When Isaac Brock picks up the phone, the pain in his voice is unmistakable.
“Owwwwww!” screams the lead singer and lyricist of Modest Mouse from his apartment in Portland, Ore.
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
(Epic; US: 20 Mar 2007; UK: 2 Apr 2007)
Then he explains: “My cat decided she was done getting petted and the best way to stop that was to make me hurt a lot.”
Brock, 31, has made headlines in the past with substance abuse problems, stints in jail and self-destructive behavior. But on this day, it turns out, he sounds happy and relaxed at home. Also voluble, frequently foulmouthed, bracingly blunt and very funny.
Modest Mouse was formed in 1993 in Issaquah, Wash. After years of acclaim for its independent recordings, it broke through to a mass audience with the edgy but upbeat hit single “Float On” in 2004.
Many of the band’s old fans were uneasy about seeing their heroes with a hit, and the cries of “sellout” increased this year when “American Idol” contestants sang “Float On” in a music video sponsored by Ford.
His manager warned him that allowing the song to be used in that way could be a bad PR move, but Brock says he couldn’t resist the opportunity.
“I’m not a singer, per se,” he explains. “I do what I do, and I do it with some style. It works. But the type of singing that they tend to do on `American Idol’ is what I call `sodeling’—the combination of soul and yodeling. The thought that someone would be crooning away and sodeling on one of our songs seemed hilarious to me.”
In any case, the band didn’t try to repeat the hit formula for its follow-up album. Early in the songwriting process for what turned out to be “We Were Already Dead When the Ship Sank,” Brock made the unusual step of inviting Johnny Marr, the guitar hero from the influential `80s British band the Smiths, into the fold.
“I definitely thought that the fact that we’ve got pretty different styles would make for something interesting,” Brock says.
The experiment worked so well that Marr was invited to become a permanent member of the band.
Brock says the new six-piece lineup (with two drummers) has improved on the road since then, with Marr’s chiming guitar and vocal prowess filling out the live sound. Just as important, the members also are clicking offstage.
“It’s the most family-like this whole band’s felt since it was just a three-piece when we were younger,” Brock says. “I think the whole band is a lot more comfortable right now.”
That’s not to say that everything is sweetness and light. At a Modest Mouse concert in Sioux Falls, S.D., in March, Brock pulled out a small knife and cut himself on the chest until a roadie restrained him. He performed the rest of the show with bloody slices visible through his T-shirt.
The event was much talked about on the indie-rock blogosphere, but Brock insists it was no big deal.
“I was having a good time and got feisty, got hyper,” he says. “It wasn’t a dangerous situation whatsoever.”
Brock, who has spoken publicly about drinking to excess in the past, attributes his behavior that night to a mixture of single-malt Scotch and coffee.
“I still plan on drinking every so often, and I still plan on getting trashed every so often,” he says unapologetically. “You know the fact that I don’t drink every day, and I definitely don’t get drunk all that often anymore, is the improvement I’m on. I’m happy there.”
When “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” came out March 20, it immediately vaulted to No. 1 in Billboard, solidifying Modest Mouse’s status as one of America’s most popular rock bands.
“When someone told me it had gone to No. 1, I was surprised that I wasn’t psyched,” Brock says. “I was like, God, am I completely unable to be satisfied?”
But after a few days’ reflection, Brock says, he was relieved by his mild reaction.
“Anyone can say that they don’t care about record sales, or how their record’s doing,” he says. “It was nice for me to know I was actually being honest to myself when I said those things. I do find my pleasure in the making of the music, not what happens after the fact.”