One of the best parts of seeing Portland trio Menomena perform was the sight gag of its composition. There was tall and lanky drummer Danny Seim, coming off like a prototypical West Coast stoner, a crooked hat askew his mop of hair. There was bass and saxophone dual threat Justin Harris , looking grizzled, greasy, and buff, not unlike his classic rock leaning contributions to the band. And then there was the decidedly clean cut Brent Knopf, boyish and grinning behind his keyboard, prepped out in a tucked-in oxford. You couldn’t picture the three of them having a beer together, let alone making soaring, painstakingly precise, and outright beautiful music in unison. But they did.
Or at least they did prior to last fall, when Knopf officially left Menomena to focus full time on Ramona Falls, a side-project that had blossomed into a proper band. The news was unquestionably a bummer to Menomena’s many diehard fans: Knopf not only took some of the act’s best songs – “Wet and Rusting”, “Intil”, “Killemall”, “Evil Bee” – with him, he also took a distinctly uplifting piano style, and technical know how, to boot. (He was responsible for developing the band’s digital looping program, Deeler.)
But Menomena’s loss is Ramona Falls’ gain, as Knopf’s decision to double down on the project has led to Prophet, the band’s fully realized, tightly crafted sophomore LP. As Knopf recently discussed with BYT, the record’s cohesive – but nonetheless busting at the seems – sound is a product, in part, of his decision to work with a smaller group of collaborators. In addition to diving into the creative process behind the album, Knopf also talked with us about being “the captain of the ship,” harnessing creative impulses, and the uncertainty of life after Menomena. You can see Ramona Falls this Saturday at Red Palace.
BYT: Did your approach to Ramona Falls’ music change once you decided to make it your main focus?
Brent Knopf: That’s a good question. I think that because Ramona Falls had become a band by that point – because when Intuit came out, I had gathered a group of friends to play the songs [live], and we became more and more involved – I tried to make it more of a band experience when it came time for a second record. On the first record, we had like 35 guests contribute, but on Prophet there are only four guests in addition to the band. All the drums are played by Paul [Alcott], for example. I communicated a great deal with my bandmates to try to get indications for we all thought was working really well. It was more of a group effort in that way.
BYT: But at the end of the day, you’re the one stitching their contributions together, right?
BK: Yeah, probably so. I’ll sometimes stitch a few things together and ask them which ones are working or not working, or they’ll kind of come up with some parts and we’ll talk about which of those are working, and then eventually we’ll graft certain parts of a song onto another and figure it out from there. But, for sure, I’m definitely the captain of the ship. In that way, Ramona Falls is sort of freed from the paralysis that sometimes afflicted Menomena, where we wouldn’t really come to a consensus. When there’s gridlock, I’m in a position where I can keep it moving forward.
BYT: Were there any songs on Prophet that proved particularly challenging to assemble?
BK: “Spore” is a good example of that. With “Spore” I had written it one way, or put it together in one direction, and I really liked the riff in “Spore”. I thought that was cool. But the way that was becoming realized wasn’t really working for anyone, and I couldn’t quite tell what was wrong, so I decided to basically scrap it and start over. We kind of took some things from the ashes and used those as building blocks. I switched from a guitar-centric version to synth-centric version for that song. But each song presented its own challenges.
BYT: When you’re recording, do you give any consideration to how you’ll be able to pull off a song live?
BK: To my detriment, no. [Laughs] Once it comes time to play the songs live, there is kind of the formidable task of going into the song sessions and exporting all those crazy sounds, and then assigning them to a keyboard so that those sounds can be played in a quai-natural way in time with the rest of the guys. Ramona Falls is not yet a band that plays tracks. Everything is live, for the time-being. I kind of like that flexibility. I like being able to lock in with the guys and feel like it’s happening in the now. So, it’s super challenging to export it from the sessions to the live show, but it’s rewarding too.
BYT: Does spearheading Ramona Falls and being responsible for a whole record of songs open the door to greater self-doubt?
BK: I guess that depends on your personality type. [Laughs] I think I’m particularly sensitive to the human tendency to be blind to evidence that doesn’t support your opinion. I feel like so often in life I see people who keep charging forward even when there are little signs like, “Hey, this isn’t working.” What that ends up resulting in with me is that I try to check in with people a lot and ask them, “Is this actually working? Please, level with me. Be blunt. Be honest.”
And I wonder if I check in with people too much. There’s a weird balancing act between wanting to really connect with whatever wellspring of creativity that generates a song and wanting to honor the identity of that impulse, and, on the other hand, wanting to make sure that it’s actually working, to make sure that it’s actually coming across in a way that you believe it should. It’s a bit of a high wire act.
BYT: You used Deeler once again to generate the base of your songs. Does how you develop songs for Ramona Falls differ at all from how wrote songs for Menomena?
BK: I used Deeler on seven of the eleven songs for this record. The process is actually pretty consistent. The way I’ve made music for the last ten years has been pretty consistent. There are many ways to write music. Sometimes the lyrics come first, and the music becomes about orchestrating. Other times, the music comes first; like, there will be some musical ideas that I really love and want to explore, and then it becomes tricky to fit words to that. But it’s basically a similar process. The biggest shift between Ramona Falls and Menomena is just the decision-making structure, where – as I was saying before – I can make decision that keep things moving forward.
