The Long Way Home
Everyone’sa little punchy this time of night. Your eyelids feel gummy, like usedpostage stamps. The white line down the middle of the highway startsswinging like a pocket watch. And Isaac Brock is in his element. The29-year-old Modest Mouse frontman is a night person and a road dog, andhe likes to talk. Tonight, as he regales a captive audience from thepassenger seat of a rented SUV, he holds his Corona low, where the copscan’t see it. He munches on pungent mini-mart jerky. He taps hisWinston Lights out the window, and the wind turns the ashes into tracesof orange neon against the night sky.
Behindthe wheel, Juan Carrera, Modest Mouse’s manager and tonight’sdesignated driver, keeps it at 70 on the dime as Brock talks a bluestreak. When Brock was younger, he was one of those kids who mostly satback and observed; now he speaks as though he’s been saving up thewords for years. He talks trash. He calls bullshit. He savages thebands he believes to be worthless and exalts the ones he loves. Hetalks about how The Lord of the Rings is a better myth than the Bible.
Tonight’s jaunt to the Emerald City is a business trip forBrock. He’s got a meeting at Sub Pop Records, the storied indie-rocklabel that’s employed him as an A&R guy for two years now (he’s hada hand in signing the Shins and Iron & Wine). But mostly he’s gotwork to do–photo shoots, rehearsals–behind Good News for People Who Love Bad News.It’s Modest Mouse’s fourth proper album, but it’s the first one todebut in the Billboard Top 20, the first one to be touted in print asevidence of modern rock’s commercial resurgence. The single “Float On”is a radio hit. And the band’s label, Epic Records, is suddenly veryexcited to be in the Modest Mouse business. Epic wants new Mouseproduct to push, and they want it now, before the iron cools. Brockunderstands, but he worries about fleecing the fans. So he distractsthe label with an endless stream of ideas for new products, creatingthe illusion of a packed pipeline.
“What if we make sneakers,” Brock says, talking to animaginary record-company exec, “where every time you take a step, itplays one of our songs? And they’re like, ‘Yeah, sure! Great!’ And thenthey call up, like, ‘Um, we really need those sneakers,’ and I’ll belike, ‘How about we make a pencil, but no matter what you try to writewith it, it writes our name. Followed by “Rulez.” With a “z.” Or howabout this? It’s a beast. With a thousand asses. And every time ittakes a shit, it comes out smelling like our band.'”
Thismay be all you need to know about Isaac Brock: Somewhere, he has avideotape of himself walking out into a thunderstorm, wearing a suitmade of pots and pans, holding a metal guitar stand in the air. He’sshouting, “This is the best thing I have ever done!” Off-camera, afriend shouts back, “God doesn’t want you!”
Like most people unsure of their place in the grand design,Brock has long been a rambling man. He has lived in Arlington,Virginia; Chicago; Seattle; and Gainesville, Florida. He has livedunder bridges, in group houses full to the rafters with itinerantpunks. But he is originally from Issaquah, which was a backwater suburbof Seattle before tech-boom money started rolling downstream and thechain stores began to sprout.
Brock grew up dirt poor and started working, as a janitor,at the age of 11. He was a teenager living in a shed next to his mom’strailer when he met future Mouse bassist Eric Judy and guitarist DannGallucci. They were into the early grunge stuff from Seattle, into theweird homespun punk coming out on Olympia labels like K and Kill RockStars. He started writing songs; he roped friends like Judy, Gallucci,and Jeremiah Green, a 13-year-old prodigy who was already drumming forlocal hardcore bands, into contributing to this “project” he wasworking on. (The name came from Virginia Woolf’s description ofordinary folk as “modest mouse-coloured people”; it seemed, to them,like a good way to describe “the low-budget folks of the world.”)
“The thing about Isaac,” Gallucci says, “is that from thefirst day I ever heard him playing a song, he got better. He wrote themost god-awful songs I’d ever heard at first, but within a year he hadprogressed at a rate that most people never do.”
