With the release of Friend and Foe, Portland, Ore.-based trio Menomena, whose music is full of odd instrumentation, timing and vocalizations has become a living example of the saying, "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." Taken separately, the bits may seem strange. But together, the parts make a sound that is definitively Northwest indie, clever, artful and quite beautiful.
Menomena (rhymes with "phenomena") is guitarist, bassist and saxophone player Justin Harris, drummer Danny Seim and quirky, funny guitarist/keyboard player Brent Knopf (all three share vocal duties). Friend and Foe is the band's third full-length release—after I Am the Fun Blame Monster (an anagram of "The First Menomena Album") and Under an Hour, which is three 17-minute instrumentals.
BW caught up with Knopf just days after the band's European tour and, in spite of copious amounts of laughing, gleaned some insight into the band's music-making process.
How are things going?
Good. We released [Friend and Foe] in Europe and just got done with three weeks over there. We went to Germany, France, Brussels, England, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Italy.
Had you ever been over there before?
The band went over there for two weeks in July for a festival. I went over there after high school. I was going to be really efficient by not having to pay for hotels by only taking night trains. The idea was I would explore the city and then hop on a night train and sleep on the train.
That's rather brilliant.
It would have been if I'd been able to sleep on the trains. So, I was always kind of groggy. But it was good, although my friends were kind of disappointed that I wasn't more of a changed man. I came back and I was still the same guy.
You've been touring Friend and Foe since January. Are you working on something new and where are you musically right now?
There's always that push and pull between wanting to get back to the studio and wanting to do what makes sense for touring. For the last couple of days, we've been working on new music. Last night Danny, and [I] had a practice. [Justin's still in Europe]. I'm definitely in the mood to get working on new music. So, this will probably be the end of [touring], unless Creed gets back together and asks us to open for them. If that doesn't happen, we'll probably head back to the studio and do another tour in the spring.
What if just Scott Stapp asks you to open for him?
Um ... I will ask him if he could take me higher.
How does your writing process work? Are you writing new stuff when you're out on the road?
All of us have different itches. We're not really synchronized in that way. For example, Danny has already finished a solo album. He's probably done over a half-dozen solo albums under the moniker Lackthereof. He's so prolific. [And] I'm constantly writing. I have hundreds of songs, but I'm too much of a wimp to commit to recording them once and for all. I'm always on like draft No. 5. And then there's Justin, who's much more mysterious, so every once in a while, when the planets are in alignment, we actually do record together. I wish that were more often the case on the road.
We usually get together and do what's called a Deeler session [according to their bio, Deeler is a "computer program that Brent wrote in Max/MSP. The result of a Deeler Session is a bunch of loop files that work together in some way. Later these loop files are often arranged into Menomena songs, with vocals usually added later in the process, and instrumental parts often being rerecorded."] That's how we get things started. But then there's all the arranging. [Being on the road] is not conducive to doing that. Maybe we can borrow Timbaland's studio bus.
Oh, I'm sure you could call him and say, "Hey, we're brothers in this industry. Can we borrow your bus?"
Yeah. I'll get his number from Nelly. Timbaland rides in a fricking studio bus that's a full-on soundproofed studio.
Where does all his money come from?
Well, when you bring sexy back ...
In other words, it's my egocentric, self-analytic way of being really depressed about the fact we don't write when we're on the road.
When you write, does one of you bring something to the table and then get approval from the other two?
In the initial sessions, we all add ideas into the mix. Then one of us will take that and go off alone and arrange the song and add lyrics and melody and come back and see what everyone else thinks. That can be excruciating. For example, the song "Wet and Rusting" got a big "no" initially. I had to keep pushing and pushing. I kept saying, "If you don't like it, just change it." I really believed in that song. Then once we throw away the crap and put something more interesting there, then it becomes more collaborative again, culminating in the mixing process where we're all in it together. We all write and arrange in almost equal proportions. We all pull our own weight.
Do you make music you would listen to?
I hope so. I've joked before that people who listen to Menomena have much more sophisticated tastes than we do.
Is there anything that inspires you musically or lyrically?
All of us would have a different answer. What inspires me is chocolate. But what I tend to write about are puzzles that I can't figure out ... I'm stuck between two choices I don't like and I'm trying to work my way around it. Or sometimes there's a situation where there's one thing over here and one thing over there and they don't seem to have anything to do with each other, but there are these bizarre parallels that converge in a weird way in a song.
What do you listen to when you're on the road?
It depends. While we were in Europe, we listened to R. Kelly's "Trapped in a Closet."
No you didn't.
I'm totally serious. Justin would download every episode from YouTube.com and we would spend the drives watching it. I can't tell you how annoying it was [listening to R. Kelly]. We basically spent the first two weeks in Europe waking up to R. Kelly stuck in my head. Every single morning. We took a break from it, and I finally got it out of my head, and then our friend, Craig Thompson—who did the [album] artwork—joined us over there and Justin was like, "Oh Craig, you've got to see all of this." So it was back in my head.
Do you want to add anything specifically for people in Boise?
Just that I believe Larry Craig and I support him. Here's my idea: I'm too lazy to actually do this, but I really want someone to do a re-enactment of Larry Craig in the stall and synchronize it to Brian Eno's Music for Airports.
Oct. 26, 8 p.m. $8 at Ticketweb.com. Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St., 208-343-0886