FOREWORD: I found out after trying to interview Modest Mouse singer-songwriter-guitarist Isaac Brock in 2000 that he shied away from journalists’ due to a false rape charge levied against him. It wouldn’t be the first time. I know firsthand from being at a High Times front cover shot with Staind’s sensitive metal singer, Aaron Lewis, that he was upset with Rolling Stone’s similar decision to use off the record quotes about an uncle’s molestation for titillating fodder.
So I feel for Brock. Anyway, a less obtusely seafaring version of Modest Mouse went on to aboveground MTV-sponsored fame. Who would’ve thunk it at the time? While ‘04s Good News For People Who Love Bad News gained additional plaudits, it was ‘07s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, that broke things wide open, helped along by Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr’s strong showing. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
I admit. I was duped! Heading backstage at Bowery Ballroom to interview Modest Mouse architect Isaac Brock, I met a bearded techie pretending to be Brock. Ever the gullible one, I fell for it. The joke was on me and nearly everyone in Les Savy Fav and Califone (the opening bands) had a good laugh.
After Les Savy Fav’s snarly glam-punk captured my attention, thanks to blonde, werewolf-like Brooklyn singer Tim Harrington’s outrageous antics and mindless audience participation (he distributed silky gold fabric found in the garbage to fans more than happy to receive them), I was sidetracked by another fake Brock. After a few more Heineken’s, I really was convinced this was Brock. It wasn’t.
Califone then went on-stage and kept the increasingly growing audience grooving to their deconstructed blues. Led by former Red Red Meat leader Tim Rutili, these Chicago-based denizens kicked up some dust.
As I settled into a friendly conversation with Modest Mouse bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green, I figured the real Brock would never appear. But what the hell, drinks were flowing and there was something in the air. I was feelin’ good.
“How’d Modest Mouse initially hook up?,” I asked Green.
“I met Eric at a hardcore show. I think it was Undertow or some straight-edge hardcore band,” Green remembers.
“Isaac originally played bass and he talked about being in this double bass band,” Judy says.
“Like Cop Shoot Cop?” I inquire.
“We were all psyched about the music in this place, the Party Hole, that had all ages shows with straight-edge bands. I saw Neurosis in that place. It’s the size of two bedrooms,” Green counters.
Judy admits, “We were still learning to play our instruments. I’ve still got a long way to go.”
“I feel less confident about playing drums than when I was 15. We continually work on our songcraft,” claims Green.
By this time, the booze was soaking up the backstage area, where a bottle of Jack Daniels was devoured. Finally, minutes before he’s due to go on-stage, Brock appears wearing a hooded black pullover shirt.
“Holy shit! You look like the grim reaper,” I quip.
In a slow, pirate-like voice, he drawled, “I need four fingers of whiskey with coca-cola. So if you’d just… give me… four fingers of whiskey.”
After Brock shakes hands with some friends, I ask “How’d Modest Mouse gain its initial exposure?”
He shirks the issue. “You see, I was building this castle out of shit, mud, and straw. We added a whole moat. It was 12 feet high, built from fresh scorpion shit.”
“Scorpions?” I responded. “They take small shits! How could you build from that.”
“It’s rare indeed, my friend. Rare indeed,” he surmises.
A few moments later, I spoke to Brock off the record. But by that time the boozy haze was making everything seem so surreal. He did seem to accept my claim that The Moon and Antarctica may be “conceptually designed.” And I was able to relate how well I thought he was able to lyrically relate to teenage confusion and adolescent awkwardness.
In ‘96, Brock’s Issaquah, Washington, trio released the smirking This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About on local indie Up Records. By ‘97, The Lonesome Crowded West found Brock refining his cracked, post-hippie naiveté and dysfunctional whiny rants, placing Modest Mouse at the top of the underground rock heap.
A rarities compilation, Build Nothing Out Of Something, preceded the thematic opus, The Moon And Antarctica. It’s a startling set that traipses down to a garden of earthly delights on childlike sleepyhead lullabies “Gravity Rides Again” and “Third Planet,” then goes to the farthest recesses of the “Dark Center Of The Universe.” Along the way, Brock provides a rainy day panorama of routine, mundane, everyday concerns.
Anyway, it was somewhat ironic Modest Mouse’s Bowery set would begin with a folkish beatnik song reminiscent of Bob Dylan (since the living legend began his meteoric career only a few blocks away in the West Village during the early ‘60s). But it’s Brock’s allegorical words and reflective delivery that make him so relevant and important to today’s collegiate computer geeks. Plus, in a live setting, it’s remarkable to witness Brock’s keen ability to coax difficult melodic riffs and affects-laden textures from his collection of acoustic and electric guitars.
A scorching “Do The Cockroach” had heads bobbing and feet stomping until Brock casually whispered afterwards, “I didn’t expect to be doing that one.” Then, he chewed on the strings of his axe for a few codas; wished an interrupting girl “happy birthday”; and kept the crowd in hysterics with loose, soft-spoken interjections.
If you believe the band, The Moon And Antarctica was inspired by the American folkloric oddities of Edgar Graham. An obsessed, neurologically deranged fan who had made numerous homemade tapes, Graham (under the pseudonym Ugly Casanova) would pretend to be Brock at various local gigs. However, since Graham wounded himself breaking a window at a Modest Mouse show at Denver’s Bluebird Theater, he somehow vanished off the face of the earth.
What we do know as fact is Brock remains a clever songwriter on an eternal quest for the promised land. He skews early Pink Floyd post-psychedelia with an innate indie rock thrust on “Alone Down There.” The obtuse abstraction, “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes,” hearkens back to the avant-crazed San Francisco art-rockers the Residents while the berserk, grunge-fueled “What People Are Made Of” brings back the excitable punk anxiety of Crowded West’s clusterfuck “Shit Luck.”
On the ride home, I came to realize that what was “rare indeed” was not Brock’s castle built of scorpion shit, but his unquestionable talent.