Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead at 15: Isaac Brock, Johnny Marr on Collaborative ‘Brotherhood’ — and Future

“If shit gets funner than that, I don’t know how that is,” Brock says of band’s Good News follow-up, teasing new songs with former bandmate
Photo by Wendy Redfern/Redferns

For Johnny Marr, one moment crystalizes his brief tenure with Modest Mouse. It was 2006, and the British guitarist, long revered for co-founding the Smiths, now found himself in a situation unsuited for rock royalty: sweating in the hot, crowded Portland attic of Mouse leader Isaac Brock.

“There was literally a time [while playing ‘Invisible’], and I thought it was symbolic, where we bumped into each other,” Marr tells SPIN over Zoom, recalling his early rehearsals with the indie-rock band. “And I thought, ‘This is fucking cool.’ It’s two in the morning, and we’re both going for it, and we nearly knocked each other off the track. It was symbolic. When I started making records, particularly with the Smiths, I was able to put guitars together and make them fit. But this was a different thing — we almost started morphing into each other.”

Marr had already been a fan for several years, with the group’s densely layered 2000 classic, The Moon & Antarctica, reinvigorating his love for modern guitar music. So when Brock rang him up — shortly after the amicable exit of guitarist Dann Gallucci — with an invitation to casually write some songs, it was a no-brainer decision.

I was like, ‘What’s the worst that can happen here? I have a very interesting 10 days, and I know more about myself. I’ll be a more interesting musician,'” Marr recalls, speaking from his home studio in Manchester, surrounded by computer monitors and microphones. “But those 10 days were so much fun and creative that I called up my office and said, ‘Change the plane ticket. I’m going to stay out there.’ And then I was just doing that all the time.”

There was, of course, a lot at stake. The next Modest Mouse album, eventually titled We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, would follow their platinum-selling 2004 breakout, Good News for People Who Love Bad News. But Marr, Brock and the rest of the group (drummer Jeremiah Green, bassist Eric Judy, multi-instrumentalist Tom Peloso and percussionist Joe Plummer) were too busy with their sweaty attic jams to ponder the pressure.

“You come off a record like Good News, and an expectation has been set by a whole bunch of people,” Brock says from Hawaii, hanging out in a comparatively empty room. (The only visual aside from the frontman is a brief cameo from his young daughter, whom Brock grants 30 minutes of TV time.)

We had a whole bunch of records before that, but the expectation was different,” he continues. “It was my goal to exceed expectations and not go anywhere fucking near that last record. I can’t speak for Johnny, but the idea of Johnny Marr being in the band brought a whole new audience of expectations. We just knew that we had to be trying to do something different — to deliver something different from the people who wanted to hear another fucking ‘Float On’ and the Smiths influence. But [those people] fucking lose, and we win with something new. I don’t think We Were Dead was referential to any of that, and that’s a fucking win.”

Of course, Marr’s 10-day stint eventually led to a full-blown membership, spawning a pile of Mouse classics (“Dashboard,” “We’ve Got Everything,” “Florida,” “Little Motel,” “Invisible”) largely anchored by his symbiotic interplay with Brock. That momentum carried through their subsequent tour, after which point scheduling clashes and distance intervened. Marr, itching to keep working, joined British indie rock band the Cribs, with Modest Mouse recruiting Grandaddy’s Jim Fairchild.

But Marr and Brock have remained friends, often expressing in interviews that they’d love to reunite. And it’s clear their spark hasn’t fizzled: Over the course of this interview, Marr’s expert quips keep Brock howling with laughter, and they often finish each other’s sentences.

Oh, plus, as detailed below, they’ve officially started collaborating on new material.

SPIN spoke with Marr and Brock, followed by a quick phone call with Green, for this sprawling conversation. (The format and text has been edited and reshaped for clarity.)

 

SPIN: Johnny, I’ve read that you initially got into Modest Mouse through some conversations with Elliott Smith.

Johnny Marr: The first time I met Elliott Smith was in Los Angeles. I was on tour and had a couple nights off, and a couple friends put this together. We were out on the town, and like a lot of musicians, you get to talking about music. I was particularly bored of British guitar music at that time. I think it’s fair to say that almost everybody was doing bad versions of OK Computer. Elliott just gave me a list, “Have you heard [this]? Have you heard [that]?” All the bands he mentioned I really took to heart. I remember the Lillies I really liked.

