Modest Mouse Building Something Out Of Nothing

Modest Mouse Building Something Out Of Nothing
"I've always just tried to make really weird music that also has pop appeal, as opposed to pop music where you just throw some weird elements into it." Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock voiced those words to the Tucson Weekly in 2000, a good four years before his band were ever seriously considered pop music. Hailing from the smallish, nowhere Washington city of Issaquah, in their early days it seemed rather unlikely that such a scrappy indie rock band fronted by an erratic singer with a lisp would reach the mainstream. However, Modest Mouse have proven to be one of the biggest indie-to-major label success stories in the post-Nirvana era.
Isaac Brock should be respected as one of music's greatest rags-to-riches stories. He literally spent his formative years living in a shed next to his parents' mobile home. But his determination to make something of himself turned that shed into "The Shed," a makeshift music studio where he laid down the foundation for what would first become one of the most revered indie bands of the late '90s, and then a million-selling band in the 2000s. Modest Mouse's success though didn't come without a few bumps and bruises though. A nervous breakdown, rape accusation, DUI, attempted murder charge, jail stint, death, and a much-chastised minivan commercial all tried to derail the band's ascension. But as their first album in eight years, Strangers To Ourselves, confirms, Modest Mouse are still as dedicated as ever to making weird music.
1975 to 1991
Isaac K. Brock is born on July 9, 1975 in Helena, Montana. His mother Kris is a one-time member of '60s radicals the White Panthers. His family lives on a hippie commune in Oregon, then move to Montana where his mother and stepfather join the Grace Gospel Church, which had ties to the Branch Davidians, the religious group best known for the 1993 Waco siege led by cult leader David Koresh. He'll tell The Guardian in 2007: "I didn't feel the spirit of the fucking Lord rushing through me. I definitely felt awkward. I thought 'What's the best way to make this stop?' So I ripped off some words from Mary Poppins and said them fast, and the deacons are going, 'Yeah, all right!'"
With money troubles, the family moves into the basement of the house belonging to the preacher. "He was the world's biggest slimeball," Brock tells Slug in 2000. "He would confiscate our personal belongings saying that they were things of the devil and then we would find them up in his room." In 1986, Brock's mother leaves her husband and remarries; as a result, the family move to Issaquah, Washington. "It started out as a cute little town and I saw it really quickly get mall fucked," Brock will tell  Pitchfork in 2012. "And not just the town but the area in general. It kind of pissed me off." Not long after they arrive, their house floods and they are forced to live in a mobile home. "I used to live in a trailer park. There's not much pride in saying that you grew up eating government cheese and food that came in boxes, surrounded by hillbillies," he tells The Pitch in 2001. Due to space restrictions, Brock moves around the neighbourhood staying in basements or couches, before settling in an eight-foot by ten-foot shed next to his family trailer he will designate "The Shed."
At 14, he begins to take an interest in playing music, picking up his friend's instruments. He later tells The Billings Gazette, in 2009, "I thought I'd be a Jedi or a ninja or a combination of both. That wasn't in the cards for me. I enjoyed banging on a guitar. It was a hobby for me. Music became a release, a pleasant release." After acquiring a guitar, Brock begins writing songs and recording them in the Shed, where he sleeps. At the video store where Brock's parents work, he meets Eric Judy, who's wearing an Econochrist shirt; Brock tells him that "Econochrist suck" and the two become friends. Brock and Judy go for a complimentary vegetarian meal at a Hare Krishna temple and meet up with Jeremiah Green, a gifted drummer who ends up jamming with the two at a local recreation centre.
1992 to 1994
Brock drops out of school at the age of 16 and picks up odd jobs here and there: cleaning a gymnasium, selling oil changes door-to-door, and washing dishes. Eventually he will earn money doing nude modelling and selling himself for scientific research. Brock moves to Washington, DC in the summer, where he lives in a punk group home filled with activists, feminists, artists, and musicians called Positive Force. A photographer named Pat Graham moves in and the two begin a long-term friendship.
In his 2014 book, Modest Mouse, Graham writes, "I shared my pictures that I had shot of bands in DC with Isaac. He was very into them and I gave him a stack to keep. Isaac liked the blurring effect in my shots and wanted to explore this concept with me."
At Positive Force, Brock writes music he calls "Dial-A-Song." Says future manager Juan Carrera, "He would leave them as outgoing messages on his answering machine." Brock would record these songs on his answering machine every day and they could only be heard by calling in. Brock eventually moves back to Issaquah, but first briefly lives in New York City. He takes some courses at a community college and earns his high school diploma. Brock begins using the moniker Modest Mouse, which he lifts from a passage in Virginia Woolf's The Mark on the Wall. He explains the name to Stop Smiling in 2007: "It was required reading in some class I was taking at the time. It was from a Virginia Woolf book where she referred to people who were working the grind as 'modest mouse-like people.' I wanted to originally name the band Modest Mouse-like People, but that seemed a little long. I regretted the name for some time because it sounds so cutesy. I got really sick of seeing posters with Mighty Mouse on them. I don't even remember which story. I just remember that part."
He releases his first cassette titled Uncle Bunny Faces' Useless Anology Involving Distance, Freight Trains, and Half Ripe Limes (It Doesn't Matter, Limes Are Sour Either Way); a limited number of copies were handmade, Xeroxed and sold by Brock. In the liner notes, Brock writes that the recording is "a motion picture soundtrack... a collection of bad at best recordings that have been building up on cassette in my shed. These songs were recorded on marginal or worse tape recorders thus the marginal quality. Pretend like it was a choice we made and credit to style… The songs on the end of either side had a tendency to get cut off, due the mystery length of the tapes I used. Well get ready with the fast forward button."
He follows that up with Tube-Fruit, All Smiles and Chocolate, and A Mouthful of Lost Thoughts, the next year. Brock releases another small run of a tape called Sad Sappy Sucker (Chokin' on a Mouthful of Lost Thoughts), which he records with various musicians, including Sam Jayne of Love As Laughter. About the tapes, Brock tells Ink 19 in 1998, "I'd been playing music in my shed, and I'd made these three tapes called Modest Mouse with like 40-something songs each on them, really bad 'adolescent guy hanging out in his room' recordings, yelling into '40s reel-to-reels and shit — kinda weird, kinda bad."
A version of Modest Mouse consisting of Isaac Brock, Dan Gallucci, Jeremiah Green and John Wickhart, enter Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Studio where they record a number of tracks for Modest Mouse's debut album. Like one of Brock's cassettes, it is titled Sad Sappy Sucker, but the plan to release it is nixed in favour of recording a proper album with a permanent version of the band. The first official release by the band is a five-track seven-inch titled Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect? via Johnson's K Records. Green and Eric Judy join Brock full-time, and Modest Mouse become a three-piece unit.
1995 to 1996
Modest Mouse release a seven-inch called Broke for Sub Pop. The band pass their demo, Live in Sunburst Montana, to the label, but Sub Pop rejects it. Up Records, whose office is on the same floor as Sub Pop, receives the tape, loves it and offers to release their album. Brock explains what happened to the Sex Sells fanzine: "Up just liked it, and Sub Pop just kind of played around with us and shit. And I guess it turns out they wanted to sign us and things, but at this point I'm glad that didn't happen. Anyways, Up tried a lot harder with us… They let us do our first album as a double album, and I know Sub Pop wouldn't have done that."
Brock, Green and Judy enter Moon Studios in Olympia to record with Steve Wold (who would go on to record blues music under the name Seasick Steve). About first meeting Brock, Up founder Chris Takino says (as featured in Pitchfork's documentary on The Lonesome Crowded West), "I was talking to him outside of the Velvet Elvis once, right before we put out the Built To Spill record. I had mentioned it to him and he said that Doug Martsch was one of three people he could think of that should be making records. So I thought that the kid couldn't be that bad."
Modest Mouse's debut album, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, arrives on April 16, 1996, preceded by a seven-inch for Suicide Squeeze called A Life of Arctic Sounds. In a press release, Up describes the album as "an 18 song drive down long twisted roads and around short dangerous curves. Isaac Brock shrieks and whines about his death, his guitar in support of every position. Eric Judy plays teeter-totter on the bass and Jeremy Green holds the reigns with steady superb drumming."
In a 1996 interview with Pitchfork, Brock explains the album's title: "I didn't have a damn thing to think about. I was bored. I had nothin' to say to my girlfriend, nothin' to say to anyone. It was like ten hours a day and then I'd do this stupid thing where I'd go to Seattle to crash an hour away. It's a long-ass drive for someone with nothin' to think about. I had nothin' to say. Nothing." Pitchfork reviews the album, and gives it a 6.8, complaining about the 74-minute-long running time, writing, "There are few bands who can pull that off and honestly, Modest Mouse is not one of 'em." Eighteen years later, when the album is reissued, the website reconsiders and bumps the score up to an 8.5. In August, they release the Live in Sunburst, Montana recordings combined with five new songs on a CD-only release called Interstate 8. The EP will become a collector's item after going out of print.
1997 to 1999
On his way to master the band's next album in Phoenix, Brock is forced to remain on his plane in a holding pattern, and then released into a hotel surrounded by police tape, as authorities investigate what is now known as the Phoenix Lights, one of the most widely talked about UFO sightings in history. In 2015, Brock tells Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, "I didn't tell people for years — I told one person, my mother, and another person, Chris Takino — because I didn't want to be that dude with a UFO [story]."
