Q&A: Brent Knopf of Ramona Falls and Menomena

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Ramona Falls plays at the Crocodile Aug. 28. Barsuk Records releases Intuit on Aug. 18.
Brent Knopf doesn't mind being labeled an "experimental" songwriter. By

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Q&A: Brent Knopf of Ramona Falls and Menomena

  • Q&A: Brent Knopf of Ramona Falls and Menomena

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    Thumbnail image for RamonaFalls_Melani-Brown_2_300.jpg
    Ramona Falls plays at the Crocodile Aug. 28. Barsuk Records releases Intuit on Aug. 18.
    Brent Knopf doesn't mind being labeled an "experimental" songwriter. By now, it's a term he's knows well. Menomena -- his critically adored Portland band -- has been branded an experimental pop group since the release of 2003's I Am the Fun Blame Monster! Under the moniker Ramona Falls, Knopf has recorded his first solo effort, Intuit--and the album is poised for the same sort of labeling. (Rolling Stone has already called the single "Russia" a "zero-gravity composition"; Pitchfork called the song "unorthodox" and "ethereal.")

    In some ways, Knopf knows that the catch-all term applies to him. "When MySpace prompted me to fill in metatags for my music, I chose the word experimental," he says, laughing. "So, I do like that word in someway." But Intuit is more than just an experiment. It's a daring and risky album: Knopf creates airy, symphonic arrangements with ever-changing tempos. The songs are personal, too: the lyrics are beautiful riddles about confusion, heartbreak, and sadness, and Knopf collaborated with 35 fellow musicians--including his friends and his mom--while recording Intuit.

    Before first first tour as Ramona Falls, Knopf spoke about his creative process, didgeridoos, and Cher's influence on the next Menomena record. (Q&A after the jump. You can listen to "I Say Fever" off Intuit below.)

    Ramona Falls: I Say Fever by ckornelis

    How long have you been thinking about launching a solo project?

    It became clear that the next Menomena record was taking longer than we expected to record and complete... It was not something that I had really planned to do. It's more that--it just did feel right at the time. I tried to be as economical with my time as possible in order to have it detract from Menomena as little as possible. That said, I haven't succeeded as well as I would have liked to--to be able to juggle everything perfectly. I'm trying. I'm kind of failing, but I'm trying.

    What makes you say you're failing?

    I think I'm juggling things more averagely... It's taken longer to get my portion of the live concerts ready, in terms of getting my synthesizer stuff all dialed in ... and kind of the follow- through in terms of getting a record out. But that said, the last couple of weeks, [Menomena] has been recording together, and moving forward with that, which is really exciting to me. It's exciting to me any time we're working together and making progress on a record together.

    Ramona Falls is your solo project, but you've got 35 other musicians working with you. To me, that creates two contrasting images: you alone, but also you surrounded by collaborators. What do you make of that?

    It is contradictory in some ways, isn't it? I wasn't setting out to make a solo record, per se. I was just setting out to make a record... It's not like I felt constricted by Menomena and sort of internalized the idea of what it means to make a solo record. I was just making a record, and it turned out be an excuse to work with many people I respect.

    The term "experimental" is something I hear in a lot in connection with both Ramona Falls and Menomena. Are you comfortable with that label?

    I think 'experimental' might be kind of a catch-all phrase, kind of like the words, 'indie rock'. It's pretty nonspecific. I don't really mind. People can label it however they like, I suppose. I don't know exactly what it means. To me, I try to be adventurous in solving problems in arrangements. But I also try to be adventurous in a way that doesn't distance me from the listener. So, I think I'm more sympathetic to 'experimental' music that uses the experimentation to draw the listener closer in.

    So, does your record label stand in the way of you trying something new? Do you feel like you're able to enter the studio and say, "We're going to speed up the tempo here and add a didgeridoo," and no one would stop you?

    [Laughs] I might, except for the fact that the didgeridoo is probably my least favorite instrument of all time.

    I just like saying the word.

    My motto is didgeri-don't, actually. [Laughs].

    A totally respectable motto. So, do you feel like your label gives you freedom?

    Barsuk has been such a great label because there so respectful of the artist's vision, and they take great precautions not to interfere. That's really, really great, because in indie rock I think there's this idea that the artist is always, always right, and I guess that's the reason I kind of crave that blunt feedback, because I'm not all threatened by it. I know I'll make the final decision... I just want to know what the perspectives are so that I can be informed when I do make a decisions...I prefer that, versus the idea that, 'What I'm making is such pure art that I don't want feedback, and I especially don't want any feeback from the label.' Maybe that it what demarcates indie rock, what separates it in general: the artists do what they please, and the label can then take it or leave it.

    What would happen if you were left totally to your own devices? Let's say you could play every instrument and had all the recording equipment in the world, would you need checks and balances on that freedom?

    My experience making this album was not one of isolation. It was one where I did solicit from the label and from friends and some people I respected comments of all sorts of varieties. During the last couple of days of mixing, and I was not going to put 'Meletric'[Intuit's first track] or 'Diamond Shovel' [the last track] on the record. And Josh from Barsuk called me up and said, 'I'm sorry I didn't tell you this a couple of weeks ago when you asked, but I finally asked everyone here and we all really like these songs, and we'd really like the record more if they were on the record.' And then that really raised a question in my mind. It's really good to have a reality check, and I feel like in general, I'm someone who does crave a social aspect to music and creativity.

    You talk about the social aspect, but this album seems incredibly emotional--and sort of sad at times. "Going Once and Going Twice," to me, is a song about struggle. Anything in particular going on with you when you were writing this?

    I would agree that it was a really personal record and, yeah, it is emotional, and I think that was where I was at during the making of the record. And the writing of the songs and the music reflect that. And I tend to respond personally to music where the artist does risk that vulnerability. So, it was an intentional choice t be vulnerable in those ways. I won't speak in terms of personal circumstances in my life, but often times a song is the arena in which try to figure something out or play with things that are confusing me, and hope that it becomes more clear.

    Do you think you'll make another album as Ramona Falls?

    I'm open to whatever happens...I hope to be able to make more records, in general. It tends to be really gratifying and it's my favorite part of the process. I wouldn't be surprised if there's another Ramona Falls record somewhere down the line, but I don't know when that will be.

    And what's going on with new Menomena album?

    We're working hard on it. We've made more progress on it in the last few weeks than we have in a long time. It's really good right now, and I'm very thankful for that, and I'm increasingly excited about the songs that are beng brought to the table. There's a lot more work that we need to do. I'd really hope that we'd be able to be done be now, but there are some things you can't rush.

    Do you have a release date yet?

    No.

    I'm not gonna beg you for more information, even though I want to.

    [Laughs]. Basically, we're covering Cher's "Do You Believe in Life after Love." It's 12 different remixes of this song, and it's only through the Auto-Tuner. Every instrument goes through the Auto-Tuner. Jay-Z won't be proud. It's gonna be dope. It's gonna be sick. It's gonna be something. [Laughs]

     
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