On November 18, 1997, a trio of young punks from Issaquah, Washington named Modest Mouse released their second album, The Lonesome Crowded West. It was not an immediate sensation — by the time the band released their third LP, The Moon & Antarctica, in 2000, it had moved only about 60,000 copies. But over time, it earned a reputation as one of the great indie-rock records of the 1990s, a distinction confirmed by Modest Mouse launching a 25th anniversary tour this month.
Filled with long, winding, and raging songs about urban sprawl and eccentrics from the underclass trying to make their way in the American Northwest, The Lonesome Crowded West only seems more unique as the years go by. Listening to it, I’m struck by how hard guitarist-singer Isaac Brock, bassist Eric Judy, and drummer Jeremiah Green grooved. Years before it was possible for a single person to make an album and post it online, Modest Mouse came up the old fashioned way — they toured relentlessly, played countless dives, and in the process developed a kinetic chemistry that bounds out of the album on tracks like “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” and “Truckers Atlas.”
As a songwriter, Brock stands alone as the rare observer of the nation’s working poor, writing about this marginalized population with rare insight and sensitivity on the semi-autobiographical “Trailer Trash” and a flair for the surreal on the David Lynch-like “Cowboy Dan.”
Modest Mouse didn’t achieve mainstream success until their hit single “Float On,” released seven years after The Lonesome Crowded West. And yet it’s the album, more than any other, that bolsters their status as one of the best indie bands of their era. To celebrate the record’s anniversary, we talked with the band and their associates to get the behind-the-scenes story of how it was made.
Modest Mouse was formed in 1992 in the Seattle suburb of Issaquah. Their leader was Isaac Brock, a teenaged oddball and endlessly creative songwriter who grew up amid working class environs in Montana and Oregon before moving with his family to Washington at age 11. He started the band with drummer Jeremiah Green, and later they recruited bassist Eric Judy.
Pat Graham (band photographer and crew member): I moved to Arlington, Virginia in ’92. Isaac had also moved out there, and we both lived at this Positive Force group house. He wasn’t in a band at that point. We bonded over photography and did a few mini photo projects together. Basically, he would dress up in wacky outfits, and I’d photograph him doing various things. We were really into doing as much experimental work as we could do with the camera — long exposures, infrared photography, which you see on the first Modest Mouse record. He was starting to write songs. And then he moved back out to Issaquah. At that point, he started Modest Mouse.
Dann Gallucci (part-time Modest Mouse guitarist): Isaac lived with us at this big punk house in Seattle where we had shows and everyone practiced. He ended up getting asked to leave — I can’t really speak to why because it wasn’t by me — but he did things that annoyed people. He was bouncing off the walls back then. And so he ended up moving back in with his parents. They had a trailer on a plot of land in Issaquah and they built a shack for him to live and practice in and record in. It was a beautiful shack.
When he first started forming Modest Mouse, he asked me to be in it. In those years Isaac, Jeremy and I were a constant, although there was another drummer that would be in and out, too, because Jeremy was still in high school. Then I left and that’s when Eric joined.
Pat Graham: Isaac went dumpster-diving at the Muzak company. He got all these cassettes that had packaging, and he made color copy cassettes of his songs. He also had a Dial-A-Song — you could call up a number, and he’d be playing a song that he wrote.
Dann Gallucci: He had left the punk house, and then a couple months later he called and asked if I wanted to hang out. He had a car and we were driving around. I can’t remember where we were going, but we were mostly listening to the demo tapes that he had recorded while he was gone. “Broke” was the one that caught everyone’s attention. But all the songs were great. Right then was where his whole songwriting style was formed. It was jaw-dropping, honestly. I just couldn’t believe it.
Phil Ek (record producer): I loved them. It was such great songwriting and great energy. All of us loved them — me and Doug [Martsch of Built To Spill] and the guys from 764-HERO and a whole bunch of other Sub Pop and Up Records bands. But they were kids. I think everybody thought, This band is not going to make it, they’re going to implode. Because they were so volatile and crazed and young and having fun and just being nuts.
Modest Mouse released their debut album, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, in 1996. When the record became an underground hit, they started touring around the country. The countless hours spent on the road — in an unreliable Dodge Ram dubbed “The Vansion” — inspired the lyrics of their next record, particularly songs like “Truckers Atlas” and “Out Of Gas.” In time the LP would be regarded as one of the best road trip albums ever made.
Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse singer-songwriter): If you’re commonly doing 12-hour drives, you’re going to think about driving a lot. It was just a byproduct of an activity. If I’d been jogging, I probably would’ve written about jogging a lot. If I’d been cooking a lot, it would’ve been a food album. But I just watched that dotted line.
Dann Gallucci: They toured relentlessly. The mindset was, We should be on the road. We would always bug our booking agent. Is there any way you can get a tour for us next month? And she was like, “It’s January, no one wants to tour right now.” And we were like, Get us anything. And we ended up with a two-and-a-half week tour of just Florida.
Jeremiah Green (drummer, to Pitchfork in 2012): We went on tour the day I got out of high school. Most of the time it was Eric, Isaac, I, and Pat.
Pat Graham: I was taking pictures of bands on stage. I really wanted to go on tour, and Isaac knew that so he invited me. My role was to sell merch, help drive, take pictures, and to try to be a manager. I dealt with some of the money, very badly, sometimes.
Dann Gallucci: I went on their first U.S. tour. I was supposed to play, so I quit my job and quit all the bands I was in. Moved out of the room I had at this house. And then— this is very Isaac — it was maybe three or four days before we were supposed to leave, and he said, “I don’t feel like having an extra guitar player. But you can still come on tour.” I went on tour. I had nothing else to do.
Eric Judy (Modest Mouse bassist): It was a lot of work, but if you’re in your 20s, it doesn’t really feel like work. It was just fun. Probably a lot of poor decision-making at times.
Jeremiah Green: [The van] broke down immediately. And Isaac fixed it. And then it broke down again.
Pat Graham: Touring was pretty chaotic. We had to drive out to Chicago from Washington. The photos inside The Lonesome Crowded West of the ice and blizzard scenes, those are from that drive. We almost died a couple times. We had a minor crash, and then the van died in the middle of a blizzard. We ended up having to sleep one night in a Jiffy Lube. Then we made it to the gig at The Empty Bottle in Chicago. We got there at about a quarter to 1 in the morning. I think they played one song. No one was there.
It was the late ’90s. We had to pull over and find pay phones to call the club and say “We’re late” or “We’re lost.” We really were using a trucker’s atlas, you know? Like the song and all that. Getting lost was quite easy. There was one show where we showed up so late, the place closed. There was one of those signs out front, and Eric rearranged it to say, “Modest Mouse, sorry.”
Eric Judy: I never felt scared myself. My parents were probably worried and scared. Our oldest son is 20 now, and he’s gone down to L.A. a few times to work on music. The first time he went down I was super scared for him. He was only 16.
Dann Gallucci: That type of touring had a certain innocence to it. It was the dream of all of us when we were kids — get in a van together and drive around. We always wanted to do that.
Pat Graham: The fun part of it was being with your friends and being on that kind of adventure. At the time, if I put myself in the situation, I wouldn’t be saying, Oh, isn’t this fun? My hands are frozen. Looking back at my photographs and thinking about what happened and how we survived, in my head, it’s fun.
All of that time spent on the road honed Modest Mouse’s chops as a live unit. This would pay big dividends on The Lonesome Crowded West, which was mostly recorded live and spotlights the one-of-a-kind chemistry between Brock, Judy, and Green. While none of them were virtuoso musicians, they knew had to complement each other, and they could groove like practically no other underground rock band of their era. Contrary to the “folded arms” indie stereotype, Modest Mouse inspired their audiences to move with songs like the danceable LCW highlight “Doin’ The Cockroach.”
Phil Ek: Live, they were just unhinged and kind of magical. Back in their early days, it would either be a horrible trainwreck or one of the greatest shows you could see, and you had goosebumps the whole time.
Isaac Brock: We played together an awful, awful lot. We wouldn’t have to talk about shit. We would just do it.
Eric Judy: We all learned how to play music by playing with each other. We didn’t take lessons, so that’s how we learned our instruments.
Phil Ek: Back in those days, which was not terribly long ago, you had to really practice. You had to play together as a band a lot. And bands do that less now because people can sit on their computer and record themselves and one guy can do all of it.
Eric Judy: Isaac was always really encouraging. I never felt like I was that good because I’m not a trained musician. I can read music, but I never really properly learned it. I’m very slow and I feel sometimes like I can’t even play music with other people besides Isaac and Jeremy. But I think Isaac did do a bit just to help me be confident in what I was playing.
