There’s a lot of Cincinnati in EL VY’s new album Return to the Moon—which releases on October 30—the debut collaboration from the National’s Matt Berninger and fellow indie rocker Brent Knopf (Menomena, Ramona Falls). We chatted with Berninger, a Cincy native, about his new sound, growing up on the west side, and the influence of his hometown.
You and Brent Knopf have been friends for a while now—your bands have toured together in the past—but why now did it work out in terms of collaborating and putting out an album?
I’ve known Brent for twelve years. The National played on a very early tour with Menomena, and we did some more tours together, and we became friends. But I’ll be honest with you, it wasn’t like Brent and I were super close friends. We were pals when we would tour together, but it wasn’t like Brent and I had a close relationship until we made this record. But a few years back we were playing in Portland and Brent came, and that was when I first had the idea to ask him if he had any music he hasn’t used or left over stuff from any Menomena or Ramona Falls records.
This is a long answer, but then he sent me a folder that had about 450 little music bits and ideas. I just told him to send me everything he had, and it was a lot. It was like 12 hours straight of music. Then over the years I would listen to it, put it all on a playlist and listen to it on airplanes and on tour with the National, and I would start to grab some of those sketches and throw them into a folder, and then eventually I started throwing them into Garage Band. And then after a while I would send stuff back to him, and then I wouldn’t hear from him for months, and then he would send me something back months later. So the project started with a bunch of little seeds that really slowly turned into little ideas of songs, and then it would go into the freezer for a while. I would dive into another record or go on tour and he would do his thing. It was always something where there was no pressure if we ever did anything with this stuff, but maybe it would be fun to someday make a record. After the National finished our last tour, we all decided to take a longer break, because people have kids and wanted to just have normal husband and dad existences, and that was finally an opportunity to finish the record with Brent. We really dove in about a year ago and started crafting these songs. It started a long time ago, but about 80 percent of the writing and the work was actually done in the past year.
Your singing voice is very distinctive, but the overall sound of EL VY—the vibe, the rhythm—is a bit punchier and more uptempo compared to the National, probably a bit closer to some of Brent’s previous stuff. Is that a direction you were interested in?
I was a fan of Brent before I was friends with Brent, but it wasn’t that I was trying to make a record like his records. It was mostly that I knew Brent would have a lot of ideas. I didn’t want to make a record that sounded like the National, but I didn’t want to avoid it that, either. I was just excited by what would happen if I did my thing and Brent did his. We had this total understanding of our roles. I can’t play the guitar or piano or anything; Brent even tried to get me to play tambourine on a song. I was like, No, no, that’s not for me. I’m happy being the borderline alcoholic, self-obsessive narcissist singer. I love that role, I don’t need to learn the tambo. (laughs) And conversely, he would give his opinion on lyrics and I would on the music, but I just trusted him to do what he does and do exciting things musically, and he trusted me to write good lyrics. It was a very balanced collaboration, and I think that’s part of why it was so fun. It wasn’t easy, we worked really hard. But it was always fun.
Specifically in the video for “I’m the Man to Be,” it looks like you guys are having a lot of fun, and I know you put some outtake videos out there as well. You worked with your brother Tom on that, who also did the documentary on the National, Mistaken for Strangers. What do you get out of that collaboration with Tom?
Mistaken for Strangers ends up being more about him than the National, which is why it’s a really good movie, because his personality—and the way our personalities smash into each other—is what I think is funny about that doc. I live in California now, and my brother actually lives in our garage—still—and he’s doing a video for every single song on the album. Which I’m making him do. He wants to, but I made him quit his job so that he could make 11 videos for this EL VY record. We have this funny dynamic where I’m definitely the alpha male, older brother. Do you know the movie Bottle Rocket? It’s one of Wes Anderson’s first movies. One character has this really dickish older brother who goes by Future Man (played by Andrew Wilson)— it’s Owen and Luke Wilson’s actual older brother. I’m kind of that guy in relation to my brother, I’m really hard on him. And I think I’m really hard on him because I think he’s a genius. That’s why I wanted him to do these videos for us. I knew it would be fun, and we’re spending almost zero of our budget on it, and we don’t have a bunch of time—but it’s the way we communicate with each other is to do these weird projects together. It’s how we bond, but it’s also how we fight, too. I love working with him, but we fight half the time.
You’ve said that this is the most autobiographical you’ve ever been on a record. Do you see yourself as a different songwriter with EL VY compared to the National?
I don’t know if it’s so much about Brent or EL VY versus the National, it’s just that I’ve changed. I think this record digs into—I think I was trying to find out why I am the way I am…or something. I have a 6-year-old daughter, and I can see her personality forming. I’m fascinated by that. She’s been obsessed with Grease, both the movie and the soundtrack. And I remember as a little kid, I was obsessed with that, especially Olivia Newton John. I was in love with her. And now I see my daughter just mesmerized by that film. She can watch Olivia Newton John singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” over and over, and so can I. I can just watch that on YouTube on a loop. I think that’s why I wanted to dig into my Cincinnati roots and how I fell in love with music. There are a lot of specific Cincinnati references, including the Jockey Club. I actually never set foot in there—it closed when I was like 14—but my older cousin Peter Berninger would tell me about seeing the Ramones and Black Flag there, at this legendary punk club in Cincinnati. I really romanticized it, even though I never set foot in there.
