picture via Oregon Music News
By now, you’ve heard the news that this month’s exclusive Vinyl Me, Please album is Menomena’s phenomenal third album, Friend and Foe, an album that has been out of print on vinyl pretty much since it came out in 2007, owing to its complicated artwork. We’re psyched to be reissuing it for our members.
To celebrate the reissue, we talked to the members of Menomena, Danny Seim and Justin Harris—Brent Knopf left the band after touring behind 2010’s Mines. Friend and Foe was the group’s first album for Pacific Northwest indie powerhouse Barsuk, and it was, in some ways, the band’s make or break moment. They got a lot of notice for their debut, I Am The Fun Blame Monster!, in 2004, but the three years between that and Friend and Foe were spent perfecting their sound and releasing the one-off Under an Hour, a musical accompaniment to a dance performance in Portland.
The album was released to nearly universal acclaim—the few negative reviews are weirder to read and feel more off base now in retrospect—and Menomena found themselves nominated for a Grammy. They’ve released two albums since—Mines and 2012’s Moms—but seeing them in concert the material from Friend and Foe still gets the biggest reactions. It might not be their career-defining album, but it certainly set them onto a bigger career path.
Here I talked to Seim and Harris about the pressures of Friend and Foe, coverage of the album, going to the Grammys, alternate titles, and potentially start beef with Brad Paisley and Bright Eyes.
Vinyl Me, Please: When you guys think back on recording the album, what is the first memory that comes to mind?
Danny Seim: Well, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. No wait, that’s a book.
No actually, I remember during recording, or maybe after signing the contract, I remember taking a picture with all of us. And I remember in that picture Justin pulled his shirt up and showed his nipples. That’s all I remember.
Justin Harris: (laughs). Good memories.
DS: Or maybe pulled you shirt down and showed your nipples? I’m not sure. But there were definitely nipples.
JH: (Laughs) I guess I remember being very excited mainly to finish [the album] and excited to be moving forward as a young band.
VMP: Were you guys signed to Barsuk before or after you finished the album?
JH: Before. We signed not too long before we finished.
VMP: Did you guys feel like there was an added pressure? You’re on a bigger indie label and you’re going to be exposed to a potentially bigger audience.
DS: I don’t remember feeling more pressure. It had been a while since we had released a proper album—we did that instrumental Under an Hour thing—and it wasn’t like we were like, “Oh no, I have to write words for songs again,” or anything. I guess I was more just happy that someone was eager to put the album out.
JH: I was feeling the same way. I think we all had our own level of “moxie,” I think is the word I’m looking for, at the time. I think we were excited that anyone had really cared about our first album, and this was a progression.
picture via CMJ
VMP: I kind of want to talk about the mechanics of you guys making Friend and Foe. This could sort of be about any of the albums you guys have put out: Is there any talk going in about writing songs with a unified theme? Because I think that’s one of the strengths of Friend especially is that despite all three of you writing individual songs for the album, it sounds really cohesive, theme-wise.
JH: Yeah. Well, that was by accident, for sure. (Laughs). The only time we’ve ever thought about a theme going forward was when me and Danny made our last record, Moms. And that was still kind of a loose theme, but that was the first time for sure.
DS: I’d say you’re correct. We definitely didn’t sit around and like, talk about any theme, or “there has to be sense of cohesiveness here.” I remember at the time, it seemed like the album was all over the place. And I think if anything, we were embracing that as a theme: trying not to have it be singular and have it go as many directions as possible at once.
JH: I think we could say that if there was any “theme” it was that we agreed we wanted to make the music as interesting and diverse as possible. So maybe that was the theme. When I listen to it, I hear all the different styles of music on there. But yeah, I do think it ended up coming off as fairly cohesive.
Our goal was to try to make an album that was like bands we admire, like the Talking Heads, where the music sounds different from track to track but it’s definitely them.
But it wasn’t like we were talking about that, like “This song won’t do because it’s not interesting and doesn’t fit the theme.” It was more like, “Here’s our songs, we make them.”
DS: That was a rejected album title, by the way.
VMP: (Laughs) Really?
DS: Yeah, there were a couple rejected titles. Two of them that I remember. The first was “Birdth.” Like, the birth of a bird. That was a banger.
And we also had Ultra Sound. (laughs).
JH: Yeah, that was my mom’s suggestion. Get it? Like, Ultra Sound. Like, it’s a sound, and it’s ultra. Do you guys get it? And we were like, “Yeah mom we get it.”
DS: I was thinking what’s more painful than childbirth, and the birth of a bird might be it. Then your mom said, “What’s a better title than Ultra Sound?”
JH: My mom is an idea man.
VMP: I think Birdth would be a good metal band name.
DS: Larry Birdth.
JH: Harry Birdth.
DS: Nice. A lot of trauma in the womb when the child is born a bird. Andrew, you asked the question about the title, and here we go (laughs).
VMP: Yeah, guys, thanks. (Laughs). So, did making Friend and Foe feel like you were making something “bigger,” than your first two albums? After finishing it how did you feel about it? And how do you feel about it in its place in the larger body of work that is Menomena?
