Modest Mouse is an easy band to take for granted. Emerging from the Pacific Northwest twenty years ago, it’s perhaps tempting to consider them just another “indie rock” band buoyed by Nirvana’s lucky break. Like Yo La Tengo, Modest Mouse almost immediately transcended such a pejorative tag, plotting a course weird, wonky, and refreshingly sui generis, earning them legions of fans despite significant odds. With at least two undisputed classics to their name, and neither of them including their great, unlikely hit “Float On,” Modest Mouse are practically overachievers.
Initially taking cues, like many of their contemporaries, from the recently disbanded Pixies, Modest Mouse quickly distinguished themselves with brazen, unabashed jammy tendencies (their albums frequently made full use of the CD’s 80-minute capacity), taut, slinky bass lines, and a general indifference to (or ignorance of) what was hip. Frontman Isaac Brock would regularly cite the Chieftains and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band as influences — not exactly indie rock references du jour. Even the band’s ’cool’ influences seemed somehow misguided; these were guys who probably only enjoyed the Bastards disc of Tom Waits’s Orphans box set. You know, the one with all the sheet metal noises and weird poems and stuff.
Lyrically, Brock’s gift is for providing food for stoned thought. Often mixing willful naiveté with astute observations on space, nature, and class struggles, he personifies the too-smart-for-his-own-good wiseass on the playground teaching all the other kids about autopsies and orgies. In his songs, Brock assumes a position of great duality: geography-obsessed but preciously provincial; drunk-friend glib one minute, grappling with existential crises the next. While Stephen Malkmus was writing lyrics using the Scrabble dictionary, and popular underground bands still counted schoolteachers and graduate students among their ranks, Brock was singing, “God damn, I hope I can pass high school.”
Spotting specific influences in Brock’s guitar playing, too, is no easy task. Eschewing both the untutored Big Muff chug of the grungies as well as the clean, open-tuned indie jangle of contemporaries and Washington neighbors like the Spinanes, Brock’s whammy-bar-and-harmonic-heavy signature style is one of the more recognizable this side of J Mascis, a rare quality within the strict anti-hero politics of indie.
Even their best albums are stacked with filler. Live, they could be the worst kind of train wreck. Brock’s distinctive yawp has always sounded a little like South Park’s Eric Cartman trying to holler his way out of a DUI. Yet, Modest Mouse got famous, and not just, like, Neko-Case-indie-famous: Their songs have been performed on both American Idol and a Kidz Bop compilation; they’ve joined the, er, distinguished likes of Green Day, Elton John, and Creed for their very own entry in the inexplicably popular Pickin’ On series, which features bluegrass versions of decidedly non-bluegrass songs; and they’ve welcomed into their ranks a bonafide music legend. It’s hard to imagine a stranger Cinderella story, or, for that matter, many bands more deserving of one.
Current indie trends — gauzy noise-pop, joyless emo bombast, trap rave, etc. — make one nostalgic for the imagination, ambition, and scope of Modest Mouse’s halcyon days. There’s still no other band like them. With the band gearing up for a Coachella appearance, it’s high time to look back at their insane, explosive catalog. Start the Countdown here.