By Lars Gotrich
“The stuff that used to ring true still does in a way and also doesn’t anymore,” says Phil Elverum. “The big, huge question I tried to think about with this giant song was mainly how to encompass these contradictions.”
Katy Hancock/Courtesy of the artist
Katy Hancock/Courtesy of the artist
Phil Elverum has built and battled entire universes. From 1996-2003, his band, The Microphones, was mostly just him alone in a studio, as friends from Olympia sang and banged on instruments as needed. With a bull-headed bravado that comes from a dreamer’s naïveté, chests swelled to the size of the moon, the dead flew off as vultures and the dawn promised something new every morning. Around the turn of the millennium, the music responded in kind as disorientingly layered acoustic guitar ushered in thunderously distorted bass, moaning sound collage, ragtag choirs and a furious cacophony of drums. This was Big Music for Big Ideas, even and especially regarding our (in)significance in the world, but could just as easily nurse a broken heart.
“I took my shirt off in the yard,” he once yowled, baring his emotions clear. “No one saw that the skin on my shoulders was golden.” The title track from The Glow Pt. 2 — an indie-rock album from 2001 that appeared on several year-end lists and decade retrospectives — bombastically called attention to youthful vulnerability, daring death to a duel, loudly sounding the barbaric yawp so many bright-eyed poetry teachers blithely encourage. “Innocent in a naive, idiotic way,” Elverum would put it years later, laughing.
When I called Phil Elverum to talk about his first album as The Microphones in 17 years — the absurdly titled Microphones in 2020, a single 45-minute track — he was building a house. That’s not a metaphor, but might as well be. On an island off Anacortes — the coastal Washington state town where he was born and has lived most of his life — he’s about to paint some pine tar on the exterior siding. “We’ve been working on it all week,” he says, mentioning the help of his brother. “Very sore and I’m very dirty.”
He drew up the plans himself and gave them to an architect to make it buildable. “It’s pretty small, but there’s probably going to be room for a music corner in my bedroom,” he says. “And maybe if I ever have any money left over, someday I’ll build a little outbuilding for music to keep the drums at least.”
Like every other parent thrust into both work and childcare during this pandemic, his daughter Agathe finished up preschool via Zoom, which, understandably, she wasn’t really into. In the summer break, the house is a welcome project as Agathe tries outdoor, socially-distanced day camp activities, as much as you can with a 5 year old.
“I’m pretty happy to get to live here,” Elverum adds, his smile somehow audible.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the house he was going to build with Geneviève Castrée, the brilliant musician and illustrator, and the mother to Agathe, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. Elverum wrote two beautiful, harrowing and sometimes darkly funny albums about her death — A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only — as Mount Eerie, the moniker he adopted in 2003. Last year’s Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, a return to his sparse collaboration with Eric’s Trip singer and guitarist Julie Doiron, not only recounted his brief marriage to actor Michelle Williams but also began a process of looking back on Elverum’s younger self.
Why is there a new Microphones album in 2020? The names don’t matter, says Elverum. “What was The Microphones?” is the better question and the one Elverum maps his newfound songwriting cadence upon, as run-on sentences excavate and challenge familiar lyrical references and sonic gestures. He comes back to The Microphones not as some nostalgist but a time traveler attempting to make sense of the “disinterested sun” that still rises and sets everyday, unaware of its participants.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lars Gotrich: The record begins with two chords on an acoustic guitar, double-tracked and slightly out of phase. It’s a technique you developed early on as The Microphones. I’d love to hear the story of this guitar and how you first found this sound.
Phil Elverum: Great question! Nobody’s ever asked that and it’s pretty central to my whole thing, I guess. When I was a teenager, I worked at a record store called The Business. It was more than a record store — books and cameras and just junk. And so Brett [Lunsford], the owner, would bring things in from garage sales and put a price tag on it and hang it on the wall. One day he came in and he’s like, “I just got this for five dollars,” and hung [this guitar] on the wall and I just took it. Kind of no-name, small acoustic guitar that felt exactly right for me. It sounds exactly right. So sometimes I say, “Oh, it’s only five dollars.” But actually I don’t think I even paid him those five dollars. I think I stole it. [Laughs.] But I’ve written every song I’ve ever written on that guitar pretty much, and recorded all of the acoustic guitar that’s on any of my records. So that’s special.