By 1997’s Lonesome Crowded West, the project hadbecome a band and the band had found its voice. Brock’s singing wasthin but strong, tender as a black eye, feral at the corners. Theguitars were barbed and clipped and slippery. Green’s drums and Judy’sbass gave the music a relentless momentum. The songs–sang in thevoices of drunk cowboys, drug runners, and other lost souls–were aboutthe road, about the way the scenery outside the car window can becomean abyss that stares back into you. It remains one of the greatindie-rock records of its decade and one of the great road-trip albumsof all time, the testimony of pilgrims who realized the existentialtruth that all life is suffering during a piss break somewhere outsideMilwaukee.
Critical accolades accrued. The scouts came knocking and theband signed to Epic. Trouble accrued, too. Their major-label debut,2000’s bleak, black-humored The Moon & Antarctica, garneredrapturous reviews but sold poorly, and by then everyone was talkingabout the rumor that Brock had forced sex on a woman he’d met in aSeattle bar. Brock was never formally charged, but gossip kept thestory alive–his stock answer these days to questions about thecontroversy is “Only two people really know what happened.”
Brock had left Seattle by then. He moved around. As UglyCasanova, he recorded an album of weird, enthralling songs about autumnand decay and living in houses that smelled like old-folks’ homes. In2002, he spent five days in a New York jail after an old DUI chargecaught up with him at the Canadian border. Then things really startedto get rough.
The afternoon before we left for Seattle, Brock and I had afew drinks in a bar called the Triple Nickel, a few blocks from thelittle house he shares with his girlfriend in Portland, Oregon. AsBrock recounts the difficult genesis of Good News, he drinksenough to stagger a Navy SEAL. But there’s a calm about him, theserenity of a semi-reformed fuckup. On some level, he knows he’s luckyto be here. Back in 2003, he’d gone off the rails, even by his ownstandards. He was attending mandatory AA meetings, a consequence of theDUI. But after every meeting, Brock says, “I’d be like, ‘You can’t tellme what to do,’ and go get fucking trashed.”
When work began on the new record, the band rented a bighouse in Portland. “I think Isaac had envisioned this, like,the-Band-out-in-Woodstock situation,” Gallucci says, “where we’d livethere and work on music 24 hours a day. It was sweet, but maybe alittle bit too hopeful.”
The scene was chaotic. Green had been diagnosed with bipolardisorder and was taking Effexor, a prescription antidepressant. Hisbehavior became increasingly unpredictable and erratic. “I thought thateverything I wanted to do in my life, I had to do it immediately,” heremembers. “I thought, I’m gonna die. There’s totally a holy wargoing on right now, and I’m gonna die, probably this year or next year.Either I’m gonna kill myself or the world’s gonna end.
“I was totally not there,” he continues. “I mean, I wasthere, behind the drum kit, but I wasn’t focused at all, and I wasn’tcommunicating with people in an effective way. It just got reallyweird.”
At a typical practice, Gallucci says, “we’d kinda startplaying, nothing would get done, and we’d take a break. Maybe Isaacwould start cooking. Eric would still be in the practice space, playingmusic. And Jeremy would be walking around the room with no shirt on,with, like, a blanket covering himself, playing the bongos, smoking ajoint and chanting.”
Green quit Modest Mouse on his birthday; his bandmatestalked him into coming back. They went into the studio to startrecording. Two days into the sessions, things came to a head. “We startplaying this song,” Gallucci remembers, “and [Jeremy is] getting pissedbecause he can’t get it. And then he just stops. And starts yelling ateveryone, and I see him, like, lunging toward Eric, like he’s going totake a swing.”
I was in the other room,” Brock says, “and I didn’t even know what was going on. He was yelling and throwing shit.”
The blowup lasted about two hours. Green ranted, dredging upancient beefs. “He yelled at me that I was an alcoholic,” Brock says,”a worthless alcoholic like his dad. I said, ‘I don’t need to sit hereand have you yell at me.'” Then Brock headed for the bar.
