An Interview with Menomena’s Justin Harris

An Interview with Menomena’s Justin Harris

As you might remember, Friend and Foe was my favorite album of 2007, so it was a pleasure to arrange an interview with Menomena’s bassist/co-lead vocalist. In a style true to my norm, I didn’t get it typed up until about a month after the interview was actually done. So here’s a bit of a peek into one of the minds responsible for my favorite record of last year.

MP3: Menomena – Muscle’n Flo

And if you’re a regular reader of YANP and somehow still haven’t bought Friend and Foe, buy it now!

YANP: First of all, thanks for playing Hot Freaks! I didn’t get to thank you at the time, but we were thrilled to have you out there.

Justin Harris: That was a fun one. I liked playing outside.

I was going to ask about that. Do you prefer to play outdoors?

I personally don’t prefer it. Sometimes when the sunshine is shining on you and you have a lot of light, it makes it overpowers the LEDs on my little pedals so I have a hard time seeing what’s on and what’s not. But I do like the outdoors for the sound aspects. It’s usually easier to play outdoors because the sound is a little better, you can hear a little more. I don’t really have a strong preference either way.

So as I told the good people at Barsuk, your album Friend and Foe is my #1 favorite of last year.

Well thanks, that means a lot.

Do you have a favorite, or any albums you’d like to highlight from last year?

I’d say my favorite current album would be The National’s Boxer. It’s a fantastic album I think; it’s so well recorded and all the songs are so good… And they’re some of the nicest guys of all time. I’ve been enjoying that album.

So with a band like Menomena, who are so hard to provide a solid “sounds like…” to my friends, I’m always curious if your unique sound is the product of many influences or very few influences. Is it that you’re just cramming your entire iTunes catalog into your music and this is what comes out, or is it that no one out there is making the kind of music you want to hear?

I think it’s probably a little of both. All three of us are pretty different. I’m probably the one that listens to the least amount of music — I don’t even have an iPod, if you can believe that. Danny is probably at the other end of that spectrum; he listens to pretty much everything that comes out and buys a lot of music. I don’t know. Especially during the recording process, I get very burned out on listening to music. So listening to other music is basically the last thing I want to do, since I’m bombarded with our own music. I kind of stay away from music during recording and after tours. I dunno, I think with our recordings and stuff we write individually a lot of the times or separate from each other and as far as collective influences, I don’t think there’s a lot of that going on. That’s a good question, actually.

You all play a pretty wide variety of instruments. Did you know them growing up or did you decide to play them to match sound you wanted?

I’ve been playing the baritone sax for six years. The year after we formed this band, I just kind of got a wild hair. I’d always liked the instrument, because it’s technically a bass instrument and I’m a bass player, I’ve always liked the sound of it and was interested in it. Then I found it on eBay one day.

My core instrument would be bass guitar. It’s not the first instrument I learned, but it’s the one I’ve played most extensively. Brent, keyboards are his core instrument. And Danny I’d say now has played drums quite extensively. He didn’t start playing drums until years ago when he started playing for his own solo stuff. He’s only been playing for 8 or 9 years.

I absolutely love Danny’s drumming. If you ever want to give him a big head, pass that compliment along.

[Laughs] I’ll pass that along. He’s been really good. He’s one of those rare drummers that I think play with more soul than technical ability.

It’s weird, because I would normally say that instruments shouldn’t bring attention to themselves individually any more than is needed, but his drumming makes me very conscious of them in a good way.

Yeah.

It seems that each song on Friend and Foe has a good part for each instrument. Is this a product of the DLR sessions or just you being great? [Laughs]

I like to think it’s just us being great. [Laughs] I wouldn’t say we sit around saying “well this key line has to be good to match these other really good parts.” I’m glad you think all the parts are good though. I think that DLR is probably less the reason than anything. DLR is very off the cuff and improvisational kind of stuff. Usually we go back and refine everything once we’re actually writing the song. But maybe because of that, because we do have to go back and refine stuff, that puts our attention back on every individual part… I think they all just kind of help each other; the fact that we do have to re-record stuff to make it sound better, but we also record off-the-cuff ideas which keeps things a little more fresh. We do spend a lot of time going over stuff and arguing about which parts seems to fit the best in the given song. The recording process is a long one. I think we definitely beat things to death.

