The commonalities are all the more understandable when you get the two groups in a room together and see they also have the same sense of humor and favorite bands. Well before Menomena and the Helio Sequence were at the cutting edge of the Portland music scene, they were splitting bills together at intimate Portland venues. They grew up together. Both play this year’s MusicfestNW (the Helio Sequence for the 11th time since the festival’s origins as North by Northwest), and both sat down to talk with us about Portland, their new albums—the Helio Sequence’s Negotiations is out Sept. 11, Menomena’s Moms the following Tuesday—and each other.
WW: What are your all-time favorite Portland bands?
Brandon Summers of the Helio Sequence: Thirty Ought Six!
Benjamin Weikel of the Helio Sequence: One of the most inspiring things I ever saw was King Black Acid’s first show, or one of their first shows, at AIM Fest, under the Hawthorne Bridge.
Danny Seim of Menomena: I snuck my high-school girlfriend out of her parents’ house to go see the Dandy Warhols open for Oasis at the Roseland. But favorite bands? Maybe Thirty Ought Six or the Wipers. Everclear? See, these guys were cool. Justin and I were going to Dave Matthews Band concerts together.
Justin Harris of Menomena: I had a major Dave Matthews Band phase. How about another 30 band? Let’s go with 31Knots.
When did Helio start, 1999?
Summers: Actually it was 1996.
Weikel: But we couldn’t get a show in Portland until about ’98. You had to go to the club during the day, pound on the door, try to give them a tape. We never got any shows that way, but finally we had a few friends who hooked us up with Mt. Tabor [Theater]. So we opened up for bands there a few times.
Where was Menomena around this time?
Seim: I was working at a beauty-supply shipping place in Beaverton with Justin. I’d read all these Willamette Week articles about this band Helio Sequence, and they were these lads from Beaverton. We played the Blackbird, and we nervously invited [the Helio Sequence]. They were standing right in front of the stage with their girlfriends. No one else was standing. I was like, “Oh God, oh God, that’s them.” I was totally sweating through my underwear.
Harris: I was more intimidated by the beauty of [Brandon’s] hair than anything else. It was the perfect shape.
Summers: I was intimidated by the beauty of my own hair.
Seim: You looked like a hot woman.
Was there an intimidation factor, coming out of that really tight-knit community of bands like Heatmiser and Hazel and Pond?
Summers: It was actually really inspiring.
Weikel: They were all gone, though. The whole scene was really just a big mess. None of them really [knew us] until we played NXNW.
Summers: And the NXNW showcase was insane. The entire venue [Green Onion] was filled. I just remember being completely freaked out.
Wasn’t the Helio Sequence pretty heavily hyped early on?
Summers: Portland is so interesting in that way. A buzz can be so heavily generated within Portland and then it’s difficult for a band, because you’ve got this momentum going in Portland and when you try to step outside—we were like, “Now we need to go and play Seattle.” But no one in Seattle cared about Portland buzz. It was just like going out into the wilderness. That has probably changed. There was a period where there’d be like five people coming up to the merch table and saying, “I’m moving to Portland, man, where should I move?”
How do you feel about bands moving here like that?
Summers: Well, you could kind of feel that it was going to happen early on. [Journalists] would say, “Do you think Portland is the next Seattle?” There’s always been that hope. Maybe it’s an industry hope. But it essentially worked.
Weikel: Now bands ask us, “What do we do?” Play a show! And if people like it, maybe they’ll come to the next one.
Seim: We had zero aspirations when we started. Now Portland is seen as a springboard, because it’s so musically rich. I don’t remember ever looking at Portland that way. It was a great place to be. We’d get all these interview questions when we went overseas where people would say, “What do we do in Portland?” And I used to go to Voodoo Doughnut every night to get the bacon maple bar. I was so excited. So I’d say, “Go to Voodoo Doughnuts. It’s this weird, kinda wacky thing—the guys are maybe on meth, but it’s really good.” Now you go there and it’s...
Summers: Beaverton and Lake Oswego people.
I’ve heard both of your new albums referred to as transitional. I mean, for Menomena there’s this physical transition.
Harris: Going from male to female?
Seim: We’re just growing our hair out!
