Modest Mouse: Points of Departure
No band is an island. The best songwriters tend to be sponge-like soaker-uppers of music, film, fine art, literature and other forms of culture, be they popular or obscure, and these influences often find their way into the music, helping listeners branch out and develop new interests. With Points of Departure, we use our favorite groups as springboards for broader cultural investigations and highlight some of the cool things you might get into via your record collection. This week: Modest Mouse.
Modest Mouse is one very well-read band. The Pacific Northwest rockers got their name from the Virginia Wolf poem ‘The Mark on the Wall,’ which mentions “modest, mouse-colored people.” Frontman Isaac Brock liked the line for its “candy-esque” appeal. He also incorporates literary references right into songs, among them ‘Bukowski,’ about the work of nihilist writer Charles Bukowski. The song takes aim at the less-than-stellar state of the world, where “every night turns out to be a little more like Bukowski.” In a similar tale of societal decline, the song ‘Tiny Cities Made of Ashes’ is thought to use imagery from the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel ‘The Great Gatsby’ to illustrate moral decay.
Even though Modest Mouse didn’t start to gain mainstream success until releasing the single ‘Float On’ in 2003, Brock and company have been making music together since the early 1990s. The indie rockers’ distinct sound has an '80s alternative influence, inviting comparisons to bands like the Pixies, Guided by Voices and Meat Puppets. As a child, Brock would practice Pixies songs on guitar — he's called their classic ‘Doolittle’ a perfect album — and the alt sound comes through with lo-fi, bluesy chords in songs like ‘Red Hand Case’ and ‘Tundra/ Desert.’ Modest Mouse reached their alt-rock peak when they enlisted former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who has also performed with the Talking Heads and Pretenders. The band’s sound may not have changed much with the addition of Marr, but there was no denying their '80s credibility once he officially singed on.
For a man who lives in Portland, Ore., Brock sure hates hippies. The Washington native grew up following his squatter mother around the country, moving around to various communes until his family finally ended up in a trailer outside Seattle. The experience left Brock with few social skills and an undeniable hatred for the hippie lifestyle. Even though he’s tried Bikram yoga and isn’t shy about his drug use, Brock’s forced nomadic beginnings has left scars that carry into his writing. In the 1997 album ‘Lonesome Crowded West,’ the song ‘Trailer Trash’ outlines Brock’s lower societal class, where high school and metal cutlery just aren’t all that important.