This profile of Modest Mouse originally ran in the July 2000 issue of SPIN. In honor of the band’s EP The Fruit That Ate Itself turning 20 on May 13th, we are republishing it now.
A blood-orange sun drops below the treeline. Hawks circle in search of dinner. On a dusty trail in North Florida, Isaac Brock–singer/guitarist for Seattle indie torch-bearers Modest Mouse–flees for his life.
“Get the hell out of here!” he shrieks as a cloud of skeeters swirls around his head. The manic, diminutive (or as he says, “monkey-size”) Brock beats a retreat to a picnic pavilion and pops open a Heineken tall boy. The bugs haven’t followed, but even here nature is damned hungry. Gators pimp-walk along the lake a few yards away, and a battalion of caterpillars marches across the concrete floor, climbing a table and nibbling up his back.
Brock is staying here with his girlfriend, Molli, a student at the University of Florida. And it’s somehow fitting that he’s found himself in these balmy hinterlands, at odds with the world around him. Modest Mouse are postpunk nomads. Their music–part emo guitar-tangle, part avant-boogie–envisions suburban isolation through the bleary eyes of stoned pioneers. The Lonesome Crowded West (released in 1997 on Seattle indie Up) glared bitterly at what had been done to the land of Lewis and Clark, and the band’s brilliant new Epic debut, The Moon and Antarctica, expands on their dystopian worldview. Produced by Brian Deck (formerly of Chicago’s Red Red Meat), Antarctica piles up open-tuned drones, gulped salvos, and funky drumming in anthems that are both woozy and jagged. Its lyrics are full of ash-heap landscapes and dried open spaces. “I wasn’t trying to make it different,” Brock says, sipping his beer. “It just ended up being more surreal.”
At their best, the seven-year-old Modest Mouse are a rare thing: a charismatic rock band from the chaste Upper Northwest indie scene. Brock has even had his mail stolen and auctioned off on eBay. For their part, the other mice–bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green–are quieter than Belle and Sebastian’s doorbell. Both prefer to hang out in Brock’s small shadow. “I’d rather hide out than be the center of attention,” Green admits.
But indie star power isn’t exactly in demand here in the Carson Daly administration. Epic may have signed Mouse based on the band’s substantial buzz and seismic live show, but their deal pales in comparison to those of their mid-’90s indie-boom counterparts. The bare-bones contract gives them a recording budget but no signing bonus. And for their tour this summer, Mouse turned down a bus the label would’ve billed them for anyway to save money using the Dodge van they’ve been traveling in for years.
“You should totally feel proud about earning your own keep,” Brock says, “about not having had anything fucking handed to you. That’s a great thing. It’s too bad so many kids get robbed of that.” If the indie ethic has always been austerity versus opulence, Modest Mouse have chosen working-class frugality, revising the old Minutemen fiat “jam econo.”
Brock knows of what he speaks. His mom, Kris, was once a member of hardcore ’60s radicals the White Panthers, and as a young child Brock spent a year on a hippie commune in Oregon before his mom and stepdad found religion, joining the Grace Gospel Church in small-town Montana. “I had no social skills,” he says. “I didn’t hang out with kids.”
When Brock was 11, the family moved Issaquah, Washington, a quiet logging town 17 miles outside of Seattle that he watched turn from leafy burg to suburb. Isaac lived in a shed next to their home. His mom is still there in a trailer near their old house, though maybe not for long. “They want to build a bypass there, mostly because Bill Gates is building a Microsoft campus on the Issaquah plateau,” she laments. “It would go right through Isaac’s shed.” (Brock’s agreed to do a benefit to protect the surrounding wetlands.)
About ten years ago Brock’s family was running an Issaquah video store when Eric Judy walked in wearing a T-shirt plugging Bay Area hardcore band Econochrist. Brock, a budding record junkie, told him the band sucked, and the two hit it off. A short time later they met Green en route to a free meal sponsored by a group of Hare Krishnas reaching out to punks. They’ve been together ever since.
They haven’t, however, always been settled in Seattle. In the spring of 1999, a 19-year-old Seattle woman filed a police report accusing Brock of date rape. No charges were pressed, but the local weeklies reported the story, and everyone in the chattering indie scene picked a side. Brock’s hands still shake as he talks about the incident. “There’s no way for anybody but two people to know,” he says, “and I’m pretty comfortable with what I know.”
Antarctica‘s “Paper Thin Walls” is about a place where “everyone hears every little sound,” and, though Brock claims otherwise, the controversy probably precipitated the move south. Now a year later, he’s heading back to Seattle to prepare for the summer tour. “Seattle’s got this dark, David Lynch/L.A. vibe for people who are in punk rock. I don’t miss that.” Still, he notes flatly, “I belong there.”
Brock climbs into Modest Mouse’s small touring van. Inside there’s a trap for catching crawdads, a platform that sleeps four “comfortably,” as a well as a bottle of liquid nicotine substitute, a Silver Jews CD, and several vials on the dashboard containing some nasty, yet beautifully phosphorescent, liquid. It feels casual yet art-directed. And it all feels strangely homey, as if Isaac Brock’s gonna be on the road for a long time.