EL VY – the collaborative project of The National’s Matt Berninger and Ramona Falls and Menomena’s Brent Knopf – has been waiting to happen for almost a decade.
Their debut album, out on Friday, is “an accidental concept album,” as Matt calls it, taking every colour from the duo’s musical palette, combining Berninger’s darkly funny, lyrical storytelling with Knopf’s playful arrangements and inventive production.
Meeting in 2003 when The National and Ramona Falls toured together, the seeds of the album were sown by Brent around six years ago, when he sent Matt a folder containing 450 musical ideas.
Matt, he says, “asked Brent to do this project because he’s incredibly prolific and I know he’s got lots of ideas that are every colour in the palette. He’s a musician who I think fearlessly reaches into lots of different toolboxes, and I think that’s why I knew if I asked him for some stuff, he’d send me it – I didn’t realise it was gonna be 450 bits of cool stuff.”
The two whittled that 12 hours of music down and the record began to take shape last year, when the two found time between albums and tours to dive into the songs they had gradually created, and craft them into what became 'Return To The Moon'.
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Despite having taken almost half a decade to come to fruition, the duo say the album made itself, with their nurture: “Once those seeds of the songs were planted, we didn’t try to make them into one thing or another,” Matt said, “but they came out and developed, and bore fruit, and parts of them started to wither, and other ones survived. All we had to do was keep working on them, and some of them would live and some of them would die.”
Similarly, Brent “always feel[s] as if the song is discovering itself, and the process of finding out what the song wants to be and where it wants to go is a process of discovery, and that’s the most gratifying part of being a songwriter. It’s almost like adding clay to an armature, and then the stuff that doesn’t fit falls of, and the remains are actually the song.”
The album name, despite sharing a name with the folder in which Brent’s ideas were placed, which Matt labelled ‘The Moon,’ was not a conscious choice, but a free-association with the ideas surrounding the album.
“I was writing a lot about Cincinnati, which maybe kinda felt like the moon when I was an adolescent – disconnected from the world. It represents a little bit of naïve nostalgia for the idea of travelling to the moon – it seems so quaint now, and that seemed like such a simpler time. Of course, it wasn’t, with such things as the Vietnam War - the world was a mess as much as it is now.”
“I think specifically, with this album, I was digging into what that point in my life was that I discovered music. I identified with it and I found my personality by connecting with other people who connected with Morrissey. That’s how I found my friends, that’s how I found myself – listening to Michael Stipe, or Nick Cave, or Tom Waits – and finding people who also love that stuff. I think a lot of this record was going back to those times when you discover music, and then by discovering that music, you discover your peer group and yourself, a little bit.”
More autobiographical than anything he’d previously written, Berninger used fictional characters from the “soup inside [his] brain” to channel “reflection on [his] youth, growing up, and thinking about what kind of person [he is].”
EL VY are about to embark on a tour of the US and Europe, playing 25 shows at intimate venues, but what comes next? The ever-enigmatic Berninger suggests this is not the end for the duo, but gives few clues: “I think there’ll be another EL VY record, but not for a while. Maybe in another decade.”
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Words: Megan White
'Return To The Moon' is out on October 30th.
Catch EL VY at the following shows:
9 London Electric Ballroom SOLD OUT
10 London Electric Ballroom SOLD OUT
12 Manchester Gorilla SOLD OUT
13 Dublin Vicar Street