Isaac Brock was born in 1975 in Helena, Montana. When he was 11, he moved to a small town in Washington, called Issaquah, which is famous for little more than its salmon hatchery. In 1993, he formed a band with his friends, like every 18-year-old dreams of doing, and remarkably, that band stuck around for a good long time. To date, Modest Mouse has put out five records, six EPs, and two rarities compilations. They’re also pretty famous for one of the best songs that you’re supposed to be ashamed that you like, “Float On,” which proved to be an incredible, super-massive hit for the band, over a decade into their career. However, if you are reading this, chances are you didn’t need any of that info because you already knew it, and have read the book, and know the songs, and own all of those recordings (except for the Interstate 8 EP, which you probably consider to be a white whale).
I was born in Seattle in 1990, and lived in and around it until I was 4, when we moved to Ravensdale, WA. We lived there for nine years, until we moved to the nearby town of Maple Valley, which was better, in that if there was a power outage, it was taken care of that day rather than that week. All of this is significant to this story because, as I learned midway through my obsession with their fourth album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, I learned that Isaac Brock was from the small town located just 15 miles from where I lived then. We’ll come back to this in a bit.
My musical taste up until 2004 was checkered, to say the very least. I went through phases that gravitated around what was on the Top 40 charts at the time (this swung from an undying obsession with the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, to the same passion and obsession with the artists on the 8 Mile soundtrack, until my father discovered just how profane Obie Trice could be with the song “Adrenaline Rush”). Then, one day, I discovered the local “alternative” station, 107.7 The End, and its wealth of angsty, bitter songs that I had never, ever heard. I heard “Undone (The Sweater Song)” and “Black Hole Sun” and “Add It Up” for the first time, listening to the station on the portable CD player/FM tuner I carried around with me (a very old sentence, when you think about it) while in summer school. It was around this time that I needed songs like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” the most.
I was a great student until the 6th grade. Until then, I was the best speller in the class, which was my only claim to fame. I was a social outcast, and really only had one good friend, so I found solace in learning. When the 6th grade rolled around, I began to take stock of my life, and the things around me: my father was abusive, and my parents, who fought constantly at this point, had decided to divorce. We were being forced to move out of my childhood home, and I didn’t really have anybody to share any of this pre-adolescent angst with. As a 22-year-old, I have yet to fully recover from those formative years, but something in the music I heard in those years kept me sane, and most importantly, changed me into something different entirely.
I heard “Float On” on that CD player, and I was immediately take by its jangly guitars and its despite-everything-optimism, to the point that I forced my mother to buy me that CD. I took it with me for a late-night walk on the trail near the apartment we had moved into, and began to take it in. The batteries died partway through, and I still remember where: halfway through “Bukowski,” just around the line “I can’t make it to your wedding, but I’m sure that I’ll be at your wake.” The words on that album grabbed onto me, hard. I learned later on that most Modest Mouse fans felt a decent amount of distaste for the pop sensibilities that their favorite musical outcast had adopted, but for the 14-year-old listening to those words, it was absolutely perfect. Modest Mouse was the first Mature Band that I ever really clicked with in that way (I bought the White Stripes album Elephant the year before that, but it never resonated in the same way, at least not until I was much older), and they inspired me to buy my first copy of Rolling Stone, specifically for an interview with Isaac Brock (for those wondering, the cover story was an interview with Doonesbury writer Garry Trudeau). This was a period with a lot of firsts.
Good News isn’t my go-to record anymore, even in the Modest Mouse catalog. As I worked my way backwards in the band’s music, I found a lot darker things to grab onto in my teenage angst, having abandoned the ability to really take solace in the pop songs on that record. It is not a bad record, by any means: “The World At Large” is one of my favorite songs, and “Bury Me With It,” “Dance Hall,” “Bukowski,” and “This Devil’s Workday” got me through a lot of tough times, being in my room, screaming the words at the top of my lungs. I remember my mother’s perplexed and disapproving looks the first time she heard the line “I JUST DON’T NEED NONE OF THAT MAD MAX BULLSHIT!!” and how equally perplexed she was when I nailed the high part on “Ocean Breathes Salty.” It may not be my favorite Modest Mouse record, but for what it’s worth, it is the one I love the most.
