“When Menomena started, I had no idea what was going on," Danny Seim said near the end of our recent conversation. "I had never really left Portland before, let alone played a show outside of Portland. With this, it's nice to have that perspective. I've learned to appreciate this period of time, where nothing we've done has been released yet. ... We have no idea what anyone's reaction is going to be to us. I can honestly say that I don't care because I don't know."
The "this" is Seim's new project Pfarmers; alongside Bryan Devendorf (The National) and Dave Nelson (St. Vincent & David Byrne, Sufjan Stevens, Beirut). And the thing that they've done is new ambient pop record Gunnera, released yesterday on Jurassic Pop.
I spoke with Seim in late January, when his record was still weeks away from being announced. He spoke a lot about enjoying the free-wheelin', experimental vibe of Pfarmers, a project he's worked on largely in secret, cross-country from his collaborators (one of whom he's never actually met — read on for that story.) Their connection with local label Jurassic Pop is born out of Seim's warm feelings for the people of Indiana, particularly Secretly Label Group. Their band and record's names are born out of Seim's extremely warm feelings for gardening, a hobby that obsessed him for much of last year.
NUVO: It is hard to do research on a project that's not announced yet!
Seim: Yeah ... does it really exist?
NUVO: I'm pretty sure it does. Although when you Google Pfarmers, what comes up is the Pflugerville, Texas farmers market.
Seim: Is it spelled with a “p?” Of course it is, Pflugerville, of course. … That's funny.
NUVO: I'm excited about this project. The album is beautiful. I really like it a lot.
Seim: Thank you! That's a relief to hear.
NUVO: Who is doing what in this band?
Seim: Well, it is myself, Bryan Devendorf and Dave Nelson are the primary dudes that come up with the sketch ideas for these songs. We incorporate the friends we've made over the past decades and decades of playing rock and roll, and they fill in the cracks in the arrangements with other noises and we put it all together. But it's primarily the three of us.
NUVO: How did this project come together?
Seim: I was just thinking about this. I think it's been about a decade since I met Bryan. One of the first times The National played in Portland, Menomena was just getting started, and we got booked on a show together there. We ended up doing some tours together and getting to know each other really well. All of us have kept in touch over the years. The Pfarmers thing came about – oh, shoot, I should know this – in 2012, 2013? One of those. We were playing the ATP Festival in England and The National were curating it. A friend of mine named Holcombe Waller, who was in Menomena at the time, collaborated with The National guys back in the day – this is the most convoluted story ever
NUVO: I'm with you so far.
Seim: Holcombe said something like, “Well, you guys are both very tall drummers, and you should start a band together.” And we were like, “Well, okay, yeah.”
NUVO: That's one of the more solid reasons for forming a band that I've heard.
Seim: [Jokingly] We're both horrible musicians, but we're both tall. No, so we were hanging out after the show and joking about what Holcomb said. And Bryan said, “Funny you should mention that; I have about 50 drumbeats on my phone here. Why don't you check them out?” So I watched videos of his nostrils playing drumbeats in his practice room and said, “You're hired!”
We both kind of had all of these scrappy ideas lying around, either rejects from our parent bands or ideas that had never really left the cutting board. We started combining those and ended up with a whole bunch of new stuff out of the project that became the Gunnera album.
NUVO: You're all far-flung. How did you record this? How
Seim: So I'm in Portland, Oregon, currently. I'm actually in the capital city of Oregon, Salem. I just moved down here for about four months, because I'm set to move somewhere else and this is kind of the halfway point. It wasn't too long ago that Bryan moved back to Cincinnati and Dave is in New York. It's been kind of a Dropbox jam session thing; we've been sending ideas to each other. It's funny – I've never actually met Dave in person, which is kind of hilarious. We came pretty close a couple of times. He was playing with David Byrne and St. Vincent and we were playing the same festival somewhere in I think it might have been Des Moines, I think, or somewhere weird. He was like, “Well, we should meet face-to-face.” But I think our sets were overlapping, so we didn't get the chance. I assume he's a nice guy as well! He's great via email.
NUVO: Isn't it amazing that we live in a time where you could do that? Put out a record with a person you've never met?
Seim: I know! It is really odd. … 15 years ago, that would never [happen]. I probably wouldn't know what the Internet was at that point, so.
NUVO: Is there a possibility of a live component to this project?
Seim: We've been talking about that. We actually had a show put on the table for us. I'm still not exactly sure where I'm going to be living in a few months here. If it's closer to them, that would definitely be a lot more convenient. The worst part of trying to tour and play on the West Coast is that we've gotten to know this 12-hour drive to San Francisco every time we want to tour. Over there, the distances are a lot shorter and it would be a lot easier for us to get in the same place at the same time. It's definitely not off the table, but we just started this as a recording endeavor only. We both, now that Bryan's schedule is a little more free, and mine as well, it would be a lot of fun.
NUVO: How did you get connected with Indy record label Jurassic Pop?
Seim: I've had a pretty close connection with Bloomington for the last couple of years. You probably know [Secretly Label Group's] Chris Swanson and Kelsey [Riggan] and those folks over there. Kelsey works with Fort William [Artist Management], and her and Amy manage Menomena. We go over there when we tour and hang out with them. Our sound guy at the time was this guy Tim Smiley … all of these people are the most eclectic, wonderful folks, and getting to Bloomington is the closest we came to getting back to Portland on that tour. The vibe is really similar.
