"I can't believe we're going down this road," chuckled Matt Berninger, lead singer of the indie rock breakout the National and his new side project, El Vy.
Sure, maybe an interview has gone off the rails once it veers into the topic of autoerotic asphyxiation, the dangerous sexual practice that involves reducing the oxygen flow to your own brain. And that was just in the first five minutes of talking with Berninger and his El Vy collaborator Brent Knopf (a.k.a. the multi-instrumentalist and producer from Portland, Ore.'s Menomena and Ramona Falls).
The duo was seated around a sofa in a cavernous Hollywood rehearsal space on a recent morning as El Vy was preparing for an appearance on "Conan" later that night. "Is it amazing? I've never tried this," joked the soft-spoken Knopf as the tangent unraveled.
Where other artists would surely be mortified if their interview devolved so quickly into such taboo territory, El Vy's new album thrives on such dark humor.
"I'm the Man to Be," the second single from "Return to the Moon" (to be released Friday), is a funk-pop fever dream that finds Berninger's familiar baritone chronicling a "lonely, pathetic guy" trapped in a hotel room. He's swigging from boutique shampoo bottles and maybe pursuing a lobby rendezvous but, alas, "the belt's too tight." It's dark stuff, but it may be the year's funniest song that ends with a casualty.
This mix of the grim and the absurdly funny is Berninger's stock in trade as frontman of the National, whose last album, "Trouble Will Find Me," debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard album charts and sold more than 260,000 copies since its release in 2013. Though often seen as dour with its intricate minor key instrumental flourishes behind Berninger's plaintive voice, the National has never been as gloomy as its detractors claimed.
"Trouble Will Find Me," along with last year's meta-documentary directed by and starring Berninger's brother Tom, "Mistaken for Strangers," underscored a wry humor just beneath the band's buttoned-up exterior.
"I moved to L.A. three years ago," Berninger said, his sun-lightened reddish hair spilling to his shoulders. "I think 'Trouble Will Find Me' has a different personality to it than other National records because there were new environments and new things.... All these different factors were making me lighten up, not just about the songs themselves but the process.
"A lot of it was because everybody has kids and everybody's relaxing a little bit. [We're like,] 'This is great, we should enjoy this more,'" he said.
Another factor for Berninger was finding an outlet outside his full-time band with Knopf, whom he met when the National performed with the off-kilter indie pop group Menomena (Knopf left the group in 2011). The two hit it off and Knopf began emailing megabytes' worth of "ditties, riffs and fragments" to Berninger, who recorded lyrics for whatever sounds caught his ear as time allowed. Sometimes months would pass before one would hear from the other; there was no pressure or schedule.
"He would go off and do his thing and I would trust him, like blindly trust whatever he would do and vice versa," said Knopf, who two years ago spoke at a TEDx conference in Sacramento about the value of the unexpected in creative pursuits. "I found Matt to be the most welcoming of an unfinished idea of any collaborator that I've worked with so far. He's able to hear past the roughness — he almost gravitates toward it."
Berninger worked on the project in hotel rooms and tour buses while the National was on the road. "I did that instead of after-show parties and stuff," Berninger said. "The socializing around a tour was what was actually causing me a lot of burnout. It wasn't the shows, and it wasn't the music. I was never escaping the National, I was just always escaping the social [junk] around touring."
Still, given the upbeat, synth-girded backdrops Knopf was providing, it's easy to hear El Vy as a conscious shift from the National's darker palette. The album's title track rides a driving, disco-adjacent groove so deftly that Taylor Swift included the track on a recently tweeted list of "New Songs That Will Make Your Life Awesome."
Elsewhere, "Need a Friend" buries its romantic desperation in swerving roller-rink keyboards, and the whispered seductions of "Sleepin' Light" are backed by Portland-area soul singer Ural Thomas. But Berninger insists "Return to the Moon" was never intended as a reaction to either artist's day job.
"People keep saying, 'Did you guys have a plan to make a happier, brighter record?'" Berninger said. "That thought never went into my mind because I only write to the music. So writing to Brent's music organically, very naturally, led me to do different types of things."
Berninger was also inspired by a stay with family at his childhood home over the holidays, and some of the album focuses on the music and culture that shaped his early identity. A frequent reference point on "Return to the Moon" is the long-gone Midwestern punk venue the Jockey Club. He grew up hearing stories of bands such as Black Flag, the Ramones and the Minutemen playing there when they came through town in the '80s.
"The idea of, like, Morrissey even being in Cincinnati, Ohio?" Berninger remembered, "I'd be less surprised if I saw a unicorn."
Other inspirations? The L.A. reflected in the Minutemen's "Double Nickels on the Dime" and the his 6-year-old daughter's discovery of the "Grease" soundtrack, which was another of Berninger's favorites as a kid. He imagined parts of the album as a sort of punk rock musical following the adventures of Didi and Michael — named after the Minutemen's D. Boon and Mike Watt — in tracks such as "Paul Is Alive" and "Need a Friend."
"I didn't start to see all these lyrically connected threads almost until we were close to being finished," Berninger said, hastening to add he has no plans to stage an actual musical. "And then I would bring back the Didi name and link them up loosely. Almost like an accidental concept album."
While the no-expectations beginnings of El Vy came together with a similar sort of serendipity, both Knopf and Berninger are hopeful there can be a follow-up.
"I'd love to do another one, but there's a lot of competing priorities in both of our lives," Knopf said. (With the National said to be back in the studio soon, El Vy starts a tour next month with two sold-out shows at the Troubadour on Nov. 7 and 8.)
"I'd be surprised if we don't make another El Vy record," Berninger said, mulling over one of the band's many future possibilities. "I'm trying to figure out, how does the character from 'I'm the Man to Be' work into the Broadway narrative?"
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Where: 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
When: Nov. 7-8
Cost: $25 (sold out)