Photograph by Alicia J. Rose
Clean in Thought, Word and Deed: Portland-based Menomena launders the digital process with analog instruments and outputs for a sound that's as fresh as a spring day.
Mad scientists of indie rock, Menomena moves forward by doubling back.
By Paul Davis
Rock music is obsessed with picking over its own bones, constantly recapitulating what has come before in increasingly derivative permutations. It's rare to come across a band with a sound that's undeniably new, but Portland's Menomena is just such a band, skillfully merging meat-and-potatoes indie rock with digital loops, a dub-inspired low-end rumble and a contemporary cut 'n' paste approach to composition. If there's another band Menomena most resembles--philosophically if not sonically--it's Radiohead. In their recontextualization of what a rock band can be in a digital age, both bands are blazing fresh trails.
Plenty of forward-thinking musicians have mothballed their instruments in favor of acid or garage band in the past decade, creating music only possible in an era when a MacBook fetches a fraction of what samplers once cost. It's often been a closed circuit, however: digital music created from digital sources, from digitally ripped analog samples and looped MIDI lines. Traditional rock musicians, for the most part, have stayed away, preferring to return to the archaic comfort of the bass-drums-guitar setup. What makes Menomena's sound so revelatory is that it begins with analog instruments, chops them up in digital and outputs the results to a live band setting.
"We initially write as a group, composing hundreds of short loops together in spontaneous writing and recording sessions," member Danny Seim explains. "These sessions are put to disk with the help of a software program Brent [Knopf] wrote in college. From there, the songwriting is very much an individual process, as we take the loops and arrange them into linear pop songs at our own homes. When we finally unveil them to the band as fleshed-out songs, they tend to sound much different from the initial loop sessions, largely due to the addition of vocals, melodies and mixing effects."
When working with such a broad palette, it's important to have a number of skills under your belt. It would be difficult to give each member a specific role: they're all digital manipulators as well as players of a wide array of instruments.
"Each of us considers ourselves jacks of all trades, masters of none," Seim says. "When recording, we usually surround ourselves with as many different instruments as possible that we may or may not actually know how to play. It's more about just filling up the little holes--or creating new ones--with interesting sounds. To me, that's much more compelling than wanky virtuosic performances."'
Even though Menomena is undeniably a rock band--one that specializes in thunderous drums, anarchic guitar squall and tightly wound dynamics--the process behind the sound resembles the dub sound systems of the '70s, a conceptual and musical influence that pervades the band's music.
"I grew up in Hawaii, where Jamaican-influenced music is impossible to avoid," Seim says. "I did my best as a teenager to shut it out by ingesting tons of hip-hop, punk and D.C.-based hardcore. I thought I was rebelling against those bass-y, laid-back island rhythms, but instead--ironically enough--I was being led straight back to dub and reggae through the influence of bands such as Fugazi, Massive Attack, the Clash, Gang of Four and Bad Brains. Our end result might be quite a bit different from a Mad Professor or Lee Perry record, but I guess you could say that the initial building blocks of looped bass, percussion and piano melodies are starting from a similar conceptual space."
It might be difficult to re-create such sounds live, but the band relishes the challenge. Unlike many of their fellow digital pioneers, who rock shows behind MacBooks and could be viewing a spreadsheet for all the audience knows, Menomena completes the loop by re-creating the finished product back in roaring analog using live instruments.
"Live, it's a much different feel," Seim says. "I think the rock element comes out a lot more. We try to reproduce the music onstage without using drum machines or pre-recorded tracks. It's quite a juggling act that is highly prone to human error, but it hopefully keeps the shows feeling fresh and interesting."
MENOMENA performs Tuesday, April 14, at 9pm at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Dr., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 advance/ $12 door at www.thecrepeplace.com or 831.429.6994.
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