No one is really more surprised about this success than me,” says Isaac Brock, lead singer of indie-rocker heroes Modest Mouse, who, after a decade of struggles, disappointments and near-breakups, finally have a hit record. The group’s fourth album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, debuted at Number Nineteen on the Billboard Album Chart in April, is still hanging tough at Number Twenty-three this week and has sold more than 300,000 copies. Modest Mouse’s video, “Float On,” is an MTV buzz clip, and they were one of the first bands announced for this year’s Lollapalooza.
“We’ve been such a slow-grow band for so many years, none of this fazes us,” Brock says. Still, when told Good News is higher on the charts than Britney Spears, even he is impressed. “You’re kidding me,” he replies.
Good News is moody and eclectic guitar rock, but it’s also filled with enough hooks to make it fit in among other left-of-center bands – such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Von Bondies – on modern-rock radio. In fact, retailers say consumers are eager for new and different sounds. “It’s drawing a lot of Radiohead-type fans, people in search of something off the beaten path,” says Bob Zimmerman, a manager for Tower Records in Philadelphia. “We’ve had so much throwaway stuff on the charts recently – the time is finally right for something with substance.”
Formed in Issaquah, Washington, east of Seattle, in 1993, Modest Mouse released two studio albums of introspective indie-rock before signing to Epic Records in 1999. Their Epic debut, 2000’s The Moon and Antarctica, charted for two weeks, then disappeared. Assuming the band would be dropped, Brock started work on a smaller-scale side project, Ugly Casanova.
Good News began with bad omens. The band’s longtime drummer quit halfway into the sessions, and Brock got a DUI-related charge, which earned him a ten-day jail stint. In the end, the band rushed to find a new drummer and finish the album in a month. “We didn’t have time to think,” Brock says. “It ended up being a very instinctual record.”
The new album got a bigger push from its label after Columbia Records president Don Ienner began overseeing Epic last year. (Both labels are owned by Sony.) “He has a good perspective on career bands vs. one-hit wonders,” says Brock.
The label gave the group a video budget and spent more on marketing Good News. “America always loves an underdog,” says Steve Barnett, Epic executive vice president and general manager. “And this is an indie band that finally came good.”
As for Brock, he’s recently had the words “life is still sweet” tattooed on his wrist. “Every once in a while this sort of thing happens in music,” he says. “Whoever tries to figure it out fails, because even the people in the bands can’t figure it out. Just do what you want, since that’s the only thing that works.”