"WE'RE JUST THREE PEOPLE," Menomena's Justin Harris said, sitting on a sinking couch in a warehouse practice space. "We're not the Polyphonic Spree... or maybe we are now?"
Maybe. After all, 25 vocalists wait in the room next door warming their chords alongside Menomena's sweeping new songs, preparing for their big debut Sunday night at the Crystal Ballroom. When I asked Harris how he came up with the idea of adding a choir to Menomena's upcoming live performance, he answered, "I had a dream," with a laugh. Turning serious, he added, "I thought it'd be fun, especially with the new songs because they are more grand."
Without a doubt. The new album, Friend and Foe, is a triumph; only a group comprised of true talent and honest intention could create such a brilliant piece of work. While 2004's I Am the Fun Blame Monster was an excellent debut, Friend and Foe trumps it with sheer conviction and gut-spilling emotion. It's obvious that Menomena—Harris, Danny Seim and Brent Knopf (all multi-instrumentalists)—have grown significantly since Monster.
"We learned some things about how to achieve certain sounds that we had previously wanted but didn't know how to make before," said Seim.
And to make their newfound sounds even bigger, they rounded up a group of singers/friends to add a dreamy layer of church choir vocals to their live set. "It's amazing that these people are willing to come three nights a week for free," Seim said. "We feel so fortunate."
The singers stood among instruments and recording gear, creating a half moon of bodies in the room, belting Menomena lyrics in Harris' direction. Cued by a piano melody or drumbeat, courtesy of Seim, the vocalists sang mostly a cappella, shooting their arms to the heavens at high points. It appeared as though Menomena's new songs—even broken into brief segments—sent a bolt through their collective heart. Clearly, they were thrilled to be present.
Menomena built it, and they came. But the making of Friend and Foe wasn't easy. "It was a long tedious process plagued by doubt, resentment, and jadedness," Harris said half-joking.
Menomena painstakingly pieced together Friend and Foe, carefully recording and layering the new songs on a custom-built software Knopf developed a few years ago.
"It's a blessing and a curse recording our own thing," Seim said. "It's free and we have unlimited time but we can take as long as we want."
Harris, Seim, and Knopf each contribute equally to Menomena, collaborating, sharing, and recording only agreed-upon ideas. "Every decision has to filter through equally," said Harris.
Adds Seim, "We're three strong personalities and that can be a recipe for disaster and for success."
Such conflicted notions—curses and blessings, disasters and successes—come up time after time in our discussion. It is as though the two extremes, in part, define Menomena: They are challenged yet extraordinary. They are unassuming yet huge. And they are three. Yet, for one night, they are 28—it is sure to be a devastating masterpiece.