With Modest Mouse hitting town Friday, July 23, as well as sitting high on Billboard's albums and modern rock tracks charts, and in heavy rotation on 103.9 The Edge, I feel a responsibility to let you know that, if you've recently glommed on to the Northwest troubadours' latest LP, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, you've completely missed out on everything that's great about Modest Mouse.
Sure, I know that sounds like rock-crit snobbery, but let me explain. I've been following the band closely since its 1996 debut, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, fanatically collecting 7-inch singles by the band since then. The journey the band took to actual rock stardom and radio play is far more interesting than the end destination.
Back in the day, Modest Mouse was a sparser, more elemental band than you hear now, with Isaac Brock's unmistakable harmonic squelches on his guitar and falsetto vocal squeaking alongside Eric Judy's rolling bass lines and drummer Jeremiah Green's absolutely sick timing signatures.
The band was originally part of the Northwestern indie-pop cabal that included all of the K Records, Up Records, and Kill Rock Stars artists, bands such as Built to Spill, Unwound, Sleater Kinney, and Bikini Kill. They started out practicing in a barn behind Brock's mom's trailer in the little logging town of Issaquah, Washington, an environment that heavily influenced the band's early work.
I first saw Modest Mouse when I journeyed to the legendary 1997 Yo-Yo A Go-Go festival in Olympia, Washington. While that was a long time ago, I'll never forget that, between songs, the audience in Olympia's Capitol Theatre was yellingout "Tundra!", trying to get the band to play "Tundra/Desert" off of LongDrive. Brock's response was, "We don't play that song anymore." But when it came time for the encore, the slow double riff of the song's intro rang out, and everyone in the packed theater went fucking bonkers.
Later in 1997, Modest Mouse released the sprawling masterpiece The Lonesome Crowded West, a chunk of trailer trash Americana channeled through songs that could be acoustic or might be Sabbath-esque flailing, but altogether defined a young man's dismal impression of a great nation infested with strip malls and populated with shitty parents and alcoholics, with its miles and miles of highways being the only escape besides booze.
When Modest Mouse was coming to Phoenix in May of 1998, I attempted to interview the band via phone to preview the show. Despite assurances from Up, MM's record label at the time, the band never called -- the label hadn't heard from them in days, either. I wrote a story that began, "Modest Mouse just does not give a fuck."
I was pissed not to get to talk to my favorite band at the time, but when the trio arrived at Boston's for the show, co-headlining with the Get Up Kids, I found a drunken Brock easy to talk to. After the show, he cryptically asked me about procuring some "booger sugar." With the help of my girlfriend at the time, we drove to an apartment in a Tempe barrio where I knew a Chicano gangster who dealt in such matters.
We went back to my house, where a party was underway, with members of the Get Up Kids raiding the closets and dressing in ridiculous outfits, one riding a broom like a horse through the house. Brock and I went into my bedroom, where he could indulge in peace, and I turned on a tape recorder. We talked for hours with my microcassette recorder running. The next day I discovered, to my dismay, that the recorder hadn't picked up shit of our conversation.
The next time I saw Brock, the band was touring behind its 2000 major label debut, The Moon and Antarctica. Since I'd seen him, he'd been accused of rape in the Seattle alternative media (no charges were ever filed), bought a house in rural Oregon and, he told me, was off the "booger sugar." We slugged back some shots of Maker's Mark before the band played, but Brock seemed to be much more subdued and weighed-upon by life.
The Moon and Antarctica reflected that -- it was a darker, more melancholic album than any of Modest Mouse's previous releases. Rather than singing about America, the songs' subject matter spanned the entire universe, with meditations on mortality and alienation.
It would be another four years before Modest Mouse's next full-length, this year's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Brock released an album, Sharpen Your Teeth, under the moniker "Ugly Casanova" in 2002; it was supposedly composed of lyrics from journals by a crazed Modest Mouse fan named Edgar Graham. Altogether, it was a disappointing detour.
My point is that you cannot fully appreciate Modest Mouse without hearing the songs that developed on the way to the band's current success. Here's a primer -- download the following and you'll have a well-rounded idea of what the Mouse is all about: "Birds vs. Worms," "Edit the Sad Parts," "Summer," "Make Everyone Happy/Mechanical Birds," "Trailer Trash," "Trucker' s Atlas," and "All Nite Diner." You'll enjoy the show even more.
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