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Modest Mouse | by Life Is Still Sweet
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Modest Mouse

 

Isaac Brock is twenty-nine, charming, smart and successful. He drives a metallic-gray Volvo V70 wagon and lives with his "totally not insane" girlfriend, Katie, and their slightly neurotic eight-month-old mutt, Sloan, in a neat bungalow in a quiet, gentrified Portland, Oregon, neighborhood. He's got a live-in personal assistant, Richard, who runs Brock's errands by day and fetches beers for him by night. He's in negotiations for a lucrative music-publishing deal, and he and Katie are looking to buy a house. Good News for People Who Love Bad News, the latest album by Brock's band, Modest Mouse, has sold 687,000 copies -- more than all three previous Modest Mouse albums combined. And after eleven troubled years on the Pacific Northwest scene -- years scarred by drug abuse, injury, mental illness, alcoholism, occasional homelessness and death -- Modest Mouse have, improbably, become one of the summer's breakthrough bands.

 

So why, on this starry, seventy-degree June night, does Brock give off the impression that it might all just disintegrate at any moment, that chaos is around the corner? "It's just the way things are -- they're good, they're fucked up, it is what it is," he says, elbows on the bar next to a fresh Pacifico and a shot of Patron at the Bonfire Lounge, a no-frills hangout near his house. It should be noted that we've been drinking since well before sundown, and that the sun will rise again in a little more than three hours. Brock, dressed in dark jeans, a red-checked short-sleeve Levi's shirt and blue Adidas, is built like a Tonka truck -- squat, solid -- and he moves like one, with weight and purpose. The liquor has put him in a carousing mood; he's swinging his arms, hammering the bar and talking loudly to anyone who will listen.

 

Right now, despite the fact that he's leaving for a European tour in three days, Brock is pleading with the Bonfire's co-owner, Dimetri, that he needs a job. He first inquires about a position as "the drink drinker, steward of the alcohol" then moves on to chef. (Brock actually is an excellent, inventive cook, his girlfriend and others confirm.) "I could cook you your own dick and it would be so good you'd eat it," he shouts. "Yeah!" No reaction. "Oh, no, wait, that was not really a good sell," he says. "Kind of icky." Pause. "Could we get back to me being a good cook?"

 

"What do you like cooking?" asks Dimetri.

 

"What's in the fridge?"

 

Things devolve from there, as does my ability to take notes. I mark down that Brock eventually switches from tequila to vodka ("Wrong decision," he admits later), and that his two companions -- Benjamin Weikel, who plays drums on the new Modest Mouse album, and Joe Plummer, the band's percussionist on loan from The Black Heart Procession, one of Brock's favorite bands -- disappear at some point. By that time, Brock has already made new friends at the bar.

 

"How many political idealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?" he asks one of them.

 

How many?

 

"None. Political idealists can't change shit."

 

Brock gives himself a big laugh for that one, and then the jokes get worse. In the middle of one that somehow involves his mustache, olives and "British ladies," he seems to realize that he's lost his audience -- and maybe his grip. So he improvises an ending: "And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I invented bullshit!" he shouts, convincingly. Two guys at the bar halfheartedly clap.

 

Brock takes a bow. "You're welcome, world," he says. "You're welcome."

 

The bartender interrupts: "Dude, go home."

 

Two years ago, when he began work on Good News, Brock was heavily depressed, with too much time on his hands. He was living in a small house owned by his stepfather in rural Cottage Grove, Oregon -- "the covered-bridge capital of Oregon" -- trying to make sense of the death of two friends: Chris Takino, the owner of Mouse's first label, Up Records, who died of leukemia, and a woman he prefers not to talk about. "They were both young," he says. "It wasn't drugs. It made no sense."

 

One night he was working alone in the studio and things got out of hand. "I was drinking to the point that I wasn't all that handy," he says. "I don't know what I was fucking with, but the next morning I woke up and my thumb was broken, there was bent metal and shit all over the studio. I was in, like, an extra bed in the house, not my bed. I thought, 'This isn't good.' "

 

The rest of the band -- drummer Jeremiah Green, bassist Eric Judy and guitar player Dann Gallucci -- were living in Seattle, so Brock suggested renting a house in Portland -- a midway point -- to work on the album. Green, also a heavy drinker and depressive, was suffering from what Brock calls "lazy psychiatry," taking large doses of anti-depressants that made him aggressive and paranoid. Brock had a difficult time playing guitar with his broken thumb, and tensions were mounting. Says Green, "Isaac and I were really fueling each other's fires, letting our bad selves go crazy." Judy and Gallucci tried to keep working, but they remember spending most of the time cooking and watching TV.

