All creative work is, to some extent, a result of where a creator is at during a particular period of their life. It’s not always obvious — happy times don’t always birth happy art; sad times don’t always yield sad art — but context certainly influences product. So, as Matt Berninger of The National and Brent Knopf of Menomena bring a new album into the world, made under the moniker “El Vy”, it’s tempting to work backwards and unpack the music by understanding where exactly it came from. NeueJournal Writer-in-Residence Gideon Jacobs caught up with them before they played a set of new material at NeueHouse Madison Square.
Gideon Jacobs: I read that even before the album was titled, “Return to the Moon,” you kept your song sketches in a folder just titled “The Moon.” My guess was that that the moon label was a reference to this being a bit of a satellite endeavor, a collaboration that was taking place concurrently with your other projects but in a different orbit of sorts. Am I far off the mark? Either way, why does this music exist outside of this world?
Matt Berninger: It was the idea of an archaic pursuit. It was nostalgic. Return of the Moon is sort of a funny way of showing this nostalgia for, what in our minds, was a simpler time. It is a return to the moon because it echoes this idea of a naive nostalgia for a better time. Also, a lot of the record is me looking back at growing up in Cincinnati, which felt like the moon, in the sense that it felt a lot like being nowhere, being away from everything meaningful.
GJ: Matt, you’re based in LA now? And Brent, you’re in Portland? Has the West Coast, its slower pace and levity, leaked into this music?
MB: It might have. I moved out there three years ago and I would assume that it’s had some sort of an effect. I’ve been writing more since I’ve been out there I think a lot of it is the fact of being in a new place.
Brent Knopf: I never really considered there to be too much allegiance between Portland, San Francisco and LA; each city has its own vibe. I think it’s more just the combination of Matt and I that brought out kind of a lighter side to our individual aesthetics. We’re two artists who independently write more gloomy stuff, but somehow when working together, there’s a lightness, and a lightness to this record.
GJ: Absolutely. It even seems a little more…flippant…than the work you guys are most known for. I can think of a bunch of lyrics or riffs that make me say that, but maybe there’s no moment that stands out as being as irreverent as “I’m peaceful cause my dick’s in sunlight, held up by kites.” Do you guys see this musical endeavor as having a bit of a different attitude or perspective than you’re usually writing and performing from?
MB: That’s a hobby: I have a bunch of little tiny kites that I like to fly with my dick…very small kites.
GJ: LA has changed you.
MB: There are a lot of ridiculous lyrics. That song is about a self-aggrandizing pathetic rocker alone in a hotel room, getting into some lonely trouble. It’s a black comedy. I have sung about my dick in many songs — “To ballerina on the coffee table / Cock in hand.” It just happens to come into some songs.
GJ: I guess “dick” is one of the unifying tropes of your music?
MB: Or just my obsession with my own dick…although I don’t really think about it that much…we don’t talk anymore.
GJ: We’ve gone off on a dick tangent, but that is bound to happen sometimes. Earlier you talked about how there is this character of a lonely guy in a hotel room, and it seems you wrote from the perspective of other characters on this album, trading in some of the usual autobiographical style for something that sounds more like fiction. As well as being your most “personal” record, would you say this album is also your most conceptual?
MB: I’m embodying a bunch of different characters other than myself, although there are also some personal details as well. But there are these characters Didi and Michael that are kind of woven throughout. Michael is sort of based on me and ‘Didi’ is sort of based on my wife. Didi is also kind of based on D. Boon from Minute Men. The album is also a little bit of a musical; my daughter was listening to Grease obsessively while I was working on this and I was obsessed with Grease when I was a little kid, so there’s a devious sort of Olivia Newton John character. There are these interconnected storylines and not all the dots connect yet.
GJ: This collaboration exists outside of both of your main projects — the bands that have, to this point, defined your respective careers in music. So, other than trying something new and different, what are you guys looking for when you step outside the realm of your principal bands? How are your goals or mentalities different when you’re working on what is considered to be a “side project?”
BK: For me, it is very different. We have this short window of time before the ‘National Machine’ revs up again, and this was a chance to make a record with a friend and just write some songs. We are only playing a short number of dates in our favorite venues and favorite cities. It’s all about not stressing too much and just having fun.
MB: We first went on tour together in 2003, but it was a long time before we ever talked about collaborating and then it was was still years later that we actually did. We started collecting stuff in a folder, and when I was touring with The National for the last record I really started to dig in and send Brent a bunch of ideas and he was sending stuff back. I was writing on the bus, backstage and in hotels and focusing on this while I was on tour for Trouble Will Find Me. It actually helped me through the tour in terms of not getting burned out, not overdoing it — instead of going to after-parties, I would go back to the bus or the hotel room and work on these tunes. It gave me something else to do with my time instead of just drinking all night. Actually…I would drink while I wrote these songs too, but it weirdly turned out to be very healthy and creative.
GJ: Is there less pressure writing under this moniker than writing under the bands that have defined your careers up until this point?
BK: It may be that I just don’t care anymore, or may be that I have more trust in myself and in Matt. We thought, “This is going to be the song and it’s going to be the best that we can make it.” I try to minimize how much I think about everyone else’s opinion.
MB: That’s a good point. It’s not actually less pressure. I think it’s just that we stopped letting the pressure matter, and I think that everyone in The National is just starting to enjoy the whole thing more than they did before. People are having kids, and perspectives are different. This band doesn’t have to be so fraught with anxiety and tension. This is the greatest job and we’re having fun and we’re making good songs. Neither Brent nor I wanted another band that had pressure attached to it. We’ve had enough of that, so we worked really hard on this thing but we didn’t overthink what it was going mean in terms of everything else.
BK: I feel like these songs are a little different in that they’re kind of like that Price is Right Game called “Plinko.” They fan out a little wider, stylistically speaking, than our other projects do. It’s complex, but it still feels like a record. The songs inform each other and complete each other and then go their own way. Energetically, it’s more adventurous.
Photography: Anton Lombardi for NeueJournal