Summers: They all feel like transitional records to me, because we are always transitioning.
Weikel: But I think this was the first time we’ve hunkered down and made something that achieves the sound we were going for.
Summers: I had two kids from the point we started working on Keep Your Eyes Ahead until now. So I would watch them during the day and then come into the studio at night, so there’s some sort of a different reflective nighttime vibe. Which tied into Benjamin’s obsession with this downtempo, really minimal music he was getting into.
The new Menomena record is pretty heavy. It took me a few listens to start to digest.
Seim: I think this was the first time in our careers that we really tried to make the lyrics and vocals a real focal point. Not that they were pulled out of a hat in the past, but I think we tried harder to be vague. Muddying the waters to appear deep.
Harris: As you age, you get less self-conscious about things. For Danny and I, [recently] it hasn’t been embarrassing anymore to talk about lyrics or share lyrics. Writing songs has become less about being cool, and we’re getting more in touch with ourselves. That’s scary. It can go either way.
What was the scariest thing about Menomena losing Brent Knopf?
Seim: I have an infinite amount of respect Brent’s talent, and I had learned to use both Justin and Brent as these great sounding boards. And I’m not gonna lie and say I haven’t missed him for a second, but I’m really happy that the dynamic between the two of us works. I’ve learned to trust Justin more. We have these long debates about what a part will be like, but the person who feels the strongest wins. When we were a trio, two people could band together and outvote the other. We felt good because we were compromising, but by compromising it kind of did water it down, because the guy who felt super-passionate lost.
So, I rarely believe it when an artist says they make music for themselves.
Seim: Bands write albums for themselves, but they only do it twice. You do it at the very beginning of your career and at the very end, when you sell 10 billion albums and you don’t care anymore.
Harris: I think we all know when we’re onto something, and it’s when it excites you. That doesn’t mean it’s going to excite everyone else. Isaac [Brock] probably says this the best: “I’ll smell my farts all day long—and I love them.” That’s what we all do.
Summers: When you make a great song, you get the same feeling you had at 14. All of a sudden the whole world is amazing; the rest of the day, if you leave the studio, is like, “Man, that’s great.”
Harris: You wake up in the morning with your own song stuck in your head.
What’s the secret to a good band marriage?
Harris: Don’t ask us!
Seim: Threesomes don’t work.
Weikel: Don’t join Modest Mouse.
Harris: I feel like it’s important to realize that, as with any marriage, there are going to be peaks and valleys. Danny and I have known each other for 20 years. [In mom voice:] We’ve seen our share.
Weikel: The shit I must do that must just drive [Brandon] fucking bonkers.
Summers: And vice versa. But first and foremost, we are friends, before being in a band.
Harris: Or you just get extremely passive-aggressive and isolate yourself from the group.
Seim: When the group is two people?
Benjamin, you look like the happiest man on earth when you are drumming.
Weikel: People say that. I don’t know, I just have so much to get out.
Seim: I do too; it happens just before the set. I have learned to combat the nerves with substances, but I don’t want to get into that, so it’s just massive diarrhea. But if I feel horrible about something, it’s because it’s important.
Weikel: Something must be wrong to feel the need to get that much out night after night. I have something to get off my chest. And it probably is blissful in a way, just to express and unload it. There are Portland shows where I literally feel like, “If I died tonight, I’d be totally fine.”
Harris: My No. 1 recurring anxiety dream is that we’re setting up for a show and it takes like three hours. Probably because that actually happens to us, and I don’t want it to happen again. But I like playing in Portland. I feel more comfortable here than anywhere. There are so many friends and family, I feel like I can screw up and everyone will still love me. But I get nervous in intimate settings. I can play a festival in front of thousands of people and I’m fine, but going to sing karaoke terrifies me. I hate karaoke.
Summers: It’s a lifting thing. Sometimes you have to lift the crowd, and sometimes they lift you. That can be such an amazing feeling.
SEE IT: On Friday, Sept. 7, Menomena plays Pioneer Courthouse Square at 6:30 pm and the Helio Sequence plays the Crystal Ballroom at 11 pm. Both shows are all ages. See musicfestnw.com for details.