Modest mosh 

Fast to slow, honest to hoax, the spectrum sound of Modest Mouse

Isaac Brock, the child of working-class Christians who bounced from a hippie commune in Oregon to a “cult church” in Sunburst, Mont. to Issaquah, Wash., where he formed the group Modest Mouse, sums up his odyssey through life and music with this remark: “I don’t have a clear view of that shit, man. I’m kind of in the mix. It’s easier for someone from the outside to see a pattern or something.”

But Brock does see a pattern in media coverage of his rise to indie rock prominence. A new album comes out and the music writers come calling in search of back-stories about “inspiration” and all that’s indescribable about the creative process. Brock doesn’t like the routine. So this time out, and with side project Ugly Casanova, he decided to make stuff up.

Promotional materials for both Ugly Casanova and Modest Mouse credit a fictional character named Edgar Graham with some of each band’s success. It’s a gimmick that shields the groups from having to answer the same old questions over and over.

Inside jokes aside, here’s what we know: Brock’s original voice and songwriting style propelled Modest Mouse out of the pack of mid-’90s, post-grunge indie bands milling around Seattle and staring at their shoes. Backed by bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green, Brock bent his voice and guitar chords into shapes heavy enough to flatten audiences and interesting enough to keep them thinking after the show.

The group toured with Built To Spill in the early days, and by the 1997 release of The Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse had prison-tattooed itself on the eardrums of rock fans nationwide. Credit Brock’s aggressive lisp and guitar licks, which manage to be both sweet and angry, simple and provocative.

On the band’s latest EP release, Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, Brock belts the melodic chorus “You’re hopelessly hopeful I hope so for you” on the song “Night On The Sun.” It’s a nice twist of language backed by Judy and Green’s shapeshifting rhythm section.

Like Brock, Judy and Green were still hovering near the legal drinking age in 1996 when they came to Boise for a three-night tour tune-up with Built To Spill. Their performances were loud and tight, with Green pumping beats fast enough to work the crowd at the last night’s show into a froth. When it was over, the kids poured from Boise’s American Legion Hall and attacked a flagpole out front, bending it to the ground.

Modest Mouse continues to feed that frenzy. They’re one of the headliners at the Memorial Day weekend Sasquatch Festival at the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Wash. I found out about the festival from the guy I rent movies from in Whitefish. Every time I walk into the shop, Modest Mouse is laying down a backbeat for us video browsers. This guy loves the band. When I asked him how excited he was to catch two shows so close together, one in Missoula on May 10, and then again just a few weeks later at the Gorge, he became literally speechless. He shook his head and mumbled, “Man, oh… man… I can’t… yeah.”

When the band starts into songs like “I Came As A Rat” and “Cockroach,” it’s time to slip in a mouthpiece and ready the first-aid kit. That’s how I spent my 29th birthday in Boise. After the show, somebody grabbed Brock’s guitar and dashed into the alley. A friend of mine, a gentle organic gardener named Clay, gave chase with his 4-foot-10-inch wife Josie. They cornered the thief and asked politely for the guitar back. That’s all it took; a modest end to a tense scene.

Last summer I interviewed Brock about his new band, Ugly Casanova, which charts a sedate course through a familiar maze of chord changes and funhouse guitar riffs.

“It’s a much mellower affair, and that does bum some folks out because some folks just come based on the Modest Mouse connection and are expecting to mosh or whatever the fuck they do to ruin the Modest Mouse shows,” said Brock. “These songs are a bit lower key. There are a couple rockers, but besides that it’s a much mellower affair.”

At the upcoming Modest Mouse show on campus, Brock will doubtless switch gears as he revs and idles the band’s engine. No telling what he’ll play, but I’m guessing someone will call for “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” from the brilliant Lonesome Crowded West. Therein, Brock not only namedrops Montana and Orange Julius in the same song, he also shows off his ability to blend beauty with rage, restraint with indulgence. When Brock sings, “You should be ashamed to be so proud of what you’ve done,” there’s a hint of Edgar Graham, who stands in to absorb all the attention.

Last summer, when I pressed Brock for the truth about Graham, he laughed and said, “I’ve got to quit trying. Sorry, I’m trying to keep the hoax alive.”

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