Modest Mouse Get Ugly In Heath Ledger-Directed ‘King Rat’ Video

Animated clip intended to raise awareness of whaling practices was completed as tribute to the late actor.

In 2007, Isaac Brock — wild-eyed, unkempt mastermind of [artist id="503131"]Modest Mouse[/artist] — mentioned in an interview that Oscar-nominated actor Heath Ledger had expressed interest in directing a video for “King Rat,” a throwaway track from MM’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank.

Not only that, but famed director Terry Gilliam, with whom Ledger was working on “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” had agreed to animate the clip. It all seemed rather odd, and Brock appeared nonplussed by the project (telling VH1, “I hope it works out and I don’t sound like a f–ing liar at the end of this”). Modest Mouse fans around the world greeted the news with a resounding “Wha?!?”

Then, in early 2008, Ledger was found dead in a New York apartment, and the entire project was quickly forgotten by pretty much everybody except Brock and the California-based artist collective known as the Masses.

Masses members Daniel Auber, Norris Houk, Jade Taglioli and Sara Cline picked up the reins, determined to finish the “King Rat” video as a tribute to their friend (and Masses member) Ledger. Some 18 months later, the video is finally complete, premiering Tuesday (August 4) on Modest Mouse’s MySpace page, iTunes and the Masses’ Web site.

In the video, humans are hunted by a vessel of grotesque whales. They are harpooned, beaten with clubs, skinned alive, ground through processing tubes and made into seal food while the whales drunkenly cavort. Ledger’s original vision for the video was “to raise awareness on modern whaling practices through a potent visual piece” (so sayeth an accompanying press release) — and, accordingly, all proceeds from the iTunes download of the video will go to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international non-profit organization committed to ending the slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans.

It’s pretty admirable, and as Ledger’s final vision, pretty beautiful, too. With each bloody harpoon or flailing human carcass, the “King Rat” video manages to match Brock’s penchant for ugliness, but this is nothing new, as any MM fan can tell you. Brock doesn’t so much sing on “Rat” (or any innumerable number of songs he’s released this decade) as he does bellow, belch, gurgle, gasp, whimper and whine.

Brock has spent most of the ‘aughts slowly transforming into bastard stepchild of Frank Black and Tom Waits — a wailing, slurring lunatic who never met a phrase (or phrasing) that he couldn’t abuse within an inch of its life. And accordingly, Modest Mouse’s musical output has followed suit, seemingly deriving some perverse pleasure from tormenting the listener. For every expansive, pretty, windswept moment they’ve unfurled over the past three albums (“The Stars Are Projectors,” “Blame It on the Tetons,” “Little Motel”), they’ve piled up an equal amount of buzzing, claustrophobic, downright ugly tunes (“Alone Down There,” “This Devils Workday,” “Fly Trapped in a Jar”). It’s not exactly a stretch to assume that Brock might be a black-hearted misanthrope, delighting in pushing his fans’ buttons.

And that’s what is probably the most impressive thing about Ledger’s “King Rat” video. In some way, it proves that Brock is actually a human being, a compassionate guy who’s using his celebrity to do some good. It would seem that, for all his hissing and spitting, all his sadistic ways, he’s actually got a conscience, too.