Interview with Menomena’s Justin Harris: Round and round in the circle game

First: My history with Menomena

I love when things come in full circle. For someone who doesn’t believe in fate, destiny and other humbug, I appreciate when coincidence and chance add to a proper story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This story started 2008, when I was just starting out as a volunteer at my local radio station and was asked to be part of the festival-radio-team at the Immergut Festival. I declined, because at that point I didn’t really know anyone that well and didn’t want to be trapped with strangers on a festival, where sanitary issues and my hate of large groups of people already would have created an uncomfortable environment. Anyways, I came to regret my decision when I found out that Menomena – whom I had just discovered at that point – had played at the festival. Oh Shucks, I said and kicked my butt.

My first encounter with Menomena was “Evil Bee” and I don’t think I can explain how it was to hear something that was so different from anything I’ve ever heard before…

Over the years, Menomena became one of the very few bands that I lovingly used as a point of reference. Just as Zappa, Peter Gabriel and Modest Mouse, for me, they were their own entity and therefore put me in the (sometimes un-)fortunate position that I couldn’t compare them to any other band, hence being used quite often whenever other bands sounded a little weird and different to in turn compare them to Menomena. “Friend and Foe” became a favourite of mine and I even had my first successful music-nazi-burn in an argument about them, when the lord of the music team at the radio complained that I had put “Pelican”on heavy rotation during the day, arguing that people would not be able to cope with such a strange song and immediately turn the radio off to never again listen to it. I replied that not everyone could stand to listen to The Smiths and Morrissey all day every day, aka the easy-listening portion of indie-music and bathed in the laughter of my fellow music-nerds. It was glorious.

Anyways, when “Mines” came out and the band was on the brink of saying Goodbye to Brent Knopf (or rather, the other way round), I had my own existential crisis going on, with finishing my studies and moving to Berlin, trying to make a living on my own. I admittedly didn’t spend that much time with their album that weighed heavy on me at a time when I listened to a lot of spacey indie songs that left me air to breathe because there was already too much pressure from everything else. I did enjoy it, though, as this review shows, so it’s not like it was being left on the wayside of my step towards the big city.

(watch till the end to see a crazy French lady…you also see Joe Hague strumming the guitar who is now being awesome with Tu Fawning)

However, it is interesting that both Menomena and I took on a rather big change during that time and made the best out of it.

Second, Menomena’s “Moms”

Fast forward two years and finally, we’re nearly in the present (what a boring ride that was, ey?). I just got a new job and try to fend off the panic that comes with new responsibilities and Menomena just put out their new album “Moms” (well, “just” is a little exaggerated, they released it in late September) and on the first of December, I was finally able to get what I wanted all along – an interview with them (or rather Justin) and an amazing live show. And it only took me roughly five months to finally put it on the blog. Oh my.

Right after Brent’s departure, Justin and Danny immediately decided to stick together and continue the band (hallelujah) and after Danny sent Justin a mail with new lyrics, which mainly concerned his mother who passed away when he was 17, they had a rough theme for the new album: mothers. Justin, who grew up in a single-parent household as well, with his father leaving the house pretty early in his life, and Danny who, 34 at the time of writing those lyrics, had already lived as many years without his mother as he had lived with her, put together “Moms” (named by Cover-artist Dan Attoe) which is only on few occasions literal in its matronly theme. Instead, it’s an album about relationships, how our mothers shape us, how family can even bind us and how we age in their shadows. Some of the lyrics are unusually intimate, showing a new side of the band that always succeeded in highly abstract, symbolical narratives. “Heavy is as heavy does” and “Baton” cut deep and draw blood in their pain and honesty and show, how much we can expect from those two, now that they lost the apprehension of showing too much of themselves in their music. In that – at least for me – they surpass the most artful of all, the great Frank Zappa who had the greatest arrangements and compositions but who never let anyone near him, always finding a way to let humor shield his more personal views.

(be assured that Brent Knopf is now merrily happy with Ramona Falls and his thousand producing gigs throughout Portland and beyond)

That doesn’t mean that Menomena have lost their musical and lyrical humor. In fact, the album begins with “Plumage”, a musically rather up-beat and lyrically even playful ode to the mating dance. I found that the sinister and gloriously grimy “Don’t mess with Latexas” could even serve as a Bizzarro-version, showing a side of mating where it’s not about dancing but more about a hunt. I have to say, “Don’t mess with Latexas” is one of my favourites for its dark imagery that sticks to your mind (if you want it or not). Justin and Danny take turns on the album, Justin gets the odd and Danny the even songs , therefore already giving the album a nice dynamic. Personally, I find “Moms” to be the Menomena-album that lends itself to listening through instead of picking favourites, especially as the theme of aging roughly draws a full circle, starting with the mating dance and ending on an incredibly impressive note in “One Horse”, a song about withering and dying.

