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September 8th, 2010 MICHAEL MANNHEIMER | Music Stories
 

Everyone Loves Menomena... Except Menomena

Why doesn’t Portland’s best band get along?

MenomenaAlicia J. Rose Photography
     
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IMAGE: Ben Moon

Brent Knopf is hiding the truth. His deep blue eyes, covered slightly by curly brown hair, dart to the side, looking for something to play with. He fidgets in his seat, nervously taps on the table and checks his iPhone. And his voice—so giddy and confident when he sings, like an excited toddler opening a birthday present—is thick and muddled.

Knopf is doing this as he explains that everything is OK with his band, Menomena.

Menomena may be Portland’s most important band, but it’s also the most dysfunctional.

The band members are barely on speaking terms. Knopf, who plays piano, synthesizer and guitar, doesn’t talk to bassist Justin Harris unless he has to. The band’s brand new album, Mines, took 3 1/2 years to complete, and was mostly written by all three members individually and then finished via email. It recently added a fourth touring member, Joe Haege of Tu Fawning and 31Knots, to flesh out its songs onstage—and to help morale. And in June, the group hired its first manager and “group mediator,” Ami Spishock—who also works with Brooklyn experimental-pop band Grizzly Bear.

Yet despite their problems, or perhaps because of them, Knopf and bandmates Harris and Danny Seim are becoming the closest thing Portland has to Radiohead—a group that pushes the boundaries of both its sound and its sanity on every record.

In August, the trio made its national television debut, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. The band’s last record, Friend and Foe, was an underground hit, selling 50,000 copies to date—a strong number in a decade when album sales have declined an average of 8 percent each year. Indie-music website Pitchfork gave the album “Best New Music” honors.

“I think they are unusually creative for a rock band,” says music critic Joe Tangari, a senior contributor at Pitchfork. “They don’t just give you the jam—they cut the jam up, and then assemble it into something even more interesting. It’s become one of the most signature sounds in indie rock.”

Menomena kicks off a national tour with a performance at MusicfestNW on Saturday, Sept. 11, at the Crystal Ballroom, showcasing Mines, a CD that manages to make depressing songs about failed relationships and growing old sound triumphant. The band is taking a huge leap of faith, headlining venues that, in some cities, are twice as big as it’s ever played before.

“It’s hard not to put a lot of pressure on this tour,” Seim says. “There’s so much riding on us, and it’s a total make-or-break opportunity. If this were the Oregon Trail game, we’d be on meager rations right now.”

Menomena could hit the road and come back as local heroes. Or it could implode in the process.

“After a decade you’d think we would learn to fix our problems.” Seim says. “But maybe those problems are what make us tick.”


BRENT KNOPF (left) DANNY SEIM (center) JUSTIN HARRIS (right). IMAGE: Alicia J. Rose Photography

Danny Seim lives in a house that looks just like him. Tall and skinny, the two-story North Portland residence has no trees to block the burnt-orange 1978 Ford Ranchero parked in the driveway and a patch of dying grass that could easily fit another small house. Seim looks imposing (he’s listed at 6-foot-8 on his driver’s license) waiting at the front door, barefoot and tan in cutoffs and a frayed Gang of Four T-shirt.

Seim, 33, is gracious and self-deprecating, joking about hitting his head on the ceiling and speaking in a dopey voice that’s a combination of band-camp nerd and aloof stoner while introducing the band’s official mascot: Geddy Lee, a 9-year-old pug that can’t seem to find a comfortable place to sleep in the heat.

“Geddy was our de facto manager for our first nine years of existence,” Seim says. “We finally realized that bringing someone else into the fold might help the three of us get back to some sort of communication level with each other. Geddy tries to help, but she just ends up farting a lot.”

The hostility mostly stems from an inability to communicate. All three members are wired differently: Seim, though willing to drop a well-timed joke, is mostly passive-aggressive; Harris is the opposite, always speaking his mind; and Knopf is somewhere in the middle, quiet but obviously hurt that the band’s personality differences put the completion of Mines in jeopardy.

