10 Years Ago: Johnny Marr Joins Modest Mouse for ‘We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank’
Modest Mouse needed a new guitar player. Isaac Brock had a crazy idea.
They were coming off their biggest (and somewhat unexpected) success – 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, along with its prickly hit “Float On.” Dann Gallucci had created the single’s signature riff while being inspired by the Smiths. When Gallucci left Modest Mouse, frontman Brock decided to aim for the real article, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
“I knew it was a demented notion,” Brock told The Guardian about attempting to work with Marr. “But I just figured that just because he’d filled a massive part of his life building the Smiths’ legacy didn’t mean he was busy at that precise minute.”
It turned out that not only was Marr in between projects, he had recently been working on a new “fat, clean” guitar sound that he was looking to implement in the right way. When contacted by Brock, the guitarist met the invitation with cautious interest. Although he liked Modest Mouse, he didn’t have a handle on where the band had come from, in a musical sense. This made him even more curious about working with the band.
“A lot of bands, these days… they let you know they’re a little bit of Joy Division, or a little bit of the Cure, or a little bit Depeche Mode or Nirvana or whatever,” Marr told 99X in 2007. “With Modest Mouse, I had heard some of the stuff and I couldn’t really work out where they were coming from. And I still can’t. So I was intrigued to see what made this guy tick.”
Brock invited Marr to come to Portland, Ore., to help the band write material for Modest Mouse’s next album. The British guitarist accepted, agreeing to spend 10 days with the boys with the attitude of “let’s see what happens.” What happened was that the two musicians clicked, coming up with (future hit single) “Dashboard” in their first day of working together. As he continued to write with the band, Marr became more attached to the music they were making.
Listen to "Missed the Boat"
“It started off, ‘I’ll write some songs, let’s see how it goes,'” Marr said. “Then it was, ‘I’ll record these songs because I really want them to sound right; I couldn’t imagine someone else doing my parts.’ And then it was like, ‘Well, I’m in now.’ We’re a gang. There’s a real brotherhood among the band.”
The band, at that point, was Brock, Marr, returning drummer Jeremiah Green, bassist Eric Judy, keyboardist Joe Plummer and multi-instrumentalist Tom Peloso. The group came up with enough material for an album, much of it based around a loose concept of a boat crew that faces death in every song. Modest Mouse’s leader would eventually come up with the title: We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Brock and pals returned to Sweet Tea studios (where Good News had been made) and again worked with producer Dennis Herring. The Shins’ James Mercer sang backup on a few tracks.
With “Dashboard” as the advance single and Marr announced as a co-conspirator, We Were Dead was released March 20, 2007 in the U.S. (with a worldwide release to follow). Brock described the album as an improvement, at least in comparison to Modest Mouse’s previous album.
“I think that I’ve gotten past listening to a song with a four-minute intro that doesn’t go anywhere or weird noises that don’t help make any scenery,” Brock told Stop Smiling. “Also, the whole idea that it doesn’t sound the same all the way through. It’s got yelling songs and soft songs within the same album because it’s more dimensional that way, but they still make sense together.”
Many critics and fans appeared to agree with Brock, at least initially. We Were Dead earned a boatload of positive reviews who praised the disc for its accessibility, complexity and Marr’s contributions. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, while “Dashboard” became Modest Mouse’s biggest single by rising to No. 61 on the Hot 100.
Marr joined the band on tour to promote the album over the next couple of years. Eventually, he decamped to link up with British rockers the Cribs. Meanwhile, Brock and Modest Mouse wouldn’t put out another new album until 2015. Although We Were Dead is destined to remain known by many as Modest Mouse’s ”Johnny Marr” album, Brock has always taken a longer view of the situation.
The press “really wanted to make that the story and, unfortunately, it wasn’t, as far as we were concerned,” Brock said. “Johnny being in the band is great because he’s a great player, but there are always new people in this band. That’s not new. … I just stuck around the longest without taking time off.”
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