For years, Matt Berninger of The National kept a secret folder on his laptop called “The Moon.” The files in that folder were bits of music from Brent Knopf, the Portland musician and producer best known for his work in Menomena and his more recent band, Ramona Falls. Berninger and Knopf struck up a friendship nearly a decade ago, when The National and Menomena joined together for a west coast tour of small, half-empty clubs. It would be years before the New York indie rockers were playing on television and packing arenas, earning Grammy nominations and topping critics’ lists, but the two felt an immediate musical kinship. It’s a testament to their chemistry that Berninger and Knopf continued to feed that folder over the years with ideas.
Return to the Moon sounds exactly like you’d hope a collaboration between these artists would: Berninger’s darkly funny, lyrical storytelling and his immediately identifiable sense of melody offset by Knopf’s playful, architectural arrangements and inventive production. I sat down with Knopf to discuss their new album, his musical kinship with Berninger, receiving a shout-out from Taylor Swift, and more!
What was it like making your TV debut on Conan?
Oh my god, what a blast. It was the first time that we had ever performed as an ensemble in front of anyone and it happened to be televised. It was a blast, the whole team treated us great, and we had a great time. It was a wonderful first adventure for us.
Did you expect this “secret” collaboration to blow up like it did?
Is it blowing up? That’s news to me. I was expecting people to pay attention because Matt Berninger is a tremendous artist and writer, I knew they would pay attention because of his involvement, but not the blowing up part. It seems like “Return to the Moon” is starting to get some play on radio stations. That’s really exciting because from when I was a kid, I’ve always dreamed of having a song on the radio.
What was the writing and recording process like for this album?
Pretty organic, we just got into our comfort zones and did our thing. For Matt, that means recording vocals in a studio that he can bike to from his house and for me, it means doing it the way I always do, which is trial and error. It’s basically just me, a laptop and a pair of headphones. That’s kind of the reason this has been such a fun project, because there was nobody to disappoint, impress either – we just got to do our thing.
How did it affect the creative process to have to send each other bits of songs through email rather than being in a studio together?
I think that’s the way that we’re both really used to working. Matt and I have kind of been solving a Rubik’s cube together making this album. I think there’s this kind of mythical idea that you get Mick Jagger and Keith Richards into a room and stuff just happens between them. For me, I typically work best if I can just take some ideas, go focus and then switch things around, turn them upside down, shuffle them inside out and then hand it back to whomever I’m working with.
How has your musical kinship with Matt evolved from when The National and Menomena played half-empty clubs to now?
It’s funny, I think we always liked and respected each other, but it wasn’t only until the last year that because we were really starting to work with each other more and communicating more, that we started to get a better sense for each other professionally and we went from friends to closer friends. He’s one of the most charming and hilarious people.
It’s been said that your original estimation in terms of songs was around 20, but you guys instead churned out hundreds of songs. What are the chances for a second EL VY album?
We haven’t talked about it too much, kind of like we never really talked about this record. So in terms of the second record, we’ll probably push it the same way. Share a bunch of ideas back and forth, have a blast doing that and if in the future we’re lucky enough that another time window opens up and we could do another one, I know I’d love to. But also I know that life is unpredictable and this might be it.
Taylor Swift recently added “Return To The Moon” to a new list called “New Songs That Will Make Your Life Awesome”. What did you think when you found out, and what did you think when you heard 1989?
That’s funny; I actually just bought 1989 on Vinyl. My first impression was “I hope my sister is okay, because I think her head just exploded.” Given all the things that Taylor Swift could be doing with her time, the fact that she spends time listening to new music and giving shout outs to stuff that resonates with her, I just think that has a really generous spirit to it. It shows that her love of music is real. The fact that she stops to do that speaks very well of her. She has been my favorite pop star for quite a few years, so that just solidified it.
Describe what you felt when you first saw The National live when you shared the stage with them at Holocene in Portland in 2003.
I thought they were great. I think at that time, Matt would really throw his voice into overdrive and that was kind of more their sound back then, a loud/quiet vibe. They reminded me a little of The Walkmen, in a good way. Like a lot of people, my love for The National started out casual and became more serious and engrossing. Their songs grow on you and their albums just seep into your brain. My friend said it to me – The National makes me feel a way that nothing else makes me feel and that’s true, that’s one of the reasons that they’re such a special band.
You’re currently working on a new Ramona Falls album. What has your creative process been like for that and how does it compare to Prophet?
The creative process for Ramona Falls has really changed over the years. When I started it, the first record was very different than the second record and that is very different from how the third one is coming together so far. So far I’m just trying to do it all myself and we’ll see if that ends up being wise or stupid, but I wanted to get in my own head a bit and challenge myself. I wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t collaborate with 35 people, explore some different sounds and different approaches. With this record, unlike any other, I’m trying to start with the words, then improvise music around them and see how that goes.
What’s the story behind getting Ural Thomas on the album?
That’s a fun story. Ural is 74 years old and he’s one of the most electric, captivating performers that you’ll ever see. It feels like he is music, it’s like someone took music and put it into a human shape and it came out as Ural Thomas. Moorea Mafa moved in across from me and I said wait a minute, don’t you sing with Ural? I told her that I had been trying to get some guys to sing on the album and she gave me Ural’s number. So I called him up and he came down to a little studio I rent for a couple hours and we just had a ball. I had a great time recording with him.
The album’s narrative has been described as a “a Grease-style musical about two characters called Michael and Didi, named after the Minutemen’s Mike Watt and D. Boone.” What kind of impact did Minutemen have on yours and Matt’s creative process for his album?
I think that’s indicative of the lyrics and Matt wrote all of the lyrics, but Matt is doing a lot of autobiographical illusions in his songs. References to the Jockey club, which I think represents the place where you discover yourself and other people that help you discover yourself. Something about his identity came forward through The Smiths and The Cramps and also just going to a place where you could go to find yourself by finding other people who were likeminded.
I think Matt also became enamored with a documentary called We Jam Econo which is about The Minutemen and I think he found the creative brotherhood between Mike Watt and D. Boone particularly inspiring and then began blending together that kind of creative intimacy with other forms of connection and finding one’s self. His daughter was also starting to fall in love with the Grease soundtrack, so he saw parallels there and stuff in his own life.
What did Drew Shoals bring to the album? What was it like working with him?
I met Drew when I was producing an album for another Portland band. So we were finishing up that album and Drew was home for a bit, so we asked him if he wouldn’t mind sitting in with us for an hour. We recorded for about an hour and a half and I was immediately blown away by his knack for just bringing to the song what the song needs. He effortlessly nailed it. When you hear him play it just grabs you.
So, when Berninger asked who we should get to drum on this thing, I said I know this guy Drew Shoals, let me ask if he’s passing through town any time soon. It turned out he was for a couple days, so we booked him to record with EL VY. Those couple days laid the ground work for two thirds of the drum work on the record. We would have loved to keep working with him, but he was on the road touring with Train.
EL VY will perform today (November 16th) at Montreal’s Theatre Fairmount and tomorrow (November 17th) at Toronto’s Opera House.