Matt Berninger of EL VY

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

Photo by Deirdre O'Callaghan

BY Sarah MurphyPublished Oct 30, 2015

A match made in indie rock heaven, EL VY brings together the National's Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf of Menomena and Ramona Falls. The pair met more than a decade ago at a show in Portland, OR and stayed in touch, emailing musical ideas back and forth for the better part of five years before finally heading into the studio this year to make Return to the Moon. The duo's debut LP presents a collection of songs that showcase both Berninger's knack for lyrics that are as dark and brooding as they are cleverly sarcastic and Knopf's unique, experimental approach to production.
"I didn't want another project that sounded like the National," Berninger says, discussing the origins of the new creative collaboration. "Essentially, I liked the guy and I was delighted by all the wild, brilliant ideas that he brought to this thing. I think we kind of surprised each other and it worked out better than I ever expected."
Return to the Moon's title track may have already garnered an endorsement from reigning internet queen Taylor Swift, but Berninger's latest project is no overnight success. It's been a long time coming and he's finally ready to introduce EL VY to the world.


What are you up to?
The National are all here in Venice, California. Everybody just arrived yesterday and we are actually camping out at the studio all weekend and writing and recording. So, there's this weird little window before EL VY comes out, we're doing press, but I'm not actually busy with EL VY stuff right now. So the National are all camping out for a week to work on our next record.
What are your current fixations?
The Grease soundtrack is my current fixation because my daughter, who's six, is obsessed with the movie and she just keeps wanting to rewind it to the kissing parts. So both of us have been enjoying that. I was obsessed with that soundtrack and movie when I was a kid, so it's fun to go through that with my daughter again and rediscover how amazing that movie and soundtrack are.
Why do you live where you do?
My wife and daughter and I — and my brother, actually, he lives in our garage — all moved to Venice, California from Brooklyn three years ago. I think we just needed a change. We just wanted to breathe different air for a while. We'd been in Brooklyn for 18 years and now we just bought a little house in Venice. I think it's good to change your environment every once in a while. I mean, I guess every 18 years. That's where we are now and that's where we're nesting.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
What a hard question, cause every work of art is slightly mind-altering. One of the most mind-altering works of art, well, I'll pick a movie. You Can Count on Me is a movie that changed me in some ways. The way [director Kenneth] Lonergan tells such an intimate, direct story had a profound effect on me. I can't say exactly how it altered me, but it did.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
I saw Iggy Pop at Bogart's in Cincinatti, and I remember — I don't remember how old I was, I was probably at least 18 when I saw that — but seeing Iggy Pop myself on a stage in Cincinnati was weird, there was a punk rock icon in my hometown. Iggy walked out on stage and before he even sang his first song, he pulled his dick out and just kind of held it there. Just pointed at us with his dick. That was memorable. I was like, "That looks like a fun job."
What have been your career highs and lows?
I walked past Leonard Cohen in between two tents in a really muddy backstage area in Spain once. Leonard Cohen was performing and the National were performing at a different time, but I walked past the guy and he said hello and I said hello and we both had mud all over our shoes. He was dressed impeccably cool. And that was a moment where I was like, "That was crazy." Walking past a hero, somebody who's a legend in your mind, in the mud was special.
And have there been any career lows that stand out?
I mean, there are always small, humiliating indignities that happen just by being a touring musician. We slept in youth hostels and on floors for so many years, but the career low was probably when we played a show in Manchester, I think, and after the show I desperately had to take a piss and there was no bathroom backstage, and the only bathroom was the one that all the people from the show were lined up to use the same one bathroom and I just couldn't do that, so I ended up in a hallway at the university and I was pissing in a solo cup behind a plant. Then this like 17-year-old volunteer with a flashlight came up and started screaming at me because she thought I was pissing in the corner of the hallway. I mean, I guess I was, but I was pissing into a plastic solo cup. I was 38 years old and I'm being yelled at by a 16-year-old with a flashlight because I'm peeing behind a plant in a hallway in fucking Manchester. That was a dark moment. I was like, "What the fuck am I doing?"
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
I'm sure there have been, but I have no memory. I don't know if I can tell you because I don't pay much attention to it. I'm in such a weird zone before, during and after a show that you could say anything to me and it probably wouldn't stick because I'm in a sort of fugue state.
What should everyone shut up about?
