop – their first record is so goddamn good. Sleaford Mods. I like them because they are stressful and they make me seem peaceful.”
Reportedly Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien influenced Modest Mouse’s album, The Moon & Antarctica. I ask what he is reading at the moment.
“Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind – you know it?”
I do. The book features Paul Stamets, one of the most respected mycologists in the world. He holds radical views on the role of fungi in nature – the subtitle of his 2005 book Mycelium Running is “How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.”
“Yes, I know Stamets,” Isaac says, “I’ve read all his books. My brother studied under him at Evergreen University in Washington.”
He’s smiling again.
“Stamets said if you want to know if there is psilocybin around, look for the Winnebago.”
Speaking of road hogs, after two frustrating years, finally, a brand new tour awaits.
“It’s a long time for us to not be on the road,” he emphasizes. “It’s how we keep the lights on, it’s what we enjoy doing. The first gig is in July. I’m looking forward to it.”
Tick Tock: the countdown starts here…
Listen to The Golden Casket below: