Mouse on the Moon

Modest Mouse, the band that would be indie rock's king, navigates a major-label existence.

It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Isaac Brock, lead singer, guitarist and lyricist for Modest Mouse, wakes and wipes the sleep syrup from his eyes for the second time today. After a morning spent drinking beer and a mid-afternoon nap, Brock has awakened to discover he has a strange, unattributable fever and a serious jones.

"I feel like shit, man," he says. "I just quit smoking this morning."

A moment later he's scratching around his room, knocking over books and CDs, looking for cigarette butts in the rented house he moved into -- the day before -- in Cottage Grove, Oregon. The desolate little town of 35,000 is known to locals as the "town of covered bridges" and can boast of being probably the only place in North America where the D.A.R.E. task-force vehicle is a shiny, pimped-out Suzuki Samurai that would leave readers of Lowrider inspired.

Jeremiah Green, Isaac Brock and Eric Judy of Modest Mouse know what to do when the van is rocking.
Jeremiah Green, Isaac Brock and Eric Judy of Modest Mouse know what to do when the van is rocking.

"It's the only kind of hick town they make anymore. No one's on the streets, the Wal-Mart closes at 9 o'clock, no one cares who you are, and there's absolutely nothing to do," Brock says.

In some sense, Brock seems to be reminiscing in his half-conscious state about Issaquah, Washington, a small town on the fringe of Seattle where he chose to live in a shed behind his mother and stepfather's trailer. "I used to live in a trailer park, although it wasn't a place that I would say I would have liked to have grown up. There's not much pride in saying that you grew up eating government cheese and food that came in boxes, surrounded by hillbillies."

The wise Brock-watcher knows to take the singer's ruminations with a certain understanding of his penchant for poetic exaggeration. It's a quality that has defined much of his band's work (four full-lengths for Up Records, various seven- and twelve-inch releases on other labels, including K Records, and the newest, The Moon and Antarctica, just released on Epic) and established Brock as an enigmatic lyricist and indie-rock poet. Yet if his meanings are sometimes opaque and difficult to decipher, at least his themes are consistent and recognizable. (And don't go looking to Brock, a notoriously difficult interview- and media-phobe, to offer any explanation for either: "That's my one rule, man," he says guardedly. " I don't talk about lyrics.") Most of Brock's protagonists are the marginalized, the downtrodden, and the particularly self-aware. Along with the small-town impressions from his own childhood, Brock has taken a sideways approach to the narrative legacy of artists who find inspiration in struggle. He paints the down-and-out on Modest Mouse's distinctive musical background, a guitar-pronounced, harmonic and sometimes symphonic sound.

Consider "Trailer Trash," a painfully autobiographical portrait from 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West: "Eating snowflakes with plastic forks and a paper plate of course/You think of everything/Short love with a long divorce and a couple of kids of course/They don't mean anything." Brock also lyrically sketches a melancholic personal awareness during "3rd Planet," the first track from The Moon and Antarctica: "Everything that keeps me together is falling apart/I've got this thing that I consider my only art of fucking people over."

"The Bible is filled with stories about devastated lives, because they're better tales," Brock says. "Using a metaphor about the rich and lucky is fucking boring."

Brock's own disdain for the boring is evident not only in his lyrics, but also in his behavior. At 25 he seems anxious, restless -- qualities that might seem at odds with his small-town surroundings. His campaign to quit smoking officially ends hours after it begins. After driving to the nearest convenience store and mumbling a brand to the clerk, he steps outside and lights up a fresh one. Then, during the short walk from the cash register to his van, he decides to make a spontaneous 120-mile drive to Eugene, Oregon.

"Now I have someone to talk to," he says. "You mind if we head north to Eugene? A friend of mine's band is playing there tonight." Soon, Interstate 5 is racing by at 80 mph, car colors blurring against the Oregon landscape. Brock takes another deep drag and smiles.

He seems at ease while traveling -- regardless of how dizzying the road may get and despite his own mixed emotions about being on it. Though he laments that his new deal with Epic and a heavily promoted album will mean lots more traveling, it also means more exposure to potential material. Brock is known to take cues from snippets of lives that he views while touring, something he and his bandmates seem to do nonstop. Travel and movement are other common Modest Mouse themes, poignantly displayed in "Dramamine" (from 1996's Interstate 8), in which Brock concludes in a lispy and sentimental voice: "I drove around for hours/I drove around for days/I drove around for months and years and never went no place."

