IMAGE: Megan Holmes
When Isaac Brock lets his face go slack—when he attempts no expression at all—he looks furious. It's just the way his face is built. Or, more accurately, the way it was rebuilt: a hard punch and a broken bottle to the head (two separate incidents years removed) intensified the effect, the former having led to a metal plate in his jaw. So when Brock isn't actively smiling—and he doesn't smile easily—one wonders what one may have done to offend him.
Brock's expression is part of what makes him among the least likely pop successes of his generation. Against the national backdrop of American Idol and all its smiling pageantry, Modest Mouse, with Brock at its center, has gone from an underground luminary to the commercially successful hit machine that—along with Death Cab for Cutie and the Shins—introduced the O.C. generation to indie rock. In 2004, "Float On" popped up everywhere, including Idol. The single sold more than 500,000 copies. Next came another big single, "Ocean Breathes Salty." Good News for People Who Love Bad News, the album from whence both tracks came, went platinum in August of that year.
The success continued with 2007's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. "Dashboard," the lead single, is classic Modest Mouse with its brutalized disco percussion, noodling guitars and Brock's half-shouted, warped-record vocals. It was the most played song on college radio that year, and the album recently went gold. Not since Everclear has a Portland-centric band (MM's members are somewhat scattered across the West) found this much commercial success.
"They've become a model for how you can be a great band today and have loyal fans and make great music and do it on your own terms," says Jason Fine, a Rolling Stone reporter who spent two days with Brock for a lengthy 2004 feature. "They've played it their own way; built up their own audience. And now they're positioned in a much better way than so many other bands that signed big deals."
Brock has kept his straight face throughout the band's rise to ubiquity. And more often than not, he avoids the spotlight: Brock often passes on interviews and public appearances, spending much of his off-tour time alone or with friends at his three-story Belmont-area home. In many ways, he's the rock star that isn't.
Brock's home, nearly encircled by shrubs and trees, has a small red-and-black "no trespassing" sign out front. But when I show up on a Wednesday afternoon the door's wide open, with coffee and a hint of marijuana hanging in the air. Sun pours in through long side windows and Brock's alone in the middle of the room, reading on his laptop at the kitchen table. "How's it going?" he offers from his seat, that straight face looking up from the screen and then down again. I sit down and small talk ensues. It's not for a few more minutes that he snaps up straight. "Oh, right, I have an interview today!" Apparently it's not that unusual for strangers to show up at the door and strike up a conversation.
On my second visit, Brock expects me. He brings a pack of American Spirits and a coffee mug out to the porch, where two plain metal rocking chairs sit on either side of a small wooden table. It's almost unprecedented for Brock to speak to the local press, but today he's got something to talk about. He's got a new job.
Brock, whose own band is both a moneymaker (Modest Mouse can make in the neighborhood of $50,000 a night) and full-time gig, has decided to get into the business of helping other bands record, produce and tour.
That may seem crazy. Billboard magazine reported earlier this month that August was one of the worst months on record for the music biz—album sales dropped over 18 percent from the same time last year. Brock is aware of the risk. "I don't necessarily think it's a good business decision," he says. "The days of making money off records are gone, as far as I can tell."
Brock, 34, acknowledges that his new role as an indie label kingpin is a departure, though he's quick to add that he's always been interested in the business side of music. He is, after all, the man who brought two of indie rock's most heralded bands—the Shins and Wolf Parade—to Sub Pop Records.
So when Modest Mouse's label, Epic, offered Brock his own label in 2005, he took the opportunity. He should have known better.
"I thought they actually meant I was going to have my own label," Brock says of his imprint, which he named Glacial Pace. "But what I had was an AR [artists and repertoire] job with a label name, and not much control over what I signed. I think they were hoping I was going to sign another me."
Three years and only two releases later, Epic owners Sony cut the label entirely. "I'd never really had any aspirations to sell a million of anything," Brock says, "because that's a whole different ballgame. Most of the music I've ever really liked hasn't done that kind of shit."
