Modest Mouse was my coming-of-age band. Their first five albums were both the soundtrack to the period of my life when I changed the most, and they were part of that change. The year was 2000 and Modest Mouse had just released their first two albums on a major label. I had spent the previous two years driving to Alaska, studying in Kathmandu, and living in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was a new millennium and I was back in San Diego, where I went to high school, and felt self-conscious every time I bumped into anyone else from my high school who didn’t go off to college. It seemed the world was already divided between those who would make something out of life and those who wouldn’t, and I wound up on the wrong side without knowing quite how I got there.
I was 20 years old and pulling espresso shots at the local indie coffee shop. I wore corduroys, baggie jeans, flip flops, and t-shirts with logos of surfing brands. I mostly declined invitations to house parties with kegs and bonfires on the beach. I had a sense that I was different from most of the people around me, but I didn’t know where I did belong. I had an anxious urge to be liked, but I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted from life. I was only beginning to comprehend the abnormalcy of my childhood and family. But then, what to do with this information?
The first Modest Mouse album I heard was This Is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About. I was entranced. The music was completely different from anything I had heard, an impossible-sounding combination of punk rock, bluegrass, heavy metal and americana. The lyrics were a revelation: they put into poetry all of the inner-monologues unraveling in my mind. They were philosophical and ruminating without any avoidance of the emotional angst of being young. The defining characteristic of any Modest Mouse song is that it sounds like “I don’t give a shit,” while the lyrics say, “but I do give a shit, more than you could ever know.”
The penultimate track of their first album:
And I said, "You can't make everybody happy
He said, "You'd like to at least make yourself happy, though.
I'm not sure who I am
I'm not sure who I am, but I know who I've been
The title of the track is “Make Everyone Happy / Mechanical Birds.” It woke something up in me. I didn’t want to be a mechanical bird bobbing its head up and down to make everyone happy. I wanted to make myself happy. Why was this seemingly so much harder for me than everyone else? It’s not the most melodic or accessible song to start off a playlist like this one. After three and a half minutes of slow chord progressions sprinkled with guitar, bass and banjo riffs, it descends into a chaos of noise, beeps and blips. But that’s Modest Mouse, and it was part of its appeal — the juxtaposition of chaos with melody, beauty with nihilism.
It was their second full-length album, The Lonesome Crowded West that grabbed me. It made Modest Mouse my band. A fellow barista and I took a road trip from San Diego to Seattle in the spring of 2000 and Modest Mouse was on the stereo in every Seattle coffeeshop. This was back when music on the radio would actually differ from city to city. I was born in Seattle, but left when I was two and my mom went back to school in a small college town on the border with Idaho. I would return every summer to the tiny exurb of Issaquah where my grandma lived in a cabin on a lake. Back then, before Microsoft’s wealth mutated the area, Issaquah was a strange mix of nature-loving literary types like my grandmother and blue-collar workers from the local sawmills that lived in trailer parks alongside pine-shaded creeks off the backcountry highways.
Isaac Brock, Modest Mouse’s front man, grew up in an Issaquah trailer park with an out-of-touch single mom and a step-father he couldn’t relate to. In a Pitchfork documentary about The Lonesome Crowded West, Brock says he had “front row seating watching forests disappear and the urban sprawl begin.” He watched Issaquah get, in his words, “mall-fucked.” And he clearly soaked up Issaquah’s book culture. “Modest Mouse” is from a Virginia Woolf passage and there are literary allusions sprinkled throughout their songs.
Modest Mouse became my band. A combination of white trash, literary intellectualism, dysfunctional families, the Pacific Northwest, and truth-seeking. A combination that spoke to the core of my identity and no song did so better than Trailer Trash:
Short love with a long divorce
And a couple of kids of course
They don't mean anything
Live in trailers with no class
Goddamn I hope I can pass high school (means nothing)
Taking heartache with hard work
Goddamn I am such a jerk, I can't do anything
And I shout that you're all fakes
And you should have seen the look on your face
My god how that song spoke to me. It was my life, my feelings, my resentments and contradictions. I never expected anyone to love Modest Mouse as much as I did, because it seemed impossible for anyone else to identify so closely with the music and lyrics. And the ecstatic rhapsody of the closing guitar solo with the crashing waves of the bass and rhythm guitar.
