The Amalgamation of Al Menne
The Great Grandpa vocalist and singer/songwriter talks the hiatus of his band, internalizing the musical styles of loved ones and assembling a team of all-star players on his debut album, Freak AccidentPhoto by Seannie Bryan Music Features Al Menne
One of my favorite songs of 2022 was “Triple Axel,” the closing number from Christian Lee Hutson’s sophomore album Quitters. It’s a piano ballad washed in brevity and spun clean with vivid, pastoral lyrics. “Infinity symbol lifting you into the sky, twisting your ankle,” Hutson sings. “Second opinions, trembling out on the ice. Taking walks around the neighborhood, pressing leaves into the baby book. There’s a consolation prize in the corner of my mind.” Perhaps it is either the hopeless romantic, the Tonya Harding apologist or the insufferable poet in me, but I truly believe that “Triple Axel” is a perfect song. When I found out that Al Menne came up with the melody for it while he almost fell asleep watching television. “I’ve never successfully watched The Sopranos all the way through,” he says. “But I was on an attempt to do that, and there was a line like, ‘We marry our mothers’—or something like that. And, for some reason, I was just trying to figure out what that meant in my weird, half-awake/half-asleep mode. Then, I was seeing a melody in my head, so I made a voice memo and sent it to Christian and I was like, ‘Is this something?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah!’”
If the name Al Menne is unfamiliar to you, I’m sure that’s not true. Since 2015, he’s been the vocalist of the Seattle band Great Grandpa and, for a long time, he was doing his own thing as Pickleboy—putting out singles and demos and covers on Bandcamp, along with a duet with Field Medic on the track “Talkin Johnny & June (Your Arms Around Me).” Great Grandpa put out two records—Plastic Cough in 2017 and Four of Arrows in 2019—and have been relatively silent since, having gone on hiatus after COVID hit. The group found themselves all in various transitional points, and time apart from each other was unavoidable—even if there wasn’t a global pandemic. However, if quarantine hadn’t happened, Menne wouldn’t have focused so hard on his solo work. In that time, too, he moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, joining a great ecosystem of musicians like Hutson, Chris Farren, Jay Som and Hand Habits—all of whom, conveniently, appear on Menne’s debut solo album, Freak Accident.
Though it’s always, to some extent, jarring to leave the place you’ve called home your entire life, the transition from living in Washington to living in Southern California has been relatively painless, but it’s the act of finding communal consistency when all of your peers are working musicians that can prove the most solitary. “I feel like I’ve done enough traveling—touring and traveling for fun to visit people—that it didn’t feel that weighted until I was settling in,” Menne explains. “Every city has its own culture for socializing and making friends. I felt like the good friends that I do have in LA, everybody is always on tour—so we’re always missing each other. I just have an endless amount of acquaintances that I see once every five months at a show, or something. The socializing aspect was a little bit harder, but I’m kind of a hermit most of the time, anyways—so I don’t know how much of that was the actual city or just me.”
But Menne isn’t unfamiliar with being alone. When he isn’t moonlighting as a singer/songwriter, he works a lot of odd delivery jobs, whether it’s for DoorDash, Uber Eats or flower companies. On long drives, he notes, he has to exhaust every avenue of energy—be it by catching up on stockpiles of podcasts or, when those aren’t filling his cup, listening through old voice memos and trying to work on lyrics. Despite the isolating weight that spending chunks of a life on the road can carry, the solace can be an empowering turn towards pronounced focus. “I’d just done a big drive down the West Coast, and there’s a lot of time to reflect—especially when you hit the mountains and you don’t really have stuff saved on your phone—for better or for worse,” Menne says “On a long drive, there’s so much time to think, especially when you’re doing it by yourself.”
The first time I was exposed to Menne’s work came about six years ago, when he was doing a slate of solo DIY gigs with Field Medic, Evan Stephens Hall and Derek Ted across the country. Those sets were crucial to Menne’s trajectory as a solo artist, as they helped him figure out his shit and figure out what he would even want to say in a song or what style he’d like to perform in. He hasn’t watched the videos of those sets in a long time, but he understands what role they serve in how Freak Accident came together. “The last time I watched that stuff, I was like, ‘Okay, damn, well, one might say this could be cringe. And one could also say that I’ve experienced a lot of growth,’ which is the way I frame it,” Menne jokes. “If I didn’t play those shows with those artists who really influenced me—as people and as musicians—then I probably wouldn’t be doing the crap I’m doing now.”
