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EL VY - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Together Apart: Matt Berninger of The National and Brent Knopf of Menomena and Ramona Falls on Their Years-in-the-Making Collaboration

Feb 19, 2016 Ramona Falls Photography by Koury Angelo Bookmark and Share

Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf are at the same address, but they’re not in the same room. In New York City, “running around doing some TV tapings, radio thingies, and stuff like this,” as Berninger calls it, The National frontman is 17 stories up occupying a hotel suite overlooking the memorial site of Ground Zero. Knopf, best known for his work with bands Menomena and Ramona Falls, has recently woken from a nap and is conferencing in from seven floors below. “On the rider, Matt can only breathe a rarified air,” jokes Knopf. “Yeah, I have to be slightly higher up than Brent at all times,” Berninger quickly chimes back.

This kind of remote back-and-forth is hardly anything new for the longtime friends, who have sifted through years’ worth of material emailed between one another to deliver Return to the Moon, their debut album as EL VY.

Side-projects such as the one Berninger and Knopf have created inhabit a unique space in popular music, one that manages to combine the more unknown elements typically found in a young, untested band with the perspective that comes from years of professional experience. While the casual music fan may view side-projects and their alternative musical avenues as inconvenient speed bumps or distractions to delivering a far more anticipated piece of work from their favorite band, there is an undeniable importance to what these side-projects do for the artists involved. They provide a means of escaping themselves, an opportunity to avoid expectations, and open up to a few low-stakes creative risks.

“It’s refreshing sometimes to throw your ideas against somebody who thinks in a different way than what you’re used to,” says Berninger. “Otherwise I’m afraid anybody, no matter who it is, you start to ape yourself. After a while you want to keep playing to your strengths. And when you’re always playing to your strengthsI mean, you’re good, you’re strongbut you start to become a little boring, I guess.”

Taking the listener’s perspective, Knopf admits that he totally understands why people would want to cling to the notion of an artist being bound to a particular sound or group. From his own point of view, however: “When we started working on EL VY, the idea of ‘Are people going to think of this as a side-project?’ was a question that never occurred to me,” says Knopf. “I was like, ‘This is great. I get to make a record with my friend. This is really fun.’ That’s as complex as my thinking went.”

It was 12 years ago that Berninger and Knopf first met. “There was a show in my hometown of Portland where Menomena and The National played together,” recalls Knopf. “There was hardly anybody at the show, but the two bands had a chance to get to know each other and chat. [Matt and I] just kind of kept in touch and we’ve always stayed buds. Then a few years back Matt asked if I had any extra material sitting around that I hadn’t found a home for with Ramona Falls or something else and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a lot. How much do you want?’ And he said, ‘Send it all.’”

Working in his free time in hotels, on tour buses, even in a tent in his backyard, Berninger developed melodies and lyrics off these musical sketches, much like he has done for years with The National. Sending his efforts back to Knopf, Berninger says oftentimes things “would kind of go dark. Brent would mess around with [the songs] for a couple months and I’d be off doing other stuff. Then I’d get an email from him saying, ‘Oh, I’ve been playing around with those songs again,’ and he’d send me something back that was completely reinvented and have all these new ideas. And then I would tear that apart and throw it back at him. It was really fun. I never really knew what he was going to do next.”

It was in the fall of 2014 that Berninger and Knopf started turning the casual collaboration into a more focused endeavor. Across its 11 tracks, Return to the Moon is discernibly different from what would be found on a record by The National or Ramona Falls. There is, of course, Berninger’s recognizable baritone throughout, but the album’s individual tracks have their own distinguishable features and tones. There’s the brighter, dancier intent of the album’s opener and title track, which Knopf admits actually started as a more ponderous, mellow composition until Berninger upped the tempo. There’s the deep groove sleaze of “I’m the Man to Be,” where Berninger, assuming the role of a more pathetic rock ‘n’ roll version of himself, sings of his wasted time in a hotel room. There’s also the dark snaking of “Need a Friend,” the synth riff of which Knopf says he tends to “geek out on.”

This dichotomy is one that both Berninger and Knopf willingly embraced, discussing their material’s sonic direction in the loosest of terms, with descriptors like “airiness,” “grittiness,” and “noisiness.” “I think at one point we did say we wanted it to sound less thick and less dense than The National,” says Knopf, searching his memory. “I remember Matt said something like, ‘It should feel like you’re walking from a smoky bar into a greenhouse atrium.’ Really, though, so much of the joy of making music is discovering what the song wants to be.”

