Though Seattle has always claimed him as its own, Brock is a semi-recluse by nature who only makes welcome guest appearances every now and again; since Modest Mouse became nationally famous, he's called Chicago and Florida home before settling in Cottage Grove. In the winter of 1996, Brock and his bandmates in Modest Mouse--Eric Judy on bass and Jeremiah Green on drums--were three kids about to have their first album, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, released on Up Records. A lot has happened between then and now--Modest Mouse moved on to a major label and has become what is still categorized as one of indie-rock's most beloved and acclaimed bands, and Ugly Casanova, Brock's side project to Modest Mouse--or his alter ego, as the publicity fable goes--made its full-length debut with Sharpen Your Teeth, out on Sub Pop last month.
Sharpen Your Teeth is an album that demands careful, repeated listenings as there is a hell of a lot going on in each song. I was given a rough cut several months ago and it wasn't until I had the finished version in my deck that I fully appreciated the songs within. The disc opens with "Barnacles," which lays out the one possible theme--if there even is one--that Sharpen Your Teeth conveys: the need to be isolated versus the pull of connecting with someone forever. Its tone is somber yet celebratory, and tracks of vocals are alternately ragged and harmonious. Whispers hide under shouts like saplings rising beneath years of needles shed by old-growth timber. Teeth sounds like seasoned land.
I recently asked Brock about the new Ugly Casanova release and how it evolved from a one-off single to a full-fledged album. "Ugly Casanova was always a side project idea I had, a way to put things out that I'd written that the rest of the band wasn't going to be in," he explained. "I did the first Ugly Casanova song and put it out on Sub Pop five years ago as part of a four-song single. Then it just sat and when we were going to sign with Epic, I thought, 'Shit, maybe if I get this to be a firm band, [Epic] won't actually own my soul. I'll have a way out.' I thought I was being so clever, bragging for years that I had a loophole, and then just after finishing this record my manager and lawyer informed me that I was only allowed to do one Ugly Casanova record, and I was like, 'WHAT?!' That was a bummer. So there goes my loophole." I asked him whether Epic is supportive of his taking time out for an Ugly Casanova tour. "They're not happy," he answered seriously. "I know that they see it as me wasting effort that could be going for them, but the fact of the matter is they're not a very supportive label; it's not very rewarding making records for those people. And Sub Pop has been great. It's been a damn good time lately."
I reminded him that his view of Sub Pop hadn't always been so rosy and he backed up his enthusiasm with a careful but pointed response. "I had my problems with some people who worked there who are now gone, and the label has gone through a lot of changes. It was a fairly corrupt label at one point, but they have turned around and figured out that they don't need to be doing 19-record deals, that they should do one-offs and see where that goes, much like Up did. I didn't ever want to leave Up, but I was put in a position where I needed to." Though he was reluctant to talk about it, Brock explained that he made the hard decision to leave the label run by his friend Chris Takino simply because the budget wasn't there to help Modest Mouse rise to its potential. In his heart he feels that maybe Takino was giving him the push he needed to take his career into his own hands, and he ran with it.
Live, Brock has played as Ugly Casanova solo with a guitar and amp, and then another time backed by a full band. When he played alone in the fall of 2000, he arrived at Graceland hours behind schedule, dressed in a white leisure suit, a fake moustache glued above his lip with spirit gum. The ensuing show was shaky at best, but perfectly, predictably quirky, and in tradition with Brock's unpredictable nature.
Several months later, when the full-band version of Ugly Casanova (it's always been an unfirm lineup) played in the same room, the transformation was equally unnerving. This time the audience was packed with Modest Mouse fans who shouted out requests for their favorite songs as Brock and singer John Orth maintained composure for those in the crowd who were happy to witness this new aspect of Brock's talent. For those paying attention, it was a show studded with tempo changes and versatility of songwriting. Orth, a singer Brock discovered, possesses a voice that is nothing less than beautiful in its pervading lilt; his vintage suit and hat made him seem like someone not of this era. His presence was almost otherworldly, as if a flickering film image was being projected on stage as the rest of the band played along. "I found him when I was living in Gainesville, Florida," said Brock of discovering Orth. "I went and saw his band Hollowpop play and was pretty floored. I didn't know anyone in town at that point and we chatted about playing together, so he came over and we did some songs. I was kind of drawn to the guy--he has quite the charisma. As I got to know him I thought I definitely wanted to have something to do with that guy, and we just became really good friends."
The birth of the collaborative band part of Ugly Casanova a couple of years ago came out of Brock's love of another band. "I was so into those Red Red Meat recordings and I wanted to have those fucked-up sounds that they were managing to get on their records and with Califone. I met [Red Red Meat's] Brian Deck on tour and got along swimmingly, so when I started putting these songs together, I had him come out to Cottage Grove because he knows a lot more about recording than me--I was doing the whole home-recorded project thing, you know?--and I thought it would be nice to have someone along who could make it go a lot smoother. So we ended up doing it all together and it became like a joint project. Rather than it being my side project it became sort of a co-op project."
