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Interview: EL VY's Brent Knopf on their debut album, 'Return To The Moon'.

Interview: EL VY's Brent Knopf on their debut album, 'Return To The Moon'.

EL VY - pronounced "hell pie", FYI - is Matt Berninger (of The National) and Brent Knopf (of Ramona Falls).

The recent release of their debut album, 'Return To The Moon', may have come as a surprise to The National fans eagerly awaiting the band's next album, but EL VY is no mere side-project - it's the official musical union of a friendship forged nearly a decade ago.

Coup De Main had a chat to Knopf about the debut EL VY album recently...

"Certain music can feel true to you, can feel true to me, and I think that process of discovery, especially when it's shared with someone else and someone else is challenging you musically or introducing new ideas with you musically, I think that is a feeling that feels next to love. It's exciting, it's new, it's vulnerable, and it gets to the core of who you are and who you want to become."

COUP DE MAIN: Literally, all I've done today is wake up and then listen to the EL VY album on repeat. It's SO good! You and Matt are like musical soulmates.
EL VY - BRENT KNOPF: I'm delighted that the tunes are sounding like fun to you! The songs were so much fun to make, and the fact that Matt is such an incredible lyricist and singer and the melodies he comes up with are so fun, I thought it was really fun to pair my zany music ideas to Matt's lyrics and his vision. So, thank you.

CDM: This album has been in the works for quite a few years now - so when exactly was the birth of EL VY?
BRENT: A few years ago, Matt approached me and asked if I happened to have any extra musical ideas lying around and I said, 'Yeah I have a ton of ideas that I haven't yet found a use for in Ramona Falls or other musical projects.' And he said, 'Well, if you're comfortable, send them over and maybe we could make a song together.' I didn't think much of it, but I was like, 'Oh yeah, I'll send you some stuff. How much do you want me to send?' He said, 'Send it all!' So I sent him a huge batch of songs that I'd collected and written over the years, I think it was over eleven hours of snippets and ideas and loops and songs and little piano-lines here or guitar chords there - over 400 ideas that Matt listened to, and when he'd find something he liked he would drag it into a different folder on his laptop - I think he called that folder 'The Moon' - and then he would open that up and choose a little excerpt of the song that he liked and then he would loop that and start exploring lyrical and melodic ideas on top of that. Once he had something that he wanted to share with me, he would create a little file, a little MP3 of that, and e-mail that to me and then I would try tease apart those melodies and sections and maybe make the bridge, and instead of the bridge happening once late in the song, all of a sudden that section became the chorus and it repeats four times. I would twist the song around and maybe change the chords under something and then send it back to him. Then his head would spin and he'd get his bearings, and then the new structure might inspire some melodic ideas. That's the creative genesis of the project.

CDM: Do you know why Matt originally named the secret folder on his laptop 'The Moon'?
BRENT: <laughs> I don't! I could guess… I don't know why he called it 'The Moon', but I think that he didn't want anyone to think that it was pornography. I don't know... it's a place right? The moon is a place and it's some place that's near and familiar, but also like different and... I don't know, that's my guess, I don't know why he called it 'The Moon'. Maybe it's more just like a mental headspace.

CDM: Early civilisations created a lot of interesting myths about the moon. If you could propagate your own notions to add to the mythology of the moon, what would you like people to start believing?
BRENT: Oh gosh. I like the idea-- especially with the New Horizons spacecraft that just flew by Pluto and Charon. I think what's so interesting about the relationship of Pluto and Charon is that they're so close to equal weight, it's not like Pluto is in the centre and Charon goes around it, it's like they do a dance and orbit around each other. I think that's really beautiful, so I think if I could come up with some sort of mythology, it would be that the Earth and the Moon are in love and that they're dancing together in the sky. If I had more time, I would come up with some interesting story about what an eclipse means and stuff like that. What a nice question!

CDM: The production on the EL VY album is very inventive and multi-faceted. Do you consider yourself sort of like an architect of music?
BRENT: I think an architect might have a plan, or somewhere to start, but for me I've always felt like more of an archaeologist. Sometimes a song feels like a place where I'm digging - I'll find a bone here and there, and then I'll find another bone, then I'll see if there's another bone to connect it here. Or not; let's try over there, no; that's a completely different animal. And then when I'm done, I have some sort of strange Chimera of a creature that somehow works and somehow makes sense. But in advance, I often have very little idea. Short answer, I have no idea what I'm doing - I am discovering the song as it happens. I take this chaotic process of generating a raw material sort of song to begin with - which might be a chord structure, which might be a piano melody, which might be a beat - and that's often very chaotic and not formed by any intentionality at all. But then once you have something that exists, that can be shaped and stretched and transposed and looped. Then this other sense kind of comes into play where I start to imagine where it can go and I'm on a roll, and I start to picture gateways to other sections, to other moments, to other things, and then once those start branching out you get a bigger sense of the song and then I get a sense of how to balance the song with dynamics or with variation. I think Matt would describe me as someone who has a lot of ideas, and I think sometimes that can be a liability for me, sometimes I'm too impatient and I want to put all the ideas in. So with El VY I tried, especially with the second song called 'I'm The Man To Be', I tried to be more discerning about how many ideas I was going to try to stuff into one song. I wanted it to be more simple, I wanted it to be more resonant and to be more direct than maybe some of my previous recordings. In other words, I have no idea what I'm doing. It's just a process of discovery.

