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It is 9:30 a.m., and Matt Berninger is already wearing a blazer.
Maybe it’s because he knows he’ll be getting his picture taken today. Maybe it’s because he has many hours of press ahead of him as his band, the National, gets set to headline the second day of the Treasure Island Music Festival in San Francisco. But regardless of why, the man who once used “blue-blazered” as an adjective in a song (“Mistaken for Strangers”) could sleep in a formal jacket and it wouldn’t be that surprising.
Still, characteristic as his attire may be, that’s about all that is predictable with Berninger these days. On October 30, the singer offered up his first album without his longtime National bandmates, titled Return to the Moon. His new project, EL VY (Berninger points out that it rhymes with “hell pie” or sounds like the Latinate plural of “Elvis”), is a collaboration with Brent Knopf (Ramona Falls, ex-Menomena) and finds the baritone setting up shop among Knopf’s eclectic tastes, which oscillate between robust guitar rock, funk-fueled barroom pop, and swooning romantic slow jams.
Though the project began in earnest a year ago, immediately after the National wrapped up touring in support of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, the origins date back further. Berninger and Knopf have known each other since touring together, to little fanfare, in 2003, with Knopf sending Berninger the first batch of EL VY song ideas five years ago.
“There was just this window,” Berninger says, “where we knew the National would be taking time off. Almost all of [the guys in] the band have kids, and I for a long time was the only one with a kid. So I was always feeling this desire to take a break and spend more time with my family, but it didn’t happen until the rest of the band had kids.
“Working on EL VY was initially a break,” he continues, “not necessarily from the National, but from everything surrounding the National. Not the shows or the music of the National — I’ve never needed to escape that and hopefully I never will. But just escaping the lifestyle, the after-show parties, the loneliness of being on a bus and away from your four-year-old and wife. Going back to the bus or the hotel room and opening my laptop to work on a song idea was a healthier mental place to go to than an after-show party or sitting alone in a hotel room, drinking and looking out the window. That’s great, occasionally, but I was doing that too much.”
As to why the two chose to work together, Berninger points to Knopf’s work ethic while also noting a bit of fandom of his personal aesthetic. Knopf’s strength as a songwriter, both in Menomena and Ramona Falls, is his ability to let tunes take unexpected left turns, and that fingerprint is left on each track of Return to the Moon.
“Brent is so prolific and he has so many ideas,” Berninger says. “Every song he writes is constantly flipping on itself and reinventing itself. You never know where it is going to go with him, and I love that — the reckless adventurousness.”
Still, Berninger is quick to note that he wasn’t uncomfortable writing music that is so different from the songs that have given him a career. “My comfort zone has always been pretty wide,” he says, “but my skill zone has been pretty limited. As a writer and lyricist, I’ve evolved very slowly from the first National record.” The early influences he cites range from Stephen Malkmus and Robert Pollard to Nick Cave and Tom Waits. “I never thought that much about needing to be a skillful singer to be a good singer. So I’m pretty comfortable even if I sound like a shitty singer.”
Berninger was also comfortable getting an unexpected co-sign when Taylor Swift recently included Return to the Moon‘s title track on a playlist tweeted to her millions of followers. What did surprise Berninger was when his label, 4AD, trumpeted this fact in a press release, though he has nothing but compliments for Swift.
“I’ve met her twice,” he says. “Once was when the National played Saturday Night Live when Lena Dunham hosted, and [Swift] was a sweet and delightful woman. And then I bumped into her again not too long ago. We chatted and I met her parents, and again, she was really nice. But it was still a surprise that she would have heard of EL VY, that she would have liked the song and put it on the playlist. I’m not sure what the Taylor Swift bump means. I know she was able to send that letter to Apple and have Apple change their policies. So she’s done some really good things with her power.”
Whether Swift makes it out to either of EL VY’s New York City shows — November 13 at the Bowery Ballroom and November 14 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg — remains to be seen, but the performances will see the duo expand to a four-piece, adding Wye Oak’s Andy Stack on drums and Lost Lander’s Matt Sheehy on bass. Berninger does not anticipate songs from the National or Menomena sneaking into the setlist, but they have been offering up a cover of Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” that fits nicely in the group’s sonic nest.
As for the National, the band continues to take its time with the next album. Berninger is pleased with the “raw material, some of which is turning into real songs” that came from a couple of recent writing sessions that took place in New York and in California.
“We want to try out the songs we’ve been writing in a live setting before we go in and record them,” he says, calling it the “Fugazi model.” “Over the summer of 2016 we’re going to do a lot of shows with the new stuff and then record the next National album.”
This record will feature a whole new setting: Berninger has relocated to Venice in Los Angeles and Aaron Dessner recently put his Ditmas Park home and recording space on the market. Berninger admits that the band is up for some changes, given the apparent geographic shift away from its close association with Brooklyn.
“Look at me,” he says. “My thinning hair is long and bleached. I’m not waxing yet, but yes, the music will probably be affected. Hopefully it doesn’t ruin anything.”
As long as he’s wearing a blazer before lunch, fans should feel somewhat secure.