Now Glacial Pace is all Brock's. Its finances start and end with his pocketbook. As the label's president ("or whatever"), Brock's job description is nebulous. He's involved in every part of the creative cycle, from signing the bands to planning tours; from coaxing a nice vocal take out of an artist in the studio to having them over to his place for dinner. So, why did he choose two obscure Portland bands with no real track record to re-launch his label?
When I arrive at Nate Lacy's Alberta-neighborhood duplex, he's in a tiny front garden lined with chicken wire ("it's for the cats," he explains without prompting), tending to tall stalks of corn. He nods, wipes some sweat off his brow with his forearm and walks into his home, the interior of which is currently decorated with animals: a bear mask; a framed crocheted raccoon; rabbit ears. Lacy's own visual art—filled with animals and abstract shapes—hangs, too.
Lacy speaks with the same rootsy intonation as Brock—each twangy R is long and deep; there's a slight lisp burning through each S. And like Brock, he'll talk fluidly, then come to a sudden, unexpected halt. Brock acknowledges the likeness to a younger version of himself with some hesitation. "I dunno," he says. "There might not be as much racket going on in his head all the time as there was in mine."
Lacy, 25, comes from a musical family, but he didn't really put down the pencil and pick up a guitar until he was a senior at Southeast Portland's David Douglas High. He and friend Tim Skellenger, who now plays guitar with Lacy in Mimicking Birds, formed something between a guitar club and a band that last year of school, but it fizzled out when Lacy moved to Eugene for college in 2005. It's there he'd hole up at home with his girlfriend, drawing and recording.
"To me they're kind of the same thing," Lacy says of making visual art and music. And his early recordings do feel like detailed sketches: Spiraling acoustic guitar signatures are shadowed closely by Lacy's hushed voice, a concoction laced with Brock's warble and Paul Simon's airy melodies. But Lacy's lyrics—smart, stoney examinations of the self and nature—are creations all his own. His early songs may have begun as simple sketches, but using his digital four-track, Lacy layered them with reverb and sheets of understated vocal harmonies. You can hear the ghost of Lacy's fingers sliding up the strings. Those demos open a door to Lacy's world, and it's a fascinating place to spend some time.
"It'll sell a lot of weed," Brock jokes.
"I don't think he had any intention of putting out records or anything like that," says Brock of discovering Lacy. "I don't think it had crossed his mind that that was going to be an option for him."
When Brock called Lacy after exchanging MySpace messages, "It took me a little while to come back down to Earth. Sometimes it's still strange," says Lacy, who happened to be a huge Modest Mouse fan. "I'd never really had any goals as far as what I wanted to do or be. I still don't. I work part-time at a cookie factory."
So, out of all the bands to sign, why did Brock pick a local kid who'd rarely performed outside of his own bedroom? "Because, musically, it does something for me that nothing else is doing," Brock says. "Maybe not nothing—I sorta get the same feeling from Bon Iver. But Bon Iver wasn't available for me to sign, and to be honest, if I had to choose between the two I'd have still chosen Mimicking Birds, because—" Brock pauses, and comes back sounding more earnest than he has in our entire conversation. "Because I still haven't figured that dude out and dammit, I want to."
Morning Teleportation couldn't sound more different than Mimicking Birds. Every Monday night this summer, the group has come to Colonel Summers Park in Southeast, where they join a group of around 150 punk rockers, hippies, party kids and outcasts. The gathering, dubbed "Monday Funday," is evidence of the mythical Neverland that unemployed young people from around the country flock here to find: grown-ups living second childhoods, but with more sleeve tattoos than the lost boys. It's late August, and there's a kickball game going strong; next up is dodgeball. But most of the revelers are cross-legged in the grass, drinking tall boys from brown paper sacks.
The boys from Morning Teleportation are gathered in a half-circle, adorned in loose-fitting shirts and sporting shaggy hair. Tres Coker and Tiger Merritt (both 22) tear clumps of grass from the earth, forming a pile that Coker will later attempt to set on fire.
Morning Teleportation's music has a lot in common with the organized chaos of this weekly convention. The band—composed largely of early twentysomething Southerners who met in Bowling Green, Ky.—doesn't take the stage so much as it storms it. At a recent Rontoms set, the band—dressed as rejects from Laugh-In and lost members of Paul Revere and the Raiders—danced as if being electrocuted onstage. A dozen or so fans, some of them Monday Funday regulars, danced right along with them. Morning Teleportation piles frantic hook upon hook, with crude but skillful transitions stuck in between as small concessions to rock history. One gets the feeling the group would sometimes like to do away with these formalities and go completely freeform, and they've tried that: The band once kept a board on which they'd draw animals that corresponded with different musical parts. Then they'd draw arrows between the animals. "I used to go wacky shack on the board," Merritt says.
Morning Teleportation's Merritt and Travis Goodwin—underage at the time—say they met Brock outside Chicago's Empty Bottle bar in 2007, right after Modest Mouse had wrapped up a set at Lollapalooza.
The band's members would later track Brock down in Nashville, where they partied and wound up sleeping on his motel room floor. Brock says their blossoming friendship was partly a matter of timing. "I just really had a good time any time I'd run into them," he says. "At that point, anyone I'd try to hang out with wanted to hang out with a dollar bill hanging out of their nose. And those kids weren't doing white drugs, so they were a lot more fun to hang out with. I was on my way out of the drug scene entirely, and just being buzzed and cruising around with these funny-as-fuck kids was great."
After a few such hangouts, Brock finally had an opportunity to see the band play last year. His expectations were low. "I went and caught them just because they were playing in town the same night we were," he says. "There was no one there, but they were fucking awesome. I was kind of shocked by how good they were. I liked the energy."
A few phone calls later, Brock told the group he'd release their debut album on Glacial Pace. The band decided the process would go more smoothly if they relocated to Portland rather than try to commute between it and their adopted home of Austin. So after a rendezvous in St. Louis, they made the three-day drive to Portland nonstop early last December. "We were hallucinating so bad," Merritt says.
"We were seeing kitty cats turning into mountains walking across the road," Goodwin adds. They arrived at Brock's doorstep well after midnight, and proceeded to stay up drinking with him until sunrise. "It was just a fader," Goodwin says.
Once Brock and engineer Clay Jones got Morning Teleportation into North Mississippi Street's Audible Alchemy studio—for a stretch that lasted 12 consecutive 12-hour days—they tried to balance keeping the band on task and letting them party. "I think 25 percent of the sessions we did with them they had to do pretty much naked, in loincloths or whatever," Brock recounts. "They had originally been capes," fellow band member Chris Lively says. On one particularly debaucherous evening, the loincloth-clad, intoxicated band slipped out the front door and cut over to Mississippi Pizza. "There was some calypso band playing in the pizza place," Merritt adds. Lively's memory of the evening is remarkably clear: "We were dancing, and this guy says, 'You guys are beautiful, but you have to pay.'" The band danced its way back to the studio.
But why is Brock investing so much of his time producing and basically managing fledgling bands? Why would an artist at the top of his game sacrifice his time and money to enter a business fraught with risk? Despite his reputation for partying, Brock rejects the suggestion that Glacial Pace is an avenue to keep his idle hands in motion. Cutting out hard drugs was "something that just had to happen," he says, and it would have happened without Glacial Pace's reinvigoration. And there have certainly been changes from Brock's wilder days. He looks good, admitting to being slimmer than he's been in years. He's become something of a gym rat. There's a new bike locked to his front porch. A public-records search reveals that Brock—once a magnet for legal trouble, including an Oregon DUII arrest for which he served jail time—hasn't had so much as a parking ticket in Oregon over the past four years.