When Isaac and I first met, I had questions about all these bands, and a lot of them turned out to be Isaac’s friends. I was very enthusiastic about all this music. It won’t be the first time I embarrass Issac, but it was like all roads led to Modest Mouse. The Moon & Antarctica was the record I really loved. I got Lonesome Crowded West and really absorbed that, but I really loved Moon & Antarctica.

Wasn’t part of your attraction to Modest Mouse being unable to trace their influences?

Marr: I think another part of being a music freak or expert or obsessive is we all play that game where we hear influences. I always like bands when I just don’t know — I can’t be so clever about it and analyze it. I just like it. That’s what I got from Lonesome Crowded West. I just had a feeling about it. I was drawn into a world really because of the words. That put me into a place. But I couldn’t really put all the influences together. It wasn’t until Isaac and I became friends and talked about music that I said, “Oh, I could see that.” When Isaac called to invite me to work with the band, I was a fan of the band, but I was like, “This is gonna be interesting because I don’t know how this band works. I can’t put all these pieces together.”

Isaac Brock: I don’t think we did at that point either. There were a lot of heads in the room.

Isaac, so all this really dated back to when Dann [Gallucci] quit the band and you needed a new guitarist. Did you have other people in mind, or did you pretty quickly stumble into this long shot idea of recruiting Johnny?

Brock: [Laughs.] Here’s how it went down. I was on my back porch — I’d just talked to Dann, and he was like, “Out.” I was like, “Well, I should figure out what I’m doing.” Then my brain’s like, “Why fuck around? See if Johnny Marr’s available.” I didn’t come up with a list. “Let’s just fucking see if this can happen. What’s the least likely thing, the thing you want most to happen, and then work backwards from that?” I called him up just to touch base, and we had a conversation we could still have today: “How did you quit smoking, Johnny?”

Jeremiah Green: Dann quit the band during the middle of our touring for Good News, so we were like, “Fuck, we’ve gotta get a new guitarist.” We got Jim Fairchild to play in the meantime, but we told him that Johnny might say yes to being in our band. And Johnny said yes. We’d already played some shows with Jim, but we had to say, “Sorry, I guess Johnny Marr is gonna be our guitarist. We didn’t think he’d say yes, but he did.” We met up with Johnny pretty quick for 10 days and wrote and hung out.

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

Isaac, were you nervous making that initial phone call?

Brock: I don’t have those kinds of nerves. Nerves show up when you already have a relationship with someone and it isn’t working out. Going into things, it’s “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I didn’t have nerves. After the first time of talking to Johnny… I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he’s a lot of fucking fun to talk to. Even to this day, I feel bubbly around this man.

Marr: There are a lot of people who have asked me to work with them, and you just don’t feel it. You get asked to do stuff, and you just don’t have a connection with that person. Our first phone call was very open. We got to the fourth or fifth stage of conversation in that first call. It’s like we are now. That’s how you know. There was no cat and mouse going on.

You know when the chemistry is right. You get this kind of brotherhood. It really was like that those first couple weeks. As much fun as it is — Modest Mouse had had a lot of success then, and we were all living pretty privileged lives — but it was a 14-hour day every day. You’re rolling your sleeves up. Whether you want to admit it or not, you know there’s a lot at stake. Modest Mouse were following up years of being on the road, and Good News was a very big record. You can be indie cool, like, “I don’t give a fuck,” but your brain has all these escape valves and things that need to be engaged.

What I’m saying is: Without sitting there saying, “This is serious,” you’re adults and you know this is serious. When something is happening, you put your blinkers on and everything else goes aside. In my case, I live 3,000 miles away — so what? This is happening. Not in a career-y way. No one has a crystal ball. We didn’t know it was going to blow up. It was just, “This is happening.” It’s the same judgment you use when you’re 14 or 15 and decide to drop out of school. It was a very special feeling for me, coming all that way.

Jeremiah, how did you feel about Johnny joining the band?

