Just two minutes into our phone call, Brent Knopf has us discussing the hypothetical demise of his musical collaborator, Matt Berninger. Neither of us wishes for such a thing to happen, it should be pointed out, but when we begin discussing Berninger’s newfound interest in surfing, it’s hard not to acknowledge the dangers.
“There have been a lot of shark attacks this year,” Knopf points out, as he eats his favourite chocolate brownie, walking through his favourite neighbourhood in Portland. “It’s pretty scary. I hope he isn’t surfing in shark-infested waters. That would be a really cool way to go out though.”
Berninger has been posting a series of Instagram videos documenting his struggles to catch a wave on his board. “He’s terrible,” Knopf says, “but he wants to get better. He lives by the beach and he rides his bike carrying his surfboard down there. He’s getting better and better, so maybe he’ll start doing big wave competitions next year.”
But for now, Knopf and Berninger are putting most of their time and energy into their new project EL VY (“rhymes with ‘hell pie'”) . For their debut album, Return To The Moon, Knopf says Berninger’s hobby has actually played a role in the music. “A lot of California seeped into this record,” he explains. “The kind of fresh and breezy kind of vibe, and surfing is just a part of that. In some ways this feels like a surfing record.”
Like any good collaboration, EL VY sounds like an amalgam of each musician’s main project: Ramona Falls (Knopf) and the National (Berninger). Though that wasn’t the plan, it was what came natural to the duo. Still, making Return To The Moon was different from how they usually work.
“For whatever reason, when you combine my creative sensibilities with Matt’s, what emerges is something quite different than what we’re both used to,” says Knopf. “I’m used to writing songs in minor keys that are pretty dark and gloomy. And there is some of that on this record. And when you combine our sensibilities there is more sunshine, more adventure. It’s funny how that happened. That’s the thing about collaborating: you never know what is going to emerge from combining two creative styles.”
Knopf is fully aware that as the more familiar face, Berninger will be more of the focus in EL VY – the National are one of the biggest bands in indie rock. And when the two came together, he immediately got questions about how the project would sound.
“A lot of people asked, ‘Are you worried it’s gonna sound like the National?’” admits Knopf. “And we weren’t worried because we really didn’t have to sidestep anything. The songs we naturally came up with sounded like something new. Obviously Matt’s voice is Matt’s voice, but the general creative direction sounds like it has its own identity.”
Very little was known about EL VY until they announced Return To The Moon in the first week of August. News of the project, album, and subsequent tour all arrived without warning, making it one of 2015’s best-kept secrets. Knopf even kept it from those close to him.
“The guys from the National have known about it for years,” he admits with a laugh. “They all have their projects that keep them sane and happy. But Matt hasn’t really had an outlet like that, so EL VY allows him to stretch out his wings. Because I didn’t think it was actually going to happen, I didn’t tell anybody about it really. I didn’t want to have any expectations or scrutiny, or have anybody ask, ‘How’s that project coming along?’ in case it wasn’t happening. So the fact that a year ago it picked up speed and it came together, I was surprised by that myself. I think the general philosophy was to under promise and over deliver.”
Return To The Moon definitely delivers – just ask Taylor Swift. The biggest pop star on the planet gave EL VY a major co-sign, including the album’s title track on an Instagram posted playlist she called “New Songs That Will Make Your Life More Awesome.” Knopf, who’s practically a Swiftie, says he was “tickled” when he heard the news.
“It’s so nice of her to do a shout-out like that. She definitely doesn’t need to,” he says. “I’ve been listening to Taylor Swift for the last two years and she just makes great pop music. I have no idea how many of her followers are going to like EL VY. I hope a lot of them do and check it out. It’s super crazy and awesome.”