Three men and a maybe

Menomena takes the Mr. Potato Head approach to songcraft

All that matters to us is that small black pugs appear in both of the pictures on this page.

All that matters to us is that small black pugs appear in both of the pictures on this page.

At first blush, Menomena doesn’t seem very far removed from a lot of Northwest indie pop. The music bops along to its quirky gait over melody warm enough to be a lullaby, calling to mind everything from Modest Mouse to the K Records roster. Unless you’re really paying attention, you might not notice the number of instruments employed by a song such as “Wet and Rusting” in just the course of a few measures—nor will it occur to you that the composition was created on a computer.

Of course, people have composed music on computers for years, propelled by the ubiquity of Pro Tools and similar software that can turn a laptop into a recording studio. But this Portland trio’s process is far more unusual than that, and suggests new ways in which the digital revolution is changing the shape of music.

Menomena’s Justin Harris, Brent Knopf and Danny Seim all went to art school for different things, before dropping out to pursue music. Yet they remain resolutely individual artists. All talented multi-instrumentalists, they’ve never actually written a song together. Literally. For whatever reason, they’ve chosen a working style that allows each member to create on his own.

The albums begin in their practice space, where each member plays into a microphone connected to a computer running software (created by Knopf) that stores the musical samples as they’re played. Beginning with a click track, the drummer (usually Seim) will lay down a number of different beats, after which the mike gets passed to someone else.

That person chooses one of those beats as an underlying sample, and plays several multi-measure riffs on an instrument of his choice. Then he, in turn, passes the mike to the next guy. This process repeats for hours, like an extended game of telephone, and the gathered samples are distributed to each member, who goes home and uses them to create his own songs—which of course must pass muster with the other two members. Created in the same key, tempo and phrase length, these samples can then be mixed, matched and manipulated like pieces of Mr. Potato Head.

For example, the aforementioned “Wet and Rusting,” one of the trio’s most popular songs, originally was written in another key, but Knopf used software to transpose it up. The song went through three iterations. “They hated it. I tried something. They hated it. I tried another thing. They hated, but I said, ‘fuck you’ and kept going, and that became a song,” Knopf says with a laugh. “I think we’re all perfectionists.”

With so many instrumental parts collected from many different recording sessions, making the music becomes a bit like “spelunking without a flashlight,” Knopf confesses. “You’re trying to go where it smells good or feels right.”

The songs become quilted soundscapes, knotted with a flurry of organically made elements and assembled in subtle collage. It makes for nicely textured music and allows each member his own creations, but also produces a rather nasty side-effect: learning to play them live.

“Take not really knowing how to play a song, and then trying to relearn it and get it to a place where it’s automatic, and the settings are there, and you can switch back and forth between instruments,” Knopf says. “You can say that this [process] is working for us … or you could say that we’re just lazy and keep putting off the hard decisions: choosing what the parts are going to be and then sticking to them. I guess we choose to pay later.”

That’s the result of worrying more about creating something than about recreating it, and perhaps one of the pitfalls of working in the ever malleable loop-driven world. Yet it’s hard not to marvel at how technology has changed the very meaning of being in a band, and encouraged a thoroughly postmodern style of composition—built from pieces, bottom to top instead of beginning to end.