Nature, Twin Peaks and black metal – Siobhán Kane talks to Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie who play The Button Factory on Monday 5th March with Earth.
Phil Elverum is one of those musicians who moves freely between musical genres and projects, from early incarnations as the Microphones, to later work as Mount Eerie, records such as Tests (1998), It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water (2000),“No Flashlight” Songs of the Fulfilled Night (2005), to collaborative record Lost Wisdom (2008) with Julie Doiron and Frederick Squire, and 2009’s Wind’s Poem which comprised so much, from the subtle impact of Twin Peaks, to the forceful, often destructive nature of wind.
Nature is something that runs through Elverum’s work like a throbbing vein. Emerging from Anacortes, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, and growing up by a forest and a lake, inspired themes of isolation and connection, and exile and homecoming, that often recur in his work. Perhaps that sense of being out on a limb also informs his rather innocent approach to often overwhelming-sounding projects, like 2007’s Mount Eerie pts. 6 & 7, which was an interesting book about Elverum’s photography, painstakingly curated and put together, along with a record.
Photography is another outlet for Elverum’s creativity and is showcased on his website Every Book in the House, which has been capturing his book collection for the last few years, and which expresses not only his eclectic taste, but his aesthetic, which is a mixture of simple pleasures, and complicated ideas. This partly explains his musical influences which range from folk through to grunge, and black metal through to ambient and post rock; and the more he continues, the wider his remit grows. Siobhán Kane talks to Phil Elverum, ahead of his show with Earth.
Were new records Clear Moon, and Ocean Roar [both to be released this year] always envisaged as companion records, and what do they comprise? Have they been a long time in the making? Krautrock and black metal seem to be influences, but also nature – another kind of music in itself.
I have been recording for the last year and a half with no real goal. Just trying weird things, exploring a new studio space, seeing what works. Last December I took a step back and looked at what I’d recorded and organised it into two complimentary groups of recordings – not really “songs” in all cases. I wanted to have two things that were linked to each other but also different angles on the same idea. The general feeling – sound and lyric-wise – on Clear Moon is “sharp clarity” and the feeling on Ocean Roar is “fog wall”. These are the two feelings I have in my mind as I live my life, walking around, thinking about stuff, trying to not waste my life. As far as influences, they are from all over. Yeah, Popol Vuh and black metal, but also Red House Painters, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine…so many soundtracks, Mulatu Astatke, Stereolab, Julee Cruise…
When you changed from the Microphones moniker was it a way to draw a line under that period of work? I think it is lovely that then you chose something natural within the area you grew up. Can you remember what contributed to the change?
The name “the Microphones” had become irrelevant to what my albums were about. At first it was relevant because my songs were about recording, but I was singing about dark mountains and stuff so I wanted to update the name. It is also a chronological distinction.
I really like your live recordings, is documenting that a very important part of your process, do you think?
No, I don’t make any attempt to document live recordings and I almost never listen to them. I prefer to let it dissolve away. With rare exceptions for two live releases.
So many of your projects are quite ambitious in scope, like Mount Eerie pts. 6 & 7 – have you always been attracted by things that seem like a mountain that you must conquer? What about when you were younger? Were you quite obsessive about things?
Sometimes I am drawn to attempt an inaccessible seeming project, but not always. I think it’s also important to do very simple things. The process of making the book was amazing. Now I know how to make a book! I love the transition from alien inaccessibility to familiarity.
I suppose I am also thinking about Dawn – and your time spent in a little cabin in the Arctic Circle. Was it quite an isolating thing? What led up to that adventure? I remember Ben Frost saying once that he does his best work “with one hand tied behind his back” – is that the same for you?
It was intentionally isolating, yes. I didn’t go there with any goal in mind, rather than to live alone for as long as possible. I only lasted five months, with occasional trips to town for supplies. I certainly didn’t go there to do any art or music work. I wanted to just live with as few complications as possible. To reset and then gradually add things as I re-entered the world. The adventures were basic. I did my water carrying and wood chopping chores and spaced out for hours, sitting in the snow looking at a branch or whatever. The best part of it all was the chance to slow down enough to notice the world on a different scale. It is very difficult to be that blank and slow and receptive in “real life”.
