Modest Mouse takes decidedly upbeat approach


August 13, 2004


A funny thing happened to Modest Mouse with its efforts on its sixth album to become the biggest cult band in America. Instead, "Good News for People Who Love Bad News" spawned a major modern-rock hit with the single "Float On"; the video became ubiquitous on MTV and VH1; the album went gold, and before the end of summer, the band may well be a platinum superstar act.

Formed in 1993 by guitarist-vocalist Isaac Brock, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green in Issaquah, Wash., the group has grown considerably over the course of its eight-year recording career, adding members -- it is now a quintet -- and expanding its sound from spare and angular punk rock to a brand of skewed psychedelic pop that is much catchier and more welcoming but still hard-hitting, especially in concert.

Hailed for years by fans of underground rock and embraced with special fervor by the emo crowd, which always appreciates smart, sensitive lyrics and instrumental complexity, the band started to break through to a larger audience with its major label debut in 2000, "The Moon & Antarctica." But the new album has exceeded even the biggest fans' expectations, and with good reason: exquisitely arranged and produced (the sound is rife with Mellotron, horns, banjo, ukulele and unusual percussion) and overflowing with hooks, its relentless optimism is also a welcome balm in stressful times.

Not that Modest Mouse -- which took its name from a book Brock read describing the working class as "modest, mouse-like people"-- is enjoying this success, or heeding its own advice to love life and seize the day.



  • 5:30 p.m. today and Saturday
  • New City YMCA, 1515 N. Halsted
  • Tickets, $10 in advance or $15 for both days; (800) 511-1552
  • Info:

  • Angst-ridden in the great tradition of many bands from nearby Seattle, the famously irascible Brock is a notoriously troubled auteur, and according to a recent profile in Rolling Stone, he's struggling with a serious drinking problem, despite the wakeup call of recently spending a few days in jail for charges related to drunken driving. (Brock declined to be interviewed for this story; in fact, Sony Records, the band's label, wouldn't make any of the musicians available.)

    "I backed my car into a cop car the other day," Brock sings in the bouncy opening of "Float On." "Well, he just drove off, sometimes life's OK."

    In 1999, the singer also was accused of the far more serious crime of date rape; police reports were filed but Brock never was formally charged. And he isn't the band's only tormented soul: During the recording of the new album, Green quit the band, saying that, "I wasn't healthy in my head," but he has since returned to the fold.

    Described by one of its hometown newspapers, the Seattle Times, as "a dysfunctional band that manages to function quite well," some listeners contend that the group's sunny pop is all the more powerful because it comes from artists who've recorded under such dark clouds -- and who sometimes carry those vibes with them when they take the stage.

    The group's current set is evenly divided between its upbeat new material and its older, darker punk rock, and the musicians veer wildly between extremes as they perform, with the music often evoking a life-or-death game of tug-of-war. In the end, though, it all balances out. As Brock sings in the new disc's "Ocean Breathes Salty": "I hope heaven and hell are really there, but I wouldn't hold my breath."

    Touring on its own after having been given a slot as a key band on the now-defunct Lollapalooza tour, Modest Mouse performs in Chicago this weekend as part of the Q101 Block Party outside the New City YMCA (which receives a portion of the proceeds) at 1515 N. Halsted (at the intersection of Clybourn).

    With a strong bill and an ultra-reasonable ticket price of $15 for both days, the show is one of the best bargains of the summer for lovers of adventurous rock. Things kick off today at 5:30 p.m. with Chicago grunge heroes Local H, generic rockers Sponge and reunited camp popsters the Presidents of the United States of America on the main stage and Black Out, Chicago's venerable Love Hammers and Escape From Earth on the second stage.

    Saturday's music begins at the same time and includes garage-rockers the Walkmen, the arty emo sensation Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse on the main stage, with the Reputation, much-hyped Chicagoans the Ponys and local glam-rock geniuses Caviar on the second stage.

    Another strong festival hits Chicago starting Wednesday, this one with the laudable non-partisan goal of encouraging voter registration.

    Sponsored by Citizen Action/ Illinois, the Interchange Festival brings a diverse roster of some of Chicago's best bands to four of the city's finest venues for the reasonable price of $10 in advance, $12 at the door, with all proceeds going to the voter drive.

    Art-rockers Tortoise, rapper Diverse, indie-rockers Town & Country and psychedelic popsters David Singer & the Sweet Science kick things off outdoors at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia. Orchestra alternative-country star Andrew Bird, Charles Bissell of jangly popsters the Wrens and the world-renowned avant-jazz group the Vandermark 5 take the stage at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, at 9 p.m. Thursday.

    The show on Aug. 20 takes place at 9:30 p.m. the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, and features power-popsters the M's, glam-rock conceptualist Bobby Conn and art-rocker Sam Prekop. The festival concludes on Aug. 21 at 9 p.m. with a lineup that includes Sage Francis, Eyedea & Abilities, the Swiss Army and another of Chicago's best hip-hop acts, the Molemen, at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. For more information, visit