Q&A: Modest Mouse Frontman on Why the New Album Took Eight Years

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Modest Mouse Modest Mouse/Epic Records

“In general, we are terrible at time management,” admits Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock.

Fans by now have figured that out. After a lengthy gestation, the indie band’s sixth album, Strangers to Ourselves, arrives this month—almost exactly eight years after the last one. If not quite the equal of 2000’s The Moon and Antarctica or 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, it’s a fittingly surreal entry in the Washington state-based band’s catalog, encompassing both its spastic (“Lampshades on Fire,” “The Tortoise and the Tourist”) and mournful (“Coyotes”) sides.

The long gap between albums wasn’t planned, Brock says. He just “didn’t really notice eight years go by.” He spent that time touring, working on soundtracks, producing other artists, bidding farewell to bandmates Eric Judy and Smiths veteran Johnny Marr, coordinating and subsequently abandoning collaborations with Big Boi (Outkast) and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana), and “accidentally” building his own studio. The recording process turned into a perfectionist nightmare, and by the end of it, Brock says, Modest Mouse had recorded two albums’ worth of material (though the second album is not yet finished).

Brock spoke with Newsweek about hanging with Big Boi, firing himself as producer of the new album and slogging through a tortured recording process that stretched on for years.

Did you ever expect it to be eight years between albums?

No, no, no. I didn’t really notice eight years go by. I wouldn’t have ever fucking guessed that I’d take that long between records, because why would I? The answer to “Why would I?” is, apparently I got busy—helping other people make records, doing soundtracks, and touring and shit. Eight years went by awfully quick, which has me concerned for when I’m in my 70s. Like, “Oh, shit, I got a pretty finite amount of time left and I can’t get up from watching a TV show.”

What was the biggest delaying factor?

There was no delay! If you’re going to look at it properly, there was no delay because there was no guaranteed time that I was putting out something. Let’s see: It took about three years to record it. After the last record came out [in 2007], we kept touring for going on three years, something like that. Between tours you kind of find yourself a little less enthused. You want to decompress and chill out. People are reconnecting with their families. You know, over the course of eight years, there were three new babies had amongst the band. Definitely got to give them time to deal with that shit, right? I’m not a monster!

I produced a couple records for other people. [I’ve] been very poor at time management.... I’d be like, “OK, we should be able to get this done in a month and a half.” That’s not how it goes. Three and a half months later, you’re done with someone else’s headache, and then you’re fucking tired and the last thing you want to do is sit down and work on your own shit…. But once we got into working on the project, let’s say writing it took a year and a half or a couple of years. [Bassist] Eric Judy decided—well, we’re not sure exactly what he decided, except maybe he’d been doing it long enough and didn’t feel like doing it anymore. He left, and that kind of derailed it a little bit.

It was a pretty big loss. I’d gotten very accustomed to having him as a writing partner. But there are all sorts of talented people out there. Our friend Russell Higbee, who’d been playing horns on, like, five songs with us live, turned out to be a wealth of interesting music. And [multi-instrumentalist] Tom Peloso picked up a lot of slack there.

Did you ever feel like [My Bloody Valentine’s] Kevin Shields, trying to make the follow-up to Loveless, or Brian Wilson making SMiLE?

I became aware that that’s where it was headed. When we were in the studio, we’d rented a place and got a six-month lease, which is pretty unheard-of, and I kind of figured out why. The guy was crafty and knew that a six-month lease wouldn’t be enough for us to do what we wanted to do. He was right. Our six-month lease was done, and rather than just have a makeshift studio that was going to work, we actually fucking built one—which, you know, a lot of time and resources, personal time and money, went into doing [that].

We’re starting to record. Most of the band’s living there at that point. I essentially am living there. You’ve got a 24-hour work schedule, which is making time slightly meaningless. And the more time got blurred, the more obsessed I got with sounds and shit. Like, we’d record all the bass lines for all the songs. Then I just decided I didn’t like it, and we had to restart. Two months ago, when the record was supposed to be getting mastered, I was still remixing the thing over and over again, going two, three days without really sleeping. Then sleeping, then deciding to tear it down and start over again. I was like, “This does not end well, man.”

How obsessive did you get?

That obsessive! At the end of it, I’d done six days on 11 hours of sleep, where I was mixing over the phone while I was in New York to master the thing. Much to the chagrin of the brilliant dude mastering it, [I was] showing up with an entirely new batch of mixes every day. So, pretty fucking obsessed.

How have you changed since putting out the last record in 2007?

I’m certain I’m a very different person than I was when I walked into the project. Maybe not necessarily for the better. I’ll get back the parts I like, maybe.

