On Tuesday, Menomena released their latest album, Moms. It’s the band’s first record without longtime member Brent Knopf, who left the band to pursue his other project, Ramona Falls, following the tumultuous, prolonged recording process that preceded the release of Menomena’s last album, Mines.
Justin Harris and Danny Seim continued Menomena as a duo, wrapping up a pair of tours in support of Mines before getting to work on a new album. After working as a trio for over a decade, Harris and Seim had to adjust to life and recording without Knopf, but they learned that the new dynamic helped streamline the writing process, and the two were able to collaborate in a far more intimate way than had been possible with three songwriters.
We recently caught up with Justin Harris to talk about this process, the subject matter of the new album and the band’s new five-piece live arrangement.
With your last album there was a lot of publicity, a lot of which might have been exaggerated, dealing with turmoil within the band and how it was taking a long time to get things done. Do you feel like Brent leaving was a “something had to give” situation? Could you have imagined recording another album after Mines with the band how it was?
Justin Harris: That’s a good question. That’s a loaded question. Yes, I could imagine recording another album with the band how it was. I don’t think it would have been very fun for any of us, maybe. Like you said, a lot of the stuff was exaggerated. Partially by members of our band’s doing, it was kind of focused on as a press angle. So naturally, at that point, it’s going to get distorted a little bit. But I can’t recall any record that we recorded where it was just smooth sailing and everyone was having a great time. We’ve always had pretty strong opinions, so naturally we’re going to be clashing, and all three of us were quote unquote equal songwriters.
[Brent leaving] changed the dynamic in our having two people as opposed to three. Danny and I relate to each other in a vastly different way than Brent and I related to each other and than Brent and Danny related to each other. So it was bound to change if any one of us were to have left the group of three. I’ve often tried to come up with good analogies for what it was like, that are fair to everybody, but we kind of have our own perspective on the whole thing. And we have to be careful about what we say, you know. [We’re not going to say], ‘Oh, when Brent left it was so much fun,’ because Danny and I have our issues, too. But I think you’re right in that something did have to give and I applaud Brent for being mature enough to get out of a situation that he wasn’t happy enough to be in. I think, ultimately, all parties are happier.
When he left was there any doubt that you would keep going? Did you have to meet up and talk it over or was there even any question?
Harris: No, not really. I remember when Brent told us he was quitting, the first thought in my head was, ‘Wow, things are going to be different.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Oh well, the band’s over.’ I think Danny felt similarly. That day we did get together just because we’d spent the last 10 years of our lives together doing the same thing and everything was going to change. We did discuss it briefly, just making sure, ‘You still want to do this, right?’ ‘Yeah, you do, right?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Okay.’
So we moved on and the first task was trying to find somebody to replace Brent for touring because we had a couple tours still to do on that album that were already lined up. We had to find someone who could fill Brent’s shoes live, which was no easy task. He played a lot of everything. He was a great musician. Not just anybody could step in…a lot of it was not just piano, but rigging samples while playing piano. And obviously Danny and I had enough on our plate playing live so we couldn’t just take over what he was doing. So yeah, that was the first thought, just figuring out how we were going to cover ourselves live. Then we decided pretty early on, too, that once those tours were over, we would just stop touring and start the new chapter, if you will.
How soon did you decide you were going to start recording a new album?
Harris: Probably spring of last year. Around May is when we stopped accepting shows. We played a couple of one-off shows. But as far as touring and trying to support Mines, still, it seemed futile to us and didn’t make sense. So in April and May, we we just decided to make our next record as soon as possible.
How long did the writing and recording process take? Did you notice or feel how much quicker things were going with just the two of you?
