Modest Mouse began life as humbly as its name suggests, but after a couple of trial-and-error years, members Isaac Brock (guitar/vocals), Eric Judy (bass), and Jeremiah Green (drums) hit on the strange and compelling racket that buoyed them toward the top of the underground rock scene. On their first two albums, 1996's This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and the 1997 breakthrough The Lonesome Crowded West, Brock's smart, cynical lyrics sharpened fine new points on God, booze, and loneliness; fans obsessed over his words and the group's raggedly passionate music, while big labels lined up to write the next check.
In 2000, The Moon & Antarctica proved that a sonic expansion—and the major-label budget making it possible—wouldn't derail the band. The album, which was remastered and reissued this year, ended up sounding stranger and more layered than Modest Mouse's independent releases. It's a disquieting, often uplifting downer that crystallized Brock's trouble-finds-me outlook, even vaguely referencing his biggest publicity nightmare: In 1999, he was accused of date rape, which got as much play in magazines and gossip circles as his music. (Police reports were filed, but Brock was never formally charged.) Over the next few years, The Moon & Antarctica sold well, as did his Ugly Casanova side project. But during the same stretch of time, Brock had his jaw broken by a stranger, upset fans by licensing songs for commercials, lost his longtime drummer, started and scrapped a new album, and spent a week and a half in jail for attempted murder.
Those signs might portend a dark, dour Modest Mouse album, but it's clear that the band has turned a corner. Passionate doubts and cynical examinations still surface on the new Good News For People Who Love Bad News, but the album also marks an adventurous stab at a sunnier side. Brock recently talked to The Onion A.V. Club about God, his band, and the wrong side of the law.
The Onion: Are you doing many interviews now?
Isaac Brock: I'm not a big fan of the interview. It's a lot of questions I don't have answers for, a lot of questions about the music industry. I make music; I don't give a fuck about all the details of why it's different being on a major label than it is being on an indie label. So go ahead and cross that one off. [Laughs.]
O: You started making this record before Jeremiah Green left the band, then started over. What was the timeline?
IB: I was living down in this awful little redneck town in Oregon and everyone else was living in Seattle, so we rented a house in Portland, between the two. We were going to live there for however long it took to write the record. Due to various mental meltdowns, we spent six months trying to write a record and didn't get shit. I thought we just didn't know how to do it anymore. We went into the studio with what we had, just to kind of get started, and after two days of that, Jeremy left the band. We ended up not working with the producers that we were going to, and scrapped what we had, just salvaging bits and pieces. Then me, Eric, and Dann [Gallucci, Modest Mouse's new guitarist and keyboard player] wrote the record in about a month, just really worked our asses off, and in the end it was the best thing for everyone involved.
O: Do you credit Jeremy's departure with kick-starting the process?
IB: Things had to reach a peak of bad news. Everything had to fall apart in order for us to figure out where we stood. So we decided that instead of recording with someone we knew, we were going to go to the opposite side of the country and record with [a producer] we'd never met before.
O: "Float On" almost seems like it was written as a challenge to yourself to write a more "up" song, both lyrically and musically.
IB: It was a completely conscious thing. I was just kind of fed up with how bad shit had been going, and how dark everything was, with bad news coming from everywhere. Our president is just a fucking daily dose of bad news! Then you've got the well-intentioned scientists telling us that everything is fucked. I just want to feel good for a day. I'd had some friends die, and with Jeremy kind of losing it… After we got out of that dark spot with everything melting down with the band, I just wanted to make a positive record. I think we managed to make a quarter of the record positive, and the rest is either kind of dark or more just relaxing into things being how they are, resigned.
O: Since both God and Mad Max both appear in the lyrics of the new album, do you have any interest in The Passion Of The Christ?
IB: I totally want to see it! I like period movies, and it also sounds brutal. Seeing as I'm not really religious at all, nothing in it's really going to bother me. And I don't think one movie's really going to make the religious world any crazier. They're already fucking crazier than a shithouse rat.
O: Do you still consider yourself an atheist?
IB: Pretty much, but there are things that make me think. Like that guy who played Jesus [Jim Caviezel] getting hit by lightning during the filming of that movie? That just makes you think, "I can't be 100 percent sure." But I'm not going to change my game plan anyway. I don't think I'm living wrong in the first place, so when the lights go out on me, and brighter ones come on and I have to talk to some guy with a big, bushy beard, or some big glowing blob, I think I'm going to be fine. I'm 100 percent on the whole Christianity thing being a crock of shit, pretty much, but I don't give a fuck if other people are religious. Believe what you want. Whatever makes the day easier for you.
