The Modern Music of Menomena
(Originally published in PDX Magazine in December, 2005)
How to create music for modern dance, and start a feud with the Dandy Warhols.
I’m sitting with Justin Harris and Danny Seim, rhythm section of the Portland band Menomena, in a small car on SW Oak Street. Our conversation has steamed up the windows, and it’s probably pretty hard to tell what we’re up to.
It’s hard to tell exactly what Menomena are up to as well, and that’s just the way they like it. They’ve released two very different albums thanks in part to their very open-ended songwriting approach. “We would hate to get pigeonholed in any one direction, we don’t rule anything out” says Seim. Mix that with a sense of humor – “we should start a feud with the Dandy Warhols,” – and what they’ll do next is anybodies guess.
Their 2003 album, “I Am The Fun Blame Monster” an anagram of “the first Menomena album,” showed them as a rock trio with some melodic pop sensibilities and a penchant for experimentation. The album is a diverse and moody blend of textures made primarily with vocals, piano, bass and drums, but accented with great effect by guitar, baritone sax, glockenspiel, loops and other textures. It’s anchored with tight rhythms that could hold their own in a hip-hop song. Their logical next step might be to follow up with a similar album, especially after the success of Monster, which got them excellent reviews, plenty of local support, an opening slot for part of the Gang of Four reunion tour and a co-headlining tour with Chicago’s Pit er Pat.
Instead they released Under an Hour. The album was originally composed as a live soundtrack for the Monster Squad dance troupe’s 2004 TBA festival performance of the same name, then re-recorded in their home studio. The three tracks clock in at just under an hour and are long repetitive motifs using much the same instrumentation as Monster. The highlight is the closer “Light,” in which Seim’s big drumbeat drives things more aggressively. “It’s a lot different from anything we’ve ever done before, it depends on who you ask if it’s a departure,” says Seim. This album may confuse and turn off some fans, but also reinforces the fact that these are three talented guys capable of creating great music for diverse settings. At the very least, it’s good music for modern dance.
Their unique sound stems from their songwriting approach. They create their music by collectively improvising and building off each other’s ideas that are captured with the help of Deeler, a software tool created by vocalist/keyboardist Brent Knopf. This organic song building process takes more time than having a pre-planned sound or songs. “If we did sit down and plan it out, our third album would probably be finished,” says Harris. “Maybe we’ll get our hairstyles first, then work on the music and see what happens,” says Seim. “Actually that would be an interesting concept album,” adds Harris, “get makeovers then see what music we created.”
The oxygen was getting thin in the steamy little coupe and I was having a hard time determining when these guys were serious, and the jokes keep coming. I comment that they are a lot funnier than their music lets on. “We try and put so much of our serious energy in our music, by the time it’s over, this is what you’re left with – a bunch of screwoffs and idiots,” says Harris. “Wait, isn’t that the name of the new Dandy Warhols album,” he asks. “No those are the new members,” quips Seim. They discuss the benefits of starting a feud with the local rockers, then having gotten out some of the inner idiot, Harris adds that “our next album is going to be really good,” and I don’t doubt it.