The Man from Anacortes: An Interview with Phil Elverum
Through countless albums under The Microphones moniker and more recently as Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum has seemed to be in a constant state of movement. And though the music he makes as Mount Eerie seems to be very familial in regards to what he released as The Microphones, there is no sense of slowing down or acceptance of any one particular musical outlook. Whether it's the harsher sounds from Wind's Poem or the relative calm of some of the tracks off Clear Moon, his records always sound distinct and present themselves as singular creations, indebted to a man who sees the world around him as slowly collapsing. He simply sees it as his job to record every moment.
Mr. Elverum answers my questions regarding the inception of the companion piece to Clear Moon, the upcoming Ocean Roar, and how he chooses what songs to sing at karaoke. Who knew he was a Weezy fan?
I was listening to Clear Moon earlier and was struck by how dense it sounds, while also feeling incredibly spacious. It sounds as though you’re quickly flipping a coin back and forth across your knuckles, seeing both sides almost simultaneously. You can hear this very clearly on opening track “Through The Trees Pt. 2”, with its acoustic veneer hiding layers of vocals, shuffling drums, and cathedral bells. Was this kind of purposeful dichotomy something you were intent on examining or was it something that developed naturally as these songs came together?
It was all intentional. It is not always the big/small blend. Sometimes it's just straight up big, and sometimes just small, but yes, in general I am interested in trying to nest an intimate thing inside a larger crazier atmosphere. I think this is what the actual world feels like, a house in the weather. Also, a thing I'm always trying to do is have some beautiful melody (usually sung) right on the edge of being totally obscured by distortion. My Bloody Valentine obviously were the masters of this, and I'm often trying to find that spot. Clarity is useful too, but is too often the only texture on a record.
When you went in the studio to start your recording sessions for Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, were the songs generally done or was there quite a bit of studio tinkering that took place?
No, these records were very much made up in the studio. I didn't have any songs at all. I spent so much time just spacing out and pacing in the studio, noodling on a keyboard, erasing ideas, exploring in the most abstract sense.
I’ve read where it mentioned that Ocean Roar was inspired by a half remembered “dream of a midnight road trip to the ocean from 20 years ago.” Since I read that, I’ve been curious about the details of that dream. Would it be fair to ask if you would elaborate on that?
I actually did take a trip with some friends from Anacortes to Neah Bay in like 1995, so not quite 20 years ago. We left after I got off work at the record store, took the last Pt. Townsend ferry, drove across the Olympic Peninsula through the night, arrived in the dark pretty lost and couldn't actually find the beach, even though we were actually there. The waves were roaring, it smelled like beach, we were feet from it, but we couldn't find it because of the total blackness of the night and the fog. So, that sensation of pure ocean roaring sense obliteration is the inspiration for the feeling on the record. Remembering it as a dream in 2012 (which is how it feels now to look back on) is just another layer of fog.
Seeing as how Clear Moon and Ocean Roar are companion pieces, did you have any bleed over concerning the tone and feel of each album? I read that you were looking at them as somewhat of a study in contrast, but was there ever any commonality between them?
Yes, totally, they are actually recorded together, intermingled. I divided them up about 2/3 of the way into the project and then fine tuned the differences, but they came from the same big lump period of raw experimentation. The song on Ocean Roar called I Walked Home Beholding sounds like it should be on Clear Moon, and probably Over Dark Water belongs on Ocean Roar, so they are a web. Also, Ocean Roar has the only photograph of a moon on it. Just a detail for nerds.
Tracks like Clear Moon and The Place I Live, beyond being some of the longer tracks on Clear Moon, seem to have a special affinity for existing in some of the more darkly emotional places found on the album. Was there a particularly affecting force behind these two songs, and the rest of the songs on Clear Moon for that matter?
You mean like an emotional mood or something I was going through? Not really. My feelings are not really part of these songs, to be blunt about it. They are about being an observer in a seemingly uncaring wild world, looking across a landscape from a ridge and seeing evidence that it is all shifting and "living" (like glacial tracks in the islands, fog walls in the channels, undulating islands and ridges, etc.). Maybe since I'm observing the world as an uncaring and disorienting place, and life as fleeting, it comes off as sad or moody, but I don't actually feel that way. It actually is a weird kind of comfort to acknowledge those ancient inevitable things. Mortality is fine. We are all alone forever, no big deal. I am not sad. There is still the moon and other magic.
