A lot has happened to Menomena since they released Mines back in 2010. Last year they lost member Brent Knopf amid a flurry of stories about just how much the band members couldn’t seem to stand each other (stories they have shot down, by the way) and opted to carry on as a duo. Later this month the band — composed of founding members Justin Harris and Danny Seim — will release Moms, which is not only their most focused effort but also their most deeply personal. I called them up to talk about the genesis of the new record, and somehow we all ended up going deep on the fact that we are, in fact, getting older and that none of us are probably ever gonna get rich from doing what we love. While that sounds depressing, it was actually really nice to talk about. Also, Moms is really good.
Stereogum: This record has such an interesting backstory — not only did you guys lose a band member, but the record is super personal. Justin, you were writing songs about being raised by your mother and dealing with an absent father, while Danny is writing about living without his mother, who passed away when he was young. Now that the record is done and you’ve had a while to sit with it, how do you feel about it? How do you feel about it in the context of your earlier records, too?
Justin Harris: I feel really good about it. I don’t know if it’s the best work we’ve ever done, but I’m probably the most proud of this record than of any other record so far. It felt like this time around we really took the opportunity to be a little bit more expressive lyrically and be a little bit more open. The question you’ve asked is a common question because of the background of this record, and it feels like with a title like that and with the press release we’ve put on file, it’s turned into a concept album. To us it’s not a fully developed concept album from start to finish, but it definitely has parallel themes. It’s an interesting record because Danny and I both write, and we have equal songs on the record, and his are about certain subjects related to his mom and other kinds of relationships, and my songs are not all about my mom, but are focused a little bit more on matronly relationships between human beings. What am I trying to say here? I really like this album and the further away we get from finishing the recording of it — and the less I listen to it and obsess over it — I’m really happy with the overall feel of the record. It feels a little more focused than all our records in the past. It feels like more of a complete piece to me, and I don’t know if that’s just because it’s now pared down to two writers, as opposed to having three. But my personal opinion is that it’s really good and I’m really proud of it just as a cohesive piece of art.
Stereogum: After Brent left the band, was it clear right away that you would continue as a band, or was there a limbo period where you weren’t sure if it was going to happen?
Harris: No, it was pretty clear. We didn’t skip a beat, really. The day Brent told us he was quitting, Danny and I got together for lunch to talk about things and there was that question: “Do you want to keep going?” “Of course, do you?” And then, from that point on, it was just like, “OK, and now we’re two.” And at that point, we already had a couple of tours lined up, so it was a bit of a scramble to fill; we had to find a replacement for [Brent] and complete those sets of tours. But we decided pretty soon that once we were done with those tours, we would just stop touring and not try to play any more shows and come out with a 2.0 record as soon as possible. We pretty much stopped touring about a year ago at this time and started working on the album.
Stereogum: When the two of you started writing, did the concept for the record present itself pretty quickly? What was the genesis?
Harris: Historically, we have always written separately for a while until we have fleshed out an idea, and then we start combining things. So in that period of separation, we were free to do whatever we wanted, and Danny typically is writing a lot quicker than I do and has lyrics a lot quicker than I do. So one day he sent me an email telling me, “These are the lyrics to my songs, and this is what it was about.” That was a catalyst for not necessarily calling the album Moms or writing about moms, but it sort of steered me in a direction of something that would complement what he was writing about.
Danny Seim: I think compared to past albums it happened pretty early in the process. It seems like for most, if not all, of the other ones, we’re sitting in the mastering room and the songs are done and we’re sitting there trying to come up with the album title and make everything more cohesive as just a full-on thing. It seemed to be pretty early in the process that we started to think about the themes, and sculpt the songs around these sorts of ideas.
Harris: We were talking about album titles early on, although Moms was not really an album title option at that point. It was actually suggested after the songs were listened to by Dan Attoe who does our album art. So in listening, it seemed like he just jokingly said, “You guys should call this album Moms.” And we were like, “Yes, we should.”
Stereogum: It’s nice when it happens like that, when you’re like, “Yes, as a matter of fact, that is exactly what it should be called.” How long did the process take from when you started writing until the actual recording?
Seim: That was a lot quicker this time too. The songs started happening about a year ago. And then as far as the main brunt of the songs — writing and finalizing — all happened within the span of about three or four months.
Harris: Yeah, we started focusing on making a new album probably June of last year, and summer wasn’t super prolific, but we really started last fall. From November to March was the biggest push in completion of music.
Seim: Which is really fast for us, too. You hear all these stories of all these bands going into the studio for a week and turning out a complete album. That’s pretty mind-boggling. But this is better than four years, or whatever the last album was for us.
Stereogum: Do you guys have your own recording space?
Harris: Yeah, we do. We record at home.
Seim: Justin has the main one. He has more space up there to record things simultaneously if we want to do that, or have things recorded in a space bigger than my tiny spot. I do all of my little mixes and specific guitar parts at my place.
Stereogum: A lot of people might not realize how long you’ve been doing this band or that you guys have known each other since you were really young. When you start a band with someone, no matter how ambitious your intentions, there’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ll still be doing this with those same people a decade later. I was thinking about that when listening to “Heavy Is As Heavy Does.” Given the subject matter of this record — not to mention the shakeups in the band — the song seems to getting at some heavier ideas. I kept thinking of people I know who are currently having some sort of mid-30s crisis. Am I ever going to be able to buy a house? Is this really what I’m doing with the rest of my life? I wondered if this record was indicative of that kind of thinking.
