Words: Michael Faul
For a city known internationally for its music and arts scene, that is utterly awash in talented musicians of every stripe; we here at Next Northwest have always felt that the music journalism around town — while pretty cool — seems to value holier-than-thou pats on the back more than actual music journalism. And while we certainly aim to celebrate music in a vivacious manner, we plan on doing so from a truer respect journalistically speaking. We want to bring you the best of both the national and our incredibly fertile local scene and present it in a fresh light that celebrates artistry and dedication to music in a way Portland has yet to see. With that in mind; we’d like to introduce ourselves with our in-depth interview with Brent Knopf on the eve of the worldwide debut of his new project with Matt Berninger of The National, EL VY.
The very exciting new project, Return to the Moon, that we’ve been hearing wonderful snippets of, from El Vy drops this week. The band (or side project) consists of Matt Berninger of The National fame, and Brent Knopf formerly of Menomena, and currently of Romona Falls. This is perhaps one of the recordings of the year, and we sat down with Brent and had a very extensive conversation about how this project came about, and some amazing stories along the way.
Tell us about the genesis of El Vy, how did you and Matt get together and decide that you wanted to make a record together?
Brent: Well, see a few years ago, I think it was around the time that Ramona Falls and the National played a few shows together on the West Coast, Matt asked if I had any ideas laying around, I said yes, I have a lot. He said, send ’em on over. So I sent him 400 or more ideas and it was an 11 hour long playlist. Some of the ideas were little snippets, and other things were more fleshed out, then he started picking his favorites and dragging those into a folder called The Moon, where he would start mumbling and singing melodies and lyrics on top and then he’d send those to me. It was always one of those things that was on the back burner, something that we did for fun. It was a very relaxed collaboration without any pressure, and I think that’s why we both really had a lot of fun. I didn’t really tell anyone about it because I truly never thought it would come to fruition. I just thought it would be this little something that we did and that we’d never get around to actually finishing a record. Then about a year ago it actually gained momentum and we really worked hard and it came together quickly.
In terms of us meeting for the first time – the first time we ever met was at a concert in Portland when the National was touring, it was at Holocene, and Menomena played that show as well, and I remember chatting with Matt and The National guys and we hit it off. We had a good time and then a few years later, the National and Menomena went out on tour together, again to half full rooms, or half empty depending on your perspective (laughs), and so we became better friends. Truthfully I was probably best friends with Scott (Devendorf), the bassist, he’s such a great guy, they’re all great guys, and then about 4-5 years ago Matt started putting out feelers to me and seeing if I had extra ideas. That’s kind of how it got started.
“I think secretly we’re trying to surprise each other, you know, throw down the gauntlet each time, try to get the other guy excited.”
I’m very curious about the writing dynamic between the two of you. Who writes what both lyrically and musically, what’s that process like?
Matt is in charge of the lyrics and the melodies. Lead lyrics and lead melodies, that’s his role. My role is pretty much everything else. Everything from producing and engineering to writing and performing, with the exception of guest performances on the drums, violin and backup vocals. So basically, the writing process always starts with something musical that I send him. Matt doesn’t really write in a vacuum, it’s not like he has a binder full of lyrics that he’s looking to find a home for, he only ever writes while he’s listening to something. So step one, I’ll send him some instrumental music material, a sketch of a song, and he’ll then start writing melodies on top of that, he’ll send it back to me, and that’ll conjure up new ideas for maybe a bridge section or an intro, or an interlude, so I’ll send that back to him, that’ll inspire him to write different lyrics, with a different melody, and he’ll send it back to me, and I’ll be like wait, we can swap out these chords and add a completely different feeling. So I’ll do that, and then he’ll think to maybe increase the tempo by 20bpm, now it’s a much faster song, and he’ll send it back to me, then I’ll agree, and that’ll give me a different idea for how to approach the song rhythmically, and then I’ll lay down a different idea with electronic beats, then we’re close to the final stage, and we collaborate on a drummer, or backing vocals, and then everything is parceled out, and that’s kind of how it goes, just sending each other stuff back and forth. I think secretly we’re trying to surprise each other, you know, throw down the gauntlet each time, try to get the other guy excited.
What’s it like transitioning from the back and forth writing process into gearing up for tour mode and seeing how it translates into a live set?
