EL VY: The Value Of The Unpredictable (Interview)

EL VY is the collaboration between The National front man Matt Berninger and multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf, currently a member of Ramona Falls and formerly of Menomena. Although The National has kept Matt pretty busy of late, he still found time to write and record a full album with Brent. Calling themselves El VY (pronounced like the plural of Elvis), their album, Return To The Moon is released today. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Brent Knopf to find out exactly how this unique collaboration worked. Brent was only more than happy to explain…

Listen to the interview with Brent Knopf of El VY here:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: I guess the first obvious question is to talk briefly about how you and Matt initially got together and what it is that brings you together musically.

BK: Yeah, boy, we actually just looked this up recently. He thought we first met 12 years ago and I’m like, “No, there’s no way”. We looked it up and he’s right. In October of 2003 The National was touring and they played a gig in Portland at a club called Holocene and Menomena played that gig as well. I don’t remember who played first, second or whatever but there was hardly anybody there and it gave both bands time to connect and we just all hit it off. Everybody in The National’s just so smart and cool and funny and great. Actually, I remember chatting with Matt, I just don’t remember it being that long ago. The Menomena and The National did start touring together a couple years later we went on a couple tours together. After I quit Menomena, or maybe it was before I quit Menomena, I had Ramona Falls, another project I’m involved with, we played shows with The National as well and so we’ve always kind of stayed in touch. Actually, the drummer of Menomena, Danny, and the drummer of The National, Bryan, also have a project called Pfarmers, which is another collaboration going on. Yeah, that’s the origins of our, how we met. But then it was Matt actually who initiated the idea of working together. I think by the time Matt was kind of floating the idea to me I thought…I was a little sceptical that the lead singer of The National would have enough time to entertain another project. So it just seemed like maybe we’d make a song, it didn’t occur to me that we’d do a whole album but The National finished their touring cycle and everybody was going to take about a year off to go home and be with their families and their kids and stuff. Matt, he’s very, ummm, tireless, I guess you’d say, and he, ahhh, all of a sudden this was the time to strike so about a year ago, what would have been some sketches and some demos, turned into something real and we got serious about it, but had a lot of fun. We worked really hard but it was also a lot of fun. It came together, it started accelerating less than a year ago.

MD: I’m curious how the songwriting process occurred between the two of you because I watched your Ted X talk, it’s up on line, that you did a couple of years ago from Sacramento and you kind of go into your songwriting process there. Did that hold true for when you and Matt were working together?

BK: Yeah…well, I’m not sure what songwriting aspects you are referring to…maybe the value of the unpredictable…

MD: Yeah, that’s it.

BK: Yeah, for example, the conversation started with Matt saying, “Hey, do you have any extra ideas that you haven’t found a home for with Menomena or Ramona Falls…any extra ideas lying around that you want to send me?” And I said, “Yeah, I got a lot, how many do you want? He’s like, “Oh, just send them all over”. So I sent something like over 400 ideas. It was like 11 hours’ worth of ideas, of snippets and loops and all sorts of different stuff. And he was like, “Oh, this is a lot!” But then he just put it in a playlist and used his system to add stars to songs that he liked and then he started exploring some melodies and different things. I think one of the elements EL-VY Album Coverof surprise there was that a lot of the songs that he chose were songs that I was actually embarrassed…I almost deleted a couple of those songs. I was skimming through them and I was so close to not even sending them and he ended up gravitating toward those which is really one of the most joyful parts of collaborating…is when your collaborator sees something of value in something that you’re unsure of. So that happened, but then even as we were developing the record, the way the back and forth went, earlier today I compared it to like two people solving a Rubik’s Cube together. I might be looking at the Rubik’s Cube and I’ll make a move and I’ll toss it to him and he’ll make another move that I won’t really predict and then all of a sudden, “Oh now the song is 20 bpm faster”. He’ll hand it back to me and I decide to move the bridge over, so now what was the bridge is now the chorus and that happens three times in the song and that surprises him and then all of a sudden now there’s room for a new melody that he throws in at the last minute. That inspires a new chordal option for me, so I swap out the chords underneath the melody giving it a different feeling. Yeah, so, that kind of process…and I definitely feel when I’m doing the music part, even what ends up on the record is one tiny little speck of dust comparted to a huge mountain full of ideas that get thrown at the wall and nothing sticks. I probably delete over 99% of what I try. So, I guess I’m still doing it the same old way.

