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A mightier Mouse

The veteran band tastes success, but not always with the serenity of its 'Float On.'

August 01, 2004|Steve Hochman | By Steve Hochman Special to The Times

It's a bittersweet day for the eight Modest Mouse fans staking out their spot on the sidewalk outside the Avalon on a scorching Sunday afternoon.

On one hand, in a few hours they'll be let into the concert hall and will be able to score the prime real estate at the front of the stage.

On the other, they'll be joined by a lot of people who, they feel, are nowhere near the fans they are, a lot of them just drawn to the veteran band by the long-coming breakthrough hit "Float On."

The song has been a rock-radio staple for of months, and its striking stop-animation video is a heavy presence on MTV. All this has helped the band's fourth album, "Good News for People Who Love Bad News," sell more than 600,000 copies in the U.S. since its March release -- already more than double its last album.

"It's good for the band," says Tyler Haran, 15, a fan since the late '90s when Modest Mouse was still a cult act releasing records on small, independent labels.

"But we don't like it," adds his friend Michelle Munson, 18, a recent graduate of Marymount High School.

These teens are experiencing an age-old quandary for fans of acts making a leap from underground to the mainstream. They have a special bond with the band. They want Modest Mouse to succeed, but they're worried that it will all seem less special if it's shared by millions.

For comfort and reassurance, though, they can turn to the very song that has caused their problem. "Float On" has caught the public with its life-goes-on shrug in the face of uncertainty. It's the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" of its time. Or maybe the "Don't Worry, Because Worrying Won't Help." Or maybe the alt-rock Serenity Prayer -- grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed.

Isaac Brock, the main Mouse, seems to be taking his own lyrics to heart. "I'm happy with my life," says Brock, 29, a man not known for serenity through his band's often turbulent 14-year history.

Finishing a cigarette while sitting on a white vinyl lounge chair in the Avalon dressing room before the band's sound check, he continues, "I'll be happy if it stays the same. Though I'd be happy if things change, but things that are up to me, like smoking."

Right now a lot is happening that is not so much up to Brock. His rocky life story and the band's twisted course have been subjected to more exposure and scrutiny than ever before.

That includes tales of his and his fluctuating roster of bandmates' various exploits with drugs, alcohol, legal problems and even a little jail time recounted in various national publications -- and not always with accuracy, the singer says.

But ultimately he shrugs it off as just something that goes with the territory. And recently the band found itself having to scramble when the Lollapalooza tour, on which it was one of the hottest acts, was scrapped because of poor ticket sales. Brock just shrugged that off too. Having its own headlining tour, he says, is probably better for the band at this point anyway.

And whatever the mixed feelings of some fans, he's elated about the influx of new ones -- and not just for the increase of sales.

"It's really exciting knowing that there are people who will see us tonight who have never seen us before," he says, standing up and comically maneuvering his squat frame around the room. "They'll be surprised to see I'm fat."

Inspired by grunge scene

Getting to an attitude of acceptance that marks Brock may simply be a matter of survival for him, given the difficulties he's faced. His teen years in Issaquah, Wash., a community a little east of Seattle, were marked by a broken home and poverty.

Inspired by the Seattle-rooted grunge scene, he formed the first version of Modest Mouse with bass player Eric Judy, a high school friend. He then dropped out of school and moved first to Washington, D.C., then to New York, working odd jobs before heading back to Seattle.

Two mid-'90s independent-label albums and strenuous touring earned the band a small but intense following, and eventually the attention of major labels, leading to a deal with Sony's Epic Records, which released "The Moon & Antarctica" in 2000.

Still, the road got no steadier, with growing internal tensions in the group and such distractions as a six-day jail stint for the singer for failing to get permission for a quick trip to Canada while charges stemming from an arrest on suspicion of drunk driving were pending.

After Brock made a solo album under the name Ugly Casanova last year, the band tentatively and contentiously reconvened. The good turn started when the group headed to Oxford, Miss., to work with producer Dennis Herring, whose credits range from indie heroes Camper Van Beethoven to bluesman Buddy Guy. Brock's mood brightened, a tone reflected in his lyrics and in his ability to delineate what is and what isn't in his control.

Typically, Brock isn't giving a lot of thought to the reasons for the current success -- that's not in his control either.

"I don't know," Brock says. "Probably a lot of reasons. Music radio seems a bit more willing to play something like Modest Mouse. It's more like it was maybe 14 years ago, but we were too young. They'll quit playing this kind of music again and then in 10 or 14 years start up again."

But he's enjoying the ride while it lasts, including such perks as a recent trip to Romania to film a video for "Ocean Breathes Salty," the band's next single -- a venture that was unthinkable in the past and one he knows may be unthinkable again in the future.

"The budget of the video was almost twice the whole budget for making the album," Brock says amusedly. "Film is expensive."

That's money ultimately coming from the band's royalties, of course. But Brock says he's not expecting to ever get rich from his music anyway.

"We can be broke and get to have made a bunch of cool videos," he says. "Or we can be broke and not."

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