Modest Mouse—Part 2: Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine

[22 May 2007]

By Ryan S. Henriquez

When you discover who you are, it doesn’t matter what you’ve been.

So proclaims the felt, billboard-sized banner hanging majestically from the rafters of the ornate lobby of Washington Heights’ stately performance space, the United Palace Theater. On Sunday mornings, Reverend Ike, the Palace’s owner and one-time televangelism pioneer, preaches the Good News to his flock of three thousand. But on this Monday evening, a different “Reverend Ike” occupied the pulpit to preach a more secular, humanist gospel in support of his band’s latest effort, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Isaac Brock, frontman, lyricist, and lead guitarist for Pacific Northwest indie-rock band Modest Mouse, has a notoriously checkered past, but over the last few years his music has uncovered a footpath to personal redemption—so much so that the quote hanging in the lobby could by all rights belong to him.

But alas, peace does not dwell amongst Brock’s congregation any more than it has historically existed inside the preacher himself. Modest Mouse fans are in some respects similar to devout Christians of varying denominations—they share the fervent underlying belief in Brock as a contemporary “everyman” able to express the human condition in these increasingly disillusioning times. But, they are divided about a lot of other things. Indeed, no band in contemporary rock music can polarize its own fan base the way Modest Mouse has.

Bear witness: A few months back, I read a scathing concert review in this very publication (which was republished yesterday to give context for this piece) of a Modest Mouse show I myself had attended at the Bowery Ballroom. The writer, Brian Bartels, has been an apostle of Brock’s since the early days, but he characterized this performance as “lackluster” and “without inspiration.” Perhaps he’d been hoping for the big fat bleeding mess that helped forge Mouse’s early work in the mid-‘90s. Instead, he met Brock reborn, still looking more like fishmonger or dockworker than rock star, but transformed into a lean, mean, fightin’ machine: ripped; no-nonsense; in complete control of stage, band, and show. The band’s signature alchemistic messiness made songs sound as though they were held together by fishing line, when in fact Brock had a vice grip on the captain’s wheel and was steering brilliantly.

The critic had perhaps been hoping for a bumpier ride, and mistook the smooth sailing as the result of a phoned-in performance instead of what was, to me, flawless execution. Put bluntly, I believe—no, I’m convinced—the show was one of the best I’ve seen.

Could we both be right? No way in hell you’d convince either of us of that. Time to ignite the torches!

The Great ‘Float On’ Rift The first great rift amongst Mouse devotees, and the likely source of many of the interfaith skirmishes, was over “Float On,” the 2004 chart-topping megahit whose divine, walk-on-water, tidal wave chorus propelled MM safely to the Billboard charts and, subsequently, became the banner that marked their landing on mainstream shores. Its infectiously simple positivity won countless new converts to the band’s jagged sound, and the song came to symbolize not only the entire album from whence it came (Good News for People Who Love Bad News), but also MM’s output since. The traditionalists who’d long admired the tortured, self-flagellating Brock did not know what to make of the uncharacteristically sunny vibes of the “new” Modest Mouse; to them, “Float On” sounded the death knell of the band’s indie cred and the foghorn for the band’s crossing the river Styx into the mass market bazaar.  The knife in the back was driven deeper by the song’s wide exposure: it was licensed first for a minivan spot geared towards soccer moms, and then—perhaps the deepest cut of all—as one of those embarrassing American Idol top-10 finalist medleys. Ouch. Ironically, though, it was Brock’s destructive streak the “old” fans so cherished that made his cashing-in on the “Float On” phenomenon such a no-brainer. Whether they care to admit it or not, old-school Mouse fans have always secretly relished the knowledge that their anti-hero’s life has, in large part, sucked. And it has—there was the dropping out of school; the erratic, violent behavior; the drug use; his experience in the oddest of odd jobs (including medical guinea pig and nude model poser); the self-mutilation; the attempted murder-by-way-of-DUI charge; the broken jaw; the (withdrawn) rape allegation; the broken trailer park home; Mom leaving Dad for Uncle; the squatting in a shed next door—all of which, in the romantic version of the story at least, led to Brock finding release in jam sessions with mates and future MM members Eric Judy and Jeremiah Green. With all that, Brock would be the first to tell you his career opportunities outside of music aren’t exactly promising. Music is, for better or worse, his only meal ticket. Brock himself admits his reasons for licensing his songs were purely financial. But the old-school Mouse fan who fixates too much on the humming, Seacrest-loving minivan passenger is doomed to miss the real point of “Float On” and its progeny—that, while Brock may have intended to write a happy song, even one that had broad appeal, it was exactly the song he needed to write at the time. When he wrote it, Brock’s life was in a k-hole tailspin. Use was swiftly becoming abuse. The band was falling apart. Drummer Jeremiah Green fell off the grid completely. Chris Takino, the founder of MM’s first label and one of the band’s earliest apostles and Brock’s closest friends, inexplicably died of leukemia. And in the fallout of this shitstorm, Brock was—somewhat miraculously—able to burrow and tap into his own muse to find release and redemption. “Float On” was but the purest of artistic expressions, and as such cannot be considered any less important than anything Brock had previously written. The song was the work of an artist evolving, maturing, and finally wrangling in a Moby Dick-sized talent which, until then, had always been dogged by tiger shark-eating killer whale demons.

Of course, for old-school Mouse fans, this was exactly the band they’d always wanted and the Brock they’d secretly pined for. But now that they have him, they’ve chosen to forsake him. A pox upon thee, one and all!

I suspect the traditionalists were wringing their hands with thoughts of sweet revenge when it was reported recently that Brock had begun cutting himself again. At a South Dakota gig less than three months ago, Brock went a little nuts on stage, slicing his own chest and torso with a knife that had to be wrestled out of his hand before he could finish the show, disoriented and bleeding. I’ll admit that this excited even me as I ambled into the United Palace—I like that Brock’s a little touched, and eagerly awaited the chance to see which Reverend Ike would grace the pulpit. As it would happen, the Brock on stage was the same one I saw at the Bowery Ballroom six months ago—jacked, watertight, and supremely focused. Of course—with all that’s changed since November (Johnny Marr solidifying his position in the band, the release of a #1 record)—there’s a little more to it than that… Check back tomorrow as PopMatters’ Ryan S. Henriquez makes his way into the house of Mouse one last time, reviewing a recent show in the wake of the band’s recent, even-bigger breakthrough.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/modest-mouse-part-2/