Isaac Brock has been a formidable figure in alt-rock since the mid-’90s. His band Modest Mouse has not only survived long after transition to a major label — they’ve managed to hang on to their fundamental sound. If you’ve heard the band at all, you know how much the suits must’ve wanted to tinker with it: Brock steps forward like a gleeful Asperger’s case, and his songs stomp or meander through bold strokes of childlike logic.
In 2004, “Float On” widened the band’s popularity, now being addressed by appearances in larger halls following the release of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. The new album was recorded with participation by Johnny Marr, who, 20-plus years ago, wrote the rules of modern enigmatic riffage as guitarist for The Smiths. Marr then surprised everyone — including Brock — by accepting the invitation to follow up the studio contributions by touring as a full-time member of the group.
In speaking with Brock, his unique sensibility spills out with almost every sentence. During a quick Q&A with LEO, he recalled previous Louisville appearances in terms of the smashed airplane next to Headliners, and how the pork processing plant smelled when he walked nearby.
LEO: Your albums seem to be all of a piece. Is it difficult to take them apart and reassemble into a live setlist? How often does the list change?
Isaac Brock: Sometimes I hand the paper to Johnny
LEO: You’ve been with Epic Records for many years now. Are there longtime fans who still don’t forgive Modest Mouse for hooking up with a corporate record company?
IB: I run into ’em every so often. But what is the real complaint? We do most of our work with a small number of people we like. As for the record company — there are very few left from when we signed. Approximately zero people are still there. It’s fuckin’ changed a lot.
LEO: How do you decide to focus in and become playful about a single lyric such as Somehow you will die someday/and someone’s going to steal your carbon? You have a great sense of artistic playfulness, but do you ever get self-conscious about trying out ideas in front of your bandmates?
IB: What happens is, it just happens. I fuckin’ spit it out. With that song, it was sort of like flamenco. I was thinking of what it was like when I was in a flamenco bar. There was all this percussion and hand clapping. Then somehow it just broke open with the voices following — and moving from — the rhythm.
I don’t want to say that we don’t work at this. We sit down together, and I have talented guys with great intuition, always listening and contributing. There is a lot of thought … but not a plan. More like a magic trick. A musical magical trick.
LEO: For how the band sounds now, what’s your favorite type of venue?
IB: I’m trying to work that out, to be honest. Trying to play places where I’d like to see shows. But there are more people who want to see us. I’ll tell you about one great place. There was this lot in Montana — we played a cattle auction. Not the best sound, but what an experience!
LEO: When you first went out on the road with Johnny Marr, was the level of public attention to him ever a distraction?
IB: Never that I noticed — but I didn’t poll the audience.
The venue’s moved around for this one, but keep up: Modest Mouse is coming on Tuesday and will play Coyote’s (133 W. Liberty, 589-FUNN) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $29 ($31 at the door) and available at Ticketmaster and elsewhere.
Thursday, Aug. 23
Jason Isbell, an alumnus of the Drive-By Truckers, is on tour in support of his first solo disc. Sirens of the Ditch is upfront with a focus and poignancy that would have to be pulled out with multiple listens to the DBTs’ rich mix. You wouldn’t be sure at first that things are so different with the great opener “Brand New Kind of Actress,” which Isbell describes as “a shifting first-person narrative trying to tell a few sides to the same story. It’s about a murder, among other things.”
With crackling drums and a rough, insistent riff, this bit of Flannery O’Connor-meets-Rashomon leads up to a plea you’ll not soon forget (Just put the piece away). Some subsequent tunes are led by gentle piano, and the mix of arrangements is one of the delights of this very strong set of tracks. “The Devil Is My Running Mate” may be a little obvious as a closer, but consider it as a bonus track and then the album seems near-perfect. The songs are conversations and portraits of full-bodied souls in difficult circumstances.
Isbell’s at Phoenix Hill (644 Baxter Ave., 589-4957) at 8 p.m., with tickets at $13 ($11 in advance). Centro-Matic opens. He’s also doing a free in-store at ear X-tacy (1534 Bardstown Road, 452-1799) at 6 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 17
Whenever you look at Louisville’s music scene and wish there was just a little more, consider Murfreesboro, Tenn. Both Nashville and the site of Bonnaroo are at distances that are close and yet too far, and so bands and venues have developed around Middle Tennessee State University. Despite the pull of Music City nearby, many of the Murfreesboro scene’s acts are amazing, and a prime example is stopping by Friday night. The Slow and Steady Winner is an instrumental trio devoted to experimenting. Their releases A Peripatetic EP and Narrative Euphony in Nine Parts have a core of guitar/bass/drums, but the trio’s love of ambient sounds has led them to record in a variety of settings and with a very full complement of instruments.
I’m not guaranteeing what they’ll bring out onstage, but this show has potential as a warm-up to Modest Mouse for fulfilling your accordion-in-a-rock-band jones. Brian Beyke and Dude Plays Saxophone are also on the bill at the Pour Haus (1481 S. Shelby St., 637-9611). Showtime is 10 p.m., cover’s $5.
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