THE NEWS of EL VY's existence seemingly came out of nowhere. Brent Knopf—the Portland musician who leads Ramona Falls and has produced bands like Lost Lander and Dear Reader—had apparently teamed up with Matt Berninger, the singer of the National, and recorded an entire album on the sly.
"I didn't tell hardly anybody," Knopf says. "I was skeptical that it would ever come to fruition. And maybe I assumed that if it did, it would be an EP or a split 7-inch or something."
But Return to the Moon, EL VY's first full-length (which comes out this week on 4AD), is a wholly realized project that doesn't simply combine the sensibilities of both performers. Through their collaboration, Knopf and Berninger have formed a new thing entirely, with an omnivorously intelligent pop sound and a surreal, smoky cool. When the catchy title track premiered online, its buoyancy was enough to get a recommendation from Taylor Swift via social media, but the rest of the album is just as worthy of plaudits—whether it be a nod on Twitter or more thoughtful, involved analysis.
The lyrics and themes of EL VY's Return to the Moon evoke DIY music's mythical, bygone days. Berninger created a series of characters inspired by We Jam Econo, the seminal documentary about the Minutemen, and the events take place over backdrops like the Minutemen's hometown of San Pedro and at settings like the Jockey Club, a storied Cincinnati punk club that closed in 1988, before Berninger actually had a chance to ever see a show there. (In addition to EL VY, Berninger's extracurricular activities outside of the National include his involvement in another seminal music documentary: Mistaken for Strangers, the excellent movie directed by his brother Tom, which belongs on the shelf next to We Jam Econo as one of the great music docs of all time.)
But Return to the Moon—and EL VY itself—has its origins in an era that might now seem just as mythical: Portland in 2003, when the National shared a bill at the just-opened Holocene with Knopf's band at the time, Menomena. That show led to a number of crisscrossed paths over the years: Both Menomena and Ramona Falls would tour with the National on different occasions, and recently Knopf's former Menomena bandmate, Danny Seim, started a band called Pfarmers with the National's Bryan Devendorf. And now, Knopf and Berninger have created EL VY, whose name is meant to suggest the plural form of Elvis.
"About five years ago, I sent Matt some ideas," Knopf explains. "He had said, 'Hey, if you have any extra ideas that don't find a home within Menomena or Ramona Falls, send them my way.' And I was like, 'I have a lot!' And he was like, 'Send it all!' And I did."
Those ideas reportedly numbered in the range of 400 or so musical pieces in various stages of development, which Berninger diligently sifted through. "He started picking songs that he liked and developing those," Knopf says. "But it always seemed like a backburner thing. It was only about a year ago that we went full throttle, and we've been pretty much that way ever since. We have this little condensed window of time to have fun with this project before things [start back up] with the National."
With Knopf and Berninger working independently on ideas—roughly splitting the division of labor between instruments/production (Knopf) and vocals/lyrics (Berninger)—the album began to take shape, with Knopf working at his studio in the Falcon Art Community in North Portland and Berninger working wherever he could. (There's a part in the middle of "I'm the Man to Be" in which hotel housekeeping interrupts one of Berninger's vocal takes.) Return to the Moon grew to include contributions from Portland soul master Ural Thomas, as well as his Pain bandmate, singer Moorea Masa, along with drums by former Portlander (and current drummer for Train) Drew Shoals. But Knopf and Berninger kept the products of their labor close to the vest, really only seeking to satisfy themselves.
"As I was working on it over the last year, I kind of had a shift in philosophy," Knopf says. "When I was working on the second Ramona Falls record, I think I asked too many people their opinions about the songs in their infancy, in their embryonic, in-between phases of development. And in hindsight, I'm not sure if it helped. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. But I decided to try a completely different approach, which was just to be selfish. I didn't want to field compliments, and I didn't want to navigate through criticisms. I wanted to see what it was like not to care about other people's opinions. I decided to trust myself and to trust Matt. I got to a place where I was excited about it and Matt was excited, and that was enough."
The result is a sparkling, engrossing record that's by turns silly and poignant, with some of Knopf's original ideas joined by new compositions that appeared at the last minute. The freshness and excitement of the collaboration is evident in tracks like the brash "Happiness, Missouri" and the after-hours vamp of "Silent Ivy Hotel," which sit alongside gorgeous ballads like "No Time to Crank the Sun."
If Return to the Moon—and the mostly sold-out tour, beginning appropriately enough in Portland, which follows its release—wasn’t part of the initial game plan, it’s a happy destination for Knopf and Berninger. “For me, part of the thing that makes writing even possible is not thinking about the future at all,” Knopf says. “Not thinking self-consciously, not thinking strategically… the best way for me to be creative is for me to assume that what I’m doing will never see the light of day.”