O: You've written lyrics that reference both science and God. Do you believe in science as a replacement for religion, or an adjunct? How do the two things fit together in your mind?
IB: I don't believe in science, either! I don't think it exists. [Laughs.] I toy around with the whole Biblical thing, just as amazing characters. What I've read, in terms of the Bible and shit, is that Satan's this super-charming guy who'll come off sweet as sugar, and that if you run into him, he'll try and fool you into thinking he's God. From all of that, wouldn't that probably make God the devil, if he's such a good liar? I can't think of any really horrendous shit that's been caused by the character Satan, but man, God's got quite a few smitings under his belt. But science, science is great. I love science. With any luck, it'll save us all.
O: But you seem of the opinion that it might destroy us all, too.
IB: It's trying both. Basically, it's a push-me, pull-me thing. Science finds a way to fuck things up, and then science finds a way to fix it. There's a song on the record that's pretty much about that, "The View." That whole "We're fixed right where we stand" lyric. For every positive thing that we accomplish, something negative comes out of it, and vice versa. The computer is a perfect example: It's a great timesaving device, but I spend so much time dicking around with my computer just to get it to save me time. I don't know how they got my number, but someone wants to sell me Viagra really bad. Also, apparently my penis is really small. Word's out. Penis enlargement? The whole 10 feet? I guess I would want that—for novelty, for a party trick.
O: Is politics something you're vocal about? It doesn't seem to filter into your lyrics in any obvious way.
IB: I don't think I ever write songs involving politics, because they get dated way too quick. Any view you have can usually be made into something more general, and that can stand throughout time. I'm not going to write the "Bush is a fucking lying sack of shit" song—I don't think I need to. I think everyone knows.
O: Let's get back to talking about you.
IB: God, I fuckin' hate talkin' about me. I'm so fuckin' precious. [Assumes girly voice.] Let's talk about meeeee!
O: Are you constantly writing songs, or do you sit down and slug it out when the time comes?
IB: I'm constantly writing my speech to my grandkids about how I wasted my life. I don't constantly write, because I can't play music when people are in the same house. My girlfriend lives in the same house, so I end up watching a lot of—you've probably heard of it—the television? Wonderful stuff. When I do write, it happens really easily. I'll just kind of sing along to whatever I'm playing, then find a line to build off of, then sit down and write. When I do write, I take care of business!
O: Do you think you have a sense of humor in your songwriting that you don't necessarily get credit for?
IB: I think so. There are really dry jokes throughout the whole thing. I get a lot more credit for being depressing, which is odd, because I'm not really all that depressed a person.
O: Can you talk a bit about "The Good Times Are Killing Me," and how it touches on the band's reputation for over-indulgence?
IB: There's been a lot of drug abuse. The only drugs I've ever actually written any music on are pills, pot, and alcohol. Acid or coke, you can't write songs on that shit. I kind of regret how much I did drugs. There was a point in time when it seemed like a good plan, but it probably wasn't. Especially inhalants, and shit like that—I think I was a bit brighter before I did that. Inhalants and meth were probably the two things that totally fucking screwed me out of some brain cells.
O: But at one point, you were pretty much ready to try anything?
IB: Yeah. And now it's just something I kind of have to fight. There's certain shit where it's hard to say no when it's around. I just try and make sure that it's not around, or I'm not around it.
O: The band's live reputation used to be sharply divided, with audiences in for either something amazing or a drunken mess.
IB: There's the whole idea of knowing how much you can drink before you play. There was a certain point where I realized that these folks showing up for the shows paid money, and not to see me get fucking drunk. The collective amount of time and energy and money put in to coming out to see us play—no one deserves to have to see a drunk dude. They can buy their friends beer and watch them get drunk for much cheaper.
O: Was licensing your songs to commercials a tough decision?
IB: Figuring out ways to pay the rent isn't really a tough decision. Around the time we did the beer commercial and the shoe commercial, I thought, "Am I compromising my music by doing this?" And I think not. I like keeping the lights on in my house. People who don't have to make their living playing music can bitch about my principles while they spend their parents' money or wash dishes for some asshole. Principles are something that people are a lot better at checking in other people than keeping their own. My rationale behind the beer commercial was, "I like drinking MGD! I like beer probably more than I should, probably more than is healthy." I was hoping I could get a lifetime supply out of the deal, but I guess I'll have to buy it with that big ol' check. [Laughs.]
