Union Transfer


EL VY (Feat. Matt Berninger of The National & Brent Knopf of Menomena)

EL VY (Feat. Matt Berninger of The National & Brent Knopf of Menomena)

Wye Oak

Tue, November 10, 2015

Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 8:30 pm

Union Transfer

Philadelphia, PA


This event is all ages

For years, Matt Berninger kept a secret folder on his laptop called “The Moon.”

"When I got off stage with the National, or found myself alone in a hotel room somewhere, I'd open it up, along with the minibar, and get to work."

The files in that folder were bits of music from Brent Knopf, the Portland musician and producer best known for his work in Menomena and his more recent band, Ramona Falls. Berninger and Knopf struck up a friendship nearly a decade ago, when the National and Menomena joined together for a west coast tour of small, half-empty clubs. It would be years before the New York indie rockers were playing on television and packing arenas, earning Grammy nominations and topping critics' lists, but the two felt an immediate musical kinship. It's a testament to their chemistry that Berninger and Knopf continued to feed that folder over the years with ideas.

“We kept throwing little seeds of future songs in there.” explains Berninger “It wasn’t until November of last year that we really dug in to make it a record.”

It's only fitting, then, that their debut album as EL VY (pronounced like ‘hell pie’ or a plural of Elvis) is called Return to the Moon.

Return to the Moon sounds exactly like you'd hope a collaboration between these artists would: Berninger's darkly funny, lyrical storytelling and his immediately identifiable sense of melody offset by Knopf's playful, architectural arrangements and inventive production. The National and Ramona Falls are both currently preparing upcoming releases, so EL VY is not a replacement or a side project, but a glimpse into an alternate musical universe: a universe in which Berninger never left Cincinnati, and Midwestern punk Mecca the Jockey Club never closed. A universe in which Mike Watt and the late D. Boon of the punk band Minutemen are every bit as iconic as Mick and Keith, and a teenager's sense of rebellion is fed by the dark social politics of middle America.

"This record is more autobiographical than anything else I've written," says Berninger, "but the details aren't true. It's written in the voices of a few invented characters, composites of different people—myself, my wife, and other people I was thinking about."

Despite the fact that Berninger and Knopf might have been on opposite sides of the world, it was over these last few years on the road that Return to the Moon really took shape. "I would send Matt some sort of demo or a rough sketch of a chord structure or a beat," Knopf explains. "I never worried about sending him something unfinished. He's able to imagine where it can go. He can grab the four bars that will become the core of the track and develop them into something amazing."

Berninger loaded the files onto his laptop and recorded himself singing melodies whenever and wherever he could (on one song, you can hear a hotel employee enter the room). As
lyrics bubbled up from his subconscious, subliminal connections between his past and present emerged, and he began to play with the idea that the songs' stories would overlap. The album traces a relationship between two characters, Didi and Michael. Berninger acknowledges that the characters are named after Minutemen's D. Boon and Mike Watt, and that their band and friendship was an inspiration, but says it’s not specifically about them. He thinks of the Didi and Michael of Return to the Moon as semi-fictional characters in “a punk rock Grease set in Cincinnati in the 1980’s.”

Right from the opening minutes of the album's title track, the tone is more playful than anything we've heard from these two before. They turn up the sordid humor on the alternately hilarious and pathetic “I'm the Man to Be,” in which Berninger sings from the perspective of a drugged-up lonely rocker in a Singapore hotel room, with lyrics soaked in hip hop braggadocio.

On tracks like “Need a Friend” and “Paul Is Alive,” Berninger conjures his Midwestern adolescence. "I think ‘Paul Is Alive’ is about finally finding the water that you can breathe in, finding a place or a person that makes you feel like you," he explains. "It's very much my story of what Cincinnati was like, growing up and falling in love with music, discovering these little places where like-minded people could find each other."

Meanwhile, it was the tight-knit Portland musical community that led to one of the album's happiest coincidences, when singer Moorea Masa moved in to a studio just across the hall from Knopf's. Knopf invited her to sing back up on the album, and she brought along a few friends, including the beloved soul singer Ural Thomas.

"One of the most exciting things for me on this record was working with Ural," says Knopf. “He's seventy-four and kind of a legend. He's the closest thing to a Taoist master I've ever met." Thomas lends his rich voice to “Sleepin' Light,” a sleazy, sexy come-on in the vein of Leonard Cohen’s ladies’ man phase.

