The Case Against Modest Mouse

The Seattle-based band has plenty of potential, but it doesn't live up—either on its albums or live in concert

Robb Cohen / AP

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.

The 2010 tour reflects the mature Mouse sound. The mix was crowded, with two drummers, a keyboardist, and a small horn section in addition to the requisite guitars and Brock's banjo. Plagued by the aforementioned muddy sound, the band spent most of the night trying get in sync. When they did, though, as during "Whale Song," it was stunning. A group of good musicians, led by a gifted but bored auteur, suddenly gelled into a passionate, explosive, world-class rock and roll band. Then, just as quickly, the sound fell apart, and you were listening to an all-chainsaw tribute to Gogol Bordello. It's hard to imagine a band flickering more often, and more quickly, between utterly brilliant and completely unlistenable than Modest Mouse.

Brock, like David Byrne or Ric Ocasek, seems uncomfortable with the inherent imperfections of performing live. He was visibly distracted, if not outright pissed, by the ongoing tech problems. He took it out on his own songs, too, screaming more than he sang, replacing that ethereal tenor-alto with rasp and a rolling epiglottis. His stage presence was aloof at best. At one point, he even remarked how he "hates this stage-banter shit," as though it were news.

Brock and the band also seemed flat-out disdainful of anything that smacked of rock showmanship. Even late in the show, when momentum should have been building, they took long breaks between songs. Standing around, noodling their instruments, they let absolutely nothing happen on stage. There were no band intros or pre-song patter, no audience chit-chat or call-and-response, and you could feel the crowd's excitement draining with every second of dead air.

For a band with as much talent as Modest Mouse, well into their creative prime, fitful brilliance isn't enough. Modest Mouse is a very good band, but great performers, on some fundamental level, are deeply in love with their audience. They feed off the crowd. Modest Mouse either can't or won't do more than tolerate their fans.

As with their albums, the live show was ultimately a tease—like seeing a great athlete not trying—a sprinter who coasts to victory just because he can, or a baseball player who doesn't run hard to first on a grounder. Nobody is forcing Isaac Brock to be a rock star. Nobody is forcing Modest Mouse to tour. If fans can pay $30 for a ticket and show up on a weeknight, the band can act happy to be on stage. Punk rock or not, they could also use a decent light show, a video screen so the crowd can see them, and maybe even a few smoke machines. Simulating ejaculation R. Kelly-style, at the very least, would have showed they cared.