Over the course of Modest Mouse’s 25-plus years as one of indie rock’s most seminal bands, frontman Isaac Brock has become a sort of unwelcome prognosticator — a painfully accurate oracle for all the shitty things that the future will hold.
His band’s 1997 masterpiece, The Lonesome Crowded West, presaged the mass suburbanization and strip mall-ification of previously pristine places in his native Pacific Northwest. The group’s equally peerless follow-up album, The Moon & Antarctica, foresaw the chilling effects of the now uber-present culture wars, driven by the destabilizing impacts of religion, technology, and other daunting social matters.
For essentially his entire career, Brock has been the unwelcome town crier reminding everyone of how terrible things are, and how they are only going to get worse, and on damn near every occasion he has been right.
Given the times we’re currently living through, one might presume the latest Modest Mouse album would represent more of the same: Serving as a harrowing reminder that the world has always been shit and will not get better unless humans fundamentally change. However, The Golden Casket, Modest Mouse’s seventh full-length and first release in six years… might actually be their most hopeful album yet. Could that be possible?
Fatherhood, it seems, is the simplest explanation for this unexpected twist. Now the father of two young children, Brock has vowed to be more resolute and positive about the future (he also has a 19-year-old son, from a previous relationship, who is touring with his old man as a stagehand.)
“Having my two little daughters around makes my life better in every fucking way imaginable,” says Brock, who brings Modest Mouse to The Masonic on Sept. 16. “I’m a better person, a better songwriter, a better friend and bandmate, and a more hopeful person. You can’t look at an infant toddler and be like, ‘Fuck the world.’ When there is a little person out there, you want to preserve their innocence and figure out a way to make this world not look like some apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel.”
Whereas Modest Mouse’s earliest albums were craggy, coarse creations filled with bending guitar hooks, occasional and cacophonous vocal explosions, and expansive, major movement rhythm sections, the band has increasingly smoothed out its rough edges in recent years, and The Golden Casket continues on that trajectory.
Brock originally toyed with the concept of making an album without guitars, and although he quickly ditched the idea, the record is full of electronic flourishes and ambient soundscapes. And in contrast to late-era Modest Mouse albums like Strangers to Ourselves, the lyrical content of The Golden Casket mirrors (for the most part) the breezy, lilting atmosphere of the sonic landscape.
The most obvious entry into “happy song” territory is “Lace Your Shoes,” a moving paean to fatherhood that is easily the most unguarded and vulnerable song in Brock’s lengthy catalog. If you told me the jaded narrator who brilliantly described bitterness, ennui, and self-loathing on This is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About would one day write the lyric, “Cause the sunshine pours out of your mouth and eyes,” I would have called you crazy.
The optimistic moods on The Golden Casket are not just confined to the power of parenting. “We’re Lucky” is a cooing, slowly-building ballad about the importance of being present, and “Wooden Soldiers” is a tortured, back-and-forth battle about mortality and making the most of the moment; it ends with a resolution that is bright and hopeful: “Just being here now is enough for me.” Similarly, the lead single “We Are Between” is a song about the shared journey we all face on this planet — a stirring portrayal of how we are all flawed beings, but those flaws are what unites humanity.
“A lot of these songs kind of start with that hand-wringing pessimism, but then they lighten the fuck up,” Brock explains. “Because that’s what happened with me.”
This being Modest Mouse and this being present times, The Golden Casket is not devoid of spectral, disturbing songs. “Transmitting Receiving” is an ominous, chanting dirge about our surveillance state — a warning that everything we do is being recorded, analyzed, and forever trapped in techno-amber.
While speaking about The Golden Casket, Brock has been unapologetically frank about the dangers he perceives in the world — some of which sound downright paranoiac. Brock insists a low-volume dialogue is constantly churning in his left ear and that he frequently sees the same people monitoring his actions during his daily routines. Since noticing those disturbing elements, he’s been poring over reports and publications about the telekinesis-centered remote viewing technology and the CIA’s abandoned Gateway Experience, which sought to expand consciousness by tinkering with people’s brainwaves.
“I get that most people just chalk all this up to some sort of, like, mental illness,” Brock says. “I don’t feel like I know all that much about this stuff, except that people don’t believe you when you say this shit. It sounds fucking crazy to me too, but it’s real to me, so I don’t know what to say.”
Brock has not turned into a zealot on the matter and remains completely hopeful that someone will debunk his theories. And while the aforementioned comments have garnered most of the press attention in the past few months, they should not overshadow the relative stability that Brock and Modest Mouse are currently enjoying.
As the band enters its fourth decade, Modest Mouse is still a uniquely dynamic group that relies on the once-in-a-generation songwriter Brock and the stabilizing presence of drummer Jeremiah Green, who has been with the band for nearly every step since its founding in 1993. The volatile early days of the band were marked by drug and alcohol dependency, but those times have been replaced by the enduring friendship of Green and Brock.
“I’ve known him since he was 13 years old, so there is nothing in the world that could piss me off or create animosity between us at this point,” Brock says, adding that multi-instrumentalist Tom Peloso has been with the band since 2003 and bassist Russell Higbee since 2012. Guitarist Danny Gallucci, who helped contribute to The Golden Casket, has been an on-and-off member of the band since its Moon & Antarctica days.
“These are all long-term relationships we have in this band right now,” Brock says.
From his band to his family, Brock is surrounded by those he loves, and while he occasionally has a dip into the darkness, for the most part his worldview has been shaped for the better by the people in his life.
“I feel like there are a few possible outcomes for this planet at this time,” Brock concludes. “One is that life on Earth becomes uninhabitable and we’re all fucked. The other is that it becomes inhabitable only for a few elite people and that’s an equally scary option. But I’m really banking that push will come to shove, and we will somehow come together and figure this thing out for everyone. I gotta try and believe in that last solution.”
The Masonic, S.F.
Sept. 16, 7:30 p.m. $49.50
Will Reisman is a contributing writer. @wreisman