Why the third Modest Mouse LP remains the band’s quintessential creative statement
Vivid stories are connective tissue in Modest Mouse’s early albums, but if you tried to make a coherent film from their narrative point of view it would be impossible. The swings from macro- to micro-scenes would prove too rapid and disorienting to shoot.
In their songs, the condition of Earth’s terrain and the condition of the human brain often spin tethered in a double orbit, as they do on “Beach Side Property,” from their 1996 debut, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About: “Ground sure don’t like the way/It’s treated, so now, it’s moving back to the sea…/Life is too cramped for me.” These shifts grew more pronounced on their second album, The Lonesome Crowded West. “From the top of the ocean – Yeah/From the bottom of the sky – Goddamn,” storms out “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” before it quickly zooms in on “A rattlesnake up in buffalo Montana/he bit the leg of the old sheriff.”
Modest Mouse’s first two LPs were of a similar spirit; part travelogue, part philosophical text, equally bemused and amused by every major question and minor detail. The band were prematurely cynical and precociously wise from the start. The Moon & Antarctica pulls back the camera even further, and starts with a nod to the director. “The 3rd Planet is sure that they’re being watched/By an eye in the sky that can’t be stopped/When you get to the promise land you’re gonna shake that eye’s hand,” goes “3rd Planet.”
This bent blend of the spiritual and technological (The Truman Show had come out only two years before) quickly turns to natural sensory detail: “Your heart felt good it was drippin’ pitch and made of wood/And your hands and knees felt cold and wet on the grass to me.” Just as Long Drive’s opening “Dramamine” laid out that record’s weary addiction to the road, and “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” nervously stepped past bison and lawmen into The Lonesome Crowded West, “3rd Planet” puts the premise into focus before blowing it up: Earth is a stage, Earth is a body, Earth is a brain.
The mainstream-ready vessel that Epic Records had surely been crossing its fingers for when they signed Modest Mouse wouldn’t land for a few more years. That woud be Good News For People Who Love Bad News, which bore universally appealing singles like “Float On” and quirky-but-catchy deep cuts like “Bukowski” and “This Devil’s Workday.” Instead, the first album the band delivered to their new label concluded an accidental trilogy. Singer/guitarist Isaac Brock tended to elude such specific distinctions, but if there isn’t a full-on “concept” that flows from Long Drive into The Moon & Antarctica, there is at least a thematic continuity: the mapping of interior and exterior expanses and our place within them, picking apart the big picture with jigsaw scalpel precision.
“It’s a colder album,” Brock told CMJ New Music Monthly in July 2000. “It’s less about people and characters and more about space. Not outer space, but space.” Sure, there is something honest in that assertion, but it’s hard to buy at face value when the album has the moon right there in its title, songs named “3rd Planet,” “Dark Center of the Universe” and “The Stars are Projectors,” and others about gravity and wild dogs that float into the sky.
A playful approach to reality was a common feature in Modest Mouse interviews of yore. Lobbed general questions about the band’s origin story or what their songs meant, they would swat back with answers of varying veracity. Sometimes half-truths and truths were truths all the same, but it was easy enough to tell when they were being genuine. Even in the early days, when their reputation as a live band was that their shows could be brilliant, a bit sloppy, or both, Modest Mouse had serious musical focus underneath the offbeat antics.
“I’m scared to death of becoming a band like Pavement,” Brock told former Seattle music paper The Rocket in early summer of 1997, when their semi-improvised The Fruit That Ate Itself EP had just come out. “They put out a really amazing album, Slanted and Enchanted, that had a really great feeling, and somewhere they lost it. They got overproduced….I don’t want people to think that our first album was the best thing we’ve ever done.” Bringing up Pavement may have been a bit on-the-nose, but Brock and original bandmates drummer Jeremiah Green and bassist Eric Judy were all aware of comparisons to indie rock figureheads like Stockton, California’s finest and Built to Spill, the latter of whom they toured with.
Toward the end of that interview, the band’s first cover feature for the paper, the writer quotes an unnamed “record company friend” who wavers on the band’s chances of success (“Will a lot of people ever get Modest Mouse? Will radio ever play them?”) before concluding that the three of them, barely in their 20s, had time on their side: “Can you imagine them in a few years?” It was an unintended, uncanny set-up for when the band would grace the cover again exactly three years later. Modest Mouse, having in the interim built up a national indie audience with The Lonesome Crowded West, had moved from Seattle’s reputable Up Records to Epic’s corporate world.
