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When queried in an interview a couple of years ago as to whether he was really the fabled Ugly Casanova, Modest Mouse front man Isaac Brock immediately went all prickly. "Aw, man," he groaned. "You've got to let some things stay a mystery." And then he set the screen on his hotel window on fire with a cigarette. But now the jig is up: Ugly Casanova could only be the twisted brain child of indie rock's tortured poet laureate.
Ugly Casanova was once a whispered word on the lips of earnest Modest Mouse fans, a phantom lurking in the wings at shows, bloodied and sad and more than a little crazy. The "official" story is that Brock was approached by a slightly unglued drifter named Edgar Graham, who was adopted as the band's tour mascot and who shared some of his songs with the players. His music was so moving, the story claims, that it inspired Modest Mouse's 2000 release The Moon and Antarctica. Casanova/Graham was urged to commit his songs to tape to submit to record labels; after doing so, he famously disappeared and has not been heard from since.
Not until last November, that is, when a bundle held together with "tape, Silly Putty and pelts of three identifiable rodents" arrived at Sub Pop Records in Seattle. These tapes are now Sharpen Your Teeth, as "interpreted" by Brock and Brian Deck (who produced the record together), with a little help from John Orth, Tim Rutilli and Pall Jenkins (members of Red Red Meat and Califone). There are remarkable similarities between this and Modest Mouse's music, but it's more pared-down, less raucous and shouty, more melancholy and redneck. By now, of course, everyone knows that there is no Edgar Graham and that Brock is the twisted genius behind the project. He no longer gets cagey when pressed about it. "I tried to do a hoax; it didn't work," he admits flatly. "I'll try again another time."
An intriguing proposition, considering the breadth and depth of the music on Sharpen Your Teeth. While some may call the outing self-indulgent perhaps forgetting that the whole purpose of a side project is to meet creative needs that a band can't fulfill the record ventures into territory that flirts with the kind of twisted genius one associates with Tom Waits (but with more swearing). The instrumentation blends Brock's unmistakable guitar with gently clanging rhythm lines, banjo, synthesizers and a saw (on "Smoke Like Ribbons"), which complement the poignant lyrics about loving and losing, as well as being born in mashed potatoes and discovering "cum on the piano."
Brock relishes the creative freedom he had in making this record. "I have a whole bunch of instruments, and I've been trying to figure them out," he says. "Making my own record allows me to fuck around with things like that. With Epic [Modest Mouse's label], it probably would have been like, Euuhh . . . you don't know how to play it?!' But I don't really like to overanalyze shit like that. It's on there because it sounded good."
Brock is currently touring the Ugly Casanova project with collaborators Deck and Orth, as well as Eric Johnson (guitar, banjo, slide) and Dan Gallucci (formerly of Murder City Devils and the newest member of Modest Mouse). He'll have a week off at the end of July before hopping back on the road with the Mouse as part of the Unlimited Sunshine tour, which also features alt-rock stalwarts the Flaming Lips and Cake. Following that, Modest Mouse must record another album for Epic.
"Mistakes were made," says Brock matter-of-factly. "I'm not sure how I hoped it would turn out, but I thought maybe it would be a lot of fun and [Epic would] put some effort into it. But they didn't, and they somehow managed to figure out how to take all the fun out of shit." All of this means that it will likely be at least another year or two before Ugly Casanova surfaces again.
Then again, Brock, who has also started doing A&R for Sub Pop, doesn't even know what the future holds for himself and his music. "After I do the next Modest Mouse record, I think I'm gonna go to culinary school," he reveals. "I don't think I'll ever stop making music; I just don't know how or if I'll be making records. If I'm not feeling it at some point, I'm not going to keep doing it just to get paid, pay rent with it or something. I hope I know better than to do that." But given Brock's recent history of red herrings regarding his creative projects, who knows whether what he's saying is the truth or another diversionary tactic?
One thing's for certain: While the construction of a haunted mythology is indeed intriguing and amusing, Ugly Casanova doesn't need to spin a tale to get attention. These bizarre, perverse and truthful songs do all the talking. Here's hoping that this voice isn't squelched anytime soon.