CDM: More than any rap song I've heard this year, 'I'm The Man To Be' has so much swagger. Was that one super fun to record?
BRENT: There's actually a really unusual story about that song. Matt and I were preparing a whole bunch of songs for the album and I thought we had plenty on our plate. And then I was down in L.A. recording with Matt, he was recording some vocals and I starting some of that and during one of the breaks he said, “Hey I wanna play you this song that I love - I love this rap song, there's something about it, I just love it.” And I'm like, "Sure, sure, let me hear it." So he presses play on this rap song called 'THere He Go' by ScHoolboy Q - it's this rap song with a looping feel to it. As soon as I heard the song I started laughing and he's like, "What?" And I'm like, "You're joking right?" He's like, "What do you mean, am I joking?” And I'm like, “Well, dude, that's me, I'm using what you're hearing right now, I get all that." And he's like, "What?!" And I'm like, "Really, you didn't know that ScHoolboy Q used a Menomena sample for this?” And he's like, “No!” He's very familiar with the Menomena song ['Wet and Rusting'] from which its from, but somehow that escaped him and so we just couldn't stop laughing about it. It cracked him up. He was like, 'Of course I play you a rap song that has you playing stuff on it' - he just thought that was the funniest thing. So then Matt had this idea, we didn't have much time, but he had this idea to take the same loop that ScHoolboy Q had used of Menomena, and to loop it himself. And Matt decided to come up with some stuff on top of that. So he sent me that, and it didn't make any sense, I didn't want to keep the old Menomena song in there and I didn't want to use any ScHoolboy Q stuff, so I deleted all the music and was left with just Matt singing. And from there, I was able to come up with a completely new song, a completely new chord structure, new feel, new aesthetic, new bass-line and synthesiser riff and guitar squawks, and all that kind of stuff. So in that sense, that song was really unusual in the way that it came together because I got to reinvent this song. It has this crazy genealogy, really, and in the middle of that song, we kept this audio recording from when Matt was working on that song in '07, and the cleaning lady walked in. It turns out that the song itself is about a lonely rockstar in a hotel room up to no good, and there he is, himself, recording into his laptop, and he has his laptop perched on a stack of furniture on top of the bed and he's recording himself trying to invent lyrics and melodies to a song and in walks the cleaning lady, and he kind of captured their reaction. It was too perfect, we had to keep that in.

CDM: What was it like filming the 'I'm The Man To Be' video with Tom Berninger? Was any of it improvised? Surely your favourite scene must have been when you got to drag Matt into the ocean?
BRENT: I think that was all improvised. Have you had a chance yet to see 'Mistaken For Strangers' - the documentary about The National?

CDM: Yes!
BRENT: It's unbelievably good, right? That's one of my favourite music documentaries, I'm so glad you've seen it. Working with Tom is great, especially being around the very peculiar and unique sibling relationship that Matt and Tom share - it's so real. The way that that movie dives in to that sibling relationship is palpable. Tom's great, I love his attitude, I love working with him. We just decided to walk around the beach in Santa Monica, down in California - we were all on the beach and we just kind of developed the ideas together. I wasn't so involved in the ideas really, it was mainly Matt and Tom working together to come up with those things. Mostly it was just a lot of fun and goofing around. We're trying to make fun little videos that flesh out the lyrics from the album. Tom's awesome.