Brock and his bandmates (drummer Jeremiah Green and bassist Eric Judy) have traversed the musical landscape and arrived at a destination that some bands might covet and others eye with suspicion. Since Modest Mouse formed in Washington State and signed with iconic indie-punk label K Records six years ago for a seven-inch release, it has been deemed the White Buffalo of indie rock, the last great hope for a genre that's losing audience share to an increasingly non-rocking musical republic. When Brock and company ended up on the doorstep of the Sony-owned Epic records, they felt as if they had been visited by a tarnished angel. Unlike many bands who sometimes compromise their artistic integrity to satiate a major label's appetite for sales and radio hits, the trio has managed to make the switch from indie to major without compromising its methods.

"They may have given us some money, but they're damn sure they ain't the boss of me, and there's no way they're gonna interfere with our live show," says Brock with unusual conviction, noting that the band's decision to go with Epic was driven by a very simple and time-honored motive: cash. "They do give you more money to record with, and that's a luxury. Basically, our intention was to hijack the fat wallet for recording."

If you're going to pull a heist, you might as well go big, and that's precisely what Modest Mouse has done. When the band was with K and then Up, it was typically limited to budgets of roughly seven or eight grand and allotted about a week for the recording, producing and mastering of each release. Epic, on the other hand, gave the players a $100,000 budget and all the time they needed to record their debut release for the label. They took full advantage of the offer: Green, Judy and Brock headed to Clava Studio in Chicago and emerged four months later with the completed Moon and Antarctica, their most concise release yet. With Epic's billfold in hand, the players went beyond the limitations of the normal three-piece ensemble. By adding sprinkles of lap-steel guitar, violin, banjo, percussion and reverberating little sound bites to the production, they colored in some of the monotone gray areas present in earlier releases. Old friends of the Modest Mouse sound who are unfamiliar with the new platter may find it different in that the drums and guitar are less prominent and new space-age quirks pop out like wedding-day zits. Some of those differences, Brock contends, were more the result of happy accidents than deliberate orchestration.

"[Producer] Brian Deck and I were sitting around getting drunk, mastering this thing," Brock says, "and at the time, we were so enamored with the sounds, we wanted to make sure they were heard."

Drunken episodes did more for the recording than inspire a few tasty audio morsels. One night early in the production, Brock staggered out of a Chicago bar and down a paved lane in a grassy park. He came upon a group of inebriated youths -- as many as fourteen of them, to his recollection -- and tried to strike up a friendly conversation. "You know, I think that I'm a real suave guy while drunk," he says, "so I just thought I'd go talk to some kids." Like many big-city conversations, this one was short and to the point. "I had bad reflexes that night," Brook recalls. "The first was when I walked up to them. The second was when one of them punched me out of nowhere and I couldn't react. I was just standing there, and this guy hit me like my head was a golf ball on a tee."

After Brock's melee in the so-called Golden Gloves district of Chicago, his mouth was wired shut for a month and a half. Though it might sound torturous to some, Brock says the injury actually enhanced the instrumental aspects of the then-in-production recording.

"They fucked me up pretty good," he says with a smile. "But having my jaw broken was great in respect to its effect on the album, because I had to take a different approach to recording. Usually when we record, we lay down the basic tracks, and I feel guilty if I don't hurry up and get the vocals done. But this time I couldn'tsing. So I just hung out, wrote a lot more instrumentals, and had a chance to really listen and work on it before laying down the vocals."

Despite the unusual way in which it attained its orchestral qualities, The Moon and Antarctica certainly does smack of a more polished approach to writing and recording. The stringed lullaby of "3rd Planet" and the pretty patience of nylon-string guitar work on "Perfect Disguise" exemplify the differences between The Moonand previous efforts. Unlike on Interstate 8 or The Fruit That Ate Itself -- where most tunes were fairly straightforward and drenched in heavy guitar and hard-to-ignore drumming -- The Moon takes listeners on a ride through a musical picture book. Rather than the constant strumming of guitar or beat-it-into-your-head bass and drum lines, the album is peppered with sparse sounds. At times, a guitar riff or synthesized note juts out like a mountain crag near a Pacific Northwest coast.

"When I first listened to the album, I was horrified," Brock says suddenly, as his van continues toward Eugene. Then, after a moment, he seems to make an associative analogy, perhaps noting the landscape, where miles and miles of clear-cut trees -- just stumps, really -- are thinly veiled behind the one hundred or so yards of timber that line the interstate. "I think it's going to take a long time for this album to grow on people," he says, "and for them to appreciate it."

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