Formed in: 1993, Issaquah, Washington
Key Albums: The Lonesome Crowded West (1997), The Moon and Antarctica (2000), Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004)
Modest Mouse are an indie-rock band based around songwriter Isaac Brock's Pixies-influenced guitar and philosophical lyrics. After a string of critically-acclaimed singles, EPs, and LPs the band broke out with 2004 single "Float On" and LP Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Their name comes from a passage describing "modest, mouse-coloured people" in the Virginia Woolf story The Mark on the Wall.
Brock was raised within the religious sect the Grace gospel church. When he was six, he was expected to speak in tongues. "I didn't feel the spirit of the fucking Lord rushing through me," he'd recount, to The Guardian. "I definitely felt awkward."
Brock's youth later involved living in trailers, squatting, and dropping out of high-school. In his teenage years, Brock —an obsessive fan of The Pixies— started home-recording volumes of songs —"really bad 'adolescent guy hanging out in his room' recordings," he'd tell Ink 19— and eventually recruited Eric Judy and Jeremiah Green on bass and drums, respectively.
Modest Mouse cut their first-ever EP, 1994's Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect? for Calvin Johnson's iconic K Records imprint, then followed it with small-run singles for Pacific Northwest indie institutions Sub Pop and Suicide Squeeze. Their debut LP, This Is A Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, announced the scope of Brock's ambition: a 74 minute leviathan which connecting the tedium of touring with the ennui of being aimless and adrift in an unfeeling universe.
1997's The Lonesome Crowded West also clocked in at 74 minutes in length, and added country flourishes and different instruments to Brock's Pixies/Pavement-influenced guitar klang. It was preceded by a 'transitory' EP, The Fruit That Ate Itself, recorded by Johnson and released on K, which featured almost hip-hop-ish elements; something that'd later surface on their more-experimental third LP, 2000's The Moon and Antarctica.
The Moon and Antarctica was Modest Mouse's major-label debut, after they signed to Epic Records in 1999. "Commercial rock is usually pretty shitty, but it doesn't have to stay that way," Brock told The Reader, in 1998. "I think we could go to a major label and still fly under the radar, you know?"
Though it would go on to be regarded as one of the defining indie records of the '00s, The Moon and Antarctica —an album of "songs about the devil and outerspace"— did fly under the radar; not cracking the Billboard 100, nor being picked up for release by Sony anywhere else in the world.
This was also a difficult time for Brock: in 1999 he was accused of date rape, though never convicted, and with all allegations subsequently withdrawn ("it was complete and utter bullshit," Brock snarled, to The AV Club). In 2000, Brock's jaw was broken in a bar fight, and, in 2003, he'd spend a week-and-a-half in a Buffalo jail in the middle of an Ugly Casanova tour after crossing the border with an outstanding DUI conviction in Oregon.
The lackluster commercial reception to The Moon and Antarctica had ratcheted up band tensions and dented Brock's confidence. "There were a couple years where we kind of drifted," Brock told Stop Smiling. "I think we'd all gotten slightly tired of it."
Brock spent more time devoted to his job as A&R at Sub Pop; two of his first recommendations, Albuquerque's Flake and Vancouver's Atlas Strategic, lead to relationships that would have The Shins and Wolf Parade, respectively, signing to the label.
He also made a solo album for Sub Pop, under the name Ugly Casanova, in 2002. Collaborating with members of Red Red Meat, Califone, and Holopaw, the results —the Sharpen Your Teeth LP— showcased a bizarre, ad-hoc approach to Americana.
Modest Mouse eventually reconvened with Green having departed the band after a nervous breakdown. Part-time extra guitarist Dann Gallucci had been upgraded to full-time member, and the extra instrumental heft pushed the band into bigger, more anthemic territories with 2004's Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Spearheaded by radio-friendly lead single "Float On," the album landed in the US and UK Top 40, achieving genuine commercial crossover.
The album was produced by Dennis Herring, who, Brock says, dared to demand of them perfection, and pestered the band to perform take after take. "There were times when I literally wanted to kill him," Brock told Dose.
When Gallucci left the band, amicably, late in 2004, the band recruited several touring guitarists before settling on a big name in 2006: The Smiths' legendary jangler, Johnny Marr. "I knew it was a demented notion," Brock admitted to The Guardian, "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."
"Someone from his record company had contacted my manager first," Marr recounted, in Spin. "And then I bumped into Franz Ferdinand's manager, who said: 'I hear you've joined Modest Mouse.' And I said: 'I've never spoken to them in my life!' Then Isaac called and asked me if I wanted to join."
Unexpectedly, Marr became a full-time member, and ended up collaborating on the fifth Modest Mouse album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank; Marr literally 'all over' lead single "Dashboard." Though the band were riding high on commercial success —something cemented when We Were Dead debuted at #1 on the US Charts— the record was the bleakest of Brock's career.
"Death showed up a lot on this record because I would rather it quit killing all my friends," Brock told Drowned in Sound. "They died in accidents and of things like leukaemia where no one was doing anything wrong. This proves that there is no God, otherwise he would have smite the f**k out of me by now."
In 2009, Modest Mouse released an EP, No One's First and You're Next made up of death-obsessed content left over from the LP. Fittingly, the music video for "King Rat" was directed by actor Heath Ledger, who had died earlier that year.