Menomena’s Inside Joke

There’s an inside joke about Menomena, the crazy experimental rock band from Portland who sound like the inverse equation of Modest Mouse or Califone. It isn’t the fact that none of the guys—Danny Seim on drums, Justin Harris on bass, Brent Knopf on vocals—are formally trained musicians and can’t read music, even though their songs sound so effortlessly composed. It’s also not that you can see the Barsuk logo through a hole on their latest CD cover just beside the strange pregnant woman with an eaglet fetus. It definitely doesn’t have anything to do with the Sesame Street song from the ’70s with those silly puppets singing an insane song that sticks to your synapses like glue.

“The name ‘Menomena’ comes from an Italian soft porn movie, but it’s also Greek for ‘what remains,’ so there are a few different layers behind it,” says Knopf, a soft-spoken Dartmouth graduate who seems equally comfortable discussing word syntax as the handbell chimes on their latest release for Barsuk, Friend or Foe. “I get a little disappointed when journalists spoil the surprise. A fun thing about the band is we want people to hear us and then a year later see the Muppets on TV and realize how we got our name. The Muppets stole the name from porn, and we’re stealing it back!”

Despite the multiple meanings, Menomena is a weird concoction of loops and quirks, fuzz and feedback. Knopf uses a custom-made software program to create unique and loosely connected audio samples that only occasionally intersect and unite into a recognizable rhythm. On some songs, two entirely different rhythms will run at the same time. The first listen through any of their releases (including two indies for Film Guerrero and the Barsuk release), you might stop and wonder what the heck is going on. Where did that saxophone come from, and why is it there? Who decided to add that guitar solo during an awkward moment in a slow song? One vocal line will stick out in a song, like “It’s hard to take risks with a pessimist” from “Wet and Rusting,” which rhymes about as well as any other line they write, and you just think, This is all so random.

Yet, it’s what makes indie music (and indie movies, for that matter) so compelling. There are no rules of engagement, no set patterns to success or failure. Imagine the pressures on Bruce Springsteen: He makes one unpredictable album (Ghost of Tom Joad) and gets crucified by fans, so he retreats with his Fender around his back and reassembles the E Street Band, and has followed the same line in the sand ever since. Even Tom Waits has to deal with the fact that his fans just want him to make another Mule Variations.

Ultimately, it’s this “inside joke” mentality that works so well for modern music these days, from Modest Mouse writing a song about a sinking boat, to the end-times track on the latest Arcade Fire. Somehow, in some odd way, music has evolved over the past 10 years or so into something that is not exactly mathematical, yet not formulaic wither. You don’t get it right away, like a joke you have to be told again and again, and then suddenly you laugh so hard your gut hurts. That means there’s a slowly building benefit.

Aerosmith made a living by creating the musical equivalent to cookie dough: It’s great the first time, tastes the same way every other time, but has little redeeming value and is probably going to kill us all in the end. (Not that were advocating against cookie dough, but go with the underlying theme.) Indie music has more nutrients, more antioxidants, more down-to-earth ingredients. A song like “Polo” (off the band’s EP) plants roots in you, warms over time, finds an audio catalyst and takes up residence in your soul.

Unfortunately, this kind of inside joke is one that many people don’t get, and probably won’t ever get. The more unpredictable and abstract a song is, the more people will think it is confusing and not that compelling. In fact, Modest Mouse usually raises a few eyebrows with the mainstream listening audience, who wonder how the band ever got signed to a label and what the songs could possibly mean. Menomena is all about coy meanings and unpredictable arrangements—it is what they do best.

“There’s always a negotiation between what people are eager to hear and the music musicians are eager to make, and how those two get connected,” says Knopf. “That means there’s now a strange homogenization and complication when it comes to music. There’s no clear channel that controls how music is distributed. Mainstream radio does try—they have complicated algorithms that determine an average grade and a threshold percentage chance of a song being a radio hit. There are pressures from when people listen to music in short increments that forces music to be dumbed-down.”

Of course, “dumbing down” is something Menomena would never try. If anything, their approach makes their music slightly inaccessible, or even hard to grasp. “Polo,” from their recent Wet and Rusting EP, is so full of whizzing space sounds and interjected organ parts that your brain gets befuddled. Yet, it’s not exactly brainiac music for sophisticates—the instrumentation is fairly straightforward. Menomena records in a home studio using off-the-shelf software and the ultras-basics: drums, bass, keys—with a few extra accoutrements and loops thrown in along the way. Mostly, it’s how they play their music that makes the band unique, and why they have that hard-to-explain “second listen” payout, when you figure out—just a little—how the songs were constructed. Like a dense novel by Cormac McCarthy or Jane Austen, the enjoyment is in the dissection.

“Most people are looking for music that is a kind of language, with new ways of communicating, new words and phrases and rhythms,” Knopf says. “Bands like Animal Collective and Califone are pushing and tugging on the perceived notions of what makes a song a song. Then there are bands like Arcade Fire who can somehow push deep into our music sensibility with something that resonates and is increasingly enjoyable on subsequent listens. We’ve all heard music that we liked at first and then it becomes stale and we feel cheated, like the music is a fraud—the lyrics are pointless, there is no redeeming value, or maybe they don’t even write their own songs. The music I am most enamored with maintains an innocence—despite the talents of the musician.”

