In July, I sat down with the two remaining members of Menomena, Justin Harris and Danny Seim, just before their first rehearsal in almost a year. Setting: the former pipe organ house that serves as both Harris’s home and the band’s rehearsal space. Their new album, Moms, comes out September 18, and they're kicking off a tour at MusicfestNW on September 7. A profile of the two appears in our September issue’s Fall Arts Preview on Monday, but I wanted to run a longer cut of the interview—discussing the new album and how things have changed since the departure of the third member, Brent Knopf—in preview of the listening party they’re throwing on Friday at OMSI's Planetarium (tickets are available here). Originally, they wanted to have an original laser light show created, but it was going to cost them $10,000. So instead they’re going with the laser Floyd show. How will it match up? Anybody’s guess, but it’s guaranteed to be deliciously psychedelic.
So, the name of the new album is Moms? And your press photos have your dads in place of you two? What’s going on?
Danny: We can’t have moms in the pictures. Justin’s is alive, but mine’s not.
Justin: My dad might not be alive. He was then. I haven’t heard from him since. My dad was going to be here. He lives in Texas. It’s five long days from San Antonio back here, and he asked me to drive with him. He was very adamant: he prides himself on being able to drive, even though we ran out of gas on his watch.
Danny: Conceptually it’s about parents. It was titled by Dan Attoe, the guy who painted the cover. He said in his Wisconsin drawl, “y’all should name it ‘Moms.’" Mines to Moms. We thought it was funny at first, but once it stuck, it made sense with the subject matter.
Justin: There are very matronly themes. A while back, Danny sent an email with all of his lyrics, and he was writing about how his mom passed 17 years ago.
Danny: She passed my junior year. I was 17. And when I started writing songs, I was 34, and it was the same month that she passed. There was enough emotional distance that it was weird to be at that point where I was on the Earth twice as long.
Justin: And in the last couple years, there’s been a lot of activity in my family with the moms: grandma passed away, issues with my mom, sister going through a bunch of stuff. I started thinking maybe I’ll start writing about not just my experience, but my own mom and what she’s going through, and how weird it is that we have moms and they were once like us. I know my mom never planned her life to turn out the way it did. Danny’s lyrics are specifically about his mom. One of mine is specifically about my mom, but it’s not like these are songs we wrote to our moms. It’s not a full concept album purely about our moms. Some songs are written about men, but men have moms. We all have moms.
So we can’t talk about Moms without talking about Mines. The album exploded like a soap opera, including WW’s article about the band’s dysfunction. What happened?
Danny: That whole album period was such a weird period in all our lives. I wrote this thing for that album bio that was super negative. Then when something like that comes out, we realized this is not the angle we want. If we had been reading about another band, we would’ve thought “grow up.” But that was definitely exaggerated.
Justin: He interviewed us individually. I said it’s not really like that; I tried to minimize the gossip angle, and he took small phrases of mine and put them totally out of context.
After co-founder Brent Knopf left the band, it was an open question whether the two of you would continue. Why’d you decide to go on and how have things changed?
Justin: The day we got the message that he was quitting the band, Danny woke me up, calling and texting. We talked immediately: “we’re still going to do the band, right? Yeah, of course.” That was the only thought we gave to whether or not to continue. We’re both capable [of solo projects]. He’s had his Lackthereof project for 15 years. But we feel like when we’re adding to each other’s work, we’re adding stuff we wouldn’t normally think of on our own.
Danny: It was a shitty dynamic lifted, that was not just Brent. We got used to this band being this black cloud over us—a black cloud that had to be there or we couldn’t make art. It became a bummer. We aren’t goth guys. I’m a happy person. It’d be one thing if it was part of our schtick to be vampires.
Justin: Or Oasis always fighting on stage.
Danny: I like to think the new album is a new step. Ironically, it’s the darkest stuff I’ve tried to write about. But we’re writing about outer things and not inner band turmoil.
Justin: Brent had a very solid and firm place in this band for 10 years. When he left, inherently things were going to change. But it’s not like he was the problem, and now everything is smooth and easy. Danny and I have the same issues we’ve always have. The process was quicker than we ever recorded before, it felt better, easier, but that’s also coincidental. All this stuff is so miniscule and nonimportant in the grand scheme of life. A band isn’t a marriage or a relationship that affects kids.
Danny: Like a mom.
How has the writing process changed with just the two of you?
Justin: Historically, I dreaded having to record because I know there’s going to be a lot of tension because three people are trying to push their agenda. Andit's easier when only two people are trying to push.
Danny: Yeah, definitely streamlined. After everything that was so hard about that album, anything will feel better. For this one, we’ve been playing music together for so long, I remember telling Justin, “I trust your instincts.” We still butt heads, but we knew each other well enough, I’ll err on getting it done as fast as possible, and Justin will err on quality.
Justin: It’s less important these days to get our way, and more important to feel good about what we’re doing. In that regard, I'm more excited about this record than I have been in a while. It felt more natural and less forced. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we used to compromise so often when it was the three of us, and we still do, but it really seemed the_ Friend and Foe _era was always a series of compromises.
Danny: Everything got watered down.
Justin: And looking back, I think, maybe this idea was stronger before I put my stamp on it. And also in the inverse, it would’ve been better if they let me do it as originally conceived. Basically we’re just apathetic now [laughs].
You said that you add something to each other’s work that you wouldn’t think of on your own. What’s an example?
Justin: For the first song on the album ["Plumage," which was previewed last night to top ratings at the Portland All Songs Considered listening party at Mississippi Studios], the first version had no drums, just handclaps. Then I sent it to Danny, and he played over the mp3 with drums. I liked it, so he came up here and we recorded drums properly, and the rest is history. It’s a lot of back and forth, and a lot of Danny just waiting and getting frustrated with me until I come up with the song.
You’re heading out on the road, starting with a show at Musicfest NW in September. Who’re you taking with you?
Like a devil, just then Holcombe walked in the door, followed by Paul and Matt.
Holcombe: The album is cool because it’s introspective rock meets relationship-driven rock.
Justin: It turns into Fraggle Rock.
I hung around while they finished setting up and then listened to the first run through of “Plumage.” Sure, it was rough, but there’s no doubt that the band is here to stay. Be the first to hear the full force of their live show at MusicfestNW on Friday, Sept. 7.
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