Harris: This record is a giant contradiction because though we’ve matured to mid-30-year-olds, continuing to make a record is probably the most fiscally irresponsible thing we can do. But I think, yes, it seems like the older I get, the less important being cool becomes. We’re not gonna write a no-wave album or something. It seems like the things that are more important are the things you were talking about. The more classically important things in life become more important, I suppose, as time goes on. I’m glad we were writing on this record about things that are more important to us and things that are more weighty in the grand scheme of life rather than perhaps the more nebulous topics that we used to write about.
Seim: Definitely. I was thinking about that weird point where it goes from making music just as a hobby and turns into something else. I don’t think we ever had any delusions about making a career out of this. Most of the bands I like, it seems like they were more interesting or something when they were writing music as a hobby. It’s one of those things you try not to think about and just write music, but we are aging for sure. When Justin and I met when we started playing music together, which was years ago — and not all the music is music we’re proud of — but it’s nice to hit our mid-30s and to make an album that we’re actually proud of at this point in life. I don’t think we’ve lost sight of making music just for that sake of it rather than for paying the mortgage, but that idea is a struggle sometimes.
Stereogum: For a lot of people it’s a healthy combination of both things. I have a friend who’s in a band that has achieved some degree of success, and lately he’s like, “I don’t want to sound like a spoiled baby, but at what point are you too old to do this touring-in-a-van and sleeping-on-floors-of-strangers type of touring?” When you are crashing on the couches of people who are much younger than you, it’s not always such a good look anymore.
Harris: This band is only twelve years old — but Danny and I have known each other for close to 20 years. I think we’ve all had those thoughts of “What are we really doing here?” This is all really hard work, and for our band, things have subtly increased with the status of our career, but not at a fast rate by any means. Twelve years is definitely not an overnight success story. But I still feel that 12 years goes by very quickly these days, and I remember back in the day, this was our focus, and no matter what else we were doing in life, it was still a goal — whether it was the goal to be successful or just to do something we really loved. But it was something that we spent a great deal of time on and put a great deal of energy towards, and 12 years later I think we still feel this way — it just so happens that 12 years went by. You look around and a lot of other 35-year-olds are almost retired, if they’re successful doctors or lawyers or have had some sort of successful long career. It’s funny how I’m still stuck in the 23-year-old mindset, but I’m not 23 anymore.
Stereogum: I feel that way, living in New York City. I write about rock music for a living, and people I grew up with back home in Oklahoma have giant houses. Rock and roll can keep you young, just not always necessarily in a good way.
Seim: When did you move to NYC?
Stereogum: I moved in 1999.
Seim: That coincides with the start of this band. Have you been writing ever since?
Stereogum: I went to school to study the most unusable things possible — creative writing and poetry — and then I moved to New York thinking, “I’ll just be a barista forever. We’ll see what happens.” I never thought I’d be a journalist at all.
Seim: Then you can definitely relate to the 12 years, trying to focus on an art career.
Stereogum: I definitely can. But maybe it’s just that these things have been weighing so heavily on my mind as of late. I hope I’m not projecting those ideas onto your record just because I’m feeling old right now!
Seim: No, I’d say it definitely is a part of what are record is about. Writing about moms or parents is a good way to tie in the age thing. It’s not just about the age they were when they had us, it’s about our aging in the face of that. And it’s all becoming so much more obvious when our bodies are starting to erode and our man breasts are starting to grow and our hair is starting to thin. Thanks a lot, Mom!
Stereogum: Wow, this somehow became the most depressing interview ever. We’re old! So, anyway, how will it be to go out and play these songs? Will your touring setup going forward be different?
Seim: Yeah, we’re going out as a band of five people. We got to kind of a point where we’re just three musicians and we don’t really think about who’s going to play what on stage while the songs are being created, and getting to the point where the songs are becoming so complex with so many different layers that it’s like we’re either going to be a karaoke band and play pre-recorded songs, or we’re going to try to pull this off live. We even have a saxophone player this time. So now we’re a full band.
Stereogum: I assume most of the rest of this year of your life will just be playing shows then?
Harris: Hopefully. That’s the goal. All of fall will be North America, and then Europe after that, and then hopefully elsewhere. Hopefully Australia. We played Australia a couple of years ago. Have you ever seen us play live?
Stereogum: Yeah, it’s been a while. I’m looking at your tour dates right now, actually, and I see that you’ll be in New York in October.
Seim: We just started rehearsing and we’ve practiced twice now, and it’s always the “Oh shit!” moment where you realize that you have to replicate this stuff live. We’re about three songs in, and it’s sounding OK. A lot of rehearsals between now and that tour, but it always gradually gets more comfortable as we re-learn to do things that we forgot we had to do at some point.
Stereogum: Well, when you add all these new people into it, I guess it also necessitates going back into your back catalog and seeing which of those songs you’re going to do and then learning how to re-play them. It’s a lot of work.
Harris: It is. But it’s worth it.
Menomena’s Moms is out 9/18 on Barsuk.
09/25 – Santa Cruz, CA @ Catalyst
09/26 – San Francisco, CA @ Bimbo’s 365 Club
09/27 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey
09/28 – San Diego, CA @ Casbah
09/29 – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
10/02 – Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater
10/03 – Austin, TX @ Parish
10/04 – Houston, TX @ Fitzgerald’s
10/05 – New Orleans, LA @ One Eyed Jacks
10/06 – Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
10/09 – Washington, DC @ Black Cat
10/10 – Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
10/11 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
10/13 – Allston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
10/16 – Montreal, QC @ La Sala Rossa
10/17 – Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern
10/18 – Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
10/19 – Chicago, IL @ Metro
10/20 – Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock
10/23 – Boise, ID @ Neurolux
10/25 – Vancouver, BC @ Biltmore
10/26 – Seattle, WA @ Showbox At The Market
12/7-9 – Minehead, UK @ All Tomorrow’s Parties