April 6, 2012

House Band


It's hard to look smug when you're playing a banjo

“As I grew older, my friendships formed through a shared sense of disgust with our peers and our world, and a desire to find something of intrinsic value. Music was very important to us. Our intellectual life took the form of discussing the relative merit of bands, albums, of journalists in the music press and so on.”—Lars Iyerinterview at bombsite.com

One afternoon during this past Christmas holiday, I was standing in my aunt’s kitchen talking to my sister and somehow got to telling her that I had recently seen ZZ Top at the Beacon Theatre. I don’t remember why I was telling her this. Our tastes are not usually convergent and I didn’t expect that she would be much interested. I learned, though, that my sister had also seen ZZ Top. As had my other sister, it turned out, and both of my brothers — all separately, at different times. It’s one thing to discover that you share a genetic predisposition to, let’s say, adenomatous polyposis, and another to learn, quite late in life, that you’re from a family of ZZ Top fans.

I thought again of this reorienting conversation when I realized that several of the (living) authors published by Melville House share … a thing … for Modest Mouse. As evidence, Modest Mouse has appeared in three novels published here — two of them, Dogma, by Lars Iyer, and The Fallback Plan, by Leigh Stein, within the last three months.

Is Modest Mouse simply unusually well-adapted to the mindscapes of the literarily bent? Leader Isaac Brock has confirmed that the band’s name is taken from a line in “The Mark on the Wall,” a story by Virginia Woolf — not the first person I think of when I think of … anything — but that may be the band’s only connection to capital “M” modernism.

When I brought this to the attention of Leigh Stein, the first line of her reply was “Huh…that’s interesting.” (I quote this directly, copied and pasted, only to compare to the first line of Lars Iyer’s response: “So other MHP authors are into Modest Mouse … interesting.” All ellipses are the originals!)

Leigh then said, “Modest Mouse must be the voice of our generation.” She and Lars aren’t of the same generation, though — unless one speaks of literary generations, demarcated by dates of publication, and, with apologies, one isn’t doing that here.

Modest Mouse’s presence in The Fallback Plan is so fleeting, so modest, that an inattentive reader may speed by at ninety miles per hour, as Brother Ruhl used to scold us, without understanding its import. In this extract, Esther, the main character (a descendent of one of Mrs. Woolf’s?), is thinking:

“After my appointment, I drove to Walmart to fill my prescription. Find someone to talk to. Pay someone to listen. No more Dr. Libman. In the car, a Modest Mouse song came on 93XRT that went, While we’re on the subject could we change the subject now?

Because of the discouraging cost to obtain permission to reproduce this single lyric line (from the several music publishers who control the rights), Leigh was forced to consider cutting it altogether. She didn’t, obviously, and, as she rightly points out, reviewers have seized on this passage, attesting to the line’s significance, and confirming Leigh’s sense that “Missed the Boat,” the quoted song, “feels like Esther to me.”

“Modest Mouse is both energetic and apathetic,” Leigh writes. “They capture in music what it’s like to sit around and wait for something better to happen. [“Missed the Boat” is] nostalgic and impatient at the same time. Also, I really did hear it play on 93XRT (my favorite Chicago radio station) when I was writing the book.”

Once I had noticed this connection between The Fallback Plan and Dogma, I started looking at other books in the Melville House catalog. Tao Lin’s seemed an obvious place to start, since music and musicians are frequently invoked in his writing — although not as often as writers are, as I was reminded once I started looking. At one time, Modest Mouse was Tao’s “favorite band” in his Tumblr profile, but I  could find no reference to the band in the novels, stories, and poems.

“I don’t think I’ve mentioned them in my books,” Tao wrote in answer to my query. “I listened to Modest Mouse a lot while working on Richard Yates, specifically the songs ‘Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset,’ ‘Making Everybody Happy,’ ‘Custom Concern,’ ‘Whenever You Breathe Out, I Breathe In.’ I listened to those four songs on repeat pretty much, during the final stages of editing.”

In Zachary German’s debut novel, Eat When You Feel Sad, — which Tao endorsed, by the way, as “moving, funny, emotional, and … highly-readable” — Modest Mouse appears twice: early in the book, “Float On” is playing during a party; here making an unexpected cameo at a moment of crisis between two characters, providing a shaky bridge over the rupture in their relationship:

Robert says “did you have sex with Mike?”

Alison says “Yeah.” Alison looks at the ceiling. Robert looks at the ceiling. Robert looks at a poster for a Modest Mouse concert in Seattle. He looks at Alison.

Robert says “You like Modest Mouse?” Alison laughs. Robert laughs. They talk.

Among these writers, the most likely candidate to spin out the implications of this familial denominator may be Dr. Iyer — senior lecturer and Degree Programme Director for Philosophical Studies at Newcastle University, Secretary of the British Society for Phenomenology, and member of the International Association of Philosophy and Literature, the Society for European Philosophy, and the Forum for European Philosophy — but when I alerted him to his fellow fans, his reply, mutatis mutandis, was one I might have given in my post-adolescent evangelism for the Replacements (1982-1985).

“I saw them live, and admired [Isaac Brock’s] seriousness, his commitment. He was drinking wine from a bottle on stage. He was quite tubby. Both facts made it seem he was attuned to something, to some wider disaster. I liked the way he abused the audience, taking no shit from people throwing things at him. He seemed aggressive. Again, that was welcome. Very different to cutesy indie types. He seemed on edge, as if what he was doing really mattered to him. No smugnesss …”

Lars is the only one among those I polled who has seen the band live and it’s notable that it’s the band’s — Isaac Brock’s — performance that is recalled as the mark of a distinguishing authenticity. That performance has been memorialized in Dogma, in which both of the main characters are said to admire the band:

W. has always liked chubby men, he says. We recall the fat singers we admire, who drink wine out of bottles on stage. Fat, angry men. Is he angry because he’s fat?, I ask of the singer in Modest Mouse. — ‘No, he was angry and then he got fat’, W. says.

In his note, Lars emphasized one element of Brock’s character: “I always think smugness is the enemy of art, music, literature, etc., and Isaac Brock is one of the least smug people around.”

Christopher Boucher, whose debut novel, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, Melville House published last summer, echoes Lars — Modest Mouse is “organic, edgy, beautifully-awkward, strange and fearless,” and in that fearlessness Chris identifies something akin to what Lars sees as the absence of “smugness.”

One particular Modest Mouse song which I did listen to repeatedly while writing my novel: “King Rat,” which was released in 2009. I hear that fearlessness everywhere in Modest Mouse’s music, but nowhere as loudly as in that song. Released four years after the catastrophe in New Orleans (on 2009’s collection of b-sides, No One’s First, and You’re Next), Isaac Brock’s message is clear: the song begins with a plucky New Orleans-style banjo and horns, then accelerates – “We swam like rats on fire / Right, right down the reservoir … And you know, you know, you know it all went wrong.”  Then the floods begin:  ”Deep water, deep water, senseless denial.”  At the end, there’s nowhere to hide – the instruments halt and all you hear is Brock, demanding answers: “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Listen here to Tao Lin’s “calmly emotional” downloadable mix-tape, featuring three Modest Mouse songs.


Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.