The Case Against Modest Mouse


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Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari does a stand-up routine about R. Kelly, at one point describing how the R&B singer simulates ejaculation on stage at his shows.

"You don't see that shit at a Modest Mouse concert!" Ansari exclaims.

This raises the question: what do you see at a Modest Mouse concert? Until last week, I had no clue.

Friends had been trying to sell me on the Seattle-based band since the late 1990's, casually tossing words like "brilliant" and "genius" into the conversation. To no avail. While Modest Mouse's records were always technically impressive with flashes of real beauty, they ultimately came off as self-indulgent: ambitious but sloppy, intelligent but over-intellectualized. Too often, it seemed, those fragile harmonies and intricate melodies would meander into mere experimentation for experimentation's sake, or collapse outright into dissonance. Maybe this was a genuine expression of the band's vision. Maybe it was the calculated product of a neo-punk ethic that equates accessible pop music with evil. Who cares? (For that matter, what's the difference?) Their stuff left me cold. Great songs. Never had the urge to hear them.

The band's live show, friends said, would change my mind. It did not.

Ansari is correct that no one fakes ejaculation on stage at a Modest Mouse concert. At least, not on a hot July night at Crossroads KC, an outdoor venue in downtown Kansas City, MO. The near-capacity, sweaty, very white crowd of 4,500 ranged from high schoolers to graying alterna-dads, with most fans hovering in their late-20's. Save for a few teenage girls in tie-dye skirts and the occasional dude with blonde dreadlocks, the crowd was flamboyantly plain. The men wore wire-rimmed glasses and thrift shop t-shirts; the women stuck to loose jeans and Chuck Taylors—that nearly sexless, aggressive underdressing GenX suburbanites use to express apathy, anti-materialism or both.

The show was a technical disaster, with murky sound and endless glitches. Even before the first note, the band stood on stage twiddling their thumbs for a full minute while a sound guy tried to get a microphone working. A verse into the third song, "We've Got Everything," the band's guitarist/singer/genius-in-residence Isaac Brock simply stopped playing, exchanged his badly out-of-tune guitar with a roadie, and started over with the new axe.

Formed as a trio in 1993 by Brock, bassist Eric Judy, and drummer Jeremiah Green, groomed by indie kingmaker Calvin Johnson, Modest Mouse cut a self-titled debut in 1994, released two full-length albums in 1996, and two more in 1997. Jumping to major label Epic in 2000 with The Moon & Antarctica, 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News, and 2007's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the minimalist trio ballooned into an alternative big band, adding layers of brass, strings, and (briefly) former Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr and James Mercer of The Shins.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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