Next week Modest Mouse releases their album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, the follow-up to their commercial breakthrough Good News For People Who Love Bad News. For We Were Dead... the long-chugging band again recorded in Oxford, Mississippi with producer Dennis Herring. More notably, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr joined the group, boosting their line-up to six members, double the trio status they held when they first got noticed in the ’90s. We recently checked in with frontman Isaac Brock and you can read the results after the jump.
When you started the band, or even ten years ago when you guys first started getting attention, did you have any idea that it would evolve into what it is now?
You can’t really plan ahead for things like that. You can’t plan a direction. You’ve just got to role with the punches.
When did you see the possibilities that come with adding new members?
I think that probably came about because in the past when we’d do records, you’d have overdubs. Then you start thinking to yourself, How the fuck am I going to do this live? Then you start adding people to help and then it seems like a good idea to maybe start writing with them as well. As the years go on, you realize that when you add a new element to the band you get a new seasoning to add to the stew, so you look for that. You realize that it helps the writing process to have a steady flow of new people coming through.
How did the idea to bring Johnny Marr into the band happen?
Well, I really liked the way he plays guitar and I thought it would be a pretty interesting contrast to the way I play guitar as well. Him and I don’t do the same thing at all, so rather than trying to add more of the same, I tried to find someone who I really appreciated what they did.
How did you get in touch with him?
Do you know people in common?
Nah. There’s a good chance we’d never been in the same town at the same time. I had my manager track down contact information for him and basically leave a message for him through his management to see if he was at all interested in talking about it. We were lucky enough that he was.
He was familiar with you guys?
Was it a long conversation or was a pretty quick decision?
It was a quick hour conversation. An hour is a pretty long conversation, but it was really nice. It was more conversational than business, if you know what I mean.
He co-wrote some of the songs with you, right?
Everyone co-wrote some of the songs or all of the songs. Everyone in the band writes. Most of them it was the six of us writing together.
Did most of the songs come together when you were recording in Mississippi?
No, most of them came together when we were writing in the attic of my house [in Portland], where we all spent quite a bit of time. That’s where everyone convened. Then some changes to the songs were made when we went to Mississippi and started working with Dennis [Herring].
What’s Oxford, Mississippi like?
In some aspects it’s like this scholarly, really literary-rich area. You’ve got this southern college [Ole Miss] that in a lot of ways feels like it’s still the 1950s, but I really like it. I like the surrounding areas. You can really tell there’s this blues history vibe in the area. It’s near where Fat Possum Records is. You’re not too far from Memphis, Tennessee, which is where we’d go if we needed to find a health food store, because Oxford ain’t got that, man. It’s a neat fucking area. I don’t think I’d settle down there, but I really like the flavor of the place. You can still really feel the more interesting parts of what the south was like, but you don’t get the weird sense of crazy racism that you’d expect. You get a lot of the cool catfish restaurant element of things.
Have you been interested in self-producing a Modest Mouse album?
I think the band is more interested in it than I am. I have concerns about the danger of not having perspective. The reason I like having someone work with us is that it at least it gets you thinking. Even if you don’t agree with them, at least you know what you really feel..
Do you enjoy producing? Is it something you want to keep doing?
I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve also hated it when I’ve done it. Producing your own stuff is much easier than producing someone else. It’s kind of an uncomfortable hat to wear. I mean, shit, I feel like I should apologize to every producer I’ve ever worked with after I did produce someone else’s record. I mean, fuck me man, I was like, This is a lot of complaining and being pissed off at me for just trying to help. I don’t know that I am all that interested in producing anyone else’s records any more, but I might start producing us again for an album or two or an EP or two.
So you’re not doing the next Wolf Parade album?
I doubt they’d ask me.
When you played LA this past fall there was this point when people in the crowd were yelling out for you to play some of your older songs, but also a lot of people there probably got into you from your last record [Good News For People Who Love Bad News]. Do you feel the tension between your new fans and the fans that are invested in your history?
I don’t concern myself with that shit, man. That’s not my role. I do enjoy playing old songs and plan on doing so. I haven’t found that the audience that is more familiar with our last record, I’ve never found them to be super pissed off if we didn’t play “Float On” or something. I’ve never really heard them yell that too much. Largely it feels like it’s segued OK, that it hasn’t been too much of an issue. We don’t plan on just playing new stuff anyways, that would be boring to us. We don’t play shows just to promote what we’ve just done. Playing shows is something we’ve done before we started putting out records and something that we really enjoy. And if we get sick of playing something, we put it away for awhile.
What are you interested in these days?
I’m reading a book from the ’50s and listening to music from the ’40s. I pay attention to politics and what’s going on and feel slightly helpless and aggravated. I’d like to figure out a way to do shit. I think the only way I can really actively be involved is in environmental issues. That’s something I can actually make steps myself and feel like I’m not causing too much of a problem. I really have been enjoying that band the Knife lately. I just kind of drift through my various interests. Yesterday I bought a Cheech & Chong record and two records I used to have when I was 14, one was this band Fuel and one was this old Jawbreaker album. I’m reading Steinbeck, this book Travels With Charlie and it makes me feel good. I guess Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden weren’t good vibes books, I mean they’re great books, but when he hits a roll with his observations I feel better about things.