EL VY’s Matt Berninger (The National) and Brent Knopf (Menomena) on Melodrama, Birthday Cake, and Legos
"We had a bit of a sense of direction as far as where wanted it to head but no hard and fast rules." - Brent Knopf on EL VY's debut "Return to the Moon"
photo of Brent Knopf & Matt Berninger by Deirdre O'Callaghan
Both well known for their respective other projects, The National and Menomena, Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf seemed to be deliberately reserved about their collaborative project EL VY, and its debut release, Return to the Moon, at the end of last month. Largely absent of the distinctive characteristics that both musicians have established to much critical acclaim and success, Return to the Moon is a sort of happy accident, a collaboration in spite of itself and what would understandably be assumed as the antithetical creative approach of both musicians. Considering that fact, it's not surprising that Return to the Moon still manages to evoke the tendencies of Knopf and Berninger while at the same time embracing a sort of mirrored image of what both might otherwise be given to in their other creative endeavors.
There's still the same baritone croon familiar to those fans of The National, and Knopf's innate sense of atmospheric balance in sound and scope is equally as present. With EL VY, the immediate contrast is that while still familiar in the context of its creators, the storyline is less an aesthetic of melodrama and lush musical arrangements and more an inside joke, albeit one just as seriously constructed, that both musicians allow the listener to be in on. It's a subject I brought up in my recent conversation with both Berninger and Knopf as well as the creative contrasts, if any, they observed in bringing the music together for EL VY.
EL VY are on tour and will be playing two sold-out shows this weekend at the Bowery Ballroom this Friday, November 13, followed by Saturday's performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
BV: This is kind of a departure for both of you, considering what Menomena and The National sound like, but there are those underlying idiosyncrasies where it still functions on a sort of darkly humorous level. Is that something you felt while making the record or something you were aiming for?
Brent Knopf: Berninger is a master at lyrics that are simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking and just completely dead serious but also nonsensical. [Laughs.] I think that's how life is, so finding a way to blend those things together always feels more real to me.
Matt Berninger: I think that all my writing in terms of lyrics, I kind of do that even with The National. Meaning that, melodrama is something I love. An exaggeration or absurd, fantastical metaphors for real small issues are what I do in The National, too, so I think that's a little bit of my safety armor for me to actually be able to talk about real things. I kind of do an exaggerated melodramatic version of the real situations, so it isn't that different with EL VY. I think even with The National I'm a funny writer. I write about serious stuff, but I try to do it in a funny way, sometimes? I don't know. [Laughs.] People never think of me as being a light person, and I wouldn't describe myself as that, but maybe this record feels lighter or feels funnier because the backdrop of a lot of the writing has a different personality. I was only writing lyrics for this while listening to music, and that's how I always do it. Brent was opening all these windows, and I was just sort of jumping out of them and kind of following him. So yeah, I wasn't trying to make a record that was making some sort of statement about music or anything like that, but I was definitely writing about myself in a kind of absurd way. "I'm the Man to Be" is a self-portrait, but it's turned up to eleven. [Laughs.]
BV: Was there a kind of deliberate departure from your respective other bands in terms of creative approach with EL VY?
BK: We did a minimum amount of talking about it, but we did kind of have our antennae pointed in the same direction. We were talking about EL VY, and he said he wanted it to sound more like a greenhouse atrium, something that's both light and dark, spacious and cluttered. We would share with each other different kinds of songs that might do things for us, like he would share a Minutemen song, and "So Alive" by Love and Rockets". We'd just talk about the use of space and different sounds and stuff like that. We had a bit of a sense of direction as far as where we wanted it to head but no hard and fast rules. Songwriting for me is mostly a process of discovery about collaborating with someone and finding out where that strange unpredictable blend of creativity will guide the project or song or where the song will guide us. Matt has described us as an album of guilty pleasures minus the guilt. [Laughs.] He told the guys in The National, but aside from that, hardly anybody knew that we were even working on this thing, so we had nobody to disappoint and nobody's hopes to fulfill either. We didn't have to deliver for anybody. It was just about doing it for the love of doing it. I was pretty surprised when we actually finished the record, because I was quite certain that it was always gonna be kind of a little wispy thing on the side that would never congeal. But we really got serious about it around a year ago, and here we are.
Matt, you've mentioned how this is the most autobiographical you've been in your lyrics. It's kind of surprising, honestly, because so much of what you do with The National at least seems to be autobiographical. Did you see that going into EL VY, or was it more of a realization once the project was done?
MB: I've known Brent for twelve years, but it was five years ago that I said, "Hey, send me whatever leftover stuff that you're not using." I think I asked him mostly because he's a good dude and a friend, and I thought it'd be fun to work with him. I guess that's the biggest reason I wanted to work with him was because I liked him, but I also knew the chemistry of his music is very different than The National. I'm entirely creatively satisfied with everything I do in The National, so I wasn't in need of a different sort of artistic or creative space necessarily. I was just curious as to what it would be like. I think the original plan was just for us to do a song together thinking it would be fun what I would sound like with Brent. That's kind of how it started, and then I was just writing to whatever he would send me, so it just started sort of organically. It naturally just has a different sort of personality. It's like if you have kids with two different people, the kids have very different chemistry and DNA. It's like that with this where it's just got different DNA, but I didn't go into it with a vision of making a record about something specific. It ended up being very autobiographical I think because I've got a six-year-old, and I've seen my daughter become an individual with her own personality that's shaped by the world. Before that, they're just little creatures, and now I see her as a kid with tastes and issues and fears, and she's learning these from the world. I see that, and then I think about how I became myself discovering music in Cincinnati or at least alternative music like The Smiths and that kind of stuff. It was something I realized that that's where I started to find myself, and where I started to like myself. In high school when I discovered that I could be something off-center. I didn't have to fit in. I think that's what having a kid does. It makes you think about that kind of stuff. I think it is an autobiographical record, but then again it's also these playful stories and a mixture of influences and different stuff.