Lost Wisdom is a beautiful record, how did you and Julie Doiron meet, and how do you recall the musical collaboration? It seems like a real meeting of minds. I really liked her band Eric’s Trip.
Julie and I had known each other through years of me sending fan letters as a teenager and then meeting at her shows in my area, and then eventually me getting to open the shows. We toured together some and became friends. The recording of Lost Wisdom happened on a whim when she and Fred [Squire] were passing through Anacortes for a couple days.
How do you find running your record label [P. W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd]? Did you get to a point where you felt like not only more control, but view it as a way of nurturing other people?
I like it. It is not a proper record label though. I don’t have the time or energy to properly release other peoples’ music. I’ve tried a couple times putting out friends’ records and that kind of work is beyond full-time, and I don’t have it in me to do them justice. I wish I did. There are so many records I would like to put out. But I really like getting to make all the decisions and solve all the problems for my own records.
Something like Wind’s Poem recalls Nirvana, especially the unsettling anxiety that some of their work comprises – how influential has their work been to you, and do you think your relationship has changed with the band over the years?
I love Nirvana. They were the first band I heard that made it clear that regular people could do music. I grew up outside of a small town so I had no exposure to punk and other more urban underground things. It took Nirvana being on the cover of Rolling Stone to get through to me as a teen out in the woods. I got super deep into their music, but then quickly went deeper into more obscure more local stuff like K and Sub Pop and beyond. The influence was primarily cultural/social I think, not so much about the music exactly.
The subtlety of your work is also bound up in the obvious love of nature that the record suggests, nature is all around us, it seems so obvious, yet its inherent power is so subtle. How important is nature to you, and where is your favourite place to go that is full of nature?
I grew up out of town. I live in the same town now, but in town. The border between what is “nature” and what is “not-nature” is blurry. It is important to me to keep it blurry, to see the raw wild systems around us in the least natural feeling places. I use a lot of mountain and tree and weather imagery in my music/art because these are the most basic world building blocks we have. Everything else is built from these things. I want to create very simple powerful moments using elemental pieces. This doesn’t really answer your question, but my relationship to the word/idea “nature” is complicated.
When I read about where you grew up, I instantly thought of Twin Peaks, and believe that is one of your obsessions, as it is mine, and I sense it so much off Wind’s Poem.
When it was first on TV I remember watching it and then having to go sleep in my room in the dark half finished house we were building out in the woods, with a blowing tarp wall and dark swaying branches and owls and stuff, immediately after seeing Bob scenes. I was like twelve. It was very formative. Then later I rewatched it a bunch of times. I mostly referenced it on Wind’s Poem to create an audio shortcut for peoples’ imaginations so they could put themselves in an exaggerated version of the Pacific Northwest, which is the world I’m trying to evoke in my albums.
In terms of landscape, do you think that Anacortes has a kind of darkness to it, physically and otherwise? I don’t know too much about it, what is it like? Where do you like to go there?
In general, the Pacific Northwest is the colour dark blue-grey for half the year. The clouds are low and flat and it’s easy to feel half-asleep for months. Anacortes is actually in a special position, because of islands and the straight and ocean exposure, where we get more intense winds and breaks in the clouds and gnarly rain squalls and constant fluctuation. There is also the dark element of a feeling of a rich, relatively recent, Native American culture, and the faint echoes that are still around us. This feeling is stronger in different places, particularly the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island. There is also the darkness of environmental destruction in many places, clearcuts and stripmalls. It is a complicated and beautiful and important place. All this tumult is so recent, and it’s currently going on still.
One thing I love about your music is the fact that it is so eclectic, running the gamut of Noise – and it also sometimes feels that the volume of your composition is getting louder! What are your thoughts?
Am I getting louder? Maybe. Some songs in the last few years I’ve tried to make as intense and loud as possible.
Often you reflect on darker subjects, do you that it is more powerful to do so than write a hopeful song about love?