MD: Just from talking to you and hearing you describe it, it sounds like you’re very excited about it. Is it just because you’re working with Matt or are you the kind of guy who loves collaborating?

BK: Both, really. It’s interesting, Matt has been…you know I’ve collaborated with a whole bunch of people and Matt is singular in all due respects. He’s so open to ideas and he’s also really confident about his instincts which are just super sharp. Of anyone I’ve ever collaborated with, I felt the most comfortable sharing with him ideas that are not yet fully-baked. I felt comfortable sharing with Matt ideas that are still in their infancy and he’s never made me feel like an idiot. Sending him something over, warts and all, and it’s usually the warts that he likes the best. We actually found that to be true. I was recording backing vocals with these three ladies and they’re kind of soul singers, and they like getting everything perfect so they kept wanting to know what they’re doing, wanting to get everything perfect and rehearse it first before they wanted to let me hit the record button and I had to fight with them just to be able to record their rehearsal. They were like, “How does it go?” And I was like, “Just sing it! I’m gonna hit record, do it” And they go, “We don’t know what we’re doing!” And I’m like, “I don’t care!” It was all in good fun but sure enough, one of the things they do, they do some backing vocals on a song called Silent Ivy (Its A Waste Of Love) and they’re a little bit out of sync with each other…”It’s a waste of Love, love, It’s a waste of love, love, love”. It’s not locked in and perfect and that is the thing that Matt, he’s like, “Ok, that is the take we want, that is perfect for the song”. And so it’s great. I am excited, I do love collaborating in general but also in particular this project has been fun.

MD: I had a chance to listen to the whole album for the first time today and I had a note about the Silent Ivy Hotel tune and was wondering if you were using female vocals and a full band. It had a very, kind of, spooky, noir-y feel with twangy guitar and all that so maybe you can tell me a little bit about…are you using other musicians? What’s the instrumentation like over the record?

BK: Well Matt, of course, does all of the singing and I’m in charge of everything except for the drums. I didn’t perform the drums and I didn’t perform the female vocals on that song, obviously.

MD: That’s a relief.

Ural Thomas & Friends
Ural Thomas & Friends

BK: Yep, yep, it was really ahh, close to before we were finishing the record, you know, a last minute thing that somebody across the hall whose name is Maria Massa…she’s quite a singer…and she has two friends who she sings with…and Matt and I had been talking back and forth about the idea about having backing vocals on the record and literally like a week before mixing is when we scrambled to record Maria and her friends. I actually think they added a whole extra sheen and dimension to some of the songs. It was super fun working with those guys. So we did all the backing vocals with them. There’s actually another song called Sleeping Light, there’s actually a gentleman named Ural Thomas, and he’s kind of a legendary soul singer in Portland and he sings, “Only you can move me,” at the end of that song. (Sings) “Only you can move me”, I love it! I got to work with him. That was a dream come true as well. He’s actually friends with Maria and I think he’s 72 years old and he’s an incredible person. So those guys did extra singing and then our friend Drew Shoals, he drummed on about two thirds of the record and another drummer named John O’Riley, Jr did the other third of the drumming but all of the keys and guitars and synths and basses and stuff, I was in charge of all of that stuff. We kept the team pretty close, pretty tight.

MD: The opening song, the one that’s got the video, Return To The Moon, the title track, has kind of a sub-title, Political Song For Di Di Bloome, and I noticed, listening to the album, that Di Di seems to be a recurring character through several of the songs.

BK: That’s right.

MD: So who is Di Di Bloome, and what’s going on there?

