MODEST MOUSE with Wolf Parade at Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay East), Wednesday (August 4). $18.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
It's looking like the summer of Modest Mouse. After five great albums, a slew of singles, and 2000's landmark Moon And Antarctica album barely registering beyond their devout fan base, modern rock radio is playing the shit out of their recent single, Float On. Their latest disc, Good News For People Who Love Bad News (Epic), is climbing the Billboard charts, their songs are on car commercials, they were slated for a prime slot on the now-dead Lollapalooza tour, and they've made the rounds on the late-night talk show circuit.
Frontman Isaac Brock is taking the Mouse's recent success in stride. No surprise, really, considering the singer is notorious for the gloom and doom that shadows him and his Washington-based band.
He also has a rep for being disdainful of interviewers. A 1999 rape allegation ( later dismissed by the DA for lack of evidence) might be the prime factor for his press shyness, as it caused a feeding frenzy in the music media, and for a long time any talk of Modest Mouse focused on Brock's troubles rather than the music. Exacerbating the issue was the singer's constant talk of ingesting large amounts of the hard drugs that seem endemic to Washington natives.
Shockingly, when I get him on the line, Brock sounds upbeat, even happy. Although still a tad guarded, he's obviously less haunted by his past. When the biggest criticism you're dealing with is diehard fans slagging you for selling out and making scads of cash, life can't really be that bad.
"It's bullshit having to defend making money," Brock drawls wearily. "For the most part, the people who take issue with me making a good living off what I do are people who don't have to worry about making a living out of playing music.
"I just want to be in a band - indie, major, it doesn't matter! A lot of the bands I really liked when I was younger, like the Pixies, Beck, Camper Van Beethoven, were on majors. And a lot more people find out about good music when it's available. I certainly don't want to belong to just an elitist bunch of kids who live at college."
Ever since their first recordings for cool indie labels K and Up Records in the mid-to-late 90s, Modest Mouse have been indie sweehearts. Based on the soft verse/loud chorus formula, their music could be gratingly shrill at times, but was always poppy and packed with hooks.
"I hate art noise bands. I think it's all crap. I like catchy songs," offers Brock.
Add cryptic lyrics to the mix, and their similarities to the Pixies, Pavement and Built to Spill landed them enough positive reviews for the majors to take notice. In short order, Modest Mouse were signed to Epic Records, home to Pearl Jam.
Good News For People Who Love Bad News is what a lot of fans view as as Modest Mouse's pop record, and with radio-friendly singles like Float On and The View, who could blame them? While Brock may be maturing as a songwriter, producer Dennis Herring deserves credit for creating a kinder, gentler Modest Mouse.
Having helped Brock's beloved Camper Van Beethoven temper their early lo-fi indie squeal with a clarity of sound and exquisite arrangements, you'd assume Herring's hire was a no-brainer for the Modest Mice.
It would've been, but Brock confesses he wasn't even aware of Herring's history. "That album meant the world to me, and I'm a huge Camper fan but I didn't even realize Dennis had produced them until after he was hired. He's still great." Herring fleshes out the catchier sound of Modest Mouse's earlier albums but reins in their meandering, noodly vices. He's helped them achieve a new, confident energy, and songs like The Devil's Workday hint at a new direction, akin to Tom Waits in his Swordfishtrombone days.
Now that the masses are happily grooving to the good Modest Mouse vibe, and the boys seem to have avoided becoming victims of their own mythology. It may be only a matter of time before the gloom and doom scenarios are a thing of the past and all people talk about is how great the latest album is and what a kind, likeable fellow that sweet Isaac Brock is.
Mothers, you've been warned.