Green: I was like, “That dude’s rad!” I thought, “I doubt he’s gonna be in our band, but go ahead [and ask].” I thought he might produce us or something like that — I don’t think that’s a terrible idea still. I know Johnny would be able to produce a good Modest Mouse record. But he showed up, and it was like we all knew each other forever. We all became friends pretty quickly.

 

Good News and “Float On” were part of this breakthrough moment for indie rock in a lot of ways. Now you have a rock legend Johnny Marr in the band, so there’s another layer of expectation.

Marr: That’s one of the good things about the band. When I joined, we didn’t discuss what we were doing. We didn’t say, “Let’s be this” or “let’s be that.” About four or five days into us playing together — which was very intensive — I remember standing in the middle of the room when, eventually, all of the band had assembled. Isaac had arranged it so that a couple people would just appear with a hat on and a banjo. I was just like, “Is this person in the band?” [Brock laughs.] They’d sit next to me and start playing, and I’d say, “Oh, OK, I guess this person is in the group!”

About four or five days into it, we had these pieces of music. I was playing, and I still couldn’t place all the influences. And that felt really good because it feels like when you first played in a band as a kid. You’re not clever enough or good enough to play like your influences — you just do what you do. There’s a moment I remember very well. It was a song me and Isaac had started called “We’ve Got Everything.” We were all just jamming and joining in, and I was like, “What the fuck is this? It feels really good.”

That’s one of the definitive Modest Mouse songs from that era: lots of percussion, these tangled guitars, James Mercer’s hooky backing vocals. How did that song develop?

Brock: Johnny I think started with the riff on that one. That was one of the first things we started without anyone else being around. It was still at the point of “Is this gonna even work?” Was “We Got Everything” the first thing we wrote together?

Marr: “Dashboard” was the first, and then “We’ve Got Everything.” We did those two on the first night.

Brock: That was a really, really good introduction to “Yeah, this is gonna fucking work.” In the back of your mind, you’re like, “Are we gonna awkwardly look at our fingers for the next few days?” We got to skip that step.

Marr: Isaac and I got together on the first night, and we started playing. People might think that’s a usual scenario for me, but it’s not really. Isaac’s right. We were like, “This might work, and it might not.” With volume and enthusiasm and possible panic, we both jumped off a cliff. That’s what it was like on that first night. I was completely spaced out from jet lag, and it helped with Isaac putting those flying goggles on. I always enjoy a costume, you know that.

Brock: Oh! I don’t remember this, but it was apparently helpful to me.

Marr: One thing about the sound of those two songs: We both love the sound of exciting guitars. We really love that as individuals. And what started on that first night was we were kinda egging each other on. I use the metaphor — without getting too grand about it — that we were like two racing car drivers on the same team.

 

Brock: We had a pretty natural thing: racing forward, kinda acrobatic in a way. It was really natural, the way you and I play together. It just worked. When you’re doing your thing, without even having to think about it, I just stay the fuck out of the way, and vice versa.

Marr: We would back each other up. The first week or 10 days was a really creative, super productive time. We got into this very intensive and long period of writing in Isaac’s loft space at very high volume. It was late at night, sometimes we were playing at two in the morning, and it was hot as fuck in there. There were six or seven guys in there, no air conditioning, loads of equipment.

By the time we were going to Mississippi, we had 19 songs that were pretty complex. They weren’t complete, but they were pretty complex. When the producer [Dennis Herring] showed up, we were like, “Tada!” We needed his input — and there was still a lot of work to do and a lot of words to change — but we did so much woodshedding in that loft. Anyone looking at it would say it was six funny dudes drinking and smoking.

Brock: Johnny was talking about everyone just appearing — basically as they showed up to town or got back from the coffee shop. I don’t think anyone in the band owned a fucking watch because no one was there within the same day. Johnny, do you remember at one point someone just coming into the house — and I don’t think you knew who was in the band entirely yet — and he was just hiding behind an amp, listening? He just walked through the front door, came all the way up.

Marr: I think he was living in the park next to Isaac’s house. I was like, “Should we be worried about this?” Isaac was like, “No, it’s fine. Keep playing.”

Brock: It was probably one of the funnest periods of my life, to be honest.

Marr: I always say that about mine, yeah.

Brock: If shit gets funner than that, I don’t know how that is.

So the dynamic was strong throughout the whole band?

