Modest Mouse formed as a three-piece in 1993, when future-frontman Isaac Brock met bassist Eric Judy at a video store. Not long after, they’d got metalhead drummer Jeremiah Green involved and began rehearsing in a shed next to the trailer Brock lived in with his mother in Issaquah, Washington.
This cramped, low-key rehearsal setup spawned the garage-rock sound of Modest Mouse’s early output, and it’s one part of Brock’s formative years that helped shape the band’s DIY, indie-rock ethos. Throw in his upbringing that involved hippie communes, the Grace gospel church and an attempted murder charge, and the band’s Tom Waits-meets-Pixies sound and feel start to make a lot more sense. Brock’s songwriting fuses a fascination with location and the characters it brings (America’s Pacific Northwest) with existentialism, paranoia and wonder about his place in the universe.
Hailing from just outside of Seattle, Olympia guitar bands like Nirvana and Beat Happening were an obvious influence, but the band were proudly from Issaquah and wanted to distance themselves from their big city contemporaries. Now based in Portland, Oregon, Modest Mouse’s journey started in the ‘90s from humble beginnings and took them on a road trip to turn-of-the-century commercial success. It brought Saturday Night Live appearances, grammy nominations and multiple line-up changes, including the left-field hiring of The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr.
From lo-fi gems to unlikely hits, check out their best songs below.
12. Space Travel Is Boring
We’ll start with a cut from the band’s 1996 debut, ‘This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About It’. This fast-slow-fast number ends the album, and serves as a precursor for much of Modest Mouse’s output to come. Brock delivers his vocals in fast, energetic bursts before slowing things down. His trademark lisp (that he tries to conceal but acknowledges on another space-themed track, Sad Sappy Sucker’s ‘5-4-3-2-1 Lisp Off’) is prominent in the song and despite what Brock might make of it, would become part of the band’s signature sound. The slow tempo sections are reminiscent of their indie-rock peers Built To Spill, and the half-sarcastic lyrics tell the story of a lonesome space traveler. But the song can also be interpreted as a take on loneliness on the road. The use of “man shot to the moon” has a double meaning of both an astronaut being sent into orbit, or just simply a tired protagonist who is ‘shot’ and missing home.
Recommended: More space-themed songs.
11. Paper Thin Walls
This bouncy number from the band’s third album, 2000’s ‘The Moon & Antarctica’, is Modest Mouse finding the catchy folk-rock sound that would eventually catapult them to festival headline slots and TV appearances. The lyrics find Brock at his most cynical. “It’s been agreed the whole world stinks, so no one’s taking showers anymore,” he sings, in his typically sardonic drawl. It also tackles themes of voyeurism, and a disdain for people’s need for wanting “two of them, and half of everyone else that’s around.” Musically, the scathing words are matched by a combination of a distinctive, strummed guitar riff that continues throughout the song. The album was produced by Red Red Meat’s longtime drummer Brian Deck, so it’s no surprise Jeremiah Green’s percussion can be heard thumping his kit throughout the song.
The band slows things down for this song, taken from 2004’s ‘Good News For People Who Like Bad News’, Modest Mouse’s fourth record released to acclaim worldwide. Now a four piece with their original drummer replaced and a second guitarist brought in, the band began to expand their sound. A light banjo riff carries the tune’s intro over a brushed drum patter and Brock’s delay-heavy lead guitar. Naming a song after the ‘laureate of American lowlife’ Charles Bukowski might seem like a tribute to him, but in the same breath as calling him a “pretty good read,” Brock asks “God who’d want to be such an asshole?” The album’s title was inspired by a series of personal losses in the frontman’s life, and the lyrics look inward – is he in fact a lowlife, and does faith in the ‘control freak’ God help bring people some good news?
Recommended: Our pick of literary-themed songs.
9. Fire It Up
The words to this rollicking song from 2007’s ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’ were wrongly interpreted by stoners everywhere. Not that Isaac Brock minded, declaring he “highly approved of stoners and stoner anthems” upon hearing his words that were intended to describe firing up a car were being misunderstood. A memorable bass-run plays throughout the entirety of the song, with the frontman emphatically belting out the titular words to kick each verse off.
Recommended: We include this in our playlist of fire-themed songs.
