The Billboard Q&A: Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse had been an indie rock standard-bearer for more than a decade when its single "Float On" suddenly became a mainstream hit in 2004. The Epic album from which it was drawn, "Good News for P

Modest Mouse had been an indie rock standard-bearer for more than a decade when its single "Float On" suddenly became a mainstream hit in 2004. The Epic album from which it was drawn, "Good News for People Who Love Bad News," went on to sell a whopping 1.5 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

It was a surprising turn of events for the unassuming rock outfit, but according to frontman Isaac Brock, it didn't change Modest Mouse much at all. What actually had the most impact was the arrival of second drummer Joe Plummer and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who Brock thought would bring a fresh creative perspective to "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank," due March 20.

Marr's signature chiming fretwork is indeed apparent on the album, and first single "Dashboard" is already a modern rock hit. But there are no "Float On" part twos on the record. Instead, Brock and company forge ahead with idiosyncratic rockers featuring ukulele and violin and work up a psychedelic lather on the nearly nine-minute jam "Spitting Venom." The Shins' James Mercer, whom Brock has known for years, guests on three songs.

Brock spoke to Billboard about the addition of Marr, the contributions of Mercer and the dangers of morning coffee.

For some bands, having their first hit really changes their day-to-day experience. Did that happen with you and "Float On"

I don't actually ever remember there being a moment when the audience was way focused on that song. The songs that were yelled for the most were ones that we still weren't playing from old records, like "Sh*t Luck" or something. ["Float On"] was on the set list quite a bit. The nights that it wasn't, I don't remember anyone giving me too much grief.

Sorry if I sounded slightly agitated. Coffee has become an important part of my day. Today, I got halfway through it and it smelled. It was like, holy sh*t. It wasn't just sort of sour milk, it was like they were pouring it through mold. I've been pissed off ever since.

If Johnny had said, "Sorry, I can't work with you guys right now ..."

There would have been someone else. It would have been a very different record. He was my first choice. It worked out, so I didn't have to pursue it too much farther.

So you didn't seek him out because you were a big Smiths fan?

I like the Smiths, don't get me wrong. But I wasn't all that boisterous about them. One of the reasons I thought he'd be a good person to work with in the first place was that he plays entirely differently than me. He has a much more liquid, fluid style, which I thought would be an interesting contrast to how jagged-y I play. I hate to break it to you, man, but I've never been f*ckin' starstruck.

Is he staying on indefinitely or will you just see what happens?

Yeah. Just like everyone. Sh*t, I'm only in the band until we see what happens [laughs]. Indefinitely is kind of the status of everyone in the band and whatnot. That's about as good as you can get.

Why did you turn to James Mercer for backing vocals?

I kept trying to layer vocals and do different things to make the parts more interesting, but it really just required a different voice. James has a f*cking beautiful set of pipes on him. We live walking distance from each other [in Portland, Ore.], not that we ever see much of each other because we're always touring.

It seems to me like there are characters that appear throughout the songs on the new album. Is there an overarching concept?

You saw it right. I had this idea of writing a short book that could go with the CD. All the songs would be about these five people who worked on a fishing boat. Every time they docked in a town or in one way or another, they'd somehow get killed in every song and then start alive again. As much fun as that sounded, actually making an entire record about that limited the emotional scope, so I chose not to pursue it.

"Spitting Venom" sounds like it was fun to create in the studio.

It was. It was kind of an accident, that whole end thing. It didn't exist prior to trying to record that track. It's more of a live ... find another word besides jam, please. A live wandering, if you will.

Is that one take?

Yeah, but I wanted my guitar to sound weirder so I went back and overdubbed it with this f*cked up digital distortion. That was one take but there was some tidying up that happened.

Have you played that song live yet?

No, but we've got it ready to go. When we get ready to go out, we wind up not having a lot of time to practice. We've done a week now but we've got people spread out all over the f*cking globe. As the show goes on and we get more comfortable, we reinvent them. We're trying to get a nailed-down version that can still make it interesting for us later.

The "Dashboard" video is already on TV; do you know what the second single is going to be?

No. We're doing some inexpensive videos for probably eight songs. If radio starts playing another song, we'll probably do another expensive one. I do like doing those things. Honestly, I enjoy having the option to do a really nice video that is interesting and fun. Part of me doesn't like how it nails down the song to whatever the visuals are, which, to be honest, often aren't what the song is about at all. It's just a "take" on it. It's like, I'll put in my two cents, but I ain't putting in a whole buck.

Between finishing this up and touring, have you had time to work on any new Ugly Casanova material?

I just set up the studio in my house again and have been itching to start working on some Ugly Casanova songs. But depending on the time frame, they might just get absorbed into Modest Mouse again. In a lot of ways, all the instrumentation I really like using on Ugly Casanova records is now pretty well incorporated into Modest Mouse, so it's not quite as necessary.