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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Exclusive interview with Brent Knopf of Menomena

Menomena, a Portland electropop band that gained prominence through indie music website Pitchfork, plays in the Reid Ballroom on Saturday. The band, which also performed at Whitman in 2007, performs with an unusual combination of instruments, including guitars, saxophones and a glockenspiel. Credit: Bullion
Menomena, a Portland electropop band that gained prominence through indie music website Pitchfork, plays in the Reid Ballroom on Saturday. The band, which also performed at Whitman in 2007, performs with an unusual combination of instruments, including guitars, saxophones and a glockenspiel. Credit: Bullion

Menomena came back to Walla Walla last Saturday, tearing through a set that consisted of much of their two records and two new songs to possibly be included on their forthcoming fourth album. I spoke with Brent Knopf, one member of the trio and the primary member of Ramona Falls, before their performance.

Pioneer: The last show you played here was two and a half years ago. You spent over a year on tour, [drummer] Danny [Seim] released two albums as Lackthereof and you became a touring entity as Ramona Falls. How is Menomena coming together as we rapidly approach 2010?

Brent Knopf: It’s coming along, I guess. I’ve been working on it every day for the last month, and I think there are lots of songs on the table. It’ll be interesting to see what happens once we decide what songs to put on the record, and we’ll see from there.

P: Do you know what sort of shape it’s taking at this point?

BK: One of us wants a 35-minute long album, another one of us wants a double album. It could be anywhere between 35 minutes and 140 minutes long.

P: Have you been working as you usually do, with Deeler?

BK: Yeah. What we do is start off with Deeler sessions, which are basically jam sessions, and the computer records different loops that we invent on the spot, and years later, as the case may be, we’ll take those loops and make songs out of them. It’s not always the case, but it’s usually the case these days.

P: When you go in to record for an album, is it played through live, or is it more assembled in software?

BK: I’d say it’s about half and half. It depends on who’s doing it; oftentimes we’ll take Deeler loops and they won’t sound very good so we’ll rerecord them. Usually we don’t record vocals in the beginning, they usually come last. So it depends, but I’d say it’s probably 50-50 in terms of the layers that were part of Deeler sessions and those that weren’t. But it depends on who’s mixing.

P: Is it a democratic process?

BK: I don’t know how to describe it, actually. I think that we’re all three doing our share. It’s not like one of us is in charge and telling the others what to do about certain song arrangements, so we all are pretty autonomous about the songs that we personally arrange.

P: How have yours and Danny’s solo projects shaped your work returning to the Menomena setting?

BK: Danny just had his twelfth release, the retrospective. I’m a huge fan of Danny’s work and I’m really excited for him to have that retrospective out, because I think a lot of people need to check it out … He’s just such an amazing creative force. In terms of if Ramona Falls has shaped the way I’m coming back into Menomena, I feel like I’m just that much more confident with arranging music, and I’m more used to that environment, so I feel like I’m faster now at getting the sounds that I want.   I feel like a lot of the work that I did for Ramona Falls involved redoing samples, so I think that’s going to help our live show. I only use my own samples; I never buy, you know, sets of piano samples from the Vienna Philharmonic. I actually record my own piano.

P: Is that a painstaking process?

BK: It’s painstaking, and it’s incredibly tedious, but it lends the sound something more real, so I think that’ll be good for when we play live, we’ll have better sounds ready. In the course of touring live with Ramona Falls, my friend Paul, who’s in Ramona Falls, helped me put together a kind of vocal effects rig, so my voice sounds a little more reverby, which is kind of fun.

P: So when you perform live currently, everything running through your MIDI controller/keyboard consists of samples that you made?

BK: Yeah. We don’t play the [backing] tracks, but I do play samples.

P: What software are you using for live shows?

BK: Just Kontakt 3, a software synthesizer.

P: How did you get into writing, arranging and composing?

BK: Just kind of by necessity. You mean like me personally, in my own life?

P: Maybe, yeah.

BK: In terms of just how I came upon it myself I was always really passionate about music and started trying to dabble in songwriting and recording when I was … I started writing songs when I was really young, but then didn’t really try recording them, and doing, like, grunge songs until I was like seventeen. I was a big fan of the Smashing Pumpkins, so, that’s when I started recording using my mom’s eight-track player.

