Albums are like amusement park snapshots, a still stolen from life in motion. With its new release, Moms, Portland, Ore., art-pop act Menomena sports a more pleasant countenance than the tortured scowl that accompanied 2010's Mines.
Call it addition by subtraction. Co-founding multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf jumped ship in January 2011 and remaining members Danny Seim and Justin Harris discovered communication was easier with one less voice. That manifests on their new album, which is the most focused, easily engaging and personal album to date.
Past albums explored rather spastic, high-contrast, sample-laden baroque pop reminiscent of The Beta Band and were prone to sudden shifts of tempo, volume or tone like a heavily spliced video sequence. The new disc feels more like a long tracking shot, indulging a smoother, atmospheric vibe born of Pink Floyd's Meddle and lonely highway drives.
"We wanted to capture those feelings when we were taking a lot of these long drives," Seim said. "Where we would put the record on and drive on this straight road for 400 miles. Music that kind of fills into the landscape."
By far the biggest difference in this album is in the lyrics which became a focus for the first time, and sort of dictated the project. Seim was struggling through a divorce and the realization that he'd lived as long without his mother alive as with her. In fact, she died at his age.
When he showed Harris the lyrics he'd been working on--many of which concern her--Harris was drawn to examine his own familial relations. In particular, Harris focused on his single mom and his absent father, with whom he reconciled during the course of this project.
When Boise Weekly spoke with Seim, he was at the San Antonio ranch of Harris' formerly estranged father, explaining how he got to know Harris and his mother after his own mom passed.
"[My mom] died the summer after my junior year of high school. That's when I got more into music and throwing myself into this art stuff--just to forget about that whole thing and move on," Seim explained. "That's also when I met Justin and Diane, his mom. She's kind of been a surrogate this whole time. Just the most supportive woman on the planet.
"That's one good thing about Justin and I, we knew each other before we knew each other musically," Seim continued. "So we had a little more of a foundation to draw on. If the music fails, we'd still be friends on the other side of this because we have that past."
Menomena formed just after the millennium and developed a unique manner of working, which diffused responsibility for the music among them. Loops were created individually to the click track of a digital looping program, which allowed them to collectively work on the same piece separately, constructing, deconstructing and rearranging its different instrumental tracks in solitude.
The process required them to painstakingly learn how to play the songs after they'd recorded the album. Such a non-linear songwriting strategy almost necessarily produced a surprising, ear-catching blend that was arty but strangely infectious. But by the time Mines came around, this convoluted process--which rarely had them writing in the same room--had devolved into bitter resentment.
"It became painfully obvious to us that something needed to change," said Seim. "We were putting [going into the studio] off as long as we could because we knew that, historically, it had been such a breeding ground for resentment.
Our label was saying, you have to do this again or people are going to forget about you. So like, 'OK, we'll try it,' and we tried to make it work and, of course, it sort of imploded."
They say if things could end nicely, they wouldn't end. Certainly Knopf's video breakup would qualify. The band had just finished a European tour supporting Mines, but Knopf hung back. When Seim and Harris got off the plane they found a video message in their email that Knopf had recorded on his laptop wishing them well because he was out of there. The band still had two more tours scheduled, including one of Australia. It didn't take five minutes of discussion for Harris and Seim to decide to forge on, even if their hearts weren't in the current tour anymore.
"We didn't want to let down our agents or the promoters," recalled Seim. "We kind of grudgingly went [to Australia] but the shows were amazing and we ended up really revitalized. 'Oh, we can still make this music.' When we got back to Portland, we were kind of on the high of being out there and seeing that people still care about us."
Writing proceeded relatively quickly, and the studio was a friendlier place minus one ego. The band discovered, by its very nature, different music emerges from a duo than a trio.
"In a three-member group, there is always going to be an odd man out when it all comes down to a vote," Seim said. "The really passionate guy may not see it the same as the other two, but may lose out in creative decisions. Now that everything is 50/50 there are a lot more deadlocked ties ... and the other guy is, 'You know what, I trust you at this point.'"
Chalk it up to maturity, something that didn't help the band survive as a trio, but bodes well for its future, which is very much on their minds.
"There is this thread to a lot of these songs. We are starting to become hyper-aware of our bodies falling apart, our hair thinning. Maybe we should stop smoking, not drink as much," Seim said. "We're both in our mid 30s now and I think it's more about getting something out there that we're happy with and proud of. I think we've succeeded more than we have in the past because I think in the past, we were maybe trying to make a grand artistic statement. Now we're just trying to release something that showcases a side of these two 35-year-old dudes."[ Video is no longer available. ]