“He just sent me stuff and I started writing to that stuff,” adds Berninger in regards to their songwriting process. “I didn’t have a plan to go into writing this thing differently, because I knew that the music that Brent was sending me was already different from the sort of water I swim in with The National. I didn’t know how Brent and I were going to work together. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to swim in the water. But I didn’t care. It was like, ‘That’ll be a fun place to drown.’ I didn’t have to write differently. It just happened organically because the music is different and it led me different places.”

The Co-Creator

Several weeks after EL VY’s visit to NewYork, Knopf is back home in Portland. Still a few weeks out from the band’s first official round of tour dates, Knopf says he’s in the process of making sure the music is ready for a live audience. In his living room, the 38-year-old has the kind of face that could pass for someone a whole lot younger. Though the quieter of the two when paired together with Berninger, when one on one, Knopf can easily talk at great length, so much so that he has the tendency to ramble, regularly veering off on a subject’s relevant tangents and backstory. At one point in the conversation he’ll openly admit to have completely lost his train of thought, only to jump back in with all his previous enthusiasm once prompted with a small reminder.

Sitting in the room is the upright piano that Knopf grew up with. Borrowed from his parents for the time being, it’s the same piano that’s featured on EL VY’s record. “There’s something about this piano,” he says, plinking at the keys. “It doesn’t sound fancy and that’s why I like it.”

The piano and music in general had always been a big part of Knopf’s life growing up. Knopf is the oldest son of three children. His father was a family physician, but his mother wasand still isa contemporary Christian musician and singer. It didn’t take much time before Knopf took up the piano, learning to play by ear after sight-reading became too stressful. Despite growing up around music, his more conservative upbringing led him to be a bit more sheltered from the sounds of pop music. Aside from the occasional listen to the radio, Knopf’s first real exposure to secular songs were the parent-approved records of “Weird Al” Yankovic. “I’ve often joked that my love of pop music began with [those albums] because in a way each ‘Weird Al’ record is like a greatest hits of pop music for the last two or three years,” says Knopf. By the time he hit middle school, Knopf officially branched out with the purchase of Depeche Mode’sViolator, much to the parental chagrin that the record featured the track “Personal Jesus.” “I’m grateful that they were protective and wholesome,” says Knopf. “It was actually a really delightful upbringing.”

While attending Dartmouth College, Knopf continued his musical education, going so far as to sneak into the facility housing for the campus’ graduate program in Electro/Acoustic Music, teaching himself how to use music software. “[The students there] were doing all this amazing, technical, esoteric music of these really complicated algorithms put to these different computer programs to generate sound,” says Knopf. “And I was sneaking in making pop songs.” Knopf also ended up taking an independent study in computer music, teaching himself to use Max MSP, a MIDI digital audio programming environment that led him to design his own piece of software dubbed Deeler. A glorified guitar pedal that its user could use to collect and stack improvised ideas that could later be drawn from to construct a song, the application wound up becoming an integral part of his songwriting and sound.

When he returned home to Portland, Knopf went on to form Menomena with Danny Seim and Justin Harris, self-releasing the band’s debut album I Am the Fun Blame Monster! in 2003. Without a booking agent, a manager, or a label, the band nevertheless caught the attention of a number of forums and blogs. Eventually signing with Barsuk, Menomena released their sophomore LP Friend or Foe. “Danny and Justin are just incredibly creative people and I think my favorite time with those guys was when we made Friend and Foe,” says Knopf. “I feel like that was a time when we really trusted each other. Us three were such different people in lots of ways, but somehow with that record, we really were able to embrace each other’s strengths and I still really love that record and I have really fond memories. We worked really hard and we fought and struggled and everything. It wasn’t easy, but I knew we all really believed in each other.”

Despite the success of Friend or Foe, Knopf says it eventually got harder for the three friends to come together creatively. “Some of the pain of Menomena was the long delays that would wind up happening,” he says. In the midst of an extended period where it felt like nothing was moving forward, with all three frustrated by the lack of progress, Knopf took the opportunity to use songs that weren’t getting any traction with the rest of the band, releasing them under the moniker Ramona Falls. Featuring support by a who’s who of local Portland musicians, the LP, titled Intuit, came out in 2009.