Maybe it’s me, growing older, slowly tapping towards my thirties, but many of my favourite albums last year dealt with that topic, looking back and trying to evaluate the present. From “Anais Mitchell’s “Young Man in America” to the Maccabees “Given to the Wild” to Nada Surf’s “The Stars are indifferent…” to “Plants and Animals’ “The End of That”, they all dealt with age, parenthood and the future. But Menomena are the only ones that paint a rather dire picture.

“I know the ending yet I’m faking suspense”, Danny sings in “One Horse”, giving the usually satisfied and wise calm of old age the doubts and hurt of leaving things behind, of losing them. Some say that when Pandora (you know, the one with the box, WHAT’S IN THE BOX?’) let all the evil out to the world, the worst of them all was Hope which climbed out last, because it is the one that keeps us going, even though it is all in vain. “And I don’t care much for wishful thinking, It’s heavy as I breathe” sighs Justin in “Heavy is as heavy does”.

It works without kicking you to the grounds of depression, because their music keeps everything lively, ever changing, embracing each song, giving the listener something to hold onto. Seeing them live, it becomes even more obvious, when the now 5-piece-band moves restlessly, and, for example, celebrates an ode to the unobtainable like “Tantalus”.

Is the heaviness of their topics a reason to let it all go and leave? Of course not, as dark as Menomena’s “Moms” might be and even if their lyrics suggest that growing older makes one wiser but not happier, this album shows how much can actually come out of all this pain and through its partially very grand and opulent arrangements and the sometimes nearly aggressive sense of humor, it becomes a glorious, cathartic experience that rolls through your mind like a natural disaster. And catharsis, another great concept coined by the Greeks, is a cleaning experience that might or might not let us start over – scrubbed clean, we can throw on yet another coat of feathers to try again…

Third, that was nice and all but what about the Interview?!

…and here it is, after a long long introduction, the interview, heavily edited (we also talked about “Homeland”, getting socks on a Sunday in Berlin and why Portland is like Canada but the interview was already too long, so I cut those out and left all the nerdy music bits in). Enjoy.

Justin: Are you in the right place?

Me (flustered as I fumble with my notes): Me? Yes, yes. (fumbles some more) Your first song starts on a very light note and then it grows heavier and heavier, how much thought did you put into the tracklisting?

J: The tracks alternate between the tracks that Danny sings and the songs that I sing. I have the odds he has the evens but we tried to balance the whole album. There is still some playfulness towards the end of the album but lyrically, it gets more and more dark, “One horse” is really dark…

Me: …even before that, “Don’t mess with Latexas”,for example, it’s a fun song but it’s really sinister, it makes me feel dirty when I listen to it.

J: Me too

(Editors note: This was also song that only took one week to write, mainly because the rest of the album was already done and the two were under time constraints but it also surprised them by the fluid way they came up with it)

Me: You also have openly personal tracks on the album for the very first time. Was that something where you thought, ok, with two people there is not that much rejection, therefore I can do it?

J: I think it made it a little easier. The more people you add to a band contributing lyrics, the more conscious you have to be of the other people and if I am writing something extremely personal that may not reflect the feelings of the other people in the room…if it would just be me, there would be no question but Danny and I talked about what we lyrically were thinking about and what we were writing about related to one another. It felt cohesive and easy to be a little more open and wear our hearts on our sleeves a little bit. I think we always have written personally but tried to make it vague and this writing is more blunt.

Me: Is it easier to be clearer?

J: No, I think it is easier to write vague because you run the risk of sounding cheesy and preachy if you write very straight-forward. I think it is harder to write a lyrically compelling song…I remember thinking ‘it is harder to write what I mean in a way that I am not getting laughed at’.

Me: And performing the songs in front of the audience, is that the next step of going naked?

J: Yeah, kind of, I was actually apprehensive about that before playing live about how that stuff would translate because there is the idea of performance vs. the idea that is actually important to you and you’re singing the same thing every night in front of people and there seems to be a contradiction that seems a little disingenuous to be pouring your heart out night after night but I feel like these are the songs that we wrote so what else are we’re going to perform? And some of the songs like “Heavy is as heavy does”…I wasn’t sure how I would feel, singing songs like that night after night but it’s actually fine, I feel at home with them now and at peace.

Me: Speaking of playing live, for a band like you, is it just as nerve-wrecking to adapt an album onto stage, especially now with five band members? (ed. Note: for touring, they have three additional and awesome musicians with them).

J: When we started out on our US-tour we were not ready for a tour but at this point we’re pretty ready. At first it was rough at best. It is very interesting to see how the songs take shape and change a little bit. We play them structurally the same because we’re so locked to play the parts that are kind of like puzzle pieces, if one is not going to be played, the other one is falling away, so we are locked into structures but we play everything differently every night and that is interesting. It’s also interesting with five people too and to hear everyone’s perspective on any given show. Like last night I could be ‘Yeah, this was the best show we’ve ever played’ and then someone will be like ‘Are you kidding? This was horrible!’ Hearing it in a different way is usually based on our different performances.

Me: The main theme of the album is obviously “moms” but I also thought that it is a lot about aging and it starts with mating and in a twisted way, for me at least, it is like a full circle with the last song, how does the theme play into the songwriting?

