“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.
“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.
Los Angeles Times photographers document 2015 in music. Read the accompanying reviews by clicking links in captions.(Los Angeles Times)
Madonna performs at the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 27, 2015. Read the review.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Don Henley performs at the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 9, 2015. Read the review.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Los Lobos perform at El Gallo Plaza in East Los Angeles on Sept. 29, 2015. Read the review.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Silversun Pickups perform at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Masonic Lodge on Sept. 28, 2015. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
R. Kelly, cigar and mike in hand, performs at the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 10. Read the Times review.(Axel Koester / For the Los Angeles Times)
Grace Jones in concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Sep. 27.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Lauryn Hill performs at the Greek Theatre on Sept. 14, 2015. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Little Big Town band member Phillip Sweet performs at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 10.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel performs at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Sept. 4, 2015. Read the review.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
D’Angelo and the Vanguard performs at FYF Fest at Exposition Park on Aug. 23, 2015. Read the review.(Christina House / For The Times)
Morrissey takes the stage at FYF Fest on Aug. 23, 2015. Read the review.(Christina House / For The Times)
Solange onstage at FYF Fest on Aug. 23, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
FKA Twigs performs at FYF Fest at Exposition Park on Aug. 23, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
Kanye West performs during FYF Fest on Aug. 22.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Jehnny Beth performs with Savages at FYF Fest on Aug. 22, 2015.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Taylor Swift performs at Staples Center in August.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Aretha Franklin at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles on Aug. 2.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
The Weeknd performs during Hard Summer at the Fairplex in Pomona on Aug. 1, 2015. Read the review.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Mötley Crüe celebrates the end of another concert, at the Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Ore., on July 22.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
John Famiglietti, left, front man Jake Duzsik, and Jupiter Keyes of the L.A. experimental band Health performing at the Echo in Los Angeles on July 22, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie performing at the Hollywood Bowl on July 12.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Kendrick Lamar performing at the BET Experience at Staples Center on June 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Underworld performs at the Hollywood Bowl on June 21. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Brian Wilson at the Greek Theater on Saturday, June 20. It was also his 73rd birthday.(Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)
D’Angelo performs at Club Nokia on June 8, 2015. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Sufjan Stevens and his band on the first night of a two-night run in Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 3, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Ciara performs at Club Nokia on May 30, 2015.(Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Neil Diamond performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, May 23, 2015.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Steve Aoki, EDM DJ, producer and recording artist, performs on Broadway between 4th and 6th streets in downtown Los Angeles, May 16, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Rapper Big Sean performs at
Sia performs during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Justin Bieber performs during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Kanye West performs in shadowy lights during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Ne-Yo performs in front of a full house during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Nick Jonas performs during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105 in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
James Hatfield fronts Metallica at the Rock in Rio Festival in Las Vegas on May 9.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Chester Bennington and Linkin Park play the Rock in Rio fest in Las Vegas on May 9.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Tim McIlrath, lead singer for the Chicago-based, melodic hardcore band Rise Against, wades into the crowd at Rock in Rio on May 9.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Gwen Stefani fronts No Doubt at Rock in Rio in Las Vegas on May 8.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Ariana Grande performs at the Forum in Inglewood, April 8, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Rivers Cuomo of Weezer performs with his band at Burgerama on March 28. Weezer was one of the headliners for the two-day festival at Santa Ana’s Observatory.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Lead singer Zac Carper of FIDLAR performs with his band at Burgerama, the two-day Santa Ana festival thrown by OC DIY impresarios Burger Records.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Experimental artist Lustmord makes his Los Angeles debut on March 21 at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
R&B singer Chris Brown performs at the Forum in Inglewood. The March 8 show was a stop on his tour with Trey Songz and Tyga.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Kendrick Lamar performs at the Air + Style concert and snowboarding event at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Feb. 21.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
“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)