On Return to the Moon, the sprightly debut album from EL VY — the collaborative project of the National‘s singer, Matt Berninger, and multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf, formerly of Menomena and now of Ramona Falls — one of the most nonsensical lines arrives on the LP’s opener and title track. “Bought a saltwater fish from a colorblind witch ’cause she said she loved it,” Berninger murmurs over his bandmate’s strutting guitar sequence. That’s an image, certainly, but what does it mean?
“So, what are fish?” Berninger asks SPIN on the penthouse floor of a hotel in downtown Manhattan, where he’s holding court with regards to the 11-track full-length, due October 30 via 4AD. “They’re often very colorful. And she’s color blind, so she doesn’t appreciate the fish. She thinks she loves this fish, but the fish knows she doesn’t appreciate…” Here he trails off, looking for guidance from Knopf, whose equally lanky frame is also spread out over an armchair next to him. “I’m actually just reading into it. I have no idea,” admits Berninger.
That brief monologue is the crux of EL VY: a semi-serious, not-quite-side project that still doesn’t detract from either of its members’ main outfits. Instead, it provides an outlet for a song like “I’m the Man to Be,” a swampy Midnite Vultures pastiche of laugh-track snippets and ebullient Rhodes riffs — you can even hear a little bit of those ambivalent pianos from Menomena’s 2007 breakout album, Friend and Foe. “The only thing we ever talked about in terms of planning was to enjoy this and not have it be something that causes either of us any kind of anxiety or pressure,” explains Berninger, 44, who does most of the talking, to Knopf’s seeming amusement. “But then [we] ended up working on it very seriously.”
Knopf and Berninger’s highbrow bromance has been pegged at ten years old, but that’s not entirely accurate. The two occasional tourmates actually met when the National and Menomena shared the stage at the “mostly empty” venue Holocene in Knopf’s longtime hometown of Portland, Oregon in 2003. Berninger — who moved to Los Angeles several years ago and populates EL VY’s Instagram feed with videos of himself wiping out while surfing — compares the number of people at that show to one the National played a year later in Akron, Ohio, at which the only attendee was the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney. “[Knopf] was one of the few people at the show,” says Berninger. “And that was because he was one of the people performing at the show.”
Though Knopf was admittedly better friends with the National’s bassist, Scott Devendorf, he and Berninger started “chit-chatting” for reasons neither remembers. Eventually, they started a shared folder called “The Moon” and ping-ponged ideas over email, which they would then edit in GarageBand. Last year, when the National finished touring 2013’s bleakly elegant Trouble Will Find Me, the two took their relationship to the next level.
“We went from five miles an hour to, like, 75 miles an hour, just in the last year,” says Knopf, who claims he sent Berninger somewhere in the arena of 450 song demos that he had sitting around on his hard drive. When he asked the gravelly voiced singer to send him some lyrics, Berninger demured, having never written words before hearing the instrumentals he would sing over. “It was like giving a horse a ride on your back,” he says. “I can’t carry a horse!”
Broadly speaking, the album’s narrative thread on paper is based on a Grease-style musical about two characters called Michael and Didi, named so after the Minutemen’s Mike Watt and D. Boone. But, in Berninger’s somewhat typical songwriting fashion, his songs tangent off the central point with random, colorful references to Malin+Goetz hair products and Singapore subway lines (“I’m the Man to Be”). His upbringing in Cincinnati also contributed to the lyrical meanderings. “There are a lot of pieces that are just fragments of weird stuff,” says Berninger. “Return to the Moon” was inadvertently influenced by a story he read about a terrorist suspect detained at a firing range around the corner from his parents’ house earlier this year. “That’s not what the song is about,” he adds, laughing. “There is a lot of stuff that is autobiographical, little bits and pieces mixed with fantasy and other characters.”
Such weighty subject matter, fictional or not, does appear to find its way onto the more sober second half of the album, at least melodically. The twinkling “Sleepin’ Light” features Rose City soul singer Ural Thomas, whose long and hard history in the industry comes out in his yowled vocals; and the storylines of “Sad Case” and “Happiness, Missouri” are the album’s most self-serious yet. In the first, there’s lots of talk of “a little bit of crying” over Gregorian murmurs and the sound of jingling keys, and in both the guitars run so ragged you can nearly imagine the bloody blisters on Knopf’s fingers.
EL VY may yet release another album, since the recording sessions for this one — in Portland, with Train drummer Drew Shoals — went so well they already have enough material. But don’t worry: Berninger’s main act is still going strong. “People will ask me, ‘Is this replacing the National?,'” says Berninger. “F–k no. The National is my priority in life other than my family. That’s the other family. But this is also another fun thing.”