8. Gravity Rides Everything
Another tune from the band’s third effort, it’s perhaps one of Modest Mouse’s most gentle and contemplative. It’s also one of Brock’s more optimistic songs lyrically, as he describes gravity’s ability to ensure “everything will fall right into place.” Apart from the unmistakable, warped electric guitar loop that starts the song, it’s largely an acoustic number that could just as easily work as a solo performance. If the band’s words often explore the solar system and people’s sense of direction in it, ‘Gravity Rides Everything’ is a moment of solace for gravity’s ability to keep some things firmly where they are.
7. Ocean Breathes Salty
One of three singles released from ‘Good News’, the song’s maritime-themed title sounds like the laments of a lost seaman once Brock explores death, reincarnation, and feeling at sea with it all in this song. In typical Modest Mouse fashion, the lyrics jump manically from one theme to another, as the singer asks “you wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?” of the song’s mysterious target. The luscious production makes the double-tracked guitar arpeggio sing on this song, along with splashing symbols and an organ-like keyboard sound. San Francisco-based folk rock act Sun Kil Moon covered the song for their album of Modest Mouse covers, ‘Tiny Cities’.
Recommended: Hear Sun Kil Moon’s beautiful cover of this on our sad songs to listen to list.
6. Lampshades on Fire
After the success of ‘We Were Dead..’, the band hit their first real creative roadblock. Line-up changes followed, and the band were mired in production hell, with various musicians (including Nirvana’s Krist Novelic) said to be on board. Eight years later, Strangers To Ourselves emerged. The single ‘Lampshades on Fire’ finds Brock less concerned with other planets, and more with our own. It’s an environmentalist call to arms, with lyrics like ‘the air’s on fire so we’re moving on.’ It’s Modest Mouse at their angriest best, with a danceable return to form.
5. Missed the Boat
‘Missed The Boat’ is up there with Modest Mouse’s poppiest songs, and comes into our list at number five. It begins with a searching acoustic guitar riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Paul Simon record, before a scuzzy second guitar joins in to back it up with some sustain-drenched lead. At first listen it’s a wistful tune about life’s missed opportunities, but lyrically there’s optimism in “the sound of life’s sweet bells”, and the syrupy-sweet nature of the song perfectly fits the guest vocals from The Shins’ James Mercer.
The bent harmonics that ‘Dramamine’ is built around must put Isaac Brock’s whammy bar to the test whenever this song is played live. Taken from their 1996 debut album, this fan favourite is the songwriter at his guitar playing best. It’s one of Brock’s most creative pieces, and still features in live sets often. The song is named after a medicine taken for motion sickness. It also doubles up as a psychedelic if enough is taken, and this song is seemingly about both as he ruminates on road-life. The opening lick was likely laid down on Brock’s favored Westone Corsair XA1420, which was his mainstay in the band’s early days.
3. The World At Large
Beginning our top 3 is the opening track (and another single) from ‘Good News..’ It’s a stream-of-conscious ode to leaving one place in search of something better. Brock sings ruefully about finding “another place, maybe one I can stand,” and sets the tone of the album. The songwriter relates to drifters, but lines like “the days get longer and the nights smell green” give a sense of optimism in the face of adversity. If the band adopted the loud-quiet-loud dynamic of bands like the Pixies, this number shows Modest Mouse’s ability to show restraint. It’s a restrained number about finding yourself.
Recommended: Our pick of songs that talk about anxiety.
What do you do when your long serving guitarist who played a lot like The Smith’s Johnny Marr leaves the band? The ‘demented notion’ Brock had was to contact Marr himself and try to hire him. It worked. Marr travelled to the US, and ‘Dashboard’ was written the first night they jammed. Marr had been sitting on the song’s catchy opening riff, with a guitar sound he describes as “fat, clean, attitudey but not rocky”. The lyrics are surely inspired by the comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles. In the film, the radio is the only part of Del Griffith and Neal Page’s burnt out rental car left in working order.
1. Float On
At number one is undoubtedly Modest Mouse’s biggest hit. The lead single from ‘Good News,’ it gained massive popularity through radio play and continues to be the band’s most requested song. If the album’s tongue-in-cheek title refers to grief and loss in Brock’s personal life, then ‘Float On’ is a stomping, life affirming answer to life’s blues. He wrote the song with the intention of lifting spirits, claiming “I just want to feel good for a day.” A teasing electronic drum beat and keyboard combo lead the song into Dann Galluci’s Smiths-inspired, earworm lead guitar riff. It’s their most polished sounding song, and deservedly takes the top spot of our list.