Menomena | Juggling Numbers

“I’m excited to play on the same day as Kanye West. That kind of blows my mind even saying that sentence.”

 

 

  

Put on their latest album Mines and attempt to figure out how many people play in the experimental indie rock band Menomena. My guess is that you would not have guessed three…ergh, well, two. Their densely layered music has been the work of perfectionists Justin Harris, Danny Seim, and former member Brent Knopf. Their sound is a complex balance of vocals and delicate instrumental layering known for using spacial time to its advantage. This doesn’t always make for a smooth transition into a live show or a quick recording process: Mines was three years in the making.

Calling from the chilly streets of Portland, Ore., after returning from their recent Australian tour, Danny Seim, drummer and vocalist, discussed the recent loss of “an equal third” of the band, bringing their dense music to the stage, a respectable stab at Connor Oberst for “trashing” their nomination at the 2007 Grammys.
 
The recent loss of keyboardist and guitarist Brent Knopf [who chose to pursue his side project RamonaFalls] has left fans unsure of how this will transform the band. This being said, how has this loss affected the future Menomena?
The whole thing came at a strange time. We had gotten back from his European tour and we had about two or three more tours planned for this year. Justin and I just had to talk for awhile because neither of us wanted to become one of those clichés where one guy leave the band. Then, other guys keep going but don’t have as much enthusiasm about the project anymore and it just seems like they’re going through the motions to get a paycheck or something. We definitely didn’t want to soldier on for the wrong reasons.
have nothing but respect for Brent—he’s done a lot of contribution over the years—but it’s nice to have a band that has all three members contributing song ideas. It’s not like Axl Rose leaving Guns ‘N Roses—that’s probably a bad comparison.  
Are you seeing the loss as a half-full or half-empty situation?
Justin and I still think there’s a lot of life left in this band, and we’re excited about the ideas we’ve been coming up with. Since Brent’s departure we’ve been eager to get working on a new album and exchanging new ideas and recording as much as we can in between these tours. We’re not going to say that this band is going to be together five years from now. I can really only speak for the present, and that is that we are both really excited about making music together. We’ve got some really great replacements to help us with the live shows right now. We’re trying to be as optimistic as possible.
You mentioned replacements. Who can we expect to see on tour with Menomena?  
We just got back a week ago from Australia. The big new replacement in that lineup was Paul Alcott. He’s been in a lot of bands, but he also played in a solo project of mine called Lackthereof. Paul played the drums for me and we played a few shows back in the day. I’ve known him for awhile. He’s really been working as Brent’s keyboard replacement, but he’s also really good at the nerdy computer side of things. He came to Australia with us, along with a guy named Joe Haege; he’s also in several bands around [Portland]. He had actually played with us back in the Brent days, as well. So on our next tour, Paul will be there, but Joe [Danny laughs]—like I said, he’s in a lot of bands—he’s in Berlin right now with his band Tu Fawning, so we had to get another replacement for him. So, we have another guy, Matt, playing Joe’s guitar part. It’s kind of like musical chairs here. But Justin and I aren’t going anywhere…we hope.
How will replacements affect making a new record? 
That’s kind of the blessing to this whole thing. The way Menomena has done things over the past ten years has become so isolated when we’re actually writing. So, Justin and I, and well, Brent used to kind of quarantine ourselves in front of our portable computers at our respected homes here and work on as many songs as possible. Then we’d exchange them with the other two guys for them to find their parts in them. So we’ve become pretty adept at recording our own things. Justin and I shouldn’t have any problems coming up with enough songs to make a record. 
As far as adding the replacements, if there’s a place where I think one of these guys could improve by playing their instruments that would be awesome, but in the meantime, I think Justin and I can handle everything.
Can you explain some of the challenges of taking studio work to the stage? 
There’s a ton of challenges. The problem in the past lies in what we can actually pull off live without using anything less than 20 people on stage. It’s easy to get carried away when you’re recording because it’s all on computers. So we get carried away, layering and layering all these different sounds and instruments and just recording our voices over and over into what sounds like choir parts. When it comes to playing shows, we’re just like, What the hell are we going to do now?”
So I guess the shows, in the last ten years, have kind of been striped down and we just kind of try to stick to the crucial elements of getting the vocals right, and the drums and bass and keyboards right. We try to pull off as much as possible, and we’ve learned that short of hiring an orchestra to play with us, we have to just focus on some of the main parts of the songs.
Are there any tracks you just can’t play live? 
Yeah, every album seems to have a few. Most of them are the ones that are all over the place; we’ve tried to strip it down to three or four guys and it just doesn’t seem to do it justice. We’ve learned six or seven of the songs off the most recent record, so that’s like 80 percent of the new record, but we’re also trying to play some of the older stuff as well. We really haven’t had a ton of time to practice; that’s another bummer about Brent’s departure happening in the midst of this touring. We haven’t had a lot of time to really get familiar with the new material because it’s all still so fresh. So, we’re just trying to work in as many of the new songs as possible. I think it’s coming along pretty good.
Do you think about how things with transfer to the stage when you are creating, or is the studio track the most important part? 
Sometimes. I think the more touring we do, it’s hard not to have that in the back of your mind. But again, with the recording process, we just get so wrapped up in the songs when we’re creating them that—well, I can speak for myself. I tend to forget what it’s going to sound like a month from then or a year from then when we start touring. Sometimes I have to keep in mind that if I sing, I can’t be drumming really hard because then I just end up sounding like I’m on a Stairmaster. [Seim does his best impression of the Stairmaster huff and puff.] It sounds rather breathy rather than delicate. So I’ll try to tame down the drum beats so it’s not so perverse.
Are you excited about Coachella and SXSW? 
Yeah. I mean it’s stuff like that—I mean, jeez, any city, St. Louis, and I’m not just saying that for your benefit—but any of these shows we’re excited about. Like the Australian tour we just had. It was kind of cool to look at this crazy country we’ve never been to before where it’s like 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. I was feeling like an old man for the first time. At the same time, we’re on stage playing with these new people and it seems to be going fine. That being said, I’m really stoked playing anywhere in this country, let alone crazy, big things like SXSW and Coachella. It’s good to have these positive things in these times.
Is there anyone you’re excited to play with?
Oh my, the Australian thing was really rad. We played seven different cities and there was a traveling festival where all the bands flew together from show to show; all the bands are largely American bands. We got to meet some of the bands that I really love recently: Bear in Heaven, they are great; The Antlers were amazing; I thought Deerhunter was great; Warpaint was great; Yeasayer…I feel like I could go on forever here. At the same time, I’m excited to play on the same day as Kanye West. That kind of blows my mind even saying that sentence. I’m really excited.
Lastly, I just wanted to talk about your album art. In 2007 you were nominated for a Grammy for album artwork. What was that like?
Yeah, Grammy award loser. [Seim laughs.] So close, but so far away. No, it was crazy. We flew to Los Angeles and sat in the nosebleed section and watched our beautiful nomination get trashed by fucking Bright Eyes! Eh, but Connor. Well, I guess we had to lose to someone—why not someone somewhat respectable. | Kelly Glueck
 
Memomena plays St. Louis March 30 at The Gargoyle.

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