Perfect Disguise

On the 2000 album The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse opens with "3rd Planet," one of the great songs in recent American rock. Opening with a few solitary chords plucked by guest musician and lap steel guitarist Ben Blankenship, "3rd Planet" thrusts the listener into a melancholy world of self-doubt and wandering, a place that feels distant from civilization. Then just as drummer Jeremiah Green and bassist Eric Judy kick in, lead guitarist Isaac Brock sings, "Everything that keeps me together is falling apart/I've got this thing that I consider my only art of fucking people over," and the music stops for a split second, as if the world was made silent by the revelation.

Brock unveils himself as a young man loitering on the grass with you: "Your heart felt good/It was drippin' pitch and made of wood." Reclining on the grass "naked, shiverin' blue," a couple looks at the moon above, revealing that there used to be a third person, too, perhaps a pregnancy, before the pair was left to their own desperations, their own fading affair. "The universe is shaped exactly like the Earth/If you go straight long enough you'll end up where you were," Brock sings, before suddenly concluding with the same lyric that he began with, having effectively fallen apart. "3rd Planet" ends with ambiguity because he doesn't reveal what happened in the song yet manages to instill a sense of completeness, as if whatever happened should be.

Ask Brock what it means and he'll say, "I don't do shit like that, I don't explain things like that." He says this during a recent interview from his home in Portland, Oregon, but it's the same line he's been giving to journalists for the past several years, ever since Modest Mouse exploded on the indie-rock scene in 1996 with This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About. "It's part of the riddle," he says. "When you get a CD or a book, it's up to you to read into what's going on inside your head, just to make it make sense to you for you. That's what I want for [people to do with] my music."

Modest Mouse has ascended to the top of the heap on the shoulders of Brock's gift for crafting existentialist journeys such as "3rd Planet." The band's history can be neatly summarized through its discography (barring the EP length The Fruit That Ate Itself and the odds-and-sods collection Sad Sappy Sucker). This Is a Long Drive portrayed their hometown of Issaquah, a rustic suburban community that is about fifteen minutes away from Seattle, as a place of loneliness and alienation. The 1997 followup, The Lonesome Crowded West, was what Brock now characterizes as a "traveling album" and the inevitable sense of dislocation that comes from being in a successful touring band.

The Moon and Antarctica is the most disturbed of all, a weary, painful rebuke to the legendarily combative Seattle rock scene that was threatening to chew Brock up through vicious rumors -- encompassing everything from accusations of date rape to allegations that he was just "an ass" who would "fuck you over" -- which ends with him fleeing the Pacific Northwest for the relative solitude of Gainesville, Florida. "I make a deal with the devil and things like that," says Brock. He then adds, reassuringly, "I joke! I joke! There's no deal. How can an atheist make a deal with the devil, dude?"

The mythology surrounding Modest Mouse doesn't do justice to the band itself, or its music. First of all, if an hour-long phone conversation is any indication, Brock is more than a brooding songwriter, and is given to rambling, good-natured tangents. He muses on a trip he made to Miami two years ago to visit his friend Sam Beam, better known as the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Iron and Wine. "I played at an art gallery with Iron and Wine," he says. "I bought a Speedo because I was going around, asking cops for directions, and hanging out at Versace's place. Yeah, hot stuff! Then I thought of all the things I could do with the Speedo that just seemed wrong, because you're pretty much naked, man...."

Then there is The Moon and Antarctica. While restless numbers such as "3rd Planet" and "Life Like Weeds" are its standouts, there are a handful of whimsical, funny cuts such as "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," another tour song that finds Brock wearing "a T-shirt that says, 'The world is my ashtray.'" The first two albums found the group working through its Built to Spill influence, churning out gobs of edgy, stop-start emo rock; The Moon and Antarctica incorporates country-rock and pastoral folk. It is elegiac, more profound than their earlier, agitated material. "I'm really into folk music," says Brock, adding that the band is currently recording a song for a Junior Kimbrough tribute album, scheduled for release on Fat Possum Records later this year.

Brock promises that this evolution will continue on Modest Mouse's forthcoming album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, scheduled for release on April 10. Unfortunately his label, Epic Records, isn't sending out any advance copies. "I don't have any idea what's going on," he says, before joking, "I'll be talking to them about that after the interview. I'll be putting on the daddy-pants, going, 'Epic! Epic, come here!'

"They're so drunk with paranoia about the bootlegging thing," he continues. But he's not as concerned about it, since he makes most of his money from touring, anyway. "It's not like I get big ol' checks from Epic. If you're making zero dollars, and all of a sudden you're not making zero dollars, where does that leave you? You're fine, so fuck it."

So what can fans expect from Good News for People Who Love Bad News? One track will feature the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; another finds Brock, as he puts it, "just playing a banjo and singing." The group began recording the album in early 2003 in Seattle. Six months later, only three songs were finished. "Our drummer [Jeremiah Green] lost the plot, fuckin' disappeared," says Brock. So he and Judy regrouped and relocated to the South. They recruited guitarist/keyboardist Dann Gallucci, drummer Benjamin Weikel, and producers Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips) and Dennis Herring (Camper van Beethoven) to record several tracks in Oxford, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee.

"I watched the Wilco documentary [I Am Trying to Break Your Heart] about how their shit was imploding or whatever, and it was fuckin' baby food compared to what we were going through," he remembers. But he also believes the prolonged, difficult process made the band better. "It made me a better person, to be honest," he says, adding that Green plans to rejoin the band in the next several months. "I'm a much more focused person than when we started writing this record."

So is Good News as emotionally tumultuous as Modest Mouse's previous work, or does it reflect Brock's newfound optimism? Not surprisingly, he isn't telling. "I know it is different. I know how, but I don't know how to say it," he says. He admits that he's not the kind of artist who can easily disassociate himself from, then analyze, his art: "Once it's done it's kind of built into me."

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Mosi Reeves
Contact: Mosi Reeves