TOP TEN OF 2007#3
Friend And Foe
(Barsuk)A year back, I wrote a lengthy article on the Portland, Oregon trio Menomena for DIW Magazine. But before our first interview was scheduled to take place, the band realized that they were on the road to New York without a place to stay. They then called me and asked if they could stay at my place.
Every journalist laments over the lack of the time he or she has with a subject so this sounded like an ideal situation. I said, sure.
Below is the retelling of the interview that became a sleepover party
Parking in New York City is hell. Especially late at night. Sometimes you can spend close to an hour just trying to find spot. And so you circle one last time before finally resolving to a questionable parking space that looks too close to a hydrant but maybe, or so you think, the cop won’t notice the proximity.
Right now, it’s three in the morning. Menomena is looking for a spot in the suburbanesque Upper West Side, and the band’s bassist, Justin Harris, finds spot sizeable enough for his band’s decrepit-looking van and the trailer of instruments.
This is miraculous—like water-into-wine miraculous. This is not a Mini Cooper space; this is an enormous space, big enough to park a whale. In New York City! At three in the morning!
I ask the guys if they realize their luck.
Menomena’s guitarist/keyboardist Brent Knopf lifts his shoulders unassumingly. “Oh, nice.”
As I’ll discover throughout the next 24 hours, this soft-spoken humility is what Portland, Oregon’s Menomena is all about. When I tell Knopf how much I enjoy the lyrics of “Evil Bee”, one of his songs on the band’s new album, Friend And Foe, he says, “I actually thought those lyrics were too obvious.” When I expound upon the record’s sensational accomplishments, they react as if I were talking about a different band. “Wow, that’s a really nice thing of you to say about…us?”
Although it’s true that many would qualify finding a parking spot as pure luck, any rationalist will tell you that your attitude toward life generates the forthcoming series of events. Menomena’s attitude is incredibly centered. There’s no boisterousness, no aggressiveness. There’s a collective, even-tempered calm that, quite frankly, is a bit jarring.
When we get to my apartment, I give Knopf, Harris and the band’s percussionist, Danny Seim, three mattresses to sleep on the floor. They’re so appreciative that I wonder if anyone has ever done nice things for these guys. Musicians that crash at your place generally fill the living room with cigarette smoke, leave empty beer cans strewn about and drop used towels on the ground. But then there are also musicians, however rare they may be, that get up early, make their beds and prepare omelets for breakfast.
In the morning, Knopf bends over the stove and flips several eggs as Seim and Harris fold sheets and rearrange the living-room furniture. Despite their sleep depravity, they refuse my offer for a cup of coffee because, of course, they don’t drink coffee. As we sit down to eat Knopf’s breakfast, I wonder what’s happened to the angsty disposition necessary to create a record as sizable as Friend And Foe. Where’s the torment, the yearning and the bitterness needed to write lyrics such as, “Take it from my mouth when I’m still chewing,” and “You always said that we were friends, but that must depend which way the wind blows”? The trio’s second record is a complex, intricate tour de force of layered sounds and sentiments. It’s rife with self-doubt, insecurity, acrimony and longing. Quite frankly, it’s a loaded magnum opus. Not the music of omelet-makers and sheet-folders. Where the hell did it all come from? Obviously not my kitchen, I think, as Knopf gets up from the table and starts washing dishes.
In the affluent suburb of Lake Oswego, Oregon, Seim and Harris met while attending Westside Christian High School, a non-denominational private school where the mission statement is to “equip servant leaders in God's Kingdom for the next generation by educating and developing the whole person for the glory of God.” Knopf was attending Sam Barlow High School in the community of Gresham, and all three were raised in their respective religious homes. Seim and Harris even devoted their teen years to the Christian rock movement in the local band Bede (“guitars + drums = prog rock!” read an old band posting), which was sometimes mockingly referred to as “Anal Bede.”
One night in 1995, Knopf attended a show at a Portland basement transformed into the all-ages venue called Push and caught Bede, who impressed him enough to purchase the band’s demo. “They were a pretty good Pearl Jam-esque band,” he remembers. “And I mean that in a good way because back then I liked Pearl Jam.”
Knopf eventually contacted Seim and asked to meet him for coffee. (Knopf: “Danny’s girlfriend totally thought I was hitting on him.” Seim: “Wait, you weren’t?”). The two got along so well that Knopf invited Seim out to his car to listen to a homemade cassette of piano music he’d composed based on and inspired by the lyrics of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
“We were just sitting there not making eye contact, listening to his songs and I obviously thought that it was weird and intense at the time, but it was also so incredibly endearing,” Seim says. “Knowing Brent like I do now, in retrospect, it was a big deal for him to let me hear those songs.”
The two kept in touch, exchanging music and ideas, until Knopf returned home from attending college in New Hampshire. They then formed Menomena and began working on their debut.
I Am The Fun Blame Monster (an anagram for “The First Menomena Album”) is sinisterly beautiful and truly underappreciated. The nine ethereal songs feature crystalline piano, mournful vocals and seizure-like drums that effectively channel the techniques of turntablism. Considering that this album, originally released in 2003, is Menomena’s first record, the professionalism is astonishing. Menomena replicates the precision of Krautrock while relinquishing the cold, calculated detachment. And with its 80-page flipbook packaging, the trio announced the arrival of an unpretentious art-pop collaboration.
