“The animosity within the group—I hope at some point we can let it all go,” Harris says. “I don’t think we need to be brooding and at each other’s throats to make good music.”
Last summer, Knopf, frustrated with the progress of the new album, decided to release 11 of his own songs under the name Ramona Falls, whose debut, Intuit, features a handful of songs Knopf wrote for Menomena that were rejected by the band.
“I brought a lot of songs to the chopping block that were pretty fleshed out, including one I thought was the best song I’ve even written, and it didn’t make the album [Mines],” Knopf says. “It wasn’t a very enjoyable process.”
The 33-year-old is the most misunderstood member of the band. Clean-shaven and soft-spoken, he chooses his words carefully. When asked if he’s happy with Mines, his eyes again dart to the side. “Define the word ‘happy,’” he says.
He’s also the one enamored with the idea of branching away from the Menomena base. This spring Ramona Falls opened five West Coast dates for arty New York band the National, which Knopf says was the most enjoyable experience he’s ever had on tour. He gets excited when talking about both the help he received from friends (35 musicians contributed to the album) and a recording session he oversaw in South Africa for the indie-folk quartet Dear Reader.
Knowing this, it’s entirely possible to think this might be Menomena’s last album.
According to Pitchfork’s Tangari, Mines is Menomena’s transitional record. “The album has this very consistent atmosphere that allows the lyrics to fit into this narrative,” he says. “There is a series of phrases that pop up over it that give you the sense of a band growing old, to put it really simply. Of course, they’re not old yet—but growing into middle age is sometimes just as traumatic as growing old.”
“It’s easy to sustain a rock-’n’-roll fantasy in your 20s, but when you get to be 30 or so you start to reevaluate all these things,” Seim says. But although Knopf, Seim and Harris aren’t always on the same page—let alone in the same room—it’s clear that they share a special musical chemistry. The three all speak about keeping “the core” intact, knowing that the sum is better than its individual parts.
“I truly believe we’re at our strongest when the three of us are contributing equally,” Harris says.
Many of Portland’s finest musicians agree. Menomena is known as a band’s band and carries all sorts of admirers in town, from the Helio Sequence’s Benjamin Weikel—who took the band under his wing during its early days—to local songwriter and author Nick Jaina, who covered Friend and Foe’s “Rotten Hell” at a performance at City Hall in July.
“Menomena has consistently been my favorite band in Portland the last decade,” Jaina says. “At every moment of their songs, each member is doing something individually intriguing that also fits into the band context. Watching the band is like watching a magic act, and I’m always baffled at how they can pull off every trick.”
Most bands are lucky to release one critically acclaimed record; Menomena now has four. But is the band willing to endure numerous ugly spats to get to No. 5?
“We’re four albums into it and it’s not getting any better, so maybe this is just how we do it,” Harris says.
Knopf responds with a different sentiment. “It was important for us to see this record through,” he says. “But I don’t think any of us are that interested in doing this again if it’s for nothing.” This time, there’s no question he’s telling the truth.