Sunday, April 5, 2015

Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock Wants To Be More Than A Myth

Most people don't know it, but there are actually five, not four, time zones in the United States: Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, and Isaac time — as in Isaac Brock, singer, guitarist, chief songwriter, and all-around mastermind of the very popular underground major-label rock band Modest Mouse. The Isaac time zone is usually situated within the city limits of Portland, Oregon, where he resides, but point of fact it's located wherever he's standing at the moment. Isaac time is kind of like bullet time in The Matrix, only slower. Or better yet, it's like that scene in Interstellar where they explore that water planet orbiting a black hole for 20 minutes, and by the time they get back to the ship, 20 years have passed on Earth.

If you want to experience it for yourself, you really need to go to Portland. Once you arrive, proceed directly to the Ice Cream Party, a three-level mid-century modern structure situated in Portland's Goose Hollow neighborhood in the shadow of Providence Park soccer stadium that serves as recording studio, rehearsal hall, storage space, living quarters, and band hangout — it is, in short, Modest Mouse's Batcave. As instructed, you type in the secret code into the keypad and are ushered in by one of Brock's henchmen, and then you wait and wait and wait, because, well, time is irrelevant to Isaac Brock. Always has been.

His manager, a very nice and helpful fellow named Juan, says Brock called to say he's waiting for a locksmith and is going to be late. A locksmith for what exactly he does not say. So you do what the rest of the band are doing: hang around a table in the center of the Ice Cream Party, shooting the shit, nipping beers and coffees. Some are smoking cigarettes, others smoking something stronger. (Marijuana is technically legal in Oregon, but won't be available at state-sanctioned shops until July, not that anyone's waiting around.)

The band these days is a six-piece that includes drummer and charter Modest Mouse member Jeremiah Green, bassist Russell Higbee (ex-Man Man), guitarist Jim Fairchild (of the late, great Grandaddy), keyboardist and horn player Tom Peloso (ex-The Hackensaw Boys), percussionist Ben Massarella (ex-Red Red Meat/Califone), percussionist Davey Brozowski (ex-The Catheters), and violist Lisa Molinaro (ex-Talk Demonic).

Brock, 39, finally shows up a couple hours later in a beanie and a hoodie, bleary-eyed and red-nosed,a devilish grin splitting his ruddy, lived-in face. He's been fighting a nasty cold for weeks, he says, and the cold remedy he's been pounding has rendered him out of it. "I'm sorry, my brain is so unbrainly right now," he says. He speaks with a slight lisp. (“I like hearing him talk, doesn’t he have the coolest speaking voice?” comedian Fred Armisen texts back when asked about Brock’s appearances on Saturday Night Live and Portlandia. “I mean singing, too, obviously, but I can listen to him tell a story all day.”)

Modest Mouse are supposed to start rehearsing for their impending tour around 2 that afternoon, but it's almost midnight by the time they finally plug in and start playing. It is not long before someone points out that midnight is a crazypants hour to start rehearsing, and they give up after 30 minutes or so. But not before nailing the positively epic chorus of “Of Course We Know,” the grand finale from the new, eight-years-in-the-making album Strangers to Ourselves.

The next day I show up at the appointed hour of 2 p.m. and join the other knights at the round table and start all over again. Coffee. Beer. Mary Jane. Rinse and repeat. A couple hours later, Juan taps me on the shoulder and says Brock is on his way, that he fell asleep putting on his socks. Eventually he shows up and I get time to ask Brock questions. Lots and lots of time. Because I’m now standing in the Isaac time zone, where every minute is like 20 years back on Earth.

"Even when I was a kid, I always showed up late for school every day," says Brock, his tone somewhere between a shrug and a boast. "It got to the point where they had my late slips filled for every day of the school year in advance, so all they had to do was fill in what time I got there."

Some rock stars are happy to hit their mark and feed you their talking points like trained seals. Brock despises craven self-promotion and easy answers, preferring instead the gentlemanly arts of wit, whimsy, and conjecture, preferably of the surreal variety, wherein no point is ever arrived at until at least five or six fascinating detours from the subject at hand have been explored. Sometimes the point gets completely lost and we have to send out a search party. And that takes time. Lots and lots of time. Twelve hours straight, to be exact. It's like mainlining Modest Mouse.

Matthew Simmons / WireImage (2004)

"My world is so fucking insane and shit I don’t even want to be interesting any more — write a boring fucking story about me because I’m sick of being interesting," he tells me somewhere around the eight-hour mark. "I’ve killed myself making this record. Fuckin’ literally thought I was going to die. I wrote a will on an airplane, and I was like, I know I’m dying."

