Coming off the heels of the much delayed, but well-received, Mines, Meonema’s Danny Seim spoke with AD before their recent Los Angeles show. Touching on subjects from the band’s rumored and documented tribulations to the pressure from within and the pressure from without, Seim spoke at length on the recording, touring, and all that pesky time in between the two.
Aquarium Drunkard: Can you describe the process of going from a disparate recording process to a live setting? You’re a band that works very differently from others in terms of recording – how do you prepare the material for it live?
Danny Seim: That’s been the bain of my existence for the past two months. It’s hard – we write and record simultaneously – there’s never any moment, until we have to prepare for the tour, where we have any idea how we’re going to pull these songs off. In the past, with the first few records, we had it more in mind that what we recorded we would have to pull off or redo on stage and try not to go to over the top. Plus, we didn’t feel very comfortable during the recording process itself, so we weren’t trying to go crazy with the layers, just keep it simple. We got more carried away, especially because of the uncomfortably of the recording and didn’t think about it at all. It’s a struggle – we added a fourth member to the band, Joe Haege, a dear friend, who is also opening this tour as Tu Fawning. We’ve known him for years and years, he’s one of my favorite singers and guitar players – it was kind of a no brainer to add him to the mix. Adding him helped the transition from the recording to the live thing; it’s an extra pair of hands and vocal chords on stage. Whereas before we were wondering if we’d get to the point where we’d have to play the tracks or do the karaoke thing. I don’t want to do that! Brent (Knopf) and Justin (Harris) are such multitaskers – trying to play bass pedals and sax and keyboards and sing simultaneously, having Joe involved takes away a little of that burden. This is the funny part of the process, we become a live band, we have to try to recreate these sounds, and I think most of the songs are at least recognizable – it’s always the hardest part of the process and also the most fun. After being in isolation with our headphones in front of the computer for years, as it became, to finally actually be playing for people again… it makes us feel validated again, as a band; we’re not just a bunch of studio nerds.
AD: As you alluded to, quite a bit has been made about the rough recording process – talk even of breakups and hostility. Do you feel that bringing this music to a live setting, having to work together, be together in a single instant in a way other than recording, has helped to alleviate that tension?
DS: Oh, totally. Once we get in this little van together, wake up at 8AM, drive six hours, it becomes more of a, to sound dorky, brotherhood kind of vibe where we realize that we’re not the same monsters that destroyed each others masterpieces six months ago. Once this record was finished it was a major sigh of relief, it just took so long. If you’d asked us six months ago when this record was going to come out, we had no idea, we had no deadlines. We didn’t have studio budgets or label pressure – this could have really never gotten finished. Once it was done, we could put that portion of our life behind us and get to know each other again, reconnecting as people who want to make the best live presentation of ourselves possible, which is much more of a communal effort.
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AD: The template for bands to follow is to release constantly – here’s our video, here’s our remix, here’s our Twitter. They may not put out a record for two years, but it’s like they are a part of our lives every week. Menomena doesn’t seem to feel that pressure…
DS: Maybe we should! I think it stems from really not knowing when this was going to be finished. When we finished the Friend and Foe tour it was late 2008, we got back to Portland, it had felt like a big success, we were really happy with how it was going live and we wanted to keep that vibe going, make the next record. It had already been a few years – the Under an Hour [the band’s nearly a hour long instrumental record made for a one-off Modern Dance performance] was never played live, really, but we still consider it a record… – from I Am The Fun Blame Monster to Friend and Foe it had been three or four years. We were determined not to repeat that. You can’t build a career off of an 8-month stretch three years apart, financially, or for morale. If we would have known it would be another three or four years we might have done all those things, but we had really hoped it would come out in early 2009… and then late 2009… and then maybe early 2010… and now it’s summer 2010. We didn’t have that foresight. We have so many B-Sides, we’d like to release them as 7-inches and free give-a-ways and stuff. Which doesn’t really prepare us for the next three years! We’d like to think we can learn from the past and not repeat these long gaps – but we’ve been saying that for ten years, so who knows.
AD: The band operates in a recording process where you are not face-to-face with your fellow band members. Portland, OR is your home, but do you feel that there is a need for a geological point for this band to be in, or do you stay there out of sheer desire?
DS: We’ve flirted with the idea of moving away. We just kinda lucked out. Justin and I have been there for 20 years, moving there before high school, Brent was born and raised there – we just kinda happened to start in this city that became a Mecca for these kind of things, which is awesome. We all love Portland, so at this point in our lives and careers, especially with the pace that we work at, it’d be hard to do The Liars thing and go to Berlin and record a record, half of us go there. But then again, since most of this thing is composed through e-mail, sending shit back and forth, rarely being in the same room at the same time, I guess it’s doable. But I feel that Portland is a safe-haven in a lot of ways, we have a lot of friends there, so many of them are in bands and can understand the struggle of trying to put out records or make some sort of art. It’s definitely home and makes us feel comfy, but maybe stepping outside of those confines would stir things up even more.
