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11 March 2008

An Interview with Phil Elverum (aka The Microphones aka Mt. Eerie)

Thursday March 6th to Saturday March 8th, cult singer-songwriter Phil Elverum is playing a handful of California shows. We’ve used this as an opportunity to talk to him about hardcore punk, nature worship, and where he wants to die. Here is the unexpurgated Q&A.

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Where are you?.
I’m in a town called Marfa, Texas, a weird art town in deep west Texas.

There’s a compound dedicated to the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd there, right?
Yes. I have some friends who have been living here for the last two months. I came down to drive back with a few of them. It seemed like a cool road trip. I thought about setting up a show decided against it. I wanted to just come here for fun.

Are you pretty nomadic? I went to Iceland a few summers ago and remember seeing a photocopied flyer advertising a show of yours in some odd, out-of-the way place. And I know you have some complicated relationship with Norway. Do you make a point of not touring in traditional venues?
There are normal tours. But I guess I tend to go to places I want to go to, rather than going where the money is.

Is there an ethic behind that?
I am drawn to cold, desolate places rather than Hawaii. I actually love Hawaii too, but I tend to go to Iceland or Norway or Northern Japan — northern places for whatever reason. Which aren’t necessarily the best places to tour.

Is there something special about playing places like that — the more remote the better?
The more remote the place the more special it is because the audience is glad you came, they’re glad for the attention.

Do you have a special connection to these places – a personal history?
It could just be called a fixation. I mean, yeah, my last name is Norwegian, and I’ve kind of been interested in my idea of that culture. But it’s more like…it kind of felt like these were the cool kids who were exotic and far away, and I felt like the unpopular kid going to sit with the popular kids. But now we’re friends.

Is there a direct family connection?
I think it was 100 years ago – so far enough back that I never knew anyone that came from there. [Elverum pauses, and returns with a digression-ed.]

After the jump, it starts snowing in the Texas sun.

It’s so weird here right now. It’s snowing but the sky is blue and it’s not really that cold. I don’t know where the flakes are coming from. I’m sitting here by the firepit and there’s sun shining on me and snow falling on me. Yeah, Marfa, Texas.

I didn’t know it snowed anywhere in Texas.
I’m wearing a t-shirt and it’s snowing.

Your songs seem to linger in weird climates like that. There are lots of images of mountains and empty places. I’m curious about what came first for you – your obsession these sorts of landscapes, or your visit to Norway? Was your obsession an outgrowth of your visit there? Or was your visit to those kinds of places what created the obsession?
My fixation preceeded my visit to Norway. The fjords are their national identity. It’s in their paintings and the way they talk about themselves. They’re like, “We’re tough nature lovers and our landscape is so violent and intense and we’re just out there catching fish in the fjord.” It’s not true, of course. Like any national romantic identity it’s not accurate, but I was drawn to that. Because it was my same kind of self-mythology. I used those same exaggerations.

What is the state of your personal identity insofar as you want to talk about it? You are Phil Elverum, but you used to perform as The Microphones, and more recently you began using the name Mt. Eerie.
I just play under the name Mt. Eerie. I started doing that in 2003 and I’ve pretty much been doing that since then. I put out a single last year under the Microphones name but I did that just to confuse people and be weird. But Mt. Eerie is the portal for my work, whatever form it takes.

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That raises a question. Recently you’ve released a book of art photography, and your site is currently advertising “Water Activated Alpine-Themed Packing Tape.” How did the multiple product lines evolve?
I think I’m trying to one-up my megalomania [pauses] — or however you pronounce that. [laughs]. But yeah, the next project I do will probably be a bit more straightforward. That coffee table book had been something I’d wanted to do for a long time because I had these pictures and I just had enough money saved up that I could publish it. Also it has a lot to do with…

These days CDs are so undesirable. They’re not special anymore. They’re basically like producing trash, so I think a lot of people are trying to find new ways to releasing music — be it only putting out mp3s or only putting out limited edition vinyl. It’s a weird time for music. My friend who is visiting here is talking about putting his new record out as a series of six picture disc 7″s. Who knows what’s coming next? But I can’t bring myself to mass-produce CDs in a jewel case. It’s just like garbage.

After the jump, a link to a free Mt. Eerie EP, and other ways Phil Elverum will appeal to audiences young and old.

But do you have any positive feelings about how music has, in a sense, been freed from physical products? You initially released an EP called Seven New Songs of Mount Eerie as a limited edition CD-R during a tour of Australian. Now you’ve made it available for free on the internet. The website where people can grab it says:

Somehow people in North America found out about [the EP] and thought they really wanted it because of the low quantity. Now it is available forever for free. No more romance!

The site indicates it’s been downloaded over 36,000 times. There’s something cool about that, huh?
I hate the idea of being exclusive. I’m not drawn to putting out vinyl or strange formats because it is limited or exclusive or because it’s coveted more. I want to manufacture as many copies as I think I’ll be able to sell. I think I’m obsessed with accessibility which is why, when I’m touring, I want to play all ages shows. I’m really nervous about coming off as exclusive or elitist. At the same time, I recognize that when I put out vinyl or an expensive coffee table book not everyone can afford it or listen to it.