[Jurassic Pop's] Dylan [Schwab] and Jeff [Mather], I think that came about through my management, or it might have been Chris Swanson, since Secretly Canadian distributes Joyful Noise. It's all incestuous somehow. But it's all centered around Bloomington, which is kind of funny.
NUVO: Indiana is the Crossroads of America, but it's also kind of the Crossroads of American Indie Record Labels. Since you bring up Bloomington, I was remembering the last time I saw Menomena, at a Valentine's Day show at The Bishop, two years ago. I just remember it was so hot in there. So hot. But a great show.
Seim: That was – and I'm not just saying this because it's you – that was my favorite show of the tour. That was our first show in Bloomington, and our first time meeting a lot of those folks in person. It seemed so much like instant family. It was a lot of fun.
NUVO: We interviewed you before that show, and you said, “I want to write music that's not really aware of what is going on,” not too influenced or tied to the cultural waves. Do you feel like you've achieved that with this record? Or is that less important to you now?
Seim: It's probably a little easier with Pfarmers. I think Menomena, as much as we try to be in a bubble, it's really hard at this point. After five albums or whatever, it's become pretty apparent what people like and don't like about us and about everything. This thing, it was great because it was a clean slate. We could make it whatever we wanted it to be. I don't know. I guess ideally it would be nice to say that I didn't listen to any other music but that for a year straight, like Prince. I'm sure there's more just like a melting pot of everything that we've listened to over the past 35 years. But I did like that it was a freeing, clean-slate approach.
NUVO: What's next for Menomena?
Seim: We toured that last record pretty heavily. It was nice to have time to think about other things. We can be notoriously slow between records, so things like this, other projects that come up are nice for me. I feel like I'm always the guy who is the quantity over quality guy in that band. I get kind of restless when these big breaks happen. Something like this to refocus is probably good for both bands. But we haven't talked much about what's happening next. I'm sure it will just start gradually happening again, like it usually does.
NUVO: Could you take me through a personal favorite track on the album and explain how it came together?
Seim: A few of them started out – a majority, actually – started out as these jams between Dave and Bryan, because they were both recording together in New York. Dave had these sprawling trombone loops over Bryan's drumming. Bryan had just got this new little – I still can't really describe what it is – some kind of synthesizer thing that he puts on his drums. It makes the whole thing sound really unlike him. I feel like his drumming is so iconic. He's definitely one of my favorite drummers of all time, just because of that really crisp, perfect sound that all of The National records always have.
This was something drastically different from that. It was something really swampy and noisy. So they did a few of those together. I think the second song on the record, “You Shall Know The Spirit” was the first one that I got from them. The first trombone and drum track. When I started adding all of my stuff over the top, it was just really nice to hear that these disparate sounds could sound more congruent. I guess we weren't really sure what was going to happen. When that took off, it let us all see that we could make a record out of this stuff. That's probably the early favorite of my own.
NUVO: The last Menomena record, Moms, had such a strong concept at its core. Does this record have a thematic element, a lynchpin or flow to it that you can tell me about?
Seim: Yeah, it does. It's a little more subtle than the Menomena thing. I haven't really teased this out to see how it will actually sound; it might sound like the dorkiest thing ever. It was more like this dream I had. I was a plant, and I was growing along the banks of the River Jordan. ... I got really into gardening last summer. I spent most of the advance money and the album proceeds on all these plants for my yard, all this landscape stuff. I probably have never sounded more like a hippie, but I really got into that and it started affecting my subconscious. I was dreaming about this stuff. Spending $50 on something and seeing it die in a week, I was scared of everything staying alive. When they did, and they came back, it was like this family that I was planting. Because of that, I started dreaming about it and took that one step further and wrote it into all of these songs, about the reincarnation of plants, deciduous plants that I looked at that would come back. All this sort of thing. It played into the name of the band, as well. It was all this hippie-dippy plant experience.
NUVO: You're talking to someone whose plotted out all of the botanical gardens in a 100 mile radius that I want to visit. I'm a big plant person.
Seim: Great! It's a very fulfilling hobby.
NUVO: It really is. And also, it doesn't make any sense. You're like, “Why are you dying?” I have this tiny succulent that's been alive for four years, and I look at it like, why are you alive? Everything around you has died! I don't understand.
Seim: Yeah! And you can pull out one leaf, and it falls and all of a sudden re-roots, and I don't understand how that happens. Are you familiar with the gunnera plant, the dinosaur plant?
NUVO: I'm not.
Seim: I don't know if you've seen the artwork yet, but that's the cover of the record. It became by far my favorite. These leaves ... if you Google gunnera, you'll see some of the mature ones. The leaves can get to be six or seven feet across, these massive elephant ear looking things. I think Portland is probably the wrong climate to plant them; you have to be really close to water because they need it to grow huge. And if they're not by water, they get to about two feet and die off again.
In this dream/fantasy I had, I think I found a much better planting location than I actually did, and it grew huge.
NUVO: I'm looking at photos and they're massive and beautiful.
Seim: Isn't it amazing? Over here, when they're planted correctly, a lot of them die back completely over the winter and then already by the end of the next fall they're that big again. The stalks are almost like rosebushes. They're thorny and reptilian-looking. … People up here, they cut the leaves off of mature plants and put them in cement, kind of like bird bath type things. The leaves are really sturdy, really leathery if they're freshly cut. But they wilt pretty quick. The texture is crazy. You really have to feel them in person to get the full gist of them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.