After more than seven years of touring and countless independent releases, Issaquah, Wash., trio Modest Mouse are poised for the big time.
Their fourth full-length, The Moon and Antarctica, carries with it the strong arm of Epic Records, home to such superstars as Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine.
However, despite the prospects of national radio airplay, magazine features and financial security, Modest Mouse singer/guitarist Isaac Brock quickly dispels the aura of being on a major label.
"The affiliation with a major label doesn't mean sh--," Brock said. "I'm not saying being on a major label is negative, but there's not much to it, especially as far as pleasure. They're kind of a pain in the ass. I'm pretty sure they're well intentioned, and they're not really a problem to work with, for the most part. But they don't really have a good grasp of reality on a lot of things except for when it comes to their money, where they have all too well a grasp."
Strong as that grasp may be, Brock claims Modest Mouse refused to accept tour support from the label.
"It's all about leverage," he said. "The way I see it, the less we take from them, that's less they can take from us. The less money we accept, the less often they can make me do stupid f---ing interviews and sh--. We really don't even need tour money, anyway. All I needed from Epic was a better recording budget."
Brock used that budget to record an album that's as dense as it is lavish. Like its title suggests, The Moon and Antarctica, which hit stores June 13, tells tales of isolation and despair. But it presents its cold lyrics in the form of rickety pop songs, such as "Paper Thin Walls," (RealAudio excerpt), which addresses gossip and celebrity, and "Third Planet" (RealAudio excerpt), which explores the wonder of childbirth. While much of the record lives on an indie jangle reminiscent of Pavement or the Pixies, there's also a lush undercurrent of slick production.
Above it all, there's Brock's songwriting, a thick and twisted poetry he quickly dismisses as "narration." However, he sings with intense words that seem too real to be impersonal. On "Lives" (RealAudio excerpt), he whispers, "Everyone's afraid of their own life/ If you could be anything you want, you'd be disappointed, am I right?" On "Third Planet," Brock croons, "Everything that keeps me together is falling apart/ I got this thing that I consider my only art of fucking people over."
"I wanted to make a really dark landscape, musically and lyrically," Brock said of the album. "I wanted it to sound like a cool Cormac McCarthy book. I wanted it to be a little more subjective, but maybe I wanted to leave a little opening so that anyone who listens to it can actually apply any number of lines to anything in their own lives. I leave songs open-ended in a weird way, so as much as possible, people can apply them to their own situations, and get something out of it."
Modest Mouse formed in late 1992, just as grunge was reaching its apex in nearby Seattle. Brock made a few acoustic demo tapes, distributed them to friends, and soon met bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green. The band released its first record through indie label K Records, and the buzz began.
Soon after releasing the critically acclaimed The Lonesome Crowded West on Up Records in 1997, Epic caught wind of Modest Mouse, and things started looking rosy. Songs such as "Polar Opposites" helped Crowded West thrive on the college charts.
"I don't find it strange [that they signed to a major] since it's something that the band has carefully considered," said fan Bruce Willen, who runs a Modest Mouse Web site. "I think that Modest Mouse will raise the quality of mainstream music. Not everyone is content with cookie-cutter marketing tactics disguised as musicians. One hears little interesting music in mainstream outlets such as radio and television."
Should Modest Mouse score a hit single from The Moon and Antarctica, Brock insists his mind-set will stay the same.
"If we get a hit song, that just means I'll probably just get sick of playing that song," he said, laughing. "I doubt that'll even happen, but if it does, it just can't change anything. The only positive thing that could come from that is that Epic will leave me alone a little more.
"I'm just going to roll with the punches, and if this ever stops being fun, or if Modest Mouse gets too twisted, I created a loophole in my contract so I can jump ship whenever I want.
"But that would suck," he said after thinking about it, "because I love playing with Eric and Jeremy. And it's not like I plan on leaving. But if we do get huge, it won't explode my ego, because I've already got a pretty good grasp on the fact that complete sh-- can become huge, too. I mean, if Harvey Danger and stuff can become big, it doesn't mean sh-- if your song does well. In fact, it might be a bad thing. It could end up hurting my feelings."