Just for the record this is the original first draft of an article that I did for Dayton City Paper. I had a phone interview with Justin Harris from Menomena who is really cool. I got a lot more from the interview that did not make it into the article so I might eventually do some blog posts with that unused stuff.
Every human being on earth gets their own unique experience, this is the journey that we call life. We all come from different places and go through different things. Each of us is made from our parents and our friends. We are shaped by these people around us, who are each unto themselves experiencing these same ups and downs. No two lives are exactly alike and nobody’s life is perfect. Every family, relationship, and individual harbors some dysfunction within. Menomena’s new album Moms embraces some of these issues and spills them out for us musically.
Menomena currently consists of Justin Harris, who plays plays electric guitar, baritone guitar, electric bass, Moog Taurus foot synthesizer, baritone saxophone, and alto saxophone, and Danny Seims who plays drums and other percussion. They will be playing at The Basement in Columbus on Feb 15. Originally from Portland Oregon Menomena started as a side project but grew into something much bigger. Just recently Brent Knopf left the band to pursue other projects. Moms is Menomena’s first studio album since he left the group.
As the title seems to suggest this new album does feature several songs devoted to the relationships these guys have with their mothers. And just like the real world these two perspectives are starkly different. Danny Seim has written about his mother who passed away when he was a teenager. While Justin Harris had been raised by a single mother after his father abandoned them. There is more to the album than just maternal issues but most of it remains deeply personal. Collectively the writing in Mom’s reaches a new emotional depth that Menomena had not touched before.
In light of Brent Knopf’s absence, Seim and Harris have chosen not to replace him. They have decided to continue on with just the two. This change has not effected them too much musically. They have some similar instrumental breaks to those that made us love them back with the album Friend or Foe. There are songs with orchestral accompaniment and music so layered it’s hard to believe this is just two guys. Still, there’s a track or two where you may wonder if Knopf really left at all. Excluding a few, it seems like Menomena is picking up it’s feet and heading in a new direction. For the first time these boys will be playing a show in Columbus which gave me an opportunity speak with Justin Harris about the new album.
After listening to Moms repeatedly and obsessively for a few days I found myself extremely curious about the process in which it came to be. Had this been a concept album from the start? “[It] More developed that way,” said Justin Harris when I asked him. “Danny writes quickly, it [his concept] formed. It took shape, became clear and I followed there.” With Danny Seim writing some seriously personal lyrics Harris said, “I ultimately didn’t want to write [songs] about trivial stuff when he did something heavy.” Harris wrote five songs on this ten track album which delivered his own emotional impact. The even distribution of song writing was an interesting choice which made me wonder about the song writing impact of Brent Knopf leaving.
Justin said that the writing process for this album hadn’t changed too much. They still email back and fourth with their initial song ideas and they still collaborate at about the same level. What the absence of Knopf provided, according to Justin, was that writing and developing the album became smoother. “[In the past] It always felt anxious and trying to get things perfect it took longer,” Harris said. “Song acceptance was smoother and it worked well. Take one additional collaborator away and things are easier.” At least it worked that way for Seim and Harris on this album. These two have been working together since late 2000 and remain close friends. “We’ve worked together forever,” Harris said, and then he admitted that might be an exaggeration. Forever is a long time.
When performing live Menomena has been using a replacement for Knopf. This person will play the parts from Knopf for older songs as well as all the parts that couldn’t possibly be covered by Harris and Seim from the new album. The band has been using Paul Alcott who’s a friend from Portland. Unfortunately, Alcott left mid tour for obligations to other bands he’s involved with. “He’s a drummer first,” Justin explained to me. For the tour Alcott had to perform keyboards and be tech savy to use the samples they play. Harris said he did a great job, but they’ve got a new replacement named Dave Depper to finish up the tour. Good friends with the band Depper is another Portland native. Harris sings his praises as a talented musician, “I was shocked at how quick he learned.” He fit’s the role quite well according to Harris and this promises to make some great shows for the rest of the tour.
For any other band, particularly one that consists of three people, one member leaving easily could have ended it all. But not for Menomena. Harris and Seim are braving forward, and they’re stepping it up with more serious impact.