Portland rock outfit (don’t call them experimental) Menomena used to be a trio. With the departure of longtime and co-founding member Brent Knopf, remaining members Danny Seim and Justin Harris took the time to re-evaluate their individual approaches to their band’s music. Inspired by the women, mothers in particular, that were either in or not in their lives, the two produced the band’s most tragic, personal, and intimate work to date.
Consequence of Sound caught up with Menomena’s Harris and Seim to talk about their latest album, Moms, and the ramifications of Knopf’s departure. We also discuss how the duo altered their songwriting methods, Seim’s love of skateboarding, and whether Harris believes the “Dream of the 90s” is truly still alive in Portland.
Danny, you said in an interview with Local Cut that “We lost a major creative force in Brent, but thankfully, Brent’s not Kurt Cobain and we’re not Nirvana.” Then you continued the metaphor, citing Genesis and Peter Gabriel. There are multiple references within that Genesis comparison, but in general, Genesis post-Gabriel was a very different band than it was with him. How do you see your band evolving with Brent Knopf’s departure?
Justin Harris: [Laughs.] Honestly, I don’t think we’ve changed that much. We’ve lost a third songwriter. Traditionally, in the past, all three of us kind of contributed equally. So as far as Danny’s and my contributions, which used to make up two thirds, are now making up 50 percent of the album each. Not a whole lot has changed as far as we’re concerned, as far as how we write, and how we put songs together. But I do think this process was a little bit more fluid and seemed just a little bit more natural having two people writing as opposed to three of us chefs in the kitchen, so to speak. Not that it’s for the better or the worse, just different. I think the evolution of the band… I think we would have been evolving this direction musically anyway. It’s just, now, Danny and I are comprising 100 percent of the album rather than two thirds.
Were you prepared for his departure? Or was it sudden?
Danny Seim: When it came down to it, it was pretty sudden. Prepared for it, though? I don’t know. We were definitely prepared for something to change. Something just had to. Not necessarily Justin and I versus Brent, but just something in our dynamic, I guess. It was really no surprise. When he left, it was kind of shocking, I guess, because of the timing. Justin and I had just gotten home from a tour, and Brent had stayed back in Europe, and the day we got home, we got this video message from Brent saying he’s moving on. So, that was, of course, a shock, but it had deteriorated to such a point by that time [that] it seemed pretty clear that something had to give, or else we’d all just end up hating each other and all going our separate ways.
So, you were actually able to amicably separate?
Seim: Well, not at first. I mean, at first, he just quit, so there really wasn’t much choice about being too amicable about it. He was nice about it. He wasn’t a total asshole about it. It was definitely a guy quitting the band, which was a guy we had started the band with, and who was pretty close to us for a number of years. So, that was kind of strange, but as far as being amicable goes, it’s definitely gotten that way over the years since he quit, just recently, in the past few months. It’s not something where we try to avoid each other socially, because it’s awkward. When I see the guy, I’m really excited, we catch up, and it’s all friendly again. But I don’t think it would ever have been that way had he not quit the band. It was headed in such a weird direction.
Moms is being described as “tragic…intimate…and personal,” but for introspective material, this stuff really kind of rocks. Do you think you would, or could, have made Moms if Brent remained with the band? Or was the journey begun by his departure?
Harris: Danny and I would have been writing the same kind of music. So, yeah, I think at least our contributions, if this record was also with Brent still in the band, would have been similar. Although as far as the dynamic goes in the band, now it is quite a bit different. The three of us got to a point where it was just harder and harder to get together and write music and be happy about it. Brent leaving the band inherently changed the dynamic, and things worked a little bit better. I think there’s a little more seamless interaction just between two people instead of three. Danny and I have a different dynamic than Brent and I had, and than Danny and Brent had. It’s just a different experience all the way around.
