“We switched vehicles. We’re in a little more functional one now. The other one wasn’t bad – it just overheated.”
This is Justin Harris not talking about Menomena. This is Justin Harris talking about a van.
I had called Harris earlier in the morning late last month and found he and Menomena drummer Danny Seim in California, preoccupied with some transportation issues. He suggested that we speak a little later. When we reconnect, everything has been sorted out and the band is en route to a new destination on its North American tour in support of the recently released Moms.
Having added an extra member to its onstage line-up, the band is traveling heavier than in the past, but its creative nucleus has shrunk: Harris and Seim are what remains of Menomena proper. As has been widely discussed, keyboardist Brent Knopf – who split vocal duties evenly with Harris and Seim – left Menomena at the tail end of 2010 to focus on his once side-project Ramona Falls. After the tense and contentious recording of its third full-length – the excellent, dour Mines – and a subsequent tour, the band had overheated.
These things happen, of course. Less common is what occurred next: Harris and Seim sharpened their focus and produced possibly the best Menomena album yet, in record time at that. Following near universally beloved LPs I Am the Fun Blame Monster, Friend and Foe, and Mines, this is not an assertion to be tossed about lightly. But, front to back, Moms is without misstep, a collection of ten sonically adventurous tunes that displays how much these two have matured as songwriters. It’s also the band’s darkest record yet, picking apart dysfunctional families, deadbeat fathers, and sexual politics. Those who don’t wish to stare into the abyss with them can focus on how hard it rocks. Combined though, Moms is deeply cathartic stuff.
Menomena visits the Black Cat in DC tomorrow and NYC’s Bowery Ballroom on Thursday.
Most of the reviews for Moms have focused on the dynamics of Brent leaving the band, and the story with Mines had been the strife and discontent amongst you guys. Is it frustrating to create records and then have these narratives grafted onto them?
A little bit. [Laughs] That’s a good one. Yeah, it is, because that situation has been absent for quite some time. Everyone has moved on. But, it’s also understandable – that was inherently probably going to be the angle, if for no other reason than it mentions it in our bio. “Frustrated” probably isn’t the right word – it’s something that did happen, so it’s probably worth addressing if somebody is curious about it. It is a little long gone for us. It’s kind of more of a distant memory at this point. I can’t even totally remember what it was really like, and it was just a couple of years ago.
Luckily for us, and for Brent, I think we’re in happier situations and better headspaces as far as being in music and doing something with music, so I think it’s definitely worked out well. The vibe within this band is so much better and so much more quote-unquote normal, which is not to say it was just Brent’s fault and only because he’s gone have things gotten better. If any one of us had left, the dynamic would have changed.
The record goes to some pretty dark places. There sounds like a lot of emotional purging. Were these songs tough to write?
It was tough, but maybe not for that reason. It was actually maybe more liberating. That’s a better way to put it. I don’t know – that’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about it in those terms. But, no, it wasn’t especially tough, and it was maybe easier, because it’s a little more direct and not as vague as it possibly was in the past.
There’s always been an interesting contrast between Menomena’s videos and press shots and onstage demeanor, which are typically light-hearted and humorous, and the band’s somber lyrical focus. What is that makes you guys want to dig deep?
It’s kind of the duality of life, I suppose. Everyone goes through hard times and shitty things happen to them, but then we’re not depressed people, necessarily. It’s also a lot easier to write about that stuff than being happy, without sounding cheesy. We wouldn’t want to choose that. It’s easier to draw upon the darkness than the jovial side of things.
Have your parents heard the album?
Yeah, they have. [Laughs] But I don’t think either one of them has maybe turned the mirror on themselves. At least, they haven’t said anything to me about it. [Laughs] Every song isn’t specifically about them, but one is, for sure. So far they haven’t really clued in on it, or maybe they don’t understand the lyrics. We were a little nervous about that at first, but it seems to be alright.
How many people are squeezing in the van this tour?
There are six of us. Five band members and an in-house guy.
The line-up has expanded since the last tour then. Has there been an effort to flesh out the arrangements?
Yeah, a little bit, and we just wanted to give certain people other tasks rather than all of us trying to multitask.
In the past, there was a thrill to watching the band pull of intricate material with so few people, but did performing that way night after night put stress on everyone?
Yeah, but it’s just something that you get used to doing. It gets burned into muscle memory. There isn’t necessarily a shortage of that happening now, but at the end of the day we’re able to play more parts.
You’ve said that the tour for Mines was a less than enjoyable experience, and that it made you not want to perform. Has the tweaked line-up or the new material changed that?
