Modest Mouse - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Modest Mouse began life as another noise-loving indie-rock band from the Pacific Northwest, but under the direction of founding member/main songwriter Isaac Brock, have steadily expanded their sound and scope and have achieved a devoted following and have enjoyed an almost surprising degree of mainstream success.


            The early version of Modest Mouse got together in 1993 in Issaquah, Washington. The band took their name from a passage from a Virginia Woolf story. Originally a trio consisting of Isaac Brock on vocals and guitar, Eric Judy on bass and Jeremiah Green on drums, the group held practices at “The Shed”, a home-made practice space Brock had built on land next to his mother's trailer. After gigging around Washington, the band came to the attention of Calvin Johnson and K Records and were asked to record an EP for the label. Their debut EP, Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect, was released in 1994, and featured John Wickhart playing bass as well as Judy. Soon after, the band recorded and released the single “Broke” on the Sub Pop label, and also recorded what was to be their debut album, Sad Sappy Sucker, but the album was shelved, and didn't see an official release until it was released by K Records in 2001. During this time guitarist Dann Galluci briefly played second guitar in the band. Starting with the “Broke” single, Modest Mouse started recording at Moon Studios with Steve Wold, (who would later find some notoriety as the blues artist Seasick Steve), and in the studio Wold became almost another member of the band, though he never officially joined. With Wold's help and after signing to Seattle indie label Up Records, the group recorded their official debut album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About in 1996. The album was well received by both critics and indie-rock music fans, and already showcased the band's emerging sound of Brock's emphatic vocals over a backing of erratic drumming, jabbing guitar and Judy's fluid bass playing. Wold also contributed mandolin and slide guitar, which expanded the band's sound palette, along with guest Brent Arnold's cello. Their next release was the EP Interstate 8 (Up)(1996) which included some new tracks as well as tracks from the band's original demo tape recorded at “The Shed” in Issaquah. The band meant to record next just a single with K Records founder/Dub Narcotic Studios owner Calvin Johnson, but as the tape rolled, Johnson and the band delved into making some instrumental interludes, and the project turned into The Fruit That Ate Itself EP (K), released in early 1997.   Modest Mouse was starting to get noticed in independent rock circles, but it was their next release that established them as a distinctive presence and established their cult-like reverence among some music fans. The Lonesome Crowded West (Up), released in 1997, was a watershed in that it finally showed all angles of the band, from quiet acoustic numbers to funky almost-dance numbers to thrashing post-punk anthems to a kind of indie alt-country rock, all with Brock's rambling vocals over the top. The lyrics seemed to deal with problems and concerns of the working class, though in a poetic and obtuse way. The Lonesome Crowded West generated enough interest that the major record labels started to court Modest Mouse, and in 1999 the band signed with Epic Records. Prior to making their major label debut, the group released the singles and rarities collection Building Nothing Out Of Something (Up), which included most of the Interstate 8 EP along with several early singles that were out of print.


            During the time the band was recording what was to become their first major label album, Brock broke his jaw, and not knowing if he would be able to sing or not, the band concentrated on the instrumental aspects of the album, and not all songs featured Brock's vocals. The Moon & Antarctica (Epic) was a more down-tempo effort from the group, but was well received by both critics and fans, though the mainstream record buying public still didn't seem to know quite what to make of Modest Mouse. The album sold well by independent label standards, but didn't quite make the breakthrough that Epic seemed to think the band were capable of. After touring in support of the album, the band released another EP Everywhere And His Nasty Parlour Tricks (Epic), a collection of tracks unused for The Moon & Antarctica sessions combined with material used on a Japanese-only EP released in 2000 called Night On The Sun. After the EP release,  Brock took a side-step away from Modest Mouse and worked on his side project Ugly Casanova, who released one album, Sharpen Your Teeth, on the Sub Pop label in 2002. Other members of Ugly Casanova included Brian Deck and Tim Rutili from Red Red Meat, Pall Jenkins from The Black Heart Procession, and John Orth from Holopaw. Though the band never officially broke up, it seems unlikely there will be another Ugly Casanova record due to the members primary band commitments, not to mention Brock's contract obligations to Epic and it's parent company, Sony.


            After working on Ugly Casanova, Brock was ready to record another Modest Mouse album. While Brock had worked on his side project, Green and Judy had both played on Adam Forkner's album VVRSSNN (K)(2003) and Green had also worked on his side project Vells. Unfortunately, Green had also suffered a nervous breakdown, and informed Brock that he wouldn't be able to play with Modest Mouse. Brock and Judy replaced Green with drummer Benjamin Weikel from The Helio Sequence, and brought aboard another member, Dann Galucci, who had previously played guitar with the band. The new version of the band seemed to re-invigorate Brock, and he came up with an album that was more upbeat and rocking, while keeping Modest Mouse's trademark lyrical concerns with spirituality and mortality. Through word of mouth and a slew of good reviews, Good News For People Who Love Bad News (Epic) was the breakthrough album both Epic and Modest Mouse had been working for. The band scored two radio hits with “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty”, and even appeared on Saturday Night Live performing those two songs. The album went on to achieve platinum status and was even nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Rock Album in 2004. Later in 2004, Green returned to the band, and Weikel returned to The Helio Sequence. Gallucci also left the band in late 2004.


            With Modest Mouse re-invigorated from gaining Green back and earning some long-earned success, there was still the problem of having a second guitarist. The band put out the word that they were looking for a guitarist, and through a weird set of circumstances, (supposedly, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr had been turned on to the band by his son, had liked them, and then around the same time, heard that they were looking for a new guitarist and contacted Brock), Isaac Brock met with Johnny Marr and the two hit it off and agreed to try and write some songs together. The two, as well as the other members of the band, including new members multi-instrumentalist Tom Peloso and percussionist Joe Plummer, enjoyed working together so much that it was announced that Marr would join Modest Mouse as a full time member and would tour with them. The fruit of their collaboration was the album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (Epic)(2007), recorded with producer Dennis Herring in Oxford, Mississippi, (the same location and producer of Good News...). Whereas Good News... was a relatively slow-building success, the band were now established with the music buying public, and the when the album was released in March of 2007, it debuted as the #1 album in the U.S. The album continued the rollicking, wide-ranging sound of Good News..., and though a few critics grumbled about the band not pushing the creativity envelope as much as they had in the past, generally reviews were good.  Not bad for a band that just a few years earlier had been playing in a shack in a small town in Washington State. The group toured extensively in support of the album for almost two years, including a tour playing with R.E.M. and The National. After touring was completed for We Were Dead..., Brock has reportedly been writing new songs for a new album slated for sometime in the future.


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