Yeah. Huh. Shit.
A Conversation with Isaac Brock
Fri April 27, Paramount Theatre, 682-1414.
For completists and invested Modest Mouse fans, the new K Records release of Sad Sappy Sucker is a source of much excitement. It's the never-released first album--23 tracks, some of which are not songs but "Dial-A-Songs," performed into Isaac Brock's answering machine seven years ago. In the wake of the band's expertly crafted Epic Records release The Moon and Antarctica, Sad Sappy Sucker sounds primitive, interesting mostly for its archival importance. But then we're talking about the year 1994, and had it been released back then it would have sounded significant.
Sad Sappy Sucker forecasts the unique, influential style the band eventually refined on 1996's Interstate 8 and is a bright-if-unheard call for the national attention Modest Mouse would eventually garner on 1997's Lonesome Crowded West. Sad Sappy Sucker was obviously an inexpensive album, but it was well recorded by Calvin Johnson. On the actual songs, Isaac Brock sounds a good 15 years younger than he does on The Moon and Antarctica--he was a scrappy genius even then, and the work is momentous regardless.
Isaac Brock is spending time with his girlfriend down in Florida when we speak, and he's missed two return flights to Oregon already. His conversation drifts along the stream of his easy preoccupations. Nonetheless, Brock is engaged and polite, intimate even. Though we have never met, he speaks to me as though we are friends, routinely addressing me by my first name, as in, "That's great, Jeff," or, "I don't really know, Jeff." I wonder if he's one of the nicest strangers to whom I've ever spoken, or if he's drunk. He seems to want to tell me about the flight situation: how he got his tickets on Priceline.com, how they are nontransferable, and how he had to find a doctor to fake a stomach flu in order to get a new flight.
"Here, let me put down what I was doing," he says, distracted. I spend minutes listening to the sound of bottles clanking up against each other. "Sorry," he says when he gets back to the phone. "Trying to take out recycling and things, and I grabbed a beer to make more recycling. Just doing my part to help."
Apparently the touring members of Love as Laughter joined Brock in Florida the prior evening to help create this current surplus of empties, and, at some point, to go out looking for alligators. "I had a stick," Brock tells me. "I wanted to poke 'em." Brock really wants to tell me that there were no alligators. In fact, he returns to the subject of the alligators twice in our conversation. "Saw some turtles," he continues. "Saw a bird eat a big-assed fish. Saw a rabbit. But no alligators."
I'm actually not calling about alligators, but to ask Brock about the band's upcoming Seattle show and about Sad Sappy Sucker. It's strange material to hear for anyone who's been a fan of this great Northwest band throughout its impressive career, which is fast approaching a decade in length. I ask Brock what it's like to hear himself at such a young age on the record. "It's fucking embarrassing.... It's like a high-school yearbook picture or something. I was pretty hesitant for a long time to release that stuff, just because it was recorded so long ago. But now, you know...." He pauses. "I guess it's kind of fun. I just look at it like it was a snapshot. It was valid to me at the time when I was doing it, even if it's not now."
He says he would have been much more serious about Sad Sappy Sucker at the age of 17, which is how old he was when the material was written. He was 18 when it was recorded and is now 25. "There's all the 'Dial-A-Songs,' which are just funny. Some of it has kind of a Daniel Johnston feel," he allows. "Which is really embarrassing." I ask him what he means by that, assuming he means he sounded crazy. "High-pitched voice and all that jazz. I was a little farther from sanity back then anyway," he says.
Brock's life is different now. He currently resides in rustic Cottage Grove, Oregon, a former mining town known for its pretty covered bridges--a town so idyllic it was the setting for the 1926 Buster Keaton classic, The General. "It's a redneck logging town," he tells me. "It's kind of my Issaquah replacement because it hasn't turned into what Issaquah has, and it's too far from a major city for that to happen anytime soon. I'm pretty sure the world's going to collapse before Cottage Grove becomes a mega-mall." (Brock and the other two members of his band, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green, all hail from Issaquah, where they met in high school.)
