The first thing to note is Matt Berninger is exceptionally tall. He’s surely in the five or so loftiest people I’ve ever met, and it takes me back as we share a handshake. He’s broad-shouldered, not lanky, with thin-ish neck length hair, and dressed head to ankle in gleaming, golf ball white. Instead of exuding the rangy, baggy-eyed, sharp English teacher vibe we’re familiar with, today he looks like a salsa teacher at a wedding. It suits him.
Of course, Matt is the singer and songwriter for The National, Category A indie hero and icon of diary-writers everywhere. He is in town on a promotional tour: not this time for The National, but El Vy - his new collaboration with Brent Knopf that’s pronounced “to rhyme with hell pie. Or a plural of Elvis.”
Brent is something of an indie stalwart himself - not to mention another extremely tall, and quietly dashing man - having spent over a decade in Portland-based Menomena, and latterly one-man project Ramona Falls.
Although the band is only just releasing their debut album, the two have known each through the circuit for 12 years, after meeting at the Portland venue, Holocene.
“The National were traveling through my home town,” explains Brent, “and Menomena played that gig as well. There weren’t very many people at the gig, but there was a chance to connect as people, and we just sort of hit it off.” Our bands toured together, then a few years ago Matt floated the idea of us working together and asked if I had any extra ideas lying around. So I sent him more than he could manage, somewhere between 400-450 song sketches. And the ideas started percolating up and we traded back and forth, but it really didn’t become a serious endeavor until like a year ago.”
This is a highly abridged version of Brent’s story, which he recounts thoughtfully and slowly, whilst Matt looks on. Maybe it’s all just new and the tales they’re telling haven't become routine yet, but throughout the interview they seem at ease around each other, and happy for the other one to have their say. They pay compliments, they jostle, they spike up punchlines. One thing’s seems for sure: they’re definitely having fun.
“For me, this record came from loosening up,” says Matt, “and throwing away some of my anxiety. Some of that has to do with having a kid putting everything in perspective. But this project, when we talked about it 6 or 7 years ago, was just trading ideas. We said, ‘Let’s only do it when we feel like doing it, only work on it when there’s no anxiety about it.’’
‘Fun,’ and its synonyms, has thus far been the adjective most used when describing El Vy’s music. To the extent that the first two songs released - ‘Return To The Moon’ and ‘I’m The Man To Be’ - have the potential to put off the stauncher fans of Matt’s other band. Neither could be described as an introspective anthem, and instead channel the likes of Talking Heads, Hot Chip and even Beck. The latter might genuinely be fratboy funk. (Whatever that is.)
“I do know there’s a handful of super National fans that aren’t crazy about what they’ve heard so far, and they’ve only heard the first two songs. Really though: the first two are kind of a trojan horse,” said Matt.
“To judge the entire record by the first two songs is not even close to being accurate,” agrees Brent. “All the songs on the record are different from each other. ‘Sad Case’ is so different. Silent Ivy Hotel’ is so different to ‘Sleeping Light which is so different to ‘Careless’. I really think the El Vy sound is pretty complex.” This is to say nothing for ‘No Time To Crank The Sun’, which is the prettiest song about mornings since ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up.’
What any fan of The National will know is that it takes time to fall in love with their records. They reveal themselves slowly; they need repeat listens, they need headphones and long train rides to truly understand. And much of this is wrapped up in Matt’s words, which twist themselves around the music, weaving their own lyrical melodies within the soundscapes they’re born to inhabit.
It’s no different here.
“With The National, Aaron, Bryce, and those guys will send me little bits of sketches. And I will just put my headphones on the laptop. But the music with El Vy is very different. and so the music that Brent was sending was leading me to different places, very much. I never write lyrics, or melodies, outside the context of the song. I’m only singing to the sketches I’ve been given.“
“I’ve said to Matt: ‘Send me some lyrics and and I’ll write some stuff around that,’” says Brent.
“Yeah,” smiles Matt, mock-disbelievingly. “That just wouldn't work. For me the melody, and the tone and the atmosphere of the sound is so much more important than the words. The words are important but you have to have the other stuff first.”
I say I’ve been carrying round one particular line in my head all morning: “I never felt so alone until I read that the Minutemen were dead.” The album has two recurring characters, Michael and Didi, which Matt has said are loosely Mike Watts and D.Boon from the alt.punk heroes Minutemen.
“It wasn’t a concept at all. I only started connecting the dots when most of the lyrics were done; before I started really seeing all the interconnected web of story threads, and started fine tuning them and connecting them more. So it’s not a pre-mediated concept album, maybe an accidental concept album.”
And why the Minutemen?