When I was 18-years-old on my way to Alaska, I spent the summer in Issaquah living in my grandparents’ silver Airstream and working at the local Boston Market baking cornbread. I wanted something different for my life, but I didn’t know what. And I still wasn’t over my high school girlfriend, who I’d occasionally call while drunk and lonely. I knew it was a bad idea, but I’d do it anyway. Modest Mouse was able to put that strange compulsive behavior into the short ditty, “Long Distance Drunk.”
Soon enough, I fell in with Issaquah’s subculture of working class, artsy bohemians. After work, we’d buy 12-packs of cheap beer and head to a nearby lake rimmed with pine trees reflecting on the glassy water like an emerald and blue donut. We strummed guitars and traded paperback novels by Bukowski and Henry Miller. And I had a summer fling with a 19-year-old mother of two.
I think about that summer every time I listen to 3rd Planet, the opening track from The Moon and Antartica. The lyrics are open to interpretation and Reddit is full of thousands. For me, the song is unmistakably about a miscarriage or abortion — the simultaneous beauty, capriciousness, and meaninglessness of life. The passionate, shameful, animal-like groping of unintentional procreation. The way so many of us come into this world as mere accidents and then are faced with the existential conundrum of what to do with our own accidents. I’ve never grown sick of this song.
For all of the weight, anger and seriousness of most Modest Mouse songs, others are delightfully playful and fantastical, like Wild Pack of Family Dogs about a roaming pack of dogs talking away his family from his dad one by one:
My dad quit his job today, well I guess he was fired but that's ok.
And I'm sitting out side my muddy lake, waiting for the pack to take me away.
And right after I die the dogs start floating up towards the glowing sky.
Isaac Brock may be my favorite American poet, able to say so much with such sparse, simple language. In a crowded genre, “Broke” is my favorite break-up song — both relatable and funny:
Broke your glasses
But it broke the ice
You said that I was an asshole
And I paid the price
Want broken necks
I've done some things
That I want to forget, but I can't
Broke a promise
Cause my car broke down
Such a classic excuse
Should be bronze by now
And I'm relieved somehow
It's the end of the discussions
That just go round and round and round
Or, the raw, no-bullshit authenticity from “Edit the Sad Parts”:
Sometimes all I really want to feel is love
Sometimes I'm angry that I feel so angry
Sometimes my feelings get in the way
Of what I really feel I needed to say
In 2004, everything changed. Modest Mouse released Good News for People Who Love Bad News, indie rock became the mainstream and one of my favorite songs from The Moon and Antartica, “Gravity Rides Everything,” was featured in an ad for a minivan. Modest Mouse was no longer my band. Now it was everyone’s. I was resentful, of course, but also happy that good music found a large audience. The music and lyrics were just as good, if less raw and angry. I was beginning to feel less raw and angry myself. And ready to leave San Diego, ready to explore “The World at Large:”
Ice age, heat wave, can't complain
If the world's at large, why should I remain?
Walked away to another planet
Gonna find another place, maybe one I can stand
I move on to another day
To a whole new town with a whole new way
Went to the porch to have a thought
Got to the door and, again, I couldn't stop
I like songs about drifters, books about the same
They both seem to make me feel a little less insane
Walked on off to another spot
I still haven't gotten anywhere that I want
Did I want love? Did I need to know?
Why does it always feel like I'm caught in an undertow?
Where did this constant impulse to travel come from? What was I looking for? Was it love in the end? Did I just want to escape? Why was it so difficult to explain the impulse to others? Same as Isaac Brock, the books about drifters made me feel a little less insane.
That summer, Modest Mouse was constantly on the radio. People hummed along to the lyrics, but for me it was like someone reached into my brain and sang my thoughts. Tracks like Ocean Breathes Salty, Bukowski and Blame It On The Tetons were narrations of my life in San Diego. But it was the penultimate track, One Chance, that stuck with me — a reminder to not sacrifice family and friendships for curiosity and exploration:
We have one chance.
One chance to get everything right.
We have one chance, one chance.
And if we're lucky we might.
My friends, my habits, my family,
They mean so much to me.