AD: Some people have seen a lyrical theme throughout Mines. It’s almost refreshing to hear music these days where you can actually hear the lyrics and formulate ideas about what topics are being sung about. Do you yourself, as one of three band members sending stuff to each other over email, feel that there was any kind of theme? Did you actively discuss those topics, about whether it should be kept consistent in any way?
DS: In the past, with our other records, we never really set out to do that. We’ve talked about the idea of starting with one topic and writing our lyrics around that. But we’re all so self-conscious of presenting the lyrics to each other before they’re actually part of the song. That might makes things easier, if we said, “This is what I’m writing about, let’s see if they overlap.” I don’t think that we’ve ever felt confident in ourselves as lyricists to spend time before the song is written and exchange those kinds of sentiments. Looking back it’s kind of funny, similar themes emerge in what we’re writing about, and not even deliberately, it just seems to happen. The last record, people would come up to us and be like, “We know what this is about, it’s all about Water, water is the theme, it’s about drowning and learning to swim.” And we’d reply, “Uh, sounds good… that’s exactly it.” We looked back on the songs and its true, these patterns emerge. But with this one, we all find ourselves in a similar point in our lives. Whether it be a long gap between records, transitions from 20-somethings into 30-somethings, or being in this for a decade, quitting our day jobs and making this a career, trying to sustain ourselves. There’s that stuff, but there’s also personal side of things. Relationships that might have ended unfavorably, which were oddly parallel and consistent themes in our own lives and we started writing from the same place. When one of us would finish a song we’d present it to the other two. I can only speak for myself, when I hear a Justin song that would be pretty heart-on-the-sleeve, brutally honest about stuff and not trying to smash things in reverb and make things cryptic like we did in the past because of our own insecurities as lyricists or people in general. When I’d hear one of his songs I’d go, “Oh, shit, if he’s gonna do this, there can’t be these crazy super honest songs from Justin and typical cryptic Danny songs where it sounds like I’m singing through a telephone.” We fed off each other in that way, no talk of a concept, but these striking parallels emerge as we wrapped up the album. Now, when I go back and listen to it, I’d like to think it’s lyrically consistent. At least it’s not like one of us is writing about pot brownies and the other writing about how he just murdered his child – ehhh, off the record! – a lot of it is just knowing each other so long and becoming adults together, that’s probably where the consistently comes from.
AD: When you are writing a song, or when you are looking at someone else in the groups’ demo, do you fear that anything from the sentiment, the thrust, the music to the vibe are likely to be warped or overly reconstructed?
DS: There haven’t been too many lyrical clashes. Musically and instrumentally that happens, it’s become a part of our process. It’s an exercise in letting go and trust. I’d like to think that after this long we’d be able to have that trust – but I feel like I learn something new when we record about the other guys, about the process. We’ve all come to realize that presenting rough draft ideas doesn’t really fly in this band. if I’ve written a melody and record a quick MP3 and send it to the other guys, “Hey, fuck around with this, see what happens” because there are so many of those little ideas going on they tend to get dismissed if they’re not fully fleshed out. Speaking for myself, I’ll work on a song for a year, trying to craft it into something that can be a contender for album inclusion. It’s a breeding ground for spending so much time on something, knowing the ins and outs of it, become so intimate with, you think it’s become a complete song – forget mixing, you want to put it right on the album as it is – and then realizing that I’m the only one that’s touched it so far. It gets to someone like Brent who will completely rework the entire chord structure and add this crazy B-section and maybe add all these background harmonies. The first listen is like, “No! What are you doing? You can’t do this!” It comes back the next day like that, after toiling on it for a year, feeling so distant from my original vision of the song. With this album, it makes me realize, if I soak in those changes for a week, to start to build a trust – across the board, almost every time, the song will come back much better. It will stick with me, I can’t even hear the original anymore, this is so much better. If nothing else it prepares us for the future. Once this trust fosters itself into our dynamic it will allow us more creative freedom, in a way, to manipulate each other’s songs. That was a big part of the struggle in getting this album done, the big “letting go.”
AD: With so much time between records, between touring, does your previous material feel like it becomes dated? Does your interest rise? Or within time and distance do some songs take on new meaning?
DS: Putting this setlist together, we realize it’s gonna be pretty heavy with the Mines stuff. But being in a position to headline crazy venues like this [The El Rey] we have to play at least an hour. We break it like, “70% Mines, 20% Friend and Foe, 10% Fun Blame Monster.” Rehearsing all these songs, especially with Joe who’s never played them before, learning the old stuff is like revisiting these old things…
AD: You have to create a whole new part for somebody.
DS: Yeah, exactly. I feel like the three of us know the songs really well, but revisiting it through him… the older songs are really familiar and fun in a way. They represent such a different time in our lives – before any of this band-as-a-career stuff, when it was just an allusion of grandeur – “Are we ever gonna leave Portland? This is just a hobby, I work at Kinko’s, I’m happy though!” After this most recent album was so belabored and so intense, playing some of the older songs is fun and it’s nice to see that there was a progression there.
