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“I hope there’s still something left for you.”
Over the past quarter century, Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock has served as indie rock’s resident backwoods philosopher, pondering his infinitesimal place in the world at large and seeking balance in a universe governed by polar opposites. On Modest Mouse’s earliest records, he was surveying the changes in the world’s physical landscape from the windows of the tour van, lamenting the displacement of natural beauty with big-box blights. The Golden Casket, the band’s seventh-studio album, is exploring the degradation of America’s psychic landscape through the glass of the smartphone screen. Throughout the record, you’ll pick up on all sorts of references to cellular devices, hashtags, computers, texting, and online dating culture. But this is no typical Luddite’s manifesto decrying iPhone addiction, disinformation overload, or how social media is destroying political discourse. The album is, however, very interested in the invisible technology that’s allowed all of that to happen: the cellular signals, radio frequencies, and WiFi waves that are likely beaming through your body as you read this. “Everything is giving off a frequency,” Isaac observes. “Everything is vibrating whether you know it or not. We’re swimming in some crazy shit right now—it isn’t visible, but it’s real. I think everyone’s minds are getting a little scrambled right now. And I feel it every fucking day.”
That sensation finds its most vivid, visceral manifestation on The Golden Casket’s stunning centerpiece track, “Transmitting Receiving,” where Isaac rifles through a never-ending list of consumer products, animals, and geographic phenomena like an auctioneer being broadcast through a detuned radio, before a competing vocal track cuts through with a beaming chorus line—”nothing in this world’s going to petrify me”—that finds the serenity in cacophony. Many of these songs can likewise be seen as attempts to coax peace from paranoia. You can hear it in the moment the apocalyptic blues of “Wooden Soldiers” dissolves into a blissfully existential coda mantra (”just being here now is enough for me”) that was inspired by the ceremonial burning of hallucogenic African tree bark, or in the off-kilter yet heart-swelling lullaby “Lace Your Shoes,” a.k.a. Isaac’s inaugural entry into the dad-core canon. “When we started putting this record together, I didn’t know how to really sing about anything except my kids,” he admits. “And so I was like, ‘I should just write a fucking song about the thing that is most important to me.’ It’s a weird thing to do, because cheap sentimentality isn’t really something I’m overly comfortable with, you know?” However, in his hands, “Lace Your Shoes” is no mere lovey-dovey ode to his little ones, but a protective embrace from the cruel world they’ll inevitably inherit.
Even at its most urgent and aggressive, The Golden Casket is always looking for the light, as Isaac couches the spiteful sentiments for the playful “Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly” while steering the seething post-punk propulsion of “Japanese Tree” into a blissfully escapist chorus. “That song was written over the course of a long time,” Isaac says, “so whoever I’m lashing out at in that song has been multiple different organizations, people, and situations. That’s the way a lot of the songs are: one way, it’s like this; and then you change the perspective, it’s still the same song, but with a different winner.” (Sometimes, however, a song about your friend freaking out on acid is really just a song about your friend freaking out on acid, as the antsy album opener “Fuck Your Acid Trip” attests.)
Whether Isaac is singing about electromagnetic waves, taking his kids for a walk, or tripping balls in the forest, The Golden Casket is ultimately a plea for harmony—between nature and technology, between progress and self-preservation, between hope and healthy skepticism—in a world that has seemingly lost all sense of it. But as much as it laments our modern way of living, it keeps the tinfoil stowed away in the kitchen cabinet to highlight the silver linings of our situation. On the album’s conjoined anthems—the driving single “We Are Between” and its divine sequel ”We’re Lucky”—Isaac reaffirms his humble standing on this here 3rd planet, floating somewhere between the seas and the stars, always trying to outrun his anxieties, but eternally grateful for the gift of existence itself. “We’re very lucky to get to be here, on any trip,” he says. “Whatever this is and whatever we all are, it’s kind of beautiful that we get to do it.”
There are few things that can threaten to tear a band of brothers apart.
One is having the surname Gallagher. Another is falling foul of the age-old scourge that befell many who came before them: that concussive collision where the irresistible force of the idealistic artist meets the immovable object of the cold, unfeeling music business. And that’s exactly what happened to righteous indie godheads The Cribs, the band made up of Wakefield-born twins Ryan and Gary and their younger brother Ross Jarman, over the most difficult two years in the band’s career.