After that, Green says, he “just kind of disappeared” fortwo months. he drove his car around Seattle. He spent a week in NewYork, calling people on the phone at all hours, leaving threateningmessages, getting into fights. Back in Seattle, he spent about sixhours in the mental wing of a hospital. A psychiatrist advised him toup his dosage of Effexor. Instead, he chose to stop taking it, andendured a painful period of withdrawal.
“It was fucked up,” Brock says. “Y’know–I watched thatWilco movie that’s supposed to be all traumatic, and I was like, ‘Thisis nothing.’ Like, boo hoo–our fucking drummer went to a mental institution.”
Still, Brock says, “I’m not going to let [Jeremy] take thefall, as much as he seems to want to. We both lost the plot. And of thetwo of us, Imanaged to regain my balance.”
They talked about breaking up the band. No one was sure theycould write without Green. But when they tried, the songs came fast.Hoping to put the confusion of the past few months behind them, theydecamped to Oxford, Mississippi–with drummer Benjamin Weikel, on loanfrom Portland duo the Helio Sequence–and set up shop in veteranproducer Dennis Herring’s recording studio, Sweet Tea. Brock describesthe sessions with Herring as “fucking brutal”; he took a firmer handwith the songs–and with the band–than anyone was used to. “There werepoints,” Brock says, “where I literally was almost gonna kill him. And literally gets used a lot, but literally, I was gonna fucking kill him.”
“By the end of it,” he quickly adds, “things became reallynice. However it worked out, he was the fucking best man for the job.”
Herring’s production gives the melodies room to lurch andsurge. But the album never sounds like a cynical pop makeover; itsbright-side buoyancy suits the songs, which are about how life willbeat your ass and how the only way to cope is to learn to love itanyway. Its uplift is realistic, its optimism hard-won. It’s a perfectrecord for an era in which hoping against hope often feels like thebest we can do.
“We all knew it was going to be huge,” says Megan Jasper,Sub Pop’s general manager and a close friend of Brock’s. “You couldtell, just on listening to it for the first time.”
Brock isn’t buying any of this. He’s confident that his bandwill weather this storm of good fortune and come out as star-crossed asever.
“Modest Mouse was built on a fault line,” he says. “Andwe’ll remain on a fault line the whole time we’re doing things. Thingsjust go haywire for us. And I think we’re all very fine with that atthis point. Bad shit happens, and nobody really blinks. Like, ‘Oh,shit–all our stuff got stolen and the car is fucking burning in agully. Wanna go to the bar?'”
Against a backdrop of rosy fog, Seattle’s skylineglitters like a jewelry-store display. A road-rumpled Brock makes it tothe Cha Cha Lounge, a hipster-haven tiki bar in the city’s Capitol Hillarea, just in time for last call. The place is full of warm orangelight and beautiful, frowning women. Brock slides into a booth acrossfrom two women he kinda knows, photographers who shot Modest Mouse onBrock’s porch for the skateboard magazine Thrashera few weeks ago and hung out afterward for a barbecue. One tells Brockthat he’s a great cook. “Thanks,” he says. “It’s what I want to do withmy life. Once I’m done with this shit job I have now.” Frosty Tecatesare killed, then it’s chucking-out time. Brock lingers outside,reluctant to call it a night, which is when Green walks by, wearing akhaki-colored army jacket and a worried look that may just be habit.Since the meltdown in Portland, Brock and Green have patched things up.A few days from now, he will start rehearsing with Modest Mouse again,and will officially rejoin in May. But tonight’s encounter feels alittle awkward, like a rapprochement in progress-at least until Greenpulls up his shirt to show off these enormous red welts on his back,the result of alternative-medicine back-pain treatment. “Damn,” Brocksays, “I’m gonna report you to Child Protection, man!”
The lights are out at the Cha Cha, but Brock’s convincedthe bartender to let him and Green back in. “I’m going inside,” he sayswith a little bow, “to drink beer. As is my wont.”
The Thrasher girls cut across the street and up thehill, steadied on each other’s arms. Brock and Green stand thereoutside the bar, waiting for someone to come and unlock the door.