J: It can be very misleading to have the theme of ‘moms’, a lot of people take that very literally and it’s not like the whole thing is dedicated to our moms, it’s more about how we all have moms and how impactful they are in our lives or how impactful they are if they are not in our lives and how that affects all of our relationships…It starts about mating and ends with dying.

Me: Maybe it’s because I am heading towards the 30s but I noticed there are a lot of bands coming up with albums where they look back and it’s always in a fond way and they’re happy and then your album is so bitter. Did you push the positive sides of ageing away to write the album?

J: I am not convinced that there is anything positive about ageing (laughs), Danny and I are in our thirties and in the past few years we’ve experienced some tumultuous times and when you start to think about your past and your upbringing and how you came into adulthood and what influenced you and your decisions, it’s kind of depressing. We all accept it and just get older but I think with age comes wisdom – or at least experience and if you’re paying attention you can look into the things that led you to the place you’re at and because of that it’s easy to write about.

Me: Did the priorities change from when you started, especially with touring and being away from home?

J: Everyone is different but the older you get, you start putting prices on everything. I am gone from family and loved ones for x-a-time-a year and where is that getting me where is the payoff for that on missing out on things. When we started touring we weren’t that young but here we are now and we still enjoy doing it but it’s also tiring and you do start to think about your niece’s birthday which you’re missing or the little everyday-things that you take for granted as younger people and find them more important as you age. But it’s our job and that is a good way to look at it as it helps keeping it a little in perspective and keep you grounded because I also don’t have to go anywhere for a large part of the year when I am at home all the time.

Me: Do you write on tour?

J: In the past I had big plans of getting to work on tour because there are so many hours when you are just sitting there but I can’t get myself to it but I think a lot about it, I can’t really truly write unless I am at home.

Me: But you probably mull it over in your head.

J: Yeah and that’s a big part of not just my writing but my process for everything in life. As you get older you realize, ‘Oh, I do things the same way over and over’, so whether it be building a dresser or writing a song, I do that a lot, I sit there and think about things, I internalize it, I don’t sketch it out, I think about it until I am ready to do it.

Me: Speaking of the song “Capsule”, if you had a time capsule right now, would you know what to put in?

J: Probably my hair for when it’s gone.

Me: “Mines” for me was really dense but with this one, it was more open, there was more space, was that something you tried to do?

J: I think whatever we wanted to do with “Mines” we got that out of our system (laughs). We did this album more light-hearted musically, whether it is that lyrically or conceptually, more like the first couple of records, it’s more upbeat and fun to play and we did simplify things a little. Speaking for myself, when “Friends and Foe” came out it was the best we could do at the time and with “Mines” we were trying to take the production up a notch and better ourselves and better what we did before and we probably didn’t achieve that.

But this album, it was just two of us and it was different and it changed how we were approaching the songs and everything. Danny and I have the same process, we were writing the same way as we did when Brent was still in the band, nothing really changed but I think it is just easier with two people to agree on a structure. A lot of times with “Friends and Foes” songs would take shape on everyone’s imput on how they’d think it should be and you ended up compromising a lot and things would go from simple to more complicated because someone had to put their two cents in.

Me: Do you edit your songs or do you add one piece after the other?

J: I am more the one piece-type, we play around and I would come up with a chord structure for a sound. The first song of the album (“Plumage”) is a good example, first it started as this song on the piano that I was kicking around for years and I played it on the piano as a rough demo and I gave it to Danny well before we completed any number and he thought it sounded like Grizzly Bear, because it’s the piano and the way it ended up, I never would have guessed that it would turn out like that because the way I imagined it was totally different but once we came down and recorded it, adding parts, it really changes. So, our process is more additive than subtractive.

Me: Can you listen to your albums when you’re done with them?

J: I can listen to them. I can listen to them in a more healthy way after some time. If I listen to them right after it’s been mixed I always pick out things and think ‘we could have done so much better’ but it is what it is. But now if I listen to it, it’s much more enjoyable months and months after it’s finished.

When everything is too fresh, when you have knowledge of every little bit and piece of something then it is too easy to pick apart what you didn’t do what you could have done…

Me:…I think it’s because you’re still in the place where you think you’re working on it and so you can’t see the end result. And then years later you sometimes can’t even believe how you came up with it.

J: Yeah, especially when it comes to playing it live. Many times it was, ‘Ok, how did I play that?’ Many times I can’t even remember because it was just this moment in time when you recorded and then moved on and then you train yourselves to play something that you played, it’s a weird thing.

Menomena “Moms”, cover art by Dan Attoe

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7 thoughts on “Interview with Menomena’s Justin Harris: Round and round in the circle game

  1. Well done.
    I don’t care much for music, but I can relate to writing lyrics, and (kind of) performing in public, and anyway, this was an interesting interview.

    Like

    1. Thanks! He was in a really good mood which is awesome because you don’t want to interview a musician you really respect and have an asshole in front of you. But from my own experience, that hardly ever happens anyway, alternative musicians are pretty gentleman and gentlelady-like when it comes to interviews.

      Like

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