Brent Knopf sounds frazzled. It's mid-afternoon, and the former Menomena member has been in rehearsals all day, preparing for the first-ever live shows with his new band, El Vy. In a few hours, his bandmate, the National's Matt Berninger, flies home to Ohio, and when they next see each other, it'll be in the studios of KCRW in Santa Monica, where they'll play many of their songs for the first time, live on the air. Time is exceedingly of the essence, which explains why Knopf hasn't even stopped to eat yet.
For a project coming together in such a rush, El Vy had a long gestation period—over a decade, if you count when Knopf and Berninger first met at a half-empty National show at Holocene in 2004. About five years ago, Knopf began sending Berninger scraps of song ideas leftover from sessions with Menomena and his solo project, Ramona Falls. After amassing 400-plus bits of music, and with the National taking an extra year off, they finally decided to turn them into something. Return to the Moon, the group's debut, isn't what you might expect from two musicians who typically dabble in the brooding and emotionally bruised. It is, instead, swaggering and slightly surreal art-pop, with a little extra snap in its rhythms and brighter, weirder corners. But, as Knopf told us in a small window between practice and lunch, don't expect it to last too long.
Willamette Week: Matt has been adamant in saying that El Vy is a collaboration, not a second band. What's the difference?
Brent Knopf: With a second band, it's like a whole new process of trying to grow the band and stay at it month after month, year after year. Instead of us touring relentlessly over the next few years, these might be all the shows we play.
So it's a way of tamping down fan expectations, then?
Sure. And also trying to keep National fans from murdering me.
Over the years, you sent Matt something like 450 different musical ideas. What did those entail?
It could be anything from a four-minute-long, pretty fleshed out, multi-layered piece with rhythm and bass and keys and guitar to a 20-second-long guitar loop recorded on the fly in a car somewhere. What surprised me is some of the things Matt gravitated to was stuff I was almost too embarrassed to send. He's amazing at following his instincts and zeroing in on the heart and soul of the song.
How did you know something wasn't right for Menomena or Ramona Falls but might work for El Vy?
It was really more first come, first served. These are the ideas that were left over. But we also wrote new stuff once we started working together. We were starting to grow songs from that original batch of 400 song ideas, but there were songs that sprang up out of nowhere during the process this year. I remember I was sick last year around the holidays. I emerged to try to do something productive, and I just banged on the piano for a while. I recorded what I did, not thinking it was would turn into anything, just thinking it would be more raw material for the next batch of 450 songs I would send to Matt five years from now. I threw it in a folder and said, "Hey, this is for later, for a couple years from now." And he just dove right in that same day and wrote "Paul Is Alive" while he was visiting his family in Cincinnati for Christmas. He was waking up in his old bedroom from his childhood, and he was reflecting on the idea of this punk club called the Jockey Club and how it had this mythos and evocative feeling, as this place you go to find someone, you know, someone else who likes the Smiths.
Matt's actually called this his most personal album.
Well, I think he means the most autobiographical, which is slightly different. I think he describes all the records he makes as being equally personal, but certain different moments of time from his life seeped into this one a little more. All the names and places are real, but they're connected in ways that aren't real. There are references to the Jockey Club and Eden Park and Serpentine Wall, there are more specific references to things in his life, but the way the characters are interacting and related to each other is this dreamlike hybrid. You ever have a dream where it's your uncle but he's wearing your best friend's clothes and he talks like your cat? It's like that.
He's blending autobiographical elements along with this loose narrative of these two characters, Didi Bloome and Michael—loosely based off D. Boon and Mike Watt of the Minutemen—and also blended with Olivia Newton John and John Travolta's characters from Grease, and also Matt himself and his wife. This is Matt's territory and I don't concern myself with it too much, but my read on it is it's a meditation on discovering oneself by way of discovering someone else. As you find a creative partner or a romantic partner, there are parts of yourself that unfold, and you get a deeper sense of who you are and the things that you like. I think he's also wondering how is it that different creative people can create art that somehow feels true. How is it that Minutemen or R.E.M. or Morrissey felt true to him growing up? Or for that matter, the Grease soundtrack? He's noticing his daughter freak out over the Grease soundtrack, so he's observing his daughter discover herself, and all through music as well.
Is this stuff he's explained to you directly?
Whenever we're in an interview together, he does most of the talking. So I'm able to sit back and absorb the connections.
Are there any lyrics on the record that made you go, what the fuck?
[Laughs] The lyrics that stand out to me are some of the lyrics from "I'm the Man To Be." That song arrived so late, and before that song arrived it was an album that was kid-friendly and you could hear on daytime TV. There are a couple lines off that that just destroy me with how funny they are but might cause the censors to come in. And I still don't know a "triple Jesus" is. But I've tried to keep a respectful distance, because I don't feel like he has to answer to me in any way. I think I did ask him about, "a saltwater fish to a colorblind witch." He was like, "You know, saltwater fish are more colorful. He's giving a gift the person can't appreciate."
What are you ultimately hoping to get out of this project that you can't with Ramona Falls?
I think any collaboration is unique and has its own set of really enjoyable moments and advantages. It's been really fascinating to work with Berninger in that our roles are more clearly defined. I'm doing very little singing, only "oohs" and "ahhs" and not much more than that. In a way, it takes the pressure off so I can focus on the music side of things. We also have a lot of trust for each other. I'm never feeling, I can sing that better and he's never, oh, I can play that better on guitar. There's less overlap of ego in our roles, so it's very clean. We can arrive at a consensus of things to try to troubleshoot when we need to pretty quickly. So I think what I get out of this compared to Ramona Falls is what I get from when I've produced records for other artist,s which is the joy of bringing songs to life—taking these embryonic, rough-edged snippets and trying to hear beyond those and follow the song wherever it may lead. Berninger is a particularly great copilot for that. And it's fascinating to see that when you combine my gloomy sensibilities with his gloomy sensibilities, you end up with this weird rainbow.
SEE IT: El Vy plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., on Monday-Tuesday, Nov. 2-3. 9 pm. $25 advance, $27 day of show. 21+.