Again, I haven't been listening to people so I don't know what everybody's talking about. I don't think I can give you one because if everybody's talking about something, there's probably a good reason.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I most dislike my temper. I've got a hair trigger temper, which I'm very aware of and wish I could figure out how to rewire that problem, and I'm working on it. And the thing I most like about myself… right now, I'm gonna say my gorgeous hair. Long and flowing, I'm on my way to Tommy-era Roger Daltrey right now. My wife is begging me to cut it and I'm refusing. I'm sticking with it for a while. That's the thing I like about myself the most, my hair.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Probably going on a bike ride with my daughter. I've got one of those things that attaches her bike to the back of my bike and she can pedal when she feels like it or just ride along behind me. I've got a little speaker system on my bike, so we ride around on our bikes listening to the Grease soundtrack. We do that a lot, that's my perfect Sunday.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Michael Stipe tried to tell us to write a hit. He said, "Why don't you guys just write a hit?" This was probably about six years ago. And it's not that we didn't take it, we just didn't know how to. "Why are you guys afraid to write a hit?" "We aren't, we just don't know how!"
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
The National would never kick anybody out. We're friends and brothers and so if anybody felt like they couldn't do the National anymore, the National wouldn't go on anymore at all. If being in the band was hurting someone's life, whether it's causing problems with a marriage or life or drugs or alcohol then we stop this thing. I care more about my friends' health and marriages and families than I do about the band. I think we all agree with that, that's why we're still together. We don't kick each other out for stuff, we just help each other figure shit out and get through it. So, I would never kick someone out of the band. Bed? I don't know, that's a good question. I would say, politics. I would have a hard time sharing a bed with someone who was against gay marriage, for example. I don't know if I could share a bed with a Republican. There's a lot of great Republicans, but sleeping or sex would be hard to do with somebody who is politically on the other side of the spectrum than me. That's a strange question.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I don't know, I like Canada? I don't overthink about it. What does Canada think of America? I guess that's hard because everybody hates America [laughs].
But what kind of things spring to mind when Canada is mentioned?
Mostly when I think of Canada, I think of friends. Hayden Desser and just people. One of my best friends Brandon Reid (our tour manager) his family lives in Toronto, I just think of my pals that live in Canada. I think of it fondly.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
I think it might have been the Violent Femmes' first record [self-titled] on cassette with my own money. Although, now that I think about it, I might have just stolen my sister's. Oh, you know what, it might have been Pet Shop Boys West End Girls on vinyl. I remember buying that at a mall, I was really excited about that. I remember seeing Ferris Bueller's Day Off and then buying the Pet Shop Boys record the same day. Both very important moments in my life.
What was your most memorable day job?
I delivered pizzas for a long time, and I liked that because I spent most of my time in my car driving around smoking cigarettes, listening to music. 90 per cent of the job is just listening to music and then dropping off pizza.
How do you spoil yourself?
I drink martinis and smoke a little weed by the fire in the backyard. A lot. It's such a great comfort zone for me. Yeah, that's how I spoil myself.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
I'd probably just be working on something else with friends. My wife and brother and I made this documentary, and that was amazing, such a fun thing. I would probably just be working on a movie or something with friends. I've always enjoyed just making shit with your friends.
What do you fear most?
I fear being an asshole the most. Not being a good husband and dad, I think that's what I fear the most. Sometimes you're just in a shitty mood and you're being a dick, even though you're not a dick most of the time, but I guess, I fear myself. My own crabbiness and temper and all that kind of stuff. But I'm nice, and some of the time I'm a great guy. So I don't have much to fear, I don't think.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
How do other people answer this? What did Peaches say? I'm gonna go with whatever Peaches said.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
I met the president and just quivered when I did. I'm a relatively confident, social man, but when I met Obama I was quaking and I called him "Mr. Plesident." My mouth was dry and I had a panic attack and I was shivering and called him "Mr. Plesident" and he gave me this weird look. I think he thought I was making a snarky comment because it was early in his presidency, and he thought I was making commentary on his being too nice of a president or something. That's one that I wish I could redo.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I think it'd be fun to have dinner with Santa Claus. I'd probably try to make something light and healthy. Maybe like baked eggs. I'd like to have brunch with Santa, and maybe do baked eggs on a skillet.
Not milk and cookies?
Nah, he's had enough cookies.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Nothing. I think she's so happy I'm doing this. When I told her I was quitting my job as a creative director in New York to travel in a van with my friends to be in a rock band both my parents were like, "That sounds like a great idea!" They loved it. I don't think my mom would want me doing anything else.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Whatever the last song in Grease is. What's the name of that song? When they drive up to heaven, when they drive into the sky. I don't think it's "We Go Together," is it? [sings] We go together… Chang chang changitty chang chang chang. Figure out what the title is, but that's the one. [It is "We Go Together."]

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