The National's Matt Berninger on Life in L.A., EL VY's 'Punk Rock Musical'

Melancholic singer loosens up in Taylor Swift–approved collaboration with friend Brent Knopf

"This was just a way to keep me from partying too much," says Matt Berninger (left) of EL VY, his duo with Brent Knopf. Credit: Deirdre O'Callaghan

After more than 10 hard-touring years with the National, Matt Berninger wasn't getting any better at adjusting to life on the road. "I love being a 'rock star,' but there's a lot of it that's just sad," he says. "Staying out after a show is where it really tears you apart."

A few years ago, Berninger found a way to curb his post-gig excesses: Instead of going out, he would head back to his tour bus to work on new music using GarageBand. "It wasn't a creative escape," he says. "I'm 100 percent satisfied with the National. This was just a way to keep me from partying too much."

This routine led to Return to the Moon, the debut album by EL VY, a dance-y project with Berninger's old friend Brent Knopf, formerly of the Portland, Oregon, band Menomena. Taylor Swift is a fan, endorsing the title track on her handwritten Twitter list of "New Songs That Will Make Your Life More Awesome." "My sister's head exploded," says Knopf of Swift's shout-out. "I went and actually bought 1989 on vinyl, because I wanted 13 of her songs that would make my life more awesome."

Five years ago, Knopf sent Berninger a digital folder with about 450 musical ideas; Berninger slowly worked his way through them. "It's just something to sort of blow off steam with," Berninger says. "But about a year ago, it seemed like, 'Hey, we have a lot of good stuff here.'" He found inspiration on a Christmas trip to his childhood home of Cincinnati; "Paul Is Alive" is an ode to the long-closed Jockey Club, where Hüsker Dü, the Smiths and the Cramps all played. "It started to become an accidental punk-rock musical about Cincinnati in the Eighties," he says. 

The album's uplifting melodies were inspired by Berninger's move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Lately, he's been spending a lot more time outdoors and riding his bike to the ocean. "I lived in Brooklyn for 18 years and never had a backyard really," he says. "I make a fire and I sit in the backyard with a cocktail and a fire and it's so nice in Venice. Sitting out there, you can see the open sky; you can watch the moon over your backyard, see some stars. It changes the chemistry of your brain."

The singer used the album to poke fun at the hipster image he's cultivated in the National: "I'm the Man to Be" is about a rock star who gets so depressed he drinks artisanal shampoo. "One of the characters that Matt likes to play in life is of the over-entitled rock star, but he plays [it to] an incredible comedic effect," says Knopf. "He'll build moments where he kind of pretends to be a diva. I think it's an alter-ego. In other people, he finds it insufferable and that's why he likes to poke fun at it, but also kind of to keep himself real."

In November, EL VY embarked on their first club tour, which wound down earlier this month, with a stage show including three backup singers. "I actually find myself dancing," Berninger says of playing live with the project. "I'm usually hanging off the microphone like a propped-up scarecrow. But for whatever reason, I'm shaking my hips."