Even if the label's not meant to be a diversion from drugs, it's keeping him tethered closer to home. He has only "sort of" began work on a new Modest Mouse LP (its latest EP, No One's First, and You're Next, was released Aug. 3), and his touring has slowed down in recent years, from over 100 shows in 2007 (an album-release year) to around 40 in 2008 and under 50 in 2009, according to the website Eventful.com.
Despite the invested time and money—an undisclosed sum for recording and a still undecided promotional budget being among his costs—Brock insists he's not concerned with making Glacial Pace a national or even regional force to be reckoned with. "I still just want the bands to feel happy about how things are going, and I want them to feel like they're in the right place," he says. And to accomplish that goal, Brock isn't afraid to use his leverage as frontman of one of the country's biggest rock bands to get his bands shows and recognition.
At the end of the day, Brock says, this whole thing is an experiment: "The music industry is not an easy thing to navigate anymore, you know? [It's] just so ever-shifting and bizarre and hard to pin down. You could waste an entire record budget trying to get [an album] to people, and it was just in the wrong place."
"I'm sure it won't be easy," says Calvin Johnson, whose K Records released Modest Mouse's 1997 album The Fruit That Ate Itself. "But it never has been. The thing is that if you don't start a label, someone's gonna put out records. And they're probably gonna put out a lot of bad records. So if you have someone who has good taste, like Isaac, it's probably better if he puts out the records."
Brock says he can't explain his motivation for starting an indie label. "Maybe I like getting the pat on the back when people like a band that I've put out. There's usually some selfish reason that anyone does anything."
Maybe so, but Modest Mouse's longtime manager, Juan Luis Carrera, points to another explanation. "I think he thinks with his experience he can hone some skills for somebody," Carrera says. "Just to be supportive, the same way a lot of people he grew up with were for him. Like Chris [Takino] from Up Records—he was super supportive of Isaac."
That last point sticks. Glacial Pace's central agreement with its artists is a 50/50 revenue split, a far cry from the modest advance plus royalties (which can be as little as 10 percent of each disc sold) that many major labels offer. The 50/50 formula is something Brock took from Takino's Up Records, Modest Mouse's first label. Brock's respect for Takino (who died of leukemia in 2000) is something he brings up often. "The guy had amazing musical taste," he says on the porch. "He'd actually show up to most of the recordings of other bands, but he never showed up to our recordings much. Which I thought at first was a lack of love, and as time went on I realized that's kind of a vote of confidence. Or that's what I've allowed my brain to turn it into."
Brock's own relationship with Morning Teleportation and Mimicking Birds seems almost as close; albeit with Brock in the older-brother role. "We don't talk about music much," Lacy says of his free time with Brock. "We just hang out, watch TV. We go mushroom hunting sometimes."
So maybe there isn't a selfish reason for Brock's investment in Glacial Pace. Maybe he's just trying to make a home for these artists that's as supportive as the labels his band began with.
Then again, maybe it's fate.
A couple years ago, before this whole whirlwind got started, Morning Teleportation's Goodwin and Merritt were jamming out on the former's Kentucky family farm. "We said, 'Who would be our favorite producer?'" Goodwin remembers. "And we had two: Brian Wilson, if he wasn't all crazy now, or Isaac Brock."
Modest Mouse, Love as Laughter, Mimicking Birds and Morning Teleportation play a Glacial Pace Records showcase at the Crystal Ballroom Sunday, Sept. 20, as part of
. Three more Modest Mouse shows follow. Mimicking Birds' debut full-length is scheduled for release this November. Morning Teleportation's album should see release in early 2010.
FACT: Brock plans to re-issue Modest Mouse's pre-Epic albums on Glacial Pace later this year, though some of the masters and original artwork have been lost or misplaced since their original release. The Up Records albums—This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About and The Lonesome Crowded West—will be reissued on vinyl only.