Making indie music that is somewhat hard to grasp at first could be a recipe for disaster, but the way music is distributed and digested is changing. In the past, a major label would sign a band and then expect a big dividend with lots of radio-friendly singles. (Wilco proved the record labels wrong, of course, by making music that is both not radio-friendly and intensely interesting, selling millions after they parted ways with Reprise.) Today, any artist can record on a Mac and release their material over PureVolume.com and get the attention of fans, tour across the country, press their own CDs and make a living.

For Menomena, the main goal for the band seems to be connection: They are primarily musical experimenters who could do their work in a dark, dungy basement and never talk to fans. Yet they are eclectic in ways other than just music creation. Their CD jackets are an art form by themselves: fold-out origami experiments (for a previous vinyl release) and mesmerizing art that you stare at and dissect just as much as their music. Even their photo shoots tell a story—three guys in a bathtub, posters that make them look like The Ghostbusters, a live show and music videos that are one part music, one part Warhol.

The band started as an experiment. Knopf “sheepishly” introduced himself to the Seim and Harris in high school before legitimately forming in Portland around 2000. They released I am the Fun Blame Monster in 2004, and Under an Hour in 2005. There were no hysterics over the band back then, no guest spots on TRL, although some critics predicted that Menomena would garner a much bigger audience—including Pitchfork, who gave I am the Fun Blame … an unusually high 8.7 rating. After that, Barsuk signed the band to a record deal, and Friend or Foe released in 2007.

Friend or Foe eventually showed up on many best-of-the-year lists, and led to indie superstardom and sweet eternal bliss … or, not really on those last milestones. “Indie superstardom” is, in the end, an oxymoron. Could a band that uses homemade looping software and records in a garage ever reach the same eternal masses as U2 or Coldplay? In many ways, it’s the curse of being unique and playful in your music—you will always alienate a mass audience, and could possibly end up as no-name starving artists.

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“We’ve really only had one choice—doing this ourselves,” says Knof, agreeing that indie music is not necessarily a recipe for extreme exposure. “No one else is going to do it for you; you have to make your own context. The best artists—the music I love—is always done by people who are totally committed to the craft of music, not just getting attention. They are very inventive in the process they use and the technology they use. I like how the guy in Tool makes his own guitar pedals, or that Tori Amos uses these unique pianos and harpsichords in recording. Sound Garden, for a majority of their songs, use alternate tunings; they experimented with new sounds and new ways of making sounds.”

“We have, for the most part, avoided the neurotic curse of measuring how this microphone sounds in a certain cabinet or which way it is pointing exactly, or that we just can’t record unless we get this new piece of gear. Some people get hung up on the idea that they can’t record the Great American Record unless they have this $10,000 microphone or a certain pre-amp. There’s an entire industry that makes a living convincing people that they don’t have the gear they need, but once you get a basic recording setup it is not that complicated. We recorded a majority of our first record using the same microphone, and borrowed a couple of others for other recordings.”

Even with this minimalistic approach, Knopf does like to experiment. For Under an Hour, he dragged a laptop around with him for weeks, recording gurgling water, idle conversations, a hammered dulcimer, bells at his parent’s church and a toy piano he found at an old music store. He says he strives to make songs that sound unique yet connect on an emotional level. Sometimes, he arrives at this idea by accident. For some songs on Friend or Foe, he wrote melodies in 7/8 time with alternating measures of three beats and four beats, but not because he was trying to be complicated or elusive. Often, the songs come together on a whim, because they sound good in the studio, or because the other guys in the band like what they hear—even if they don’t have some “abstract super-complicated algorithm” (as Knopf called it) for a particular song.

So, what’s next for the band? Are they going to hole up in some abandoned Russian bunker and record the eerie sounds of nuclear waste dispersals, or do a photo shoot on top of the Eifel Tower hanging on bungie cords wearing Scottish attire? Knopf says they will probably tour in Europe and start working on the next record. In many ways, he’s the quintessential musician type: He’ll talk shop (recording, label pressures, how to record a handbell) and shoot the breeze about the stagnation of making indie music, but not reveal a lot of personal details or secret plans for the band to gain more exposure.

Even press materials for Menomena are coy, revealing only a few choice nuggets but failing—for the most part—to explain even the basics of how the band started out or covering such compulsory topics, such as how they germinate ideas for their songs.

Perhaps that’s all part of the indie mystique, akin to books written by someone like John Twelve Hawks, who doesn’t reveal his true identity and dwells in perfunctory anecdotes, letting the art speak almost entirely for itself. Knopf says he does what is necessary to promote the band, but early on they had no marketing budget, no plans for promotion and relied heavily on word of mouth. He explains that there is any number of theories about how to get attention in music, and sometimes the reverse works—not showing a movie to a group of reviewers on purpose and get more press time than showing the movie.

Clearly, Menomena falls into the same vein as Califone and even quirkier artists like Deerhoof, who catch you first by sounding so different. With the Internet, anyone can record any random sounds and out them together in a recording program, and release it on MySpace, but in the end there has to be an artistry to music, a connection to the listener. Short of calling it spiritual, it is a base human response that Menomena understands. At least, if you listen more than once.

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