In terms of that technique of using two tracks to make a rhythm: in the year 2000, this record called It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water starts in a similar way with a rhythmic foundation. I think back then I was trying to emulate this thing that happens on the Red House Painters album Songs for a Blue Guitar. It starts with a beautifully recorded chord on acoustic guitar for a while before the singing starts. And I really liked how it goes on for long enough that it ushers you into a new place. You forget the world you were in before you started listening to the album. It’s like the waiting room before the album starts.
Why is it important that we sit with that sound for the first seven minutes of this album? No voice, no other instrument — just the guitar.
I didn’t decide, like, “Okay, it’s going to go for seven minutes.” I just did it. I played it until it felt right. I wanted to push up against the edges, similar to extreme drone music, the way that it wears down at your sense of time and reality and makes you forget yourself or maybe similar to the way that meditation works. It’s not pushing beyond discomfort because it’s not uncomfortable. It’s a beautiful zone to hang out in, I think.
And I also wanted to use that seven-minute space to account for the 20 years that have passed or whatever. 17 years? How many years have passed since the last Microphones album? 17, I think.
Everything fundamental about you as a person and you as a songwriter had changed in such open and open-ended ways. Your songwriting style has changed significantly: You now favor long phrases that would never scan and there’s little in the way of traditional verse-chorus-verse format. I’m listening to this record and wondering how old forms meet new modes. What did the songwriting process look like?
I always write my songs in a notebook on paper with pencil and scribble it out and erase it and move things around. But this one, it’s so long; it was very papery because I was taping pieces of paper together to make a scroll long enough to hold the whole thing. For a while, it was different pages, but I was spending so much time rifling through my different sheets and losing track of what section I was in that I just made a big, long scroll. It’s about nine feet long or something, and it comes with the record — there’s a poster in there that’s a scan of it.
And actually, that long scroll is sort of the last step of the writing process. At first, I just walk around with it in my head and mumble to myself. And get ideas for different vignettes and scenes and almost write in a non-poetic way. I just write an account of what I remember and then from there, hone it down into something.
So, for example, in the passage where I’m talking about watching the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, believe it or not, it started off as a much deeper, much longer account of me watching that movie. It may seem like, “Wait, you’re telling me that you only included the necessary parts?” [Laughs.] But it’s true. I tried and tried to get it down to only the necessary parts.
I was just trying to find moments that exemplified a certain thing about whoever I was during those years and whatever The Microphones, as a project in time and space, meant. I had lots of little narrative moments that didn’t make it into the song. But that one, I felt like exemplified this one certain thing beyond just a cool movie that I liked. It was a pivotal point for me because it shifted the thing I was trying to say in my music. It shifted it away from romantic sorrow and towards something more ephemeral and universal and deeper, I guess. Something more transcendent.
You spend a lot of time laying bare the intent of The Microphones and, to a certain extent, Mount Eerie, but this line stuck out to me: “I decided I would try to make music that contained this deeper peace / buried underneath distorted bass, fog imbued with light and emptiness.” I’ve never heard a more succinct read on your music. Were you always so aware of what you wanted this music to convey, or has that come with time?
No, I haven’t been aware. I feel like, in the past, when I’ve been asked, “What are your hopes for this music? What do you want people to hear out of it?” I always kind of avoid answering that question and actually I still kind of avoid it. I’m not talking about my hopes for other people. I want to make “fog imbued with light and emptiness” for myself because I feel like that’s what I want to hear and that’s what I feel compelled to make. Maybe I was able to phrase that succinctly because I gave myself the assignment: I was like, OK, I’m going to make a new Microphones album. What is that? What does that mean? What was The Microphones and what were my goals then and what are my goals now in terms of this weird pursuit of creativity? How can I say it directly?