It’s been good so far. I’m really excited that we’re going to be able to tour with Matt Sheehy of the band Lost Lander, playing bass, and then Andy Sack, who used to live in Portland, of the band Wye Oak, he’ll be drumming. It’s always a lot of work. The ways that I tend to work on a record is that I don’t set too many boundaries to what kind of sound that I can explore, I just kind of follow wherever the song wants to lead me and then when all is said and done and the album is finished, I have the daunting task of having to learn (chuckles), like Gosh, how am I going to do this? That is always kind of an intense challenge. That’s kind of where I am right now. I’m doing my best to figure out how to convey the different feelings and melody lines and different sounds, the best I can with the four of us. With Matt and I, the most time we’ve really spent together was a couple weeks ago when we went on a press tour to NY and overseas. It’s funny, we’ve been working together creatively for a long time but it’s just one that we’re kind of becoming close friends. So it’s been really fun to get to know him better. He has the sharpest wit, he can dismantle me with his humor and I’ll just be in stitches and I’m unable to reply because I’m laughing so hard. He has a great sense of humor and is just a really fun dude.
Why is El Vy called El Vy, what’s the story/meaning there?
It’s weird, we both just liked it, but we didn’t really know why, and it doesn’t seem like it sounds like a band, because we both have bands, he has The National, and I have Romona Falls. We didn’t need another thing that sounded like a band, we just wanted it to be this collaboration, we just wanted it to mean us, so when I think about El Vy, I like it because it doesn’t come with any kind of pre packaged meaning or insinuations. El Vy is just me and Matt. So there’s other little reasons we like it, it kind of looks like two pairs of initials, but it isn’t, we just kinda like the way it sounds.
The Song “I’m The Man To Be” and the accompanying video really stood out to me, what’s the story behind this song, and the hilarity that ensued in the video?
There’s actually a really crazy story behind that song. The story is that we were approaching a mixing deadline, we had hardly any time left to finish the songs that we were working on, we were working on a lot of songs probably 17 or so, so we were down in LA and Matt was tracking vocals and during a break he pulls me aside and says “check out this rap song, it’s my favorite rap song ever, there’s something about it I just really like it.” So I go over and he turns on “There He Go” by School Boy-Q and I start laughing, because I thought he was messing with me, and he’s like “Dude, why are you laughing?” and I’m like “You know it’s me right?” and Matt’s like “What?!” because School Boy-Q took that Menomena sample, so Menomena had this song called Wet and Rusting, and School Boy-Q took a couple samples from it, so he basically formed the song using Menomena samples, specifically my keys.
So Was Matt Pranking You?
No no, he had forgotten, it’s so funny, he says now that he knew that it was “Wet and Rusting”, obviously once I played him “Wet and Rusting” he recognized it, because I played it back when we toured together. So I think he was so amused by that, and he also loved the bravado of the School Boy-Q song, so he decided to try it out himself, he took the same samples from the Menomena song, and started humming and singing over that and he sent me that with some different melodies and I didn’t want to reuse any Menomena stuff so I deleted all of that, all of the samples, deleted all of that. From scratch I wrote a new baseline and guitar and stuff and rhythms and stuff like that so that kind of formed the basis of the song. What’s kind of funny about it is that it’s only at the very end of the song that Matt was singing on the demo. At this point we’re just working the song, sending different drafts back and forth, the draft that he was working on, he only had the lines “I’m peaceful cuz my” and at the very end of the song there’s kind of like an outro, (Brent starts playing the piano intro to the song) So he only had that on the very end and I thought, man, that needs to be the chorus really, so I ended up kind of changing that, copied and pasted it, making it into the chorus. Then I (he starts playing the intro again) did a little chord trick to kind of bring out this feeling of heavenly ascension, really because I feel like that song is all about a rock’n’roll star up to no good in his hotel room feeling lonely.
Another funny story about that is that Matt was recording vocals in the hotel room and he was by himself and he had stacked a bunch of chairs and furniture on the bed so that he could place his laptop up at mouth level and stand in front of it to sing into it. So he had headphones on, he’s dancing, and singing, improvising lyrics to the tune and in walks the cleaning lady and it’s this really awkward scene, but he’s just like “come in, come in” and she’s checking if he’s okay. Because the song is already about a rockstar up to no good in his hotel room, Matt kind of captured that, it actually kept recording in the bathroom when he was talking to the cleaning lady, and he came back to the audio and it sounded good, so we actually put in the song (check the 2:42 mark). In terms of how we made the video, I was down in LA for some EL VY-related stuff, and Matt’s brother Tom is a film director, he actually directed Mistaken for Strangers, one of my favorite music documentaries of all time, I love that piece. Anyway, Tom’s super awesome, and had this idea of taking us out to the Santa Monica Pier, and just being these kind of adults hanging out among kids, having too good of a time and indulging in that, so there’s a loose narrative there, then Matt just kind of dancing in front of skaters and stuff like that. Then Tom was like “Brent, let’s just have you pull Matt into the ocean” and it was a beautiful day, so we did it. Tom then kind of put together this story line in collaboration with Matt.