On one hand, where he and I are at musically right now would probably be the same. I certainly don’t think the songs would have turned out the way they are currently if Brent were still in the band, because he obviously would have added his input and done things that he would have done. Lyrically, that’s something that did change this time around. In the past we never really… we didn’t collaborate much on lyrical content. We didn’t collaborate this time, but we did talk to each other about it. And we had a preconceived theme, not that this is a concept album by any means. Early on, Danny was telling me he was writing most of the songs about his experience in life without his mom who passed away when he was 17 and how he’s lived 17 years now past that. She was alive for half his life at this point and what the effects of that are. I heard him telling me that and was thinking, “Why not write about my family and the different moms, so to speak, in my life?” It’s not necessarily about each one of our moms specifically all the time, but [rather] how moms are important in peoples’ lives or important when they’re not in peoples’ lives. Sisters are moms; grandmas are moms. More alluding to all of that.
But back to what I was saying about the lyrics. That was an important thing for us this time, to make an album that has… not that we’ve never paid attention to lyrics before in the past, but just make something this time that was definitely lyrically important to us and meaningful. I think we had a tendency in the past, when it was three people in the band, to write a little bit more vaguely about stuff, because you kind of feel like you’re representing the whole band if you write a song about something. The fact that Danny and I were talking about it to each other, there was a clear understanding of what direction we were going in. It seemed easier to write and more poignant to both of us.
Regarding Mines, you said, “Lyrics were a big focus for us this time around.” Then, recently, you described Moms as your most lyrical album. Did the attention to lyrics on your previous album inform your approach this time, or was it just a matter of, like you said earlier, that it was a maturity and that you got over the embarrassment of writing potentially personal songs?
Harris: [Laughs.] I think both. I think with Mines, speaking personally, for me, that was the first time I really did want to focus on a lyric meaning something, but also hopefully fitting with the song. In the past, I was more concerned with melody, and words were just a vehicle for the melody. I’ve always… all three of us, more specifically Danny and I, have always paid attention to what we’re writing. We’ve never just thrown trite words out there to make a song. [On] Mines, we really started to focus… again speaking for myself, started to focus on how tactful words actually are in music, if music has words. It’s the only real, true, human, personal connection between a person and a song, and a lot of people take it seriously if there are words. I think we started taking it more seriously on that album, and that certainly carried over into this one, where I feel like having some sort of theme that we were going towards made it even more important if we were calling something Moms. It sounds pretty specific. I think all the lyrics should be up to that task of relating to each other within a certain song. I recall songs where I couldn’t tell you what the song was about. I still don’t know. There’s songs of Brent’s and Danny’s where I have no idea what the songs means and what it’s about, and they probably say the same thing about some of my older songs.
I think I strayed a bit from your initial question. I think maturity also… hopefully we can always keep integrity on both the lyrical and musical side of things. It is something we strive for. We want to make musically relevant songs, [but we] also want them to be lyrically relevant. Sometimes it’s hard to do both, and I don’t think we always achieve both but…
The making of your previous album, Mines, was plagued by various elements delaying the album’s construction and release. In comparison, Moms seems to have been relatively quick and painless. Do you attribute that to Brent’s leaving, or is it more than that?
Seim: I think the more I attribute to his leaving, [the more] it makes him sound like the scapegoat. You know, “Brent was the one that was holding up everything,” and “Without Brent we can finally create again.” And that’s totally not it. Without that weird dynamic that the three of us had… it was just so negative. Like you said, Mines was almost four years in the making, I think. And that was such a negative process, because it was just three people that are ultimately excited about the music that they’re making, but the dynamic is so terrible that it’s just hard to be in the same room together. And one of us leaving that dynamic definitely alleviated a lot of negativity.
It helps that it’s Justin and I, because I’ve known the guy for so long. When Brent quit, it’s just like, “We’re gonna keep doing this, and we’ll see what happens when we start trying to write again.” Once we started writing, it was a personal challenge. We were wanting to just see if it works, and when it started working, we started having fun with it. We discovered it’s easy to make a record in less than four years, believe it or not, which is definitely new for us and a real positive thing, this newfound duo-songwriter thing.
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