Dann Gallucci: I can’t say enough about Eric. I think he’s just an absolutely remarkable musician that meant so much to what they did. He would use these walking baselines, but there was melody often within them. He could play very comfortably in these loping, fluid melodic rhythms that allowed for Isaac to play or not play, and give backbone to whatever he was doing.
Phil Ek: Eric’s basslines were so fluid and moving and pretty. With Isaac’s angular, crazy guitar and vocal presence and Jeremiah’s beautifully narrative drum parts, it was so powerful in this unique way that I hadn’t heard musically at that time.
Doug Martsch (Built To Spill singer/songwriter): Modest Mouse in the early days was very collaborative. Jeremy and Eric were contributing a lot. It wasn’t just Isaac’s songs — it was jams that were creating the songs.
Dann Gallucci: With Jeremy, his style of moving around the kit and doing looped percussive patterns, he was doing that as a little guy when we first met him. He was so young, but he was a steal. The way that he and Eric meshed echoed what I would later love about music from different parts of the world, where it’s just this rhythmic melody.
Eric Judy: Jeremy was really fun drummer to play with.
Isaac Brock: I liked things being choppy, but I didn’t have any pedals that did it. So I just used lots of speed and pulsing. I didn’t really realize what a tremolo pedal was. It was all in the wrist. And you can kind of hear that. More Songs About Buildings And Food [by Talking Heads] had more to do with that than fucking anything. I probably listened to that record more than anything in my life at that point.
Dann Gallucci: Isaac always had the shittiest guitars so that he could get that locking bridge because he never used a tremolo bar. That just became his style and it was completely unique. I don’t think a lot of people know this, but he was constantly turning on and off his distortion pedal in rhythm. And it just created this bizarre thing. It was amazing to watch.
Isaac Brock: Jeremy and Eric didn’t fucking need me. They could lock in and do things pretty great whether I was there or not. And that’s helpful because then when I was involved — and obviously I was fucking involved — I could get pretty squirrely with what I did because those guys were so locked in. I didn’t even have to be in tune some of the time. As long as it sounded like they were doing the right thing, if I steered way out of the lane, it was going to be fine. Half the approach to writing at that point was just that — they’d stay on it really well for a long enough time for me to figure out something.
Phil Ek: They had an upbeat danceability. Jeremiah would play some hi-hat grooves, and then a four-on-the-floor kick drum, and they would swell around that. It just pulsed the songs forward.
Isaac Brock: I had some weird thorn in my side about techno that I don’t have anymore. But at the time I thought it was cheap and tacky. But dancing is fun. I don’t like to use word “funky” because I don’t know about funkiness. But I wanted it to be somewhat danceable, although I’m not sure it is. “Doin’ The Cockroach” is probably better to have a seizure to than to dance to.
As Modest Mouse toured America, they started putting together the songs for The Lonesome Crowded West. One of the album’s most affecting numbers came together with surprising ease.
Isaac Brock: The only song we’ve ever written on tour is “Bankrupt On Selling.”
Dann Gallucci: I was in the back of the van and there was a guitar back there. We didn’t have cases. They used to just walk into the club carrying their guitars without cases. It was awesome.
Isaac Brock: We were in Green Bay. Sitting in the van because there’s no backstage to the venue. Dann was playing the guitar part and I just started singing along.
Dann Gallucci: I believe he was writing lyrics down in his notebook. I don’t know how he could remember all of them or how much they changed. I remember it was nighttime. It was a romantic moment.
Isaac Brock: Didn’t have to rewrite the lyrics or anything. It all just kind of spilled out and there it was. An easy fucking song to write. Not overwrought in any way.
Dann Gallucci: The only music on that is me playing acoustic and electric guitar. The electric guitar part, I think back on it and I’m like, That was really pretty. I’m surprised I was able to do that. That was cool.
Another pivotal song from LCW, “Trailer Trash,” predated the album by several years. But it set up one of the record’s central subjects — life in the lower class underbelly of the American Northwest. While “Trailer Trash” is wistful, “Cowboy Dan” has a sinister undertow. Then and now, nobody in indie rock has written about the “working poor” side of the country quite like Brock.
Isaac Brock: Starting pretty early, in about fifth grade, I really became keenly aware of class divides by moving from a burnt-down logging town in Cottage Grove, Oregon to Issaquah, Washington, which was an area where the getting was getting good. Bill Gates and whatnot were doing a pretty good job of employing people.
