Isaac Brock's luck seems to be changing.
For years, his group Modest Mouse were an underground phenomenon, but their mainstream profile is rising fast.
In the last few months, they've returned with a critically lauded new album, scored a plum slot on the upcoming Lollapalooza tour, made some late-night TV rounds, been paid handsomely for the use of their music by Nissan and Miller Genuine Draft, and had a song on zeitgeist-y teen drama of the moment "The O.C." Their latest single, "Float On," has even been embraced by a highly unlikely radio station: Los Angeles' KROQ-FM, whose bread and butter is usually modern-rock bands like Nickelback.
Not that the legendarily cantankerous singer/guitarist cares.
"I don't really think about it, to be honest," Brock said last week. "It's nice, but I don't know what it means. I've been doing this band for so long that it doesn't really register."
Brock isn't much on playing the media game, either, and he shuns the tacit understanding between musicians and journalists to sell oneself by revealing the inspiration behind art. "I don't talk about that," he said when asked about the meaning of the Mouse's fifth and latest album, the cynically titled Good News for People Who Love Bad News. "If there are any more questions in that vein, what songs are about or what titles are about ... I don't explain these things."
Produced by Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven) and recorded in Oxford, Mississippi, Good News will sound familiar to fans of Modest Mouse's nervy and moody brand of indie rock, but the album expands the band's dynamic with banjos, violins, accordions and Tom Waits-like horns courtesy of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. "I've always really loved that Salvation Army-band sound, and I've been playing banjo for a while now, so we just worked that in," Brock said.
Working with Herring was strenuous, he admitted, but ultimately positive. "I think there were points where I wanted to kill him; his techniques were definitely a little weird for Modest Mouse. It wasn't all good, but the end result was."
Brock has good reason to be crotchety. The last few years have been tumultuous for the group (drug and alcohol abuse) and him, including jail time stemming from a DUI-related charge in Oregon, a broken jaw in a street fight, and the exit of longtime friend and drummer Jeremiah Green.
Most significantly, he's had to cope with the recent deaths of close friends (he declined to elaborate), thus it's no surprise that he's reluctant to discuss an album whose lyrics focus on deep personal tragedies. Dark, sarcastic and bittersweet allusions to death ("Satin in a Coffin," "Dig Your Grave," "Bury Me With It") pervade the album, but while Good News deals with bleak times, it's also hopeful.
Indeed, Brock recently had the words "Life is still sweet" tattooed on his wrist as a reminder not to lose hope, and the anthemic "Float On" has a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel theme and a rousing refrain of "We'll all float on, all right!"
"I had a dark winter and I decided the best way to turn things around was to be optimistic," Brock said. "I was just sick of hearing bad news." The song's video, directed by Christopher Mills (who's helmed recent buzzworthy clips for Interpol and Broken Social Scene), is a visually arresting and absurdist collage of sheep, vultures and the bandmembers as mustachioed vaudevillians.
But of course, don't even try to ask Brock what it all means: "Rewind the tape back to the part where I say I don't explain these things."