Mouse on the Moon

Modest Mouse, the band that would be indie rock's king, navigates a major-label existence

"They may have given us some money, but they're damn sure they ain't the boss of me, and there's no way they're gonna interfere with our live show," says Brock with unusual conviction, noting that the band's decision to go with Epic was driven by a very simple and time-honored motive: cash. "They do give you more money to record with, and that's a luxury. Basically, our intention was to hijack the fat wallet for recording."

If you're going to pull a heist, you might as well go big, and that's precisely what Modest Mouse has done. When the band was with K and then Up, it was typically limited to budgets of roughly seven or eight grand and allotted about a week for the recording, producing and mastering of each release. Epic, on the other hand, gave the players a $100,000 budget and all the time they needed to record their debut release for the label. They took full advantage of the offer: Green, Judy and Brock headed to Clava Studio in Chicago and emerged four months later with the completed Moon and Antarctica, their most concise release yet. With Epic's billfold in hand, the players went beyond the limitations of the normal three-piece ensemble. By adding sprinkles of lap-steel guitar, violin, banjo, percussion and reverberating little sound bites to the production, they colored in some of the monotone gray areas present in earlier releases. Old friends of the Modest Mouse sound who are unfamiliar with the new platter may find it different in that the drums and guitar are less prominent, and new space-age quirks pop out like wedding-day zits. Some of those differences, Brock contends, were more the result of happy accidents than deliberate orchestration.

"[Producer] Brian Deck and I were sitting around getting drunk, mastering this thing," Brock says, "and at the time, we were so enamored with the sounds, we wanted to make sure they were heard."

From left, Jeremiah Green, Isaac Brock and Eric Judy of Modest Mouse know what to do when the van is rocking.
From left, Jeremiah Green, Isaac Brock and Eric Judy of Modest Mouse know what to do when the van is rocking.

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Drunken episodes did more for the recording than inspire a few tasty audio morsels. One night early in the production, Brock staggered out of a Chicago bar and down a paved lane in a grassy park. He came upon a group of inebriated youths -- as many as 14 of them, to his recollection -- and tried to strike up a friendly conversation. "You know, I think that I'm a real suave guy while drunk," he says, "so I just thought I'd go talk to some kids." Like many big-city conversations, this one was short and to the point. "I had bad reflexes that night," Brock recalls. "The first was when I walked up to them. The second was when one of them punched me out of nowhere and I couldn't react. I was just standing there, and this guy hit me like my head was a golf ball on a tee."

After Brock's melee in the so-called Golden Gloves district of Chicago, his mouth was wired shut for a month and a half. Though it might sound torturous to some, Brock says the injury actually enhanced the instrumental aspects of the then-in-production recording.

"They fucked me up pretty good," he says with a smile. "But having my jaw broken was great in respect to its effect on the album, because I had to take a different approach to recording. Usually when we record, we lay down the basic tracks, and I feel guilty if I don't hurry up and get the vocals done. But this time I couldn'tsing. So I just hung out, wrote a lot more instrumentals, and had a chance to really listen and work on it before laying down the vocals."

Despite the unusual way in which it attained its orchestral qualities, The Moon and Antarctica certainly does smack of a more polished approach to writing and recording. The stringed lullaby of "3rd Planet" and the pretty patience of nylon-string guitar work on "Perfect Disguise" exemplify the differences between The Moonand previous efforts. Unlike on Interstate 8 or The Fruit That Ate Itself -- where most tunes were fairly straightforward and drenched in heavy guitar and hard-to-ignore drumming -- The Moon takes listeners on a ride through a musical picture book. Rather than the constant strumming of guitar or beat-it-into-your-head bass and drum lines, the album is peppered with sparse sounds. At times, a guitar riff or synthesized note juts out like a mountain crag near a Pacific Northwest coast.

"When I first listened to the album, I was horrified," Brock says suddenly, as his van continues toward Eugene. Then, after a moment, he seems to make an associative analogy, perhaps noting the landscape, where miles and miles of clear-cut trees -- just stumps, really -- are thinly veiled by the 100 or so yards of timber that line the interstate. "I think it's going to take a long time for this album to grow on people," he says, "and for them to appreciate it."

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