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Three guys and a whole lot of instruments

With the pop band Menomena, it’s all about the layers. Layers of sound, layers of meaning —even their CD cover art can’t be taken in with just one glance. By Paige Newman
/ Source: msnbc.com

With the pop band Menomena, it’s all about the layers. Layers of sound, layers of meaning —even their CD cover art can’t be taken in with just one glance. While some bands have a clear leader, Menomena is all about collaboration.

On their new CD, “Friend and Foe,” without any advanced planning, it just happen to turn out that each of the three band members sang one-third of the songs. It seemed like the ultimate democracy.

“Yes, yes,” Brent Knopf (piano, guitar, vocals) says, laughing, “There’s lots of looting and there’s an insurgency that we’re trying to quell. But don’t embolden any of us, please.”

Still it’s hard not to be impressed with the way Knopf, Danny Seim (drums, vocals) and Justin Harris (bass, sax, guitar, vocals) work together. To create the Menomena sound, they make what Knopf calls “Deeler sessions”

“We describe it as a glorified guitar loop pedal,” says Knopf. “What you do is you set up a tempo and a meter and use headphones. The first person will just have that phrase — the beat, basically — and then they’ll improvise or make something up on the spot.”

Each person does this a number of times so that the band ends up with a pile of different musical choices. “When it comes time to make a song,” says Knopf, “we’ll come back to those files and we’ll piece them together — not unlike a quilt. We’ll take some, duplicate those, and put them here and then layer them, and before you know it, you have a song structure.”

The band doesn’t even look at the concept of a song in the typical sense. For them, the lyrics and melody come later in the process, and the person who writes the lyrics, typically sings the song.

Not your standard songwriting process. And if their “democratic” method sounds like an easy, harmonious process, it’s not.

“The making of this record was one of the most difficult personal experiences I’ve ever had,” says Knopf. “I think the same goes for Danny and Justin as well. We’re all strong personalities and we have different ways of working — and did those ways of working ever collide.”

The result of all that energy, negative and positive, is an album that has a depth that makes you want to go back and listen again and again. Even a song that doesn’t grab you at first will surprise you on the seventh or eighth listen when you begin to notice the little details.

Of course, having a complicated album is one thing, but taking that music on the road created a whole new set of challenges for the band. “We do the best we can representing [the songs],” says Knopf. “And sometimes that means we have to leave a couple layers out or maybe only play them half the time.”

Listening to the album’s rich, driving sound, it’s easy to forget that Menomena is just three guys. But when you see them surrounded by instruments on a stage, moving from one to another, the effect is both intimate and a lot like watching someone juggling plates. There’s a riskiness to the band’s live shows that’s invigorating.

“Many bands these days press ‘play’ on an iPod or a computer or a CD, and they play along to a click that they’re hearing,” explains Knopf.  “We haven’t done that yet; but because we don’t, that means there are layers that are simply not playable. I guess we could strap a bass drum on a backpack and wrap a tuba around ourselves.”

The biggest challenges are the songs on which Seim sings. “It’s hard to sing effectively and emotionally and loudly when you’re also drumming,” says Knopf. “We don’t know what to do yet with the song ‘Air Raid.’ We may end up having Danny play keyboards, have Justin drum and have me play guitar.”

Trying to envision this game of musical chairs is the perfect illustration of the challenges the band faces. For one recent show in Portland, Ore., Menomena did have the luxury of a 25-person volunteer chorus of local musicians, who also did some drumming and picked up some other instruments.

“We don’t have the financial resources to be the Polyphonic Spree and drag everyone around and pay them,” explains Knopf. “For better or worse, it’s definitely not Broken Social Scene. We do the best we can. And sometimes that means it’s more of a sparse sound but there’s also a different energy to live performance, so we try to keep it true to the song.”

The album’s sound can seem a bit dark, particularly on songs like “My My,” with its lyrics “What if I sold everything I own / and ran away from everyone I know / could I make another place my home?”  But Knopf doesn’t see it quite that way. He’s had some people come up and tell him the album seems upbeat, while others have said it’s a downer.

“Hopefully, the experience of listening to the record is complicated and it’s not just one emotion,” he says, adding with a laugh, “We try to strike a balance between Hanson and Pantera.”

And that complex experience is only complimented by the CD’s cover art. When is the last time you even noticed cover art?

Graphic artist Craig Thompson (“Blankets”) has created a package where there are eight different possible variations of the cover, and each one has snippets of lyrics and drawings. There are holes through which the CD appears, and depending on how you turn the disc, different images appear within those spaces. It’s actually one of those things that you want to sit down and play with — a strange throwback in this age of downloading.

“There are so many layers to the design that are slowly emerging,” says Knopf. “We’ll get an email or a post on our message board where someone who’s figured out a different layer. And it’s really exciting. I’m really glad that there are these layers of meaning and layers of puzzles.”

Of course there is one last meaning that definitely needs an explanation and that’s the band’s name. When asked if it comes from “Sesame Street,” Knopf says, “Uh, this is where I need Scott McClellan to be my press secretary. I won’t say that you’re wrong.”

Menomena is about to hit the road again, so try to catch them if they come through your town. They’ll be three guys hauling a ton of instruments; you may want to lend them a hand.

For more information on Menomena, visit:  http://www.barsuk.com/bands/menomena.