This article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of SPIN.
Everyone’s a little punchy this time of night. Your eyelids feel gummy, like used postage stamps. The white line down the middle of the highway starts swinging like a pocket watch. And Isaac Brock is in his element. The 29-year-old Modest Mouse frontman is a night person and a road dog, and he likes to talk. Tonight, as he regales a captive audience from the passenger seat of a rented SUV, he holds his Corona low, where the cops can’t see it. He munches on pungent mini-mart jerky. He taps his Winston Lights out the window, and the wind turns the ashes into traces of orange neon against the night sky.
Behind the wheel, Juan Carrera, Modest Mouse’s manager and tonight’s designated driver, keeps it at 70 on the dime as Brock talks a blue streak. When Brock was younger, he was one of those kids who mostly sat back and observed; now he speaks as though he’s been saving up the words for years. He talks trash. He calls bullshit. He savages the bands he believes to be worthless and exalts the ones he loves. He talks 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 for Brock. He’s got a meeting at Sub Pop Records, the storied indie-rock label that’s employed him as an A&R guy for two years now (he’s had a hand in signing the Shins and Iron & Wine). But mostly he’s got work 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 to debut in the Billboard Top 20, the first one to be touted in print as evidence of modern rock’s commercial resurgence.
The single “Float On” is a radio hit. And the band’s label, Epic Records, is suddenly very excited to be in the Modest Mouse business. Epic wants new Mouse product to push, and they want it now, before the iron cools. Brock understands, but he worries about fleecing the fans. So he distracts the label with an endless stream of ideas for new products, creating the illusion of a packed pipeline.
“What if we make sneakers,” Brock says, talking to an imaginary record-company exec, “where every time you take a step, it plays one of our songs? And they’re like, ‘Yeah, sure! Great!’ And then they call up, like, ‘Um, we really need those sneakers,’ and I’ll be like, ‘How about we make a pencil, but no matter what you try to write with it, it writes our name. Followed by “Rulez.” With a “z.” Or how about this? It’s a beast. With a thousand asses. And every time it takes a shit, it comes out smelling like our band.'”
* * *
This may be all you need to know about Isaac Brock: Somewhere, he has a videotape of himself walking out into a thunderstorm, wearing a suit made of pots and pans, holding a metal guitar stand in the air. He’s shouting, “This is the best thing I have ever done!” Off-camera, a friend 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 lived under bridges, in group houses full to the rafters with itinerant punks. But he is originally from Issaquah, which was a backwater suburb of Seattle before tech-boom money started rolling downstream and the chain 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’s trailer when he met future Mouse bassist Eric Judy and guitarist Dann Gallucci. They were into the early grunge stuff from Seattle, into the weird homespun punk coming out on Olympia labels like K and Kill Rock Stars.
He started writing songs; he roped friends like Judy, Gallucci, and Jeremiah Green, a 13-year-old prodigy who was already drumming for local hardcore bands, into contributing to this “project” he was working on. (The name came from Virginia Woolf’s description of ordinary 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 the first day I ever heard him playing a song, he got better. He wrote the most god-awful songs I’d ever heard at first, but within a year he had progressed at a rate that most people never do.”
By 1997’s Lonesome Crowded West, the project had become a band and the band had found its voice. Brock’s singing was thin but strong, tender as a black eye, feral at the corners. The guitars were barbed and clipped and slippery. Green’s drums and Judy’s bass gave the music a relentless momentum. The songs—sang in the voices of drunk cowboys, drug runners, and other lost souls—were about the road, about the way the scenery outside the car window can become an abyss that stares back into you. It remains one of the great indie-rock records of its decade and one of the great road-trip albums of all time, the testimony of pilgrims who realized the existential truth that all life is suffering during a piss break somewhere outside Milwaukee.
Critical accolades accrued. The scouts came knocking and the band signed to Epic. Trouble accrued, too. Their major-label debut, 2000’s bleak, black-humored The Moon & Antarctica, garnered rapturous reviews but sold poorly, and by then everyone was talking about the rumor that Brock had forced sex on a woman he’d met in aSeattle bar. Brock was never formally charged, but gossip kept the story alive—his stock answer these days to questions about the controversy is “Only two people really know what happened.”
Brock had left Seattle by then. He moved around. As Ugly Casanova, he recorded an album of weird, enthralling songs about autumn and decay and living in houses that smelled like old-folks’ homes. In 2002, he spent five days in a New York jail after an old DUI charge caught up with him at the Canadian border. Then things really started to get rough.
The afternoon before we left for Seattle, Brock and I had a few drinks in a bar called the Triple Nickel, a few blocks from the little house he shares with his girlfriend in Portland, Oregon. As Brock recounts the difficult genesis of Good News, he drinks enough to stagger a Navy SEAL.
But there’s a calm about him, the serenity of a semi-reformed fuckup. On some level, he knows he’s lucky to be here. Back in 2003, he’d gone off the rails, even by his own standards. He was attending mandatory AA meetings, a consequence of the DUI. But after every meeting, Brock says, “I’d be like, ‘You can’t tell me what to do,’ and go get fucking trashed.”
