The Complicatist : Thinking About Modest Mouse

Desperation has its funnier moments

by Gordon Campbell

“Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one’s hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard….” Virginia Woolf, from “The Mark on the Wall” (1920) the short story from which Modest Mouse took their name.

Isaac Brock doesn’t look like a rock star. (More like your older brother’s troubled second-best friend.) And while Modest Mouse has been around for 18 years, the songs Brock writes and sings for them still deal in the same currency of half-woken dreams, cosmic dread and personal unease. Looking for the future, while begging for the past…trying to eat snowflakes with plastic forks, stranded in the parking lot …Feeling certainly uncertain, going nowhere but guaranteed to be late. And missing out on some of life’s sweet bells as time and gravity cause the fruit to fall, our flesh to sag and everything else to sink, sink, sink into a deadening, deadened state of entropic acceptance. “Everything that keeps me together is falling apart,” Brock sang on the first line of the opening track of the band’s masterpiece album : “ I’ve got this thing that I consider my only art : of fucking people over.”

In other words, these are not exactly jolly feel-good stadium anthems. On paper at least, they’re the sound of a wry crankiness in the face of every good reason for feeling utter despair. If Modest Mouse was a book, it would be one written by David Foster Wallace. And yet….as with DFW, the accomplishment felt exhilarating :

I’m the same as I was when I was 6 years old
And oh my God I feel so damn old
I don’t really feel anything
On a plane, I can see the tiny lights below
And oh my God, they look so alone
Do they really feel anything?
Oh my God, I’ve gotta gotta gotta gotta move on
Where do you move when what you’re moving from
Is yourself?

That’s desperate enough, but amusing, too. Oh my God and oh my cat, Brock sings in the same song I’ve just quoted…And like any good American kid, he goes and asks his Dad what’s gone wrong, and what its all about.

“Well, he said he said he said he said
“Where we’re going I’m dead.”

Hilarious. Should be interesting to see how this mixture – the big venue rock band with the downer perspective – plays out onstage in early August, when Modest Mouse do two shows in Auckland. While the band have one solid masterpiece under their belt (that would be 2002’s The Moon and Antarctica) their output also includes several B-side and out-take albums compilations (eg Building Nothing Out of Something, Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, No One’s First, and You’re Next) that have such coherence any one of them could serve as a pretty good introduction to the band. Dip your toe in at any point, and the water is just as bracing. Maybe only the Sad Sappy Sucker collection of really early material is the one only for obsessives.

So…what would a representative bunch of Modest Mouse tracks look like? (The following list doesn’t claim to be comprehensive, and on any given day I’d probably come up with a different set.)

For starters, here’s a great 2011 video interview with Isaac Brock done by Paste magazine, in which he (a) looks very nervous (b) shows us several of the stuffed dead animals in his house (c) pops on a coonskin cap and (c) plays a new song with the band. Can’t ask for much more than that. Oh, and here’s a link to some new songs – live recordings from the Sasquatch Festival – which may or may not be included on the MM album that the band has reportedly been putting together with Big Boi from Outkast, in the producer’s chair.

2. “Gravity Rides Everything” “Needle Point” “Convenient Parking”
If I had to pick one MM song to represent the band, “Gravity Rides Everything” would probably be it – for the melody, and for a lyric that’s (roughly) about learning to accept what you can’t change, much as you may resent it. The fact that the track later got sold by Brock for use as a car commercial for a Nissan minivan makes a weird sense, somehow. But not entirely. You don’t have to be a hippie to say, admire Dave Clark for refusing to sell his big hit “Glad All Over” to the GladWrap company, with the comment : “That song’s been to good to me to do that to it.” For MM completists, I’ve included the Nissan Quest car commercial, as well.

“Needle Point” is a much older track, not even on the Sad Sappy Sucker compilation of MM juvenilia, and dating from around the time of their debut album in 1995. Hmmm, needle point. Yes Sherlock, that is probably a drug reference : “Stay gone for a while / eyes twitch and thin smile..” “Convenient Parking” is from the band’s breakthrough album, 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West.

