What’s the deal with Modest Mouse? Eight years since its last studio LP and eleven since the surprise success of “Float On,” the 22-year old band finally returns with Strangers to Ourselves, a rollicking 57-minute indie rock power trip through old west saloon pianos, disjointed, careening riffs, and existential doubt. There’s the maniacal, animatronic vocal distortion of “Pistol” — basically Modest Mouse trying to make a Migos song — followed three tracks later by “Coyotes,” a wispy ballad about natural preservation. The main Modest Mouse photo on Epic’s website still featured Johnny Marr (who hadn’t played with the band since 2008) up until March 13, when the Billboard magazine version of this story called attention to it. But Epic has stayed patient with these Portland misfits, and oddly enough, so has frontman Isaac Brock.
This album has been in the works for a while, about five years.
I had all sorts of fucking schemes — I canned a lot of ideas. I was going to make a record that was really boring, like a rock and roll version of (the 1938 Thornton Wilder play) Our Town where the songs went nowhere and they just plodded along with mundane daily stories. I got like five songs into that and then said, “Alright, that’s enough.” Then I just wanted to play a hard fucking rock record, no overdubs.
You initially set out to produce the LP yourself, but you eventually recruited Andrew Weiss, Tucker Martine, and others for help. How come?
I fired myself. Then we kept having people come in to work on the record, but everyone had other shit scheduled after x-amount of days, so no one wanted to hang out while we took three years rerecording bass parts and putting mics in jugs of water to see how it sounds. It doesn’t sound great. There’s a reason they’re not selling the jug-of-water mic.
Is Epic understanding in letting you take your time?
To be frank, one of the things that we’ve done pretty much the entire time on Epic is not let them know when we’re recording a record. We largely just pay for it out of pocket. Like this one — I was nearly homeless by the end of the record. I don’t think they’ve ever known what to do with us. I don’t think they know why the fuck it works. We’re not a pop band. I’m not sure what kind of band we are, and I like it that way.
In the end, do you have a good relationship with Epic?
I actually really like being on Epic. I would badmouth them if I wanted to! That’s just the kind of guy I am, a little bit of a dick. It’s been a good time most of the time, more than I can say with most independent labels. I can’t think of any real fucking overs I’ve gotten from Epic.
Epic’s website still has a band picture with Johnny Marr, who left in 2008.
Yeah, that picture has three to four people who aren’t in the band anymore. Every time we show up to a town to play a show, the picture still has Johnny. All my ideas for photo shoots for this album didn’t involve really seeing us. I mean, Daft Punk found a way around it.
Big Boi, with whom you’ve collaborated in the past, is also signed to Epic. Did the label help connect you guys?
Not at all. We’d been writing (trying to write) the record for a year and a half. After a while of just playing a lot, I decided we needed to get into the studio. I couldn’t think of any producers I wanted to work with so I tried reaching out to George Martin, Brian Eno and the other person that I’d been really digging was Big Boi. On (Outkast’s 2003 album) Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, I love the production on the Big Boi side of it so I just reached out. It was a shot in the dark really.
By the time we actually got around to recording a record, the idea turned into this monstrosity the whole band chipped in on helping me build. It was just going to kill me and make me go crazy eventually. That’s why it didn’t happen — my brain went somewhere else. I liked working with Big Boi. We were ill-prepared when we did it. Mainly we just partied. Man, those dudes are good at that. They can miss a few hours of sleep like it’s nothing.
It sounds like we may never get to hear the Big Boi sessions from April 2011. But what did they sound like?
It’s a bit cleaner. Kevin Kendrick — who used to be in Cameo, the band from the ’80s that did “Word Up!” — came and played piano. I needed some lady background vocals on “Coyotes” and they brought in Debra Killings, who earlier in the day played bass with Bootsy Collins. It was pretty rad but it was really clean and it did sound a little out of place at times.
What happened after you reached out to George Martin and Brian Eno?
With Martin, I ended up hearing back from his son. He was like, “My dad’s like 87 years old and hasn’t produced in years. He’s an old guy drinking some wine.”
Eno was a little more complicated. Before they said whether he’d do it, they gave us this perhaps-too-involved explanation of how he approached his producing; he’s a member of the band but he also won’t be showing up for a lot of the daily producing. It was something like that. I’m a little foggy on the details. I’m a huge fan of what that dude does, but he can’t claim to both be a member of the band and also not show up most of the time.
Are you already planning on your next album?
I was semi-intentionally making two records at once. I put more songs on this record than I thought I was going to and I cut a few more songs than I thought… so I still got some work to do to make the next record.
I always wonder what people from Portland think of Portlandia, especially since you guested on it in 2012.
Sometimes they make fun of things that are like, that’s just what we do. Like, I keep bees! Portland hardly got to have an identity before that identity became a joke — I live in a joke. Seattle at least got to wear out its identity before it became a joke.
This article first appeared in the March 21 issue of Billboard.