Funnily enough, the first song that I got really serious about recording, Danny and Justin [Harris] actually played on. They were part of a band at the time —   I was not in that band — but I was friends with Danny, so Danny recorded drums, and then we needed a bass player, so we actually called up Justin, but we didn’t end up forming Menomena until four years later, maybe three years later. So I kind of just got into that.

It’s strange that we ended up writing so much of our music from Deeler sessions, since that’s kind of loop-based music, and really growing up in my life I never really wrote loop-based music. I more wrote in the traditional singer-songwriter sort of way, just with piano and voice or guitar and voice, and try to flesh it out from there. A lot of songs like “Hey There Delilah,” basically, but sadly not as successful. Once Menomena formed, Danny kind of set the precedent for taking these … Deeler was only intended as a tool for live performance, so I never thought it’d be a compositional tool for us, but that’s what it ended up being. We’d kind of go into practice and goof around with Deeler for fun, and Danny ended up taking those loops and making songs out of them a long time ago. So that’s how that got started.

I always projected the talents of arranging and producing onto other people. I thought, well, maybe if we get lucky we’ll get signed and someone who knows what they’re doing will work with us, but life didn’t have that in store for us, and instead we’ve always just taught ourselves and flown by the seat of our pants. We’re all kind of self-taught. We only ever record, produce, and engineer ourselves.

P: Was the Ramona Falls material more loop-oriented or songwriter-oriented, then?

BK: That was about half and half. There are a few songs there … “Diamond Shovel” was not a loop-based song, but there are others that did emerge from Deeler sessions, many of them Deeler sessions I just did by myself. For example, the first song on the Ramona Falls record is called “Melectric” and a large part, 90% of that, was written from a Deeler session when Menomena was playing a concert in Grinnell, in Iowa. We’d done our soundcheck, so I wandered off to find some privacy, I found a piano in a conference room and I set up Deeler right there. I was recording guitar and I got kicked out of there for some sort of event, so I went into a stairwell in a dorm — I was really excited by the Deeler session — and in the recording you can hear the sound of the door slamming from the third floor’s dorm rooms.

P: What influence do you think the internet and/or online journalism has had on the band?

BK: I think that Menomena got really lucky in terms of attracting the attention of online journalists. So I’m really grateful that those people noticed and spread the word, cause without that … how do you spread the word when you don’t have any money?

P: How did that happen?

BK: Several online people picked us up, but Pitchfork also gave the first Menomena record a good review, and it’s funny, cause I’d never heard of Pitchfork at that time and someone just told Danny, “Hey, you should send your CD to this site,” he’s like “oh, whatever,” and I think it just sat on their shelves for months, and then they picked it up because of the zany flipbook packaging. At least that’s the story I heard.

I had never heard of Pitchfork, but I remember I flipped out cause we went from having one sale a day on our online site to all of a sudden having sold 300 CDs, and we’re like, “Why did this happen?” really excited. We’re like, “We sold 300 CDs! This is amazing!” and we couldn’t figure out why. That was kind of fun.

P: Are you glad you haven’t ended up among the bands Pitchfork’s interested in tabloidizing?

BK: Part of me wonder how much bands kind of ask for that. I don’t have much patience for that side of things. It seems kind of like middle school. It’s hard to know what to say; I’m thankful for online journalism for the way it spreads the word about new music, and so overall I’m thankful that exists, and I think it’s preferable to the old system. I just try to make good work and let the chips fall where they may after that.

P: Do you have an ETA on the new Menomena album?

BK: I’m hoping next year. I think we’re a couple months away from finishing it. I have high expectations on myself, and I want to get things done quickly, and I think all of us feel like this record has taken us longer than we expected it to.

P: What’s currently exciting you as far as Portland music goes?

BK: There are some records I’m excited to hear. The new Dat’r record, the new Tu Fawning. I’m a fan of Matt Sheehy’s work, and Matt ended up being guitarist in Ramona Falls, so I’m really excited to see what he comes up with next, he’s a great solo artist in his own right. The great thing about Portland is that there’s so much diverse independent music happening, so everyone’s always coming up with something really exciting. There are some bands that I don’t particularly care for personally but I can still see what they’re contributing to the general community, and I’m really thankful to live there.

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