Only a few people were truly unkind to me because of fucking wealth issues, and I kicked the shit out of at least one of them. But I was probably the bigger dick about class issues than anyone surrounding me. I definitely remember being just outright cruel to fucking people that lived in the more affluent housing developments. I’m not proud of how I was, but middle school students are all assholes.
Eric Judy: I know “Trailer Trash” was a song that Isaac had from way before The Lonesome Crowded West.
Dann Gallucci: That was one of our early incarnation songs, when Jeremy and Isaac and I were the core of the band. His lyrics at that time were so vulnerable and intimate, but they were also couched in wordplay. But it didn’t make it distant when he would do that. When I heard his lyrics, they really moved me a lot.
Isaac Brock: I was just fictionalizing real things in my life and, for the sake of the art, making them more dramatic. I didn’t mind living in trailer parks, man. It wasn’t fucking bad. Jeremiah didn’t mind living in trailers. It’s actually fine. People on lower incomes have their own fucking space. Usually they’re set up in a way where you can ride your bikes around. There’s a lot of beauty to it and then there’s also a lot of sadness, because everyone there’s either working real hard or working not at all.
Dann Gallucci: I’ve heard him say that it’s not entirely autobiographical and I think that’s true. He’ll play up and play down things at different times about his past. But even if it’s not 100 percent autobiographical, he still has this way of conveying a feeling, an idea, an emotion, where it doesn’t really matter.
Isaac Brock: The name “Cowboy Dan” came from a friend of my dad’s. Beyond his friend having a cool name, there is nothing to do with him in the song. It is just a catchy fucking name. That song is just secondhand accounts and observations of growing up in rural Montana and around reservations. There were those guys who would just be fucking drug assholes.
Jeremiah Green: We wanted to sound like the west. I guess they didn’t have electric guitars back in the day. And they didn’t have trap kits. There was something I was playing on that song, and Isaac was like, “They didn’t have those.” Maybe it was too many cymbals. It was like, “Native Americans didn’t play cymbals.”
Dann Gallucci: Isaac has the ability to paint a picture. “Cowboy Dan” is a really interesting song for that. He didn’t play with a lot of reverb normally. They were creating a real visual backdrop for the movie that he wrote.
Another subject of Brock’s songs on The Lonesome Crowded West was the toll of urban sprawl. Paving over forests to build malls was addressed in the furious opening track “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine,” a meandering epic that includes a memorable shoutout to the Orange Julius beverage stand chain.
Isaac Brock: I was interested in urbanization and sprawl and how that affected everything. I don’t think I wanted to write about it. I was just fixated on it. I was reading books about it. Development in the area I was living in was moving pretty fast. Every year our house would get flooded because of poor planning, and people just clearing off a mountaintop to put in a housing development.
Eric Judy: In my opinion, Isaac is one of the best lyric writers. He writes the greatest lyrics.
Isaac Brock: For “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine,” I basically wrote multiple songs and had to make them fit together somehow. I felt like it was a cop out to do a verse/chorus/verse thing. You’re writing something and it’s loud and has that whole yelling thing. Now it’s like, I’ve got to take it down all the fucking way. But I don’t have a part yet for that. What should that be? And you dink around until you find a part. This is very nice. Holy shit! Is there a way to make these two parts fit? No, there isn’t. Not unless you just do something real drastic. I wasn’t encumbered by knowing shit like chords or keys. It would have made some of these decisions not make sense. These two keys are not going to go well together. I had no fucking idea that was a thing.
Scott Swayze (co-producer): The things Isaac was going through, and his ability to transform those feelings into the mood of the songs and the lyrics, it was going to affect people who are that same age and going through those same things.
Isaac Brock: I, like any kid in suburban America, spent some time at malls. There was actually a decent punk rock record store at the mall in Bellevue. You’d take the bus, and every time I was at the mall, I’d get this kind of sickly feeling inside of me and shit like something wasn’t right about this culture to me. It made me feel very uncomfortable and anxious. Kind of that sensation of waiting for your dad to show up with a belt. I felt really fundamentally wrong in malls. But, from the time I was a little kid, the one thing I remember enjoying was Orange Julius. I needed something to reference and that made sense to me. It’s knocking the culture, but come on, it’s a fine beverage. I’ll mock the Gap, but if I’m in a pinch, I’ll go to the Gap. You can feel two ways about something.