Modest Mouse release a one-off seven-inch called Birds Vs. Worms via indie label Hit Or Miss. At the start of a spring tour, on the way to a gig in Chicago, the band's van spins out and nearly careens off a bridge in Montana, with only the guardrail stopping them. They buy some chains for the tires and drive on, only to discover that they've damaged the lines that bring fluid to the brakes. All roads in the area are closed but one due to a blizzard, but they plough through snowdrifts and nearly kill a cow standing in the middle of the road. The van dies in a drift and they finally flag down a stuck but running Ford Mustang with a cowboy inside. He invites them in to stay warm overnight. In the morning, a hay bailer attempts to pull the van out of the drift but tips over; a second bailer manages to unstick the van. Writes Pat Graham in his book of photography, "By the time we made it to the Empty Bottle in Chicago it was one in the morning and the band was supposed to play at ten. We unloaded quickly and MM managed to play a couple songs to a few people before the place closed."
In May, K Records releases The Fruit That Ate Itself, which was originally recorded by Calvin Johnson a few years earlier, but put on the back burner. For the band's next album, they work with Johnson again, along with Scott Swayze, who recorded This Is A Long Drive. Phil Ek is later brought in to re-record "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine," "Doin' the Cockroach" and "Cowboy Dan." In a 2012 documentary, Brock recalls that "Phil some years later told me that he was given specific instructions to not do too good a job recording it. To make it better, but to kinda 'shitty it up' a bit."
In a phone interview, Nardwuar the Human Serviette tries to determine whether Brock is a descendent of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, the "Hero of Upper Canada," through the colour of his pubic hair. Modest Mouse's second album, The Lonesome Crowded West, is released on November 18, 1997. The album is rapturously received, marking a breakthrough for the band, and catapulting them to indie rock stardom. Years later, it receives a perfect score on Pitchfork and ranks #29 on the website's 100 Greatest Albums of the '90s.
In a 2012 documentary, Brock talks about the album's inspiration: "In The Lonesome Crowded West I had a lot of stuff in my mind that was bothering me about strip malls and about the paving of the West. I started up my life in Montana, and eventually ended up in Seattle. When I got to Seattle, the area, Issaquah, that I grew up in, started out as a cute little town and I got to see it very quickly just get mall-fucked... Not just the town, the whole area in general. It happened so quick, and it just kinda pissed me off."
Modest Mouse keep releasing seven-inches: Other People's Lives on Up, Never Ending Math Equation on Sub Pop, Whenever You See Fit on Suicide Squeeze/Up, and Heart Cooks Brain on Matador. A Japanese tour CD called Night on the Sun follows and eventually finds a domestic release; the EP demonstrates the sonic upheaval their next full-length will receive.
Brock founds a side-project called Ugly Casanova that is surrounded in mystery and credited to someone named Edgar Graham. In a 2000 interview with Slug, Brock describes the project: "At one point, my dream was that no one was going to know that I was in Ugly Casanova and it was going to be this other side-project. Then the story was written, Epic posted it as a fake story and now everyone knows." His first release is a track on the Magic Eye Singles #4.
Modest Mouse release a compilation of singles and rarities called Building Nothing Out of Something. In a 1998 interview with Ink 19, Brock reveals an interesting side job he picked up: "I just got back from Chicago from messing around with Califone, working at the truck stop, cleaning out meat trucks. That's fun, that was the most fun job I've had in a while. Livers and shit on the floor, huge big chunks of fat the size of your head that are all kind of hard like butter. It gets sweaty hot once you turn on the spray gun especially, 'cause there's just all the moisture in the air and you're blasting blood off the walls and floors. It gets hot. You wear gloves, then there's this layer of like mink grease or dead cattle all over your gloves that doesn't let your hands get all wrinkly and puckery."
In February 1999, Brock is accused of date-raping a 19-year-old woman at his home, after meeting her at the Cha Cha Lounge. The news is broken in Seattle paper The Stranger, whose writer Samantha Shapiro relentlessly reports on the case. The King's County district attorney investigates but does not press charges, and Brock denies the allegations vehemently. Brock discusses the accusation in 2004 to AV Club, saying, "It's an allegation that was withdrawn, and of course that didn't get any press. It was complete and utter bullshit, and the whole situation was so complicated that it's hard for me to go into lots of detail. At the time, I figured I'd just shut up and give this young lady enough rope to hang herself, you know? It fucked up my life once, and I'd prefer to just let it go."
The allegation, however, did have some impact. After the news first hits, Murder City Devils cancel their tour dates with Modest Mouse. Their booking agent Chad Quierolo tells The Stranger, "Murder City Devils know the girl very well, and they've known Isaac for a long time. They think she's credible. They believe her and they don't ever want to play with Modest Mouse again." (Brock's good friend and sometime Modest Mouse member Dann Gallucci just so happens to be MCD's guitarist.) After the incident, Brock relocates to Gainesville, Florida for a period. The band are pulled over by U.S. customs returning from Canada and have all of their equipment seized by officials after "a crumb of grass" is discovered in their luggage. "They let us off eventually after scaring the shit out of us for a couple of hours. We kissed as much ass as possible," Brock tells The Reader.
