Menomena: TAS In Session
The shakeup in Menomena's lineup after Brent Knopf's departure in 2011 didn't throw remaining members Justin Harris and Danny Seim too far off course. In fact, the duo's new album, Moms, is likely Menomena's strongest and most accomplished album to date, bringing clarity and a mature emotional focus to the reinvigorated duo's songwriting.
The split with Knopf didn't alter Menomena's live performances too drastically either. For their session at The Alternate Side, Harris and Seim brought along keyboardist/guitarist Paul Jason Alcott, percussionist/pianist Holcombe Walker and guitarist Matt Dabrowiak and this new incarnation of Menomena launches another swing through the States this week, beginning February 12 in Iowa City, Iowa. Looking ahead to the spring, the guys will also play the Sasquatch! Music Festival this May.
As The Alternate Side's Alisa Ali discovered, although Harris and Seim might have an irreverent streak and a mercurial relationship, there were highly sensitive familial issues that aggressively drove the writing of Moms. Read interview highlights and watch videos of the band's four-song set below. Listen to the entire session when it airs this Friday, February 15, on TAS on 91.5 WNYE at 11 a.m. EST, also streaming online.
Menomena's Moms is out now on Barsuk Records.
Alisa Ali: So Danny, how much of your golden ticket did you have to split with your therapists?
Danny Seim: That’s a good question. These songs are suicidally depressing on one level, but you can smile through it. It gets better.
Alisa: Did you actually see a therapist? Your mom’s been ….
Danny: Well, not because of my mom, but there’s been a plethora of other reasons. Premature balding, weird voice cracking.
Alisa: You have so much hair. You need a haircut.
Justin Harris: And put your pants back on. That tape is holding his hair on; it’s an illusion.
Alisa: Danny’s got a piece of tape around his head. I guess to keep your headphones on? Or maybe that’s your look?
Danny: It’s my look. I wear these headphones all day and show up at alcohol establishments.
Alisa: This new record is called Moms and obviously the theme of this record is based around your moms. Was that an easier way to approach writing lyrics, with a narrowed topic?
Danny: Actually, yeah. I think they flowed pretty quickly for Menomena. We typically take three years too long recording every album. The last one was definitely the longest but it’s always bene a real pulling teeth/birthing/kicking heroin kind of habit. It’s always been a struggle for us. I hate to oversell this because there are things like famine and AIDS. Making obscure indie rock records is pretty low on the old who-cares-about totem pole. They’re all pretty rough; we always struggle getting these things down and getting going. But this one, Justin and I agreed on the theme pretty early on. From that point, once we started getting into the writing process, it was only about seven or eight months before we were wrapping it up, which is extemely fast for us.
Alisa: What was the catalyst for you? Was it the realization that you’d been alive longer than you’d spent time with your mom? Was there a specific thing that made you remember that?
Danny: Yeah, it was in the same month that she died, 17 years later, and I was 34 at the time. I’d just started writing these songs. This isn’t some huge emo thing; after 17 years you become an adult, whether you like it or not. I wasn’t … I still miss her, but it wasn’t a daily I’m-crying-in-my-pillow-every-night because of her. So when I came to that realization, the songs took shape. At least the lyrics. I talked to Justin about that and he had a lot he could relate to, not just specifically with his mom, but family in general.
Alisa: Do you think this would have come out in some form at some point anyway?
Danny: On a record? Or like in therapy?
Alisa: On a record. This would definitely come out in therapy.
Danny: I don’t know. I guess it comes out in one way or another. It was important for both of us to be writing about something that we could both focus on rather than trying to rehash the usual Menomena song topics which are things that are usually too vague or singing melodies on top of syllables with words that don’t sound too horribly embarrassing. It’s really easy to have a focus and work towards it.
Alisa: I’ve interviewed a lot of bands with multiple songwriters and they often don’t know what the song is about if they have not written it. Sometimes they have an idea, but sometimes they say when they write songs, they try to be vague so that the experience can be relatable to the person who is singing the words that they’ve written.
Justin: Yes, we’ve always done that. I feel like this album’s not too much of an exception, but it’s more personally based. I think in the past we’ve tried to keep it vague.
Alisa: You’ve been friends for a long time and known each other since high school. So when you write a song, I would assume that you do know what it’s about?
Justin: We can take stabs at it.
Danny: I think I asked Justin once if a song was about me or another bandmate we had once.
Justin: And I said "no," but I meant, "yes."
Danny: You said, “Don’t flatter yourself,” I believe.
Alisa: Generally, your past albums have been democratically represented. [You each] brought five songs. Is it the same way when it comes to sequencing? Does it matter who gets the lead track? Who gets the last word?
Justin: Not really. We have belabored sequencing in the past, but this time it flowed pretty easily. We often start off alternating and then we move some things around a little bit. It just so happens on this album, it’s every other as far as a song that I’ve written and Danny’s written. Without democracy, it’s chaos. We all know that.
Alisa: Did you just bring five songs each? Or more?
Justin: Danny started off with 50. I started off with four. And I had to write another one. No, there weren’t too many more beyond what’s on the album.
Danny: About 14 or something like that.
Alisa: What do you reckon will happen to the other four?
Alisa: Why didn’t they make the cut?
Danny: They weren’t very good. No, we kind of know the songs we put the most effort into. We haven’t always had the hardest time deciding what song should be cut, it more how they should be arranged. We wanted an even nine or 10. The stragglers were left to die.
Justin: It’s like children. Some are better than others.
Justin: This album is the first one that I’ve ever recorded using a pick. Which is totally lame. To everybody but me. I used to despise bass players who used picks.
Justin: I thought it was dumb. Like they were trying to be guitarists. I never liked the sound of it. I was always pro fingers.
Danny: Justin Harris, pro fingers.
Justin: Paul McCartney used a pick. Recording with a pick, for a few songs, opened my eyes to a whole new world.
Alisa: I didn’t realize there was a big difference.
Danny: There’s not.
Justin: That was the worst answer on any radio interview ever.
Alisa: No! It’s an interesting insight.
Justin: To no one.
Danny: It’s kind of plucky.