“When you’re on a major label, you get all these never-ending phone calls about nothing,” Brock told The Rocket, fielding several calls on his cell phone (still not something everyone had in 2000) during the interview as if to drive home the point. “It’s a crazy bureaucracy where people haggle over everything you do….Right now we hang out at Up [Records] and pretend we’re still with them.” The band postures that they won’t let being in the big leagues change how they play – an obligatory stance for any underground guitar group back then hoping to retain their core fanbase – but Brock eventually comes around to concede that Sony life wasn’t so bad, particularly when it came to recording expenses.
VIDEO: Modest Mouse Live at Nita’s Hideaway in Tempe, AZ, 10/4/2000
“I knew that people would have different expectations because of us being on Epic, and would maybe be looking for it to suck,” said Brock, “so I worked harder and harder to be straight with this one.” Recorded at Clava Studios in Chicago with producer Brian Deck, The Moon & Antarctica found Modest Mouse spending not a few weeks but a few months getting the songs and mixes to their satisfaction. Violinist Tyler Reilly, who had also featured on The Lonesome Crowded West, played prominently on six of the songs, his parts more resonant and particularly key to “The Cold Part” and “Lives.” “Our other albums seemed right for the mindset we were in then,” said Brock, “and this one reflects how things are now.”
If that was the case, then the size of Modest Mouse’s growing world and budget (though another interview at the time in SPIN reported that the band didn’t get a signing bonus and still toured in a van) was proportionate to their sense of polarization and loneliness. The Moon & Antarctica brims over with visions not just of Earth and outer space, but also heaven and hell. God, Christ and the Devil–returning characters from The Lonesome Crowded West–continue their struggle in Brock’s belligerent hallucinations. “I got a phone call from the Lord sayin’ ‘Hey boy git a sweater. Right now’,” goes the memorable prophecy in the desolate disco of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.” “The Devil’s apprentice he gave me some credit/He fed me a line and I’ll probably regret it,” cries “Alone Down There.” Albeit in different contexts, Brock sings “God is a woman” in both “The Stars Are Projectors” and “Lives.”
Brock demurred from the search for answers in his lyrics (“I don’t actually ever say what the songs are about…I like leaving it up to everyone’s imagination” he told Billboard in 2000), but sometimes even his own bandmates felt differently. “The easiest way for Isaac to communicate about how he’s feeling or about things that are important is through his music,” said guitarist Dann Gallucci to Rolling Stone in 2004, then referring to the surprising optimism of “Float On.” Gallucci had played on a pair of Lonesome tracks and was a member of the band through the first half of the ‘00s. “I’ve often felt like I was getting more of a real answer from him through his lyrics than I would from talking to him,” he admitted.
The Moon & Antarctica runs the gamut from self-recrimination to sentimentality, melancholy memories to foreboding forecasts. Throughout, it feels as if Brock was pinning every meaningful thought down for posterity. The feeling on Lonesome’s “Heart Cooks Brain” that “The years go fast and/The days go so slow” expands on The Moon’s most direct and open song, “Lives”: life is short, life is long, this is our first chance, this is our last chance, and it’s not easy to hold those ideas together at the same time.
The most impressive thing that Modest Mouse did when they moved over to Epic was stay Modest Mouse. Perfect From Now On, Built to Spill’s major label step from a few years prior, felt like the model: a bit more ambitious, a bit more polished, but still fully recognizable. Brock still bent notes and sang through his pick-ups, and his wit was still on point (“You cocked your head to shoot me down”). Green still brought the funk for at least one song per record. I can recall a bright Seattle afternoon in July not long after The Moon came out. Meandering down Broadway on Capitol Hill from Orpheum Records (long since defunct) at the north end by East Roy Street to Twice Sold Tales at its old location on East John Street, stopping at a coffee stand along the way, The Moon & Antarctica was on the stereo at all three places, and the timing was such that it practically synced up from one to the next as I went along. The local boys had made good.
The real weirdness was a few years yet to come: radio hits, gold and platinum certifications, one of rock’s greatest guitar players joining the band for a spell, an eight-year gap between studio albums. In the summer of 2000 they were more or less the same band that made Long Drive, temporarily without a manager to field all those phone calls from Sony. The Moon & Antarctica earned them not just a growing new audience, but their old audience as well.