March 18th, 2011 | by Nick Jaina Music | Posted In: Nick Jaina's Little Box of Lies

Nick Jaina's Little Box of Lies: A "Think Piece" About Menomena (i.e. a Way to Hang Out with Your Favorite Band and Not Have to Write Anything Down)

     
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The most helpful advice I've heard about show business and the people in power of that business is this: "No one is ever going to give you anything until you make money for them." Which is not only true, but sort of trumps any other complaint, argument, or grievance you might want to make about how you're currently being treated in the music business. Music venues, promoters, bookers and managers are not working pro bono. They are running businesses that need to make money in order to stay around, which doesn't make them evil or selfish people, it just makes them members of a capitalist society. Whether or not capitalism itself is a propagator of suffering and a beast that no one should ever blindly entrust with the humane treatment of its people is a debate for some other space. If you are a musician and you wonder why you don't get things that other musicians get, it's because you're not making someone money, or not making them enough money. The extent to which you're willing to alter the art that you're creating to change this situation is an issue which you can constantly debate in your head at every moment of your career, even in the supposedly primal moments when the mic is in your hand, the spotlight is twinkling, the audience is holding their breath and you think, "Should I do that thing that people like? Or should I do the thing I want to do right now?"

I first saw Menomena at MusicFest NW in Portland in 2003 when they played at the Fez Ballroom. I went to the show with my brother Matt and my friend Paul. The three of us were in a band called Binary Dolls, which started as a project that would allow me and my brother to work together and implement things like playing radios through the pickups of electric guitars, but still have real songs about Civil War submarines and the Siege of Leningrad. Seeing Menomena that night perform their magical act shifted everything in my musical life. Those shifts always come when watching someone joyously break rules you thought were unbreakable. "You can DO that? I didn't know that was possible!" Like being in prison for 10 years and watching an inmate suddenly just walk right through the doors. It greatly influenced the music we did with Binary Dolls, maybe too much.

I have seen Menomena maybe 10 times since then, and each experience has been more and more frustrating. Even as they've recorded brilliant albums, the fractured nature of the relationships in the band created a situation where three brilliant songwriters and performers were unwilling to play together cohesively, as a band should ideally do. More and more they looked like three solo performers that just happened to be performing at the same time on the same stage. The body language communicated a lack of trust and acceptance of each other. Watching them was like watching your parents argue. You loved them and wanted them to get along, because things would be so great if they did, but you were always wincing and squinting to picture the perfect family you so wanted.

Their songs have always been a strange balancing act of how much you can take away before the structure completely falls apart, a musical version of Jenga where blocks are removed and the tension is raised because of the gaps left behind and the awareness by the observer that everything could fall apart at any moment. On Menomena's albums this formula, to me, has worked almost always, because they can keep polishing every moment in the studio until it reaches that mixture of danger and stability that makes music exciting. At the live shows, I felt too often that one of the members was pulling a Jenga brick haphazardly and perhaps passive-aggressively from the bottom, leaving the whole structure swaying precariously.  (I just googled "Menomena" and "Jenga" and found a record review from the blog cokemachineglow.com in 2008 that said: "But the chance Menomena takes can be found in the Jenga-like way the band pulls notes and instruments out of the mix, and then piles new ones on." You can't find a original metaphor anymore.)

The last time I saw Menomena was in Denver last October, and I didn't actually get to see them play. I was starting a tour and they were ending one, and I rushed over to say hi before I had to play a set on the other side of town, and then met up with them afterwards at a bar. It was obvious that it was a band under a lot of strain. I think of them as being several rungs up the music business ladder from me (or rather they're actually on the ladder and I'm standing on the ground) so I was amazed that they were having the same troubles as me: attendance not going up from the previous tour like they had hoped, expectations being thwarted, expenses some times exceeding income. Danny mentioned playing a show in New York City one night to about a thousand people, and then playing in Rhode Island the very next night to about 20. It was comforting in a way to hear that a band that I think of as the height of artistic expression still had those bummer shows where the audience was literally 98 percent smaller than the night before.

Shortly after that tour, keyboardist Brent Knopf left the band. For most bands, you could lose a member and easily replace him or her with someone else who is just as competent at playing the parts. Menomena was different. They were a trio, they all had a strong songwriting voice, and the parts they added to each others songs where integral. You couldn't play a Danny song without including the part that Brent added to it. It wasn't the same as another band where you could just give someone the chord changes and have them sing harmonies. I assumed that losing Brent meant that the band was essentially over. It just wasn't acceptable with this band to alter the lineup.

But it's not reasonable to walk away from music you've spent a decade making, and so Menomena are of course carrying on. They've recruited my brother Matt and my friend Paul to play in the touring band, which if you knew Binary Dolls, you'd know is like the Beatles losing George Harrison and recruiting a couple members of Rain so they could still tour. And I mean that in a really great way. (Journalistic integrity requires full disclosure, so I have to say that of course Matt came from the same womb that I did, albeit three years earlier, and we grew up playing with Star Wars figures and Big Wheels like brothers do. This is supposed to make me unable to be objective about anything that he does.)

I'd been in New Orleans for a few weeks for several good reasons, one of which was to position myself to be able to see my old bandmates play with my favorite band. New Orleans is a fascinating study of the double-edged sword of tourism. Towns that rely on tourism allow visitors to dictate what is special about that town and demand, through their tourism and tour books, that the special thing never evolve or change in any way. (My friend Meghann is a bartender on Frenchman Street and she has an anecdote of a young college girl asking at the bar during Mardi Gras, "So, this is Frenchman Street? So, I'm just supposed to walk up and down?" As though tourism was something that you HAD to do, like a chore.) Bands dance along that same line, of trying to codify the specialness in them to make it repeatable, while trying to keep growing and evolving and staying alive. When you break through with something new and spontaneous that people respond to it's compelling to freeze that thing and not change it, for fear that the audience will move away and find something else. The difference between bands and towns, obviously, is that a band has to get into a van and drive to the tourists, while a town just stays there and lets the tourists come to it.