Though Knopf, Seim, and Harris would eventually manage to release their third album, Mines, the following year, Knopf made the decision to leave the group. “I think it was just the natural evolution of a relationship,” he recalls. “It started to feel to me like three solo projects rather than one cohesive thing. I mean obviously it brings up a lot of emotion because I love those guys and I loved working with them, but I think the relationship had run its course. It started to feel like I was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole for a while. I thought, ‘Somehow we’re not bringing out the best in each other, so maybe it’s time for me to move on.’ So I did. And I’m happy to say I’m better friends with those guys now than I think I’ve been in a long time.”

In 2012, the same year Menomena released their first album as a duo, Knopf released Ramona Falls’ sophomore effort Prophet. Looking back, Knopf admits having a lot of mixed feelings about the LP, but credits it as a significant influence on what not to do with EL VY. On Prophet, Knopf obsessed over the record’s every little detail. “I think one of my faults as a producer or a songwriter is that I fall too in love with ideas,” says Knopf. “Sometimes I try to be too accommodating of all the ideas swimming around and try to find little homes in all the nooks and crannies for them all to live under the auspices that the song will reward on subsequent listens. My favorite music, on the hundred and seventieth time I listen to a song I hear a new aspect to it like an Easter egg. ‘Ah, that’s what I want to do with my music!’” Knopf was also incredibly insecure about wanting the album to connect his audience, so there wasn’t a single friend he didn’t reach out to get some straw poll of its quality. “As I was developing the songs and working on the demos, I was constantly asking my friends to listen and asking, ‘Is this working for you? Are there any lyrics that really stink? How do you feel about this bridge section?’ I placed my attention outside of the song.”

Feeling as though Prophet suffered from such micromanaged oversight, the way Knopf approached EL VY wound up being diametrically opposed to his past methodology. Not only did he not tell a single soul he was even working with Berninger, he became merciless about killing ideas. “It’s funny. You might hear EL VY and might feel like, ‘There’s plenty of layers going on, Brent! Really? You pruned?’ But I did! I swear to God I did. I pruned. Of what you’re hearing, a thousand more ideas came to the table and I toyed and I manipulated and edited and moved around and ultimately [decided] to just mute it or kill it or delete it. When you’re hearing a bassline that’s probably one out of a thousand that I actually tried to come up with. So I think EL VY was an exercise in being merciless in choosing and only letting in ideas that propel the song.”

Collaborating with Berninger over the course of several years, Knopf managed to come back to a place of rejuvenated confidence. He began to adhere to the mantra that if something was the best he could do, and he thought it was good, that in itself could be enough. It certainly didn’t hurt that even the most sub-par ideas that Knopf would send to Berninger would come back to him tapped of some potential. “I’m attracted to any situation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, where two plus two equals five,” says Knopf. “Whenever you collaborate with someoneand it’s a fruitful collaborationthen there is a creative chemistry that you really can’t predict and the songs go in directions you can’t foresee. And so the idea of seeing value and strength in someone else and having them see that in you, that’s a really magical experience and it’s one of the most gratifying things to do creatively in my opinion. I enjoy working by myself too, don’t get me wrong. But when someone has a melody or bassline to a song that you’re developing, it’s strange. It feels like love.”

The Escapee

Roughly a thousand miles south the following day in Venice, CA, Matt Berninger is killing a little bit of time. Sporting some longer hair on his head and a pair of large-framed eyeglasses, he’s back home after dropping his six-year-old daughter Isla off at school, and will soon be out the door again for a round of a writing and recording for The National’s seventh full-length album, the follow-up to the band’s 2013 critically acclaimed Grammy-nominated LP Trouble Will Find Me.

Unlike previous records by The National, which saw the band do most of their writing separately, the group has been actively planning retreats and time to all work together in the same room. Recently convening in New York, the rest of the band are now out on the West Coast, where Berninger has taken up residence for the past three years. He and his wife Carin Besser, a former fiction editor for The New Yorker, decided to make the move to be closer to his daughter’s maternal grandparents, who also live in Venice. “She knows I’m a singer and a performer,” Berninger says of Isla. “I don’t think that she knows that Taylor Swift and I have the same job. She doesn’t think of it that way. I think she thinks I’m more of clown performer. When she sees me onstage she kind of knows. It’s not a performance to her. That’s just daddy being weird. And she’s very comfortable with me being weird. A National show is borderline violent sometimes, though, because you know at times I scream my head off and writhe around. I worried about that when she first saw me performing. I had to tell her, ‘Everything’s okay. Daddy’s fine. Don’t worry. I look like I’m losing my mind but I’m just having fun.’ She totally gets it.”

