Back in 2003, drummer Danny Seim was abusing employee perks at a Portland, Ore., Kinko’s. Using the store’s photocopiers, Seim produced copy after copy of the handmade flipbook he designed as packaging for his band Menomena’s debut album I Am The Blame Fun Monster. Three years later, their album Friend and Foe would feature Grammynominated album artwork by the award-winning graphic novelist Craig Thompson. But for the time being, Menomena knew nothing but obscurity.
A few months after their debut’s release, Pitchfork Media gave Menomena an unexpected rave review. Seim, who had never heard of Pitchfork before he mailed them a copy of Blame Fun Monster, became acutely aware that his band’s profile was rising.
“We were all just 20-year-old kids from Portland, not really thinking we were going to make a career or anything. So it was kind of a magical thing when something as big as Pitchfork responded to a nobody with no label and no hype and no fans,” Seim says.
Suddenly, the trio of 20-somethings found themselves in as much of a national spotlight as an experimental band with only one album can get. Before they knew it, they were touring with bands like The National and working on their follow-up album, Friend and Foe. Rich with the unconventional instrumentation and production that Menomena established on Blame Fun Monster, the album built on Menomena’s ever-evolving sound and reached new heights. Critics continued to praise the band’s consistency in its experimentation.
“There was kind of a shift in the band at that point,” Seim says. “Once we’d signed to Barsuk to do Friend and Foe, we kind of became more of a band band. It was like, ‘OK, now we need to actually promote this and work for this and all these other things.’ ” Yet at the heart of things, Menomena remained true to their methods. Just like Blame Fun Monster, Menomena recorded and produced everything themselves. In addition, they continued to use unconventional instrumentation that often coupled guitarist Justin Harris’ saxophone skills with keyboardist Brent Knopf ’s glockenspiel and piano.
The band continued to use its recording/producing software, “Deeler,” to create its songs. Knopf developed Deeler as a college project before he came to Menomena. The program allows the three to use separate bits of improvised material recorded during jam sessions as the building blocks for their songs.
Using Deeler, one member of Menomena builds a song from scratch. He then turns the project over to another member to work on, who then turns it over to the third and final member when he’s had his share. This process repeats itself until the band members are satisfied.
For Seim, this means that songs can form through group collaboration rather than through individual songwriting.
“We’re writing and recording simultaneously,” he says. “We’ve only got the headphones and we start playing things into the computer.”
On the production of their most recent album, this year’s Mines, this process was essential to maintaining calm among band members. Failed marriages and heated disagreements haunted the album, and slowed its creation to a massive three years. But the band’s inherent level-headedness in the way they operate managed to salvage what at times seemed like a burnt-out album.
“None of us had any idea if this album was even going to come out,” Seim admits. “I mean, a year or two into this thing we’re just like, ‘What’s going on? What’s broken about this?’” Despite their personal troubles, the experimenters released Mines in late July. The album, packed with 11 fantastic tracks, proved as intricately complex as its title suggests, with vast and expansive varieties of sound. Once again, critics have reacted positively — Pitchfork gave the band an 8.2 out of 10.
Playing their songs live has always presented challenges to the band because of their dense instrumentation. In the past, Knopf used MIDI samples on his laptop to substitute for the instruments the band couldn’t play themselves. This year, they’ve added a fourth man to their tour so that they can get the most organic sound possible. Since Menomena writes their songs using Deeler, which is based off of improvisation, the band needs to learn their own songs before going on tour. Sounds complicated? It is.
“It’s always funny to be a cover band of yourself,” Seim says.
There are a lot of things about Menomena that make them surprising. Their coherent experimentation, diverse instrumentation, complex lyrics and raw talent add up to make a massively interesting band that’s constantly moving forward without getting off track. They have the enviable challenge of facing the problems that we would all have if our little experiments suddenly spiraled into massive successes, and they have managed to get past them again and again with the time-tested strategy of determination.
On the Bill Menomena plays the Fox Theatre on Tuesday, Sept. 21. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Suckers and Tu Fawning open. Tickets Theatre on Tuesday, Sept. 21. start at $12. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.