Initial sessions for The Lonesome Crowded West took place at Moon Studios in Olympia, a modest location downtown where many indie bands recorded in the ’90s. It was, to put it mildly, hardly a world-class facility in which to make a future classic.
Scott Swayze: It was a guitar store initially, and the local Odd Fellows were our landlord. They originally agreed to have a guitar store in their building, but they did not expect to have a recording studio. We shared walls with a comic book store on one side and a tarot reading room on the other.
Isaac Brock: It was bare bones. There was the recording room, there was the mixing/control room, and there was a little bathroom. That’s where I recorded “It’s All Nice,” to give it that nice bathroom sound. And then there was a closet. It was decorated by the guy who owned the studio, Steve Wold aka Seasick Steve, and he had a good aesthetic. There were lamps, a Persian rug, and a few old instruments.
Dann Gallucci: It was a store front and it had some acoustic treatment. But it wasn’t acoustically treated for sound. It was acoustically treated so they didn’t get kicked out of the building. Everything sounded like shit that came out of there.
Eric Judy: One funny thing I do remember — and only because I remember Jeremiah telling me this — is that one of the overhead drum mics wasn’t recording the whole time. Maybe it was broken or something.
Scott Swayze: A recording studio really didn’t belong in a little retail space right in downtown Olympia. It’s kind of remarkable that we were able to do it as long as we did.
We would set the band up in one room, like they did in the ’60s, where the band members can look at each other as they play their songs live. And all those parts get used in the final mix, because all those sounds were bleeding together into all the microphones. You can go back and add guitars and other things, but you can’t really take away from what’s caught in that first bit. We had a 1969 tape deck, and it didn’t have all the digital metering technology modern decks have.
Isaac Brock: If I was going to be playing the song, I had to sing it. I couldn’t play just the guitar part without singing the whole thing. We had to keep me far away from mics so that there wasn’t too much bleed.
Scott Swayze: All analog recording is time consuming. I’d get there at 11, get coffee on, and the guys would file in and probably actually get going by around 1 and shut down at 11 or 12 at night. Doing that day after day, it’s another version of sleep deprivation where if you focus so intensely for so many hours, you can end up in this weird tunnel-like space. It had to be mixed and out the door in 17 days. So it was just go, go, go.
Isaac Brock: I didn’t really know what the fuck anything in there did as far as the mixing console. Nothing was automated, so it would be three people using both hands on knobs. I spent a lot of time doing that, because I liked moving shit while we were mixing down.
Time and money were tight, which made recording a grind. The members of Modest Mouse were also young and inexperienced, and learning about how to make albums on the fly.
Isaac Brock: It was 17 days of nonstop getting it done and it wasn’t fun. We would record until we were too burnt. Just playing the songs over and over again until we got the right take. It’s very, very brass tacks.
Eric Judy: I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. With the later albums, I was a little bit better at playing and recording my parts. But early on it was a little tougher, just from being young.
Isaac Brock: At that stage of my life, I’d try and write the entire song before they’d show up, which I don’t tend to do anymore. That was true about 70 percent of the time. But some of it had to be spontaneous combustion because I loved listening to those two play together. If they were doing something cool, it allowed me a lot of room to not even have a notable structure.
Eric Judy: Isaac did some vocal overdubs and probably some guitar overdubs, too. But a lot of it was just live.
Isaac Brock: “It’s All Nice On Ice, Alright” is basically a Bob Dylan song. I was deeply enjoying his rock catalog, particularly “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I was just discovering that he wasn’t a hippie. I thought he did a really good job of bringing in imagery. I’m still inspired by him. I haven’t gotten sick of Bob Dylan.
Eric Judy: Songs would definitely change quite a bit over time, as we played them live. We extended them and jammed out on them for a long time.
Isaac Brock: When we got to the outro on “Truckers Atlas,” I actually left the recording studio. I believe it goes on for seven minutes or something. I did my part and then I was like, “I’m going to go outside and smoke a cigarette.”
Jeremiah Green: That song stays on a constant groove. And it’s a very long song.
Eric Judy: We just stopped when it felt right, I think.
Of the songs that didn’t Brock didn’t have prepared ahead of time, “Heart Cooks Brain” is a standout.