I love that you guys are starting off at the Doug Fir, I was curious to see what your favorite venue in Portland is?
There’s so many great ones, I think the Doug Fir has a special place in my heart because I’ve had some really special album release parties there for Ramona Falls and for Menomena. Mississippi Studios is fantastic, the Crystal is always fun to play. I’ve really been meaning to go and check out Revolution Hall, I’ve heard great things about it. The Doug Fir… I just have so many good memories there, and that’s kind of the rationale behind why we’re choosing so many of these venues for this tour. The National is such a successful band, they play the larger venues, and I think that Matt is excited to have the chance to play some his favorite small to mid sized venues, we’ll be playing the Troubadour in LA, or Bowery in New York, 9:30 club in DC and a lot of these venues that have a really special place in our hearts. It’s very parallel to the lyrical and thematic aspects of the record, Matt is pretty inspired by some of the creative friendships that are illustrated in this documentary called We Jam Econo, which is about The Minutemen, Matt got really fascinated by the creative friendship of D. Boone and Mike Watt, and so I think that playing these small to medium clubs is going to be a lot of fun. Especially since our first ever real show will be at one of my favorite venues in the whole world (Doug Fir), so it’s awesome.
Is there any kind of long term plan for EL VY, or is this a one time thing then back to Ramona Falls and The National?
Matt is such a vivacious person, in terms of creativity he’s just… He just can’t get enough, he loves being creative. So he’s working on the new National album right now, I think as we speak. I know that he’s talking with his brother Tom about exploring some more stuff having to do with Mistaken for Strangers, so maybe exploring some offshoots of that. So he is super creatively engaged. I think with the way this first record came about, we never put any pressure on ourselves and we never stressed out about it. It was like a refuge where we could have fun together. I didn’t tell anyone about this collaboration, maybe one or two close friends, I never thought it would actually happen and I didn’t want to explain why things fell apart, so maybe no one should know about it and I’ll just do it for fun. Gives me a chance to work with my friend Matt. When it actually came together I was a bit surprised as we formed this record. It was so much fun to co create with Matt. So, in other words, as we think about the future, I think we’ll probably approach it the same way we approached the first one. Let it form naturally, let it co-exist with all of the other projects that we work on. That said, I’d be surprised if there weren’t another EL VY record, just because this one was so much fun to do. Our schedules are so unpredictable and we don’t have any set plans so we’re just going to try to get the most out of this one.
Did you hear that Taylor Swift gave you guys a shout out on Instagram? What are your thoughts on that?
(Lauging) Yeah! Isn’t that amazing! My sister texted me a screenshot of the Taylor Swift Playlist and I had to pinch myself, that was really surreal, I’m delighted and super flattered that the world’s biggest pop star would take the time to give us a little shout out like that, it was really really fun, cracked me up. My sister was freaking out so that made me smile big, it was really fun.
How did Ural Thomas come into play as a backup vocalist?
Since we started EL VY, Matt and I had wanted to get male backing vocals going. I reached out to this one group and they never got back to me, then I reached out to another group and they never got back to me. So I went to different churches around Portland and would leave these notes like “Hey, I’m making a record, do you have any singers that I could pay to sing on this?” and that didn’t work out, so I didn’t think I was going to be able to get any backing vocals at all. Then like a couple weeks before we had to finish tracking the record, just across the hall from me – so, I rent a basement room in this place called the Falcon Art community in North Portland, and in that community they have a bunch of different rooms that are rented out to artists, my next door neighbor is this astonishing painter named Samir, he’s incredible. Just down the hall is the band Mimicking Bird, they have a space there, and another painter, and an improv troupe and a rare book seller. X-ray FM, the new radio station in Portland has a presence there. Anyways, so that’s the way it works, and right across the hall moves in this woman named Moorea Masa — and she is an exceptional singer, so she moves in and I’m like “Wait, you’re one of the backing vocalists for Ural Thomas, I’ve been dying to get in touch with a good male singer, do you think he’d ever be open to it?” She ended up giving me his phone number so I called him up, he came right down to Falcon Art Community and I recorded with him for a few hours. I found him to be the most luminous and delightful person, just the definition of what it means to be a natural, everything he sings is so effortless and perfect. I think he’s 73 or 74 years old and I actually had a chance to catch one of his shows a year or so ago, and it was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. The amount of energy he brings to the stage is unparalleled. So after that we were thinking that maybe it would work to record female vocals as well so I asked Moorea if she would put some singing in, and she brought in two of her friends that she sings with a lot, Allison, and Margaret. So Moorea, Allison, and Margaret and I tracked some vocals together literally at the last minute, the midnight hour before mixing, a lot of the songs were already half mixed and we had to go back in and add the backing vocals. It was very fun working with Ural and the girls.