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Dry Wall and a Broken Jaw: Modest Mouse Reflect on The Moon & Antarctica 20 Years Later

Isaac Brock
Isaac Brock of the band Modest Mouse performs onstage at the Metro in Chicago, Illinois, June 12, 2000. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

The album wouldn’t have sounded so vast without its expanded cast: Massarella contributed some experimental percussion; Rutili added a memorable backing vocal to “Paper Thin Walls.” Reilly, primarily a classical player who previously performed on “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child” from The Lonesome Crowded West, lifted many of the tracks with his ghostly string parts; a key contribution appears on the spacey, simmering “The Cold Part.”

Reilly: With [“The Cold Part”], I had to tune down my low G string to be in tune with his guitar. It sounds really hollow and cold. It took a while to get it in tune and get the changes right. I don’t know if Isaac didn’t tune his guitar or if he meant to be a whole step low or what, but it turned out to make the sound that the song needed. 

Green: It’s hard to tell if a lot of those sounds are guitars or percussion because they’re dubbed-out and affected with delay and feedback. We used to use a vibrator on a lot of things [including “The Cold Part”]. He’d use it on anything: a bedpan, a floor tom, a cymbal. 

In early October 1999, one month before finishing the sessions, Modest Mouse performed at the first Coachella festival in Indio, California. It was, let’s say, a memorable gig.

Brock: I pulled [the wires out of my mouth] myself. I’d already done like four shows on that tour with my mouth wired shut, singing like this [does garbled vocal impression], and I just didn’t want to play another one. [The wires] were all twisted up, and there was a shit-ton of blood. I eventually realized that I’d fucked up the enamel on my teeth in those areas. There were a fair number of root canals that followed that. 

I was in so much pain when we did Coachella. Just like when you get a cast-off, your muscles have kinda atrophied in the jaw. It was weak and still hurt. So I ate a bunch of painkillers that I’d had from the doctor, and I don’t think we played one single song even close to right. It was just a blurry fucking mess. Then I think Spiritualized played afterward, and that had to have been real nice for everyone.

Moonset: The Album’s Release and Legacy

Modest Mouse finished tracking The Moon & Antarctica in November 1999, wrapping a five-month process. They released the album on June 13th, 2000 — earning breathless reviews across the board (though, ironically, a mixed assessment from SPIN). Everyone else noticed the artistic leap — including the album’s cohesive, cinematic quality — even if the band members themselves were too deep in the weeds to notice at the time.)

Green: But there were all these other bands like the Strokes and whatnot who just blew up. I remember going to England and them being on the cover of The Face and being kinda jealous, like, “They only got two songs out, man!” I went to the record store and bought their single, like, “I gotta hear this shit. They’ve got two songs on a CD single for $6. Who are these fucking posers?” [Laughs.] I was kinda jealous and pissed about it. I like the Strokes now, but at that time indie-rock stuff was getting really popular, and we didn’t really blow up like that. I expected a little more — that Sony would make us more popular. I was a little bit, like, “Why did we sign to a major label?” It worked out by the time “Float On” and all that shit happened. The record did good, but still…

I don’t think anybody knows if they’ve made their best records. I just felt like we made another album. I can’t say I felt like it was our best album. Sonically I was excited about it because it had a lot more cool shit. 

Reilly: There are so few albums where you just want to start it at the beginning, turn the lights off and listen to the whole thing. That album is really special. The real essence of [Brock’s] songwriting was captured on The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica

Rutili: Eric, Jeremiah and Isaac had a weird, beautiful chemistry that seemed to totally coalesce around that time. Brian brought some beautiful focus and texture to the sound of the band that had never been there before. Brian elevated the whole thing. But — he’d be the first to tell you — you can’t elevate a turd. The songs and band have to bring in something special.

Brock: You always hope for the best for any record. That was probably the first [Modest Mouse] record that kinda nailed that, where we actually got it feeling as big as we wanted.