Saturday, September 12, 2009

CB Q/A #14: Brent Knopf (Ramona Falls, Menomena)

Brent Knopf is among the most brilliant indie rock composers at work today.

A bold statement to begin with, certainly, but one I'd stake every bit of my critical reputation upon.

If you don't believe me, invest in a halfway decent pair of headphones, sit back in your chair, and marvel and the depth and distinctiveness of his recently released solo album. Released under the name Ramona Falls, itself a tribute to a spot of pristine hiker-friendly country in Knopf's home state of Oregon, Knopf's new album, Intuit, is not just brilliant, it is brazen, beautiful, breathtaking, and just about every other over-the-top positive adjective that begins with the letter "b" or any other letter, for the matter. (I've gushed about this album before, in much greater detail, particularly on the review I wrote for Citizen Dick of the album shortly before its August release, which you can access by clicking here.) Better yet, you can see him play this music live TONIGHT at the Beachland!

The best thing about Knopf's tremendous skill as an artist, however, just might be that the person possessing said skill seems to be such a genuine, sincere, and gentle individual. I've interviewed a lot of musicians over the years, and while most (but certainly not all) were thoughtful and kind, I can't recall anyone who would surpass Knopf in either category. His humility and dedication to his craft and audience comes through in almost every arena, whether through an email, an anniversary acoustic in-store, or in preparation for a full-band national tour. Guys like Knopf make it easy to stay a fan of new music - he's not having onstage meltdowns (ahem Crocodiles), sending snarky twitter flames at other artists (ahem, Jay Reatard), being a dramatic dive alternating between trips to rehab clinics and moments shushing audiences (ahem, Tweedy), or taking a piss on and/or throwing a punch at a fan (ahem, Black Lips). Nope, Knopf is in the studio working like a genius-stricken dog to make the best, most magical music you'll here this year.

Two last notes before I come with the Q&A. Unlike nearly every other one of these I've done, rather than send answers via email, Knopf provided video answers (and often quite lengthy ones) to my questions. This was a real treat for me to watch, especially as you could see the thoughtful pondering that came along with the answer rather than assuming it was there. I'm sorry I can't share those videos with you, but I do promise I did my very best in transcribing their essence in the answers. However, if grammar or spelling mistakes are made, they are absolutely mine.

Finally, this is actually Q&A #13 for top cultural visitors to the Cleveland area since I started this series. However, as you can see in the title, I've numbered it #14. I'm guessing you can discern why. Neither Brent nor I need any kind of jinxage on our backs.

1) What are your influences? In particular, I'm interested in sources of inspiration other than other bands/musicians? I mean, is there a certain type of art or artist, idea, spirit, etc.

Probably my most significant influence is June Jordan. She was a professor and poet and an activist, and she passed away a few years ago from breast cancer. Some of her non-fiction really gets me, and the way she lived her life seemed really cool. She seemed like someone who was able to somehow take bad experiences that she endured and not turn around and inflict bad experiences on other people. She somehow took the bad and made something good. I don't know how she did it. She was kind of a magical person, as far as I understand.

Another person is Jorge Luis Borges. He was this Argentinian short story, blind librarian, writer guy, and he wrote these stories which I like a lot, featuring artists in particular.

And then ... I don't tend to take anything religious literally, but I came across a translation of the Tao which I thought was pretty intriguing. I like the way it sits with contradiction and asks questions about contradiction, because a lot of the time, when making music, I feel like I'm confronted with a decision on whether to power through or let it lie. Or a decision on whether to go for perfection or go for imperfection in different aspects, whether it be production or mixing or the way something sounds. It's kind of a strange process of making decisions and can often be contradictory.

I don't mind talking about musical influences, either. The most significant musical influence lately has been this band called The Homosexuals. They were a British band, met in England in 1979 or something like that. They've had a few different releases since then, where they took all their obscure vinyl releases and packaged them together on a couple of CDs. That's been my most significant influence, mostly because of production, and because they packed so many ideas into each song, yet it never sounded like they were trying to be virtuosos. It just sounded like they were trying to create an interesting listening experience.

I feel like when I listen to music I have a short attention span sometimes, or at least when I make music. Because when you are making a song, you're gonna have to listen to it a thousand times, as you are mixing it, as you are adding layers, and so I guess I become interested in embedding little easter eggs in the music, so that hopefully when someone listens to it a tenth time (if I'm so lucky), they'll be able to hear a new facet and think, "Oh, I never heard that before," because that's one of my favorite experiences when I listen to music in general is finding something new.

2) What are the biggest differences (good and bad) between working on your own as a solo artist versus being a part of a team like in Menomena? Do you see yourself continuing to balance the individual-group dynamic over time or feel like you are likely to stick with one or another down the road?

I guess the best thing about working on a solo project was being able to face the challenge of conspiring against myself to get it done when I wanted to get it done, and to be able to trick myself and my days into making forward progress. That was very gratifying, because when you are in a collective, that's a democracy, and you can't really exert control over anyone. It just has to happen when it happens. I was very thankful I had enough time to work on the Ramona Falls project and finish it. Now I'm excited that Menomena is recording again.