I bite, curious about the life of this small-town eccentric. I want to know what it's like to be someone so unique, weirdly centered, and simultaneously insane. "I live in a really nice house," he tells me. "I mean, it's really good for one person. It would be fine for two or three people, but I don't like living with anyone anymore," he tells me. "When I was younger I was living with up to 13 people and shit, you know? Sleeping in the hallway and whatnot. There's a couple of friends that I wouldn't mind living with, but I keep hours that have me up until 9:00 the next morning, and I've got that studio."
The studio to which he refers is one he has put together in his house, partly funded by a recent deal with Sub Pop to put out an Ugly Casanova record. Ugly Casanova is Brock's solo project. "I've got the first 10 songs close to being done. I'm going to try and get nine more and pick through them and make an album. It's going really well. It's a lot of fun making a record in your own house, you know? Whenever friends come through, we try to record. I'm playing a show the 26th in New York--an Ugly Casanova show, which I'm pretty psyched on."
I ask him if Modest Mouse is on hold.
"No. I mean I'm still busy doing shit for that. I've got the guys coming down this week to record a couple songs for an EP that we're putting out on Epic. We're going to do that, and then I'm going to do some more Ugly Casanova recording, and then go on a Modest Mouse tour in Japan."
I comment on how busy he is and he moves on to a subject that he finds more interesting: Prince. Brock is going to pitch the idea of doing an Ugly Casanova/Love as Laughter single for Sub Pop, which the bands will write and perform together. He wants to include a cover of Prince's "Lady Cab Driver."
"It's a great song," he tells me. He even loves the newer Prince material, including "My Name Is Prince." Excited, Brock sings it to me at length. "'On the first day/God made the sea/But on the seventh day/He made me/He was tryin' to rest y'all/When he heard this sound/Sound like a guitar, cold gettin' down....'" Brock becomes so strangely invested in the performance--ending on a high-pitched, distorted note: "'MY NAME IS PRINCE!'"--that I joke I could now sell my recording of the interview on eBay for lots of money. He laughs. "Yeah. Huh. Shit. I'd just have to one-up you and do a better version and sell that on eBay. It would actually work in both our favors because people would be confused as to which is which. First you'd come out with 'Isaac Singing My Name Is Prince,' and then I'd come out with 'The Real Deal.' I'm into shenanigans, man," he tells me.
"Are you really?" I ask, as though that's new information for me. The last time I saw Brock was at an Ugly Casanova show. He arrived a good half-hour late and entered the crowded showroom of Graceland with his stack and a bullhorn, which went off accidentally as he hustled in as though on official business, wearing a tacky blue suit and a fake moustache. "Yeah, that's kind of what Ugly Casanova's supposed to be about, is shenanigans baby. Yeah, when I saw Atlas Strategic play, I sat at the bar with the megaphone, and between each song I'd talk through it. I'd be like, "THAT WAS VERY, VERY GOOD."
I ask him how many times he's been beaten up.
"A lot. Yeah. Not since 10th grade have I ever won a fight. I'm a smartass and I seem too cocky and stuff. I don't know how it happens. I don't mean to be cocky, I just end up seeming like it. But yeah, I mean hell, that's part of how I earned my broken jaw"--a punishment he received for mouthing off outside a club in Chicago a couple years back.
Brock is happy to be talking about this stuff. Earlier on in the conversation he complained that we were talking "just business shit," which bothers him in interviews because there's "funner shit to talk about." More engaged now, he leads me into a new subject--writing for a newspaper.
"You gotta be fuckin' way up on your grammar, huh?" he asks. Then he kindly offers himself as an information source for The Stranger. "Yeah. I know about bands way before everyone else. The Shins were my fucking discovery, man."
I suggest that he write for The Stranger.
"Hmmmm." He seems to consider it. "What's it pay? Does it pay?"
I tell him what we pay, by the word.
"What about hyphenated words?" he asks.
I tell him I'm honestly not certain.
"What about made-up words? Or words like 'a' and 'to'? They gotta be fuckin' cutting off some money for words like 'a' and 'to.'"
"No, I don't think so," I tell him.
"How about periods?"
I tell him periods aren't words.
"What if you used a whole bunch of 'em? Like, for dramatic pauses or something?"
I almost have to think about it for a minute.