I try to draw him out on the new album, but Brock’s not ready yet. He takes a slug from his bottle of cider, his drink of choice these days because it doesn’t give him a hangover. He’s going to need to down a few more, he says, before unpacking the agonies and ecstasies of gestating the new album. “Thinking about the record is hard for me," he says, "because every little fuckin’ freckle on this thing I would look at with a magnifying glass, and then decided I needed to look at it from the top of a fucking mountain. My ability to have a perspective on it is so far gone, along with everything else. When the record was done, I was told, ‘You made $200 last year, you’re pretty much broke.’"

After an eight-year hermitage of trial and tribulation, of endless woodshedding, endless recording and erasing and re-recording, of beauty, repetition, and noise and danger and boredom and bloodletting — which is apparently just a day in the life of Isaac Brock — there is a new Modest Mouse album, Strangers to Ourselves. “Eight years is a long time between albums, I mean, there were three children born to members in that time,” says Brock. “But the good news is that I’m not sick of a single song on here and after working on them for five years, I think that speaks for itself."

There is blood in these tracks, and there be monsters too. There is a lot is riding on there also being money in these tracks. In 2004, Modest Mouse had a huge, if improbable, hit with “Float On” — a shuffling, arpeggiated ode to walking between the raindrops of life’s shitstorms — that drove sales of Good News for People Who Love Bad News, the album it came from, through the roof (it went just short of double platinum -- nearly 1.9 million copies in the U.S.) and put a shit ton of mainstream asses in seats. But a lot has changed in the intervening 11 years. In 2015, the incredible shrinking music business is fully half the size it was in 2004. The mass audience that bit hard on “Float On” may have aged out of the concert-going demo. All of which is surely cause for a lot of nail-biting and gnashing of teeth inside Modest Mouse Inc. “A lot of people are counting on me, people with families,” says Brock. “And nobody pays for music any more."

Brock’s been running the media gauntlet in advance of the new album’s release and everyone wants to know why it took eight years to follow up 2007's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Everyone. It's a reasonable question. After all, a lot can happen in eight years. The Beatles came and went in eight years. But there is no single answer. “I have eight answers to that question,” says Brock. “And I believe them all!”

In the last eight years, Modest Mouse chewed up and spit out four record producers (including Big Boi from OutKast), two mixdown engineers, their bass player, plus Nirvana's bass player, who auditioned to replace him, not to mention the guitar player from The Smiths. In that time, the band racked up 30-plus songs, enough to flesh out the new album with a fairly whopping 15 songs as well as a follow-up album tentatively set for release in mid-2017. Two and a half years of that eight-year span were spent touring We Were Dead. The year after that was supposed to be a year of rest and relaxation, but the band wound up playing another 60 shows.

From there, the first of many, many woodshedding sessions commenced in the hopes of generating material for a new album. "Eight years is a long time between albums, by any measure, but it’s not like there was a lot of downtime," says guitarist-songwriter Jim Fairchild, Modest Mouse's second guitarist for the last six years, during a break from not rehearsing. "There were tons of writing sessions. One thing I learned about Isaac is he doesn’t settle. I’m not exaggerating when I say I heard at least 50 riffs that could have been really good Modest Mouse songs, but for whatever reason he wasn’t satisfied. There really was no downtime."

Then came a devastating loss. In 2011, with most of the new album written and ready to record, charter bassist Eric Judy tendered his resignation, after 18 years of service, without explanation. This was a huge blow. Judy's departure tore a big hole in the DNA of the band's sound. "The way those three guys play is Modest Mouse, to this day," says Fairchild on another break from not rehearsing. "Nothing can ever replace that bond."

Brock thinks Judy simply had enough of the grinding stress and isolation of yearslong recording and touring cycles. "Eric and I weren’t without our problems," he says. "But I’m not sure that this path was exactly what Eric wanted — being in a band touring all the time and all that stuff. I don’t think that he ever fully signed on in his mind to what this life requires."

Perhaps, but Judy's reluctance to revisit the last 23 years of the Modest Mouse saga suggests there's more to it than that he just wanted to spend more time with the wife and kids. Judy originally agreed to to be interviewed for this article via email but then changed his mind, writing, "I appreciate your wanting to include me in the Modest Mouse article but I don't think I'd like to be a part of it. I left the band because of the anxiety it was causing me and it's been hard to get myself back on track. I didn't realize I'd feel so bad reading the questions."

