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On the Cover: Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse’s 2004 album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News (a high-water mark of ’00s indie-minded major-label rock), sold more than 1.5 million copies domestically on the strength of “Float On,” an indelible single whose success seemed to validate its serendipitous stoner-optimist outlook. So what did Modest Mouse’s leader, Isaac Brock, do after this breakthrough? He recruited Johnny Marr, the legendary guitarist of the Smiths, not just as a sideman or producer, but as a member of his band. In this excerpt from our April cover story, which is on newsstands now, find out how Isaac really met Johnny.

Spin: So Isaac Brock just called you out of the blue?
Marr: Someone from his record company had contacted my manager first. And then I bumped into Franz Ferdinand’s manager, who said, “I hear you’ve joined Modest Mouse.” And I said, “‘Scuse me? I’ve never spoken to them in my life!” Then Isaac called and asked me if I wanted to join.
Spin: Join?
Marr: That’s what he said, pretty much — he was talking about me moving to Portland and getting an apartment. So I knew the guy was serious.
Spin: Did you know his music?
Marr: I had some songs on my iPod. “Dramamine.” “Float On,” of course. “Satin in a Coffin.” And I really liked him, just from talking on the phone. So I did a little research, asked some folks about him — which I don’t know if he knows about. And in spite of that…[Laughs] Ah, just kidding!

At first, Marr made no long-term commitment. But he knew that, at the very least, a short trip to improvise songs out of thin air with the members of Modest Mouse “was going to be an interesting ten days.” Things started with Marr and Brock facing off on the top floor of Brock’s house, throwing guitar riffs back and forth while Brock freestyled lyrics (“Like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Marr notes). We Were Dead‘s surreal first single, “Dashboard” (listen), came out of that initial meeting. It was an entirely different way of making music for Marr, who used to present a cassette demo of a finished song to Morrissey, and the singer would add lyrics.

The next day, the other members of Modest Mouse appeared: drummer Jeremiah Green, bassist Eric Judy, multi-instrumentalist Tom Peloso, and percussionist Joe Plummer. They began improvising, two or three players kindling a fire while the others tossed things in, hoping to stoke it.

“I remember working on ‘We’ve Got Everything,'” Marr says, now picking at a plate of scrambled tofu with shiitake mushrooms. “I was standing in the middle of this room playing, with these two drummers going on either side of me, an amazing bass line, Isaac singing these amazing words, and it occurred to me that this collection of musicians was doing something really great. But I had no idea what this music was. And then I look out the window, and there are these five homeless people who had sort of attached themselves to us — a couple of meth heads, some other types — all grooving to it. They were there for hours. They were our A&R people!”

>> Read the complete cover story in the April issue of Spin, on newsstands now. Or, subscribe today!

>> Enter to win a Modest Mouse prize pack featuring a copy of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, a pair of Onitsuka Tiger shoes, and a SONY Portable DVD Walkman!