Marr: I remember a moment when we hit on a song, “March Into the Sea,” and we had a sound by then. That was about the 12th or 14th song we wrote. We already knew we had a pretty good record, with seven bangers or whatever. It was like little fires going off in the room between two people. Eric might have this idea he’d be playing on a flute, and Jeremiah would be banging some instrument. I had this little Radio Shack recorder, and I was recording everything. I was like, “This is part of my job: organizing it and saying, ‘This is what you did yesterday.'” There were all these bits of jams I knew we’d forget. I have all these cassettes somewhere.

I remember when we hit on [“March Into the Sea”]. Isaac was at the pump organ, and it was early in the day. [Sings riff.] He was so excited, really fucking into this thing, so I jumped on it. When we got that tune, it was like, “This is what this record is about.” We didn’t know it was going to be sequenced first. But with that and “King Rat,” I was like, “That’s what this band is at the moment, lyrically, melodically.” There are bits of accordion, squeeze box, and I play this kind of bluesy, gnarly thing. We discovered it by following Isaac’s enthusiasm, getting behind him and going, “He’s got a vision.” We didn’t say, “Let’s not be Good News. Let’s not be ‘How Soon Is Now?’ Let’s not be ‘Float On.'” We’re not those kinds of people.

 

Where did that loose nautical theme come from? It’s not a concept album, but that imagery appears throughout.

Brock: If your mind’s circling the same drain, people’s brains tend to get into a setting. Periods of your life. I just kept coming up with nautical scenery and shit. And there was a certain point where I was like, “I’m just gonna roll with this,” which is all well and fine. But then it wasn’t necessarily fitting the narrative that I wanted, so I kinda just let that side of it be what it was. I just let go and wrote the shit I wanted to write about. It just ended up being the backdrop.

Another big shift on this album is that you had Jeremiah back in the lineup — and now, with Joe Plummer on percussion and occasionally a second drum kit.

Isaac: It was a gradual thing. There were a couple songs live that it really was helpful to have [extra percussion]. And then you give him a few more things, and then you feel bad asking him to leave the stage. There were things about the two-drummer thing that were pretty great. For one, volume and energy. But after quite a few years of doing that, I realized it was too cacophonous. Now we have this guy Benny [Massarella] who plays percussion. He’s a true percussionist. He’s not sitting there with a second kick drum. I don’t care how good your timing is — [it’s impossible] for two human drummers to not be flamming that thing a little bit. It was fun, but it was also insurance — if for some reason Jeremiah had to drop out, he had an understudy.

Green: I’d been back in the band awhile at that point. I wasn’t even out of the band for a year. I missed the recording of Good News because I went crazy. I did all the practicing and stuff and writing and touring, and then Dann quit our band. Shit hit the fan with me and the producers, and the whole thing got kinda trashed and they restarted it.

We were supposed to have a percussionist and a drummer, but he continued to get more drums and ended up playing a full drum set. He was supposed to do what Benny does now: play percussionist and electronic things, cover all the weird shit on the album. We were all kinda paying attention to our own little world.

Marr: One of the advantages of me coming in as an outsider — and I don’t want to make this sound too poetic or like a love story — but when I was talking about the chemistry between people, it wasn’t just musical chemistry. What they brought to the party musically they also brought to the party in temperament. In terms of the drummer thing, Isaac is absolutely right. Quite often “cacophony” was the word. But you had two very different kinds of people. Joe Plummer, who was playing second drums — no one plays like Jeremiah anyway. But Joe was really smart, almost like the way me and Isaac approached the guitars. He was like, “OK, what can I do here that’s going to compliment it and get out of the way?” That goes for the other band members in terms of personality as well. They were OK with being supportive.

I can’t imagine “We’ve Got Everything,” for example, without the extra percussion.

Marr: That’s because it flipped in a way. Predominantly Joe is holding it down, and Jeremiah is showing a different side and doing the more percussive stuff. And I used to watch those guys, and there’s no egos going on at all. If it was, it wasn’t evident. Everyone was pushing in the same direction.

Green: That’s a song where I was late one day. I had a four-hour drive to practice. I showed up and just played Joe’s percussion kit when they made the song, and I just did the same thing when they recorded it.

Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images

You guys recorded the album in Mississippi. Did the intimacy of those rehearsals spill into the sessions?

Marr: The day before we went to Mississippi, we were booked to go there for about six or eight weeks. I got a call from Isaac: “Hey, come up, we’re loading the gear up later.” I was like, “OK, what do you want me to do about it?” I got over to Isaac’s, and there was an enormous U-Haul truck outside. It dawned on me, what was going on here. We, the band, were going to load the gear down from Isaac’s. At that moment, no one really answered this question: “Do American bands not have roadies?”

Brock: [Laughs.] They’re just cheap!

Marr: Fucking hell, man! Hey, listen, Talking Heads were the same. We loaded in, and I thought, “OK, when I’m in, I’m in.” I remember that night, Friday night, we loaded in pump organ, stand-up basses, banjos. I had like 11 guitars, so Isaac had 12. [Laughs.] Five amps, so Isaac had six. Synthesizers, 200 pedals, everything was going in there. It was like Noah’s ark. I’ll never forget it. It was magic. I was climbing over this stuff, someone passing me a banjo or a pedal-steel, and I’m like, “I’ve been a rock star since I was 19. What am I doing?” Then Isaac drove it from Portland to Mississippi!

Brock: Oh, fuck, I forgot about that!

Marr: I’ve never been in a band where anyone’s done that, let alone the singer. And this is for a band that had a [sarcastic voice] No. 1 album. That’s just the way the band was. It was just us with his vision, as it should be, and real life recedes into the distance because we’re on this mission. I’ve said this before, but I remember [recording] in the room in Mississippi, and some mundane stuff was going on — someone was fixing a microphone or whatever. I remember thinking, “The chemistry between these people is really fucking good. I’m taking a picture of this now.” Not as a famous guy — as someone who left school to do it at 15 and all that. It was magic.

Brock: The lodging in Mississippi where everyone stayed, wasn’t it a barn? This couple of men turned these stables into an Airbnb. I think they sold it.

Marr: They were stables, but they were really palatial. Everything in there was from some French regency hotel.

Brock: It was like a baroque barn. It was all very ornate and fancy.

 

One of the best songs you recorded there was “Little Motel.” It’s an emotional high point of that album, and your guitar interplay is essential to it.

Brock: My girlfriend and I at the time had had a pretty good pissing match the night before, and I was licking my wounds, so I came up with that. It was just a real basic chord thing going on, and honestly, Johnny, you kind of saved that song because it would have been a little on the boring side. The twinkly, single-string stuff is what it needed. That song came out of actual, genuinely fresh bad feelings. I didn’t get around to overcooking that, which didn’t actually happen on a lot of this stuff. But that one, it was like, “Boom.”

Marr: I remember hearing that and thinking, “This is one of those songs any band would want. Where has this been hiding?” It was great for me because Isaac was like, “Do your thing.” I wasn’t overthinking it. Sometimes with that twinkly arpeggio stuff, I’ll try to do something less obvious and more clever, but — I’m gonna say it — it required something from the heart. It’s one of the real privileges as a musician. You can be funny and clever, but when you play something in a big room and everybody’s feeling the same thing — when we used to play that song live… whew — it belonged to everybody. Everybody in the place was in the same space. No matter where your head’s at, you just kinda go, “Wow, fuck.”

Brock: The folks who made the video for that — whatever idea I had lyrically for that, they took it to extra sad. It’s probably the saddest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. I love it. You shouldn’t get weepy over your own shit.

By contrast, “Invisible” ends the album with an almost violent intensity.

Brock: That thing is pure fucking energy, man. I still have to take a couple extra breaths before we start if we play it live. It’s all-in, all the way, the whole time.

Marr: I mean this in the best possible way, but with that song and “Florida,” Isaac and I started to play like each other, and I like that. I’ve not been in a band with anyone before or since where I started to take on someone’s [characteristics]. We were in this twin guitar thing together. It’s to do with the energy really. There are some bits on that song where I’m like, “Which one is doing that?”

 

Brock: True story: I recently tried to figure out how to play it again, and I had to go into the multi-track. I couldn’t fucking get my head wrapped around it. I was claiming to whoever was with me, “No, that’s my part.” Turns out I was taking credit for someone else’s part. I was pretty proud of my part that Johnny wrote and played.