CDM: Lyrically, do you have a favourite song on the album? Or just some favourite lyrics of Matt's on the album?
BRENT: Oh, I definitely have a favourite lyric - I'll tell you all my favourite parts. My favourite lyric is, "I'll be the one in the lobby in the green collared fuck me shirt, the green one." It's my favourite lyric because he's telling someone how to meet him and he describes the colour of his shirt and then he makes it extra clear by repeating the colour of his shirt. Every time I hear that, it cracks me up and I love it, I love that lyric. I've never asked Matt to explain the lyrics to me, but every now and then he'll give a glimmer into something that's going on with him, lyrically - in an interview he'll divulge a little, here or there. I found out he wrote 'Paul Is Alive' on Christmas morning and it's kind of a joke on the whole Paul McCartney thing, and there's also a homage to his Dad, because his Dad's name is Paul and his Dad was born on Christmas Day. So he often synthesises and combines and blends different relational or conceptual or humanic elements. I love that about Matt's lyrics, frankly. And then melodically, I think my favourite melody on the record also arrived very late in the process, maybe in the last week or two right before mixing, all of a sudden Matt added this extra lyric onto the title-track, 'Return To The Moon (Political Song For Didi Bloome To Sing, With Crescendo)', and it happens kind of in the middle of the song and at the very end, and those lines are: "Don't make me wait for you at the corner of Eden Park / Don't make me wait for you at the Serpentine Wall." Those are references to his hometown of Cincinnati and just the way that those melodic lines fit the moments totally and rhythmically, I love it, it always makes me feel something, which I really enjoy. In terms of overall songs, I geek out a little bit on 'Sad Case' and 'Happiness, Missouri'. 'Sad Case' blends into 'Happiness, Missouri', almost like two different sides of the coin, but 'Sad Case' is in the same time signature and has more teeth that most songs that I've ever done and most songs I've heard Matt do. There's a certain element of sharpness to it - it's very sharp and it's also very sparse and it's wistful but it's sad, I love the dynamics in that song, I think that's one of my favourites. But every song has its moments that were a lot of fun to co-create with Matt.

CDM: Matt has said that he thinks of the Didi and Michael of 'Return To The Moon' as semi-fictional characters in "a punk-rock Grease set in Cincinnati in the 1980s." So if the 'Return To The Moon' album were a movie, what do you think happen during the climax of the film?
BRENT: <laughs> I think this question would be better addressed to Matt, being the wordsmith that he is, so I don't wanna speak for him, but as a fan of Matt's lyrics, if I had to define the climax of that, I think it might be the moment they met. It would kind of be like 'Memento', where the movie goes in reverse. I think it would be really fun if the climax of the movie was that moment where all of a sudden you see how they met and the connection. Didi Bloom is a kind of female rendition of D. Boon from Minutemen, the band, and Michael is kind of loosely based off Mike Watt. You can tell Matt was thinking a lot about Minutemen, the band. Also, Didi Bloom is also derived from the Olivia Newton John character in the movie 'Grease'. The themes that I picked up on are two people discovering each other and discovering themselves. And even with that, thinking about this punk club that he never got to go to because he was too young - that all his favourite bands played - that embodies to him the idea of really discovering oneself through music and through relating to someone else through music. In a way, music really gives you a sense of who you are - you could discover a sense of truth, a personal truth. Certain music can feel true to you, can feel true to me, and I think that process of discovery, especially when it's shared with someone else and someone else is challenging you musically or introducing new ideas with you musically, I think that is a feeling that feels next to love. It's exciting, it's new, it's vulnerable, and it gets to the core of who you are and who you want to become. So if I had to choose a climax to that movie, it would be Didi Bloom and Michael meeting for the first time outside the Jockey Club and they're both unable to get in because they're both underage. In the beginning of the movie you get to see the aftermath and how everything turns out, but I like the idea of at the end of the movie you get to see them meeting for the first time.

CDM: Is there a second EL VY album on the cards?
BRENT: The National is one of my favourite bands, so they better keep making records forever - otherwise I'll be mad - and I happen to know that they're already picking up steam working on the next record. I've heard Matt talking about twenty or thirty songs that they're working on, so I know that Matt will be heading back soon to his main project. I keep busy with Ramona Falls and I'm about halfway done with the third Ramona Falls record and I help produce bands on the side - especially my friend's bands - so we're both heading back to what we know best. We haven't talked too much about it, because I did send Matt 400 ideas, so if he wants to start dabbling at some more songs he could do so later. This first EL VY record was so fun to make that I would love the chance to make another one, but I also know that this might be temporary, this might just be it, we might just play a couple of shows and that might be all. So I don't know, I can't set any expectations about another record. Maybe, maybe not, I have no idea. I never thought the first one would happen, so with the second record too, I'm not going to hold my breath.

CDM: But you need to come to New Zealand to play a show for us!
BRENT: Personally, selfishly, I would love to because I've always dreamt of visiting New Zealand and it holds a really big place in my imagination. I'm probably not the first person to say that, I know, New Zealand is such a beautiful incredible country. Especially for someone like me who loves the outdoors, it seems like a fantastic place, so I'd love to go, selfishly. But I also know that our window of time for exploring this is so limited that we might not this time around - so for that I'm sad, if that turns out to be the case. But right now, the only shows we have planned unfortunately, are these small clubs in North America and Europe - and, I'm sorry! That's really it, for the moment. If we ever make it to New Zealand I hope I get to meet you in person. Thank you kindly for your very thoughtful and perspective questions and thanks for forgiving me for asking you to repeat them occasionally because it was a bad connection. I hope you have a wonderful day, thank you. Take care!

EL VY's debut album 'Return To The Moon' is out now - click here to purchase it via iTunes.

Watch the 'No Time To Crank The Sun' music video below…

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