While certainly not the only member of The National that is a parent, the 44-year-old Berninger has no problem acknowledging the way fatherhood has affected his outlook as a songwriter and frontman. “I think the biggest thing it’s done is made me much less anxious about the creative process,” he says. “It puts things in perspective. Writing lyrics and finding melody that I liked used to be a tortuous process and I think having a kid made me realize, ‘Why am I pulling my hair out? Why does writing lyrics feel like squeezing blood from my forehead all the time? It shouldn’t have to, and I should enjoy this more.’ [As a band] I think at a certain level it’s like, ‘Wait, why the fuck are we doing this? Why do we fight so much? Why are we so tortured by this band we have? We should be having fun.’ We’re so fucking lucky to have this as our job and that maybe we can put our kids through school by writing rock songs. I think that’s what’s changed for everybody. I know that’s changed for me. I’ve learned to just enjoy it. I mean, I work really, really hard and everything, but I’m learning to enjoy the work because I realize how lucky I am to be able to do it. I think that’s how it’s changed. I don’t think it’s mellowed me. I mean it’s mellowed me in terms of my level of insecurity about every fucking thing in the world. But I know that if I do this job right, being a dad and a husbandif I’m decent at that, everything else is a bonus.”

Berninger easily draws inspiration from his own parents; he recalls that they seemed to do everything in their power to make everything secondary to raising their kids. Despite such love and adoration growing up in Cincinnati, Berninger, the second of three children, says he dealt with his own periods of insecurity as someone who at first glance was quite nerdy-looking, super gawky, with a long neck and big nose. He particularly remembers that when he was 12 he experienced a prolonged depression. “I just remember 12 being bad, being unhappy and a sad person for a year. I don’t know why.”

As a teenager it was his older sister that helped him discover music, and in the process a sense of place. This youthful self-discovery is described in scraps in the EL VY track “Paul Is Alive.” The title is a simultaneous reference to the rumor that somehow Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by look-alike in the ‘60s, as well as to Berninger’s own father, whose name is also Paul. Developed over a simple piano progression Knopf had created, Berninger says the song is “about when you start finding your identity and your sort of footing in the world. The song is kind of like when I figured out Van Halen wasn’t my thing. It was The Smiths and R.E.M. and those kind of bands that kind of helped me define who I was. Music does that for a lot of people. It’s one of those things where you’re lost and insecure and you find a community in people who like the same kind of music or TV shows or books or sports or whatever. But for me it was music. That’s kind of how I found myself. And it was my sister who brought home these records and I fell in love with U2 and Violent Femmes and I started going to clubs that had dance nights. Not many of these bands came through Cincinnati, but there was this cheesy club called Cooters that on Sunday nights would have a thing called Beat Club that I would go to and that’s where you would dance to The Cure and Ministry and that kind of stuff. In ‘Paul Is Alive’ I talk about a club called Jockey Club. I never set a foot inside Jockey Club. I was 14 when it closed, but my cousin had always talked about this place and it was the only punk club in Cincinnati. So I know he saw The Cramps there and I think he saw The Minutemen and The Ramones. I believe he even saw The Smiths there. I remember he would talk about that and when I fell in love with The Smiths the idea that Morrissey would be walking down the street in Cincinnati or Newport, Kentucky, where this club was located, just blew my mind. I’d sooner see a unicorn than Morrissey in Cincinnati. So the Jockey Club in my brain was this legendary place and I use it as a setting for this finding of yourself, discovering your gang and your own identity.”

Berninger took plenty of art classes in high school and eventually made his way into the graphic design program of the University of Cincinnati. It was there that he met his classmate and future bassist for The National, Scott Devendorf. Bonding during all-nighters in the school’s graphic design studio, listening to college rock radio stations, the two recruited several other classmates to form the band Nancynamed after Berninger’s mother. “I sang because I couldn’t do anything else, but it was the first time I was in a band,” says Berninger. “And I was obsessed by Guided by Voices and Pavement, and for whatever reasons those bands made me think that anybody could do it. Especially Bob Pollard because he lived an hour from where I lived in Ohio, and so did The Breeders and The Afghan Whigs, so just the idea that these people who live right around me could be rock starsmaybe I can, too.”

