Ramona Falls frontman (and former Menomena member) Brent Knopf chats with us about songwriting, life on the road, and ”Weird Al” Yankovic. Read all of Knopf’s thought-provoking answers in the Q&A below.
1. Where and when were you going through the songwriting process of Prophet?
Mostly Portland, Oregon and a bit in New York City. The bulk of the work happened in 2011/2012, but lots of earlier ideas were collected and refashioned for the album, including a couple songs that I wrote for Menomena’s Mines which didn’t find a home there.
2. Where did the name Ramona Falls come from?
Ramona Falls is a lush waterfall on Mt. Hood about two hours away from Portland, Oregon, to which I (as a child) imagined I could escape if things in normal life didn’t work out. There’s shelter under cliffs, a meandering stream that feels like it’s in an Old Growth Forest, and Smurfs-esque mushrooms in the shade.
3. You’re in the midst of a pretty extensive tour this winter, have there been any particularly memorable shows so far?
Our concert in Brooklyn at Glasslands was a highlight, for sure. Nate the sound-person dialed the mix perfectly, lots of friends were in attendance, and we (the band) were really all on the same wavelength. I’m incredibly happy with the way we’re playing together, it’s a special group of performers.
4. Which aspect of your career as a musician do you find most enjoyable? Touring and playing live shows? The songwriting and recording process?
I find the feeling of discovery to be the most thrilling part of being a musician. Having no idea how a song is going to get from point A to point B, hands raw from fruitlessly banging on the piano for hours, then absentmindedly playing the wrong chord, only to discover that mistake is the solution. So, the process by which a song gets born, idea-wise, is my favorite. I used to dread touring, but have grown to love it when the mix of people is right.
5. Are you finding time to write new material while on the road for this tour?
I’m scratching the surface of starting the next album. Yes, when I’ve found spare time I try to turn off the hotel-booking, load-in-time advancing, spreadsheet-maintaining brain, and let my other brain breathe. Most memorable was trying to work out melodies to a new piece at 2am in the laundry/vending-machine room of a hotel, competing against the symphony of mechanical buzzing from the fluorescent lights and refrigerators.
6. Can you tell us a few of your favorite things (in music, pop culture, whatever!) that your fans might be surprised to learn?
I think my obsession with dark chocolate is old news. Hmm…. I’m enthralled by the music of The Homosexuals (a UK band from the late 70’s that hardly anyone’s heard of and few people like) and I’m a sucker for Third Eye Blind’s eponymous debut (a USA band from the late 90’s that everyone’s heard of and few people like anymore). Recording geeks might be surprised to learn that 99% of the music I’ve co-created was tracked with just an old computer and a crappy mic. Oh, and I’ve never smoked marijuana (though I don’t judge).
7. What musicians have influenced your style or shaped you as an artist?
I often credit “Weird Al” Yankovic for introducing me to pop music when I was a kid. My mom’s a musician, so she’s probably the primary reason I’ve become a recording artist. The guitar-playing of PJ Harvey, the chords of (old) Depeche Mode, and the whimsy of Talking Heads are big aesthetic influences.
8. We’ve read that you view each song as “an ecosystem where all the elements (including the voice) are looking for a place to live.” Is this indicative of your larger views on life, and do you think songwriting proves to be more challenging with this approach?
As far as my larger views on life, yeah I despise domination and abuses of power, so I’m rooting for the nice baboons and their counterparts. With songwriting, (and most things in life), I’m looking for a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The paradox arises because I revere minimalism (like some Talk Talk songs) but am full of ideas. So, I find it incredibly challenging to ruthlessly enforce sparse arrangements. That’s why I’d like to someday work with a producer. The idea-generating brain is very different from the idea-pruning brain, and it’s hard to be effective at both roles simultaneously.
9. Is there anything that you do outside of music that influences your work? Lifestyle choices, music, hobbies, travel, etc.
My tendency to over-think everything seeps in to the music, I’m sure. I’ll crush out on someone, then wonder if the world is a looping conga-line of unrequited (and conditional) love. Or, I’ll think about desire as being simultaneously the cause of sorrow and the motivator of action for positive change. I’m wary of self-delusion, yet I really wish I could have faith in more things than I do. I think I value meaning more than bliss, so I’d rather produce meaningful work than bask on a sunlit beach all day, but it’s unclear to me how to measure my work’s impact. Often a song will be a vehicle in which I try to reconcile a quandary like these. It’s almost as if a song is the question, and the recording of the song is my best guess at an answer.
10. What’s up next for Ramona Falls? Any last remarks you want to add?
After we complete this behemoth USA tour, I’ll refocus on new recordings. And, it looks like Ramona Falls will venture overseas for a show or two in Turkey and Russia in April, which is thrilling. Anything else I’d like to add? Just genuine things that make for boring reading. Like how grateful I am to have the opportunity to co-create music with ingenious people, and that I really hope to find a way to afford to keep making albums.