You reference your own work quite a bit — not as a backwards-looking wink but as a set of thematic motifs.
That’s an important distinction. On this album, maybe I strayed across the line, but it’s tempting to do self-referential stuff because it feels good and it gives people clues to follow — that’s the embarrassing kind of nostalgia. But I do those things because I want to make a body of work that is woven together because it is — that’s what the world is like, that’s what my life is like.
There are several lyrics I could choose from, but, for instance, when you would sing about the moon, you provided both an earthly sense of place (being under the moon, often with someone or some idea) but also illustrated a cosmic power to behold. Here, you revisit and often question many of those motifs, but also build on a new one about life’s uncertainty: “the true state of all things.” Meaning is constantly changing, even and especially in the “giant meaningless” as you describe it. Do those old themes still ring true in any way? Or has the meaning evolved?
It’s all evolving, always. Even when I was 21 or whatever, I thought that also; I knew that impermanence was the main thing: whatever I believe now I will not believe tomorrow, perhaps. The stuff that used to ring true still does in a way and also doesn’t anymore. And also the person I was 20 years ago is still in me and so on. The big, huge question I tried to think about with this giant song was mainly how to encompass these contradictions.
Do you know The Watchmen?
Yeah, I read the first few pages.
Okay, so there’s a character in The Watchmen called Dr. Manhattan; he’s that big blue guy. He is able to exist in several realities at once; he can be in the past and he can be in the present. He’s kind of a tragic character because he has this omniscient knowledge. He is seemingly distant but also emotionally traumatized by these conversations that he can hold in the past and present with a person whom he loves. And as this record moves back and forth through time, I was wondering how memory works for you or maybe how it’s changed?
It’s changed in a weird way in the past few years. With death and life upheaval and heartbreak, memory takes on some other weird powers that it maybe didn’t have when you’re younger and haven’t experienced huge things like that. I’m drawn to revisiting memories and trying to learn from them, but I’m also drawn to just get rid of them.
Maybe this song and, to a larger extent, the type of stuff I’ve been doing during quarantine (like sorting through the boxes in my parents’ attic and getting rid of all my archives), it’s to unburden myself from the weight of all this memory, even though I also think it has so much value. I’m trying to strike the right balance, I guess, between knowing about the past and being liberated from it, which I think actually is socially and politically potent at this moment, with people tearing down monuments and this global catharsis that’s going on; remains to be seen which direction it will tip. But yeah, it has a lot to do with being able to responsibly look at the past and digest it and then step beyond it.
Nature has always been a character in your music. How has that character changed over time?
One thing that has changed is my relationship with that word or that concept. There was a time in early Mount Eerie albums where I was really trying to talk a lot about, you know, it’s all nature / there is no nature. The distinction between wild and not wild is an illusion, da da da da da. I sort of let that one go just because whatever; it’s just a word.
The thing that’s drawn me towards non-human places, I’ll say, is the neutrality or the seeming neutrality of it — the eternity of it, the welcoming blankness of an original state of things or, you know, feels more like an original state of things than a Cracker Barrel parking lot.
You quote “Freezing Moon” by Mayhem here: “the cemetery lights up again” and “eternity opens.” There’s so much to unpack not only in those phrases, but in the history of that band. The song itself is grisly and gory, but in the back of your mind, you have to remember that the band’s guitarist, Euronymous, was murdered.
Yeah, it’s a weird thing to reference, to invoke Mayhem, but those lines are just so powerful. Aside from everything else.
Do you seek out the poetry in metal?
No, no. And, in fact, it’s sort of a joke in my song because I say I heard the song “Freezing Moon” by Mayhem and these words jumped out. But you can’t make out the words. I only know of those words because I heard Wyrd Visions’ acoustic cover of “Freezing Moon.” What I like about metal is the cathartic, transcendent experience of listening to extreme music; I still listen to it a lot.
