Music: Personnel Triumph

With the addition of a guitar legend, Modest Mouse reaches new heights

Wendy Lynch

Isaac Brock (right) likes what he hears from the latest lineup of Modest Mouse

Isaac Brock, the leader of Modest Mouse, was famously quoted as saying that during the recording of the band's 2004 album, Good News For People Who Like Bad News, he wanted to kill producer Dennis Herring.

Or, as Brock put it more specifically in an interview, he was tempted to "beat him to death with my guitar."

The recording sessions with Herring were the final rocky step in what had been another tumultuous episode in the history of Modest Mouse. The core members of the band — Brock, bassist Eric Judy, drummer Jeremiah Green and guitarist Dann Gallucci — went to work in a Portland studio in 2003 without any ready-to-record material. The group struggled to create songs and tensions began to take a major toll.

The sessions came crashing down after four months and two completed songs, when Green had what was called a meltdown and quit the band. This left the other members of Modest Mouse angry and bitter and the future of the group up in the air.

But after a period of uncertainty, the band decided to push forward on the album. Benjamin Weikel (from the group Helio Sequence) was brought in to play drums. And after a six-week writing session, the band convened at Herring's Sweet Tea studio in Oxford, Miss., to record Good News.

It was a tense month-long session, as the band sparred with Herring over his working methods and ideas for the album. And while Brock made peace with Herring — even saying he came to like him — it was somewhat shocking to learn that Herring was set to produce the latest Modest Mouse album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank.

So did the second visit to Sweet Tea studio result in peace, love and understanding? Hardly.

"Same deal, you know," says Eric Judy. "I mean, whatever, nothing against Dennis, but I think he imagines that part of producing a record is trying to get under people's skin to get whatever, better basic tracks or studio takes. I personally probably don't believe in any of that, but it was fine. There were no serious issues."

Heading into the recording of We Were Dead, life in Modest Mouse had been far more peaceful than during the Good News period. Good News was a commercial breakthrough for the band, which formed in 1994 in Issaquah, Wash. (near Seattle). Before the CD ended its run, it had sold 1.5 million copies and the band had received two Grammy nominations.

Part of the way through the touring cycle for Good News, Green rejoined the band after a stint at a mental hospital.

"He had his whole personal breakdown and all that, and I think he just kind of realized that, 'Wow, I really do like playing in Modest Mouse,' " Judy says. "We were all glad that he sorted out his personal stuff and was good to come back and play."

The band also expanded its lineup during the tour, adding keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Tom Peloso and second drummer Joe Plummer, who quickly became integral parts of the band.

Brock, who had been known to be a bit volatile as a person and prone to on-stage drunkenness, also seemed to have reached a new level of contentment. He got engaged, cut back on drinking and moved to Portland, where he had bought a house.

The only real hiccup in band life came after the tour when Gallucci quit the band.

"I just don't think he wanted to commit that much (time) to, not just making a record, but doing all the touring and everything and being gone so much," Judy says, noting Gallucci had recently married.

What happened next has become the major story line with the We Were Dead CD. Thinking about how Gallucci's guitar style had always been influenced by The Smiths, Brock contacted former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr about participating in the album.

An initial writing session with Marr went well and by the time the CD was finished, the legendary guitarist was a full-fledged Modest Mouser.

"It seemed like a really weird and surreal thing to me, but I was totally open to trying it," Judy says, recalling his reaction to the idea of inviting Marr to the writing sessions. "I mean, no bad could have come out of trying. Lucky for us all, he just seemed to fill the hole that was there in our not having a second guitar player."

Even the decision to have Herring produce the CD did nothing to derail the positive vibe within the band.

"We spent so much time working on this record before we went into the studio, I think we were just pretty confident in feeling sort of done," Judy says. "We were just, like, 'We already wrote this record. Let's just go somewhere we already know and just record the songs.' "

Fans seem to like the sound of We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. The CD debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's album chart in March of last year and it produced the Top 5 Modern Rock single, "Dashboard."

Judy is excited to tour and he says that in addition to performing the new album material, band members have revisited older songs to see how they could change when played by the new six-man lineup.

"I can just tell that we're all playing together really well and we're having fun when we play," Judy says. ©

MODEST MOUSE plays Bogart's on Wednesday. The show is sold out. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.