“The ways in which their personalities clash is astounding in a way I can really only laugh about,” says Josh Rosenfeld, co-founder of Barsuk Records, the label responsible for the last two Menomena releases. “It definitely occurred to me several times over the last few years that maybe they wouldn’t finish making this record.”

The band’s tension flows into its music because it operates differently than most—there is no lead singer, main songwriter or figurehead. Mines is laid out democratically: Each member gets roughly the same amount of space on the record. The band’s music is experimental but oddly catchy, combining big, anthemic choruses that are as catchy as the Shins while pushing sonic boundaries like Greg Sage’s Wipers. All three members write their own songs, sing and play multiple instruments, both onstage and in the studio. They all contribute to each other’s material, making it hard to determine exactly who is steering the ship on any given track. Still, having no clear-cut leader leads to bitter fights and indecision. “It’s always been a struggle for us, even back on [first album] I Am the Fun Blame Monster!, ” Harris says. “There’s a lot of built-in resentment that’s never been resolved.”


CHRISTIAN ROCK: Bede—with Harris and Seim on the left—playing live in 1996. Image courtesy of Danny Seim.

Growing up in Hawaii, Seim never really thought about playing music until his father took an innocent seventh-grader who liked DC Talk and Amy Grant to see Christian heavy-metal band Stryper—the moment when he realized a drummer, in this case Stryper’s Robert Sweet, could dominate a show. Seim carries a similar presence onstage, hunkering over his set like a giant playing on a toy Fisher Price kit.

Seim played one of his first shows in 1996 in a tiny basement venue called the Push, then located at the Arleta Baptist Church on Southeast Foster Road. The Push was the epicenter’s of Portland’s small but influential all-ages Christian music scene. Run by promoter Todd Fadel, the Push was the house venue for Tooth & Nail records, a Christian rock label based out of Seattle and home to both Underoath and MxPx.

The Push is where Seim created his first zine, Family Fun (notorious for giving Live’s Throwing Copper a 9-out-of-10 review), and where he played with a grunge band called Bede. It’s also the place where a 17-year-old Knopf visited one night and met his future bandmates.

Bede—named after Catholic historian the Venerable Bede—featured a skinny Seim in front of the mic and Harris, who went to Lake Oswego’s Westside Christian High School with Seim, on bass guitar.

“Our influences then,” says Harris, “were all over the map—the one record we recorded would start off with a Pearl Jam or Soundgarden ripoff and then go into a Dave Matthews Band ripoff.”

By all accounts, Bede sucked. Harris barely knew how to play the bass, and Seim was more of a mumbling teenager than a strong frontman. “I secretly hated it and always envied [the person] hiding behind the drums,” he says.

After the show, Knopf—whose mother, Bonnie, is a well-known Christian vocalist—introduced himself to Seim. A few days later the two met at Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, and Knopf played a rewritten version of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Thirty-Three” that he had composed on piano.

“I thought he was amazing,” Seim says looking back on the encounter. “The only piano playing I had ever heard at that time was my older sister playing Amy Grant over and over again.”

Knopf soon left for Dartmouth, but the three stayed in touch, and when Knopf came home for winter break the trio met up at his parents’ house in Troutdale to record their first track together, a song about nightmares called “Loomer.”

“It was the best creative thing I had ever been involved with in my life,” Seim says.

In 2001, Menomena made its live debut at Fadel’s new club, Meow Meow, opening with the very secular and trippy song “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” by the Flaming Lips. Ten years later, Menomena is on nearly the same level as the Lips—but has all the heartache been worth it?


TIGHT CORNERS: Fans lined up to see Menomena play an in-store at Music Millennium in July. IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com

For the past three years, artist Dorie Vollum’s sprawling Northwest Portland property, located above the city on Skyline Boulevard, has served as Menomena’s practice space. Dorie is the daughter-in-law of the late philanthropist Jean Vollum, whose husband, Howard, was the co-founder of measurement-equipment company Tektronix, and Dorie is something of a mother figure to the group. To get there you travel up a dirt road, through shrubs and bamboo trees and across a small pond, eventually passing the remains of the late artist Frederic Littman’s statue Mother and Child, which also serves as Mines’ cover art.

