By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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From the perspective of a casual observer, it would be all too easy to label the members of Menomena as miserablists. The group's mixture of reverb-laden piano, woodwinds, crashing drums and pretty much every keyboard voice and stringed instrument in existence has always cohered into a solemn, ornate sound that projects a distinct air of seriousness. But when infighting turned the Portland art-rock trio into a duo after multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf quit, Menomena responded by making its most personal, weightiest album yet in Moms. The long-player focuses on drummer Danny Seim's relationship with his mother, who passed away when he was seventeen, and bassist/saxophonist/guitarist Justin Harris' reaction to his father's abandonment of his family.
But Menomena's energetic concerts, silly videos and self-deprecating Twitter feed quickly erase any dour image one might have of the band. While they continue to take their music down darker roads, Seim and Harris have said in numerous interviews that the experience of being in Menomena is much better now. It shows. Whereas Moms' otherwise solid predecessor Mines felt labored and occasionally overstuffed, Moms is sharp and propulsive. Menomena still piles on overdubs with an arsenal of instruments, but instead of swirling into a beautiful cacophony, each layer works together to push the songs forward. We battled through scheduling difficulties and bad reception to speak to Seim about the tweak in his band's sound, its fluctuating live lineup and Radiohead.
Bob McMahon: How have audiences been responding to the songs from Moms in your most recent shows?
Danny Seim: It's been good. It's been interesting. It's such a personal...it's kind of like forgetting to wear pants in a dream kind of thing, where you walk out and just hope that people aren't pointing and laughing too much. And there hasn't been a lot of pointing and laughing, so that's been nice. It's nice to see that people still will listen to us in any context I guess. We haven't fallen off the radar — people have been nice to us in the past — too much. So we're optimistic; we're happy.
Moms seems to be more straightforward and direct, both lyrically and musically. Other than Brent not being part of the process, did you approach writing the album differently?
There was definitely a [feeling of], "Is it going to just be the two of us? Should we have to do this? Can we do this?" and all these things. So, yeah, it was confounding that way, to just prove it to ourselves — if no one else — that we could still make music together. And we're still just as passionate about this. So that might have influenced the sound a little bit. I know we try really hard not to repeat ourselves from record to record. I'd like to think that regardless of the Brent thing and getting around it, I'd hope we'd still track as different as we could from the most recent album and the album before that. So that could also be part of a change, if we have any kind of sweeping changes of direction. It was going to be hard, I think, for either of us to make lyrics that are maybe on the more depressing or dark side without the music kind of getting a little more aggressive too as a result, so that could be part of it too.
One thing consistent in all of your work is the wide variety of instruments. How do you decide which instrument plays which melodies? And how do you work out arrangements and decide something like, "What this song needs is a dulcimer coda"?
I don't know. I think the way we record the stuff. I guess we don't approach a song like maybe a lot of bands do, whereas a human being comes out and writes a song, and then the rest of the band kind of learns it, and they all try to play it as best as possible when they're recording it. Justin and I write and record all the stuff simultaneously. These songs just kind of happen. And then we're just looking around the room we're in and picking out whatever instruments we have at hand to fill in the gap. I think the melodies are a little more interesting from certain sounds that maybe we haven't heard before in a Menomena song. I think we're both kind of seeing how much we can add, too. So sometimes a new instrument will dictate the sound of a song. Well, back in the early days, Justin just bought a saxophone on eBay, for example. And he was playing with it two weeks later. He had never played sax before, and so he was like, "Oh, now I'm a saxophone player." And the songs started to be more and more saxophone-based. Stuff like that just kind of happens. I mean, I don't think we try to perfect anything before we start recording with it. Maybe that's a bad thing, but it definitely makes for a lot of different noises.
We've gone through wow, geez, several different lineup changes over the last few years. There's so many musicians here in Portland, and they're in so many other bands. And a band with our kind of modest level, it's kind of impossible to keep people. We can't pay them when they're not touring with us, so we've just been going through whoever is available. Matt's still in the band. Paul has moved on to one of his other five bands. The other guy, Holcombe [Waller], who was on our last tour, is working on his own thing right now, so we hired another guy named Dave [Depper]. So it's just going to be Matt and Dave and Justin and I. Back to a four piece.
How does it work, as far as teaching touring members songs? Do you make them stick to the script, or do you want them to bring their character to the music?
Ideally, it'd be a combination of both. I don't know the first thing about reading or writing notes on a page. I can't read music. I'm just the most half-assed composer. I just kind of play things by ear and record it and hope I can make it sound good in the mix. It's difficult for me to train new people or show them the parts. Like, "Well, count to the seventh fret on the guitar and put your pointer finger here and then put your pinkie on whatever string that is..." It's really great when people like Matt and Dave can pick things up quickly, and they can also learn things by ear by just listening to the albums and trying to replicate it live. We always hope to be a little more loose or a little more "live" sounding. I get sometimes a little frustrated when bands are playing to prerecorded track things, 'cause I like a sloppy live rock show, you know? We try not to be sloppy, but we also try to be live.
Menomena generally tackles depressing subjects in its lyrics, yet you and Justin come off a lot more lighthearted in interviews/Twitter/stage banter. Is there a reason you two keep your sense of humor out of your music?
I blame Radiohead. Radiohead is, I'm sure for all of us, is one of our most formative influential bands that we both kind of grew up with and had all these amazing nineteen, twenties — well depending on your age — experiences band. Back in... the late '90s, early 2000s, I couldn't believe that music was this good. I just thought the music was amazing. But I don't think it's necessarily the face, but looking at the music video and trying to pick out, "Oh, that grumpy guy in the front, looking mad, he must be the singer. He's probably putting some dark stock in a lot of his dark lyrics. Looking with his bangs in his eyes, he just looks like the brooding guitarist." I mean, I hate to sound like an asshole picking on Radiohead. But I always just kind of thought it would be funny to have more depressing or serious music, and these guys that just look like idiots. I like that kind of contrast. I don't know. Let's see who else I can get on. [With a pompous vocal affectation] The Beatles are horrible, the Rolling Stones. No. I love all these people. I just thought it was just kind of funny how brooding everyone looked in the late '90s/early 2000s. I guess from early on we kind of wanted to maybe be what people don't expect us to look like. If there was a more interesting way to phrase it, I'd say it, obviously. But, no, it's not like some big professional conspiracy where I'm trying my best to be as stupid as I can. That's how I'm writing my mysterious music. It's more just our personalities coming out.