A modest success story
Modest Mouse returns to Chico with a gold album and a hit video in tow. How did this happen?
We were aiming for the moon. We were shooting at the stars. But the kids were just shooting at the buses and the cars.
—"Bury Me With It”
I used to think 10 years was a lifetime. Now that I’m older, 10 years doesn’t seem like much at all. For a rock-'n'-roll band, though, 10 years is a hell of a haul.
But time served doesn’t always guarantee success, and that is why the story behind Modest Mouse’s rise to success is at once bittersweet and, on some level, a win for the underdog.
Ten years ago, the band now embraced by fans the world over played to about 15 people in a tiny space on Chico’s West Second Street—the one that started out showcasing live original music as Hey Juan’s in the ‘80s and has transitioned through several sets of hands to today’s soon-to-be-relocated Riff Raff Rock Bar.
When Modest Mouse hit town, the club was called Juanita’s, and the band had just released its first album, This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. Formed in the small town of Issaquah, Wash. (not far from where television’s Twin Peaks was filmed), in 1994, Modest Mouse was initially a trio made up of vocalist Isaac Brock on guitar, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green.
I remember thinking that the band was onto something, partly because my roommate at the time, an unapologetic lover of both Hansen’s “Mmmbop” and Yngwie Malmsteen, went mad. He was held rapt by Brock’s deft string bending and generous use of guitar effects pedals. My friend isn’t easy to hook; it takes real songs to draw him in, not just fireworks.
I ran my mouth off a bit too much, oh what did I say? Well, you just laughed it off, it was all okay. And we’ll all float on okay.
After the Chico show, Brock was moving a heavy speaker cabinet back to the band’s van, when a widely known, tie-dye-clad local musician came by and felt compelled to comment on the scene by announcing condescendingly, “Look! Indie rockers!” Not missing a beat, Brock reacted: “Fuck you, ‘hippie!'” Left at just that, and Brock comes across as a mouthy jerk, lashing out like any bonehead. But he continued, lecturing the stunned bluegrass aficionado on the finer points of human interaction, trying to make him see how it feels to be marginalized into a silly category.
Brock tends to say whatever is on his mind, and sometimes people don’t know how to react to such naked honesty (reminiscent to me of how Larry David is received by others on his Curb Your Enthusiasm show on HBO). Though he does have a sense of humor, he redeems himself more in that his sharp tongue had a tendency to make you think as well.
In 1996 I had another chance to witness the early career of Brock and Co. A cluster of local bands left town to play the Pacific Northwest and help promote the recently released Superwinner’s Summer Rock Academy CD featuring half of the 55 bands that played at the festival held in Chico the summer previous. The caravan of five local bands was hopping from Chico to S.F. to Seattle and back down to Portland in support of the compilation’s release and to plug into the bustling underground-music network that ran up and down Interstate 5.
In the year since its Juanita’s show, Modest Mouse had gained much popular ground. Despite its next-big-thing status in the Pacific Northwest, however, the band was generous enough to join the bill at the Velvet Elvis in Seattle. The gesture helped the show sell out, and many Chico bands that had never had such exposure got exactly that.
After a long day of music at the venue, a befuddled, large-muscled young man was wandering around, a bit drunk but clearly having a good time. The guy was an easy target for the hipsters who were mocking his antics, but if you’re thinking Brock would play into indie-rock party politics, you’re mistaken. Calling his peeps on their shit-talking offered a clue to what makes Brock tick—and for that matter what’s kept Modest Mouse from languishing in the insulated underworld of scenes and hipsters. Brock’s oft-pointed-to singular vision of his music may have been buoyed early on by the indie scene, but the band has always steered toward much broader horizons.
These days, Brock might understandably be a bit more tight-lipped. There are more than 15 people watching. And many of the observers have pen, paper and recorder ready to document and interpret the very air that escapes his lips.
Modest Mouse’s latest album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, debuted on Billboard at No. 19 and has sold well over 500,000 copies based on the strength of the single “Float On” and its popular MTV video, currently the third most-played. To put this in a hard-to-believe context, the album is outselling Slipknot and Norah Jones and is just behind the new Rush (songs about trees and gnomes are hard to beat).
After 10 years, four albums, countless EPs and singles and relentless touring, Modest Mouse’s “overnight” success may only really be a surprise to those just discovering the band.
Renee Stephens, owner of Fulcrum Records on Broadway, says she has sold upwards of 40 copies of Good News … since its release. That may not sound like much to the chain stores, but for a small independent record store catering to the underground rock and DJ niche, that is remarkable. Not to mention the album has drawn in new customers who are dazed to find that this is not Modest Mouse’s first album.
“I think that Modest Mouse was destined to be big from the beginning,” says concert promoter Justin Maximov (whose J-Max Productions is putting on the band’s Senator Theatre show on Friday, July 16). “They’ve always sold more tickets than the majority of the bands that sell five times more records than they do. They’ve had a huge underground following for years. Isaac finally wrote a song that crossed over to the mainstream audience.”
“Float On” is that song. With it, Modest Mouse made the uncommon leap from indie-rock fanzines to the mainstream cultural lexicon. It’s almost surreal that our moms can read about the band in Entertainment Weekly while watching evening reruns of Dharma and Greg and your little sister can hear the song on The OC.
It’s no wonder. “Float On” is incredibly catchy, populated with marching rhythms and Brock’s squiggly guitar lines squirming underneath, giving way to the dreamy chorus, “We’ll all float on okay/ And we’ll all float on anyway.” It’s a call to optimism shared by Brock in interviews, when he says that “shit’s going to be okay.”
We’ve lost the plot and we just can’t choose. We are hummingbirds who are just not willing to move.
—"Bury Me With It”
“Float On” isn’t any more marketable than anything written by the band in the past, so why is it that now one of the “good” guys has infiltrated the mob, so to speak?
When Nirvana’s brazen chords and quiet-to-loud dynamic set the popular-music blueprint in the early ‘90s, it also informed a new mainstream that saw bands finding commercial success by following the new form. Those who did not fit the mold languished in the underground—which frankly isn’t always a bad place to be. After all, it’s where Modest Mouse flourished until recently.
Los Angeles-based radio station KROQ has always been our nation’s modern-rock tastemaker. One glance at the station’s play list reveals not only Modest Mouse but also an influx of bands such as The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Muse, Franz Ferdinand, The Hives, The Killers and even Goth godfathers The Cure. The success of these bands demonstrates a move in modern radio that is challenging the recent stranglehold of the airwaves by the cookie-cutter post-grunge of such bands as Godsmack, Nickelback and Limp Bizkit.
Could rock radio be moving toward more experimental and artistically credible playlists? Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and now Modest Mouse have proven that experiment and artistry are commercially viable. Is this the beginning of yet another disposable cycle for popular music, or will this movement have staying power? Hard to answer, though it is a certainty that no one’s going to hell by attempting to bring poetry and creativity back to popular music, and neither will rock bands that happen to make a buck while doing so.