O: It seems like the Ugly Casanova record spilled over into Good News.
IB: I think that overall, that's where I'm gradually headed, so it's bound to be in the new Modest Mouse record. I made a point when I made the Ugly Casanova record to not write a song and then say, "This is a Modest Mouse song" or "This is an Ugly Casanova song." The people who were open to it not being a Modest Mouse record liked it. People who were just hoping I was going to do a Modest Mouse record without the rest of Modest Mouse were disappointed, but fuck 'em. It was a great experience all around. The Ugly Casanova tours, on the other hand, weren't necessarily good experiences at all. But making the record was wonderful, and I took a lot away from it.
O: What went wrong on tour?
IB: I ended up in jail for a while; that was one thing I would've happily skipped. A while back, I had a DUI accident. I hired a lawyer and gave him a retainer, and he told me that he'd get it settled. A year later, my friend and I crossed the border to get a better look at Niagara Falls, and on the way back, they arrested me for attempted murder, being a fugitive, DUI, and whatnot. When the DUI accident happened, my friend's girlfriend dislocated her thumb, and in Oregon, they give you attempted murder for any injury involving alcohol. I ended up in jail, and I had to go everywhere in ankle cuffs and regular cuffs. It was pretty fucked.
O: How long were you in there?
IB: Only about a week and a half or so.
IB: I got a hold of that lawyer, and he just wasn't taking care of shit. Day after day, I was sitting there. The whole time, I'm having to pay everyone who's playing on the tour, everyone who's working as a roadie. I ended up having to hire this $15,000 lawyer just to get out, because I was going to lose that much if I didn't. So I hired Mr. Big Balls, and he did right by me.
O: Were the charges dropped?
IB: Most of 'em. The fucked-up thing is that the DUI accident was caused by something else that had nothing to do with drinking. I'd only had two drinks that night, and the breathalyzer test said that I had a .16 blood-alcohol level, which is complete bullshit. I was too concerned about the fact that my friend had hurt her thumb, so I was like, "Whatever. Get her to a hospital. Take me in."
O: How did you handle being in jail?
IB: When I first showed up, there were people who'd try to make me give them my lunch, and I'd be like, "No, get the fuck away from me!" That worked. The white gangsters were hilarious. I was in a holding cell with three of 'em, and they're all just telling their superthug stories about how they can outrun all the cops. I had no sense of humor, and I was like, "Why don't you guys shut the fuck up? You're in jail. You apparently aren't so hot at outrunning cops." There was this one dude wearing the uniform they give you, and he was like, "All right! These are my new club clothes!" I'm just like, "You are an idiot. Shut the fuck up right now until I leave. This isn't fun!" Here's the rad thing: One of the dudes, this Little Lord Badass, was on the same cellblock as me, and when he'd get on the phone, it'd be, "Dad, you gotta bail me out of here!" It was awesome. Mostly, I just kept low-key. I had some late-40s, freaky, child-molester-looking dude basically say that he was going to rape me. I sat down and played chess with him, and he was making all these creepy comments, so I was like, "Okay, we're done playing this game."
O: That's one you can tell your kids.
IB: If they head down the wrong path and I need to tell 'em a story. [Laughs.] Besides that, it was bad, but it's not like I was getting my ass kicked every day. I made a point to steer clear of really pissing anyone off, for a plethora of reasons. If you get put in solitary, it fucking sucks. I was put in there just because they had me in double-lock maximum security, and it's the most tedious fucking thing. I can't think of anything more boring. There's a Japanimation cartoon I've been trying to watch on Cartoon Network called Witch Hunter Robin, and that's almost as boring. When I got my sentence, I ended up doing road crew for a couple of weeks.
O: What was that like?
