Isaac Brock, the guitarist, vocalist and songwriter of Modest Mouse, has long thought about things differently. While the rest of the planet has been fretting about Covid, Brock has been dogged by thoughts of electronic surveillance.
When he came to make The Golden Casket, Modest Mouse’s first new record in six years, he decided it was going to mainly consist of kalimba and drum machines (that didn’t last, fortunately). Even his heavenly pop hit, Float On, is essentially a list of minor calamities.
A conversation with Brock is, like the best Modest Mouse albums, a series of fascinating left-turns, dotted with rants, humor and moments of insight that are quickly discarded in favor of the next topic.
The Golden Casket, the band’s seventh studio album, seems to have bottled up a feeling we’ve all experienced in this last year: the sense that we’re being slowly buried by our own advances. It’s a whirl of digital disorientation, snatched thoughts and stolen moments of natural calm.
It’s a territory that Brock seems uniquely positioned to explore, not just in his personal life, but in the chaotic dynamics, jutting riffs and wild rhythmic structures that have long marked Modest Mouse’s musical output…
Your writing has previously been described as having “a panoramic view of existential dread”, which I felt had a nice ring to it. This was presumably pre-Covid. How would you describe the impact of the last year on that aspect of yourself and your writing?
“Well, the last year, probably other factors outside of the pandemic affected my writing more than the pandemic itself. My own entire set of interesting hurdles, be it from family to my belief that I'm a targeted individual, i.e. electronically.
"Things like that shaped me a bit more than the pandemic. If that time did anything, it corralled me into focusing on things that weren't necessarily the pandemic. Your options narrow and so you look at what's right there in front of you a little more.”
How would you describe your relationship with the guitar over that period of time?
“Very on and off. Between the last record and this record, I got lost in the dark arts known as modular synths, only to find that I didn't particularly enjoy it because they're not tactile. You don't play them, you operate them, you know? Yeah. And then I got tons of old drum machines and put them through guitar pedals to see what happened. That was super-fun, but not for other people…
“I kind of started feeling a little distant from just the straight-up six-string guitar and had to amuse myself elsewhere. I found one of those bass ukuleles that has rubber strings and they're really fucking fun to play, and songs just fall out of them.
"Then I was able to get back into guitar via really cool pedals like this LEM from [Mastro Valvola] in Italy. Like Fuck Your Acid Trip, the first song on the record. It's stereo tremolos, man. They're my jam.”
There are a lot of ideas addressed on the record, but broadly it deals with the tilting scales between nature and technology. When did that become apparent to you?
“It's unavoidable. It's the internal dialogue or whatever, although it's not very organized up here [points to head]. I'm basically siphoning off my own mind and putting it into lyrics, so it's just gonna be a swirl. Hopefully, it's a slightly more organized version of the swirling, nonstop conversation in my head.”
I think many of us have this sense of digital confusion right now, contrasted with these moments of natural contentment away from the screens. That’s what I think you’ve captured in this album. Where do you see those forces in your own life?
“OK, I'm trying to stay away from the 'tin foil hat zone' here. I mean, I've rolled over, as far as technology goes. I’m 100% sure that there are other ways to keep track of us that don't involve my cellphone or shit like that. So I've just given in, like, 'Yep, this thing is fucking listening to me. The TV is listening to me, these can all be used. Fuck it.'
"And, you know, like, I no longer cover up the little screen on my computer. We're infinitely hackable, and on so many levels, that I've decided rather than play along, I'm just gonna own my life. Like, if someone fucking decided to record me. Fucking whatever. I'll just own it.
"Quite a while ago, I got one of those things like, 'We caught you masturbating on your computer. We have footage.' They said that they're gonna send it to everyone in my phone book. I'm like, 'Ahh...' But I just wrote back, 'If you do that, you are distributing pornography to minors. Fuck you.’
“Another time, I got a call from someone who was like, 'Your computer has been hacked into.' I actually gave them my credit card number and everything. But I kept getting the number wrong and then they forgot to put me on mute. They were [laughing] like, 'We told him that blah, blah, blah!' They were like making fun of me while I was on the phone. And so I just toyed with them for a long time. I had him calling back and stuff.
“There's just an amazing amount of energy being put into cheating people. It seems like entire economies now. We don't make anything. At one point we just made apps, now we just make hacks.”
Where do you stand on the use of technology in music – the line between creativity and automation?
“I embrace the idea that anything can help you make music. Music isn't just the instruments used in a marching band or in a rock band. Analog sounds great, but there are so many treats and treasures just in doing it in the box. I don't have a lean anymore towards one or the other.
"Although, I will say that time spent making music with actual objects – versus digging around in the plugins – is much, much, much more rewarding. Just playing music feels fucking better. So apparently I have a lean. Here we are!”
But I think that’s reasonable – it’s not simply dismissing new tech for analogue. You’re arguing it’s how you interact with it.
“Well, there's a visceral thing to actually playing the instrument that it is much more satisfying to do. I'm not sure it's more satisfying to hear. Is it more satisfying for the listener to just stay analog? No, I think that's where it is worth going in and digging around.
