The way Brent Knopf talks about musical collaboration, it’s a wonder any song he’s helped write has ever been tagged with a shared credit. “None of us likes to take orders from the other guys,” he says of his bandmates in the Pacific Northwest collage-rock trio Menomena. “Like, ‘Hey, you should play this bass line.’ ‘I’m the bassist. Don’t tell me what to do.’ How do you really write a song collaboratively and decide that stuff?”
Menomena discovered a way to keep intra-band fistfights to a minimum when Knopf designed Digital Loop Recorder (a/k/a Deeler), a computer program that keeps track of the band’s musical bits and transforms songwriting into an egalitarian process. First the musicians take turns playing hooks on various instruments and filing them away on the computer, essentially recording the building blocks for dozens of tracks at once. Later on, they toy with the parts, maybe pairing a whistled melody with saxophone barks and rumbling toms, until they have a batch of peacefully assembled songs.
If his bandmates are as pugnacious as Knopf makes them sound, you can’t hear it on their new album, Friend and Foe, a collection of compositions so dense, you’d never expect they were created by only three sets of hands. “[Without Deeler], there would probably be fewer ideas on any given song,” says Knopf. “I also suspect that we’d never release any music because we’d always be arguing.”
The band’s adversarial relationship began when Knopf met percussionist Danny Seim and multi-instrumentalist Justin Harris in Portland’s late-’90s Christian rock scene. (No, seriously.) In 2001, the trio opened their first show with a cover of the Flaming Lips’ “The Abandoned Hospital Ship.” The Oklahomans are a sensible influence, given Menomena’s experimental bent. Not only does Deeler lessen the personal confrontations by allotting the members equal amounts of input and creative control, it helps them grapple with each song’s unreasonable number of layers. Maybe it’s because each loop was conceived independently, but not a single lonely piano lick or baritone sax blat sounds unnecessary on Friend and Foe. It’s amazing that such a busy album should have so little filler. And while the pulsing organ loops, lazy slide-guitar wails, and hip-hop-inspired beats on their 2004 debut, I Am The Fun Blame Monster!, sometimes seemed to fall together by accident, the new album’s collage work feels more deliberate. (Knopf says the disc’s biggest leap in DIY-recording quality came from using “three crappy mics” instead of one, not to mention a newfound understanding of compression.)
Using Deeler, the songwriting and recording processes happen simultaneously, which makes for a weird gestation period. “There is no song to play live until it’s done, and when it’s done, it’s recorded,” says Knopf. “But once the album was released, we were like, ‘Oh, we’d better learn how to play these.'” Once the songs are mastered in real time, the toughest part of touring is lugging around the gear. Menomena require a dozen different instruments and loop pedals to re-create their song’s layers, though Knopf is traveling lighter since consolidated keyboards with homemade samples. “I’m trying to set an example,” he says.
But the band doesn’t let thoughts of live performances limit their songwriting sessions. On Foe, “Muscle ‘n Flo” attacks with multiple guitars precisely when Knopf would be too busy playing piano to pick his up. Harris’s saxophones honk freely even as he sings on “Air Aid.” Even a seemingly subtle track like “Ghostship” manages to squeeze in a dozen different layers before the delicate piano outro fades to reveal a whistling teapot.
Friend and Foe has been receiving comparisons to TV on the Radio, maybe because the band moves so easily from shaky confessions to defiant all-together-now choruses. And though their press photos show them in a number of goofy, homoerotic poses, their lyrics are sullen, riddled with guilt, anxiety, and jealousy. Knopf’s self-described “depressed nights at the piano” churn out haunters like, “Oh, to be a machine/Oh, to be wanted/To be useful.” If anyone understands the indispensability of inanimate gadgets, it’s Menomena.