Harris: Yeah, at times it felt faster than others. We started in June of last year. That’s when we really actually started focusing on musical ideas. Summer has never been a super-prolific time of year for the group. So fall of last year was really when we started focusing again and songs started to take shape as actual songs. It seemed a like a lot of the same things were in play as far as that Danny writes very quickly and immediately so he always has stuff finished and is ready to just be done. I couldn’t be a more polar opposite to that, so we’d have conversations about that, like, ‘I’m sorry you’re already done, but I’m not,’ and those kind of things. But the bulk of the songs coming together was from October to February. It took a solid four months of actual writing and recording.
The album is called Moms. A lot of the focus is on motherly issues and family issues. How did this idea for a concept come about? Did you both agree before you started writing that this was something you were going to focus on? Or did it just kind of work out that way more organically?
Harris: Originally, it was Danny just writing me an email, this was probably around September or October of last year, saying, ‘These are the lyrics to the song the songs I’ve written so far and this is what I’m writing about.’ And they were mostly themes of his mom passing away when we were juniors in high school, and how he has been alive, now, just as long as he was when she died. At that time I hadn’t written a lot lyrically, but a lot of the ideas I was thinking of were more about relationships in general, not necessarily family ones. Just having interactions with people. The older we get, those are the things that seem to take precedence in what is important in our lives. But yeah, him telling me that made me start thinking, too, about those kind of things. If he tells me something about his mom, it makes me think about how it’s strange that I don’t really think about the fact that I do have a mom who is very much involved in my life and has been my whole life, and just the issues surrounding that. It was an interesting juxtaposition to have him living as long as he has without a mom and me “all mom” and not so much dad. Kind of yin-yang.
So this was just something you started to reflect on in terms of a songwriting recently, then? Or had you always been wanting to write songs about this stuff and it just worked out now?
Harris: I think we always have, in songs, we just never really talked to each other about it. With our albums we weren’t talking to each other and saying, ‘What’s this song about?’ We seemed to try to avoid explanation, for whatever reason. I don’t know if Danny and I maybe feel more comfortable telling each other these things. I’m not really sure. But we’ve always written…I speak for myself at least…but that’s just such an easy thing to write about, just relationships and relational background issues.
But [Danny] gave me a bit of a direction, too. Because if all of his songs are about that and are that heavy, I can’t be writing about how much I love my girlfriend, or something. Even though I do want to write songs about that, it didn’t seem like it would have been a good fit on the overall album. And this album isn’t a fully conceived concept album either. Not all of the songs are about our moms. It’s kind of a more general perspective. We all have moms or no moms or have motherly instincts, even as men. It gave an interesting shape to the process that we haven’t really done before. We’ve never really written toward certain things; we’ve always just kind of written things randomly and hoped that they all feel cohesive at the end.
With a lot of the lyrics, you guys are kind of just putting it all out on the table. Not much is veiled. Are you thinking at all about connecting to other people who might have had similar issues with their parents?
Harris: Maybe not consciously. I don’t think that’s a point of writing a song, but hopefully that’s a by-product. One thing that I’ve realized over the years and become more focused on is how you are going to have lyrics to your songs. I’m going to have lyrics in songs that I write and I don’t want them to just be a vehicle for melody. I think we’re always trying to say something. It’s not like we haven’t done this in the past, either, but the more we do this, I think we find more or better ways to express an idea lyrically but also express it musically.
Have you learned anything from the new two-man writing dynamic and recording process that would lead you to change anything for the next album? Anything that would lead you to take a different approach to what you record next?
Harris: There’s nothing that I can think of off-hand right now, although, what was different from last time is that both of us got excited by the possibilities that just having two people could lead to, and the quickness that…it took us a quarter of the time to write this album than it had for the last two albums. At the end there, too…it’s almost too bad that we finished when we did, because the last month we really hit our stride and songs were being written quickly and fluidly and things were really flowing. It took a while for us to get to that point because we were still figuring out how to do this with two people. We weren’t consciously asking ourself that question, but we were trying to do the same things we’d always done. Toward the end we kind of just started getting looser with everything and that seemed to make things flow a little better. By looser I mean just not having such a tight grip on certain ideas. Next time around I think we’ll be able to start from that point.