"Obviously, people get good enough at working in the box, or on modular synths, that they can move fast enough that it's not cumbersome, but merely a natural instrument. I need to feel I can kind of surf it. I can change my mood or my vibe really quick and move on to a new part without having to rebuild and collage in a new part. So, I’m not saying one thing, as a listener, is better than the other ones. One is just more fun and athletic in a way.”
Initially, you planned not to play guitar on this record. There was, as discussed, a heavy flirtation with kalimba and modular synths early on. Why were you feeling that way?
“I was in that mood! And then my mood changed. Three days later I realized that my thumbs were sore and it turns out it needed something that wasn't so plucky…”
Three days of kalimba is a lot of kalimba.
“I might be exaggerating the amount of time we stuck to it. I think the first thing I moved to after the kalimba was a baritone guitar or that weird ukulele. At one point I bought a pedal that’s supposed to make your guitar into a drum. I can't play drums to save my fucking life, so I was like, 'Maybe if it's in a guitar mode, I'll be a good drummer!’
"But after a minute, it's like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It was called the E-Drum or something. It's a DigiTech [SDRUM]. They usually make a pretty good product, so maybe I should have read the instructions. They did better than Electro-Harmonix. I returned their fucking Space Drum shit.”
Do you make a lot of ‘all or nothing’ proclamations when writing or recording music?
“It happens, you know. I'll have moments where I'll just be getting really excited about something, and I'll be like, 'This is what we're doing!' Like, 'All the songs are about pie!' And then either I don't have enough songs about pie, or information on pies, or interest in pies, and it vanishes eventually.”
So what does the guitar mean to you, creatively, at this point?
“I guess the guitar is my comfort zone. I've been playing it for 30 years or something like that, and haven't learned enough new chords. I'm familiar enough with playing guitar that I don't really think about it, you know? It’s not the relationship I had with it when I first started, which was, 'I didn't know how to play and I didn't want to do anything but play it.' Now I know how to play pretty well.
“As with anything, you've got to stay on top of it, otherwise you could get rusty. Now I find myself marathon playing. Instead of consistently playing, I'll spend like a week where that's all I'll do just because I'll panic about like, ‘Oh, fuck, I haven't been playing enough. I need to get back on top of this.’ So, yeah, that's coming up…”
Is there anything you’ve noticed change in your approach to the guitar recently?
“One thing I quit doing when writing or something is to try and find my favorite fucking guitar. Now I find the nearest guitar, and the nearest guitar is the guitar I'm going to play because it’s what's here right now. All the precious pairing of fucking instruments and amps and things, at a certain point, it's just time spent not writing.
“Some of my favorite things I ever wrote were written on shit that couldn't even be tuned, you know? Like when I was younger, I liked Floyd Roses because I could bend them without having to use a bar. I just lean into them and pull them from behind.
"But I didn't like the locking nuts. And so I took them off and I could never figure out why my guitar would never stay in tune! I remember playing shows with pliers at the end of my guitar to clamp it down. Then there came a chunk of time where I could spend all day in a recording studio just getting the right guitar sound.
“And sometimes with the recording, too. If it doesn't work, then I’ll find something new, but I don't try on every fucking guitar in the building anymore.”
What gear were you leaning on most for The Golden Casket? Which guitars and amps?
“The nearest amp. I'm not joking! It was at Dave Sardy's place and it was nearest first. So much so that I don't even remember what the fuck they were. I used my own guitar. Dave has good shit but I brought a few specific things, like one of my Wicks guitars, my Fender baritones and shit like that.
"But besides that, no, I just grabbed something that Dave had. I've gotten less and less focused on specific instruments for the most part, you know. I think the Seymour Duncan Shape Shifter [Stereo Tremolo] – that thing is a must-have for me. Then, in terms of amps, I know I tried going stereo a lot, because I was enjoying stereo tremolo and the trippiness of stereo. You heard of stereo? It's crazy!”
Are there any guitar tones or licks on this record that stand out to you?
“There's a few. One is on Leave A Light On, and it's a really Beatles-y sounding kind of backwards [thing]. It sounds like horns. But that one was great to me. Then on Wooden Soldiers there's just this call-and-answer guitar part that I really like. It has a Tom Waits-y/Hungarian folk music vibe to it.
“Then All In All, the way the tremolo works, going stereo back and forth. That was cool and something where working in the box turned out to be great. There was this guitar part that was really thin and spindly, and I put it through a harmonic filter that brought out some really loud sounds that we use on one of the songs. It sounds really big and deep, and it came from something thin and shitty. It grabbed out this one frequency and turned it into something bizarrely musical.”
Finally, there’s a lot going on with this record, lyrically, thematically, tonally and in terms of the instrumentation, too. What kind of snapshot or vignette do you think you will come to associate with this record?
"Shit, that's a future question. Sorry. I've got to pass on that one, because I don't think I'm going to know until the future…”
- The Golden Casket is available now via Epic Records.