Modest Mouse is modestly happy

by Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

6 December 2007

"It's not fair to a record to go in married to one idea," he says. "You've got to keep it a little loose in case things want to develop in a different direction."

Let other people figure out Modest Mouse’s place in the world, says Isaac Brock. He’s going to focus on his work.

The mercurial singer-guitarist has spent months now fielding questions about his band’s embrace by mainstream audiences - a crossover that culminated when the band’s fifth album, “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” debuted atop the Billboard charts in March.

Maybe it wasn’t so unexpected: When you flesh out your lineup with an alternative-rock legend like ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, as Modest Mouse did in 2006, you’re bound to start grabbing new ears. Still, for an art y band whose music is decidedly out of left field - a nervous, frenetic sound that’s as dark as it is playful - such success doesn’t come every day.

Brock appreciates the new fans, he says. But even as a well-versed historian of popular music, he’s given up trying to divine what it all means.

“I tend to get frustrated because it’s all just speculation,” he says.

It’s not speculation to say that Modest Mouse has benefited by operating in an era when you don’t have to sell your soul to earn a healthy audience. A world of musical niches means if you plug away long enough, your niche might get its turn.

The famously cynical Brock isn’t entirely happy with the current state of affairs. Short attention spans mean listeners aren’t always spending their time the way Brock would like them to: fully absorbing his band’s albums as conceptual works rather than mere collections of songs.

“It’s sort of like it was in the `50s, when it was just singles,” he says. “You’d put out a 7-inch record that goes to radio, and the album wasn’t a big deal. With the way people are picking and choosing songs instead of spending time with a record - are they really enjoying it? ... They’re always going with the new taste.”

It’s been a long, winding ride for Brock’s band, founded 14 years ago in the suburbs of Seattle, right in the thick of that city’s musical renaissance. The group made its name among discerning college-radio listeners and indie-rock disciples before landing a deal in 2000 with Epic Records.

That signing launched what would become a familiar pattern in the band’s world: With each step up the ladder to success, fear and discontent set in among established fans, who fretted they’d lose their band to the mainstream.

In retrospect, they didn’t have much to worry about, at least when it came to the music. Rather than be subsumed by trends and big-label pressures, Modest Mouse has revealed a notably tenacious grip on its creative integrity, growing with each album while retaining the essential qualities that have long marked its work.

You get the sense that amid the changes in his world, Brock has consciously tried not to be too conscious about it all. In the past year, the 32-year-old has gotten engaged, settled into a new home and cleaned himself up from what had been well-publicized substance abuse. Asked whether he’s approaching his music differently in the wake of those steadying changes, he pauses before responding simply: “The most dangerous thing would be to think about that too much.”

Brock says he’s looking forward to the new year, when he’ll hole up in his home studio to start writing material for the next Modest Mouse album. Although he enjoys life on the road, he says, he’ll be happy to get home and “do life - home-repair projects, gardening, organizing taxes, whatever.”

He’s not yet sure where the music is headed next.

“It’s not fair to a record to go in married to one idea,” he says. “You’ve got to keep it a little loose in case things want to develop in a different direction.”

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