A few days before Brock made the trip to Seattle for the recent secret Modest Mouse show, we spoke by phone as he hung out at home. Brock talked about the freedom his home studio offers, which bears the descriptive name Glacial Pace Studio. "It's cool to work here because you don't have the studio schedule thing, where you're paying however much money a day so you have to be stressed. The only person who was being paid was Brian at that point, so I could decide how drunk I got that day or whether we'd just have cook-offs and it would dissolve into a big competition. I think Brian won, which kind of hurts me, because I hold myself in really high regard as far as cooking goes. As a matter of fact, I'm going to shop for a fancy cooking range tonight that someone has for sale second-hand." I told him how restorative his home felt when I spent time there housesitting during Modest Mouse's fall tour. It truly is a home. Brock agreed. "It has the best fucking view in town, scout's honor. They're breaking bronc' next door and it's really something to see horses running all day."
In Seattle, we talk a little more about the process of how Ugly Casanova came to be. "Ugly Casanova was an excuse to be less critical about what goes on a record, and of course I ended up being way more so. And it was also an excuse to play with people I don't get to play with a lot. Modest Mouse is something that is set--there's already someone who plays bass and drums, so it's hard to write songs with other people, especially now that we're on Epic, because they call a union in if you try anything different. I didn't have a deadline with [Ugly Casanova]. I signed a contract with Sub Pop two and a half years ago and they were totally cool, never pressured me to do anything with it. Once I finally started working on it, Brian and I wrote a lot of songs that didn't end up on the record, and we were going to just keep working on it until I was bankrupt. We finally said we've just got to bench this thing, decide that it's done and finish what we have. We could still be working on it, but we decided we'd like to have it done."
Now that the end product is out and Brock is taking it on the road live, will Ugly Casanova continue somehow, despite the legal confines? Already, the quiet shrewdness that has kept him afloat during good times and bad is at work. "We'll see. I'd like to, but I don't really know how to go about it," he says. "I'm doing an EP of songs that didn't end up on the record and I'd like to put that out in about six months. I liked a whole hell of a lot of the songs that didn't get on--and one I like more than any of the ones that ended up on the album--but it just didn't make sense with the others, so I pulled it. But then from there I have to focus on Modest Mouse. One thing that I don't get from Ugly Casanova is just the opportunity to play with Eric and Jeremy, which I love. I'd like to keep the project open though, because I really like doing records this way--at my house with friends and booze."
For a moment he gets philosophical about the trade-off that being in a band poses when considering any kind of regular life. "I sometimes think, 'Day Job,'" he begins to explain, then, as if on cue, his cell phone rings, and it's someone from Sub Pop keeping tabs. "That was the office," he deadpans. "My day job. It's so great. I have a job!" The job he's talking about is his new position as A&R for the label. "It's the most ridiculous job I've ever had; I sit at home and say, 'I wonder if Sub Pop would put out this band?' And they say, 'Yes' and 'yes' and 'yes.'" He gets more serious. "I've been playing make-believe A&R guy forever, running around telling anyone who'd listen who they should put on their record or label. Now I only get to tell one group of people. They let me go see shows in faraway places, and I love working with [Sub Pop General Manager] Megan Jasper."
Over the years I've watched and listened as Brock grew from boy to man (he's now 26 years old) and observed not only a change in tone and temperament, but a change in how he plays music as well. "Right now I'm kind of enjoying the confusion. It's kind of nice just throwing stuff in the bin," he says. "There's always something pivotal that will happen, that will make something clear, and right now I don't have that. To be honest, I have a lot less clear of an idea on what I want to do now than I did when I was a kid." He leans over conspiratorially and chides, "A little secret... Modest Mouse doesn't really have any new material. Don't tell the press." He laughs, then continues more truthfully, "I've just kind of recovered from having done the Ugly Casanova record and there could have been plenty of new [Modest Mouse] material, but I squandered it on another project. They [Eric and Jeremiah] have their other projects, and I don't see them writing anything." I ask him if he's happy with his creative output. "I'm not lazy, but I definitely feel like I should be doing more--a third band.... I just feel like I should be doing more. I'm not happy that I didn't have any new songs to play last night," he says of the secret Modest Mouse show. "I used to think that the band members living in different states wasn't getting in the way of our songwriting, but it is. We get together when there's a show and maybe write a little, but it all gets forgotten by the next time we get together. I don't like rockin' out as much anymore. We've been playing the slower songs lately." He sighs and rolls his eyes, "Old guy...."
Ugly Casanova performs with Hot Hot Heat and the Lazy Daves Sat June 15 at the Crocodile, $12 adv/$14 DOS.