Harry Hawkins gives a breakdown of Modest Mouse.
With a new record in the form of The Golden Casket under their belt, Modest Mouse is back with an intriguing record and have made themselves known once more. This slightly long-winded piece attempts to provide a comprehensive career-long guide of a band very underappreciated in the U.K.
For the vast majority of readers (and until recently, myself included!), Modest Mouse seems more of a concept than a band – one of those (seemingly infinite) indie rock groups who appeared in the 2000s who made a moderate hit single or two and then dipped. “Hey, it’s the Float On band!” or, among fans of the band, “Hey, it’s the band who hasn’t made good material for 13 years!”. Both are very common – dare I say reasonable – responses to the M. Mouse question (no, not that M. Mouse, we know Walt Disney’s a p****).
Nevertheless, Modest Mouse have garnered quite a following and reputation over their lengthy tenure. A band who inspire their fans to the extent that the third top result when searching “modest mouse documentary” in YouTube returns a documentary that’s not necessarily not about the band, but more of a self-made document of two superfan’s obsession with Brock & co. So, what is it about this Seattle-based, plain-shirted nineties guitar group that stands them out from the other hundred?
Firstly, Modest Mouse made a start in Issaquah, Washington 1993, a place and time that for many grunge rockers would have been enough for a slice of Seattle’s Nirvana and Pearl Jam pie. However, the group stuck to their origins, as they felt the scene would pigeonhole their musical intent. They instead identified and played with the variety of groups around Olympia, ranging from twinkly guitar oddballs like Built to Spill (a prominent influence on guitarist Isaac Brocks early style), riot grrl punk bands Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney, and even moody and unpredictable post-rock acts like Unwound. Some of the first recordings made by the band were recorded on dial up phone technology, and frenetic cross-country touring (which for the band was an escape from the dullness of suburb life) influenced the bands early work a great deal – who else has songs called Interstate 8, Convenient Parking, or Out of Gas?
The first two records released (This Is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and the thankfully, briefer, The Lonesome Crowded West) demonstrated some classic tendencies of the band that are love-it-or-hate-it – particularly Isaac Brock’s unpredictable and freeform vocal style, which can go from delicate “mousy” vocals as seen on the woozy country downer Custom Concern to shrieks and pitchy yelps on the expansive Beach Side Property. Oh, and the beginning song Dramamine is a delicate yet intense jam that remains one of the bands most beloved tracks.
While neither of these early recordings are packed with breezy summer fun, 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West (or LCW for short) is certainly the darkest the band got early on, with emo-tinged tunes like Heart Cooks Brain (featuring one of the most peculiar DJ features on a song to date) sitting next to apocalyptic tales such as the Western-from-Hell that is Cowboy Dan, with its eerie guitar and lyrics describing a troubled man who feels abandoned by urbanisation is and unable to break a cycle of violence. On LCW in particular, Isaac brock’s upbringing as a young, unlucky working-class kid in one of the United States’ backwoods is made very apparent – see a devastating depiction of young Brock in Trailer Trash.
The Commercial Break
During 2004, a terrible period for the band in the midst of the Iraq war, The Mouse nonetheless managed to strike out with a huge hit in the form of Float On – a optimistic-in-spite-of-it-all tune that’s become a staple of indie clubs and stadium games world over, and is uplifting enough to almost cancel out the existential crises put on tape in the infinite atmosphere of Moon and Antarctica from 2000. And…. Of course, the record it is cut from is actually one of the band’s most lyrically harrowing to date. The band definitely had not started making “Walking on Sunshine” here, with numerous meditations on life and loss, with a couple of more upbeat numbers but a far greater majority of depraved folksy pieces like Bukowski, which sees Isaac scabrously compare himself to the controversial alcohol-abusing poet.
By this point Modest Mouse has their sights set on expansive music, both in a commercial and recording sense as more appears to always be more for this band – if Brock can secure his hands on hi-fidelity equipment, he will use it, and the band is expanded from an expected three/four piece guitar band into a miniature indie orchestra of multiple percussionists, guitars, violin and horns… and a pump organ. The wheeze of this manic-sounding instrument is like a sputtering car or writhing animal and welcomes a new melodrama on the opening track to 2007’s We Were Dead…, March into the Sea, which demonstrates a continuation of the off-kilter rage and rapid shifts in mood that make the band such a treat, now lined up with Johnny Marr of the former Smiths providing extra guitar – prominently featured on another hit Dashboard, but providing a proper bit of funk groove and hi-fi atmosphere to the band’s core sound. If you enjoy the indie dance moves of Franz Ferdinand or the Talking Heads then songs like We’ve Got Everything and Education groove hard, but acoustic slow builds such as Spitting Venom and Parting of the Sensory are like cinema in song form.
With far more avenues to make music, bigger budgets, and the ability to collaborate with musicians like Big Boi (what an intriguing pair) it would seem that the scale up seen on the last two records would lead to another new frontier record. 2015’s Strangers To Ourselves certainly delivers some of that, but also lends a little bit of throwback to LCW in the way it tackles themes of climate change and comes back to the industrialised landscapes observed 18 years prior. See the seething Ground Walks with Time in A Box – whilst it inherits some of the funk style from prior work it also has an apocalyptic scope and dissolves into a flurry of diverse instruments.
Bit much? It’s been six albums of existence questioning, warping and occasionally disturbing rock (?) music, along with several EPs and compilations (some of which, like Interstate 8, are regarded as career highlights). Surely these guys will cheer up a little…
And they certainly did! 2021’s Golden Casket contains a great deal of rarities for Modest Mouse – said rarities being positive songs. Hear We Are Between and Wooden Soldiers and you will see a band who still tackles universal themes but is now happy to embrace the sheer joy of existence instead of cynically standing askance, and dressed in a fresh psychedelic lick of paint. Lace Your Shoes can be legitimately tear inducing in the context of the band’s history – when you hear Isaac Brock talk so optimistically about his children, it brings reminders of his own upbringing as described in Trailer Trash. And a proper post-Covid banger is given in the form of Leave a Light On, an ode to finally meeting friends and family again.
Overall Modest Mouse is a kind of musical ocean – from a distance often the same in some capacity, but always able to change and shift far away from previous works. The entire band displays a knack for song writing where songs and ideas just burst out of them – there is no premeditation and a sense of honesty to the ways in which lyrics and tunes are constructed, and fame only scales up the bands ability to express themselves in song. Hopping and blending folk, emo, punk-jazz insanity and psychedelia, there are very few bands before or after who have made the sounds and themes Modest Mouse have touched on.