 

"Pretty much all we did for the six months we were trying to write the record was play 'Dance Hall' " -- three minutes of obsessive pounding and chanting that eventually did make the album -- "for about two hours a day," Brock says. "And get really drunk."

 

Out of desperation, with three songs semifinished, the band booked studio time near Seattle. The first day of recording, Green showed up late; the second, during the middle of recording a song, he ripped his shirt off, began screaming obscenities and quit the band. "I wasn't healthy in my head," Green says. "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 landed briefly in a psychiatric hospital, and he has spent the last year putting his life back together. He recently rejoined the band for its summer tour.

 

A few days after Green's breakdown, the rest of the band sat down to talk about the future. "We said, 'So, are we going to do this band, or what?' " Brock remembers. "I was depressed as fuck, myself, but there was a certain point where I had to decide. I had to start believing in" -- he lowers his voice -- "the power of positive thinking." He laughs. "Seriously. I figured out you could do it if you have to. So we agreed to continue, and I fuckin' quit drinking until halfway through the record."

 

The band -- with Weikel on drums -- decamped to Oxford, Mississippi, to work with producer Dennis Herring, whom they had never met before but knew from his work with Camper Van Beethoven. "After things fell apart, we were like, 'Let's get away from the bad mojo,' " says Brock. They finished writing the album in about a month: "Once we made the decision, it was really easy."

 

Good News for People Who Love Bad News is, like all Modest Mouse records, full of jittery guitars, angular rhythms and understated, disarming melodies. Good News is different, though. It's prettier and more focused; for the first time, the melodies aren't buried in noise and jagged shifts in tempo and melody. Brock's favorite themes -- drifting, drinking, suburban dystopia -- are all here, as well as an unusual number of songs that refer to death. But throughout the album, his sarcasm and bitterness have softened into a more optimistic worldview. In the radio hit "Float On," and several other songs, the message is simple: No matter how fucked up things get, hang on, life will work out in the end.

 

Gallucci says he was surprised at first by "Float On." "It was the most positive Modest Mouse song I'd ever heard," he says. "I was a little thrown off, but I was really happy, too. We kind of needed it." He says that he's always paid close attention to the message in Brock's music -- it's often the only way he knows what's on Brock's mind. "The easiest way for Isaac to communicate about how he's feeling or about things that are important is through his music," Gallucci says. "And that's from being friends with him for a long time. I've often felt like I was getting more of a real answer from him through his lyrics than I would from talking to him."

 

Brock pinpoints his change in attitude to a song he heard as Modest Mouse were bottoming out, called "Life Is Still Sweet," by the New York band White Hassle. "When I heard it, I thought, 'This is nice. This is actually an unsarcastically positive song.' I was like, 'Let's fuck this doom-and- gloom bullshit.' It was a really good thing to get reminded of, you know?"

 

One night in El Paso, Texas, Brock got drunk and tattooed life is still sweet on his own forearm. He says, laying his arm on the bar to show the thick, shaky lines of black ink, "I made up my mind that things were going to be better."

 

Brock grew up in Issaquah, Washington, seventeen miles east of Seattle. In his early teens, the house he shared with his mom and aunt flooded, and the family moved into a trailer with his mom's new husband, who was also Brock's uncle. (Brock's mother had left his dad for his dad's brother.) There wasn't any room for Isaac, so he stayed behind in the flooded house until he was eventually evicted. For a while, Brock lived in neighbors' basements, then in a shed next to his mother's trailer, where he began writing songs and playing guitar. "We were dirt-poor," he says. "People had to put boxes of food at my mom's front door so the family could eat. One of the reasons I moved around so much is because there was never really room for me at home."

 

Brock went to school sporadically and worked several jobs to support himself and help out his family. At night, after getting off work at a Seattle theater, he'd go to local clubs to see bands such as the Screaming Trees and Nirvana. When Brock and Judy met during high school, the bassist remembers that "he was this funny excited kid -- he'd do anything, try anything." Gallucci adds, "He had tons of energy and was probably way more ambitious than anyone else, but also completely crazy in a funny way."