Modest Mouse move beyond indie rock and sign to Epic, a Sony subsidiary; they are given a $100,000 budget to record their next album. Brock defends the idea of moving to a major label the year before to The Reader: "I have a limited education. I don't want to be working shit jobs my whole life without the possibility of having a chance to even own my own house. I wouldn't mind actually getting paid [for making music]. I love the record label I'm on, but I've got people knocking at the door. Commercial rock is usually pretty shitty, but it doesn't have to stay that way. I think we could go to a major label and still fly under the radar, you know?"
While recording the next album with Brian Deck in Chicago, Brock gets his jaw broken in a fight. He recalls the moment to AV Club years later: "We were living in an apartment above Clava Studios, where we were recording The Moon & Antarctica, and we'd been out at a bar. We drove back to the apartment, and there was a park kind of kitty-corner to it, where local kids were just hanging out. I was going to smoke a cigarette outside before I went in, I'm all friendly drunk guy, and I decided to shoot the shit with these kids. I'm like, 'Hi, how are you all doing?' And before I can get more words out, some dude from the side just full-on punches me, breaks my jaw. There's 14 of these fuckers. They were chasing after our dog, throwing bottles at me, still throwing punches — but they never landed another one. That's one of the things that could make me think that maybe I'm full of shit on this higher-power thing, because there's no reason that they kept missing after that first punch. I remember turning around and saying, 'You broke my jaw!' and they're just like, 'Fuck you, cowboy!'"
2000 to 2003
Modest Mouse release their third full-length and major label debut, The Moon & Antarctica, via Epic on June 13, 2000. It breaks the Billboard 200, peaking at #120. In Exclaim!'s review, Christopher Waters writes that the album "will restore your faith in the power of alternative rock and the electric guitar." Named after a newspaper headline in Blade Runner that reads "Farming the Oceans, the Moon and Antarctica," the album marks a significant modification in the production (done via ProTools) and the band's arrangements, a direct result of Brock's broken jaw (which he sings about in the song "Might": "I broke every bone in my goddamn jaw.")
"The band were around Chicago for a long time," explains friend and collaborator Tim Rutili (Red Red Meat, Califone). "And they had gotten a lot of the record done, but from what I remember, that incident was right before he was supposed to start recording vocals. And his jaw was wired shut. So things slowed down. I believe there were a lot more instrumental overdubs and other work done, while he healed up… I believe it helped the record immensely! I think Isaac worked a lot more on his lyrics, too… to me, it's the best Modest Mouse record." In initial interviews, Brock describes the album as a grower. "When I first listened to the album, I was horrified," Brock tells The Pitch. "I think it's going to take a long time for this music to grow on people and for them to appreciate it." He jokes about label pressure pushing the band in a new direction to e-zine Luna Kafe in 2000: "The need for change isn't important to me, it's just unavoidable. Time and the changes that happen to every one in their lives are bound to change the sounds/songs that we make. Besides the people at the label told us that we had to make a different sounding record or they'd beat us. Naturally we didn't want a beating so…"
Speaking with Dutch website KindaMuzik in 2000, Brock reveals that the plan is to make a movie to go with the album. "We did the soundtrack, we gotta make the movie… We're gonna make a movie for The Moon & Antarctica. We don't know if we actually will or not. There are all sorts of plans. But if we actually end up doing 'em is another thing." To this day the film has not been released. Modest Mouse license the song "Gravity Rides Everything" to Nissan and Miller Genuine Draft, and their fans accuse the band of selling out. Brock addresses the accusations to AV Club in 2004, saying, "Figuring out ways to pay the rent isn't really a tough decision… People who don't have to make their living playing music can bitch about my principles while they spend their parents' money or wash dishes for some asshole. Principles are something that people are a lot better at checking in other people than keeping their own. My rationale behind the beer commercial was, 'I like drinking MGD! I like beer probably more than I should, probably more than is healthy.' I was hoping I could get a lifetime supply out of the deal, but I guess I'll have to buy it with that big ol' check."
In a 2004 Spin feature, Brock admits that a fan stole his mail and auctioned it off on eBay. On October 13, 2000, Up founder Chris Takino dies of leukemia at the age of 35, which has an enormous impact on the band. Brock relocates to Cottage Grove, Oregon, moving into a house owned by his stepfather. K Records finally releases Modest Mouse's "lost" first album, Sad Sappy Sucker. Talking to The Stranger in 2001, Brock describes it as "fucking embarrassing.... It's like a high-school yearbook picture or something. I was pretty hesitant for a long time to release that stuff, just because it was recorded so long ago. But now, you know… I guess it's kind of fun. I just look at it like it was a snapshot. It was valid to me at the time when I was doing it, even if it's not now."