Phil Elverum in 1999.
Jimi Sharp/Courtesy of the artist
Jimi Sharp/Courtesy of the artist
I think there are moments of levity in all of your music, even when it’s not immediately apparent. You indulge in old stories here, like touring with Will Oldham’s band Bonnie “Prince” Billy in Italy and their matching tracksuits.
It was funny to see, like, in person. I should say, for the record, that I asked Will [Oldham] about that. It’s possible that my memory is flavoring things. It’s possible that that’s not 100 percent true, that they were wearing matching tracksuits and sunglasses. But it is true that he has his band wear a tour costume. And a lot of them were wearing tracksuits, like, very Italian guy looking. I may have a skewed history a little bit.
The Bonnie “Prince” Billy story, pouring over the details of a 7-inch artwork, eye-opening experiences with music and recording — these give me pictures of a young Phil Elverum. I felt and still feel very protective of him.
What do you mean?
This in no way measures your experience with grief, but I remember my own seismic shift of worldview in my mid-20s. So when I was thinking about those pictures of the young dreamer, I was like, “I know what’s coming and I don’t know how to protect this person I don’t even know.” It’s like a Greek tragedy; the audience knows what’s coming.
I put a line about that in the song, too — “Innocent of the real air of death that awaited down the path” — in talking about the album Mount Eerie where I’m singing some mythological idea about dying, about death, like a cartoon character of death. Innocent in a naive, idiotic way. [Laughs.]
That’s what I was trying to show or understand with writing this song, writing this large autobiographical study. What did I learn from it? What has stayed with me? Surely something has. All of it has been informative and necessary. Lots has been forgotten, some remembered. But it all sort of stews up into the present moment, which, of course, I’m still stewing up for a future-present moment. But I definitely did learn stuff from playing around with a mythological version of death.
I don’t think it’s unrelated that, when Geneviève [Castrée] died, and I wrote songs about it, that I was able to engage with the reality of it and not just be completely muted by my grief. I don’t know. I feel like my prior engagement with big concepts maybe helped me get a little bit of a head start. It was part of my vocabulary already or something.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the early Microphones records, not only because of this record but especially listening to the recent Mirah reissue, You Think It’s Like This... But Really It’s Like This. There was a moment in The Microphones, when it had morphed into a collective, where it felt like anyone in your Olympia orbit could sing a Microphones song, or could borrow a Microphones melody, and vice versa. There was such a camaraderie in the music you made with Karl Blau, Khaela Maricich, Mirah and so many others. Like much of your recent work, this record is all you, but does that kind of musical community make sense for the music you make now or want to make in the future?
The way that the music was made for me, my project, it has always been this deeply solitary experience. There was a period there for five years when I lived in Olympia in my early 20s, where life was definitely more communal. Like, we all collaborated on just everything all the time. But in terms of actually writing and recording my songs, even back then it was me alone in the studio at night and then I would get people to sing on it. There are a few exceptions where, you know, you can tell just like they pressed “record” and it’s a group of people playing it live in one take. That song “I Can’t Believe You Actually Died” is that way.
I think maybe I cultivated that ambiguity around it, the mystery of like who’s even making this: Is it a group? Is it a person? I’ve never really liked centering myself or my image of me, which, as I say that now seems disingenuous because of how self-analytical it all is. But yeah, I don’t want to put my face on the cover and I enjoyed putting my name in small print in the liner notes.
Certainly there were shows where I would play my entire set that were just songs by my friend Adrian [Orange]. Or Kyle Field and I would suggest songs for each other or send each other words as assignments to sing or give each other each other’s notebook. So there was a lot of that. But in terms of The Microphones albums, that’s always sort of been its own little island with friends appearing sometimes, but not in a deeply collaborative way. I hope I’m not remembering it incorrectly and not giving people credit. But The Microphones albums were always my refuge.
Like we’ve said, memory’s weird.
Tell me about it.