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Challenge Accepted: After thirty years in music, Modest Mouse continues to defy expectations

by Ryan McDonald

Modest Mouse have often concealed gorgeous melodies in abrasive textures, but “What People Are Made Of,” the closing song on their 2000 masterpiece The Moon & Antarctica, is probably the closest the group ever gets to outright hardcore: guitars in a register somewhere between a mandolin and an alarm clock; bass, overdrive cranked to the max, emerging in the mix to ground things right before the big finish; and, if you infer a question mark in the song’s title, an answer offered in singer Isaac Brock’s throaty scream at the close: “nothing but water and” a four-letter word for excrement.

Are Modest Mouse pessimists? Nihilists? Realists? “Float On,” the wildly successful single from their full-length follow-up, 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, tells of getting let off the hook by cops and laughing off losing your job. It’s bright, anthemic, and head-bobbing. But every now and then I hear the song and wonder if it isn’t a tongue-in-cheek dunk on mindless positivity.

Photo by James Joiner

What is certain is that it holds up better than just about any other song from the indie-rock explosion of the mid-aughts, something probably explained by the fact that the group predates the transformation of “indie” from an ethos to a sound.

Modest Mouse has been around long enough—30 years this year—and been through enough line-up changes to earn the designation “difficult to pin down.” (Brock is the only member to appear on every recording; drummer Jeremiah Green, who was with the group for all but a roughly one-year period in the early 2000s, died of cancer on Dec. 31 last year.) But the group seemed set on being different from the beginning.

They emerged in the Pacific Northwest at the height of grunge, but deliberately chose to stay in Issaquah rather than relocate 15 miles up the road to Seattle. They knew a scene when they saw one and wanted to stay different. Like the cul-de-sac punks of Southern California a decade earlier, the decision wound up giving them a better vantage of the suburban drudgery that would inform many of their songs.

Their breakthrough album, 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West, sprang from anger among band members about changes to their environment: strip malls, sprawl, and “just pointless, pointless s***,” Brock recalled in a 2012 documentary about the album. Brock’s signature vocal approach—disaffected yet earnest, with playful lyric enjambment—crystallizes on “Trailer Trash,” an album highlight for the way it plays with perspective and, again, resists easy answers.

Though critical reviews for West and Antarctica had been highly positive, Good News and “Float On” launched the band into the stratosphere. The band members had developed their identity at a time when “selling out” was still a fighting phrase—in past interviews, both Brock and Green cited the uncompromisingly independent Fugazi as one their biggest musical influences—and so it was something of a question how they would respond to success. Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr joined the band ahead of their follow-up, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and the album revealed that they had not lost the desire to challenge their audience. “Fly Trapped in a Jar,” for example, begins in jangly dissonance before the bass evolves into a groove as danceable as a Daft Punk song. The latest album, 2021’s The Golden Casket, continued to explore new directions like psychedelia.

Modest Mouse will arrive in Redondo Beach after touring through Latin America. This summer, they’ll tour the U.S. with Weezer, and Torrance’s Joyce Manor joining for some of the shows. Damon Cox has been playing drums since Green stepped away following his Stage 4 cancer diagnosis, though it’s hard to imagine anyone truly replacing a musician that has been with Brock so long. Tenderness is not always easy to find in the band’s songs, but it’s there, hidden, like so much else of Modest Mouse, in darkness. “Well, God said something but he didn’t mean it,” Brock sings on Moon’s third track, “Dark Center of the Universe.” “Everyone’s life ends, but no one ever completes it.”

Modest Mouse play BeachLife Friday May 5.


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