Yeah, it has. Depending on whom you talk to, you’ll probably get a different perspective on [what was going] back then. But, yeah, there’s a different dynamic now. Things are turning a little more cogent, rather than something that has this big question mark over it.
When you call this process more focused, does that apply to your songwriting or the method of producing music?
I think both. Speaking for myself, writing the lyrics seems to have been as much of a focus as the music. Having some kind of a direction on subject matter I think helped. Musically, I think there doesn’t seem to be too much of a difference this time around. Things all went as they usually do, but I think we’re getting quicker and more comfortable with getting the kind of sounds that we have in our heads and recording them, because we did all of the recording ourselves. In past records, there have been ideas that I don’t think we fully realized because of ignorance, or maybe just inexperience. This time just felt easier. You know, if we start something up and just start recording and the sound is already there, then we don’t have to do a ton of post-production, for lack of a better and phrase. And, lyrically, it seems like we’ve been interested in being more heart-on-your-sleeve, rather than being kind of vague on the subject matter – and even being vague with each other – as we were the past. This time around it wasn’t necessarily like that.
The songs feel more fluid this time around. Did you all record them in the same way with Deeler [Digital Looping Recorder]?
Yeah, it was similar process. Deeler was just kind of used as we went on along for the last record, and this one for sure too. It wasn’t used just a little on the last record – I think it was used for everything except two songs, as far the initial stages went. For this one, we still kind of worked in a similar fashion, where we got together a handful of times and just created content, by jamming or coming up with certain parts that we liked and then layering things on top of those parts. Something that we did this time that was more efficient was to set up as if we were going to keep any of the takes – we insured that they were inherently good sounding and useable in the future when we went to [the studio] and put stuff together and added to them. For those songs on the record that we started in that fashion, we were actually able to use the content rather than having to rerecord them at some later date.
There are some unexpected orchestral touches on the record. What made you guys want to go down that road?
I don’t know if there’s too much of that. There is the cello and viola on “One Horse”. We added viola to that song since we know a woman named Lisa [Mollinaro], who is a longtime friend of ours. Danny asked her to play on that song. And he also knows this girl from Haiwaii who is apparently a concert cellist and she contributed all those cello parts. The thing is utilizing what we have available to us.
And with the flute: A friend of mine has a friend that was staying with him for a really long time, named Carl [Fischer], from Germany, and it was one of those things where we were talking and it was like, “Hey, maybe you want to play some flute and see if it works anywhere.” And he played on a few songs, so we incorporated it here and there. It didn’t work as well as some other things – as it turns out, flute is very identifiable instrument. [Laughs] For me, it’s a love-hate kind of instrument. Either I totally love it or I totally don’t. Carl definitely leans more towards jazz. He’s, like, a jazz flutist. Some of his contributions didn’t fit so well – some of it may the songs sound pretty Eastern, and we didn’t want to make the songs go in a direction we didn’t want them to. But the stuff that we did keep I think is really awesome and it’s kind of missed in the live show, because none of us play flute and it’s a very specific instrument – it’s hard to replicate on anything else.
The album’s artwork is striking, particularly the image on the actual disc of the crucifix over the obscured bed. What sort of guidance did you give Dan Attoe when you were commissioning it?
None. We gave him no guidance at all. Originally, we started giving him songs as they were completed. For that little drawing that’s on the CD, he does at least one of those a day during his own process, his own work. He has, like, 13×24 sheets of paper and pages and pages of just those little drawings. Part of his painting process is to wake up in the morning and try to paint for 20 or 30 minutes or however long he wants to, and either listen to music or not, and just kind of draw what comes to mind on these pages. He’s shown a lot of them in the past, where he kind of draws lines from one another and kind of write song’s statements. Are you familiar with his work?
Just from looking him up after seeing his work for the record.
His paintings are awesome. They usually come with some sort of statement – there’s always text in his works, and may be any little quip that he can come up with. And so, yeah, he makes these thumbnails and when he started listening to the songs, he started making them, and that’s what the insert of the CD is, the foldout – it’s a page that he made of all the thumbnails for the different songs that he was thinking about. I believe the image on the disc was related to the song “Pique” originally.
Was there anything about the contrast of the bed and the crucifix that you thought spoke to the album?
Yeah, I think Danny really wanted it to be that one because it says a lot about his songs and his lyrics, and having his mom pass away at a young age. And there’s definitely an overtone of loss throughout the album, whether it’s loss of family or identity. I think that’s a good central image, really. [Laughs] It also could look like there are sexual overtones, I suppose.