It Always Rains in Their California: An Interview With Menomena
From perilous weather to zealous computer-lovers to instrumental dance accompaniments, the band persists.
When I call Menomena's guitarist/keyboardist Brent Knopf, his voice is drowned amongst a current of jittery static. He and the band (Justin Harris on bass and sax, and Danny Seim on percussion) are driving back home to Portland, Oregon, after touring through California. It has been raining pretty badly, Brent tells me. Because of the forecast and the poor connection I offer to reschedule so the band can focus on getting home safely, but he says it's cool. In my imagination I vividly see this van taking a sharp corner too quicky as the van flies into a canyon and ends up in a massive ball of flames. He insists, so we press on.
The band's debut I Am the Fun Blame Monster (an anagram for the first Menomena Album) was nothing if not cheeky and clever. It acted as its own interactive portable art installation -- an album full of sharp, intelligent minimalist pop music for the ears and an animated flip book of the band playing their instruments for the paws and the eyes. In 2005, the band put out the entirely instrumental Under an Hour that acted as a backdrop to a Portland dance troupe performance and contained the 17-minute song "Water".
With Friend and Foe, their latest album and first for Barsuk, these boys have really hit their stride. But right now I am more concerned with them hitting something else and between my fear of distracting them and the intermittent static, I am a bit scatterbrained. I do not know where to begin. Like the beginning of any awkward conversation, we begin our chat with the safest of clichés.
So how's the weather?
We were so excited to go down to California in hopes of getting some good weather after having the rainiest November of all time in Oregon. It rained on us everywhere we went. It poured on us in San Francisco. It poured on us in LA. It rained a little bit on us in San Diego but not too much. But overall it has been fine I am just making light of it.
So much for California weather...
I think we just brought it with us. It is like that character that opens an umbrella and it starts raining on him inside the umbrella. That is kind of like us. Everywhere we go a rain cloud is right behind us, you know?
It is sort of funny because I do not think that is reflective of your music at all. Menomena make this quirky sort of sunshine pop rather than the somber Manchester fare you put on during a rainy day.
[Laughs] Awesome ... can't get enough of the rain, maybe it cheers us up or something, I don't know.
How has the move to Barsuk been so far after leaving FILMguerrero?
Great ... fantastic. We are more and more impressed that they are the real article. We have been very impressed by the quality of people that work there. They are very easy to work with which makes a big difference to us.
So when are you guys going to be on The OC? I ask all of the bands I interview that question because it seems like huge crossover but then again maybe for some it is when you finally jump the shark.
That is a great question. I think that is one of Justin's, um...
Oh he would love for us to be on The OC. I don't know. I honestly have never seen it.
Oh, I could totally envision Menomena playing the song during an important kiss at the prom scene during the season finale. I think that would be phenomenal.
Sure, but only if it was raining outside. [Laughs]
So I was reading Wikipedia and looked you guys up to think of some interesting questions and I read something that I never knew Did you guys really get your band's name from the Muppets Song?
Ah ... yeah ... [static is heavy and Brent is breaking out] ... he was a ... a ... some sort of porn movie...
A porn movie. You are breaking up. Did you say porn movie?
Yeah check it out…[more static] the song ... Muppets ... was an Italian porn moving shot in Sweden. It is pretty rad. I have never seen it but I would love to. It would be so funny to watch that movie and hear that song.
[Piero Umiliani composed "Mah Na Mah Na" for a Swedish porn documentary, but the song was later performed on The Muppet Show.]
Let's talk about your second album, Under An Hour. It was an accompaniment to a dance piece that one of your friends made, right?
Yeah, we have a couple friends. One is Tahni Holt, she is the choreographer, and another friend Marty Schnapf, and he is an installation artist and they were putting together a dance performance for an international arts festival in Portland and they asked us to do the music for it. It seemed like an interesting challenge so we agreed to do it.
It is funny because I was so eager to hear the follow-up after your debut and when this came out, I listened to it once and said, "I cant listen to this." About a month ago, my iPod was on shuffle and I got caught up in this song that was playing and it ended up being "Water". I went back and listened to the album as a whole and if you take it as a piece of music rather than expecting to hear I Am the Fun Blame Monster Part Two, it is pretty great. Were you at all worried that right after making a name for yourselves you would lose some fans by putting out an instrumental album?
Well ... it wasn't an artistic concern but it was a business concern, you know? Some of our friends who we love and trust are the types of friends that can be honest with us even when its not something we want to hear and they were pretty clear with us. They said, "Listen, this is not what people are expecting. If you want to sell more albums you should probably follow up your debut with another pop album right away and then release this instrumental thing on the side as a footnote" ... Are you still here?
I am still here...
Good. Well we considered that but then we thought that is not why we make decisions, we are not making decisions to try to cater to anybody but what we feel is ... I don't know. We don't make decisions based on business as much as we probably should and we made it on more: "Well, it is finished. It is done. We recorded it. Let's go ahead and release it," knowing that we probably wouldn't be able to tour it. Come what may, it is what it is and it is music we made and it is available to listen to if people want to listen to it. It is limited, though, in terms that it was written to accompany modern dance so in some ways the only way to experience it was at the arts festival when you could watch the dance happening while listening to the live music.
Do you guys ever plan on performing this live again?
I think that was a one-time deal. Truthfully the real reason that we released the modern dance instrumental album is because that is where all the money is and that is what all the dance-punk bands were doing. [For a moment I feel like I misheard him or Brent has once again been cut off but then I hear him laugh.] I am sorry. [Giggling]
I was reading your press release and it seems like you guys like to be shrouded in this sort of mystery. Then when you take a look at your blog you guys come across as very accessible, appreciative of your fans and funny as hell. So is this part of your new PR ploy?