C Flanigan / FilmMagic (2013)

Three years ago, Brock purchased the building that would become Ice Cream Party. Work on the new album paused for months on end as Brock and Co. installed a recording studio, living quarters, kitchen, rehearsal space, offices for both Modest Mouse's management and Glacial Pace (Brock's record label), and vast hangout zones centered around a pair of tables and a few stools that host band meetings and endless shoot-the-shit sessions. As any band will tell you, having your own studio is both a blessing and a curse, easily turning a finite recording schedule into infinite jest. You have endless time and an infinite number of choices, and that way lies madness. "Options are a motherfucker," says Brock. "Most of the best music in American history was made by people with no options. It's like, I was hungry so I built a restaurant when I should have just ordered off the menu.”

Once the recording studio was up and running there were at least four different recording sessions — some lasting weeks, other lasting months — with different producers, with Brock sometimes scrapping all that had come before, other times building on what was worth keeping. The recording was completed in November 2013. Brock spent all of 2014 mixing the album with Chicago post-rock guru John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake), only to scrap those mixes and complete the project with Joe Zook (Katy Perry, Pink), who had mixed We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.

It took 23 years, but Modest Mouse is no longer a boys-only club with the recent addition of violist Lisa Molinaro, who is not just a newly minted member of the band, she is also Brock's romantic partner of the last five years. The two met five years ago and Brock soon signed her band Talkdemonic to Glacial Pace, his in-house record label. When Talkdemonic called it quits, Molinaro became a full-time member of Modest Mouse. As such, she's had a front row seat for the trials and errors and, ultimately, triumphs of the past half decade. She claims, somewhat improbably, that if she had to do over again she wouldn't have it any other way. "It has been a strenuous couple years for Isaac and the band and as a result for our relationship -- and that’s been hard," she says. "But I am committed to Modest Mouse and I am committed to him and our relationship and that takes an ultimate amount of patience, which luckily I have lots of."

Still, it's one thing to invite female energy into the band, it's quite another to make your girlfriend a full-time band member and the two years Modest Mouse will spend on the road promoting the new album will surely test their union.

"Up until now I had a pretty hard-and-fast rule: Never be in a band with a person I’m dating," says Brock. "It was a pretty easy rule to follow considering who was in my band. I couldn’t do it with a lot of people, but I can do it with her.

"I’m not the easiest dude to deal with. So she might decide that she can deal with my bullshit, and she might decide that she can’t. For me, it’s not much different than just having another person in the band. She’s an A-student–type person. And I’m an awesome student, I just don’t do much work or show up. A-students keep track of tone and timing and things. Davey [Massarella]'s an A-student and Ben [Brozowski]'s an A-student. None of them have been in the band that long. They’ll lose their grip soon enough. They always come in as A's, and everyone leaves as an F."

Jon Premosch / BuzzFeed News

Brock's family tree is a riot of boughs, branches, and deadwood sprawling across the endless grassy plains of the lonesome crowded West. "If I wanted to count divorces and separations, on paper I have something like 16 or 18 fucking stepbrothers and sisters," he says as we tool aimlessly through Portlandia in his metallic green Land Cruiser. "The guy who kind of identified as my dad was my dad’s brother, who was the second person my mom married. [She] left my dad for his brother. It was a family feud for a while — for something like 17 years there was two brothers not talking."

Brock is wary about talking about his childhood, because the more outlandish anecdotes he shared with journalists early on — the commune! the trailer park! the Christian death cult! — have become part and parcel of his lore and legend and are often misinterpreted as indicators of hardship and neglect, much to his mother's chagrin. Which, I suppose, is why, without prompting, he insists I drive up to Issaquah, the leafy exurb of Seattle where he grew up, to speak with her in person and set the record straight.

Issaquah is a quaint Twin Peaks-ian burg situated in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Low-hanging clouds make it feel nearer the sky. When Brock was growing up, Issaquah was the master of its own domain, but it’s long since been engulfed by Seattle’s vast suburban sprawl and all the plagues of postmodernity that Brock railed against on The Lonesome Crowded West: overdevelopment, chain-store mallification, gridlock.

Kris Adair, Brock's mother, lives in Issaquah with her husband of 20 years, Michael Adair, who immediately gets put on the Cool List — he saw both Jimi Hendrix and legendary ‘60s garage punks The Sonics back in the day.

Kris Adair's home today (left), and the shack Modest Mouse was born in (right).

Jonathan Valania for BuzzFeed News

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