The band’s struggle was a time bomb that went off just as their Steve Albini-engineered album ’24-7 Rock Star Shit’ hit the shelves in August 2017. That record, the band’s harshest and most abrasive to date, was a ‘surprise’ release that started out as a few tracks recorded at Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago and eventually grew to a full-length album. It was a gear-change for the band, who decided to release it directly to the fans, with very little advance notice. “We chose that approach so that there would be no pressure on it, because we knew that it wasn’t really a commercial record,” says Ryan.
But beyond the method of release – no press, no radio, no big build-up – the real surprise was how it was lapped up by fans new and old. 24-7 Rock Star Shit placed at Number One in the midweek charts, and landed at Number Eight – the band’s highest chart placing in a run of seven consistently excellent LP’s beginning with their 2004 debut – and their fourth consecutive UK Top 10 album.
However, in what should have been a week of celebration at this against-the-odds success, tension in the Cribs camp was about to reach a head. The decidedly DIY smash-and-grab approach of the album’s launch had exacerbated frictions that ultimately proved irreconcilable and, smack in the middle of release week, the band parted ways with their longtime UK management, who had guided their career since the band’s earliest days. “It blindsided us, and it really took the wind out of our sails,” says Gary. “And now, looking back, that was the start of a whole load of shit.”
Picking up management duties themselves, the band began the painful process of unpicking their accounts and past contracts, discovering that “nothing was really as it seemed – we didn’t even know who owned the rights to the songs”.
“It’s a classic story, like, you read any old school music biography and it’s always, ‘Oh, we didn’t realise that this was going on, we didn’t realise our rights had been sold to somebody else,’” says Ryan. “And, you know, you don’t think that could still happen now, because it’s so cliched. But essentially, that was exactly what happened to us.”
Finding themselves stuck in what Gary describes as a “legal morass”, The Cribs were unable to record or release new music, so touring wasn’t an option either. That meant 18 months of fallow – heartbreaking stuff for a band who’ve known nothing else in their adult lives. “At one point we were actually so disillusioned with what had happened, we didn’t even know if we wanted to get back into the band any more,” says Ryan. “It was like an existential crisis. When you’re brothers in a band, you never really know how it’s gonna end because your relationship never ends. You’re so strong and you’re so tight that you just figure you’ll do it forever.”
Gary says they were caught between a rock and a hard place – fight, possibly lose and endure the attendant stress and terrific cost, or split up and tell their famously dedicated fans that the group they believe in, has lost its will to fight the good fight. “The problem we were facing was, how do we go to the people who’ve been fans of ours, believing in us for that long, and tell them the reason for the breakup is an extract straight out of the big book of rock cliches? That was way too depressing.”
Yep, that’s right: 24-7 Music Industry Bullshit.
You can tell by the fact that you’re reading this that this story has a happy ending.
The band are back and on blistering form, brandishing a brand new album, ‘Night Network’, that is as fresh, cathartic and vital as anything they’ve ever put out. There’s no weariness, no bitterness, just a clear desire to get back to doing what they do best – that unique blend of bittersweet melody, brutal lyrical honesty and riffs for days.
The turning point came at the 11th hour, in the late summer of 2018. The Cribs had been invited to support Foo Fighters at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium, in what could very well have been the band’s last hurrah. “We had reached a point where we were being quite philosophical about everything, talking about how we had done pretty much everything that we wanted to do as a band, but a stadium show was the one thing that had always eluded us,” says Ryan. “So it seemed weird and serendipitous that we got that offer around that time, in a city that has adopted us as their own, no less. We thought – maybe we do that, we tick that box off… that’s a good moment to bow out.”
Enter the brothers’ knight in shining armour, Sir Rock-Don’t-Stop himself, Dave Grohl.
Back in the Jarmans’ teenage days, they would watch Nirvana live videos “pretty much every night” for the sheer escapism of it, says Ryan. Grohl – ex-Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman – again proved to be a source of strength for the group at the Manchester show. Hanging out backstage, chatting over a few post-show drinks, The Cribs confided their recent struggles to their new friends. “The Foos are such positive people, such a positive force in music, that talking to them had a big effect on us,” says Ryan. “Dave was just like, ‘Forget about all that business stuff, come out to LA and make a record at our studio’ – Dave made that offer to us.”
You don’t get a reputation for being the nicest guy in the business for nothing.
“We really appreciated the offer and were humbled by Dave’s generosity, but it still seemed like a bit of an abstraction at the time” says Ryan.
“The more we discussed it between ourselves, the more we realised we’d be crazy not to take him up on his offer. It became a thing to look forward to, a beacon of hope on the horizon” adds Gary.
