Modest Mouse were one of the most unique bands of the 1990s and 2000s, as well as one of more unlikely commercial success stories in rock history. The Washington group's tightly wound and slyly tuneful sound mixed up dense, noisy guitars and jerky rhythms with Isaac Brock's crack-voiced squawking and bummed-out rants, which touched on everything from convenient parking to astral phenomena to drinking too damn much.
Modest Mouse played a key part in turning the Pacific Northwest into fertile ground for indie acts (including Death Cab for Cutie and the Shins) and More than a decade after the arty Pacific Northwest indie-rock band formed, its sixth album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, sold more than a million copies, thanks in part to its Number One Modern Rock single "Float On." The band's 2007 follow-up, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, topped the album chart.
Issac Brock (b. July 9, 1975, Issaquah, Washington), the band's singer, songwriter and guitarist, grew up poor in suburban Washington, moving from relative to relative before quitting school at sixteen. Inspired by the rock scene in his home state that spawned Nirvana and Screaming Trees, he formed Modest Mouse in the early Nineties and began rehearsing in a shed near his mother's mobile home.
In 1996, the group released its debut album, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, on the independent label Up Records. It was followed the next year by The Lonesome Crowded West, which featured Modest Mouse's core membership of Brock, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green. That album generated a buzz on the underground music scene for its dark, pessimistic lyrics centering on America's suburban underbelly, and music that jumps from angular punk to gentle, country-ish dirges. (Another album, The Fruit That Ate Itself, an experimental one-off for the tiny indie label K Records, also came out in 1997.)
Modest Mouse signed with major label Epic Records and in 1999 released The Moon & Antarctica, which sold moderately well but garnered strong reviews. With the move to a major label, Modest Mouse aimed higher with Moon, as the album boasted superior production, stronger songwriting and a wider stylistic palette than its predecessor.
Between 1999 and 2002, Brock was beset by legal troubles including a DUI conviction. In the interim, K Records put out Sad Sappy Sucker (2001), a collection of embryonic Modest Mouse tracks dating back to 1994. Good News for People Who Love Bad News arrived in 2004. Sporting a more commercial sound and shorter song lengths, the album's first single "Float On" became the band's unlikely breakout hit, as the song climbed to Number One on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart and was even covered in 2007 by the American Idol Season Six contestants. In 2009, Rolling Stone named "Float On" 39th on its Best Songs of the 2000s list.
For 2007's nautical-themed We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the group recruited former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, whose trademark licks infused first single "Dashboard" and "We've Got Everything." The album also feature contributions from the Shins frontman James Mercer. Thanks in part to the continued success of "Float On," We Were Dead debuted at Number One on the Top 200.
Marr toured with Modest Mouse, but soon went on to join UK band the Cribs. He was replaced by Grandaddy guitarist Jim Fairchild when the band played live in support of their 2009 EP No One's First and You're Next, a collection of B-sides and other fully bloomed studio outtakes from the Good News and We Were Dead era. The music video for the EP's "King Rat" was conceived and co-directed by actor Heath Ledger, who died of a drug overdose before the animated clip's completion.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Daniel Kreps contributed to this story.