It seems that lately when I come across really solid, good albums, I can never make it all the way through on the first few listens. No matter how good the third or fourth song is, I always want to go back and re-listen to the songs I’ve already heard. In fact, I think I probably didn’t make it to Evil Bee until a month after I had the album, and that’s my favorite song on it. Is there any philosophy with song placement? Did it just work out that way and I’m reading too much into it?

No. No. I think the album order is definitely another point of contention. We actually mastered this album twice and sequenced it twice. The first time we had it mastered, it was in the first sequence that we’d come up with. We thought it was the right one and a good one. But after mastering it and hearing it for a couple days, it was my fault, I guess, that it got remastered. There were just kind of a lot of things that we didn’t hear because we went straight from a few weeks of mixing straight into mastering and we didn’t really have time to fill in the mixes and get away from them and get into it again. There’s a lot of things wrong and so most people agreed with me … We changed the sequence and things seemed right, so we left it.

The flow of an album from start to finish is a very hard thing to try to come to a final conclusion on because there’s probably a million different ways that it would sound good — whether you’re starting it off slow and getting exciting or the other way around. A lot of people are maybe a lot like you and just kept going back to the beginning songs…

Which is probably a terrible way to listen to a record

I do the same thing, actually. You just get stuck on songs and want to hear what’s going on. A lot of people were calling Friend and Foe a top-heavy album, like the first half was the stronger half. I personally think it shifts mood after the first half of the album.

So do you think it’s better to have a record that flows well and that you don’t want to stop midway through, like a Sigur Ros record, or one that, while good, seems to have no relation between the songs. Sort of a connected record versus a singles one.

Ideally from start to finish it would have a direction and flow like that. For us, all the songs are linked to each other. It’s not a concept album in any way, because all three of us write equally and a lot of it was written individually. We work on songs by ourselves a lot of times and then bring them together and share ideas. So as far as subject matter goes, they’re all individually different. But we always cross our fingers that they feel like a collective piece.

For me, personally, I see value in both. It’s also good to just have every song be good in and of its own, but it’s good to feel like you’re listening to a complete work. I think I probably put more value on it being a collective piece that flows together rather than just singles.

You’ve been doing work in lots of other mediums. You did Under and Hour (a ballet score) and now you’ve got Craig Thompson doing live drawings behind you on your dates in Europe. Any other plans in the works?

No plans at the moment. But I’m sure we’re definitely open to any of that kind of thing. I don’t know that we’d do anything like Under and Hour again any time soon, because that was a time consuming process. The collaboration with Craig has just been huge all the way around. We had no idea what he’d do with the album art and he really went with it. Then he went along with us on those European dates, drawing behind us. That was a nice addition to the show, although my back was to him the whole time. [Laughs]

Oh and we’re apparently nominated for a Grammy for our album cover. Craig Thomas is the man. But we’re up against Black Sabbath, so…

Nice! Well good luck! Does scoring a film or writing a soundtrack interest you at all?

Yeah, in some ways it does. I mean, it would have to be… I like to think that we’d only do that if it was a film that we were really into or a filmmaker that we really respect. Those are kind of the things that oftentimes a band like us, at our level, would be paying us to be able to continue as a band. Hopefully if we ever did that, it wouldn’t just be for monetary compensation. I think that would be fun to do at some point, but I think it would probably be a time consuming venture. I think, personally, I’m open to it.

MP3: Menomena – Gay A

Now, just a fan sort of question here. I really love “Gay A” off the “Wet and Rusting” EP and was wondering if there’s any connection between it and Radiohead’s “Kid A.”

[Laughs] No. There’s no meaning in relation to “Kid A.” It has no personal meaning to any of us in the band. A friend of mine went to one of those… like, places where they didn’t want to be gay any more.

Like a religious camp?

Yeah. Like one of those where they didn’t want to be a part of the gay lifestyle any more. It’s based on my misconception about what that was. I was under the assumption that you go to these places to not be gay any more, but that’s totally not what it is. It’s just for people who don’t want to be in the gay lifestyle. You can’t really can’t stop being gay. But the point isn’t to rid you of your gayness, but just to help you if you don’t want to be a part of that lifestyle.

OK. That makes sense. I had this whole back story made up. “Kid A” is rumored to be about the first cloned child and I wondered if this was about the alienation of first homosexual? It’s nice, but it seemed to have nothing to do with the actual song…

I like the backstory. [Laughs] You’re not the first person to ask me about that, though.

About “Gay A”/”Kid A?”

Yeah. I’ve had a few people ask if it’s related to “Kid A.” Nobody had it quite as well thought-out as you did, though. [Laughs]

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