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Inside the National Singer Matt Berninger’s Quirky New Side Project, EL VY

Berninger, Menomena’s Brent Knopf on the Minutemen, Cincinnati rock lore and lyrics about dicks.

While Matt Berninger is best known for his role as the baritone frontman in the National, he’s revealed a different side of himself in EL VY, a new side project featuring Ramona Falls’ Brent Knopf, formerly of Menomena. The idea of a side project has been in the works since the pair met in 2003. With their main bands taking them on tour all over the world, Berninger and Knopf weren’t sure their collaborations would ever see the light of day. “There are times it went onto the back burner and stayed there for a long time because of all the other stuff we were both doing,” says Berninger of EL VY. “We had this window, and we dove in with both feet and finished it.”

While National fans know of Berninger’s penchant for dark storytelling and fondness for his home state of Ohio, EL VY proves to be a trip down memory lane for him, filled with lush melodies and at times raunchy lyrics. Berninger and Knopf created characters inspired by We Jam Econo, the 2005 documentary about Eighties punk heroes the Minutemen. Leading up to the October 30th release ofReturn to the Moon, EL VY’s debut, the duo sat down to talk about twisted lyrics, the influence of the Cincinnati music scene and how a folder called “The Moon” started it all.

A collaboration between you two has been in the works for years. Why was this the year for it to come to fruition?
Berninger: Honestly, we finally had time. After the National finished touring for Trouble Will Find Me, we all decided to take an extra break before diving into a new record. We used to take a month break, but this time, we took a longer one. We wanted to get back to life a little bit. It opened up a window to finish this thing that Brent and I were tinkering with for a long time. We didn’t even know if we were going to make a record — we assumed that’s where it [would] possibly lead. There wasn’t a plan when or even if it had to happen.

Did you two meet through music? Or was it through something else?
Knopf: We met through music. We just looked it up. In 2003, the National and Menomena played a show together. We hung out that night. It wasn’t until a few years later that we went on tour together, and we became friends. Actually, Danny [Seim] from Menomena and Brian [Devendorf] of the National are in a band called Pfarmers together.

Berninger: For a while we’d tell each other that we’ve known each other for eight years, but we realized it’s been longer: It’s been 12 years.

Matt, you’ve said that this project is more autobiographical than anything you’ve ever done for the National. Why do you think that is?
Berninger: The lyrics in this project have more specific references to Cincinnati. In the National, there are references to Ohio, but I was thinking about my adolescence and Cincinnati a lot and how I fell in love with music. I was romanticizing Cincinnati — the punk club called Jockey Club that I never went to because it had closed up. My cousin had told me about it. It became a muse and a setting for a lot of the songs. The characters aren’t necessarily autobiographical — some of them are, but it’s bits and pieces. I was reflecting towards a specific time — maybe more so than in other pieces of music. 

In your opinion, Matt, how has the Cincinnati music scene changed since you were younger?
Berninger: It’s funny. I don’t know if there was one until the Afghan Whigs came out of Cincinnati, and they were the second band that signed to Sub Pop. That was the first time where it was like, “Holy shit, a band could come out of Cincinnati.” There was Dayton and Guided By Voices. That scene kind of blew. There was a small, incestous and intense Cincinnati rock scene with Tigerlilies, Roy G Biv and Over the Rhine that are still active. It was happening, but I wasn’t in a band at that point. I didn’t start being in a band till much later. 

For this record, you said you’ve invented characters. What do they represent to you?
Berninger: The emotional circumstances that these characters are in are mine – these are autobiographical. The two main characters — Didi Bloome and Michael — are named after D. Boon and Mike Watt from Minutemen. I was in love with this documentary while we were making this record. I was listening a lot to Minutemen. It was more their friendship than Minutemen the band that inspired EL VY. With regards to the theme, my daughter was obsessively watching and listening to Grease, so I was loving that too. I was obsessed with Grease because I was in love with Olivia Newton-John and I stared at that album cover. Most boys liked the good-girl version, not the curly leather version. I [did] as a boy. Didi Bloome and Michael start becoming a Sandy and Danny. It’s also about my wife and friends. There’s a guy named “Tall John,” who’s a good pal. There are mixtures of a bunch of different characters, some of which are actually me.

Matt, have you felt like you haven’t been able to be as autobiographical in the National?
Berninger: No. I don’t think there was anything specific about EL VY that made me want to write more autobiographically. My head went to my childhood because I have a child, and I see who she’s becoming. It made me think about why I am the way I am, because I see that environment. I see my daughter being shaped by Grease like I was, probably in a very different way, but it’s having a profound effect on this little six-year-old. I think that made me start thinking about when did I fall in love with music? What was it and how did that happen? I started writing these connecting pieces. The record isn’t just about these things, but a lot of other stuff too.

How did Return to the Moon end up as the title for the album and the first single?
Berninger: The folder that I was listening to of 11 hours and 450 music pieces … the ones that I liked, I would drag into a folder that I called “The Moon.” I just called it that to have a generic name. Then, we wrote the lyrics for “Return to the Moon (Political Song for Didi Bloome to Sing, With Crescendo)” without even thinking about the fact that the folder was called [that]. I didn’t even make the mental connection for that. It’s a good title, so we put it right in front. Then I fucked up the title by adding the parentheses, which is a reference to Minutemen, along with other Minutemen references. They have a song called “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing.” The “comma ‘With Crescendo'” is a personal joke that I enjoy.