Modest Mouse Modest Mouse’s sixth album, “Strangers to Ourselves,” is out this week. Modest Mouse/Epic Records

There were reports of collaborations with Big Boi and Krist Novoselic. Did those happen?

Yeah, they happened. Big Boi was someone that I was pretty interested in, the technique that he uses to produce stuff. We got ahold of him. He was on board.… Probably more hanging out went on than working, which was a fucking blast. Everyone we got to work with down there in Stankonia and Atlanta was brilliant. By the time we were going to record the record, a year or so had passed.… We just kind of shifted gears over time.

The Krist Novoselic thing, we worked on some songs with him, and one of them we finished tracking and mixing. But when we were recording this record, we kind of went in to record two records. His song is better suited to the companion record than this one.

When will [the second record] be out?

No idea. I probably still have five songs to do. That allows me the opportunity to still go down to the basement of the studio and get fucking crazy.

What was it like hanging out with Big Boi?

It was a fucking blast. The guy’s fucking funny. He’s fucking sharp. One of the more important things in anyone in the music world worth a damn is, who do you surround yourself with? I plan on doing plenty more work with this guy Chris Carmouche. That guy’s a badass! They have kind of a similar thing going on in their studio that we have. They own the place. It’s got a constant flow of people coming in and working and shit. Working on their own projects, working on other people’s projects, helping out with his stuff and whatnot.

You also said goodbye to Johnny Marr while making this record.

Well, he left before it was getting made. Johnny lives in England. It’s a fucking hell of a commute to even write. Johnny didn’t so much leave the band as we just kind of faded from [his] priority. There was never any “I’m not playing in the band” conversation. [We] just kind of drifted there. He was in the band much longer than either he or I had expected.… I’m sure it’s not the last time we play music together.

How did producing the album affect your songwriting?

I’m not really sure, man. Initially, when me and Clay Jones were co-producing at the beginning, I let that happen for about 10 days before I fired myself. Called me into our office and said, “Dude, I am fired.” I can’t be on both sides of the glass. We’d get a producer in who had shit to do—like, “Hey, I can work till this point”—and in their mind, three months is plenty of time to make a record. Not the record I was making, unfortunately. People would go away, and I’d be kind of stuck there without anyone, and someone had to fucking drive that side of the ship. I accidentally ended up producing, and I think a majority of the time I didn’t realize I was doing it. At the very end of the record, I was like, “Wait a minute, I fucking produced a lot of this.” It was hard. I don’t think I like doing that.

I was really struck by the song “Pistol.” It sounds so much like Ween, and then I realized it was produced by [Ween collaborator] Andrew Weiss.

I can also say that the songs Andrew produced, Andrew fucking produced, and I didn’t have to be in a producer role. That dude is a badass! From the beginning of writing this record, for some reason I kept listening to that record The Mollusk—mainly the cover of a Shirley Temple song, “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight.” Any time I would feel down, I would play that. It’s so awesomely stupid. I loved the production. There were, like, five songs that I couldn’t get any of the other people who were producing [us] to touch.... They would like to have something closer to a hit.

Looking at Andrew Weiss’s rap sheet, if you will, he produced the Butthole Surfers, the Boredoms, Ween, the motherfucker played bass for Henry Rollins for, like, 12 years. Greg Ginn. Yoko Ono. I was like, “Well, this guy sounds like a hot mess.” When I had him come out to visit and [we were] getting to know each other, I played him the songs that I was interested in working on, and he was super on board. Already giving that guy straight A’s. I was like, “Shit, finally somebody who sees the merit in a song like ‘Pistol.’”

Has there been any pressure on you to replicate the success of “Float On”?

Not really—not that I’ve paid [it] any mind. I’m sure it’s important to someone somewhere, and I’m sure they’ve tried casually saying something, but I don’t know if I’ve really noticed anything specifically. When that song came out, the label didn’t know what to do with us, and they still have no fucking idea, and I like it that way.... There’s not much of a formula for them to work with here.

What’s your take on the long afterlife of that song? It was on Kidz Bop, it’s been on TV quite a bit…

You know, the history of pop songs is long and full of moments like that. I don’t put too much weight on it.

Do you feel “Float On” represents the band well?

I’m not sure. When I put the song out, there was no expectation. I truly thought we were getting dropped from the label because no one knew who we were at the label. But the label didn’t know we existed or were on it. I think there were two or three people in the entire fucking organization who knew we were even on the label or had any interest in us. I think they were in the mailroom.

In the sense that it was like any other song that we do—just written for the sake of itself and the rest of the record—I think it’s a fine representation…. [P]eople who might be into that song and then try to dig deeper into our catalog [might say], “I don’t get it, why are there not five songs like this?” I’m not sure they’d feel like it’s representative of what we are. One thing that we consistently do is inconsistently write types of songs. There’s no one way about it for us.