For the better part of a decade, Portland trio Menomena rode considerable internal band tension to the top of the city's fertile music scene and a growing national profile. Then, as the band's 2010 release, Mines, virtually declared in bold font, the creative dynamic that fueled its fractured art-rock blew up in its face.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR MOMS: Menomena
Mines took three-and-a-half excruciating years to make — mostly via email, though the band members lived within miles of each other. And by the time Brent Knopf, Danny Seim and Justin Harris toured behind it, the scuttlebutt was they couldn't stand the sight of each other, on stage or off. That was partially confirmed once Knopf left to focus on his new project, Ramona Falls, and the members began publicly discussing how three became two.
"The ways in which their personalities clash is astounding in a way I can really only laugh about," Josh Rosenfeld, co-founder of the band's label, Barsuk Records, told the Willamette Weekly in September 2010. "It definitely occurred to me several times over the last few years that maybe they wouldn't finish making this record."
Looking back, though, the split saved Menomena. Once Knopf gave his notice, Seim and Harris met to discuss whether they'd continue or chuck the whole thing. Not only did they agree to keep on keeping on, they learned they'd both been writing in a similar, un-Menomena-like vein. For the band's fifth LP, and with only "each other to deal with," Harris jokes, Menomena's narratives revolved around the much-less-opaque subject matter of the record's title — Moms (and family trees in general).
"In the past, we didn't want to talk about what we were writing about, probably because half the time we were writing about each other," Harris says while driving down to Southern California, as part of a tour that stops at the Visulite on Oct. 11. "We've always been very guarded about our stuff over the years — the three of us would always deflect the question, 'What's this song about?' with some inevitably sarcastic joke-answer."
For Seim, the topic of mothers is fraught with loss; his mother passed away when he was a teenager. Harris comes at it from another angle, having been raised by his mother after his Vietnam vet father largely abandoned them. Harris cautions that it's not a concept record so much as a look at ancestry through aging — "The songs on this LP weave in and out of that theme," he says.
Both members, now in their mid-30s, joke about their burgeoning man-boobs and the fact Menomena is now two old men in a music scene so trendy it's skewered regularly in the satiric show Portlandia.
For fans of the band, though, Moms is more proof that the break-up was a good thing; it's arguably Menomena's best work yet (Moms' Metacritic score is 81). Yet it retains the fluid elements the faithful have fallen for ever since the band's debut — 2003's I Am the Fun Blame Monster — set the percussion, keys and baritone sax up-front sonic template. (Both Harris and Seim, who at 6-foot-8 plays drums like it's a toy kit, are long-time fans of Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann, who revolutionized drum recording in the late-'90s.)
But the new dynamic also comes across through Moms, and not just because the record took only six months to make. Seim, who sings a bit like Lou Barlow anyway, seems to have channelled Folk Implosion into his most melodic and catchy songs. Harris takes over most of Knopf's keyboard duties, though he doesn't rely solely on keys to fill in the band's sound. There's more guitar on this record, but it's Harris' distinctive bari and alto sax parts — influenced more by David Bowie and T. Rex than Stax or Coltrane — that fill in Knopf's absence.
"I've always tried to treat it more as a rhythmic instrument," says Harris, "mainly due to my low skill level as a sax player."
Clearly, the band's often sardonic approach is intact, even as the themes have turned serious. Seim may joke that he's "evolving from a child to an aging child" amid the jaunty tempo and ringing guitars of "Capsule," but when he observes that "We never talked on a cellular phone," it just about breaks your heart.
"We do try not to be just tortured poets," Harris says. "We're both coming from that point of view where, 'Yeah, it's serious and depressing, but there's always humor in it somewhere,' mostly because there's so much humor in being human."