how the band began floating on
Today, Modest Mouse is well known for its wobbly guitar lines and clipped notes, its angular rhythms and dark, steady drum beats—you can hear all of these elements between the tracks “Ocean Breathes Salty,” “A Different City,” and “Heart Cooks Brain.” Yet the band’s signature style is perhaps most directly associated with frontman Isaac Brock’s abrasive shout, a guttural sound entirely unique to Modest Mouse. Brock often utilizes distortion to amplify this effect, although his vocals need no assistance. Even without help, Brock’s voice easily surpasses most other singers today in terms of power and range. He alternates this yelp—sometimes suddenly—with delicate vocals colored by a slight but noticeable lisp. With these jarring transitions, found in songs like “March Into The Sea” and “Dark Center Of The Universe,” Modest Mouse constantly takes its audience by surprise, and this attribute is largely what makes its music so exciting to listen to.
At age 14, Isaac Brock began writing songs on a guitar in the shed next to his family’s mobile home. His mother, once a member of the radical, anti-racist White Panther Party of the ’60s, had shuffled him and his sister between hippie communities and churches in Montana and Oregon before settling in the Seattle suburb of Issaquah, Washington. After multiple house floods, the family moved into his future stepfather’s trailer, but with limited space, Brock was forced to live in the adjacent shed. He traveled to the East Coast at age 16, earning money through nude modeling and medical experiments in New York City, before moving back to Issaquah a couple of years later.
Inspired by the local indie rock scene of Washington State, Brock formed a three-piece band with drummer Jeremiah Green and bassist Eric Judy in the early ’90s soon after his return west. The trio rehearsed in the his stepdad’s trailer park, where they worked to develop their now-characteristic sound. In naming the band, Brock borrowed a phrase from a Virginia Woolf short story, which referred to “modest, mouse-coloured people.” He shortened it simply to Modest Mouse.
Many of Modest Mouse’s songs are upbeat, lively, even poppy; others have a dark intensity with drawn-out, swelling interludes.Most feature densely layered combinations of these elements, and this blend has persisted since the band’s breakout album, The Lonesome Crowded West, largely considered a cult classic with its themes of anti-suburbanization, religious discontent, and nostalgia for the road. Some later tracks, such as “Missed The Boat” off of its fifth full-length album, are unexpectedly light, featuring bright acoustic guitars and optimistic melodies, but even these typically contain bittersweet lyrics, never veering too far from the band’s fundamental voice.
On The Moon & Antarctica, Modest Mouse’s first album after signing to a major label in 1999, the band benefitted from higher production quality and diversity of songs while still maintaining its sound. But it wasn’t until 2004 that Modest Mouse rose to prominence: “Float On” off of Good News for People Who Love Bad News propelled the band to the mainstream, topping Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. Following up with this accidental hit, Modest Mouse’s next album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, featuring the popular single “Dashboard,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart in 2007.
Despite its unlikely successes, Modest Mouse’s history has also been punctuated by struggles both personal and creative. Brock’s previous legal troubles include a DUI conviction, a charge of attempted murder, and a rape accusation that was eventually withdrawn. While Brock maintains his innocence with regard to the rape allegation (he addressed the issue in an interview with the A.V. Club in 2004), he has acknowledged his problems with substance abuse in songs such as “The Good Times Are Killing Me” and since cut back on drugs and alcohol.
The band more recently faced creative hardship with the departure of original bassist Eric Judy, who played a significant role in the songwriting process, during its eight-year hiatus following We Were Dead. While Modest Mouse’s membership lineup has experienced many changes in the past 20-plus years, the original membership trio had remained essentially intact prior to Judy’s departure. Nevertheless, the band just released its highly anticipated sixth studio album, Strangers to Ourselves, the day after Brown Concert Agency released the Spring Weekend 2015 lineup. The album peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. “Lampshades On Fire,” the first single off of the album, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart (formerly Modern Rock) and features all of the familiar Modest Mouse-isms that fans have come to love: quirky instrumentation, punchy drum beats, and—of course—Brock’s gruff, dynamic voice.
So what can we expect when Modest Mouse takes the stage to headline Saturday’s Spring Weekend concert? For starters, the intensity of Brock’s voice transfers well to a live setting, and the band’s unusual stage setup should keep things interesting throughout the set. If we’re lucky, we might see a small horn section, some string instruments, and perhaps even a banjo played by Brock himself.
But more importantly, we can expect a high-energy show that will make it difficult not to get up and move—even if you’re completely spent by the end of the night, even if this semester has been tougher for you than most, even if you don’t know the words to any of the songs. At the very least, remember these: “We’ll all float on alright.”