AD: Playing in a band where the members have other outlets [Seim’s own Lackthereof and Knopf’s Ramona Falls] – by hearing that music, by trading clips through email and playing with them live, what strengths, or weaknesses, in them, and in yourself have you seen in the last few years that have kept working with them interesting for you?
DS: When we were recording Fun Blame we had kind of set roles, I’m the drummer, Brent’s the piano player, Justin’s the bass player… It was awesome back in the day because, other than those little things where we knew we were slightly better than the others at, there was no defined other roles in terms of other things. (Laughs) We went to a Tower of Power concert and Justin was like, “Okay, I’m gonna play the saxophone, that was awesome.” So literally the next day he was on eBay, never having touched the thing in his life, and a week after he receives it, and it’s still the same one he plays, “I’m gonna record this, I think this is a good direction for us.” And we thought, “Okay, Mr. No-Lessons, good luck.” It was such a great moment. Listening back to those, it’s clearly not Tower of Power, it’s like some dude getting lucky when it sounds okay. But at that point, it was kind of like that with everything. I’d never played drums in a band, I was getting lucky when I didn’t miss the snare drum. It was a freeing way to start the band. We’d been in bands before with a defined front man, his role is to sing properly. With Menomena, it was great because we were just trying to capture the spirit of these things, of the melody, of the instrument sitting in front of us. I think what I’ve learned from them over the years is… Justin has become a much more confident saxophonist, and guitarist, and the foot-bass thing: I don’t know if he’s just committing it to muscle memory or just doing it for so long. It’s funny and fun to watch them grow into these roles of multi-instrumentalists that at first it was kind of a fun afterthought. I’m sure they could say the same thing about me, at first lucky to hit the right part, now it’s just kinda muscle memory. Even still… I don’t like to talk-the-talk with other drummers because I can’t keep up with the Guitar Center mentality, “Do a flare with the parrot! Land a triple on the overtime!” I don’t know those terms. I think all of our strengths and weaknesses are unique to this band. When I try to play with other bands or my own solo things, it reminds me that I can’t sit down with other musicians – my language has been so Menomenized at this point. As much as we’ve fought, as much as we’ve resented each other over this process, it’s still a really nice feeling to be in the same room with them. We’ve maintained that feeling of there’s no such thing as mistakes. We’re all comfortable with fucking up, playing wrong notes in front of each other. We know what our limitations are and it’s been awesome to come to that.
AD: I know that you’re sick of speaking about Deeler, and that an interviewer would be wise to avoid it, but what is the question you would be asking yourself?
DS: I guess, for the next record, if there’s going to be another record, how do you avoid it becoming a three to four year process?
AD: So… for the next record, if there’s going to be another record, how do you avoid it becoming a three to four year process? What do you think you’ve learned that will allow you to avoid that kind of scenario again? Or would you be comfortable with it taking that long.
DS: I would definitely not be comfortable with that. I’d like to think that we can realize we have this fragile trust in place that allowed us to finish the record, a record that we’re really proud of. Maybe I’m just proud that we finished it, but I’m genuinely happy with the songs, happy with the way everything sounds, there’s hopefully an obvious growth. I’d like think that we’ll continue that growth, that we grew up a lot in the last three and a half years, that we’ve learned from our mistakes and realize that in order to get another record out before we’re 40 we just need to get back home from these tours and not just assume that it’s going to be done instantly as soon as we start recording. And know the heartache that this last one caused and start to work right away and continue to trust each other, knock it out and have a record we can grow on all the groundwork we’ve laid with what we’re doing now. After this time, it’s hard to know if people even remember us – everyone’s so fickle, you know – “Blogs! These guys are ruining music!” – which is not true. Not ruining music but it makes things so much more in the moment. A band, a dude, recording in his bedroom can become the next Neil Young overnight and then who cares two months later. Maybe we need to be more aware of the new model of music, people have a million bands to listen to these days, with new, easy ways to get that music instantly. We can’t become this dinosaur band yearning for the days of prog-rock and record analog and take our time. You know, adjust with the times, put our shit behind us, get the next thing done as soon as possible.
AD: Do you think someone who reads this interview will see a theme of “all he talks about is a lack of trust, they’ve been a band for ten years!” Should someone be worried about this band, or to you is it just a shrug off.
DS: If we were to stick in this mindset of using resentment and pain and suffering as ways to create our art… that can’t sustain itself, we’ll just become that-depress-band. I think all of our music tends to draw on sadness – if you listen to our first record it’s just a lot of sad bastard music but we can’t sustain ourselves by being hyper-depressed. At the end of the day we’re white men who happen to have a nice hometown, who have nice parents who are supportive, we need to count our blessings in that way, things could be so much worse. It might be easy to call bullshit on us, like, “Man, I saw those guys, there’s no Vic Chesnutt’s in the band. They’re fine, they’re faking it…” When I talk about the trust issue, it wasn’t always that way. It’s just because as we started to make this a career, as we saw that people wanted to see us play and buy our records, it took its toll in weird ways on us. We became more isolated, more protective of our own contributions to the band. I’d love to learn from this period and not repeat these negative patterns. words/ b kramer