Modest Mouse release Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, an eight-song compilation of unreleased tracks from The Moon & Antarctica sessions and the Night on the Sun EP. After the events of September 11, Judy has a paranoid episode thinking he was exposed to anthrax poisoning. He tells Pat Graham for his book, "A few days after 9/11, with so much paranoia and scary stuff in the news, I found myself sick and unable to breathe. I was pretty sure I'd gotten anthrax, as I'd heard it had been released all over the place. We had to stop at the ER so I could get checked out. It turned out I was just suffering from a combination of anxiety, asthma, and hangover. Pat gave me a Bach Rescue Remedy and I survived."
Brock's contract with Epic allows him to do Ugly Casanova, and he signs with Sub Pop to release an album called Sharpen Your Teeth, which features Brock along with Red Red Meat's Tim Rutili and Brian Deck, the Black Heart Procession's Pall Smith and Holopaw's John Orth. Brock explains the influences as well as differences between the project and Modest Mouse to Indy Week in 2002, "Since I was kid, I've listened to the Memphis Jug Band, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Boggs. So that influence is just there and I bought myself this really pretty banjo that I've tried to learn my way around… It's a much mellower affair and that does bum some folks out because some folks just come based on the Modest Mouse connection and are expecting to mosh or whatever the fuck they do to ruin the Modest Mouse shows. These songs are a bit lower key. There are a couple rockers, but besides that it's a much mellower affair so that causes some heckling, but fuck 'em."
Brock starts working A&R for Sub Pop, whose Megan Jasper tells Exclaim! in 2004: "While working with John Orth [on Ugly Casanova], he also helped John put together a Holopaw record. Isaac basically went in and helped them record some demos and then shopped the demos to Sub Pop… A long, long time ago before we were interested in signing the Shins, they were Flake Music and he took them out on tour. He really urged Sub Pop to work with them, so we did because we loved them too. Because he's touring all the time, he's meeting and hearing bands that we don't get to hear. We figured he should help us out in finding some new acts. He has a perspective that a lot of other people don't have because they're not in bands. He's really insightful."
During a Modest Mouse show at the Diamond Ballroom in Oklahoma City, Brock asks the crowd for a knife then proceeds to slice up his arms on stage. The next year, at the very same venue, the band are forced to rescue their manager Juan Carrera during a show after he is attacked by a stage invader and pulled into the crowd.
Brock is arrested for DUI and hires a lawyer to deal with the case. A year later, while touring with Ugly Casanova, Brock crosses the border to visit Niagara Falls and buy some fudge, and on the way back is stopped by customs for a random check. His DUI shows up on his record and he is charged with attempted murder. He later explains to AV Club: "When the DUI accident happened, my friend's girlfriend dislocated her thumb, and in Oregon, they give you attempted murder for any injury involving alcohol. I ended up in jail, and I had to go everywhere in ankle cuffs and regular cuffs. It was pretty fucked." Brock spends a total of ten days in a New York jail, and recalls to the website that during his stay he played chess with "some late 40s, freaky, child-molester-looking dude basically say that he was going to rape me" and came into contact with everyone's least favourite plant. "At one point, we were cleaning out this football-field-sized area of blackberry bushes with our machetes, and we run across some poison ivy," he says. "We point it out, and the cop's like, 'Cut it down, get rid of it.' We do, and then all the gloves and vests got contaminated by it, and the next thing I know, I've got rashes all over. All over my ding-dong! I couldn't get it to go away, because every time I'd go back, I'd re-contaminate myself."
Brock is forced to attend mandatory AA meetings from the DUI charge. Dann Gallucci joins the band as a multi-instrumentalist to help with touring and recording the next album. The band initially decide to hire both Brian Deck, again, and Phil Ek to produce the next album but it doesn't go according to plan. Gallucci tells CMJ in 2004, "Phil and Brian both agreed to do it, but I think they both agreed to it hoping something would happen to the other and they'd be the only one left. I mean, they produce albums on their own — they're not the fucking Dust Brothers."
They end up choosing to record at Sweet Tea Studio in Oxford, Mississippi with producer Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven, Neil Diamond). The sessions didn't go smoothly as planned; Brock describes them to Spin in 2004 as "fucking brutal" and admits, "There were points where I literally was almost gonna kill him. And literally gets used a lot, but literally, I was gonna fucking kill him."
On his birthday, Jeremiah Green leaves the band after suffering a nervous breakdown while they record. In a 2004 interview with Drowned in Sound, Brock discusses Green's departure: "Initially making and writing this album was a fucking nightmare. Jeremiah went completely insane. We tried to write with him for about six months and jump start it by getting him in the studio. The first day he didn't show up, the second he was eight hours late. By the third day he lost it, ended up in a mental institution and signed all of us up along with him. I left because I didn't feel like putting on the daddy pants. I was told some shit, I proved them right and then I went to a bar. But [Jeremiah] had his shirt off and tried to fight Eric. He regrets it I'm sure, he'd rather I'd not talk about it."