BK: Well Matt has this interesting way of kind of synthesising different personas and themes. From what I’ve heard Matt say in interviews, Di Di Bloome is an amalgamation of D Boon of Minutemen, Matt’s wife and, what’s her name…Hopelessly Devoted To You, Grease…what’s her name?

MD: Olivia Newton John

BK: Yeah, it’s kind of uhhh….there’s certainly an area in there between Di Di Bloome and Michael, in this record, that’s kind of woven through. Matt, I’ve heard him refer to this album as half of a musical, almost…in terms of like the narrative themes that are going on. Michael is somewhat inspired by Mike Watt of Minutemen and Matt himself and other people. There’s another character called Paul John. So Matt just kept coming back to these notions of friendship, of self-discovery, of an evolving relationship, of a lasting connection. Those are two characters that he keeps coming back to.

MD: The song, It’s A Game, seems to address The Minutemen and Di Di and the whole bit, I guess. So when you’re working on the music, do you make the music work with the vocals or do you leave it up to Matt to decide how it went together?

BK: 98% of the time Matt requires music. Well, I guess he always writes on top of music. So, for all the songs except one there’s something musical of mine that he was singing on top of. The exception…it’s kind of a funny story…the second song, I’m The Man To Be, originated when…I was down working in LA with Matt, recording some vocals with him, and he’s like, “Hey man, I want you to check out this song called There He Go by Schoolboy Q,” he’s like, “It’s one of my favourite rap songs and I just want to play it for you.” I thought he was joking and I started laughing. He’s like, “Why are you laughing?” And I’m like, “Dude, you know, like all the music on there, I did all that!” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a Menomena sample.” He’s like, “What!”. He just lost his mind. And then he’s like, “Of course, of course my favourite rap song is like you doing the music for it”. That was a really funny thing. Matt thought it would be funny to take the same Menomena sample that Schoolboy Q had used for There He Go and to loop that same Menomena sample and to kinda sing a song of rock and roll…a rock and roll star alone in his hotel room up to no good. And so he did and he came up with that and he sent it to me and I didn’t wanna get involved in any Schoolboy Q and Menomena stuff so we just decided to clear away all the music so all we had left was Matt’s voice, just Matt’s voice and what I did is just replaced all the music with brand new stuff…brand new chords, brand new instrumentation, basslines, drums, all that kind of stuff. So, yeah, sorry to take a long winded way of answering.

MD: It’s interesting because I noted on that song that I almost thought that might have been you singing rather than Matt on that particular one. He sounded very unMatt-like for a change.

BK: Yeah, I feel like that song is a bit of an outlier aesthetically. It really throws an interesting light on a lot of the other songs. I love how it kind of extends the circle of the themes and the feelings on the record. That song arrived a couple of weeks before mixing. That one just barely made it. That was insane, actually. It was one of those things where there was no time to over-think that song, it just had to be done tomorrow.

MD: So are you planning on taking this show on the road? Are there live things happening?

BK: Yeah, we’ll be adding a bassist, my close friend Matt Sheehy of the band Lost Lander and also Andy Stack, he drums in the band Wye Oak. Andy will be joining us behind the kit, so it will be us four heading out on the road. Our first show will be in Portland, Oregon, my hometown, November 2nd at my favourite venue, The Doug Fir. That’ll start our North American tour and then we’ll head over to Europe to play a few select cities in Europe. Because Matt and because The National’s ramping it up writing their next record and making those preparations and because we knew from the get-go that this would be a very special and limited experience, we’re not doing a huge, crazy tour. This is about 24 concerts in some of our favourite venues and you know, I wish we could play more but the nature of this is to be really temporal.

MD: And you’ve got a new Ramona Falls album in the works as well, right?

BK: I do, yeah, it’s about halfway cooked. But this has been a fun excursion with Matt Berninger. We would be talking about it and I just never thought it was gonna actually happen but, like I said, about a year ago it all of a sudden seemed like it was going to be a real thing so, it’s been a blast, really.