“At first, we put the record out by ourselves because we had no choice really,” Knopf says, of the album that was later released by filmGUERRO in October, 2004. “No one wanted to deal with an unknown band that only had nine songs and demanded that their packaging include an 80-page flipbook.” The piano player is affable and pensive and frequently stares out into the distance as if his next sentence were floating in the air.
“There was such an intense pressure behind being in the Christian rock scene that it was such a relief not to be in it,” Seim adds. “Religion and Christianity was such a focus of everything we did. Like before every show, I thought, ‘What am I going to say that will lead people to the lord? If I don’t say the right thing, am I allowing them to go to hell?’”
At 6-foot-7, Danny is a gentle giant, the most soft-spoken of the three—yet his lyrics are the most poisonous (“I’ve got a stranglehold on this decision / All those opposed can rot in hell,” from “Rotten Hell”).
“I’m not going to say outright that certain lyrics are about religion but my upbringing is definitely always in the subconscious,” Seim says. “Religion is a frustrating thing because it’s ultimately formed by humans. Most of the conventional religions think they’re the chosen religion, but I think that is a human invention. If there is God that does love us, he’s a God for all of us. I mean, how could you tell me that a devout Hindu would go to hell for not accepting Jesus Christ?”
“For me, the music has been an outlet for the multiple relationships in my life,” Harris says. “I heard a pastor once say that we always we take our relationships for granted, and that definitely stuck with me for a number of years. Relationships with people, with God, with religion, with whatever—it’s everything.”
So perhaps this is where Friend And Foe came from. Menomena’s proper sophomore follow-up (the record Under An Hour, released in 1996, doesn't qualify as a conventional sophomore release; it's a sublime, vocal-less recording that consists of three 20-minute suites composed as an accompaniment to a modern dance performance) is quite simply an enormity. Both lyrically and musically, the album is conflicting, at once delicate and brutal, sonically gorgeous but conceptually ugly, a collective display of a fragile confidence. The sentiments expressed throughout Friend And Foe read like a generation’s diary. Opening song “Muscle N’ Flo” laments, “There’s so much more left to do / But I’m not young,” and “Make your mark / Make it last...lofty goals.” When the song is over, we’re left wondering who’s trying to inspire whom.
The piano in “Wet & Rusting” sprinkles like droplets of water while interwoven vocals advise, “It’s hard to risks with a pessimist,” and “No one can be faithful.” Ironically, the record’s most human, moving song is about our relationship with technology. “Evil Bee” is wounded and wondering. “Oh, to be a machine,” Knopf sings with unrestrained earnestness. “Oh, to be wanted.” Infidelity, mid-mid-life crisis, expendability, anxieties and insecurities, vulnerability, questioning our existence and challenging the concept of God are all themes found on Friend And Foe. And the album presents no clarification or resolve.
“There’s definitely more at stake with this record because it was an intense birthing process,” Harris says. “We went through a lot to make it, but my mom always talks about giving birth to children and how, yes, it’s a painful thing, but there’s something in your body chemistry that helps you forget the labor because otherwise you would stop having children. I think it’s probably similar to our experience as musicians. It’s a hard, awkward process, but we move on because, ultimately, when we see the finished product, it’s amazing.”
After a day’s worth of photo shoots and interviews, Harris, Knopf and Seim pack up their belongings. Tonight they’re opening for the Long Winters at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, and then they’re off to Boston, New Hampshire, Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis. Danny mentions the monotony of listening to the same music while on the road.
“Actually, do you have the new Justin Timberlake albums?” Seim asks after I offer to copy some new music for them. He’s completely serious.
I burn FutureSex/LoveSounds, and we walk to their white van, which has been moved twice since last night due to New York City’s intricate and inexplicable parking regulations. We say our goodbyes, and the band drives off while presumably listening to “SexyBack.”
A couple of months later, after I’ve listened to the record countless times, analyzing the lyrics, connecting with the lyrical truisms, I receive a promotional copy of Friend And Foe complete with its final art. When I interviewed the band weeks previous, they initially informed me that there were a lot of technical intricacies involved with the album’s design (like cut-outs, a rotating pattern wheel, etc.) which could make the reproduction impossible, or very difficult. But when the chaotic illustration featuring demented critters illustrated by notable comic artist Craig Thompson finally arrives, I recognize random lyrics, like “I love you all too much” and “I can’t change my mind” interspersed throughout the cover. In Thompson’s illustration, there’s a pregnant woman carrying a chicken fetus in her stomach, an incised alien and his exposed internal organs, eyeless ghosts floating upwards and a fish swallowing a cow.
“I didn’t actually hear the full album when I first illustrated the cover,” Thompson says on phone from his home in Portland, Oregon, “but from what I heard, there was this very strong spiritual struggle in there and that’s what I was aiming to represent.”
“But when they finally gave me the whole record, I listened to it as objectively as I could,” he adds, “And it represented an apocalyptic feel. There was some pessimism and some discord but in the end it all somehow came together. Menomena’s music just feels like out of all the chaos, there’s a harmony, this great fusion.”
And despite all the pandemonium in Thompson’s illustration, there’s a calm, tranquil-looking animal with a halo hovering over its head and in its hand is a heart prominently portrayed in a distinctive powder blue.
When you turn the CD over, the back tray is a serene blankness with no words, no drawings, nothing, but upon holding the plastic case up to the light, you can still clearly see that very same heart from the cover directly in the center. Because if there’s anything to gain from Menomena’s Friend And Foe it’s that at the center of all chaos is where you’ll find the heart.