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From Modest beginnings ...

Nearly 15 years from its Seattle grunge origins, Modest Mouse's career has taken a mighty turn.

March 18, 2004|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

The death of a close friend conjures a spectrum of emotion -- sorrow, anger, disbelief. Multiply those feelings by two and you have the inspiration for "Good News for People Who Love Bad News," the latest record from Northwest indie-rock trio Modest Mouse.

Shortly before heading into the studio, singer/guitarist Isaac Brock was devastated by the deaths of "a couple of the most important people in my life," he said.

It's a loss that's keenly apparent on the group's new record, an album that has processed some of life's more uncomfortable and ugly emotions into what may be the most powerful, beautiful and angry music the band has ever made.

Many of the group's trademarks are still very much in evidence -- sarcastically poetic lyrics, frustrated vocals and dreamy tremolo guitars set against sweeping, naturalist soundscapes. But on "Good News," the songs are infused with an almost Gothic sensibility. They are doctored with touches of banjo, blasts of brass and other Southern musical fixins, a function of the band recording in Oxford, Miss., instead of its native Seattle, alongside Dennis Herring, the veteran producer who helped shape the deep-fried sounds of '80s rockers Camper Van Beethoven.

"There's definitely some Southern flavor, but it wasn't intentional," said Brock, the 28-year-old singer.

"All our songs were pretty much written before we went down there. I had been enjoying playing banjo and whatnot, so those types of songs ended up there."

Herring just helped to bring them out. Answering Brock's request for a Salvation Army band, Herring brought in the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who open the record with a shriek of horns -- one of several anomalous musical interludes that break up the album, giving it a desperate sort of feel.

"I'm real responsive to the things that make him him," Herring said of Brock. "That guy lives in a place where you and I don't. That's why his name goes on the front of a record the way it ought to."

"Good News," due out April 6, breaks a long hiatus for Modest Mouse, which hadn't released a record in four years. "There was just kind of a lot going on for everyone outside of the band," said Brock, without elaborating.

"The Moon & Antarctica," the group's third full-length albumits first on a major label -- came out in 2000. At the time, the poetic, dystopian sound collages of its Epic Records debut met rave reviews from both critics and fans, but "I was never happy with the way the final product sounded," said Brock, who recently remastered the record with the intention of making a single copy for himself.

He was pleasantly surprised when Epic decided to re-release the album. Earlier this month, the new version of "The Moon & Antarctica" hit store shelves, with songs that were not only remastered to Brock's liking but also new art and four bonus tracks recorded live on the BBC.

When Modest Mouse first signed to Epic, Brock said, "it wasn't the type of music they knew how to sell, and we were kind of treated like a red-headed stepchild." The band is having a totally different experience with "Good News." The label now treats the band "like family," he said. The difference: "We gave them a record they really liked."

Label execs aren't the only ones who like it. Modest Mouse's new record is getting commercial radio air play for the first time, including KROQ, which has been playing the single, "Float On."

A longtime college-radio favorite, commercial success has been a long time coming for the band, which was formed in 1990.

Brock was a teenager, working at the family video store in his hometown of Issaquah, just outside Seattle, when he met bass player Eric Judy. The two later met drummer Jeremiah Green at a hard-core punk show and decided to play music together.

A year or so before Seattle grunge exploded onto the scene, all three of them "were really huge on the whole Sub Pop singles club," collecting 7-inch vinyl by local bands like Mudhoney and Tad. Not surprisingly, when Modest Mouse first started playing, "it was all really like Tree People influence and whatnot," said Brock. "There were a lot less mellow, prettier songs back then."

Six years later grunge was on the wane, and so was its influence on Modest Mouse, which had found its own sound -- one that juxtaposed double-tracked, Frank Black-style vocals against a pretty backdrop of warped guitars and understated drumming.

In 1996, the band made its recording debut with "This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About," followed in '97 with "The Lonesome Crowded West." Both were released by the independent Seattle label Up Records.

The group was courted by and signed to Epic in 2000, propelled by the buzz it had generated from protracted stints of touring.

Today, the band continues to tour prolifically. On Tuesday, it kicks off a string of seven consecutive nights of shows in and around L.A.

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