It’s also where Harris currently lives. It’s hard to call his pad a house, because technically it’s one giant room, with ceilings nearly 30 feet high and an indoor basketball hoop. The “organ room,” as Harris calls it, used to house just that: a massive Wurlitzer that was disassembled and moved from Oakland’s Paramount Theatre after it closed as a movie venue in 1970.

“I recorded all the reverb naturally in the walls of this place,” Harris says, showing me the concrete rooms tucked away behind where the organ used to rest. “You can’t get a plug-in to do that.”

The 33-year-old Harris is a sound nerd. It’s one of the reasons why he’s the band’s slowest-working member—though four tracks he wrote made Mines’ final cut, he says he’s only written six songs total since Friend and Foe.

Listening to Mines, it’s clear the past few years have been rough on the band. Both Seim and Knopf struggled through divorces, and Harris says he saw a therapist for the first time. Mines opens with Harris’ “Queen Black Acid,” a leisurely paced slow-burner that’s the most devastating song in the band’s catalog. “You’re 5-foot-5, not 100 pounds,” Harris sings, pausing a measure to catch his breath. “I’m scared to death of every single ounce.” The song’s chorus is similarly heartbreaking: “You bring me down/ So down.”

During the making of Menomena’s first album, 2003’s I Am the Fun Blame Monster!, lyrics were often an afterthought to a complicated rhythm pattern. But as the band grew and matured, words have become the centerpiece of its recording process. “Early on, I think all three of us were really embarrassed by our voices,” Harris admits. “Now I look at it the other way—if you’re going to have words, it has to have some meaning, because it becomes the only real intelligent connection between a human being and a song.”


A BAND APART: Knopf, Haege and Harris at Music Millennium. IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com

Backstage at the Gerding Theater at the Armory in late August, everything is calm on the Menomena front. The band plays two songs from Mines—Knopf’s “Killemall” and Seim’s moody “Five Little Rooms”—for a taped performance of the Live Wire! radio variety show.

When the band plays together, all three members multitask: Seim simultaneously beats the shit out of his kit while also singing on key; Harris plays bass and saxophone while controlling loops with various pedals at his feet, and Knopf switches between keyboard and guitar while triggering MIDI samples from his laptop. Menomena plays with no prerecorded click tracks, meaning everything you hear is being strummed or hit or triggered live onstage.

“Whatever disputes they may have, they’re able to put everything aside onstage and really lock into this groove,” says Haege after the performance.

Still, that doesn’t mean the three members are getting along; in fact, they spend as little time as possible together, preferring to socialize with various production assistants or wander the halls of the theater alone. Harris arrives with his girlfriend, Abbie, and two friends, watching Brooklyn’s Reggie Watts perform character impersonations and improvised beatbox sketches from the side of the stage. Seim, fitted in a tie and untucked dress shirt, looks distant and disheveled, sitting cross-legged in the green room with his shoes off. And Knopf, as usual, keeps to himself, a pair of headphones on his ears.

“The animosity within the group—I hope at some point we can let it all go,” Harris says. “I don’t think we need to be brooding and at each other’s throats to make good music.”

Last summer, Knopf, frustrated with the progress of the new album, decided to release 11 of his own songs under the name Ramona Falls, whose debut, Intuit, features a handful of songs Knopf wrote for Menomena that were rejected by the band.

“I brought a lot of songs to the chopping block that were pretty fleshed out, including one I thought was the best song I’ve even written, and it didn’t make the album [Mines],” Knopf says. “It wasn’t a very enjoyable process.”

The 33-year-old is the most misunderstood member of the band. Clean-shaven and soft-spoken, he chooses his words carefully. When asked if he’s happy with Mines, his eyes again dart to the side. “Define the word ‘happy,’” he says.