Do you both think that the EL VY record is vastly different than the music you’ve each made in Ramona Falls, Menomena and the National?
Knopf: I think that with our sensibilities combined, there’s a big difference from those projects. I tend to edge on the gloomier side of music. Somehow, working with Matt brought a lot of helium into the vibe of the music. There’s a sense of joy in a lot of the songs, but the album is also complex. There’s a lot of variety in terms of the tonalities, emotions and themes — both musically and lyrically. It’s a really richly textured record.

Berninger: Between Ramona Falls, Menomena and the National, they’re very different things. Aaron and Bryce [Dessner] write most of the music that make up the National songs. They’re twin brothers, but they’re completely different musicians. When any collaborators come together, you never know what you’re going to get. If I made a record with Aaron or with Bryce, I don’t think either of those records would sound like the National. It’s the combination of the five of us that make the National sound like what we are.

Do you guys care if Ramona Falls, Menomena and the National fans like EL VY?
Berninger: That’s a really good question. I want them to. Will it hurt if they don’t? Probably. Do I care if it hurts? No.

A very loaded and thoughtful response. How do you feel about side projects? Are you both fans of them? Do you think they can sustain themselves?
Knopf: It depends on the side project. I don’t think I have a blanket policy about side projects. I like to give it a chance. If it was the project between P.J. Harvey and John Parish, I’d want to check that out. It can be really exciting.

Berninger: I think they’re good for the artist, but as a fan, I admit — I’m kind of bummed sometimes when members of a band go and do other stuff. I’m a huge Pavement fan, and I wish they were making records together. Stephen Malkmus is making great stuff, and the stuff they’re making separately is great, but I do think I’d love to see them back together. I get if people are bummed by side projects or annoyed by them — but you can’t not do them because of that.

At this point, do you think there will be more than one EL VY record?
Berninger: Before, our answer was “we don’t know.” Neither one of us want another band, so we just thought we’d make this record and not worry about one long career move. I’d be surprised if we didn’t make another one, not to put the pressure on Brent. This project has been so much fun — I doubt we’re not gonna do it again.

Knopf: I like to underpromise and overdeliver. This project has been so fun. I’d make another record, but also the National is one of my favorite things. You better get back to that, Matt.

“I get if people are bummed by side projects or annoyed by them — but you can’t not do them because of that.” —Matt Berninger

Matt, on that note, what’s going on with the next National record?
Berninger: No. We’re working on a record. We’re collecting all the ideas. Those guys are coming out to California for a week. We’re in the anything-goes, fun phase of that. That’s happening, but no idea when.

What surprised you guys the most in making this album?
Berninger: Everything was kind of surprising. When I asked Brent for the first time about if he had leftover ideas for Ramona Falls or Menomena, a month later he sent me a folder of 400 ideas he had. He had a folder with that many ideas he hadn’t done anything with. It was 1,200 hours of stuff. Any time either of us would send an idea or send an idea back, this project would go active or be on the back burner. I was constantly surprised by the things Brent had done. I was surprised by the sketches he was picking.

Knopf: Sometimes he would send something back 120 BPM higher or in a different key. There was constant configuration of the songs.

Berninger: “I’m the Man to Be” was the last song we wrote. I took a Menomena sample — but I didn’t take it from Menomena — I took it from ScHoolboy Q, put it on loop and I wrote most of the lyrics and melodies to a Menomena sample. I kind of thought it was funny. I sent it back to him. He took everything out, the sample out and all the music out. He cherry-picked and moved my melodies around. The chorus of “I’m the Man to Be” was way towards the end, and Brent said, “That’s the chorus.” This thing he sent me that I had called “I’m the Man to Be” was a totally different thing than he had sent me. We both had our own little labs, and neither of us saw what explosions were happening in our own little labs. That’s how the record came together.

Knopf: I’m just surprised it happened at all. I thought, he’s so busy with the National. I kind of felt like I was being flirted with.

How have your families reacted to this really personal project?
Berninger: My wife was very involved in this project. She comments on the lyrics and provides the lyrics. I get credited for lyrics that I steal from her — this one not as much, but she did a bit of editing. We do a lot of stuff together. We made this documentary with my brother together. It’s a group thing — I like it. 

Knopf: I kept my cards pretty close. I had to call my mom and say, “Please don’t be mad — I use the F-word in one of these songs.” In general, I made a more kid-friendly version of the song. She was so sweet about it.

Berninger: I would argue that the more kid-friendly version is actually more twisted. In the radio-friendly version, the chorus about my dick being attached to kites …

Knopf: We took the word “dick” and turned it into “my kids in the sunlight held up by kites.”

Berninger: It sounds like a sweet song about kids, but, now, the fact that we changed it to “kids” is actually more twisted than the song actually is. The “dick” line is probably the least disturbing line in the whole song.

Knopf: It’s not that one so much as “I’ll be the one in the lobby in the green-collared fuck-me shirt.”