Capable of punkish rawness, simmering atmosphere, and light-hearted pop, Modest Mouse shaped the sound of late-’90s indie rock and enjoyed mainstream success in the years that followed. On their early singles and albums, like 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West, they proved there was more to the Pacific Northwest underground than grunge. Coupled with Isaac Brock’s wild-eyed yelp and sketches of small-town life, their mix of emo, folk, post-rock, and prog won critical acclaim. Their major-label debut, 2000′s moody, sprawling The Moon and Antarctica, showed just how grandly ambitious their music could be, while 2005′s platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated commercial breakthrough, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, and its smash hit “Float On” revealed their flair for anthemic pop singles. On later albums like 2007′s chart-topping We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (which featured legendary guitarist Johnny Marr) and 2021′s The Golden Casket, Modest Mouse gave their music arena-sized proportions without sacrificing their idiosyncratic outlook.
Modest Mouse was founded in 1992 in Issaquah, Washington by guitarist and vocalist Isaac Brock, bassist Eric Judy, and drummer Jeremiah Green. Brock, who met Judy while working at a local video store and Green at a heavy metal concert, was only 18 and living in a shed next to his mother’s trailer home when Modest Mouse began working together. The shed became their rehearsal space and base of operations as they forged a nervy sound inspired by bands such as Pixies, XTC, and Pavement. In 1994, Modest Mouse recorded their debut 7”, “Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect?” at Calvin Johnson’s Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia, Washington, and Johnson released it on his K Records label later that year. Following the 1996 single “Broke,” which was recorded with Steve Wold (who found fame a few years later as grizzled blues hobo Seasick Steve) and a few other short-form releases, Modest Mouse signed with Up Records for their April 1996 debut album This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. Co-produced with Wold, its tales of emotional and geographic isolation earned strong reviews.
The band reunited with Johnson to make May 1997′s EP The Fruit That Ate Itself and that November’s sophomore full-length The Lonesome Crowded West (which also featured production by Scott Swayze). Adding more range and nuance as well as ecological and political themes to the band’s music, The Lonesome Crowded West earned more strong reviews and eventually became known as one of the era’s definitive indie rock albums. The singles and rarities collection Building Nothing Out of Something followed in 1999, and for their next album, Modest Mouse moved from Up to Epic Records. Arriving in June 2000, the band’s major-label debut The Moon and Antarctica was a dark, expansive effort that reflected Brock’s introspective state of mind as well as the band’s five months working with Califone’s Brian Deck at his Chicago studio. Along with critical acclaim, the album also found commercial success, reaching number 120 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart and earning gold certification from the RIAA. In 2004, a remastered version of the album with different artwork and selections from a BBC Radio 1 session appeared.
Modest Mouse followed The Moon and Antarctica’s success with consistent touring and 2001′s Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, a collection of demos and outtakes from the album’s sessions. That year also saw the release of Sad Sappy Sucker, a collection that included the band’s first attempt at their debut album. The following year, Brock released an LP with his side project Ugly Casanova. In 2003, Green stepped away from the band, with the Helio Sequence’s Benjamin Weikel becoming the group’s temporary percussionist and keyboardist and Murder City Devils’ Dann Gallucci — who had been a guest guitarist on the sessions for Sad Sappy Sucker and The Lonesome Crowded West — joining as an official bandmember. Both appeared on Modest Mouse’s next album, April 2004′s Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Recorded with Dennis Herring at Oxford, Mississippi’s Sweet Tea Studio, it was a more exuberant collection of songs that became the band’s commercial breakthrough. A Top 20 hit in the U.S. (where it was certified platinum) and a Top 40 hit in the U.K., it spawned the hit singles “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty” as the band began headlining arenas. In addition, Good News for People Who Love Bad News was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, while “Float On” was nominated for Best Rock Song. Around the time of Good News’ release, Modest Mouse also issued the live album Baron Von Bullshit Rides Again.
By the end of 2004, Green had returned to Modest Mouse, and more lineup changes followed. After Gallucci left the group in 2006, the band recruited Johnny Marr to play guitar on their next album. Arriving in April 2007, the nautically themed We Were Dead Before the Ship Sank was recorded at Sweet Tea Studio and Portland, Oregon’s Audible Alchemy and also featured backing vocals by the Shins’ James Mercer. The album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 and was eventually certified gold in the U.S. and Canada. Marr’s involvement with the band included playing on the lengthy tour supporting We Were Dead Before the Ship Sank; he departed to join the Cribs, with Jim Fairchild (who had worked with Grandaddy and All Smiles) stepping in on guitar by the time Modest Mouse hit the road for August 2009′s collection of outtakes and non-LP single sides, No One's First, And You're Next. The band’s cover of “That’ll Be the Day” appeared on the 2011 tribute compilation Rave on Buddy Holly, while their touring extended into 2012. That year saw the departure of Judy and percussionist Joe Plummer; taking their places were former Man Man member Russell Higbee and Davey Brozowski. Percussionist Ben Massarella, who’d performed on The Moon and Antarctica, and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Lisa Molinaro also joined the fold.
Modest Mouse’s live dates kept them busy into 2014, and that year the band reissued This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About and The Lonesome Crowded West on Brock’s Glacial Pace label (which he named after his painstaking creative process). Work on the band’s sixth album included the construction of their own Ice Cream Party studio, shelved collaborations with Outkast’s Big Boi and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, and the recording of two albums’ worth of songs. Appearing in March 2015, Strangers to Ourselves was a moody, sprawling effort that reached number three on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. and spawned the single “Lampshades on Fire,” which topped the Alternative Airplay chart. In 2019, the band issued a trio of stand-alone singles, “Poison the Well,” “I’m Still Here,” and “Ice Cream Party,” and toured with the Black Keys. For June 2021′s The Golden Casket, Modest Mouse recorded at Ice Cream Party and in Los Angeles with producers Dave Sardy and Jacknife Lee, opting for an electronic-tinged sound that reflected the more optimistic outlook on the themes of fatherhood, technology, and mortality they explored on Strangers to Ourselves. Shortly before the album’s release, Fairchild and Molinaro amicably left the band. Drummer Jeremiah Green died on December 31, 2022 just days after he went public with his diagnosis of Stage IV cancer. He was 45 years old. ~ Heather Phares & Marcy Donelson