Well things are a bit more complicated than a simple summary in a press release. We have a difficult time writing about ourselves and we do not want to be one of those bands who are tooting are own horns and classify ourselves as artists whose influences fall between Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney, or some shit like that. You know what I mean?
I know exactly what you mean.
We just couldn't come up with something that we were all pleased with so we let Barsuk do it. Part of the reason that there is so little about us out there is because we really do want the focus to be on the music and not our personal lives. We do not really volunteer our favorite records or something like that but we do appreciate that people are asking.
So are you guys old friends?
Danny and Justin went to high school together; they lived across town. Danny started a band when they were in high school and I went to go see them and I liked their band a lot. I introduced myself and secretly hoped that they would invite me to join the band. They never did. I went to college and by the time I was done with college their band had broken up and I decided to squander the spoils or whatever it was, you know, and decided to try to form a band. Danny and I were friends since we were probably 18. I met Justin shortly after at 19 or 20 but we didn't keep in contact directly, it was more of a friendship that I had with Danny. Letters and tapes and cds sent over the years. We kept in touch and I moved back in Oregon and formed Menomena that fall. I was a fan of their band ... anyways it was pretty rad. The scene it was in was pretty awesome. It was in this Christian rock scene because there weren't that many all age shows that you could all go to. So I actually met them at this Christian club
So ... I am going to just paraphrase that and summarize that you were a groupie for a Christian rock band. That is accurate right?
[Laughs] It is truer than you think! When I first tried to meet Danny, his girlfriend -- who is now his wife by the way -- thought that I was trying to hit on him. How right she was!
And let me understand this. You guys created this computer program Deeler that essentially allowed you to create music based on loop patterns and then you had to learn how to play your instruments so you could tour the material live?
No, we had performed the basic structures of the songs and recorded the music ourselves. We had performed the loops but by the time the song had been arranged and constructed often times we had forgotten what we had actually played when we had originally played it. Oftentimes we found ourselves in the position of going back and learning the songs and certainly learning how to play the song live for the first time.
Oh, that makes more sense. Because for a long time I just thought you guys were these three computer nerds who learned how to make music on a computer and then their record blows up and they have to learn how to play instruments. I was like, "That is the best fucking story I have ever heard!"
Now I don't even like your band anymore.
There were a couple people in the press that had said that Deeler had written the music for us or something like that or some sort of algorithm where we just typed in some variables and out came the music. I will cop to being a computer nerd myself for better or worse.
Gotcha. Now it is time to mix things up. Who is a bigger dick? Donald Rumsfeld or OJ Simpson?
[Laughs] Who has the bigger dick?
No, we can already assume the answer to that question.
[Laughs] Ok my response is ... there are known dicks and there are known unknown dicks and there are unknown unknown dicks. Anyways ... that is a parody/
[This Rumsfeld parody completely goes over my head mostly because I did not go to Dartmouth and Brent did. He is also much more clever than me.]
Good, you pass. You answered all of those questions correctly. I saw that you guys hooked up with artist Craig Thomson and he did the cover work to Friend and Foe, and I wanted to know how that relationship came about.
Craig is basically a genius and a wonderful human being. He lives in Portland and he had a collaboration with John Askew, who runs FILMguerro and is also the main man behind the band Tracker aka John Askew, wrote a soundtrack to Blankets, this being the graphic novel written by Craig Thompson and so we were introduced to Craig from John and we have kind of kept in touch. We really think very highly of Craig. The concepts for the album's artwork for this LP seemed like it would lend itself well to his type of talent so we called him up and asked him if we would be open to doing some work for us. I thought that he may spend a couple days on it and he spent a month or two on it and he blew us all away with how hard he worked and how brilliant he is. We are just very very very humbled that he worked with us and that he did what he did. If the finished product is anything like the markup, we are very lucky to have had the chance to work with him. Basically Menomena loves Craig Thompson.
It is nice that you guys are all supporting each other in the art community out there.
Yeah, I told Craig that if he ever needs somebody to write him a piece of music that I would gladly volunteer my time. His work for this album is so far beyond anything that I ever imagined. When you see it, you will know what I mean.
I just see such a growth between this album and your last proper pop album. Did you guys approach this album much more differently than Fun Blame?
We were trying to grow as musicians and recording artists. so we were trying to challenge ourselves. We also found ourselves with much more on our minds, on our hearts, and our shoulders. I think there was a lot more for us to say. One of the biggest differences between this album and the debut is the amount of singing, and the lyrics are much more open and frequent this time around, and the debut was a bit more minimal. I think that was a reflection of where we were at in our lives, the issues that we were facing and the problems that we were going through. We definitely approached it quite differently. We also almost knew what we were doing this time. On the debut we hardly knew how to use Deeler or Pro Tools. I actually opened up an old session and I saw all these no-no's we were trying in terms of settings and rules of thumbs for using Pro Tools and we basically broke all of these rules because we didn't know any better. I don't know if that really answers your question.
No, I am not looking for anything in particular. I think this album properly addresses some issues about growing up and choosing a path to take yet always seeming to say to yourself, "Well you never really know." But I like how this album just promotes persistence, an encouragement to put a smile on your face and give it all you got. I am listening to this album and it has really been getting me through some tough days.
That is really great of you to say. I think a lot of this album was dealing with grappling with trust and the idea about what should one do with one's life. And it really means something to hear you say something like that because that is really all we are trying to do...