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
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.”