The band released a single album, but eventually dissolved as everyone found themselves getting internships in New York City and getting distracted by their day jobs after graduation. “It was right when the Internet boom started happening and we were the first graduating class of graphic designers that really knew a little bit about HTML,” Berninger explains. “So we all got jobs at new media firms right away and kind of shot up the ladder.” Though both he and Devendorf went from underlings to creative directors in a matter of a few years, the two longtime friends were eventually pulled back into their love of music. Using Berninger’s Gowanus Canal loft as a space to write and play, Devendorf brought in his brother Bryan to play drums, who in turn brought his friend Aaron Dessner to fill in on guitar. With Aaron’s twin brother Bryce joining a year later, The National’s now longstanding line-up was officially cemented.

The National released their self-titled debut in 2001, when Berninger was still working his day job as a graphic designer. The Internet-fueled boom that had previously provided him with his profession’s upward mobility had unfortunately burst around this time. “As a creative director, I had spent a lot of time hiring people, so over the year I had hired most of the design department of the place I worked,” says Berninger. “But when the bubble burst, everyone started downsizing and my main job in the last year and half I was around…it felt like I was spending more time figuring out which of my friends to lay off next. It just became so depressing and dark, and eventually I laid myself off. I was like, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’” Doing everything he could to keep himself from going back another corporate jobat least for a whileBerninger threw himself entirely into The National. Together with the rest of the band, the group slowly raised their profile with each subsequent album, with their fourth, 2007’s Boxer, truly turning a corner, landing on numerous Best of the Year lists, selling over 300,000 copies to date. Boxer‘s follow-up, 2010’s High Violet, became an even greater success, earning the number three spot on the U.S. sales chart its first week and more critical acclaim.

“People say now, ‘You guys did it the right way,’” says Berninger of the band’s slow and steady ascent. “I guess we did when I look back at it, but it was kind of hard. It was humiliating a lot. [There were times when] there were more people in our band than people at the show. It was like that a lot for a while. There were two shows that I know specifically and literally zero people came. One show in Orange County, the bartender paid us not to play so he could shut down and we could all go home. We played a show in Louisville, Kentucky where the only person there was my mom. She drove down from Cincinnati. She was the only person in the room. And then there was another show in Akron, Ohio, where the only person the room was Patrick Carney from The Black Keys. I guess he had read a blurb about us or something and he came to the show. It was so funny because it was an empty barthere was a bartender and somebody was watching Jeopardy at the barand Carney was standing right in front of us the whole set. I don’t know if he remembers this and I’ve never actually spoken to him about it but we did an entire set just for him standing two feet in front of me.”

Enduring the difficulty of those early days is one of the reasons Berninger has such a close relationship with Knopf, who was subjected to just as many financial and confidence-crushing woes in his early years with Menomena. “It’s like having an old war buddy,” jokes Berninger.

The Moon

Back in 2010, when Berninger first asked Knopf whether or not he’d be willing to pass along unused music he had lying around, Knopf never assumed it would ever move beyond something to keep Berninger sane while on the road with The National. The farthest he ever saw things progressing to was maybe a split 7-inch, maybe doing a one-off song for a compilation or something.

For years their intermittent back and forth was nothing more than a casual enterprise. Months would often pass between trades as the material slowly progressed. Despite never really discussing where all of this work was headed, the two were adamant that the songs were never to be a source of anxiety or stress of any kind. Though this accord undoubtedly prolonged EL VY’s official status, both men agree that it’s also what made the whole thing fun.

It was Berninger that was most in need of a healthy distraction. “I needed to cut the after-parties out of my life a little bit. I had been doing it for too long and I like to drink, and I had to give my liver a break. So I was always coming back to the bus or hotels after most shows and not going to after-parties. I was still having a few beers while I was working these EL VY songs, but I was not at the bar doing shots and all that kind of stuff. I was retreating to this record because it was a healthy place, mentally and for my liver. And I’m not going to complain about touring because it’s a boring thing to complain about, but your brain gets a little mushy if you don’t use it. Because it’s like Groundhog Day where you’re on planes and buses and you’re never alone and you’re in these tiny little places and green rooms, and then you’ll have a hotel room where you can have a few hours by yourself. Your brain gets really weird. I think working on stuff and occupying your creative side and working while touring is actually a really smart thing to do. It keeps you from going crazy. It keeps you connected to something outside of this crucible that is your tour or that record and those songs you’re doing live. You have to get outside and breathe fresh air or you’ll just start to get nauseous.”