I just don't think that it's right.
I've seen so many ships sail in,
Just to head back out again and go off sinking.
The life of a wandering, bohemian hobo was everything I wanted in my mid-twenties, but I knew even then that I didn’t want to be another ship to “head back out and go off sinking.” I sought balance, and I think I’ve managed to find something close.
My favorite Modest Mouse album is their 2001 EP Everywhere and His Nasty Parlor Tricks. It’s the most representative of Modest Mouse songwriting. I love every track. “So Much Beauty in Dirt” is prototypical of how Brock finds beauty in the small things and inevitable meaningless when it comes to the big questions:
Out of breath and out of cash, find yourself watching M.A.S.H., every night
On the couch. Woman says let's take a drive down south, roll down the
Windows and open our mouths taste where we are and play the music loud. Stop
The car, lay on the grass, the planets spin and we watch space pass.Walk a
Direction, see where we get. I never knew nothin' so there's nothin' to
Forget. Get real drunk and ride our bikes. There's so much beauty it could
Make you cry. The rich get money but never what they want. Find ourselves a
New place to haunt. Climb up the fire escape do it 'til the ground looks far
Away. Go night swimming, leave our clothes on the ground, when we get busted
We just stand there proud. It's the truth we all been wrong make it up and
Let's move on. Playing cards we all get to act sly there's so much beauty it
Could make you cry.
Every time I rode my bike home drunk from the bar, I made it a ritual to listen to this song. And everything would feel right. At just 90 seconds, it’s the closet I have to a favorite passage from a holy book.
In 2007, when Isaac Brock was 32 years old, Modest Mouse released “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” and the radio hits kept coming. But the lyrics were different. He reached that age when we stop dreaming about what our lives will become and start looking back at how we got to where we find ourselves today:
I was knocking on your ear's door, but you were always out
Looking towards the future
We were begging for the past
Well, we knew we had the good things
But those never seemed to last
Oh, please just last
Well, we all just got caught looking
At somebody else's page
Well, nothing ever went
Quite exactly as we planned
Our ideas held no water
But we used them like a damn
Of course everyone goes crazy
Over such and such and such
We made ourselves a pillar
We just used it as a crutch
Tiny curtain's open, and we heard the tiny clap of little hands
A tiny man would tell a little joke, and get a tiny laugh from all the folks
Sitting, drifting around in bubbles, and thinking it was us that carried them
When we finally got it figured out, that we had truly missed the boat
It’s all so predictable. We sell out. We sell out to the dreams and ideals of our younger selves. We get caught up in pursuing success, but who’s success? And for what? On the surface, everything is right. We “float in our bubbles,” seemingly in charge, enjoying the “tiny clap of little hands” and the “tiny laughs from all the folks.” But did we pursue our own authentic dreams? Or did we just take the most obvious path?
These are the questions most of us like to avoid, the kinds of questions that can easily lead to something even more predictable: the mid-life crisis. But, for me, I’ve recently found liberation reaching back into the journals of my youth and rediscovering the primary source documents of what I wanted to one day become. Inevitably we don’t become that person because we discover so much more about our personality and psychology and motivations along the way. But it’s good to remember, and good to understand how and why we’ve changed.
The music brings me one step closer. When I listen to a song like “Bankrupt on Selling”, I remember not just what it was like to be 20 years old and full of angsty resentment against phony adults, but I can actually feel it again.
Well all the Apostles-they're sitting in swings
Saying "I'd sell off my Savior for a set of new rings,
And some sandles with the style of straps that cling best to the era"
So all of the businessers in their unlimited
Hell where they buy and they sell and they sell all their
Trash to each other but they're sick of it all
And they're bankrupt on selling
And all of the angels
They'd sell off your soul for a set of new wings and anything gold
The people they loved their old friends
And I've seen through'em all seen through 'em all and seen through most everything
All the people you knew were the actors
All the people you knew were the actors
Well, I'll go to college and I'll learn some big words
And I'll talk real loud
Goddamn right I'll be heard
You'll remember all the guys that said all those big words he must've
Learned in college
I still don’t expect Modest Mouse to mean as much to anyone else as it does to me. But here’s my best attempt at explaining why, to me, they mean so much.