Modest Mouse on the Chaotic Sessions for First LP in Eight Years

Isaac Brock on the street fights, Big Boi collaborations and world events behind 'Strangers to Ourselves'

Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock says that he was "absolutely terrified of making a half-assed record." Credit: Griffin Lotz

UPDATE: Modest Mouse's new album is now streaming on Spotify with commentary from the band.

"There have been a couple of times I've been drunk and attacked pretty viciously," says Isaac Brock. "But there's one I replay in my head." Describing one of his low points of the past decade, Brock recalls the night his band Modest Mouse played a show in Nottingham, England, in May 2007. After the gig, he remembers, "some shitbag and his friend who fancied themselves gangsters" started heckling Brock and his guitar tech in an alley. "They said, 'Where do you think you're going?' I'm like, 'I'm just going to get kabobs, man!' " A shoving match ensued, and Brock threw the first punch. "The next thing I know, I'm dropping to my knees," he says. "He smashed me in the face with a bottle. I actually saw a faucet of blood shooting out of the side of my face, like a fucking ninja movie. And everything kind of started darkening pretty quick. I replay that, and I think, 'What if that'd been the last thing I saw?' "

Modest Mouse — which Brock has fronted since 1993 — are one of the biggest and most beloved indie-rock bands of the past 20 years. "They were like the second coming of Nirvana for me," says Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who saw them play clubs in Cleveland in the Nineties. "They're still one of my favorite bands."

In 2004, to the surprise of pretty much everyone who admired their dark, schizophrenic arrangements, they scored a huge radio hit ("Float On"), and their next album, 2007's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, went to Number One. But as Brock says, "If I'm good at anything, it's self-sabotage." Brock's personal messes in the past have included belligerent gigs (he reportedly unleashed a knife on his torso onstage in 2007) and a 1999 date-rape allegation (which was later dropped) — and, by his own account, he even spent about a week in jail on an attempted-murder charge in the early 2000s (according to Brock, the charge stemmed from a DUI accident in which a friend suffered a thumb injury).

The making of Modest Mouse's sixth studio album, Strangers to Ourselves, their first LP in eight years, was typically chaotic. Today, as he chain-smokes in his New York hotel and sips from a big bottle of Doc's Draft Hard Cider, Brock, 39, lists the reasons for the long wait: too much touring, building a new studio, losing a bassist — but he mostly blames his own obsessive brain. "I'm absolutely terrified of making a half-assed record — spending resources for three good songs and eight shitty ones," he says. "And the longer I waited to put it out, the more stressed I felt about giving people something that was worth the wait."

Strangers is a classic Modest Mouse record, with melodic left turns; loud, jagged riffs; and Brock's cracked, winding narratives, which are full of wild Vonnegut-like humor. Climate devastation is a big theme; "Lampshades on Fire" is about people creating havoc and then moving on to a new planet to do it all again. "We are absolutely fucked," Brock says. "We did some pretty good things, but mainly just fucked up and ate a lot."

For Strangers, Brock wanted to "cross wires" with another artist. So the bandmates went to Atlanta's Stankonia Studios to record with Outkast's Big Boi. They recorded five songs that were later scrapped. "They brought in some top-notch musicians," says Brock — including R&B pros who'd played with Bootsy Collins and Cameo. But Brock wasn't used to hip-hop recording methods, like using digital guitar-amp emulators. "There was a cleanness to those songs I'm not sure I'm comfortable with," he says. "But largely, we just got to know each other and got wasted." (In 2012, Big Boi said, "I learned how to make an apple into a bong from one of the guys in the band.")

In 2012, Brock bought an old check-printing factory in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, and turned it into a studio he calls Ice Cream Party. It effectively became a 24-hour clubhouse for the Portland rock scene. "For three years, I'd wake up, go to the studio, be there all day, work until night and then just party," he says. "There was a lot of drinking and weed smoking and shit. Half of us stay up until 7 a.m." Brock used several producers, including Tucker Martine (Spoon) and Andrew Weiss (Butthole Surfers), with sessions happening simultaneously in different rooms. "There were songs that we did 100-or-some takes," says Brock. "Finally, I'd have to be like, 'Look, we have no idea why we're doing this again.' "

One person was noticeably absent: Eric Judy, the band's bassist of nearly two decades and Brock's frequent writing partner, who left in 2012. "The actual reasons have never really been explained to me," Brock claims. "I don't know if there was personal stuff." (Judy chose not to comment for this story.) 

Brock had a novel idea for a studio replacement: Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. "He wrote back and said, 'Wow, an actual offer to play music, that never happens!' " says Brock. "He's one of the nicest dudes I've met, likes to party. He's usually got a drunk dog." It didn't work out. "Krist's got a specific style that doesn't necessarily lend itself to a large variety of songs," says Brock, adding that the Novoselic tracks may appear on the next Modest Mouse album, which is "already in the works." Brock's friend James Mercer dropped by sessions and heard the acoustic ballad "Coyotes." "I teared up, it was just so moving," says Mercer, who sings throughout the LP.

Through it all, Modest Mouse kept playing big shows, like Coachella in 2013. "Despite times people think I got too drunk and played shitty shows, when we fucking play a good show, I think we're fucking one of the best things out there," says Brock.

Though the album is done, Brock still can't seem to let it go. "I'm still mixing some of the songs," he says. "I just want to finish getting the mixes where I thought they could have been. I'm just not satisfied, so I'm going to keep working on it so I can at least feel done. And I think that's possible." He shrugs. "But maybe it's not."