“I’m a fan of Minutemen, but it’s not like I’m a giant fan. I was struck mostly by the friendship of of D Boon and Mike Watt, and how they bonded over music in D’s mum’s basement. It changed their lives. They found a common language for these misfits. and when D died very, very, early, Mike Watt almost didn’t make music again because the the person he made music was gone. It was how you find another connection with another human being in the world: you feel less alone, and you bond over that. and it transforms who you are in the world.
“When I discovered alternative rock, in grade school; my sister would bring home REM, or The Smiths, and it changed my life. It changed who I am. It changed my identity, and all of a sudden I found my friends in those worlds. Little clubs in Cincinnati would just be a sports bar. but on a Sunday, like 8 till midnight it would be college rock night. and you could wear your trench coat and combat boots and go and see girls with black eyeliners.”
In interviews before today, Matt has alluded to these songs being his most autobiographical.
“I made D Boon a woman, changed her to Didi. and that become my identity in a way: to inhabit characters in these scenes, in these songs. Also my daughter was listening to Grease obsessively, and watching the movie. D Boon and Michael - or Didi and Mike - changed into Sandy and Danny a little bit. So you get this big mix of autobiographical, whilst channeling other personalities, and also chasing this very loose woven narrative.
“I would say 100 percent of the emotional perspectives of the characters are either me or close friends or loved ones.”
What about the the protagonist in ‘I’m The Man To Be’: a self-obsessed rock star who’s tied himself to a door handle in his hotel room to pleasure himself?
“There’s a funny story story behind that song. There’s a Schoolboy Q tune I love called ‘There He Go’ which samples Menomena's ‘Wet and Rusting’. I wanted to write something from the same sample, but from the angle of a ridiculously exaggerated example of myself.
“But sure enough about a week later Brent had taken out the sample, replaced it and written a whole structure of music underneath what I had done, and rearranged the vocals I sent him. He made the chorus- “I’m peaceful ‘cos my dick’s in sunlight/held up by kites”- the chorus.”
“Yeah,” concurs Brent. “That part was just like a little aside, almost a pre-outro. The whole song got added at the very last minute, and changed the chemistry of the record.”
“I was definitely channelling a version of myself,” Matt continues. “And digging in to some dubious rock and roll legends, and cliches.” There’s a very pregnant pause. “The auto-asphyxiation stuff is a stretch, mind.”
I say there’s quite a lot of sex and dicks The National tunes- the like of ‘Karen’ and ‘Slow Show’. People often just think that it’s sad-eyed blokes crying into pints about their exes, but there’s a muck in there.
“That’s right,” Matt replies, “People have been saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve mentioned dicks in El VY- it’s this funny, bawdy record, so different to The National.’ It’s like, ‘Have you listened much? Have you listened that closely? There’s a lot of ridiculous black humor in The National.’ But this one, musically and lyrically, we sort of embraced each other.”
I wonder now how the social side of touring works for him. Especially as he’s well known for smashing - often literally - through a bottle of wine onstage. It often looks almost torturous, as though he’d be anywhere rather than there.
“I don’t go to after parties,” Matt says. “But I do go back to the hotel room or bus, and drink, and listen to music by myself a little bit. It’s a great pleasure. I like to be in a hotel room. I’m miserable on tour being away from my family and stuff, but I’m less miserable when I can go back and work on something, like the documentary with my brother. You’re creating something you’re not just killing time at after parties. So this happened when The National was touring Trouble Will Find Me. My bro wasn't there, so I think I went back to the hotel and opened up this folder of songs that Brent and I had been working on, and i just focused on that. So that was my party, writing this record.”
The band have big U.S and European tours coming up, and of them Brett says, “There’s going be four of us on stage. Matt Sheehy, and Andy Stack from Wye Oak are joining us for the shows. I think they’re gonna be wild, weird, little shows. We all know what we’re doing with the stage show, and we’re going to try and have fun with it.”
“The chemistry of the live shows is going to be significantly different [to The National]” says Matt “I‘m not a chameleon, like Bowie. I do what I do. I usually drink a lot of wine and put my head down closing my eyes. So I won’t personally be that different, but the shows will be.
I wonder if he’s prepared for rabid fans shouting out National requests, and he seems sweetly taken aback by the idea. “No. I’m definitely not prepared for that. I doubt that will happen. We wont be doing any covers of The National.”
And of the current status of The National, he says, “We are deep in the middle of writing a new record, and we’re trying to write in a room together. Trying to get together and write in these bursts, these retreats. Everyone’s been doing different projects, but everyone’s been really anxious to jump back in with the band. There’s a very healthy cross-pollination of different ambitions and side projects that are coming into the band. so the vibes there are really…they’re better than they’ve ever been that I remember.”
This all obviously sounds great. But El Vy have got to have some fun first.
Return to the Moon is released October 30th via 4AD.
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