Given the unlikely, phenomenal success of Modest Mouse's 2004 disc "Good News for People Who Love Bad News," the story line on their new album seemed sure to focus on the long-indie band's response to their sudden popularity.
Then Johnny Marr joined the band.
Music fans could hardly believe the odd pairing of legend and contemporary, British and American, subdued and raucous. But it was true: the 43-year-old former Smiths guitarist not only collaborated extensively on the band's fifth album, "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank," but was now a full-fledged member of Isaac Brock's group.
Modest Mouse, it turned out, wasn't thinking about the 1.5 million copies of "Good News" sold, or the division of its fan base between newbies and self-righteous hipsters who revere only the earlier stuff.
"I can't be bothered. I just can't," says Brock, the 31-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter. "Being successful hasn't really changed much of anything. ... We're just not looking back."
Brock formed Modest Mouse with bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green in Issaquah, Wash., in 1993. Though to some, "Good News" was the first they had heard of Modest Mouse, the band has been one of the most acclaimed alt rock bands for a decade. The group's 1997 sophomore album, "Lonesome Crowded West," and their 2000 major label debut on Epic Records, "The Moon & Antarctica," were hailed by critics as among the best of the past decade.
A hard drinker and smoker, Brock has never minced words; he speaks candidly about past drug use and has often seemed to attract trouble — including a brief stint in jail for drunken driving and a date rape allegation in 1999 that was later dropped. (Brock has always maintained his innocence.)
In a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press from his home in Portland, Ore., Brock casually mentions that he must soon have knee surgery to heal an injury that occurred seven years ago while bare-knuckle boxing in Japan.
Marr, on the other hand, is known for his clean living. Besides working with various acts including Talking Heads and Beck, he's been in four bands in the last 20 years: the Smiths, The The, Electronic and now Modest Mouse.
He's also long been known for a delicate, jingle-jangle sound, which few would expect to mesh with the herky-jerky growling of Modest Mouse. Though Brock was the primary guitarist on the band's first three albums, Dann Gallucci joined for "Good News." When Gallucci later left the band, Brock thought of the guitarists he'd most like to play with — and Marr topped the list. So he sent a message to Marr's manager.
"It was like sending a ... letter to Santa Claus," says Brock.
Marr, a Modest Mouse fan, thought it would be an interesting experiment and went to Portland to meet Brock.
"He was cautious. I was cautious. We let it all gradually happen," says Brock.
The two spent about 10 days working on songs, a collaboration that on the first night yielded an early version of the first single, "Dashboard."
"We click," Marr explains. "Being groovy and being in a pop group — it's all well and good, but it's a very, very small part of why these guys do what they do. We're all grown-ups and we're all players."
Brock drew not only on his contrast with Marr to elicit new sounds, but brought in his friend, the high-singing James Mercer of the Shins to sing backup.
On several of the new songs — "Missed the Boat," "Little Motel" and "Florida" — Marr sounds distinctly himself. But he's often seamlessly integrated into Modest Mouse's sound, which is increasingly full and textured.
"I love the music we make," says Marr. "We don't analyze or contrive anything. We just get together and whatever it sounds like is Modest Mouse as long as it inspires Isaac to write some words and sing over the top."
The new work started out as a concept album — telling a story about five fishermen who find a robot that had been turned into a savior — and while that was more or less scuttled, fragments of the theme remain in such songs as "Stem Engenius" and in nautical metaphors throughout.
"Float On" was penned as a way to rally together after Green had a breakdown and left the band for a year. The drummer has since returned, but Brock — who's now engaged — views "Good News" as the exception to his shrugging, dismal outlook.
"I wouldn't say that I'm any more or less happy," says Brock. "I have it both going on. ... To an extent with ‘Good News,' I think I was just trying to convince myself."
Brock says this album is "bipolar," which is represented in more than a few lyrics — including its last one: "We'll get crushed by the ocean but it will not get us wet."
The band will begin a 22-city North American tour on April 15 that will include gigs at coliseums and arenas. Nobody knows if Marr will remain in the band beyond this record and tour — that kind of planning would be uncharacteristic of Modest Mouse, whose trajectory is as impossible to forecast as its vacillating, unpredictable music.