The three brothers are now scattered over nearly 5,000 miles, with Gary in Portland, Oregon, Ryan in Queens, New York and Ross in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. When they gathered in the UK for a family Christmas in December 2018, they began working on songs in Ross’s garage, and found the creative juices flowing. Further UK trips were required for various legal dealings, and the brothers used the opportunity to meet up and thrash out new music, just like they always used to.
The songs came together fast, and when they finally contacted the Foo Fighters and said they’d be keen to take them up on the offer, they were offered a window of studio time in April 2019 – a fixed date to work towards, and the impetus for a final push to sort out the miasma of business mess.
When they got out to LA, the studio – Studio 606, as it’s known – was exactly how they’d imagined: a batcave of Nirvana and Foos memorabilia, storied studio kit and one-of-a-kind instruments. With its arcade machines and bars, it’s also a hang-out for members of the band, who were rehearsing next door.
“It was so nice of those guys to invite us into their own private space, cos it’s basically their personal little playground and they just let us let do whatever we wanted there,” says Ross. “We hit it off pretty quickly – they love Queen as much as we do! Taylor [Hawkins, Foos drummer] even owns one of Roger Taylor’s snares, which we got to use on the record. In fact, the only problem we had was when Taylor would come in because we’d spend the next three hours talking about Queen.”
Dave, too, was on hand for the odd pep-talk.
“He was telling us how [the Foos] run everything themselves,” says Ryan. “He said, ‘You’ve been around long enough, you know what you’re doing and nobody can deal with your stuff better than what you can.’ So, essentially it was all a blessing in disguise. And you know, when that kind of comment comes from one of your formative influences, it really resonates. He’s been around a long time and he’s seen everything and he’s come through a lot of tough stuff. He knows what he’s talking about.”
This autonomy extended to the recording process itself – this is the first album to be entirely self-produced by the band. Engineered by James Brown (Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys) and mixed by frequent Cribs collaborator John O’Mahony (who also worked on ‘Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever’ and ‘For All My Sisters’) the record took shape over two weeks in LA, plus an extra week of overdubs at Halfling Studios in Portland. Mercifully, it is not a poor-me album about the ills of the industry. No, they deal with that on the first track, a slice of surf-ready sunshine pop with gorgeous harmonies called ‘Goodbye’. “That was our way of saying ‘goodbye’ to that period of our lives. Let’s move on,” says Ross.
After that, no indulgence is made to the band’s struggle. Instead, it’s wall-to-wall Cribs bangers, the fruit of that special, symbiotic relationship between the songwriting, singing brothers, drawing on the boiled-down influences they felt had always been there: The Motown stomp of ‘Never Thought I’d Feel Again’ and ‘Under The Bus Station Clock’, red and blue album-era Beatles (‘Running Into You’ and ‘In The Neon Night’, respectively), melodic 70’s style pop on ‘Deep Infatuation’, and even early work by their own band.
One track, ‘Screaming In Suburbia’, is based around a riff found on a MiniDisc of spare material from the ‘Men’s Needs…’ album era. “It was a song we always really liked but somehow forgot about,” says Ryan. “It does have that classic Cribs sound, so I think people will probably connect with that.”
“That line and that title – Screaming In Suburbia – came from something Ryan said a couple of years ago, that the sound of our early records is the sound of kids screaming into a pillow somewhere in suburbia,” says Gary.
And they return with a familiar friend, too – Lee Ranaldo, ex-of Sonic Youth, and the man whose spoken word verses on 2007 track ‘Be Safe’ helped create what might well be a song in a genre entirely of its own, one whose chorus has been bellowed out at Cribs gigs ever since and whose words are inked on the flesh of an army of fans.
Here, Ranaldo plays guitar on ‘I Don’t Know Who I Am’ – and Be Safe Part II (Be Safer?) it ain’t. The song started out as a jam in Ross’s garage which the brothers later tracked at 606, before Ranaldo layered sheets of white-noise guitar over the recording at Sonic Youth’s Hoboken studio, and a few backing vocals for good measure. “Reuniting with Lee again was kinda the icing on the cake. I think Be Safe is one of our best songs, so we wanted to stretch ourselves again with I Don’t Know Who I Am. I’m really proud at how it turned out” says Gary.
In a typically downplayed way, the band have honed in on what’s so special about The Cribs: really bloody good songs. Fans might well think this is their best album in a decade. It marks the first release of the bands new deal under the umbrella of [PIAS], the home of independent music. So, once again all is right in Cribs world – or as much as all is right in any world in 2020 at least.
The Cribs are romantics and they’re realists, and the balance, for a hot minute, nearly tipped in the favour of the latter. But now they return empowered, beholden to no one, on the greatest form and still screaming in suburbia.