A lot of what you do both with Menomena and previously with Ramona Falls has been very much centered on the idea of these very broad compositional structures, Brent. Was this done as a sort of exploration of that negative sense of space for you almost from a creative refuge point of view?
BK: That's a really good question. The second Ramona Falls record I took very seriously the idea of incorporating as many divergent points of view on the music as I was making it, so I asked the people I was working with and my friends and my girlfriend: "What's working for you here? Are there any parts that really work or don't work?" I tried to be really inclusive of other people's opinions, not to let them control it, but so that I could be informed about what effect the music was having. I really wanted it to land. I've done that approach, and I've tried that way of working, and I'm glad I did. But with EL VY I pretty much had a diametrically opposed approach, and it worked out really well in the end, I think. [Laughs.] It's's funny because we joke a lot about that that somehow you put both of us together, and the end result is quite unlike anything we do apart from each other. Working with Matt I knew I really wanted to, more than I usually do, whittle away any ideas that weren't eventually helping to propel the songs. I'm used to trying to find a home for a lot of ideas on the auspices that this would somehow make the record or piece of music deserve multiple listens, so on the 99th time you hear it you'll be like, oh, I never noticed that thing before. For this, though, I decided less is more, particularly on a song like "Silent Ivy Hotel" or some of the others. Of course I tried to keep to the essentials but there's still a lot going on. [Laughs.] It has a clearer focus to it, I think, in some ways.
From a lyrical standpoint were there challenges with this project where it seems less directed and more instinctive, or is that pretty much your method with The National as well?
MB: I used to think really hard about my writing, or I used to have anxiety about what I was writing with melodies and words while I was writing them. It never helped or made the songs any better, though. A while back I just started to not worry about the process that much, and I just let the bad ideas kind of flow and then pick and choose later. I've learned not just with EL VY but with The National, too, to just open up the laptop, pour a glass of wine, put your headphones on, and sing along. Put stuff on a big, long loop and just sing along and take the chorus and copy and paste it 50 times in a row and just mumble along and see what sticks to it. I've learned to just enjoy that process instead of crafting it in a notebook or something. I don't even own any notebooks. I don't write in notebooks anymore. I just record them, and then pick and choose what I like out of it. That's when the labor kicks in, and you start constructing and putting it together with a lot of thought. Then it becomes like a Lego project or something. Brent and I would send each other lots of Legos. I would send it to him, and it would look like Darth Vader, and then he would send it to me, and it would look like a birthday cake. [Laughs.] It's like playing with the same Legos, and ultimately I think the songs ended up looking like a Darth Vader birthday cake.
That might be the greatest, dad-like description of a project that I've ever heard. I don't even think there's anything to ask. That said, you mentioned being a father, and it's something you've been very open about before. How much of an impact has parenthood had on you as a musician? Has it affected your creative focus or outlook?
MB: [Laughs.] Oh yeah. It put it all in perspective, and it made me realize that I have such a cool job, and it's so fun, and I shouldn't worry about things. Everybody in The National used to have this pent up anxiety and stress about things like: Are we gonna make it? Are we not gonna make it? Are we gonna get crushed by the tour or the reviews? We stressed over stuff like that, and now we've all just stopped thinking about that. I stopped thinking about it first, I think. I had so much going on with Trouble Will Find Me because I had a kid, and the idea of worrying about your rock 'n' roll career when you have a kid is silly. I could easily go back to any other job and be a happy man now, so it just put the whole rock 'n' roll thing in perspective, and it made me enjoy it and not worry about falling on my face.
El Vy -- 2015 Tour Dates
02 - PORTLAND, OR, Doug Fir Lounge ^ £ SOLD OUT
03 - PORTLAND, OR, Doug Fir Lounge ^ # SOLD OUT
04 - SEATTLE, WA, Neumos # SOLD OUT
06 - SAN FRANCISCO, CA, The Independent # SOLD OUT
07 - LOS ANGELES, CA, Troubadour % SOLD OUT
08 - LOS ANGELES, CA, Troubadour # SOLD OUT
10 - PHILADELPHIA, PA, Union Transfer ~
11 - WASHINGTON, DC, 9:30 Club +
13 - NEW YORK, NY, Bowery Ballroom ~ SOLD OUT
14 - BROOKLYN, NY, Music Hall of Williamsburg ~ ¥ SOLD OUT
15 - CAMBRIDGE, MA, The Sinclair ~ SOLD OUT
16 - MONTREAL, QC, Theatre Fairmount *
17 - TORONTO, ON, Opera House * SOLD OUT
19 - CHICAGO, IL, Metro * SOLD OUT
20 - MILWAUKEE, WI, The Turner *
21 - MINNEAPOLIS, MN, First Avenue *
01 - COPENHAGEN, Pumpehuset p SOLD OUT
02 - HAMBURG, Grunspan p
03 - AMSTERDAM, Melkweg p SOLD OUT
04 - COLOGNE, Kantine p
06 - BERLIN, Astra Kulturhaus p
07 - BRUSSELS, AB p SOLD OUT
08 - PARIS, Le Trabendo p
09 - LONDON, Electric Ballroom p SOLD OUT
10 - LONDON, Electric Ballroom p SOLD OUT
12 - MANCHESTER, Gorilla p SOLD OUT
13 - DUBLIN, Vicar Street p SOLD OUT
p w/ The Penny Serfs
# w/ Hibou
~ w/ Wye Oak
^ w/ Moorea Masa
£ w/ Lost Lander
% w/ Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra
+ w/ Flock of Dimes
¥ w/ Mina Tindle
* w/ Søren Juul