Sometimes the occasional beer interrupts a recording session. Other times, all that recording just gets in the way of a good party.
The sessions for Sharpen Your Teeth (May 21), the debut from Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock’s Ugly Casanova side project, had some of the former and way too much of the latter.
Recording the atmospheric album “involved a lot of beers, some recording, then some beers and more recording, if we got to it,” said Brock, 26. “It was largely a hangout with recording involved.”
But who is Ugly Casanova?
Well, if you believe the elaborate story cooked up by Brock, he’s Edgar Graham, a mysterious stranger who first made an impression on Modest Mouse in 1998 when he sneaked backstage at one of their shows. Graham introduced himself as Ugly Casanova and left behind a package of his startling demos. Those demos were then turned into an album by Brock, two former members of Chicago avant-rock act Red Red Meat (Tim Rutili and Brian Deck), Black Heart Procession’s Pall Jenkins and pal John Orth.
Great story. But the truth is that the Graham character is an elaborate ruse concocted by Brock to take some time off from his day job leading Modest Mouse, an indie-rock trio known for brooding, meandering road songs and poetic, naturalistic lyrics.
After Modest Mouse signed to Epic Records in 1999, Brock said he told his new major-label bosses that the Ugly Casanova record already existed and that he wanted to release it on Sub Pop Records. “Then I went to Sub Pop and made the deal for the record,” he said, laughing. “I though I’d better create a loophole so I can do this other thing indefinitely, so I wouldn’t be totally owned by Epic.” Unfortunately, Brock didn’t read the fine print on his contract, which stated that the Ugly Casanova debut would also have to be the swan song.
But what a way to come in… and go out.
Brock recorded the disc in fits and starts at his home studio in rural Oregon with Deck, who co-produced Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica (2000). The results are a hypnotic blending of Red Red Meat’s creaky, experimental rock and Brock’s cracked vocals and stream-of-consciousness lyrics about a natural world inhabited by his revolving cast of fringe characters.
“When we were doing the last Modest Mouse record I knew I wanted to do this [Ugly Casanova] thing, because it’s been a rough idea of mine for a long time,” Brock said, revealing only that the Ugly Casanova/Edgar Graham character “might” be based on someone he knows. “The idea was to just play with a bunch of different people and take a more laid-back pace.”
Every few months over the past year, Deck flew out to Brock’s house for a week or two and the pair tried to capture the sound Brock was looking for. “As I get older, it gets weirder up there,” Brock said of his brain. The struggle in that strange space explains the unique sound he was looking for: something between the bayou boogie of Dr. John and the grizzled, streetwise poetry of Tom Waits’ 1985 album, Rain Dogs.
Like Waits, Brock and Deck found musical inspiration in some decidedly nonmusical corners.
Album opener “Barnacles,” co-written by Brock and Orth, sounds like a transmission from outer space, with whistling, beeping keyboards twittering over backward guitars, stuttering beats and grim lyrics about holding on, no matter what. “We clung on like barnacles on a boat/ Even though the ship sinks you know you can’t let go,” Brock sings, sounding more confident than concerned.
For the psychedelic acoustic rocker “Things I Don’t Remember” – an urgent late-period Beatles-meets-Frank-Zappa freak out with lyrics about disco dancing neighbors born in mashed potatoes – Brock asked Orth to produce his best “humpy” sounds.
“We had this spot and we knew that we wanted a sound there like, ‘uhhh,’ ” Brock explained, making an amorous groan. “And I’d go, ‘John, make a humpy sound.’ He’d do it, and I’d say, ‘no, humpier.’ We didn’t know it would be [called] a humpy sound, but we knew it needed something.”
Other songs, like the spooky death rattle “Diamonds on the Face of Evil,” feature the decidedly non-rock sounds of the clarinet and a chorus of clanging chains accented by a box of rocks. Brock and Deck created the song’s unique percussion by jumping up and down on the ends of a piece of plywood set up in Brock’s living room.
“You can really learn a lot from playing with other people, and that’s what I set out to do,” Brock said. So, now that we’ve heard from the “Hotcha Girls” and seen the “Cat Faces” in the pines, is this the end for Graham/Ugly Casanova?
“Well, I was only supposed to put out this one record,” Brock said. “But I have a bunch of other stuff recorded for Ugly Casanova, so I might make an EP and see if [Epic] gets pissed.”