Better catch EL VY in town next week. These are their first London gigs, on their first ever tour, and it sounds as if the new band are already breaking up.
“I don’t think we’re gonna tour any more. I don’t think we’ll do festivals. Unless there was a great opportunity that was the right kind of vibe, but probably not,” says Matt Berninger, who fronts EL VY alongside multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf but is best known as the singer in one of America’s finest indie rock bands, The National. “We don’t want it to become a thing that’s a burden at all.”
For EL VY is a side project, and such things rarely take over the world or outlast bigger endeavours (Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz is the only one that springs to mind) but this one is worthy of a deeper commitment. Yes, some elements were put together without great National-style agonies of effort, such as the no-budget videos by Berninger’s younger brother Tom, and the band name, settled “in the wee hours” when the press release was about to go out, chosen because it has no meaning at all. “We were gonna be called Jockey Club until the last minute,” says the singer. “We put it in caps so it would look like two sets of initials. The name means nothing, but people seem to have latched onto the fact that it sounds like the plural of ‘Elvis’ so it kind of backfired.”
But Berninger, 44, and Knopf, 38, who has his own lesser known but excellent band Ramona Falls, both stress that they’re serious about this, however briefly it lasts. “I’ve been careful to make clear that this isn’t a replacement [for The National] but it’s also not a tossed-off whim. It’s a blast but we’ve worked harder on this than we’ve worked on anything. It is not a little thing at all.”
The word “fun” keeps cropping up in the pair’s conversation, stretched out in their tour bus on a Copenhagen side street. Their gigs, such as the one I see in the 600-capacity Pumpehuset venue, are smaller and sweatier than Berninger has become accustomed to, featuring a surprise cover of She Drives Me Crazy by Fine Young Cannibals. Berninger’s weary baritone still sounds troubled but this time with a heavy dose of surrealism. On the scratchy funk of I’m the Man to Be he plays a sleazy hotel resident, drinking under the bed and having a crack at auto-asphyxiation. “Scratched a ticket with the leg of a cricket and I got triple Jesus,” he sings on Return to the Moon, the upbeat, singalong title track of the month-old EL VY album. It was tweeted by Taylor Swift in October, on a handwritten list of “New songs that will make your life more awesome (I promise!)”.
Berninger is now an LA resident of three years’ standing, sporting long hair for the first time in his life and avoiding the suits that he wears in his main band. The National, two sets of brothers plus Berninger, are all from Cincinatti, Ohio, formed in Brooklyn at the end of the Nineties and rose at a glacial pace, ending up headlining the O2 Arena in 2014 without ever having a hit single. Berninger first met Knopf as far back as 2002, when The National and Knopf’s old band Menomena played together at the Holocene venue in Knopf’s home town, Portland.
It doesn’t sound like it was especially auspicious. “I don’t remember what we talked about or even if we did talk,” says Berninger.
“We did. I remember talking with you,” replies Knopf, who says far less than his bandmate but is always primed to bring him down a peg or two.
“Seriously? I have no memory of you. What did we talk about?” asks Berninger.
“You were talking about indie rock in general. You had this kind of glint in your eye. You were pretty strategic, thinking about what the next smart move would be.”
“Well, Aaron [Dessner, National guitarist] and I are both super ambitious. But I didn’t realise I came across so openly ambitious all those years ago.”
Berninger talks of feeling left behind as he watched other New York bands such as The Strokes, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs explode at the start of the 2000s. He says that the gigs EL VY are playing now, deliberately booked in smaller spaces than they could really fill, are partly an attempt to recreate the feeling he had seeing The Strokes in little venues over a decade ago. “I love those kinds of shows, stuck against the wall, fun, crowded and hot.”
EL VY songs had been bubbling for around six years, before Berninger finished the last National tour at the O2 and finally had a clear diary to get into them properly. Prolific Knopf had originally sent him a file of “around 450 song sketches, about 11 hours of music”. Then he did more composing after the pair had had a conversation about what they really wanted the new band to be.
“I remember saying I wanted it to feel different from The National,” says Berninger.
“You said something about wanting it to feel like you’re walking from a smoky bar into this greenhouse atrium,” says Knopf.
“Basically I didn’t want Brent to send me music thinking: ‘This is Matt’s wheelhouse. This is him.’ As a writer and a singer I have been somewhat typecast as a dark miserablist. A sadsack. That’s just what I’ve read. But I think the range of National songs go all over the place. It’s not the entire spectrum of musical ideas but I think what we’ve done over 15 years is relatively broad.”
“You’ve done everything from melancholy to gloomy,” says Knopf with a smirk. “You have some songs that climax and others that crescendo.”
EL VY’s music does feel lighter in places, more eclectic, sometimes poppier and and sometimes weirder. That seems to have come from the ease with which it was written. “Some albums with The National have been struggles,” admits Berninger. “Aaron and I would always escalate to the point where things got ugly. Frankly we were mean as shit to each other. It was a giant chess match, but because we were both so obsessed with trying to make these songs great. With Brent it was more like, ‘I trust you, you trust me, here are my ideas, you run with them and pass them back to me.’ It was a fun back and forth.”
Reason enough to do it again sometime then, surely? “We are starting to find a whole different level of chemistry together by playing live,” concedes the singer. “I am anxious to write more stuff with Brent and I think Brent is too – or so says my inbox anyway.” So catch them while you can, but don’t completely rule out this side project becoming something a little more central one day.
Dec 9-10, Electric Ballroom, NW1 (020 7485 9006, electricballroom.co.uk)