Eric Judy: I thought “Heart Cooks Brain” was such a great song at that time.
Isaac Brock: “Heart Cooks Brain” didn’t exist when we went into the studio.
Scott Swayze: We had gotten pretty far into the record and a lot of the overdubs were done, and Isaac was looking for anything else that could be added. I was sitting on the couch — I’m a guitar player — and I was just noodling along. I was playing this little three-note arpeggio, kind of unconsciously. And Isaac walks in and he’s like, “What is that you’re playing? I love that, and we need to put that on the song.”
Isaac Brock: The band started playing “Out Of Gas,” and I started playing something different entirely. And then I liked that song more. I went down to the train tracks and wandered around and wrote the lyrics for that one.
Eric Judy: The bass part is the same on both songs.
Isaac Brock: Another song that got made up in the studio was “Long Distance Drunk.” I don’t remember how. I do remember what I wanted Jeremiah to do on the drums, which was a pitter-patter thing. When we were writing this record, I would try and make sure that the overhead symbols weren’t played much because I thought it clouded things up too much.
A critical sounding board for Brock during the making of the album was co-producer Calvin Johnson, best known as the leader of Beat Happening and the founder of K Records. Though there is some disagreement as to how much Johnson was actually involved, even from Johnson himself.
Isaac Brock: I feel like him being there helped the record a lot even if he doesn’t feel like he necessarily contributed to it. I liked Calvin and I liked working with him, and I found that working with him gave me a confidence that I needed.
Calvin Johnson (co-producer, to Pitchfork in 2012): It’s exciting to see someone so focused and driven working on their creative endeavors. I hadn’t had too many experiences with people that dedicated. Usually bands I work with, they weren’t as full-time as Modest Mouse was.
Eric Judy: I don’t remember him doing a whole lot. Scott Swayze was there as an engineer, and I know he did a lot.
Calvin Johnson: I feel more like the important thing is to get a good atmosphere. Set an environment where people feel comfortable. Or a little more than comfortable — special. It’s a special place, let’s make a special record.
Scott Swayze: I’ve always worked really well with Calvin. We’re very different people. Calvin is very whimsical, and just likes to just go with it. And I’m more technical.
Dann Gallucci: I remember reading books about John Lennon going up to Geoff Emerick and saying, “I want it to sound purple.” With Calvin, it was the opposite, where he would say shit like that. Calvin was always the “why be normal?” guy.
Isaac Brock: It took 17 days to record, and we offered Calvin $100 a day to produce the record. So we gave him a check at the end for $1,700. And he gave us the check back a couple days later and said, “I don’t really feel like I did anything.” I felt like he did help a lot in the way that a producer does where you can ask, “Is this take good? Is that take good? Are we sounding genuine?” Shit like that.
Scott Swayze: I did not know that I was going to be listed as any kind of producer. That was a surprise. I assumed that I was going to be the engineer, but I think Isaac must have seen my contributions as something more than just the guy who make sure the mics are in place. That was really generous of him to do that.
When Modest Mouse turned the album in to their record label, Up, it was not immediately greeted as a masterpiece. On the contrary, label head Chris Takino wanted to re-record three songs — “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine,” “Doin’ The Cockroach,” and “Cowboy Dan” — with Built To Spill producer Phil Ek.
Isaac Brock: He didn’t say it say it directly, but Chris thought that the record sounded terrible and was an absolute fucking disaster.
Phil Ek: Chris Takino called me and said there’s these songs that he thinks are very important, and the versions that they had done weren’t powerful enough. He felt they were really out of tune, which is not surprising because they can be a pretty out-of-tune band, especially live. Chris wanted them to go in with me and make bigger, better versions of those songs, but not make it sound too slick. Which was a strange request, because I never heard the versions that I was replacing.
Dann Gallucci: At the time, the record sounded great to me. We weren’t worried about shit like that. It was the songs. It could have sounded better, of course, we all knew that. But it was about the songs.
Eric Judy: The original sounds on it weren’t totally great. It’s been remastered since then, and it sounds a lot better now than it did.
Phil Ek: The album is a little rough sounding, and there’s a lot of charm in that. Calvin’s deal is just that he’s a fan and he wanted them to play and have fun. His aesthetic is not to fix too many things. Oh, it happened, let’s just keep it that way.