In 2004, Green tells Rolling Stone his side, admitting, "I wasn't healthy in my head. I was on overdrive, drinking, taking other things to try and calm down, and it turned into this thing where I was hallucinating and having paranoia about people, the whole world." Green is replaced by the Helio Sequence's Benjamin Weikel, after Brock, Judy and Gallucci decide not to split up the band. Brock tells CMJ, "The idea of ending Modest Mouse scared me. Because I didn't think I'd accomplished what I was meant to yet. So after a few days Dann and Eric and I sat down, and talked about everything. We were like, 'We're still into this. Let's do it.' And then I wasn't worried anymore."
2004 to 2006
Because Brock wasn't pleased with the original mix and artwork for The Moon & Antarctica, Epic offers to pay to have the album remixed. The label re-releases it with new artwork and four bonus tracks. Pitchfork gives it a scathing review, writing, "no one was really asking for it, and there's simply not enough here to justify the expense or even a rating as high as the original" and awarding it a 5.0.
Modest Mouse release their fourth album, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, on April 6, 2004. The album features the Flaming Lips on "The Good Times Are Killing Me," and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on "Horn Intro" and the Tom Waits-y "The Devil's Workday." The album debuts at #19 on the Billboard 200, and on the strength of its first single, "Float On," it goes platinum in just four months. A 2004 feature in Rolling Stone where Brock is interviewed over drinks at his local bar raises concern by The Seattle Times. The paper publishes a piece called "Modest Mouse in Rolling Stone: Is bandleader Brock out of control?" after the author Jason Fine writes that "Brock's friends have encouraged him to phone for a ride home from the bar tonight, but despite the fact that he's got no valid driver's license and only limited motor facilities left, he decides to navigate the short distance himself." (One reason Brock got the Volvo is safety, he says; the other is that he thinks it's an unlikely car to get stopped by the cops.)
Brock signs Montreal band Wolf Parade to Sub Pop; the band record with Brock in his new home of Portland, Oregon. Wolf Parade's debut album, Apologies to the Queen Mary, mostly produced by Brock, is released a year later in September 2005. Jeremiah Green returns to the band in time for their appearance on Saturday Night Live in November with Liam Neeson as host; they perform "Float On" and second single "The Ocean Breathes Salty." Tom Peloso, a founding member of the Hackensaw Boys, also joins as a multi-instrumentalist.
The band receive two Grammy nominations, for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Song, but lose to Wilco's A Ghost Is Born and U2's "Vertigo," respectively. Modest Mouse make an appearance on The O.C., playing "Paper Thin Walls" and "The View" inside the show's fictitious Bait Shop venue. Epic offers Brock his own label as a side gig he calls Glacial Pace. In 2009, he tells Willamette Week, "I thought they actually meant I was going to have my own label. But what I had was an A&R [artists and repertoire] job with a label name, and not much control over what I signed. I think they were hoping I was going to sign another me."
Three years later, Sony drops Glacial Pace, but Brock decides to keep it going, signing acts such as Love As Laughter, Talkdemonic and Morning Teleportation. Mark Kozelek releases an album of Modest Mouse covers under his Sun Kil Moon alias called Tiny Cities out of pure fandom. He tells Paste in 2006, "People already into Modest Mouse are probably aware [Brock] is gifted and he's a great writer. But for people who aren't… hopefully this record will bring attention to the fact that this guy is really good."
"Float On" is covered by Kidz Bop, a group of children that record kid-friendly versions of popular songs. Speaking with Exclaim!, Brock says, "That was really funny, it made me happy. I didn't know about it until I saw the commercial, and it was kind of a surreal thing. I was totally psyched on it. How could you not just be oddly pleased that your song got turned into a kid's song?"
The band return to Sweet Tea Studio and begin working on a new album with Dennis Herring. Johnny Marr joins them in the studio and in August 2006 they announce that he has joined the band, replacing Dann Gallucci. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2006, Brock says, "I was like, 'You know, I really like that guy's guitar playing. There's no chance in hell he's going to say yes, but why not give him a call?' So I did. Eventually it all came together, and it was a really good fit, which I think actually surprised all of us… He made a cautious commitment to write and record with us, and then the tighter we got, he was like, 'OK let's tour too.' Then he was pretty much a member of the band — not pretty much. He's a full-blown member of the band. It's really fuckin' nice."
2007 to 2010
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the fifth Modest Mouse album, is released on March 20, 2007 after being pushed back three months. In its first week, it sells 128,585 copies and tops the Billboard 200. The album marks a more positive change of direction in Brock's songwriting, with Marr's signature guitar licks contributing a hefty dose of melody. Brock tells Spin that the success of Good News did not affect how they would make its follow-up. "At no point were we like, 'Okay, now that we've got people listening, how are we gonna keep 'em listening?' Formulas are fucking shitty — they're a creative dead end. But we didn't try not to write fucking poppy songs."