3 “Never Ending Maths Equation” “Cat Faces”
…This segment draws on the science geek side of Brock. Regularly, his lyrics have reflected an interest is the backdrop of the impassive, wider universe against which our petty concerns play out. Except he’s not as passively awestruck as Terrence Malick seems to be about that situation. More pissed off, actually. Like, it’s some cause for desperation that our blood should have the same ocean-salty consistency as the Atlantic or that the universe is curved exactly like the earth, such that if you go out in a straight line, you’ll end up where you were – literally, and in a cycle of life sense. Or that the stars seem to be like cold projectors, beaming our lives down here onto Planet Earth. It is chilly out there.

Ugly Casanova on the other hand, is (or was) Brock’s solo side project. For years, I misheard the insistently repeated lyric line in the song “Cat Faces” as being : “ And I lay down in a sullen rage…. “ Which I actually prefer to the real lyric, that goes “ And I lay down in the southern range.” As often was the case early on, there’s effective multi-tracking of Brock’s vocal, and great lyrics elsewhere as well : “I picture you as if you were a pine / tracing lines of cursive on the horizon..” Lovely. Incidentally, some of the Ugly Casanova stuff, like the muzzily ambient “ So Long To The Holidays” predate the stuff that Panda Bear has been lately celebrated for.

4.That’ll Be The Day” /”Grey Ice Water”
Routinely, Modest Mouse do interesting cover versions. This very recent version of Buddy Holly’s first hit “That’ll be the Day” unpacks the jaunty never-say-die optimism of the original and brings all the underlying anxiety to the fore. The result is a new take on a Holly song that had seemed all but impossible to hear afresh. Brock’s vocalist partner on “Grey Ice Water” is Nicole Johnson, who also cropped up on “Sleepwalkin’, the MM cover of Santo and Johnny Farina’s 1950s instrumental hit.

5. The Stars Are Projectors/ History Sticks To Your Feet/Workin’ On Leavin the Livin’

Brock can be a troubled soul – or at least he seemed to be, ten years ago. The “ History” track is a pretty alarming break-up song, right from the opening line : “ At the movies /eyes iced over/walking sideways through them gutters…” Also quite creepy how the lyric evolves from an initial beseeching “Don’t you look at me /like I don’t hold you any more mysteries” to where by song’s end, he’s threatening to “knock that look off your face /that I don’t hold you any more mysteries..” It would be interesting to know the back story on that one., but probably a good thing not to have been there at the time.

“The Stars Are Projectors” is self –explanatory, and is the key track on the band’s masterpiece album. “Workin’ in Leavin’ the Livin’” is just as good – and the “In Heaven” segment of the lyric recycles the song of the same name which featured in David Lynch’s first movie Eraserhead, and was subsequently covered by the Pixies. Again for completists, I’ve included the original version sung by the Radiator Lady, from Lynch’s film.

6. Tiny Cities/ The Whale Song” So far, I’ve treated Modest Mouse as if it was an Isaac Brock singer/songwriter bedroom confessional, but that’s really not the case. They’re a band, and the songs are unimaginable without what bass Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green bring to proceedings. Here are a couple of tracks to prove it. “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” is another “Moon and Antarctica entry, while “The Whale Song” dates from the 2009 No –One’s First compilation of stellar B-sides and outtakes

And lastly, lastly, I haven’t touched at all on Brock’s track record as a producer – the first Wolf Parade album was a gem, and it included that band’s finest moment, “I’ll Believe in Anything” – or mentioned Brock’s industry mogul role in signing groups to his own label Glacial Pace. But as a finale here’s footage of Sam Adams, the mayor of Portland unveiling a portrait of Brock that hangs in the mayoral chambers. It is a study in repose, with the same stuffed wild animals that featured so prominently in the first interview clip at the start of the story. So like the universe, if you go out in a straight line in this article, you’ll end up right where you were.