I went to the venue in New Orleans early, just after Menomena had finished soundcheck. They were all eating food that was catered by the venue. This was a big shock to me, leader of a band that runs around the country with a hobo mentality. I've played hundreds of shows in all types of places, and if a venue ever cared about feeding me it was no doubt by mistake, or because I happened to be playing with a band that was much bigger who was nice enough to let me gnaw on some chicken bones. Not only did this venue—which doesn't have a restaurant and so had to order the food themselves—not only provide this food, but they offered what is called a "buy-out" which is basically them giving each band member $15 with which to feed themselves, should the array of catered Italian options not suffice. Plus, the band's tour manager gives out an additional per diem of $15, so that everyone has their nutritional needs fully taken care of. (If this sounds like I went to a wedding and only noticed how nice the linens were, I apologize, but again I've been living a hobo existence. On a related note, are you going to eat the rest of that or just throw it away?)

I asked Paul what he thought of the life of a touring musician and he said that all in all it was "pretty easy." Menomena travels with a tour manager who is also the soundman and the driver, so he takes care of booking hotels, finding directions, deciding what time to leave a city, and any little problems that come up during the day, of which there are countless. If I had one of these people on any of my tours I would still have a stomach lining.

When Menomena took the stage I drank a High Life and watched from the wings, about two feet from Danny's sweaty back as his six-foot-eight wingspan cracked down on the snare drum. Now there were four people in this band instead of three. I'm not going to imply at all that Brent was the problem because that would be unfair, but certainly the change in lineup has allowed everyone to play for fun instead of out of spite. Justin looks back at Matt to count off the start of "Late Great Libido." Paul draws out the end of "Five Little Rooms" by trilling on the high piano keys while Danny stands up and crashes the cymbals. I never saw moments like this from this band before, and to me they are vital to making a band feel human, to know that those are people up there enjoying what they're doing. I wish that feeling could've happened with the original lineup, but short of that this was the next best thing. It made me happy for the current iteration of the band and fearful for the future. Everything seemed balanced again, a properly and soberly played Jenga match, but what would happen when the band wrote new songs? Could a band so defined by three distinctive songwriting voices exist with just two? Being happy for the present and afraid of the future is about the closest thing to comfort that we can get in a world where the earth waves can take away your city, so I'm okay with the compromise.

Again, like seeing your parents not get along, the previous version of the band was so full of tension that I found it hard to fully enjoy it. I wanted to hang on to the past, but now that it's done and the divorce has gone through, life seems better for everyone, even if it'll never be quite the same as before. Brent has his own wonderful band Ramona Falls, just like how Dad moved to Florida and is dating a really nice real estate broker, while Mom stays home and raises the kids while seeing Steve, who treats her well and is pretty cool and has a motorcycle. Things are different now. We can't go back.

Just like the first time I saw Menomena in 2003, the show made me inspired to work harder at all the things I do, to pay less attention to the rules, to not ask permission. I think that the thing that I most want from art is to remind me what I love about the world. I like what Michael Mannheimer wrote about the band in his Willamette Week cover story from last fall: "[Menomena are] the closest thing Portland has to Radiohead—a group that pushes the boundaries of both its sound and its sanity on every record." Apparently that sanity got pushed too far. There's only so long that you can live like that before it becomes untenable.

It made me think of a David Foster Wallace essay I had just read about a professional tennis player named Michael Joyce, who was at the time about the 85th best in the world, which meant that he had to play qualifying tournaments just to reach the real tournament. Wallace highlighted the disparity between the perks the top pros receive at the big tournaments, and the lack of any support for the next tier of players, who have to fly themselves to the matches, pay for their own hotels, and have no guaranteed money waiting for them. Wallace then reflects on the fact that he himself was a tennis player as a youth, playing and sometimes winning regional tournaments, and for a minute thought that he would maybe be able to ask Joyce to hit some balls together. Until he saw how fast and precisely Joyce played and got sad at the realization that he wasn't remotely in the same league of players who were not even the absolute best in the world:

"The craven game I spent so much of my youth perfecting would not work against these guys…I could not meaningfully exist on the same court with these obscure, hungry players. Nor could you. And it's not just a matter of talent or practice. There's something else."

What that something else is is hard to determine. I think it comes down to work. If you do the work, if you care enough about something to think about it all the time, to dream about it, to constantly try to get better at it, maybe you can make the big leagues. After New Orleans, I jumped in the van with the band and rode with them to Austin. On the drive to Houston I fell asleep and woke up at one point to see Paul—who is primarily a drummer and has had to drastically improve his piano skills to fill the role in this band—with a Midi keyboard and headphones, practicing scales, his hands moving synchronously up and down the keyboard. The hard work is never done.

As I write this, I'm at my friends' house in North Austin, watching their cat play with a lizard on the kitchen floor. The cat twists around like it's a game, batting at the creature, sometimes rolling over and crushing it until the lizard loses its wherewithal and the cat loses interest. I'm not saying this has anything to do with Menomena, it just interrupted my writing: the cat playing, not knowing its own strength, the lizard dying. Just a short, forgettable moment to the cat, but the end of life for the lizard. If the cat kept a diary, it probably wouldn't even make it into today's entry that he killed something. It wasn't an angry thing. You wouldn't say that the cat killed the lizard because he hated it. He was just playing around. Maybe it wasn't love either. Maybe just indifference.

 
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