In a 2007 interview with Paste, producer Herring explains how the two albums he worked on were different experiences: "On their previous records, Isaac had written all the songs in advance, and Dann fit his guitar parts into the gaps that remained. This one was deeply affected by the fact that they all wrote together. So there was a communal, dual-threat guitar dynamic to consider, a super-active left/right guitar trip happening the minute the tracks came off the floor. To me, their interplay is a lot like Television's — intertwining guitars that form puzzle pieces to be fitted together. Precision and fire."
During a show in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Brock unexpectedly channels Iggy Pop and slashes his chest with a blade, after smacking himself in the head with his microphone. He tells the Seattle Times, "I had lost my voice kind of early on that tour, and someone told me drinking single-malt whiskey opens up your vocal chords. So I was having a good time and got a little rowdy… I was having a good time, it was not a cry for help — [the cut] was really superficial… I'm not going off the deep end."
Brock's body suffers more trauma when, during another show in Nottingham, England, Brock is hit in the face with a bottle. The injury is a reported fracture and the following week he undergoes surgery. As a result, Brock is forced to wear an eye patch and the band have to reschedule seven tour dates. In an interview with VH1, Brock reveals that actor Heath Ledger approached the band to direct a music video for them with help from director Terry Gilliam. The video for "King Rat" eventually surfaces in 2009, a year after Ledger's surprising death, to coincide with the release of No One's First, and You're Next, an EP compiling unreleased music from their last two albums. Brock talks to Metro in 2009 about the video, explaining, "We kept discussing the idea and refining it, but [Heath] chose the animator. It was his baby. I just kept an eye on it."
Johnny Marr tells Pitchfork that he's no longer in Modest Mouse. "There's just no finality about me and Modest Mouse," he says. "Isaac's approach has always been that the door is always open; he leaves the door open to create partners and to ensure that none of us wanted to get in the way of something good happening. We're all friends together, and something was happening, so we're all happy to make it happen. I played on the new Modest Mouse release and wrote some of that with the guys. And I see the guys and hang out with the guys and keep in touch with them. So that's kind of the way it is. We're all very grown-up about it and very supportive of each other."
Ugly Casanova and James Mercer of the Shins write music for the soundtrack to 180° South, a documentary about a couple of adventurers who trekked across Patagonia in 1968. The album is released through Jack Johnson's Brushfire label. Speaking with Pitchfork, Brock explains the decision to record as Ugly Casanova was because "it would have been a problem legally if I'd called it Modest Mouse. I don't much like things to go by somebody's name, like the Bob Jones Group Jam Band. I figured, since it was more than writing, it'd just be easier to consider it as another Ugly Casanova project."
Lupe Fiasco samples "Float On" for his track "The Show Goes On," which earns two Grammy nominations and sells three million digital downloads. The rapper, however, doesn't show any love for the track, telling Complex, "There's nothing really to tell about that record, to be honest. I didn't have nothing to do with that record. That was the label's record. That wasn't like I knew the producer or knew the writer or anything like that. That was one of those records the record company gave me, [they even gave me] stuff they wanted me to rap about. It wasn't like, 'Hey I did this and I went to a mountain and found inspiration and it was this'. [...] I had to do 'The Show Goes On,' that was like the big chip on the table. I had to do it and it had to be the first single if the record was going to come out."
Portland-based artist Alexander Rokoff paints a portrait of Isaac Brock in lederhosen playing his guitar in the company of a wild boar for the Mayor of Portland to hang in his office.
2011 to 2015
OutKast's Big Boi tweets that he's in the studio with Modest Mouse. Speaking to MTV in 2011, the rapper details the collaboration: "I've been a fan of the band for a minute… We're all musicians and producers and artists, and it's just like a big-ass brainstorm, a brain-stormin', tsunami, typhoon, tectonic-plates-movin' kind of thing. We do all types of music, so to get the chance to jam with a jammin'-ass band, I knew it was going to be cool. We had a vibe too. We made a couple of records that are just jamming. It's a hodgepodge of funkiness."
Brock makes a guest appearance on Portlandia in a sketch called Shooting Star Preschool where he offers to donate his Talk Talk, Temple of the Dog and Back To The Future records to a school library. Brock works on another soundtrack to a film called Queens of Country starring Lizzy Caplan, Ron Livingston and Tool's Maynard James Keenan. At Metallica's Orion Festival in Washington DC, Brock announces that Eric Judy has left the band, explaining that "I think he's retired now." Brock addresses Judy's departure during a 2015 Reddit AMA, writing, "The loss of Eric has affected us immensely. He had a much larger role in songwriting than I think he was even given credit for. And his importance, well it's really hard to even measure that but yea. It's affected us." produces a 45-minute documentary on Modest Mouse's album, The Lonesome Crowded West, featuring interviews, archival footage and original sessions from the Moon Studios. Modest Mouse cancel a UK/EU summer tour in order to work on their next album.