 

In 1992, when he was sixteen, Brock dropped out of school, moved to D.C. and lived with his girlfriend. For the next several years, Brock moved around a lot -- back and forth from Issaquah, where he took a community-college course to get his high school diploma, back to D.C. and to New York's East Village to live with a girlfriend, before eventually landing in Seattle. He earned a living cleaning out meat trucks, posing as a nude model for art classes and taking part in medical experiments.

 

In 1996, Modest Mouse released their debut, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, followed a year later by The Lonesome Crowded West, which remains one of the finest post-grunge Seattle rock albums. Brock had begun writing the next album, The Moon and Antarctica, when, in early 1999, a nineteen-year-old woman accused him of date rape and filed a report with the Seattle police. Formal charges were never made, but the local alternative press hounded Brock, and the insular Seattle rock scene turned against him and the band. For a while, Brock moved to Gainesville, Florida.

 

Brock has always maintained his innocence. "The whole situation of he said/she said was not worth going into because you're just going to believe what you're going to believe," he says. "I would have turned against me, too. Up until the point that that happened, I just didn't believe people lied about [rape]. It was my sort of MO -- how I had been brought up."

 

Brock's next stop was Chicago, to record The Moon and Antarctica. It didn't take long for trouble to find him. One night he left his apartment to have a smoke and walk the dog. Some kids were hanging out in the park across the street, and he walked up to say hi. Unprovoked, Brock says, one of them punched him in the face and broke his jaw. He's still numb on the right side of his mouth where a steel plate was inserted.

 

The Moon and Antarctica sold moderately well, especially for a record that got little support from its label, Epic. Convinced Modest Mouse would soon be dropped, Brock recorded a side project, Ugly Casanova. But around that time, he got into a car accident and was arrested for drunken driving. According to Brock, a friend in the car dislocated her thumb in the accident, and Brock says the charge was elevated to attempted murder. A year later, he was stopped crossing the border from Canada after visiting Niagara Falls. "The attempted-murder charge came up, which looks pretty bad on paper, I admit," Brock says. He was jailed for six days in Niagara County, New York, and later served thirty days on a highway cleanup crew.

 

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.) Back home, Brock is not ready for the night to end. A bottle of port appears, and we step out onto the porch, where he can smoke. Brock spends a lot of time on this porch; there's even a bottle opener mounted to the mailbox. He says that life's been tense at home lately, because Katie's not thrilled that he's leaving on tour for most of the summer. (Modest Mouse were booked on the canceled Lollapalooza; the band will headline its own U.S. tour starting July 16th instead.) "It's hard for some people to understand that I've been doing this since I was superyoung," he says. "This is what I do -- me and Dan and Eric, we're all lifers. That doesn't make sense to her. I try to say, 'I met you on tour, for Christ's sake; you knew this when you started dating me.' You know, this is how I move around, and if I don't do this, I've got to move to cities -- some people just have got to move."

 

By 1 p.m. the next day, the wine and beer bottles are cleaned up, there are no cigarette butts on the porch, and the place is tidy and flooded with sunshine. Brian Eno is playing on Brock's PowerBook. Sloan hurt his foot, so Brock is carrying the fifty-pound shepherd mix around the house like a lap dog. Eventually, the two of them fall onto the couch together, beneath a wall that exhibits Brock's collection of framed, mounted butterflies.

 

A little later we sit outside at Brock's favorite Cuban restaurant, drinking espresso and eating empanadas and beef-tongue stew. The place is urban rustic, with brightly painted tables, flowers growing along the sidewalk and young couples drinking beer in the sunshine, as if life is too short to spend a weekday afternoon at work.

 

"My goal is to buy a three-story building," Brock says. "I'd use one floor as a studio. On the ground floor I'd have a junk shop and sell CDs -- but only about my thirty favorite CDs, not one of those make-everyone-happy places, everyone's buying up this new blah-di-blah-blah record. No, it'll be just my picks. Then on the other floor there will be a restaurant where there will be only two options: vegetarian or not. And about a six-person bar."

 

I tell him that for a guy who admits to chronic restlessness, it sounds like he's planting roots. "Yeah, I think I could," he says. Then, as if by reflex, "I can also see myself moving away from here, too."

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Taken on April 10, 2004