Isaac Brock, the child of working-class Christians who bounced from a hippie commune in Oregon to a “cult church” in Montana to Issaquah, Wash., where he formed the group Modest Mouse, sums up his odyssey through life and music with this remark: “I don’t have a clear view of that shit man. I’m kind of in the mix. It’s easier for someone from the outside to see a pattern or something.”
But Brock does see a pattern with the media’s coverage of his rise to indie rock prominence. A new album comes out and the music writers come calling in search of the back story about “inspiration” and all that’s indescribable about the creative process. Brock doesn’t like the routine. So this time out, with his side project Ugly Casanova, he decided to make stuff up.
Here’s what we know: Brock’s original voice and songwriting style propelled Modest Mouse out of the pack of mid-’90s, post-grunge indie bands milling around Seattle and staring at their shoes. Backed by bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green, Brock bent his voice and guitar chords into shapes heavy enough to flatten audiences and interesting enough to keep them thinking after the show.
The group toured with Built To Spill in the early days and by 1998, the press was declaring Brock the messiah of the Seattle sound. His voice and guitar licks manage to be both sweet and angry, simple and provocative and the kids still clamor to see this so-called second coming.
With Ugly Casanova, Brock arrives with a different band in tow and an impulsive shrug to any attempt at labeling. He created the group while producing Modest Mouse’s first recording on a major label, the thoughtful and alluring The Moon and Antartica (Epic). Ugly Casanova was plan B, in case Modest Mouse’s foray into the majors went awry.
Roughly two years later, both of Brock’s endeavors remain intact. Modest Mouse has another release out on Epic, Everywhere and His Nasty Parlor Tricks, and Brock is spending the first part of the summer touring in support of Ugly Casanova’s first LP, Sharpen Your Teeth.
Promotional materials for Ugly Casanova credit a character named Edgar Graham with being the mastermind behind Brock’s new band. The saga unfolds just as music writers hope it would–streaks of blood, a missing person, a sinister package–but that’s because Brock is clearly tired of talking about himself. So when it came time to hype Ugly Casanova, Brock offered up Graham, who according to legend, composed the songs found on Sharpen Your Teeth.
The new material was allegedly delivered to Sub Pop Records in a strange parcel filled with, “Silly Putty and pelts of three identifiable rodents.”
Were they mice? Probably, because on Sharpen Your Teeth the Modest Mouse sound remains within earshot. But like Doug Martsch’s side project The Halo Benders, where the BTS frontman teams up with K Records/Beat Happening baritone Calvin Johnson, Ugly Casanova pools familiar talent to create something altogether new.
Joining Brock are Pall Jenkins and Brian Deck from Black Heart Procession and Califone/Red Red Meat’s Tim Rutili. From this mix, which also includes sometime-Modest Mouse compatriot Dan Gallucci and a relative unknown named John Orth, Ugly Casanova emerges in full swagger.
Brock’s lispy lyrics and funhouse guitar riffs open the record on “Barnacles.” The overdubbed voices and deliberate pacing play out like vintage Modest Mouse. But after this intro, the album grows up, moves out of the house and sprouts hair on its chest. On “Spilled Milk Factory” and “Sharpen Your Teeth,” Brock sings over a kitchen sink rhythm section and does what sound like Tom Waits covers.
Then there’s the horns on “Parasites.” A synthesized fanfare and electronica vibe offer an engagingly strange backdrop for lyrics like: The parasites are excited when you’re dead/Eyes bulging, entering your head/And all your thoughts/They rot.
The liner notes credit Ugly Casanova (aka Graham) with that one, as they do with many of Brock’s contributions to the album. One of the best–and prettiest–songs on the record Brock co-wrote with John Orth, whose voice lifts “Hotcha Girls” to a lovely place. The song seems to wander through the truck stop fantasy world of author J.T. Leroy. It’s a country number, but very different from the plucky and simple “Smoke Like Ribbons.”
“Since I was kid, I’ve listened to the Memphis Jug Band, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Boggs,” says Brock during an interview from inside his tour van as it navigates the streets of Cleveland, Ohio. “So that influence is just there and I bought myself this really pretty banjo that I’ve tried to learn my way around.”
Brock also stirs the singing saw into the mix. The saw’s slow, quiet whine might surprise some fans hoping to do the “Cockroach.” As audiences have already discovered, Ugly Casanova is far more sedate than Modest Mouse.
“It’s a much mellower affair and that does bum some folks out because some folks just come based on the Modest Mouse connection and are expecting to mosh or whatever the fuck they do to ruin the Modest Mouse shows,” says Brock. “These songs are a bit lower key. There are a couple rockers, but besides that it’s a much mellower affair so that causes some heckling, but fuck ’em.”
After a 1996 BTS/Modest Mouse double bill at the American Legion in Boise, I watched a mob of teenagers storm out of the show with so much pent up energy they massed around a flagpole and bent it to the ground. Modest Mouse continues to feed that frenzy. But with Ugly Casanova, Brock seems to be in search of a retreat. He’s moved from Seattle to Cottage Grove, Ore., a lumber town south of Eugene, where he recorded Sharpen Your Teeth.
“Brian Deck would come out every couple months for about a week and a half,” says Brock. “So we’d have that much time between to sit on the songs for a while and actually be given enough time to get distance from them and know what we wanted to change and what was missing and come up with more ideas, which is a lot nicer than just going into the studio and having this set amount of time that you need to get everything done.”
But wait, wasn’t Edgar Graham responsible for these songs?
Brock laughs. The van keeps rolling through Cleveland, gas fumes filling the air from a hole accidentally drilled into the gas tank by someone in his new crew.
“I’ve got to quit trying,” says Brock. “Sorry, I’m trying to keep the hoax alive.”