Listening to that CD player, I heard the Muse song “Time Is Running Out.” You know the one. It’s the one with the really killer bassline at the beginning, and the snaps. I loved that song, and under pressure from my friend (who I don’t even remember, now that I write this), I went to buy Absolution. Standing in the Target CD section, I found the album, and continued to browse. There, I found the cash-grab remastered edition of The Moon & Antarctica, the Modest Mouse record that had come out four years prior. “You can only get one,” my mother told me. So I made a choice that, now that I’m older, means that I am a completely different person. I realized this recently, that the months I spent obsessing could have been with a completely different record by a completely different band, one that valued sheen and hooks over content. And, considering my More-Alternative-Than-Thou brain, those are the values that would likely have stuck. There was a fork in the road, and I went left.
I got the album home and gave it a listen. The first thing you notice, hearing that album after Good News, is that those are two albums made by two different bands. “Everything that keeps me together is falling apart,” Brock sings right off the bat in “Third Planet,” “I got this thing that I consider my only art, of fucking people over.” “Third Planet” and “Gravity Rides Everything” are undoubtedly beautiful songs, and hearing them serves as a palette cleanser, leaving you fresh for the songs that come after it. The Moon & Antarctica is an album that helps you reexamine the tenants of loneliness and isolation: “The Cold Part” plays like a suicide note from a man who has chosen to set himself adrift on a chunk of ice, and “Lives” is that man’s eulogy: “You were the dull sounds of sharp math when you were alive / no one’s gonna play the harp when you die.” That descent is slow creeping, giving us little reprieve as you inch your way down (“Wild Pack of Family Dogs,” “Paper Thin Walls,” and “I Came As A Rat” always seemed so misplaced, but when you think about it, they’re wholly necessary as a way to turn back and glimpse the light before going any deeper), until the clanging finale, “What People Are Made Of.”
One of the things you notice on your first listen through is the stray lines that are so impeccably written, and it was one of these that flipped a switch in my head: “Well you cocked your head, to shoot me down / and I don’t give a damn about you or this town no more.” I knew that Brock was from a place so close to me before this, but hearing that line made me realize something very, very powerful: you don’t have to like anything about your upbringing. You’re allowed to hate where you live, who your parents are, what their values are, and the stupid grins of the people who don’t see who you are on the inside. In that line, he made it okay to rebel against things, and make your own life out of the weeds. He made me okay with my disdain for my parents’ divorce, and my father’s anger, and the looming threat of money troubles, and the fact that I had to move to Oregon soon because my grandfather was dying of cancer slowly, uprooting everything I had grown to know, even if it was everything I had grown to hate. In those words, he taught me it was okay because he knew what that was like. The musicians I had listened to for my 14 years leading up to this didn’t prepare me as an emotional being: they just wanted to tell a sk8r boi “see ya l8r boi,” rather than give my heart and soul a steady footing. And who could blame them? Eminem was a savior to a lot of kids, but I was a kid with emotional eating issues from a mossy mountain town in Washington, I was never going to be able to learn to rap my way out of that. I wasn’t going to be able to take part in five-part harmonies to get out of it, either, like the well-groomed Backstreet Boys (or the varied-in-their-grooming Spice Girls). What my savior taught me was that the best way out was to scream about it, and hammer on a guitar until your fingers bled.
Earlier this year, several hours after a horrendous attempt to remove a kidney stone (because I am 46, apparently), I had the pleasure of going to a fundraiser where Isaac Brock was performing. Right off the bat, he played “Trailer Trash,” a song off of The Lonesome Crowded West (An album I love, but one I won’t get into in this already very long essay). If you don’t know the song, look up the lyrics, because I can’t quote a single line from it without quoting the entire thing. It was incredibly moving, especially because I watched him perform it maybe three feet in front of me. After he was done playing, I took the opportunity to tell him about the impact he’d had on my life, and how his music kept me alive for those years when it felt like the world was against me. He thanked me for my story, seeming taken aback by it. We stood around outside, talking and smoking, and before leaving I shook his hand, and my friend gave him a fist bump. Brock made fun of him for it. I told him, “I’m worse, I’m a hugger.” “Yeah, that is way worse,” he said, right before demanding that I give him a hug. In hindsight, it seems impossible to me that I kept my composure throughout all of this.
I still live about 15 miles away from Isaac Brock, and his music is still an incredibly powerful force in my life, even though I don’t listen to those records as much anymore. I have a son of my own, and I’m going to make sure he never needs a musician to keep him alive. But when I was young, confused, and alone, that band did that for me. The music was my religion, and Isaac Brock was the best savior possible for a kid like me, even though (or especially because) he was so bitter.