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It seems at a cursory glance that the only OC connection at the kickoff show for this year's incarnation of the Segerstrom's Indie Band Series are local favorite Kiev. But headliners Menomena have more than a passing interest in the county—Justin Harris, one of the Portland, Oregon's two current core members, spent the first 12 years of his life near the beach in South County.
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"San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano," confirms a relaxed, thoughtful Harris. "I still have family down there, so I visit every so often. I've got a lot of fond memories of the beach—surfing up in Oregon is a little more involved! Longer drive, heavier wetsuits, colder water!
"I'd never even heard of the Segerstrom Center, but the show came up, we took it, and then I talked to a cousin in Newport Beach, and he was saying 'Oh, that's a great place!'" he adds. "It seems a little strange; we don't normally play venues like that. But it's great because we've only played one time in OC in the past six years—now, family and friends can just go there!"
With Harris on bass, Danny Seim on drums and the recently exited Brent Knopf on guitar—not to mention working with other instruments, plus singing and songwriting—Menomena spent the past decade building a considerable reputation in their hometown and elsewhere. Their evolution is traceable not only in their coming-and-going members, but also via their albums, with playful, nearly nonsensical songs early on turning into a collection of moodier but always immediate and enjoyable pieces on last year's Mines. That album emerged after more than three years of slow-burning tension between Knopf and the others.
"Through the past four records we've done," reflects Harris, "when it was the dynamic of the three of us, it was pretty straining. You always have to fight for the ideas you feel passionate about while letting certain stuff go. If it was just left to me or Danny and Brent, via solo and side projects, you don't have to give in to anyone's dislike—the flipside is that your song gets opened up to possibilities you never think of on your own. The end result of any given album is a series of compromises."
Mines as an audio experience is a rare beast, a straightforward rock album that somehow always seems to change form, from song to song, with each element creating an overall dynamic collage. The interplay of vocals and rhythms on "Dirty Cartoons" is a great example, as is the prominence of the bass at the start of "Killemall." At the same time, there's a clear sense of directness and almost contemplation, as heard in Seim's vocals on "Tithe"—a blend that sometimes tests the current touring lineup of the group.
"That's one of the the two songs that challenged Danny the most live!" Harris asserts. "I think as time goes on and the more songs we write, the tension as an idea in a song is something we've always been considerate of, trying to create in one way or another. We try to do that with dynamics—push and pull—though I don't know how conscious we are in doing that.
"Live, because there are so many layers and things going on and because we're only four onstage, we're bound to the sample sets we're playing," he adds. "Paul [Alcott, touring as a replacement for Knopf] is playing samplers, I'm triggering samples with my feet—we do try to replicate the album as much as we can live, but there's a different dynamic, and we can't play everything from an album. We don't have enough hands!"
Harris and Seim are coming off a busy first part of the year, including a turn at Coachella ("It's incredibly well-organized for its size; the staff did a very good job!") and already planning sessions later in the year for a new album in 2012, determined not to delay once again.
"Danny and I have talked about this a lot! We just want to get more on a regular pace," concludes Harris. "The gaps in the past weren't us just sitting idle—it was always a bit tumultuous. Hopefully, that's all less of a deterrent now!"
This article appeared in print as "Menomenal: The OC-by-way-of Portland group don't have enough hands but still put out gems."
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