Marr: The only time I thought, “OK, I have to come up with a hook on this” was “Missed the Boat” because Eric had this really cool guitar part. Really Isaac and Eric devised that song, but that was great. I had to find some way with technology and this two-finger tapping thing. That’s another great thing about the band: There’s modern technology in there. It’s not retro. If you were to look in the truck and see an accordion and pipe organ and stand-up bass and three banjos…

Brock: You’d expect us to come up with pipe hats and shit, some kind of clockwork monocle.

We mentioned James before, but I can’t imagine those songs without him.

Brock: Any time I’m tracking vocals and I need someone to track backing vocals who’s really going to make it special, the first person I call is James, “Are you around?” He’s a very special singer, and it really brings things home. If I’m doing a belted growl or something, and I need that shit to be prettier: James Mercer. It’s fascinating to watch him track, too. He does all this weird stuff with his hands [waves hand off to the side]. He explained it to me, but I’m not a good listener. Whatever information he graced me with, it’s still with him. That motherfucker can belt, dude. He can get loud and stay pretty. That’s the trick.

Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images

You already had so much new material to bring on tour, and then there’s the back catalog to learn. Johnny, was that daunting?

Marr: We had this big repertoire, and we felt like we could play whatever the fuck we wanted. I remember the first time I played “Dance Hall” was when we were walking onstage at this big-ass festival, and Isaac said to me, “Do you know ‘Dance Hall?'” I went “Uhhh” and we just played it. I think it was the first song of the set. I went, “No! I don’t! 1, 2, 3, 4.” [Brock laughs.] I had to make sure I was on my game. I used to loiter around the set list and listen. Eric was a bit of a fucker for it as well. Someone would say something like “Bury Me With It,” and I’d say, “I’ve never played that song. Just give me a minute.” We had this repertoire of songs we could throw in. We were supposed to be presenting a big, major record, but it still felt that we weren’t conventional — that Modest Mouse wasn’t conventional. I feel very privileged to be part of that non-convention, aiding and abetting as best I can.

Some of these songs came out on the 2008 EP No One’s First, and You’re Next. Did anything wind up on the cutting room floor?

Brock: We had this engineer, Clay Jones, who was also tracking while we were practicing. He was kind of posted up at the rig, recording live demos. There are a number of songs that we just either didn’t finish or didn’t track. I just looked at it a couple months ago and was poking through and finding stuff. I doubt we’ll be bothered to go back and resurrect them. It’s more fun to move forward and build new stuff. But there was a lot of work put into some songs. Do you remember that song “Tie the Lake Down?”

Marr: Yeah! We all loved that song! It shows you what kind of good shape we were in.

Brock: For some reason, I could just never get the lyrics to a place I liked. It’s a great fucking song, and…I don’t know. I hit a block, and I just never got past it.

Obviously this lineup sort of gradually, naturally dissolved over time. Johnny got involved with the Cribs, and you guys brought back Jim on guitar. Jeremiah, how did you feel when it was clear Johnny wasn’t going to be in the band anymore?

Green: It was weird when Johnny left the band because it wasn’t like we didn’t get along. We all had a break from tour and were gonna get back together and make music, but Eric, Isaac and I wanted to take a break and hang out for like six months. But it was kinda unspoken. Johnny joined another band, and then we booked a tour without him. I don’t even know, dude. Some tour got booked, like, “Hey, we’re going on tour!” And he was like, “I’m going on tour with the Cribs.” We had to play shows, so we got Jim, and Johnny ended up being in the Cribs. It just naturally sort of happened. He lives in England too.

Well, here’s the inevitable question: You guys clearly had a unique chemistry. Why not play together again?

Brock: “We’ve already started working on some stuff together. We just finished a song, “Rivers of Rivers” — actually I think it’s just ‘Rivers of…’ — but it’s in a pen-pal sort of way. International travel isn’t what it once was at the moment.

Marr: I played on that new Modest Mouse song, and there are a couple of other things knocking around that Isaac’s writing. As Isaac said, air travel isn’t quite what it was. But hopefully when the world tilts back on its axis, I’ll be jumping on a plane, I think.

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