It is just what’s inspiring and honest feeling to me. I also feel love in my life but it’s not something I want to open my mouth about. There is more depth to explore in the things that don’t often get addressed.
Yet, I sense that you actually are quite romantic, there is a lack of real cynicism in your work.
I usually feel like I must come off as so cynical. I was noticing some recent lyrics of mine that said “drifting in a changing world alone, reaching for a solid thing in vain“… and it sounded so cynical and depressing to me, which is not how I feel. I honestly feel like that’s the reality of existence – we are alone, nothing is solid, everything will be destroyed – and it’s not depressing. Perhaps it comes from my over-confidence, the fact that I can say things like that and feel like I’m not advocating suicide. I take for granted that it’s okay to go through life with guaranteed meaninglessness and emptiness. I wasn’t always this way. I used to be way more romantic, but maybe this is just a new kind of romance.
You have played in other bands, and worked as a producer, what are some of the highlights of those experiences?
I love recording with friends where we can try crazy things on their songs. Mirah’s song “Cold Cold Water” was a highlight. Playing in D+, which is the hyper casual band with my friends Karl and Bret here in Anacortes, that’s a dream when it happens.
I like Every Book in the House [Elverum’s website that details his book collection] – how did that idea come about? Is it slightly connected with the idea that so many people view culture as almost disposable now? Books and records in particular are things that are not only things I view as necessary, but pleasing to the eye, having a home full of those things seems as necessary as breathing.
It’s just vanity! I’m proud of my book collection, and also I love snooping in other peoples’ shelves so I thought maybe other people would find my shelves interesting.
Impermanence seems like a running theme of your work, would you say you have learned to live with impermanence?
Yes, I always come back to talking about impermanence. I kind of think it’s the most important message to put into the world. It seems worth saying over and over: “You are not solid. Everything is being destroyed and made right now.” Would we have so much idiocy if people were thinking about the origins and fates of all their molecules?
I believe that War and Peace is a really important book to you, and you own several copies, what is its significance to you?
For a while I thought I’d get into reading many different translations just to get a more detailed angle on what the original Russian version must feel like, but so far I have only read two. It is a great book. I read it in a solid ten day blast during that winter in Norway and it cracked me open.
Do you spend a lot of time alone, and do you find it a balm?
I guess? I don’t spend as much time alone as some people but since I live in a small town with few friends who are always working on their own thing I end up mostly working and thinking alone. I don’t know if it’s a balm, it’s just normal.
You have a really interesting relationship to America. Things seem so splintered now, but how would you describe your relationship to the place and also the idea of what it is to be American?
I used to hate it, flat out, during Bush times especially. Then I got into the idea of “American” in the older wilder Walt Whitman [strangely, Elverum’s middle name is Whitman] style. Now mostly it just seems so stupid to me. Why would this massive complicated continent be considered one place? It is so many different small places. I do not feel a kinship, geographically, with people in Florida or even Idaho. I think even states are too big. The border is a fictional idea that has nothing to do with the way a place actually works. The idea of what is “American” is also a fairytale cliche. I wish things were more splintered. I want places to feel more distinct from each other, not one big country where everyone shops from the same websites. I am happy to celebrate a kind of patriotism for the place I live, but it is a much smaller and more distinct place than “America”.
I am not sure how you get everything done, amidst your music, writing, photography, label, and then your comic books – Fancy People Adventures – Jeffrey Lewis said that he learned how to read and see the world through comic books, how about you?
I always read funny comics in the papers, not comic books so much until I found weird underground stuff later. Also, I don’t get everything done. There are so many projects that get left behind or unfinished. I often feel like I’m slacking, and honestly I often am. Maybe it seems like I’m prolific because I allow more sloppiness than I maybe should.
It made so much sense for you to be invited by Jeff Mangum to perform at ATP, would he and Neutral Milk Hotel’s work have been something you have admired over the years?
I got really into In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, of course. I didn’t go as deep as some people though. It was nice to get invited!
Mount Eerie play the Button Factory on Monday March 5th with Earth.