I remember dragging my friends (aka my then-partner, my secret crush and her lifelong best friend) to a show at Mahall’s in Lakewood, Ohio because Great Grandpa was playing that night—even though it was Rozwell Kid headlining. I just wanted, so badly, to see Menne and the band rip through songs like “Favorite Show” and “Teen Challenge.” We stood outside of the venue during the first two openers, embalmed by the cigarette fumes emanating from the hands of everyone around us. After Great Grandpa played a handful of songs, the four of us trotted over to the playground across the street and conquered the swings. I hold that memory close, if only because the clear disinterest everyone else in my circle had in driving two hours north from Columbus and paying $15 to see a band they’d never heard of made my love of Menne and his bandmates feel even more unique and valid.
This time around, on Freak Accident, Menne has assembled a larger-than-life coterie of featured players, including Hutson as producer, Jay Som’s Melina Duterte as mixer, Meg Duffy of Hand Habits on guitar, Whitmer Thomas on vocal harmonies and, of course, Chris Farren’s directorial talents on the music video for lead single “Kill Me.” Most sharply, you can hear the pedal steel of Jodi’s Nico Levine—Menne’s partner and collaborator—coursing through the record’s veins. Menne had been a longtime fan of Hutson’s and, after the former put out his debut album Beginners in 2020, the two musicians got linked up. Somebody, somewhere, had turned Hutson on to Great Grandpa, which led to him discovering Menne’s work as Pickleboy—which tumbled into them linking up online, exchanging playlists and becoming great friends. They would write “Triple Axel” together early on, but the first song we hear from the duo came in 2021 on Hutson’s The Version Suicides, Vol. 3 EP—where he and Menne dueted on a cover of Fugazi’s “I’m So Tired.”
“We started to do some co-writing, and we worked on some songs that ended up on Quitters,” Menne explains. “At that point, Great Grandpa had been on an intentional hiatus. I love writing songs, and working with Christian really sparked that again. It was like, ‘Okay, seeing music through somebody else’s lens, sometimes, gives you a clear view to the things that you want to be doing.” Menne began sending Hutson some songs he was working on until he came to the conclusion that he wanted to make a solo album. Hutson gave him a vote of courage and asked if he would let him produce it. “I was like, ‘Okay, obviously,’” Menne adds. “I feel like that happened very naturally, which felt good and comfortable. We were both finding our footing through it all.”
Duterte came into the picture via Whitmer Thomas, who has been a longtime collaborator of Hutson’s. The Jay Som singer/songwriter engineered most of Thomas’ record The Older I Get The Funnier I Was—a project that Menne sings on. “When I was doing backing vocals, I was doing it remotely and sending it to Melina and being like, ‘Hey, let me know if this sounds like shit, but here’s 100 tracks for this one song.’ And she was very, very kind and like, ‘No, it sounds great.’ And then, when Christian and I were talking about who we would want to engineer [Freak Accident], to me, it was very obvious that the choice would be to ask Melina and hope she’s down—because not everybody wants to just be engineering and mixing; a lot of people want to also have the producer’s chair, which is totally understandable, but it worked out.”
Levine came on board before they and Menne began dating, when their presence on the record was needed for the reason that they are—in my opinion—one of the very best pedal steel players in indie rock. “They were a part of it even before the obvious ask of ‘Will you play on my album?’ It was like, ‘Oh, this is my friend who’s very talented. I need you to play on this song. It would be perfect,’ and they felt the same way,” Menne adds. There are songs, featuring even more all-star players, that were left on the cutting room floor and may never see the light of the day, only emphasizing further that Freak Accident is a one-of-a-kind text—as so few debut albums have ever arrived with such a grounded, experienced supporting cast.
Freak Accident showcases a distinct shift in singing from Menne. While performing with Great Grandpa, his work came affixed with undertones of seriousness and was vivid, sublime and complicated; on his debut album, the work is still complicated, yet there’s a lot of newfound joy and humor and wordplay. The arrangements on the album are bright and folky and divine and intimate—positioning Menne’s elysian, sober singing as the record’s centerpiece. There’s a lyrical intricacy on Freak Accident, this recurring idea that death and dying is no longer centered on something so finite, but more so it is equipped like a tool to help show or express love. Much of that is stirred by the resounding truth that the songwriting on Freak Accident is wholly Menne’s own story being unraveled.