DS: I mean, a bigger sound? I think I’d agree with that. Bigger like, raising our profile? I don’t think we were thinking about that too much. At that time in our career, we were starting to feel more comfortable with our own recording equipment and stuff like that, and I think we were more able to make the sounds bigger and fuller than we had in the past. We were actually able to accomplish what we wanted to a little better than the first two albums.
JH: I would add to that that even if we weren’t talking about it at the time, we wanted to make a bigger album, but I mean, we didn’t think about it much. Just that it would be well received.
As hard as that album was to make, I think one of the reasons it was so hard—beyond just trying to get three people to agree on things—was that we did want it to be as good as possible. There was an unspoken standard we were trying to uphold. Whether we did or not, I don’t know.
VMP: Was it weird for you guys, when the album came out, that a lot of the coverage was devoted to the looping software you guys were using? Deeler was just a storage device for your music; it wasn’t like you guys were a laptop artist or something. The looping software, in some ways, became the story of Friend and Foe in the press.
DS: Are you talking about Friend and Foe or Moms? (Laughs).
JH: It still plagues us. It sort of, after a point, became funny. Brent wrote that program, and ironically, over the years, his songs on that album and the other projects utilized that program the least.
It was funny that that became the angle. It was partially true—we did start a lot of the ideas on that album on the software.
DS: It really became a talking point, and it was weird because out of context it seems like we were into EDM, or we were more laptop-y. When people hear loops and samples, and software thing, it sort of pigeonholes the sound before you even hear it. After people hear it, they’re like, “Oh, it sounds like more rock and roll to me.”
picture via Belmont Bookings
VMP: That’s something I wanted to talk to you about. You guys are constantly put into an “experimental music” box, whatever that means, and when I saw you on the Mines tour, I was like, “Holy shit. These guys are a straight up rock band.” It wasn’t the cliché you have in mind when you hear “they made this on a computer.”
JH: We were always like, “All right. Why is this so interesting? We used computers to record music. Everybody uses computers to make music. It’s 2007.” I think Brent was annoyed, but simultaneously flattered too. He was like, “I just made a shittier version of Ableton Live.”
What was more funny that it kept being a thing. To this day, if someone hasn’t interviewed us yet, they always ask, “What’s this Deeler?”
We don’t even use it anymore.
VMP: For the record.
JH: For the record, we don’t use it anymore.
VMP: I wanted to talk about how the cover of Friend and Foe sort of got it’s own hype behind it. It was the lead of the Pitchfork review. It was a weird art object on it’s own, in addition to being an album. So how involved were you guys in the creation of Craig Thompson’s cover?
DS: Craig definitely came up with all of that on his own. We didn’t suggest anything, really. It was all in his brain. Brent came up with the idea for the diecut thing. We had met Craig a couple years before, and got him to do it.
Thanks to him we got to sit next to John Tesh at the Grammys.
VMP: My next question was if you guys got to go to the Grammys for getting nominated for Best Packaging.
JH: Yeah, totally. We lost to Bright Eyes.
VMP: Yeah, you lost to that Bright Eyes album with the hidden images.
JH: You know, I’ve still never seen that album cover.
VMP: It was like one of those Magic Eye posters and it came with this plastic glass thing you passed over the cover to find images in. It was a pretty weird cover.
What were the Grammys like?
JH: Well, the ceremony where we lost was not even televised. The televised part of the Grammy’s, as we found out, is just a short show. The rest of the Grammys that are given out take place at this really long ceremony in a different building. It was fun. I had a good time. We saw a lot of people.
Black Sabbath: The Dio Years also lost with us.
DS: Let the record show we weren’t the only losers that night.
JH: That was a fun time. It was the first time we went to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. The Grammys themselves were a little tedious. Who did we see perform? Alicia Keys. Oh, and Brad Paisley.
DS: Yeah, the “Ticks” guy.
JH: Yeah, he’s horrible.
VMP: That’s the pullquote.
JH: “Brad Paisley is horrible.” Great guitar player though.
DS: The thing I remember is that afterwards, we went to karaoke. Justin gets up and puts in his karaoke standby, “Father Figure” by George Michael. Come to find out the guy right before Justin, an older man in a wheelchair, gets up—well, he didn’t get up, but he rolled up—and he started singing the exact same song. And he absolutely killed it. The whole room was crying. It was the most beautiful version of “Father Figure” ever.
JH: George Michael would have cried.
DS: It gave everyone in the room an erection.
JH: I still have a partial boner from that.
DS: What was the question again? (laughs).
VMP: (Laughs). I just asked how the Grammys were. So they were cool.
DS: Oh, they were great.
VMP: OK, to finish, can each of you give me a one-liner review of Friend and Foe?
JH: “The best album you’ve never heard.”
DS: How about, “Not as good as Bright Eyes.” (Laughs).
JH: “Craig Thompson: Not as talented as whoever did the Bright Eyes cover.”
VMP: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me guys.
JH: Yeah, thanks to Vinyl Me, Please for making us your April album. That’s awesome for us.
DS: A real surprise and a treat for us.
JH: And I’ve retired to Santa Monica off the Vinyl Me, Please album sales.
Andrew Winistorfer was surprised as you are, right now, that Menomena’s name isn’t based on the famous Muppets sketch (it’s a portmanteau of “Men” and “Phenomena”). He’s on Twitter at @thestorfer.