For me, I fell in love with stuff like the Smiths and the Cure. At 16, 17, when 97X would have the shows down on the BB Riverboats, I would go down with my sister and listen to Ministry and Bauhaus and New Order, and that’s where I found myself, I think. I found my identity. They had combat boots and trench coats and bad haircuts and all that stuff—I was kind of a gothy, art-rock nerd, and that was the stuff I was really into. But the real reason I talk about Jockey Club is because the place I would go to dance was Cooters on Short Vine—that’s how my identity formed. The music, and that’s how I met my friends and the people I connected with. But Cooters didn’t sound as good to put into a song.
What was the meaning behind the line in “I’m the Man to Be” about being from Delhi and not Over-the-Rhine?
That’s specifically about Cincinnati’s history as such a segregated city, and being a city that has this extreme right-wing side and extreme left-wing. Cincinnati is kind of this front line—from Mapplethorpe to the riots. Officially, I grew up more in Western Hills, but I was born in Delhi, and Delhi just sounds better. But I was very aware of the division of race in Cincinnati. My grade school was all white. My high school, St. Xavier, had a few black kids, but I was very conscious of growing up as a white kid in Cincinnati. Writing that song, it was kind of an awareness of that. Delhi is a suburban white neighborhood and Over-the-Rhine is a very urban black neighborhood, and Cincinnati is like that. There aren’t a lot of evenly mixed-race neighborhoods. The song is just a consciousness of that. It’s not really a commentary. Cincinnati is changing and evolving in really exciting ways, but it’s still symbolic of being where the social conflicts are central. I think of it as a microcosm of America.
Even with the National, I’d say that you reference the past quite a bit. I often think of that line from “Demons” on Trouble Will Find Me: “I am secretly in love with / everyone that I grew up with.” Do you think of yourself as a nostalgic songwriter?
Yeah. Yeah, totally. Most of the stuff I’m writing about is not necessarily specific memories, but emotional nostalgia for things. “Return to the Moon,” the song, is sort of a naïve nostalgia. I say naïve because of the idea that “times were simpler” back when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And I remember as a kid, I actually met Neil Armstrong and played pool with him, because he was friends with my Uncle Howard who lived in Lebanon. But this idea that things back then were not as fucked up as they are now—that’s naïve, because they were. The fucking Vietnam War, you know. Things were terrible. So the idea of “Return to the Moon” is a little bit of that nostalgia.
Also, Cincinnati, in my head, felt like the moon—it didn’t feel like I was connected to the rest of the world until I found music. There are all these people around the world that I’m connecting to when I listen to the Smiths, and there’s this British guy singing about this stuff, and I’m connecting to it, and that connected me to the world. And then later when bands like the Afghan Whigs and Guided by Voices and the Breeders, all right from southern Ohio, became massive rock stars, the alchemy of my brain shifted. All of that stuff led to me becoming what I am now…which I’m not sure what that is. But I was nostalgic for how that happened, how a person becomes who they are.
How often do you get back to the west side of Cincinnati?
I’m there several times a year. My parents are still there. They live down off of Wesselman Road. My brother and sister and I will go back for a couple weeks in the summer. I’m there a lot. I wrote some of this record there. “Paul is Alive,” I wrote most of the melody and lyrics for that on Christmas Eve in my parents’ house while everyone was asleep.
When you come back, does it feel like it’s changed at all?
It doesn’t feel that different. That’s funny. I know it is, but for me, I left Cincinnati and moved to Brooklyn right out of the University of Cincinnati in 1996. Scott Devendorf (from the National) and I both moved together. So when I’m back in Cincinnati, it still feels kind of like it did, and that’s a nice thing, a comforting thing.
Cincinnati is definitely a massive part of my identity, in both a good and a bad way. I loved the schools I went to, but they were Catholic schools. St. X was an all-boys Jesuit school. Great school, but I think all of the Catholic stuff, I think I ended up having a lot of guilt. Catholic guilt. And I attribute that a little bit to Cincinnati. I mean, everyone has that kind of stuff—
I don’t think you’d be alone in saying that.
Right? But then on the other side of it, there is also this incredible art and music scene. Bands like the Tigerlilies and the Afghan Whigs, I remember seeing them at Sudsy Malone’s. And then Mapplethorpe happened. All of that stuff is very forming in my mind, as anybody’s hometown is. I’m a big lefty now, but grew up in a very conservative area, and I was an alter boy, and all of that stuff is in the mix, and a lot of that is so good. All of that Catholic stuff is more good in my brain and in my soul, but some of it is crap that took me a while to get rid of. Some of the homophobia and sexism of organized religions. I have a great deal of respect for organized religions, but I don’t practice anymore, and I don’t think I’m going to raise my daughter connected to any religion, because I don’t want her to be confused about stuff that she doesn’t need to be. I want her to be comfortable falling in love with whoever she falls in love with, and if something is telling her that she can’t fall in love with a certain person, or that she can’t make choices on her own healthcare, ya know, fuck that. No one is telling my daughter what she can’t do with her own heart or her own body. So I’m kind of a mixed up thing, but I guess we all are, and I credit Cincinnati with a lot of the good things about me, but also some of the bad.