As intense and complicated as some of these songs seem to be, do you give any special attention to how they’re performed live? That is, do you scale back any of the more abstract elements or do you go nuts and just throw everything at the audience? Also, when you play a stripped down set, how do you take these cathartic songs and make them as relatable with a more modest setup?
When playing live I usually focus on the songs with words, and the elements of the songs that are communicative, verbally. Being physically in the same room with people makes it feel weird to blast them with ten minutes of instrumental distortion. A live show is for communicating. Still, with the band we make it sound pretty big. A big bed for the words to ride on top of. Solo, it rests even heavier on the words and the communication.
To go back a bit, Mount Eerie was an album that you released as The Microphones. It was your last album under that moniker. I’ve read somewhere that you said you decided to end The Microphones because you felt that you hadn’t fully explored all that you wanted to with that album and so you decided to change names to better focus in on what Mount Eerie the band could be. After you ended your run as The Microphones, did you find that there was a difference in the way that you approached the music as Mount Eerie? Was the process the same in regards to studio time or how each song initially developed in your head?
It is different now, but it is always changing. It's complicated too because I move around, the studio changes, my life changes. There have been many different phases within those "Microphones" and "Mount Eerie" times. Pretty much every time I go in the studio I'm trying to take a fresh look at what music is, what I'm trying to do, why, how, etc. It's a lot of maybe unnecessary questioning, but I don't want to get too comfortable.
In the two years between the release of Mount Eerie and the release of No Flashlight: Songs of the Fulfilled Night did you find that you were still writing and recording as much as before or was there a bit of a respite as the personality of Mount Eerie as a band became apparent to you? Or was there even a period of adjustment at all in regards to Mount Eerie?
Like I say, all these things are determined more by what's going on in my life. So, yes that was a unique period, but not because of the band name. I was on tour for a year, homeless, lived in Norway for a winter, returned home, met the woman I married, moved away from Olympia, got a home in Anacortes, etc. It was all adjusting, constantly. The fact that it was now called Mount Eerie was just a minor detail (and still is).
For fans of The Microphones/Mount Eerie (myself included), any new material is a very good thing. But did you see any difference when you switched band names in how your audience reacted to the new material? Was it a fairly seamless transition from your point on stage?
In general I don't have a very good grasp on how people react to my stuff. It can be super disorienting to try and pay attention to that. I have always just focused on making my idea come out.
Was there a particular reason that you decided to make Clear Moon and Ocean Roar vinyl only releases? The music on Clear Moon does seem tailor-made to be heard through an analog medium but was this a consideration for you, as far as how you wanted the music to sound when played? Will we see a CD release for either album any time in the future?
It was more of a manufacturing decision. I may have jumped the gun on declaring CDs dead, but I made some CDs for Wind's Poem and they sold OK but then stopped and now I only sell vinyl of it and I'm stuck with tons of CDs. The format is on its way out, and I have no special love for them, but maybe I was a little early to skip the CD version. LP and download seem to be the more common ways people consume music these days. Who knows what the future holds?
I have one last question. Last year, the video of you singing Lil Wayne at karaoke in Olympia, WA made its way across most of the major indie news sites. I think most people were just so surprised at your choice of song, which all has to do with people’s perception of you I guess. But ever since I saw that video, I was curious as to why you picked that particular song. Are you a fan or was it just something you had always wanted to try at karaoke? Do you often go to karaoke or was that more of a one-time thing?
I love Lil Wayne. I listen to a lot of rap. It is kind of the funnest thing to try at karaoke because it's so hard. It only works if you really know all the words, and even then you can't miss a single syllable or else it's hard to get back on the tightrope of enunciation, but when you're in the zone and saying all the lines on cue it feels amazing. I don't go to a ton of karaoke. Just a few times. I usually do Jay-Z or Lil Wayne. I know a few songs. There were literally like four people in the bar in that video. So its' weird that it got known on the internet.2 August, 2012 - 16:52 — Joshua Pickard