When work began on the new record, the band rented a big house in Portland. “I think Isaac had envisioned this, like, the-Band-out-in-Woodstock situation,” Gallucci says, “where we’d live there and work on music 24 hours a day. It was sweet, but maybe a little bit too hopeful.”
The scene was chaotic. Green had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking Effexor, a prescription antidepressant. His behavior became increasingly unpredictable and erratic. “I thought that everything I wanted to do in my life, I had to do it immediately,” he remembers. “I thought, I’m gonna die. There’s totally a holy war going 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 was there, behind the drum kit, but I wasn’t focused at all, and I wasn’t communicating with people in an effective way. It just got really weird.”
At a typical practice, Gallucci says, “we’d kinda start playing, nothing would get done, and we’d take a break. Maybe Isaac would start cooking. Eric would still be in the practice space, playing music. And Jeremy would be walking around the room with no shirt on, with, like, a blanket covering himself, playing the bongos, smoking a joint and chanting.”
Green quit Modest Mouse on his birthday; his bandmates talked him into coming back. They went into the studio to start recording. Two days into the sessions, things came to a head. “We start playing this song,” Gallucci remembers, “and [Jeremy is] getting pissed because he can’t get it. And then he just stops. And starts yelling at everyone, and I see him, like, lunging toward Eric, like he’s going to take 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 up ancient 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 here and have you yell at me.'” Then Brock headed for the bar.
After that, Green says, he “just kind of disappeared” for two months. he drove his car around Seattle. He spent a week in NewYork, calling people on the phone at all hours, leaving threatening messages, getting into fights. Back in Seattle, he spent about six hours in the mental wing of a hospital. A psychiatrist advised him to up his dosage of Effexor. Instead, he chose to stop taking it, and endured a painful period of withdrawal.
“It was fucked up,” Brock says. “Y’know—I watched that Wilco movie that’s supposed to be all traumatic, and I was like, ‘This is nothing.’ Like, boo hoo—our fucking drummer went to a mental institution.”
Still, Brock says, “I’m not going to let [Jeremy] take the fall, as much as he seems to want to. We both lost the plot. And of the two of us, I managed to regain my balance.”
They talked about breaking up the band. No one was sure they could write without Green. But when they tried, the songs came fast.Hoping to put the confusion of the past few months behind them, they decamped to Oxford, Mississippi—with drummer Benjamin Weikel, on loan from Portland duo the Helio Sequence—and set up shop in veteran producer Dennis Herring’s recording studio, Sweet Tea. Brock describes the sessions with Herring as “fucking brutal”; he took a firmer hand with the songs—and with the band—than anyone was used to. “There were points,” 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 really nice. However it worked out, he was the fucking best man for the job.”
Herring’s production gives the melodies room to lurch and surge. But the album never sounds like a cynical pop makeover; its bright-side buoyancy suits the songs, which are about how life will beat your ass and how the only way to cope is to learn to love it anyway. Its uplift is realistic, its optimism hard-won. It’s a perfect record for an era in which hoping against hope often feels like the best 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 could tell, just on listening to it for the first time.”
Brock isn’t buying any of this. He’s confident that his band will weather this storm of good fortune and come out as star-crossed a sever.
“Modest Mouse was built on a fault line,” he says. “And we’ll remain on a fault line the whole time we’re doing things. Things just go haywire for us. And I think we’re all very fine with that at this point. Bad shit happens, and nobody really blinks. Like, ‘Oh, shit—all our stuff got stolen and the car is fucking burning in a gully. Wanna go to the bar?'”
* * *
Against a backdrop of rosy fog, Seattle’s skyline glitters like a jewelry-store display. A road-rumpled Brock makes it to the Cha Cha Lounge, a hipster-haven tiki bar in the city’s Capitol Hill area, just in time for last call. The place is full of warm orange light and beautiful, frowning women. Brock slides into a booth across from two women he kinda knows, photographers who shot Modest Mouse on Brock’s porch for the skateboard magazine Thrasher a few weeks ago and hung out afterward for a barbecue. One tells Brock that he’s a great cook. “Thanks,” he says. “It’s what I want to do with my life. Once I’m done with this shit job I have now.”
Frosty Tecates are killed, then it’s chucking-out time. Brock lingers outside, reluctant to call it a night, which is when Green walks by, wearing a khaki-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 a little awkward, like a rapprochement in progress-at least until Green pulls up his shirt to show off these enormous red welts on his back, the result of alternative-medicine back-pain treatment. “Damn,” Brock says, “I’m gonna report you to Child Protection, man!”
The lights are out at the Cha Cha, but Brock’s convinced the bartender to let him and Green back in. “I’m going inside,” he says with a little bow, “to drink beer. As is my wont.”
The Thrasher girls cut across the street and up the hill, steadied on each other’s arms. Brock and Green stand there outside the bar, waiting for someone to come and unlock the door.