“With a lot of the Great Grandpa stuff, there’s so many other voices in that—especially Pat Goodwin, especially on Four of Arrows, he did a lot of the heavy lifting on the writing,” Menne explains. “He is a huge inspiration to me, as a writer, and I internalized a lot of his styles but have also maintained my own. Like, ‘I’m just a goofy little guy, let me try and make light of the fact that I’m experiencing mental illness.’ But there’s also Dylan [Hanwright] and Cam [Laflam] and Carrie [Goodwin] in Great Grandpa, and they also have their distinct styles of writing that have all entered into my subconscious. Cam has an insane way of coming up with melodies, and Carrie is really good at editing other peoples’ writing—I could go on forever. Everybody you encounter in a meaningful way, to be corny, they stay with you. I am just an amalgamation of all of my friends and all of the people that I’ve loved.”
Songs like “Beth” and “Grandma’s Garden’ zero in on Menne trying to cut through expectations and assumptions in interpersonal relationships and in community. I’m often thinking about how, in art—especially art that is both personal and queer—we are expected to telegraph an entire lifetime into such confined written and sung and painted spaces. In the context of the Freak Accident tracklist, it’s a unique landscape and a rewarding endeavor—to see the map we’ve been given of Menne’s world across nine songs. It wasn’t such a conscious decision to track 20 years of living on this album, but the throughlines began to show themselves in the post-production process. Quickly, Menne found himself really pushing to continue being vulnerable across the record, even if that meant flirting with oversharing.
“I remember having a distinct moment towards the end of the recording, when we were getting into mixing, of being like, ‘Oh, no, do these songs go together? Did I make a mistake? Should I have been thinking about themes more cohesively?’ And then, when I finally figured out the sequencing for everything and I was listening to it all the way through, I was like, ‘Wait, actually, there is a very clear theme, because I wrote all the songs in a time span where I was really uncovering a lot about myself and using my solo writing as a form of therapy—just to work through all of my secret inner fears and thoughts, the hurt inner-child. There were definitely times where I was like, ‘Oh, am I sharing too much? Should I pull back a little bit?’ And then I would ask a family member, like, ‘Is this cool if I write about this? Does this make you feel uncomfortable?’ I’m very lucky to have supportive parents. Not every musician has that. They’re both like, ‘Your art is your art and we won’t take it personally. Whatever you say in there, we know that’s for you and that’s fine.’
Throughout the process of writing Freak Accident and then recording it, Menne learned a lot about growth and what it means to create through the ugly reality of life until you make it to a place of irreplicable joy. Great Grandpa is starting to write new music together again, and the techniques Menne picked up while making Freak Accident will 100% find its way into what spurs out of the echo chamber he and his longtime bandmates have built together for damn near a decade. “Do you want to build a little life with me?” Menne asks on the chorus of “Careful Heart.” “I do want to build a little life with you.” He’s been sketching the framework of this destiny, of this question for decades—even if it didn’t take an obvious shape until a few years ago.
“Careful Heart” is this vivid portrait of Menne attempting to grasp at different ideas of love in the midst of chaos. There’s a stark presentation of a familiar idea, that tumbling through the world is easier when it’s being done next to someone who you’ve allowed yourself to take care of and also be cared for by. The way we show affection towards songwriting and living changes when you’re doing it in community with people who have taken stock in watching you grow and exist and experience the different colors of joy. “Careful Heart” was the last song Menne wrote for the album, and he wrote it right after “Feeling/Meaning,” a clear bridge from “you don’t get me, no one understands me, including myself” to “it’s okay to not get it, just sit for a second.”
“‘Careful Heart’ was like, ‘Alright, here we are. You figured some things out and you’re accepting love,’” Menne says. “To receive true, genuine love that has no ulterior motive—no wants or needs, aside from witnessing somebody else’s humanity—it definitely changed my life. I think that, having that come at the same time as I was opening up my own understanding of my gender identity and my transition and finding more comfort and expressing myself in ways that feel true to me, it felt like such a beautiful closure to creating an album that was very much like, ‘How can I exist in my life and in all of these places? How can I figure out what fits and feels right?” To have that, it’s like, ‘Damn, I guess the next album is just gonna be happy songs.’” Freak Accident, at its core, is a triumphant record—if only because there’s a defiant urge from Menne to sing about the erasures of grief or the namelessness of feelings. It’s a momentous set of nine songs; a token of unbridled curiosity and reflection; a reliquary of personal, lifelong artifacts; a body taking shape and extensions of love turning into treasures of glowing, reciprocated affection and good, perfect faith.
Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.