Menomena – Eye Weekly (3.22.07)


Portland’s Menomena are a puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in a rock band

Anagrams, elusive artwork, songs about yearning to be a machine in order “to be wanted, to be useful” – demanding straightforwardness from Menomena is like asking to borrow Dali’s telephone. But when bassist Justin Harris – on the line from somewhere in the Mt. Shasta region of northern California – follows his declaration of love for classic rock with, “Actually, the record I’ve listened to most from the last year is probably [Fishscale], that Ghostface Killah album,” I’m still a little incredulous.

“I can’t really relate to most of it,” he says, “but I like the production.” It’s a fair explanation, and one I’ll readily accept in my eagerness to understand the inspiration behind Menomena’s new record. That is, until Harris suggests, “Maybe it influenced the hardness of the subject matter. Friend and Foe is also all about cocaine.”

A sense of humour is important to the experimental pop aesthetic of this Portland trio. Their name, after all, is Menomena (pronounced “m’nah m’nah,” just like that Muppet Show song), and their 2003 debut I Am the Fun Blame Monster is an anagram for The First Menomena Album. After scoring serious Pitchfork praise for the concise, looping grooves of IATFBM, they followed it with an album of music for Portland dance troupe Monster Squad titled Under An Hour. Where their first album was a collection of ethereal pop ditties recorded on Deeler, a computer program created by guitarist Brent Knopf, Under An Hour spanned three elaborately textured instrumental pieces averaging 18 minutes each.

“Written, produced, recorded and mixed by Menomena at home,” as their website indicates, their official sophomore release Friend and Foe features vocals from both Harris, who doubles on bass and sax, and his bandmates Knopf and Danny Seim, who handle guitar/keyboard and drum duties respectively. It’s easily their most consummate effort, and a testament to sheer sonic possibility worthy of a Flaming Lips-sized 5.1 surround sound mix. But Harris shies away from my stereophilic praise. “It’s definitely important to us to have a good sounding production,” he says, “but sometimes I think we’re limited by our ignorance.” Or maybe liberated by it, I suggest. “Yeah, at times.”

Their approach to writing and recording is somewhat unconventional. Using the Deeler program, which Harris describes as “more or less just a way of storing sound files that we record off the cuff,” they tend to work in isolation from each other for a while. “Because of [Deeler] we have a lot of different options at our fingertips for just arranging certain songs. So, typically, each one of us will just be working by ourselves arranging these different parts that we have from each other,” he says. “Then we start cross-pollinating and getting some ideas from each other. So it gets way more collaborative in the final stages.”

Despite attracting lots of attention for their recording practices and the engaging results, Harris maintains that Menomena is not simply a studio project. “I think definitely the live show is equally important, if not more,” he says. In order to recreate the lush soundscapes of Friend and Foe, for their hometown release show the band enlisted the help of a 25-person choir. Paring it down to an econo three-piece for the tour, which includes playing all four nights at SXSW, Harris is still confident about how it all comes across.

“Without the whole choir, you definitely lose something. But I think things are coming along. Actually we had a couple of shows the week after that show, up in Vancouver [and Seattle], and those that saw both said they liked it even better without the choir.” He adds, “I find that hard to believe.”

Accommodating praise seems to follow Menomena wherever they go. They’ve recently been named Spin’;s Band of the Day and lingered in the top five songs on Rolling Stone’s online-edition Editor’s Picks. But they seem to be remarkably well adjusted to this kind of attention.

“I think it’s great that people like it and they’re responding positively to it, but we get the bad with the good. I actually enjoy the bad reviews. Often when you’re talking to someone, nobody seems to say anything bad to you so you appreciate it when they do. At times it’s nice to hear another side and know that not everyone in our own little circle does like it,” Harris says.

Gaining further access to Menomena requires a bit of work. The packaging for Friend and Foe is an elaborate cartoon puzzle with no real information aside from song titles and lyric snippets. “[The cover] just kind of seems like a good platform for the artwork,” he says. “I mean, we have these beautiful drawings from Craig Thompson, and if there was one page of liner notes, that information would probably detract from the overall appeal of it.”

As for the enigmatic qualities of the cover, Harris says, “That was a conscious decision, so the only notes on there are specific inside jokes.” I ask whether there’s any significance to the phrase “I’m sharp foreskin,” which appears sprinkled in misplaced letters across the back cover. “So you saw that, did you? Well, there could be, but that’s for you to figure out.”

Originally published in EYE WEEKLY (3.22.07)


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