Jordan Daniels caught up with Brent Knopf (Menomena, Ramona Falls) to talk about the new project EL VY, which also includes Matt Berninger from The National. The band is finally releasing their new album Return To The Moon on October 30th via 4AD.
NT: Thanks for taking the time to call. Sorry if there’s a bit of noise in the background, there’s a fairly big baseball game going on in the background right now, so at the risk of sounding unprofessional, it’s on my TV
BK: No Worries. Priorities, man. Who are you rooting for?
NT: The Toronto Blue Jays. Are you a sports fan?
BK: I have been. With my nose to the grindstone I’ve hardly come up for air, so I am clueless about what’s going on. Is it the playoffs?
NT: Yeah, the first game of the playoffs.
BK: Okay, cool.
NT: Anyways, I’ve read a little about you guys in the past, and I know you guys have been friends for years before making this record. Was there anything specific that led to this El Vy project happening now, as opposed to earlier on? Was it just good timing that you both had time in your schedule?
BK: Yeah, The National finished their tour cycle for Trouble Will Find Me, and everybody has kids and other projects. Scott’s doing this really cool Grateful Dead cover thing, and Bryce is playing with these orchestras… Everybody wanted an extra year, I guess. So that gave Matt [Berninger] and I a window to see this to fruition. I mean, we’ve been talking about it forever, but I was pretty surprised when things actually picked up. It seemed like one of those things, where it was just an idea in the background, so it really went from something that was on the backburner to something that was really cookin’.
So really it came together within the last year, and all of a sudden it seemed like it was gonna be a real thing. And it came together quickly and it was super fun. And I think that was a product of the fact that Matt’s focus is on the lyrics and my focus is on the music, so we were always kind of feeding each other ideas to try and sort of one-up each other. Just trying to impress the other guy, or surprise the other guy by taking a song in a new direction and adding a new dimension to it. So, he’d send me what he was doing, and I’d kind of change up the chords, and he’d change up some lyrics and send it back to me, so that’s how it kind of started rolling but it really came together over the last year.
NT: Right, well that’s interesting that you say that, because one of the best things about the record, I thought, was hearing the individual influences you both had on it coming together to make something very different from both of your individual styles. You can almost hear you guys pulling each other in different directions throughout the album, but it really meshes together. So I was going to ask if the process was back-and-forth, but you already answered that, really.
BK: Yeah, it’s funny. Maybe in the back of our minds, we wanted… I mean with any project you want it to have it’s own identity, but EL VY just instantly had it’s own feel. It had it’s own fun energy to it, we didn’t have to try and deviate from our normal… it’s almost like our groovy sides cancel each other out. There’s almost a sense of, I don’t want to say levity or lightness, but there’s a kind of adventurousness to this record that was just really fun to explore.
NT: Did you guys bring in a backlog of material that wasn’t fitting in, in other projects? Or did you try to write the songs specifically from scratch with each other?
BK: It was a mixture, and I think to get the ball rolling, Matt would be like “Hey do you have any extra ideas laying around that you don’t have any use for with Menomena or with Ramona Falls?” And I was like, “Yeah, dude. I have a lot!” So he’d say, “well send it over.” And I’d say “Okay.” And um, I sent him like 14 hours of ideas. It was like, over 400 ideas, and this huge crazy playlist of stuff that had just been collecting over the years.
I almost use musical improv sessions as a form of therapy, you know? So he started diving in to these ideas. So we developed about a dozen or so of those, but then while we were working on those songs, newer songs emerged that I started writing specifically for this. So I started doing these improv sessions with El Vy in mind. And then we were cruising along, and I didn’t think we really had time for any new ideas, but every now and then I’d turn to the piano and decompress.
I caught a really nasty cold last year for about five weeks, and I had almost like a fever dream, and I drug myself to the piano and recorded like four improv sessions and went back to bed. And I sent it to Matt, not thinking he would even listen to it. But he ended up listening to it immediately and he just dove in, which is kind of his M.O… Be really creatively engaged and he dove right into this and created “Paul is Alive,” like the next day. And I was like, oh my god, I was just sending this so we’d have it in our back pockets. Maybe some sort of B-side in a couple of years. And “It’s a Game,” came about that way. “Sleepin’ Light,” I think I was having girl problems and decided to try to improv some keyboard on the road. So we had all these ideas.
And then right before mixing, I was down working with Matt, we’re recording some vocals. And he pulls me aside and is like “Hey dude, check out this Hip-Hop song, it’s like my favourite rap song ever.” And so he plays it for me, and it’s a song called “There He Go” by Schoolboy Q, I’m not sure if you know that one.
NT: Yeah, sure.
