Modest Mouse: Misanthrope Music

Isaac Brock hates me, you and everyone we know, in Bigger Than the Sound.

In February 2004, I found myself sitting on a bench in Tallahassee, Florida, with Isaac Brock. He was drinking a beer out of a paper bag and smoking all my Marlboro Lights, talking loudly about the frat guys stumbling out of the nearby bars (the kinds with names like Potbelly’s and Snookers) and making comments at the girls who wandered by. He was unshaven and squat, his pants were too short — they rose a good six inches above his ankles — and he was inexplicably wearing a MedicAlert bracelet on his left wrist.

I remember all of this because I was terrified. And not just because this was my first-ever cover story (for the now-defunct CMJ: New Music Monthly magazine), but because this was Isaac Brock. He was a maniac, a monster, a misanthrope … the surliest loner in all of indie rock, and rather proudly so. He had run-ins with the law, did tons of drugs and hated God and his family and pretty much everyone else in the world — especially those who were tasked with interviewing him.

In other words, this was going to be a total disaster.

Only somehow, it wasn’t. Over the course of a weekend in Tallahassee, Brock proved to be a genuinely nice guy. He got me drunk and bought me cigarettes, he played me songs from [artist id=”2545682″]Modest Mouse’s[/artist] upcoming album and we spent two nights wandering the halls of a Howard Johnson hotel (he had a knack for pointing out stains on the carpet — “This one’s blood,” I recall him lisping). When I left for the airport, he called me a “nice kid.” It was the most surreal 48 hours of my life, capped off by me returning to my apartment in Brooklyn, unpacking my suitcase and realizing that Brock had totally stolen my hoodie. I laughed. It seemed that even when he was being cordial, Brock still had a bit of a–hole in him.

Of course, ever since that weekend in Tallahassee, Brock and his Modest Mouse mates have released an album that went platinum (2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News) and one that debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart (2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank). They have had legitimate rock-radio hits, TV gigs and headlining tours, and have — arguably, and somewhat inexplicably — become the biggest “indie rock” band in the U.S.

And through it all, Brock hasn’t wavered or mellowed in his commitment to being a disagreeable: He’s talked proudly about his DUIs and gashed himself onstage with a pocket knife (to name just a few highlights). He’s taken to singing like the drunken offspring of Tom Waits and Frank Black, spitting and twitching like he has Tourette’s, seemingly delighting in the racket his voice creates. In short, he hasn’t stopped being a professional misanthrope.

And I’m starting to believe that Brock has it all figured out. Unlike rock acts such as U2 or Coldplay, Modest Mouse don’t attach some higher power to their music. They are not trying to end world hunger, dismantle atomic bombs or viva la vida … particularly because they don’t give a sh– about any of those things. There is no pretense to their music, no soaring guitars or string-laden choruses. And yet, much like U2 or Coldplay (or the Killers or, shoot, name anybody) they are still internationally famous, only more so, because they have never compromised, never made a grab for the mainstream. They have clout — so much so that Heath Ledger wanted to work with them ; so much so that they can release an odds-n-sods EP (No One’s First and You’re Next) and 27,000 people will buy it, even though some of the material on it is four years old.

In fact, it’s almost as if the mainstream found them and Brock has done everything in his power to shake it from his tail. He’s become a surly, slurring old lout, a lunatic who never met a phrase (or phrasing) that he couldn’t abuse within an inch of its life. And Modest Mouse’s musical output has followed suit … 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 Devil’s Workday,” “Fly Trapped in a Jar”) too.

And No One’s First only continues that trend: “King Rat” and “Whale Song” are downright grotesque songs — belching, blurry stompers that don’t pretend for one second to be accessible. “Satellite Skin” is a little friendlier in that it at least contains a chorus (but, almost as a counter to this, Brock makes a point of shouting “Happy f—ing congratulations!” midway through). And still, his fans eat it up.

In fact, it’s almost as if Brock can’t be misanthropic enough, which sort of makes him a rarity in these hopeful times (and only makes me like him more). Sometimes I get tired of writing about how rock music is going to save the world, mostly because I don’t believe that it will … and neither does Brock. That’s what draws people to him; he’s smart enough to realize that behind those silver linings, there are still plenty of clouds on the horizon. This isn’t just pessimism, it’s realism … it’s how he’s made his living. Being an a–hole is an art form and Brock is the best in the business. Long may he prosper.

Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.