Escaping the Cube

He never planned to be a rock star

He never planned to be a rock star
He never planned to be a rock star

A new band drops their debut album today, "Return to the Moon".

But the musicians are not new to the business. Made up of The National's Matt Berninger and Menomona's Brent Knopf, the duo formed EL VY, a side project they've been working on for roughly four years.

Berninger's original journey to the stage took much longer. "I never had plans to be a musician." Berninger told CNBC. But that began to change when he went to college.

While in design school at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, Berninger and his friend Scott Devendorf formed a band called Nancy just for fun. "Because I couldn't play the guitar or anything else-- I defaulted to singing, which I also didn't know how to do," said Berninger.

In 1996, the two graduated from design school and moved to New York where they landed jobs designing websites for pharmaceutical companies and the financial industry. But music remained on both of their minds. Rather than reviving the college band, Berninger and Devendorf invited Scott's brother Bryan and two other Cincinnati natives, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, to start jamming with them on weekends at Berninger's Brooklyn loft apartment.

The National’s lead singer, Matt Berninger at a recording session for his new project, El Vy.
Joanna Weinstein | Mary Hanan | CNBC

And in 1999, the group officially became a band they called, The National. Berninger focused his energy on lyrics and his baritone pitch. "I struggled writing lyrics. It was important to me. It was the only thing I was good at." He told CNBC. "Writing lyrics was like trying to squeeze drops of blood from your forehead."

After much rejection, the band's demos finally began to get some attention from New York hot spots. Eventually, the group played at over thirty clubs in the city.

Their first album came out in 2001, the same year bands like The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol were hitting the scene. "We were not part of that explosion," he confirmed. "We were the aftermath."

Still keeping their day jobs, the band managed to wing it around Europe for their first tour. While some called out sick to get the time off, Berninger received support from his job. "I actually was honest with Tom Nicholson, my boss. And told him that I needed two weeks off to go to Europe with my band. And he was really cool," he told CNBC.

Nicholson, founder of what was the digital ad agency, Nicholson New York, even let the band record their second album on the office's roof.

"He was into the fact that I had this band that I was plugging away at and, kind of psyched that we were recording it in his offices ," Berninger said.

Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf of El Vy recording at The Cutting Room in New York City.
Joanna Weinstein | Mary Hanan | CNBC

After years of struggling in the shadows, the group began touring more frequently and growing their fan base. Around 2004, they decided to devote full time to The National.

"My parents, when I told 'em I was going to quit my job as a creative director to do this rock band, they thought it was a great idea," said Berninger. His wife was no different. "We met before the band was really something to be worthy of having fans," he said with a laugh.

"She was there with me as all this evolution happened between being a guy who works in an office, to a guy who lives on a bus and works in a spotlight on stage."

In 2013, Berninger's younger brother, Tom, released a documentary about his experience of going on tour with the band and his relationship with his older sibling.

The film called, "Mistaken for Strangers" after one of The National's songs, premiered at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival, won critical praise and put the indie rock band in front of a whole new audience.

Despite a seventh album underway and The National earning a Grammy nod in 2014, Berninger remains fairly humble and focused on the art of his words which appear to be paying off in ways he never imagined.

"I've had people come up [to me]. And they've got lyrics inscribed inside their wedding rings." Berninger told CNBC. "That's an incredible thing that some song or little phrases you wrote or a lyric you wrote meant something to a complete stranger."

Bloopers with Berninger of The National
Bloopers with Berninger of The National