Get­ting per­sonal

Menom­ena don’t just write the songs, play the in­stru­ments and drive the bus. This off­beat Ore­gon trio have been known to hand­make their CD sleeves too. They talk to Jim Car­roll

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -


URIOSITY is a much un­der­rated virtue. For Menom­ena, cu­rios­ity about what would hap­pen if you put some creative cats among the con­ven­tional artrock pi­geons has paid off time and time again.

Friend and Foe, the Port­land, Ore­gon trio’s third album, is a sign of both the cur­rent rude health of US left­field rock and Menom­ena’s own grow­ing con­fi­dence as a band. The songs are colour­ful, em­bel­lished, hotch-potches of sounds and styles, an al­most hy­per­ac­tive demon­stra­tion of the band’s skills and abil­i­ties. No idea is too far-fetched to be tried out for size, and few ideas don’t work.

On a blus­tery and rainy morn­ing in Port­land, singer-gui­tarist-key­boardist Brent Knopf agrees that Friend and Foe is their great leap for­ward.

“I think we were ask­ing our­selves dif­fer­ent ques­tions as a band­when we were mak­ing Friend and Foe,” he says, “be­cause we were dif­fer­ent mu­si­cians to the ones who had started out back in 2000. Our skills had im­proved and we had learned more so we knew more about record­ing and tech­nique. Friend and Foe is also more of an in­ter­twined and com­pli­cated col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween all of us than the pre­vi­ous al­bums.”

Menom­ena’s back-cat­a­logue in­cludes Un­der an Hour, three in­stru­men­tal pieces com­posed as a score for a Port­land dance troupe, and their 2003 de­but, I Amthe Fun Blame Mon­ster. One strik­ing as­pect of their work is the at­ten­tion to de­tail on the en­tire pack­age. The new album fea­tures in­tri­cate pack­ag­ing and has been nom­i­nated for a Grammy (re­sults TBA Sun­day night), while their de­but came with a hand-as­sem­bled book (for the CD) and a fold-out origami mon­ster (for the vinyl).

“We approach the art­work in the same way as we approach the mu­sic,” says Knopf. “We want to pro­vide an ex­pe­ri­ence that peo­ple think is worth spend­ing time on and that they will re­visit. We like to think that the more time peo­ple spend with the mu­sic and the art­work, the more lay­ers and se­crets they will un­ravel. There’s more than meets the eye to the art­work and there’s more than meets the ear to the mu­sic.”

The con­cepts and mech­a­nisms in the art­work for Friend and Foe were a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Port­land graphic nov­el­ist Craig (Blan­kets) Thompson. “He took our ideas away, added his draw­ings and ba­si­cally mag­ni­fied what we had in mind and made it a thou­sand times more awe­some than it would have been if we had done it our­selves.”

At the be­gin­ning of the Menom­ena’s ca­reer, though, such in­tri­cate art­work in­volved the band tak­ing on the bulk of the work. “We only made 500 copies of Fun Mon­ster to be­gin with and we were just giv­ing them out to friends. We got lucky when some on­line jour­nal­ists no­ticed it and gave it very pos­i­tive re­views. Pretty soon we had or­ders for the album com­ing in from all over.

“As a re­sult, we ended up do­ing 3,000 hand­made copies of the first press­ing. Each pack­age took 15 min­utes to make, when you add in the time spent copy­ing and cod­ing and col­lat­ing and sort­ing and then putting on the vel­lum bind­ing and melt­ing the vel­lum bind­ing. It was in­ten­sive and it ex­plains why our en­er­gies were go­ing into ful­fill­ing the or­ders and not into writ­ing songs for the next record.”

Not that there wasn’t any short­age of peo­ple will­ing to share the load, Knopf says. “At the start, we had no other choice but to do it our­selves be­cause all the la­bels we sent the album to re­jected it. Then, af­ter the re­views ap­peared, we had la­bels ap­proach­ing us but they wanted us to change what we were do­ing. They didn’t want to do the book with the album or wanted to add a track to get peo­ple who al­ready had the album to buy it again. We thought that was in­suf­fer­able.”

Menom­ena knew they had to re­lin­quish con­trol, but they still found it hard to let go. “Gen­er­ally, we do ev­ery­thing our­selves un­til we run into some­one who can do it so much bet­ter than we ever could and who we can trust. It took us time, though, to hand ev­ery­thing over. I think the DIY ethic teaches you to care a lot about mak­ing sure that what reaches your au­di­ence is of a cer­tain high qual­ity and is as good as it can be.”

They’re still very much hands on when it comes to some as­pects, al­though Knopf sounds as if he’d be happy to hand over cer­tain tour­ing chores to oth­ers.

“The only change in our tour­ing rou­tine is that we’ve gone from driv­ing our­selves around the US in a con­demned ve­hi­cle which was li­able to go on fire at any mo­ment to driv­ing our­selves around the US in a slightly safer van. At least, we’re not fear­ful for our lives all the time. That’s a good tran­si­tion, be­lieve me.”

Like many bands at their level, Menom­ena know there is noth­ing re­motely glam­orous about tour­ing. “It’s stress­ful and ex­haust­ing,” ad­mits Knopf. “It’s a lot like be­ing a long-dis­tance freight truck driver with oc­ca­sional ap­plause. You are driv­ing ridicu­lous dis­tances, lug­ging heavy loads and not get­ting much sleep for long pe­ri­ods.

“In Europe, we work with City Slang and the Co-Op set-up and they hook us up with a tour man­ager and a van and our lives are very spoiled. But in the United States, we’re still do­ing it our­selves be­cause we can’t af­ford a driver. The up­side, though, is you’re do­ing some­thing that you love and there is fun to be so closely in­volved in the de­tails of the thing.”

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