IB: It wasn't so bad, other than people were really ignorant. We were driving through Oregon logging country, and one guy says, "Old-growth trees? Bullshit. Know what an old-growth tree is? Just an old dead tree waiting to fall on someone, or fall on your car. I've had friends killed by trees! They shouldn't let trees get any taller than 10 feet!" So I asked him, "How did your friend get killed by a tree? Did it swerve into the road and hit him?" At one point, we were cleaning out this football-field-sized area of blackberry bushes with our machetes, and we run across some poison ivy. We point it out, and the cop's like, "Cut it down, get rid of it." We do, and then all the gloves and vests got contaminated by it, and the next thing I know, I've got rashes all over. All over my ding-dong! I couldn't get it to go away, because every time I'd go back, I'd re-contaminate myself.
O: What's the story about you getting your jaw broken in Chicago?
IB: We were living in an apartment above Clava Studios, where we were recording The Moon & Antarctica, and we'd been out at a bar. We drove back to the apartment, and there was a park kind of kitty-corner to it, where local kids were just hanging out. I was going to smoke a cigarette outside before I went in, I'm all friendly drunk-guy, and I decided to shoot the shit with these kids. I'm like, "Hi, how are you all doing?" And before I can get more words out, some dude from the side just full-on punches me, breaks my jaw. There's 14 of these fuckers. They were chasing after our dog, throwing bottles at me, still throwing punches—but they never landed another one. That's one of the things that could make me think that maybe I'm full of shit on this higher-power thing, because there's no reason that they kept missing after that first punch. I remember turning around and saying, "You broke my jaw!" and they're just like, "Fuck you, cowboy!"
O: Do you feel like a trouble magnet?
IB: I used to, but now I don't. I think it's a state of mind. If you think shit's going to happen, it's going to. It's a whole power-of-positive-thinking bullshit I'm on. I'm trying to think more positively about shit, you know? It's a bummer, being all bleak about everything.
O: Can we talk about the rape accusation in 1999?
IB: It's an allegation that was withdrawn, and of course that didn't get any press. It was complete and utter bullshit, and the whole situation was so complicated that it's hard for me to go into lots of detail. At the time, I figured I'd just shut up and give this young lady enough rope to hang herself, you know? It fucked up my life once, and I'd prefer to just let it go.
O: Having [the Seattle alternative weekly] The Stranger give it so much play probably contributed to your wariness of the press.
IB: Before this all happened, I never believed that anyone would lie about rape. That was my stance: No one lies about this shit. It really made me have to adjust my entire view of people, politics, and my own personal politics. I used to be like, "Kill rapists!" And all of a sudden I have this false allegation against me. I remember totally writing people off that I'd heard had even been in just awkward sexual situations with girls, like "That guy's a fucking prick, I'll never talk to him again." It was weird being on the receiving end of that. A friend of mine who's actually friends with that girl recently told me that she had totally withdrawn having said anything. I only just found out about that myself in the last six months. I knew that basically everyone, up to and including the police, was like, "This is bullshit." This person changed her story depending on who she was talking to. It was really just this fucked-up, weird thing.
O: Did that make you think twice about your level of fame? If you weren't The Guy From Modest Mouse, it wouldn't have been the story it was.
IB: There were a lot bigger things I was displeased about at that point, like friends betraying me. Dann, who's in my band now, wouldn't even talk to me anymore. He did what I probably would have done, which is lean on the side of error. You don't want to be the person saying that it's bullshit in a rape allegation.
O: It seems like that's what people know about Modest Mouse, even if they've never heard the music. And you've never really defended yourself explicitly before.
IB: There's only two people for a fact who know what the fuck went on, and I have always been really comfortable with what I know. I never really spoke about it much, because there's no actual way to prove it. You can believe me if you want, or you can not. I always want to talk to that girl, to see where she's at right now. I'm not even pissed at her. She was young and it was a stupid fucking thing to do. I just want facts on paper, I don't want speculation. What's it been, about five years? It still affects my life. Anyone I've ever dated has had to deal with people pulling them aside and saying, "What are you doing with this guy?" People love that sort of shit. None of the shit that came up afterward got a story. I had to find out from someone else that she'd withdrawn it. That seems newsworthy to me.
O: It's been 10 years. Do you think you'll still be doing Modest Mouse in another 10?
IB: I imagine I will be. The last 10 years have flown by.
O: Are you the kind of songwriter who'll be compelled to write forever, or do you think it's something you'll hang up someday?
IB: I hope I'm doing it, but I'm not going to be pissed if I'm not. There's other shit I want to do. If I find myself just not feeling like writing songs anymore, I think I'll drop it. There's enough bad, insincere music out there. I don't need to contribute to that.