During the last decade, Menomena has become its own reference point. From hooks wrapped around plummeting baritone saxophone lines and nearly inhuman rhythms to serpentine lyrical frameworks and high-concept album art, Menomena has established a singular and unmistakable aesthetic. They embed magic and mystery within pop songs that have never sat still or taken the path of least pressure.
The band formed in late 2000, when Brent Knopf graduated from Dartmouth College and returned to Portland to collaborate with future bandmates, Justin Harris and Danny Seim. The name “Menomena” was chosen for “the way it rolls off the tongue, sexually, or something” and has no specific meaning, although it is often assumed to refer to the Piero Umiliani song “Mah Nà Mah Nà”, a staple of The Muppet Show. In an audio clip from SpotDJ, Knopf sarcastically stated that the band name was a combination of the words “Men” and “Phenomena.” In Greek it means “what remains.”
After giving away several different homemade demo CD-R recordings at local shows, Knopf, Harris, and Seim stuck with the DIY aesthetic of their early demos by recording their first album themselves. The result was their nine-song debut, I Am the Fun Blame Monster! (an anagram for “The First Menomena Album”), which was self-released on May 20, 2003. The album was elaborately packaged in an 80-page flipbook that Seim designed and individually hand-assembled while working at Kinko’s.
A friend advised the band to mail a copy of their album to Pitchfork Media, a popular music website that Seim “had never heard of” at the time. Several months later, Pitchfork gave the album an 8.7/10 rating, and placed it in the “Best New Music” section. The band continued to assemble the flipbooks by hand and distribute them with the help of online retailer CD Baby until late 2004, when the album was released nationwide by FILMguerrero, a Portland-based independent record label.
Menomena released Friend and Foe, their third album (and first via Barsuk Records) on January 23, 2007. As with their first two releases, Friend and Foe was entirely produced, recorded, and mixed by the band. It received relative critical acclaim—while some websites such as Lost at Sea praised the album for its offbeat rhythmic structure and creative use of melody, others such as PopMatters criticized it for presenting a sense of feigned maturity. Pitchfork gave the album an 8.5/10 and again placed it in the “Best New Music” section, calling it, “…The first great indie rock record of the new year.”
Both the CD and LP features an intricate packaging layout consisting of Die-cut shapes, decoder rings, and hidden messages. It was designed by Knopf and illustrated by cult graphic novelist/cartoonist Craig Thompson, of Blankets fame. Thompson’s artwork for Friend and Foe was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Recording Package.”
After 2010’s irrepressible and intricate Mines, Menomena co-founder Brent Knopf took his leave to focus on his solo project causing Justin Harris and Danny Seim — close friends since high school and now well into their second decade of making music together — to recast Menomena as a duo. They didn’t slow down; they actually sped up, writing, recording and releasing Moms with more focus and speed than ever before. Harris and Seim didn’t invite loads of friends or collaborators to replace Knopf; they made these songs as a duo, intent on proving — directly to themselves, and by extension, to everyone else — that Menomena essentially remains the same brazen band responsible for Friend And Foe, Under An Hour and all the gut-punch, pop-ambition moments therein. They added new instruments, like flute, cello, more of Seim’s synthesizers and the tap-dancing that laces through the teasing-then-charging opus, “Don’t Mess With Latexas”. For the first time, Harris and Seim, who each contribute five songs here, talked about what they were writing, too. Seim explored the death of his mother when he was a teenager, while Harris investigated the way his own family dynamic — a single mom, with a departed dad — left indelible impressions on everything he’s done since. The album’s pieces connect, then, addressing how people must rise to face or flee circumstances beyond their control. It’s perhaps the most appropriately imaginable prompt for a band whose last two years have depended upon their ability to explore, adapt and improve.
- I Am the Fun Blame Monster! (self-released, 2003; re-released, 2004)
- Under an Hour (2005)
- Friend and Foe (2007)
- Mines (2010)
- Moms (2012)