Menomena have always seemed like a happy-go-lucky bunch. With an arbitrarily-chosen band name reminiscent of The Muppets and lighthearted album titles like I Am The Fun Blame Monster!, the Portland band established itself early on as hard-working yet fun-loving. The band members worked tirelessly towards their success without sacrificing their artistic integrity; they employed DIY promotional methods and remained loyal to Pacific Northwest record labels when they probably could have gone to “bigger and better” ones. They took pleasure in simple projects, buffering their live shows with innovative ideas and devoting their second full-length as an instrumental accompaniment to an experimental dance performance. As Menomena constantly pushed the limits of what it meant to be a creative indie rock force, all pieces pointed to a well-functioning musical machine.

Fast-forward to nearly a decade since the band’s first live performance. During that time period, Menomena has released four albums and signed to three different Pacific Northwest labels. The band’s long-awaited fourth full-length, Mines, was released in mid-2010, more than three-and-a-half years since their previous release, Friend And Foe. On record, the time seems hardly to have made a difference. Menomena sound as united as ever, the same thoughtful songwriting and complexity one finds on their previous albums present on Mines.

A deeper look, though, reveals that the three musicians behind Menomena – Danny Seim, Brent Knopf, and Justin Harris – aren’t actually quite as compatible as they might seem. In fact, they’ve openly admitted that the creation of Mines was punctuated by countless soul-crushing arguments, and it seems remarkable that they were able to complete the album at all. Despite their obvious creative quirks, the members of Menomena are actually quite serious when dealing with one another; it seems the musical relationship they operate within is a gnarled one.

In their self-crafted statement for Mines, percussionist Danny Seim describes the creation of the album, saying, “Nothing holds up a process like an indispensable band member being both a perfectionist and a control freak. Especially when your band features three of these types. And we certainly haven’t gotten any more agreeable in our old age – quite the opposite. However, in the wake of brutal disagreements, unrelenting grudges and failed marriages (not to mention a world full of modern terrorism, natural disasters and economic collapse) somehow this band is still standing.”

Mines is the silver lining on a cloud that represents years of creative stagnation, difficulty, and compromise.


“… 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,” writes Seim. “We rerecorded, rebuilt, and ultimately resented each other.”

Through all of the negativity, though, the three members of Menomena have an underlying respect for one another as musicians. Menomena is, and has been, a band full of talented multi-instrumentalists and vocalists; the band lacks a central songwriter and has no rigid do’s or don’ts.

“We know each other’s sounds,” says keyboardist and guitarist Brent Knopf. “I happen to be a pretty big fan of Danny and Justin’s… I like what they do, and I think where our styles overlap and mesh, it kind of creates a kind of weird byproduct.”

But just as Seim, Knopf, and Harris have no clear rules on songwriting, they have no clear method for dispute resolution.

“With Menomena, we have three bus drivers all kind of trying to steer the ship. It makes it a complicated process for decision-making,” explains Knopf. “A lot of it is subtle things. Sometimes it’s through talking, I guess… Sometimes it’s with tacit approval; sometimes it’s just like, people not wanting anything to happen, so they never reply, so it never gets done.”

 

“On the positive side, you have three pretty passionate guys fighting for what they feel is best, and so far, I feel pretty good about what results from that process. It’s kind of a brutal process, but still. Ideally, whatever emerges and passes all three of our tests is hopefully something of substance.”
— Brent Knopf, Keyboardist and Guitarist of Menomena

 

Listen to “Five Little Rooms” – DOWNLOAD MP3

Luckily, there always seems to be an upside to the downsides Menomena faces.

“On the positive side, you have three pretty passionate guys fighting for what they feel is best, and so far, I feel pretty good about what results from that process,” Knopf admits. “It’s kind of a brutal process, but still. Ideally, whatever emerges and passes all three of our tests is hopefully something of substance.”

Mines may feature some of Menomena’s most introspective songs to date. After an arduous sequencing process, “Queen Black Acid” was ultimately chosen as the album opener. Lyrics like, “I made myself an open book/ I made myself a sitting duck…/ You barely notice what I say/ You’re busy looking round the room instead,” make the song almost painful to bear witness to; album closer, “INTIL”, shares similar heart-breaking sentiments, such as, “Times that I’m with you/ I’m really not myself/ Cause you don’t want the truth/ You want someone else.”

Yet, as personal as these songs are, the members of Menomena almost never discuss lyrical themes – which seems strange initially, but actually is quite natural when one remembers the band’s passive-aggressive process for settling disputes. Menomena might be able to overcome adversity on a musical level, but there’s no real need to bridge that gap on a personal level.

With three-and-a-half years between the releases of Friend And Foe and Mines, there was a point of great uncertainty on when, if ever, Mines would be completed.

“The pace at which the Menomena record was progressing… I didn’t know if it was going to be done in ten years, or five years, so I felt that I had time to go pursue another project,” explains Knopf. He took the extra time to work on his solo project, Ramona Falls, which hilariously felt more like a group effort to Knopf than Menomena has. Ramona Falls’ debut disc, Intuit, featured guest appearances from Portland staples, including Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Benjamin Weikel of The Helio Sequence, and members of the band Loch Lomond, to name a few.

“I actually had the chance to collaborate interests with thirty-five people,” says Knopf, regarding Intuit. “With Menomena, it’s much more each of us in our own bedrooms and basements or attics or whatever, recording alone… I might be forgetting some moments, but in terms of being in the same room while playing music and hitting the record button, I can only remember one or two times of that happening with me and Menomena [for Mines].”

At the very least, though, personal disagreements and a more than unusual songwriting process have not yet gotten in the way of Menomena’s goals and accomplishments as a band. For their upcoming live shows, Menomena will be enlisting the help of a friend — Joe Haege of the bands 31Knots and Tu Fawning – to help round out its sound. Guitarist Justin Harris organized a choir comprised of hometown musician friends during the release of Friend And Foe, and he is conjuring up similarly innovative ideas to help buffer the Mines tour. Music videos are also in the works, as well as releases for some of the B-sides which never made it onto the latest disc.

There is something to be said about Menomena as it is now. One would have very little idea that Menomena is as dysfunctional as it is, had its members not been so open about it themselves. Mines is quite a feat in that regard; it is pretty remarkable that the trio have been able to power through their differences to create a truly cohesive album. And despite all of their negativity, it seems like the members of Menomena have pulled through with a grudgingly sunny outlook.

“As usual, the end somehow justifies the means,” Seim admits. “It’s done, and it’s the best record we could make at this time in our lives.”

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