Isaac Brock: Calvin’s world at that time included a lot of people with an acoustic guitar and a snare drum. Those songs needed someone with a higher skill set and better chops when recording a loud, full rock band.
Phil Ek: I did a little bit of demo work with them for The Lonesome Crowded West, just for a day or so. I don’t think Isaac remembers that happened, but it did happen. I really wanted to work with them on their first record. And I really wanted to work with them on The Lonesome Crowded West. But they ended up doing the record mostly with Calvin.
There was this funny moment where they were perceived by a lot of people as Built to Spill Jr., which I thought was totally unfair. I don’t know if that had anything to do with him thinking, I’m not going to work with Phil, because Phil worked with Built to Spill. We actually never spoke of this stuff.
Doug Martsch: When I listen to Modest Mouse, I hear more Pixies than I hear Built to Spill. I think they were more influenced by that.
Scott Swayze: I’m not an ego guy. I was not offended at all. In fact, I think I was part of that decision. The way that Calvin wanted to record The Lonesome Crowded West, which was using mics further away from the drums and trying to get the room ambiance, that doesn’t work quite as well for really loud rock band. We tried to use compression to add some more low end, but to me it had more to do with the way we recorded the whole record. So for them to do those songs in Seattle, I thought was a good idea, and I’m happy they did that.
Phil Ek: I was recording the Halo Benders in Olympia with Doug and Calvin when I got the call. I was like, Uh, I guess I’m going to go re-record these Modest Mouse songs. I don’t know if it bothered Calvin or not. He never made a reference to it, he never asked me about it, he never said, “Oh, that sucks.” There’s no bad blood. I love Calvin and we’ve worked together on a bunch of stuff.
They weren’t the easiest people to wrangle at times. They had fuck all y’all energy. Sometimes Isaac would be playing something totally different than he used to play. What happened to the melody of this song? The last chorus, you played it that way, now you’re playing it this way. What the hell’s going on? Also, parties were part of their life, so they weren’t always in the best form when they showed up. I was like 26 at the time, and I was like the elder statesman.
No matter the record’s difficult gestation, the power of they created was immediately apparent to the band.
Eric Judy: I remember being back home with some rough mixes and listening to it and thinking, This is really good.
Isaac Brock: I felt pretty confident about that record the whole time. I wasn’t looking necessarily for approval from other people that much. I felt like that was as good a record as we were going to make.
Dann Gallucci: After the first record came out, no one thought they were going to make a bad record. Everyone anticipated that the record was going to be great because they were just hitting their stride. You were just watching them get better and better and better.
Eric Judy: It was a slow burn. The album after that, The Moon & Antarctica, I don’t feel like was commercially successful. I don’t think that happened until “Float On.”
As Modest Mouse prepares to do the anniversary tour, the principals look back on the album 25 years later.
Isaac Brock: I’m not going to try and play this record note per note because it wasn’t recorded as that kind of record. There’s a bit of shit being done on the fly and it should remain that way.
Eric Judy: It’s probably my favorite of all the Modest Mouse albums. When it comes down to it, I think that’s the one.
Phil Ek: It’s a genius album. Those are great songs. I hear it all the time. It’s funny to listen to it and think, “Oh, Isaac’s voice, he’s so young.”
Scott Swayze: I can’t tell you how many times throughout the last 25 years, when somebody finds out that I had a part in recording this album, that they’ve come to me and said, I can’t tell you how much this album helped me through a hard time in my life. I can understand that.
Pat Graham: I saw Modest Mouse, I don’t know, thousands of times. I’ve heard them play those songs so many times that, for a while, I never even listened to the record. But once I was out with them less, I would return to the record and be able to appreciate something new. For me, in my mind, it’s like this physical reaction of the time, combined with the fact that I think it’s just a great record.
Dann Gallucci: I’ve been in a lot of bands and I’ve toured and played for a very long time. But that’s my band. I was there from the start. I’ve always cared about them so much. That’s the band that’s always been the most important to me. And the one I’ve always felt the most connected to, even if I wasn’t there.
Isaac Brock: Currently the plan is to play the whole record in sequence, which is honestly something I always swore I wouldn’t do. We’re going to try and do that, and if I find that it’s just too tedious to play the exact same order night after night, we won’t do it. Problem is, it’s the right way to play it. When we made the record, I spent a fuck ton of time figuring which song should go after the next one. I don’t know if it should be up to me at this point to disrupt that ecosystem.