Every so often a band comes along that redefines how we listen to music. Bands like Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and Animal Collective come to mind, as do artists like Bjork and Beck. The unifying factor is an ability to meld genres, break rules of classification, and grasp a bigger picture. Enter Menomena.
Though the now nine-year-strong Portland outfit has yet to sell out the Hollywood Bowl, or even play a slot at Coachella, they’ve done no small part to help put their scene on the map-not to mention pave the way for the many genre-hoppers behind them. Part post rock, part baroque pop, and part experimental jazz band, the threesome (made up of Brent Knopf, Danny Seim, and Justin Harris) has gained a reputation for their bizarre recording strategies, dizzying live shows, and attention to album packaging detail. They’ve also garnered praise from the critics at Spin and Pitchfork and a legion of avid devotees.
Known for layering sounds like East Coasters layer sweaters, it’s no surprise Menomena approaches songwriting a bit differently than the average rock band. Thanks to a computer program written by Knopf called Deeler, the guys begin the majority of their writing in the studio. Jams are recorded and layered on the program, then expanded upon by each of the band members individually at a later date.
“It’s kind of like a sketchbook for musical ideas, just an easy way to get stuff down and recorded and saved for later usage,” explained Harris. “Sometimes it’s hard to get past those initial ideas because that’s what first drew you to it in particular. It’s fun though. We really can do anything.”
The strategy makes for songs, such as those off of 2007’s Friend and Foe, that are chock-full of instrumentation; vocals layer on top of whistles that sit on top of drums and organ parts, synths, sax, and glockenspiel. It also makes for some very interesting live reinterpretations of what the band puts out on record.
“Obviously, the recordings are going to be a little more layered and a little more dense than the live show would be,” laughed Harris. “But Brent has a mini keyboard, so we have a lot of sounds that we’ve sampled from our various instruments there. He does a lot of juggling on the keyboard with different sounds. That’s how I’d describe our show. It’s kind of like a juggling act.”
“A lot of stuff that’s written about our process is often talked about in terms of loops, but we’re not an electronica band,” he continued. “We don’t sequence anything. Everything that’s played live is actually played live. And even if it’s not the native instrument at the time, like a keyboard, we did play it at one time or another.”
It’s that level of inherent meticulousness that seems to define almost every aspect of Menomena’s career. For Friend and Foe, the trio collaborated with famed graphic novelist and friend Craig Thompson to create some of the most intricate die-cut cartoons to ever make their way onto an album cover. The result ended in a Grammy nod for Thompson and the band, along with a string of tour dates that bordered on multimedia art exhibits.
“It kind of took us all by surprise,” Harris recalled, referring to his first glimpse of Thompson’s cover art. “We obviously knew how talented he was, but we didn’t know he would go that far into it. He’s an incredible talent.”
The artistic union between the band and Thompson was, like so many others, rooted in their shared home of Portland-a city that has been gaining plenty of attention recently for turning out bands like The Decemberists, The Shins, Blitzen Trapper, and She & Him.
“The music scene has certainly been explosive,” Harris agreed. “It is a known city for bands to go. In places in Europe and elsewhere, people are always asking, ‘Why is Portland so prolific?’ There are thousands of bands, and I obviously don’t know a large percentage of them, but the actual community itself seems pretty tight-knit,” he continued. “It’s not cutthroat and everyone seems to be happy for everyone. But healthy competition is useful, and I think there is definitely an element of that between different musicians around here. It’s a very inspiring place to be.”
Club Mercy presents Menomena and The Coral Sea at Velvet Jones this Friday, April 17, at 9 p.m. Call 965-8676 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and information.