In a 2013 interview with Spotify, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic reveals that he recorded a song with Modest Mouse: "I did a song with Modest Mouse earlier this year for their new record. It's pretty edgy. I've got my big Gibson bass and a Rat distortion pedal busting out a... this bass riff."
Big Boi updates The Hollywood Reporter in 2014 on the status of his collaboration with Modest Mouse, saying, "I've been asking Isaac when they gonna do it, man. We've got these songs they've been sitting on forever. I saw him a couple months ago and they're working on some additions to what we did. I don't know. It's a crazy camp over there. It's coming. Talk to him! He's the boss."
After fetching hundreds on eBay, Modest Mouse reissue This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and The Lonesome Crowded West on vinyl since their initial release. Brock tells Exclaim!, "That was fucking hard! Because after Chris Takino passed away, a lot of things got lost in the shuffle with Up Records. At some point the actual master tapes were missing. All of Lonesome Crowded West. No one could find the masters, the mixdown masters. The cover art had gone missing too and no one had the files for that."
The reels for Lonesome end up in the basement of friend and producer Tucker Martine's basement. Says Brock, "Now, Tucker didn't work on that record, so he wasn't a guy I'd call and ask, 'Hey dude, do you have the reels to the record you had nothing to do with?' So yeah, there they were, after a year and a half of looking. Maybe even two years."
In December 2014, Modest Mouse announce their first new album in eight years, Strangers to Ourselves, which is released on March 17, 2015. The album was produced by Brock, Brian Deck, Clay Jones, Tucker Martine and Andrew Weiss.
Brock explains to Exclaim! why it took seven years and five producers to make it: "It was a long process. We started writing about it five years and kept working on it. We went into the studio and toured over and over again, because I wasn't convinced the songs were written. Then we walked back into the studio after three years… We built our own studio. We didn't mean to but we did it. Once that was settled we were like, 'Holy shit! We spent all this time building a studio we better get to work…' I think [having so many producers] made the whole process a little convoluted, like it was hard to remember where the fuck some tracks were. It got complicated. It was a shit time mixing the thing. We mixed it a bunch of times too with several different people. Every time we'd mix it we'd discover something new, like, 'Oh! We didn't have this piano part in the last mix because we fucking lost it!'"
In a 2015 phone interview with podcast The Shit Show, Jeremiah Green confirms that neither Big Boi or Krist Novoselic appear on the new album. Brock explains Big Boi's absence on Reddit, saying, "Big Boi stuff was something we tried on, before we actually recorded the record, a year and a half before we were done writing. Probably not going to hear the Big Boi stuff related to this record but a good chance we'll end up working on something in the future."
Essential Albums
This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About (Up, 1996)
Modest Mouse were wise to axe plans for releasing Sad Sappy Sucker as their debut album proper. While This Is A Long Drive didn't exactly blow the doors wide open for them, it was unquestionably the right choice, demonstrating a marked growth in songwriting, chemistry and skill heard on Sucker. Isaac Brock explores themes of isolation and hopelessness through cutting lyrics and manic arrangements. From the opening twists of Brock's guitar on "Dramamine" to the frantic, caterwauling freak out of "Tundra/Desert" and the space-country catharsis of "Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset," this 74-minute juggernaut is a bold and unique first step.
The Lonesome Crowded West (Up, 1997)
For Modest Mouse's second album, Isaac Brock chose to attack how America was being dehumanized by corporate greed and consumerism. Growing up in small-town USA, he was witness to the West coast getting paved over by strip malls — and it pissed him off. But The Lonesome Crowded West was even more encompassing, as they sharpen the blueprint laid down on Long Drive for Brock to spit out semi-autobiographical accounts, like confessions of his life as "Trailer Trash," fictionalizing his dad's friend "Cowboy Dan," and trying to undo all of the suburban ruin with "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine." Quite simply, The Lonesome Crowded West was one of the defining indie rock albums of the 1990s. Maybe even the best one too.
The Moon & Antarctica (Epic, 2000)
The Lonesome Crowded West was a benchmark moment for Modest Mouse, perhaps one they'd never top. But you could argue that The Moon & Antarctica was as extraordinary as its predecessor, maybe even better. With a hundred grand in their pockets, the band used the opportunity to experiment in the studio, thanks in large to Brock being vocally sidelined after a gang of teens broke his jaw. The result was a sprawling album of 21st century rock exhibited in the cacophonous disco of "Tiny Cites Made of Ashes," the epic space jam "The Stars Are Projectors," and hillbilly horror ballad "Wild Packs of Family Dogs." It may not have been the album that their new label was hoping for — that would come next — but to every fan, it was damn near perfection.