The Mouse That Roared

Major-Label Backing Hasn't Diminished Modest Mouse's Indie Ethos.

"ALONE DOWN THERE," a song on The Moon & Antarctica, the upcoming major-label debut from former indie kids Modest Mouse--due out June 13 on Epic--contains the lines: "Well the devil's apprentice, he gave me some credit / He fed me a line and I'll probably regret it." While like most Modest Mouse songs the couplet could be read any number of ways, one possible interpretation is as an allegory for the band's major-label commitment, which came after six years of comfortable residency on a variety of indie labels, particularly K Records and Up.

The band is an A&R rep's nightmare: the only money they've taken from their label was an advance to cover recording costs. After repeated pleadings from the company, they've still refused to accept any financial tour support from Epic, simply because they don't want to be obligated to do things the Epic way--obligations that would have included, in the words of singer/songwriter/guitarist Issac Brock, "some wack idea about setting up a Tower Records booth at the shows. They have their own stores; why do they need to sell CDs at our shows?"

Such a statement makes Brock's outright distrust for his new label apparent. Raised in the environment of an indie-rock scene where signing to a major was once considered selling out, Brock shows you can take the independent rock band off the indie label, but you'll never quite get rid of the indie ethos.

When asked if he just simply refuses to "play the game," Brock responds characteristically. "Oh, I'm playing the game; I'm just not playing the right game." For an upcoming meeting with the label, one such game includes his plans to submit a mannequin as a proxy for himself. ("I put a big '70s mustache on him; I call him Mr. Ferarri.")

In Brock's mind, his distrust of the big boys is completely warranted based on his dealings with Epic. "Sometimes they get it and sometimes they don't," he explains. "They're mostly people who got into it on a really odd level. They're corporate people, and they obviously make a lot more money than us. They don't know anything about music. I don't think they even know what they like; they think they do, but they just like anything that's getting hyped." Luckily, these days Modest Mouse fits squarely into that category.

The band began as a trio--Brock, bassist Eric Judy, and drummer Jeremiah Green--in Issaquah, Washington, in 1993. Over the years the members have had a revolving-door policy on second guitarists ("I've shit-canned somewhere between seven and nine different guitarists over the last six years," says Brock), though all seem happy with their current second axeman, whom Brock credits with "adding to the songs, and not just making noise." Though they released a 7-inch in 1994, the band hit their stride and found their sound in 1996, when they released both "Broke," a single for Sub Pop, and their debut full-length, This is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About. Since that time they've released two EPs, another full-length, and more than a handful of 7-inch singles, most of which are now out of print, but many of which were gathered for the rarities collection Building Nothing Out of Something, released earlier this year on Up Records.

Several years ago, pundits everywhere were proclaiming the death of indie rock, questioning whether there was anything left to say in a post-Pavement trash-heap of bands that sounded like everyone else. But before you could utter, "Electronica is the next big thing," a handful of truly original bands like Built To Spill, Mercury Rev, Creeper Lagoon and Modest Mouse arrived to save the day for those raised on a diet of twisted guitar beauty. And while, in the beginning, many accused Modest Mouse of sounding uncomfortably close to Built To Spill, over time both of the bands have demonstrated that they have a singular voice.

Modest Mouse uses whammy-bar-heavy guitar implosions, at once angular, rhythmic and melodic, as a foundation for Brock's reedy vocals, which often delve into an almost chant-like reverie that in the past ruminated mostly on the theme of travel and the futility of trying to escape something (suburbia, a meaningless life?) by merely driving in the other direction. If it wasn't apparent by the titles alone [This is A Long Drive..., 1996's Interstate 8 (Up), and 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West (Up)], in retrospect Brock sees the previous four albums and two EPs (including the rarities collection) as a series of sorts. "They're all supposed to tie in. It was a thing where it started small and then I expanded it. Now I'm onto a new series. It's a step forward, and I'm glad for that." And after listening to The Moon & Antarctica, one can't help but agree.

"I've always tried to leave the songs open-ended to interpretation, so that you can take at least three meanings from it depending on how you read it," says Brock. He claims that the previous travel leitmotif was usually used figuratively, and he uses astral imagery on the new record in much the same way.

If the previous albums were about escape, this latest effort is about both questioning and embracing the life we've been given, foibles and all. Topics include the grandiose search for life's meaning ("God said something but he didn't mean it / Everyone's life ends but no one ever completes it," from "Dark Center Of The Universe"); the inevitable aging process and the beauty therein ("As fruit drops, flesh it sags / Everything will fall right into place," from "Gravity Rides Everything"); betrayal ("It took a lot of work to be the ass that I am / And I'm pretty damn sure that anyone can / equally, easily fuck you over," also from "Dark Center Of The Universe"); and the occasional foray into the pessimism that comes with the territory ("The one thing you can tell about human beings is this: / They ain't made of nothing but water and shit" from "What People Are Made Of"). While, with a few exceptions--most notably the quirky, funky, almost-robotic sound of "Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes"--the record isn't too sonically different from the band's past work, the lyrics demonstrate Brock's maturation as a songwriter. Only 17 when the band released its first single, Brock, now 24, has always had a precocious knack for presenting resonant images in just a few lines. This time around he's expanded his scope to deal with the bigger issues that life doles out. Modest Mouse fans, an ever-growing legion, will not be disappointed.

Nor should they be disappointed with the band's live show, which has had a hit-or-miss reputation in the past, often due to pre-show drunkenness. Brock, in a mockingly smug tone, jokes, "We rarely have bad shows," then continues earnestly, "We've gotten a lot better at it. I've only been drunk for one show (on this tour), and that's 'cause our A&R guy was there and kept buying me vodka drinks."

In addition to free drinks, being on a major has its upside, too: the band has graduated from playing tiny clubs to playing theaters and large clubs on its current tour. "We're playing bigger places and more nights at 'em. We've sold out every show (so far) except for Louisville, where we were short by, like, 40 people. It's awesome. It's fun playing for a lot of people; the crowds get more hyped, and there's just more energy in the room."

Indeed, Modest Mouse seems to be that rare indie band with crossover potential in a sea of alternative radio soundalikes. They're smarter than your average major-label rock band, they don't pummel you into submission like, say, Rage Against The Machine or Korn, and yet their star continues to rise as they gather a wider and more diverse audience than probably any band in their position right now. Brock simply can't explain the phenomenon. "I really have no insight, except that maybe (the old fans) are bringing two friends to the shows. I've always just tried to make really weird music that also has pop appeal, as opposed to pop music where you just throw some weird elements into it," he muses. "Sorta like The Cure."

Modest Mouse appears with Califone and The Shins at 8 p.m. Monday, June 5, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are available for $8 at CD Depot, Congress Street Store, Zip's University, Starr Skateboards and Toxic Ranch. They'll cost $10 at the door. For more information, call 884-0874 or 798-3333.