He’s also the one enamored with the idea of branching away from the Menomena base. This spring Ramona Falls opened five West Coast dates for arty New York band the National, which Knopf says was the most enjoyable experience he’s ever had on tour. He gets excited when talking about both the help he received from friends (35 musicians contributed to the album) and a recording session he oversaw in South Africa for the indie-folk quartet Dear Reader.

Knowing this, it’s entirely possible to think this might be Menomena’s last album.

According to Pitchfork’s Tangari, Mines is Menomena’s transitional record. “The album has this very consistent atmosphere that allows the lyrics to fit into this narrative,” he says. “There is a series of phrases that pop up over it that give you the sense of a band growing old, to put it really simply. Of course, they’re not old yet—but growing into middle age is sometimes just as traumatic as growing old.”

“It’s easy to sustain a rock-’n’-roll fantasy in your 20s, but when you get to be 30 or so you start to reevaluate all these things,” Seim says. But although Knopf, Seim and Harris aren’t always on the same page—let alone in the same room—it’s clear that they share a special musical chemistry. The three all speak about keeping “the core” intact, knowing that the sum is better than its individual parts.

“I truly believe we’re at our strongest when the three of us are contributing equally,” Harris says.

Many of Portland’s finest musicians agree. Menomena is known as a band’s band and carries all sorts of admirers in town, from the Helio Sequence’s Benjamin Weikel—who took the band under his wing during its early days—to local songwriter and author Nick Jaina, who covered Friend and Foe’s “Rotten Hell” at a performance at City Hall in July.

“Menomena has consistently been my favorite band in Portland the last decade,” Jaina says. “At every moment of their songs, each member is doing something individually intriguing that also fits into the band context. Watching the band is like watching a magic act, and I’m always baffled at how they can pull off every trick.”

Most bands are lucky to release one critically acclaimed record; Menomena now has four. But is the band willing to endure numerous ugly spats to get to No. 5?

“We’re four albums into it and it’s not getting any better, so maybe this is just how we do it,” Harris says.

Knopf responds with a different sentiment. “It was important for us to see this record through,” he says. “But I don’t think any of us are that interested in doing this again if it’s for nothing.” This time, there’s no question he’s telling the truth.

The Menomena Cheat Sheet


I Am the Fun Blame Monster!
Self-released in 2003

Menomena’s wildly inventive first record—which features an intricate flipbook printed by Seim while he worked the graveyard shift at Kinko’s—is the band’s most experimental LP. Opener “Cough Coughing” is its most hip-hop moment, with a choppy beat looped to infinity.


Under an Hour
Released on FILMguerrero in 2005

Originally composed as the music for a 2004 Time-Based Art Festival performance by local dance troupe Monster Squad, Under an Hour features three long instrumental pieces (the shortest track is 17 minutes) written individually by the three band members.


Friend and Foe
Released on Barsuk in 2007

Menomena goes pop! Well, sort of: The same chopped-and-screwed sound of Fun Blame Monster! is intact, but this time in service of the band’s best melodies. “Wet and Rusting” is the closest thing the band has ever had to a hit.


Mines
Released on Barsuk in July 2010

Mines is the band’s most mature and confident work, a slow-burning record of immense beauty and pain. “Queen Black Acid” and penultimate track “Sleeping Beauty” hit you in the gut and the heart.


The band relies on a looping program called Deeler—created by Knopf when he was an undergraduate women’s-studies major at Dartmouth College—to build the blocks of sound that serve as the foundation for its experimental-pop songs. Instead of starting with a guitar lick or vocal melody, much of the band’s music stews from an unusual place—a saxophone blurt that’s been manipulated, say, or clips of Seim’s urgent, crashing percussion.

HEAR IT: Listen to an MP3 of “Five Little Rooms&rdquo from the band’s latest album, Minesright here.

SEE IT: Menomena plays Saturday, Sept. 11, at the Crystal Ballroom as part of Willamette Week’s MusicfestNW. Individual tickets can be purchased for $18 at the Crystal Ballroom or at Ticketswest.com.

 
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