The relationships on Return to the Moon are complicated, and tracks like “Silent Ivy Hotel” blur the lines between friendship and romance. “Sad Case” and “It's a Game” deal with the ache of loss, while “No Time to Crank the Sun” is about finding love by making an effort. In album closer “Careless,” the narrator tries desperately to hold on to someone who already has one foot out the door. "It's maybe the most unapologetically romantic song on the album," Berninger explains. "I embraced the melodrama of it."

The making of Return to the Moon, Berninger and Knopf are both quick to emphasize, was itself without any melodrama. It's the product of a long friendship between two restless songwriters working in secret without any pressure or expectations. Crafting the record was certainly hard work, especially considering everything else the duo had on their respective plates, but its making was an escape from the anxieties of being on tour, and, as Berninger puts it, “a lot of guilty pleasures without any guilt.”
Wye Oak
Wye Oak
The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs—the triumphant fifth album by Wye Oak—begins with an explosion. For a few seconds, piano, drums, and a playful keyboard loop gather momentum; then, all at once, they burst, enormous bass flooding the elastic beat. “Suffering, I remember suffering,” sings Jenn Wasner, her voice stretched coolly across the tizzy. “Feeling heat and then the lack of it/But not so much what the difference is.” The moment declares the second coming of Wye Oak, a band that spent more than a decade preparing to write this record—its most gripping and powerful set of songs to date, built with melodies, movement, and emotions that transcend even the best of their catalogue.

Louder is the third record that Wasner and Andy Stack, who launched Wye Oak in Baltimore, have made while living in separate cities—she in Durham, North Carolina, he in Marfa, Texas. They flew to one another for a week or so at a time, hunkering in home studios to sort through and combine their separate song sketches. These shorter stints together produced less second-guessing and hesitation in their process, yielding an unabashed and unapologetic Wye Oak. They discarded past rules about using just guitar or keyboard to write a record, instead funneling all those experiences and experiments into perfectly unified statements. The result is the biggest, broadest, boldest music they’ve ever made. The title track is a coil of anxiety and exuberance, its verses and chorus sweeping into cascades of magnetic harmony. By the time the song ends, it feels like a real pop anthem, a spell to be shouted against the ills of our world.

Louder pursues a litany of modern malaises, each of its dozen tracks diligently addressing a new conflict and pinning it against walls of sound, with the song’s subject and shape inextricably and ingeniously linked. The rapturous “Lifer,” for instance, ponders perseverance and survival in times of profound struggle. It is, at first, hesitant and ponderous, Wasner wrestling with her own choices. But her ecstatic guitar solo leads into a chorus that feels like a triumph over doubt, or at least a reconciliation with it. “Over and Over” finds Wasner alone at home, watching clips of violence abroad on repeat, her outrage outstripped only by her ineffectiveness. Stack’s colossal circular rhythm and Wasner’s corroded harmonies conjure a digital hall of mirrors, a place where we can see all evil but do nothing. During the intoxicating “It Was Not Natural,” a tired walk through the woods unearths a discarded antler, a talisman that provokes deep questions about our work lives, social codes, and romantic mores. The music—a sophisticated tessellation of pounded piano and loping bass, scattered drums and chirping synthesizer—is as complex and ponderous as the issues themselves. “It Was Not Natural” is Wye Oak at their most sophisticated, navigating life’s difficulties with the nuance and power they demand.

For all the struggles Wye Oak confronts here, Louder ultimately reflects a hopeful radiance, with the parting sense that human connection and our own internal resolve can outweigh even our heaviest worries. The final two tracks are tandem testaments to weakness bowing to strength. Wasner first shuffles through her day during “Join,” beset by worry until she finds a way out. “I just want a clear head,” she realizes at the end, “the sun on my shoulder.” And during “I Know It’s Real,” over twinkling guitars and a drum beat that feels like a steadying pulse, she stumbles upon a necessary credo: “Still, I’m alive, stronger than energies riding on my back.”

The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs arrives at a time of immense doubt, when our personal problems are infinitely compounded by a world that seems in existential peril. But these dozen songs answer the challenge by radiating self-reflection and resolve, wielding hooks and musical intricacy as a shield against the madness of the moment. The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is a powerful reminder to keep calling, to keep trying, no matter the peril it poses. Merge Records will release The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs TK TK, 2018.
Venue Information:
Union Transfer
1026 Spring Garden St.
Philadelphia, PA, 19123