BYT: The packaging of Prophet is incredibly elaborate. Clearly a great deal of thought was put into it. To state the obvious though, music is being consumed digitally more and more, so why spend the time and money on how it’s physically presented? Did you get push-back from Barsuk [Records]?
BK: I think I placed a call to Barsuk and was like, “Are we still making CDs?” And I learned that CDs still do account for a substantial part of a sales for reocrds, and as long as that’s true, I’m going to try to do my best to create something that’s worth owning. My general philosophy is that I try to think: “What object, if I were to stumble across it, would make really excited and really thrilled?” And then I kind of try to create whatever that is.
I had the good fortune to collaborate with my really close friend Nicholas [Mahon] on the Prophet packaging, which is totally insane packaging. We worked for months on it, just driving around town and trying to price out the different components for it, kind of like, “Hey, do ya’ll do this with these type of folds and these type of die cuts with these type of materials? How much is it going to cost?” I was trying to piece it all together. And I think the most difficult thing was when I found out that the quantity that record label wanted to manufacture was smaller than I had anticipated, and obviously things are cheaper the more you buy, so all of a sudden our order was much smaller and the price per CD skyrocketed. I was terrified that it was going to fall through, but luckily the label found a printer that was able to put it all together. It was still pretty expensive, for sure, but not as terribly expensive as I thought it was going to be. I’m super grateful to Barsuk for being so open to these kinds of crazy ideas.
I’ve always had a passion for unusual things, or unusual packaging. With Menomena, I was really involved with the flipbook [for I Am The Fun Blame Monster] and the Friend and Foe artwork and we actually had an origami monster as part of our first album being released on vinyl. There’s been all sorts of crazy stuff that we’ve done. Actually, my good buddy Matt [Sheehy] is in a band called Lost Lander and I was part of the process where we brainstormed this, like, prism-shaped planetarium, where if you put a light – like a flashlight – under the kind of tent-shaped box it shoots starts under your ceiling if you have the lights out. I’ve always been really interested in this, and of course I asked myself: “How can we create something that’s worth owning, that’s worth discovering, that gives you the feeling of discovery when you encounter it?”
BYT: Your story book mentions you spent some time trying to create a new mobile app and failed. What’s the story there?
BK: [Laughs] It’s more that I just failed to come up with the time. I thought, “Alright, I’m going to teach myself this other programming language, and I’m going to stop music for a little bit and try to do this project.” I probably shouldn’t talk too much about it, because I still really want to do it. It was just a way of… I don’t know how to to describe it… of sharing meaning with people. Like, conveying things that are meaningful – and their meaning to you – to other people. And it has almost nothing to do with music. I have kind of a restless mind, so I’m always trying to think of new things and new gadgets. That idea is really exciting to me, but it remains unclear if we’ll be able to find the magic recipe for partners and coconspirators to make something like that happen. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more.
BYT: As someone who’s so knowledgeable about applying new technologies to music, do you get a lot of gear nerds coming up to you after shows and wanting to geek out?
BK: Define “nerd.” [Laughs] I’ve noticed that Ramona Falls music for some people resonates really deeply. It’s made me blush a few times when I’ve gotten really nice, unsolicited e-mails saying, “This record means a great deal to me.” Recently I’ve had someone tattoo some lyrics on her body. There’s someone else who’s a cartoonist, and I got to see her cartoons online today – I met in her Montreal, I think. It’s really actually fun to meet people in different cities and learn a little about them and find out a little about what they’re up to.
I’ve wondered: Who exactly is Ramona Falls fans? And what I like about the Ramona Falls audience is that it doesn’t look homogenous to me, at all. I remember our first time in San Francisco, there was was this group of high school kids who were in a band who were really stoked to be there. You know, people from all different age groups and gender and sexual orientation – whatever, it’s really diverse. I like that about it.
Every now and then, sure, I’ll have someone geek out with me a little bit. In Montreal, there were a few dudes that were taking a musical production class and they were like, “We didn’t think you’d be able to pull of the record live! We thought, ‘There’s no way he’ll be able to do all the sounds!’ How did you do that?!?” So I got to geek out with them a little bit.
BYT: In terms of audience support, you left a band that had attained a certain level of notoriety and was accustomed to playing large venues. Is it difficult to go back to the drawing board?
BK: It’s very scary. But what motivates me is not becoming the 1%, you know? What motivates me is just being to keep doing what I do, which is to be creative, work with people I admire, and try to create the things – songs, packaging, and other things – that are useful to people emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. Starting over with a new project that doesn’t have as much of an audience as the previous project is really scary and nerve-racking, because it’s still not clear to me if it will become sustainable financially.
It’s tough too because I get a lot of e-mail from people in other countries saying, “Please come to Russia!” or “Please come to Turkey” or “When are you coming to England?” And, gosh, I would love to, but I can’t pay to go there myself, and unless I figure out a way to make it work betwen a whole bunch of different people, I’m not in a position where I can afford just to do that. I would love for this project to become self-sustaining financially, but it remains unclear to me if that’s going to happen. Who knows? Maybe nothing’s going to happen. I don’t take it for granted. I work as hard as I can and I hope for the best, but I guess all I can really do is be true to who we are and what kind of music we make.