The other thing about the solo project, honestly, is that ironically Ramona Falls created a context in which I was able to be more collaborative in some significant ways than Menomena, because it gave me the excuse to contact dozens of musicians that I respect and like and gave me the excuse to hang out with them for an afternoon. I would spend around 2-3 hours with each musician, and it was really fun to have an excuse to do that.

One of the most enjoyable things about Menomena to me is that in hindsight seeing the ways you are really grateful the other members called you out on things you were blind to. With Ramona Falls, I was always asking for that - from my friends and my collaborators. I would always take the songs and ask for criticism, but with Menomena, we have to be honest with each other about how we are feeling about the songs. That's more of an embedded aspect of that relationship. It can be really frustrating, too, because there can be an idea you've had about a song that you are really excited about and hoping the other guys like it, too, and then you find out, no, they hate it. On one level, that sucks, but on another level, it is really good, because you have to consent to the notion that if something happens that all three of us like, hopefully it will be a solid idea. It can be kind of heartbreaking to let go of those ideas, but it is also a really important part of what makes Menomena Menomena, that we keep each other in check in that way.

3) If you were asked by a younger musician about to embark on his/her first tour or recording session, what advice would you give him/her?

Well, to go on tour - I'll answer this question seriously - to go on tour, I would suggest to not travel in an RV, because when Menomena did that on our first tour it caught fire a couple of times, and it broke constantly. There is this huge list of things that went wrong with that vehicle: the exhaust manifold, the catalytic converter, the muffler, the tires, the gas tank, the side view mirrors, the video camera in the back, the brake master cylinder, the alternator ... I can't believe we didn't miss a show.

Secondly, bring along on tour things that will sustain you emotionally or however you need to be sustained. I used to really dread going on tour. It is very difficult not getting much sleep, to be driving constantly, to be moving gear - it is very hectic and disorienting. One day I decided to accept that touring was part of my life and to make it is good as I can make it in terms of what I have the agency to enact, and that meant bringing along materials that kept me balanced and happy, like ecstasy or LSD ... no I'm just kidding. Like ideas that I like, books that I like, video clips by inventors or thinkers. There's this website,, and I downloaded a bunch of those videos or Science Friday NPR radio clips, so I'd be driving the van at 3 AM listening to new developments in photovoltaic cells. So that's what sustains me. I don't think that sustains most people in most vans, but that's what I'd suggest: bring along whatever sustains you. Oh, and chocolate. Bring along chocolate.

In terms of if you are going to record for the first time, my advice would be to give yourself permission to use what you have and get to work. The thing that I see most often is that people will stop themselves because they think they don't have the right gear. I'm susceptible to that, as well. I'll get intimidated by the thought, "I don't have the proper ADD converters or pre-amps or microphones or whatever," and it'll end up being really paralyzing. It took me a long time to overcome that. For other people, if you have all kinds of gear and you know how to use it, sure, that's great, but if you don't, don't let that hold you up. Just create with what you have and make music that sounds true to your ear.

Boy, I sound pretentious, don't I? Next question.

4) Any pre- or post-show rituals you have found yourselves following over the years?

One pre-show ritual became to never say that I'm not nervous. The one time someone asked me if I was nervous and I said no, that show I became more nervous than I ever have in my entire life, it was awful. So from now on, if someone asks me if I'm nervous, I always say yes, even if I may not feel like it.

In terms of a ritual, I think to myself, "have fun." It helps bring your mind and experience to the moment. Otherwise it is easy to be off daydreaming or worrying about something. And after the shows over, usually it is just running back to the merch area and trying to sell t-shirts and talk to people.

5) Any favorite artists/songs out there you'd love to cover, but just haven't done it yet?

Yeah, two. There's a song called "The Book of Love" by Magnetic Fields and a song called "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins. I think both of those songs would be fun to cover.

6) What's the track on your new album that means the most for you to play? Why?

I think the end of "Melectric" is the most fun in rehearsals right now. There's this energy of us being together, playing that "dun ta dun ta dun ta dun" thing at the end that is really fun.

7) Last but not least, any memorable Cleveland experiences?

One Cleveland memory that stands out is this random thing that happened. We played a show at the Beachland Tavern and then the next morning we were out for breakfast with a friend who had been at the show the previous night. We learned that she had some instruments at her house and I think she asked us if we wanted to come over and jam and so we did. And then she asked me, "What's this whole Deeler thing?" That's the computer program I wrote for Menomena that's like this looping recorder thing. I told her it was pretty simple and brought out my computer and set it up and then we did a Deeler session with her and that was really fun. That was a really good Cleveland experience. Danny ended up writing lyrics later and it ended up becoming a song called "Shirt." So, the basics of that song were composed in Cleveland, and that was a good experience.

Be sure to catch Brent and his touring band as they play tracks from his new Ramona Falls album, Intuit, TONIGHT at the Beachland Tavern. Doors are at 8:30, with opening duties going to a pair of local bands, Other Girls and The Modern Electric, that each have out new and really terrific albums (especially The Modern Electric's self-titled debut, which will almost certainly join Brent's Ramona Falls album on the year end Cleveland Bachelor Top 10 list).

No comments: