Digital indie whizzes Menomena refine their complex craft on Mines

Oct 6, 2010 at 4:00 am
Digital indie whizzes Menomena refine their complex craft on Mines
Alicia Rose

Menomena does not lend itself to clean-cut description. Journalists stumble over phrases such as "schizophrenic art punk" or "epileptic pop collages" to describe the Portland, Oregon, group — before they simply settle on "indie rock," as if checking the none-of-the-above box on a census form.

The members of Menomena themselves have difficulty putting their creations into words. In fact, drummer/vocalist Danny Seim says that his inability to explain his own band led to a comical experience during a recent oil change in Boulder, Colorado. "We were trying to sweet talk the oil operator into giving us a discount," he says, via telephone. "The guy asks what we sound like and none of us wanted to answer, so our tour manager and sound guy Jake says, 'They're kind of like modern rock. They tend to vamp on a few jams and play some guitar hooks. The drummer has a bunch of percussion toys and they're really into reggae.'

"Everything Jake said was true," Seim recalls, laughing. "But this guy changing our oil in Boulder probably thinks we're some jam band."

One wouldn't make that assumption after listening to Menomena's third full-length, Mines. Whereas jam bands embrace the incidental on their albums, Mines is a highly structured piece of work crafted with the utmost attention to the most miniscule of details.

"We're definitely obsessive about recording and getting more obsessive each album," Seim says. "Doing it ourselves, there are so many options — almost too many options, really. But now, music is moving so quickly. Bands make a record in their apartment and it's on iTunes the next day. We took three and a half years between records; we're dinosaurs now."

The band's slow pace between albums can be attributed to its unusual and highly democratic songwriting process. The trio records short improvised phrases into a computer program developed by band member Brent Knopf. The DIY software named Deeler (short for Digital Loop Recorder) allows Menomena to document its spontaneous nuggets and piece them together at a later date. Seim, Knopf and multi-instrumentalist Justin Harris then spend months cutting and pasting the phrases into complete songs, an arduous process which gives each Menomena track the hyper-focused quality of a ransom note.

Menomena's improvisational techniques appeared most untainted on the hypnotic jams of its scrappy 2003 debut, I Am the Fun Blame Monster! "In the beginning we had no idea what we were doing as far as getting sounds into a computer," Seim says. "We were duct taping microphones to folding chairs and placing them haphazardly near the instruments with hopes that they didn't distort — if they did, we'd have to try to make the distortion sound intentional. We were really just airbrushing these bare-bones recorded sounds to make them sound bigger."

The band's masterful follow-up, 2007's Friend and Foe, showcased an expanded sonic palette and exponential compositional growth. The Deeler loops which dominated Blame Monster! became springboards to dynamic pop songs. But Mines furthers Friend's move toward a more organic Menomena. Linear opening cut "Queen Black Acid" trots patiently between a tranquil lullaby and a disarming fireworks display. "TAOS" flirts with psychedelic garage rock while Seim explores the percussive territory between the Who's Keith Moon and the Muppets' drummer, Animal. Theatrical orchestration and one mean pair of maracas give a spaghetti-Western edge to the Metallica-referencing "Killemall," while a clever modulation transforms "Dirty Cartoons" from a lethargic pity party to a hand-clapping gospel hymn as a choir joins the band in the refrain, "I'd like to go home."

Seim admits to being slightly freaked by Mines' dense arrangements. "We didn't think about the feasibility of playing these songs live, and we got a little carried away," he says.

To ease the live burden, Menomena employed guitarist Joe Haege from fellow Portland band 31Knots as a touring member. "Having Joe along really preserves the spirit of the songs," Seim says. "There's human energy onstage rather than pre-recorded energy. There's always going to be some nuance of our records left out, so hopefully we can just muscle through it with volume and intensity."

Seim's doubts are little more than self-deprecation; the band's 2007 appearance at Saint Louis University's Billiken Club was nothing short of transcendent. Still performing as a trio, Menomena compensated for its personnel limitations with extreme multitasking. Brent Knopf manned an intimidating keyboard rig with a Fender Telecaster hung around his neck. Justin Harris played musical chairs between bass, guitar and baritone saxophone — all while triggering additional sounds with a foot-controlled Moog organ. Danny Seim supplemented his drum kit with a plethora of noisemakers, juggling shakers and bells without allowing a single beat to fall to his feet.

All three Menomena members share vocal duties, adding to the difficulty of the trio's performances and allowing the multiple personalities to shine: Knopf with his earnest tenor, the versatile yelps of Harris and Seim's low-octave crooning.

Mines' vocal variety reflects the individual members' creative methods. "I'm kind of a quantity-over-quality guy who would rather write twenty songs and hope four make it on the album," Seim says. "On the other hand, Justin [Harris] only wrote six songs since Friend and Foe, and four of them made it onto Mines. We all work at different speeds."

Not surprisingly, the dissonance between approaches leads to occasional conflicts. Danny Seim sheds light on the Menomena drama via the Mines press bio: "...just when a song became familiar to one of us, the other two members broke it apart again, breaking each others' hearts along the way," he wrote. "We rerecorded, rebuilt, and ultimately resented each other. And believe it or not, we're all proud of the results."

Seim explains, "We hate writing these bios, like when the album comes out and we have to write a sheet about how deep the lyrics are and how we're approaching Radiohead territory with this one. I tried to write something honest about the process, which I'm sort of kicking myself about now. We did hate each other for a bit, but I've really learned to trust and respect [Brent and Justin's] process. Now we're sharing a tiny van; we do like each other a great deal."

After all the chaos and heartbreak, Mines signals validation for Seim and the labor-intensive aesthetic which defines Menomena. "As long as the end justifies the means, we'll keep operating like we always have," he says. "We'll keep taking our time and noodling with our music as long as we need. But when we're all 40 years old and homeless, I don't know if that's a very good argument anymore.

"Hopefully, we'll have another record done by then."