BK: So he plays that for me and I just started laughing my head off. And he’s like, “Why are you laughing?” and I’m like, “Dude, that’s me! Those are Menomena samples!” Schoolboy Q used two samples from a Menomena song called “Wet and Rusting.” So I’m laughing so hard, cause I thought he was messing with me. So he’s like “What?! That’s you??” And I’m going, “Yeah, dude. That’s me!” And he says, “That’s Crazy!!” So then he had this idea to take those same Menomena samples and develop a brand new song using those samples. And then he wrote this kind of melody to it. And he sent that to me, but I was like, you know what, it doesn’t make sense to me to use Menomena samples for our songs. So I deleted all the music, and I only had Matt’s melody to work with, and I created brand new chords and a brand new bassline and guitar line and keyboard stuff, underneath Matt’s vocals. So that song came together like a week before mixing, so it was a bit of a buzzer beater.
So to answer your question, it was a combination of past ideas, plus stuff written specifically for El Vy, plus stuff that just came out after I didn’t even want any more ideas.
NT: Sounds like it was a pretty natural process to go through.
BK: Yeah, it did feel organic. You know, one thing I like about Matt is he’s very receptive of good ideas, whenever they arrive. Even if a good idea arrives at an inconvenient time, he kind of gets a thrill out of turning that idea into something awesome, and putting energy behind it even if it might seem like we don’t have time to. He’s pretty fearless that way, it’s pretty cool.
NT: You guys recently played on Conan, was that your first TV appearance?
BK: For me personally? I played with Menomena on Fallon when he was on Late Night, in 2010, and it was super fun. I will say though, the four piece ensemble that will be touring in November and December, which is myself, Matt Berninger, plus Andy Stack of Wye Oak on drums, and Matt Sheehy of Lost Lander on bass, that was the first time we ever performed live in front of people. It was pretty funny, like okay… this is our first ever performance and it’s being televised. But it was awesome, it was really fun.
NT: You mentioned that live group. I know they’re your touring ensemble, but do those members appear on the album at all?
BK: No, we did have a couple of guests. My friend Drew Shoals played drums on about two thirds of the record. John O’Reilly Jr. played drums on the remaining third. And then my friend Lauren Jacobson played a little bit of violin here and there. Then as the record was finishing, across the hallway from the little basement room that I rent, moves in a very talented young singer named Maria Massa. And she and two of her girlfriends sang backing vocals which you can hear pretty prominently on “Silent Ivy Hotel,” and “Paul is Alive.” And also, through Maria I got the phone number of a soul singer in Portland, this legend, his name is Ural Thomas, and he’s 73 years old, and he has 7 times my energy and vibrancy. I think he’s the most vibrant person I’ve ever met. So he sang on “Sleepin’ Light.” But all the keys and guitar stuff, that was kind of my domain.
NT: This might be a tough question for you to answer for Matt with regard to the lyrics…
BK: Yeah, every now and then we’d be choosing between two different lyrics and I’d go, “Choose option A!” and he’d be like “Nope! Option B!” I think really the person who is just an incredible ally for Matt writing lyrics is just his wife, Carin. She has this really great sensiblity for helping him find something that’s ringing true. I’ve seen them work together a few times and it’s actually sort of inspiring to see those two work together. Whether it’s coming up with a certain line, or the actual delivery you know? He’d deliver a line and she’d say something to him, and he’d go in and deliver it again and it would be much better. She has this kind of killer instinct which is really awesome, actually.
NT: It’s interesting that you brought up his wife, you guys have mentioned that you’re talking about real people in some of these songs. I know you likely know some of the people Matt is singing about. Is there ever a concern when your subjects include real people from the real world. Do you feel a need to obscure that?
BK: Well I think… what I notice a lot in Matt’s writing, and it happens with me as well, is it’s almost like a dream. Where there will be a character in your dream that looks like your uncle, but has the voice of your boss, and plays a sport that your best friend from college plays. So it will be sort of an amalgamation of characters. Almost like an archetypical one-ness, or a blending together. So I know that a couple of the themes that emerged in Matt’s lyrics were based around returning these characters like Didi Bloom, which was kind of a feminized reincarnation of D. Boon, the guitarist from Minutemen; and this other character named Michael which is loosely based off Mike Watt and… these characters are also blended in with characters from Grease, the musical in a way, because Matt was seeing his daughter get obsessed with Grease, and he remembers also when he fell in love with that musical.
And I know that when I personally have written lyrics, I’ll be singing words that both resonate with a relationship I’m in at the time plus some come of age experience I was having as a kid, rebelling against my parents or something. So there’s always a bit of a blending.
NT: Interesting. So our last question for every interview is to list 5 records you’re into right now.
BK: Easy. I’m listening to the new Kurt Vile record, The new Micachu and The Shapes record, I love those guys.
And then, Odessey and Oracle, The Zombies record, I’ve been obsessed with that for a while, I’m actually going to see them live in about a week! And they have the original members of the band, so I’m really excited to see them play.
Billy Idol’s second record… with Rebel Yell, on vinyl I’m listening to that a ton, for some reason.
And of course, Talk Talk, I’m listening to their record Laughing Stock. Yesterday I was listening to that really loud, trying to relax, trying to get myself ready for the tour.
NT: Well good luck with the tour, and the record release. Thanks for talking to us!
BK: Thanks so much! It was fun to put together, and I’ll be rooting for the Toronto Blue Jays!
Interview by Jordan Daniels