On his laptop, Berninger placed all the material Knopf continued to send him in a folder he titled, “The Moon.” “I called it ‘The Moon’ because it was something I would escape to,” say Berninger. “[The] folder kind of became an island in the ocean of all the bad habits that happen being on a rock and roll tour.”

Aside from drumswhich were supplied by veteran session player John O’Reilly Jr. and Train’s Drew Shoalswith some violin added by Ramona Falls contributor Lauren Jacobson, the responsibility of EL VY’s instrumentation fell on Knopf, transforming the demos he and Berninger had developed into some finalized form. His recording sessions were largely done at the Falcon Art Community, a converted apartment building in Portland that provides work spaces to all manner of painters, composers, writers, and even radio broadcasts. “It’s not even a proper studio,” says Knopf of his rented room. “I don’t have a fancy console. I don’t even have any speakers down there. I made the whole record on headphones. I have a guitar amp and stuff but yeah, it all just happened down there in that little basement. And I would just be working late hours. I’d usually hit my stride between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.”

Meanwhile, down in Venice, Berninger would travel just a few blocks from his house on his bike, recording his vocals in a tiny two-room spot called Kickstand Studios, which is typically used for soundtracking films and commercials. “I think part of the philosophy for us was to record where we were comfortable,” says Berninger. “We never even entertained the idea of getting a big fancy studio. I’ve done that so muchand it’s greatbut I realized if it’s just a soundproof room and a decent mic you can almost do it anywhere. And so for us the spaces that we wrote and recorded were at home or at these little places right by our houses. We didn’t want to make the whole recording of it into a big, nerve-wracking, expensive ordeal, because we knew it was the performances that would speak. It didn’t matter what kind of acoustics the room had. I thought being comfortable would have a far greater affect on the record.”

As a lyricist, Berninger has never taken the approach of writing words in a notebook. He’s always developed lyrics as he listens to the existing music. “A good melody is all I really care about at first,” says Berninger. “A good melody is like flypaper. Words just start to stick to it as long as you let the flies in. But there were these threads that kept coming back. And it’s not like I had this plan to make a concept album or anything, and it’s not a concept album, but there are characters. There’s this character Didi Bloome. There’s this character Michael. And I named them after D. Boon and Mike Watt, because I was watching We Jam Econo. I was obsessed with that documentary about The Minutemen. And I was listening to The Minutemen a lot at the time. But also for the past year my daughter has been obsessed with the musical Grease, so that was constantly on in our house, watching it on her iPad and in the backyard. I feel like half the demos that I was recording have John Travolta in the background. And so then these two characters, Didi Bloom and Michael, I started to think maybe this is like a musical, but I set it in Cincinnati in the ‘80s, because that’s when I kind of discovered music and discovered girls. So a lot of it is autobiographical but it’s a mixture between a bunch of real life characters like D. Boon and Mike Watt and fictional characters like Sandy and Danny from Grease, so it winds up being this weird spider web of threads and themes.”

Despite being in the same room a handful of times, such as when they did the record’s final mixing in London, Berninger and Knopf are of the opinion that their physical separation from one another was a pure blessing to the songwriting process. “I think it gave us our own creative space, to do our thing,” says Knopf. “I think there’s this mythology about certain bands that they get together and it just happens when they’re in the same room, and a lot of people have that mentality. I’ve experienced that a few times, but more often than not what I’m going for requires a lot of patiencenot just of mebut too much patience from somebody, to have to sit next to me while I go through a thousand ideas and choose five and reject them and come up with another thousand ideas. I would just not want to subject anybody to that. I feel like having our own zones to do our thing was really helpful.”

Like so many side-projects, once Return to the Moon is out in the world, the question naturally turns to whether it will stand as a singular, one-time work, or whether, like the record’s referential satellite, the band will orbit around for another pass in four or five years from now. While both Berninger and Knopf don’t rule out the possibility (“I’d be really surprised if we didn’t,” says Berninger), even if nothing happens, EL VY will have still served an incredible purpose, providing an opportunity for two veteran musical artists to step back and reset themselves in a way that could only be done on their own, but not alone. “That’s kind of how I view the EL VY record,” says Knopf. “It was for me an experience of trustand feeling trusted.”

Working together generated something potent from both of them. “It was like seeing what would happen when you throw two chemicals in the same beaker, wondering whether it was going to bubble or just do nothing,” says Berninger. “So yeah, it bubbled.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s November/December Issue. This is its debut online.]



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