I’ve never been to one of your shows, but your comments about accessibility resonates with what someone told me about your audiences. They said you have very young fans who seem to stay young. Can you explain that?
It is something I’ve noticed – that my audiences are young. My only thought has been because I play all-ages shows. Even so, they’re pretty young, and sometimes I’m nervous the content of my songs — these weird, ambiguous, philosophical ideas I’m trying to articulate. Are the kids getting it? Is it going over their heads?

Is the youth of your audiences something that maintains across the board – even when you’re playing Iceland or Northern Japan?
Well, I guess it’s different everywhere, so no it’s not the same across the board. I’m thinking of places like the country in Europe — where the people coming to the show aren’t necessarily coming because they like my music, but because it’s something to do in their town where nothing happens. [Elverum is talking about “the country” in the sense of rural, out-of-the-way communities.-ed.] But when it is people that are going out of their way to se me they tend to be younger.

I am trying to get old people interested in my music.

That’s a joke but actually I’ve been thinking and worrying – oh, I’m putting out these obscure things in weird formats, and my audience is getting more niche. It’s getting more specialized, and playing to this attitude of completist collectors. That’s becoming my audience, and it’s maybe alienating the less intense, normal people — including my friends. So, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I want to do whatever I can to be more accessible. I don’t want to come off seeming… If you like my stuff you’re going to have to go very deep.

Are you still working with a record label? Your most well-known album, The Glow Pt. II, came out on the well-known Olympia, Washignton cult imprint, K Records.
No I’m putting out my own records these days. I’m working mostly on my own stuff. Occasionally I might do a single with somebody else.

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I’d like you to talk more about the philosophy embedded in your music and lyrics?
It’s not necessarily about anything. Some of these things are not sayable at all. But these five words, if I say them all together, they give you some feeling that is so weird and beautiful to me…

So, I go through… I do notice I go through themes where I’m thinking about the same thing over and over, and going through it at many different angles and trying to articulate this thing that I just go around and around, zeroing in on it, and that’s where I’m not…

I’m working on a bunch of songs where I keep using the wind. They’re all about the wind somehow, and thinking about symbolism.

Do these nature themes only get stronger in your work as time goes by?
Actually I tried to get away from it but I can’t. For awhile the only thing people were talking to me about my music, that’s all they ever said: “You must be a nature lover. Are you camping all the time?”

I like camping, but I was like “No that’s not the point,” and I have made efforts to talk about the real world. But that’s… For whatever reason, that’s the language that is most powerful to me, these tales that take place in…in place without humans…

Do you have musical influences? Literary influences? Or do you feel that your music comes from someplace else?
I don’t really see myself in a lineage which is fine with me. Sometimes I do try to explicitly copy an exact song, an arrangement, a sound — and I fail. And so you can’t even tell I was trying to do that thing. It makes sense in my own head but I’m incapable of copying. I listen to all kinds of music and sometimes I try to do something that’s referential to an era or a genre, but it still sounds like me. That’s what my weird thing is.

It is a bit weird. You have billed your new EP Black Wooden Ceiling Opening as being Mt. Eerie’s take on hardcore punk.
Again, I think if someone who actually listened to hardcore heard this, they’d say this isn’t hardcore at all, but it is my attempt. I had a band for this short tour. It’s mostly this drummer, Kjetil Jenssen, this Norwegian kid that I met there, and he can play that kind of music really well. And then combined with me and my songs which have melodies and actual lyrics the music turned out to be… Maybe it’s just hard rock? They’re inspired by hardcore and the most intense music I can find.

Does that make “Don’t Smoke” your equivalent to Minor Threat’s famous anti-smoking, anti-drinking song “Straight Edge”?
Kind of. I don’t know. I was writing all these very preachy songs during this phase and trying to be more overtly political in a more direct way — political in that I’m telling people around me what to do. I’m not in that zone anymore and I’m a bit embarrassed playing those songs. I’m actually uncomfortable doing them. They’re preachy. So, in a way it is my version of being straight edge.

We haven’t spoken yet about Jeffrey Lewis’s new project, 12 Crass Songs, which is all covers of the British punk band, or Dirty Projectors’ Rise Above, an album that reinterprets Black Flag’s Damaged. I’ve been wondering why hardcore punk has become such a powerful meme in indie culture recently. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I remember seven years ago when Bush took power my first thought was “Oh that’s fucking awful but at least we’ll have a punk renaissance and that’ll be the upside to it.” I took this for granted because that’s how it happened in the Reagan era. But then it never happened. The music has been kind of neutral. I don’t follow that much music so maybe I shouldn’t even be talking about this.

Maybe we’re seeing a weird delayed reaction?
Yeah! Also I think it’s just that that music is old enough that it’s reached a valid age for nostalgia, it’s old enough for it to come back into style. For me, personally, a lot of it has to do with the fact that I got married to this person and that’s her music. Crass is her favorite band. She grew up listening to Crass and Subhumans and Minor Threat. My exposure to independent music was via Nirvana and grunge so I’d never gotten into punk. I don’t really like that music of Crass, but I love the band, and I love their way, and their presentation. Like [the Mt. Eerie album] No Flashlight, the cover is totally inspired by Crass and Crass’s LP packaging. What I was drawn too was how their heart was in the right place, that they were doing it for a reason beyond popularity and money.

You talk about grunge being a formative influence. I’m trying place you generationally.
I’m 29 and my first CD came out in 1997. I was usually the youngest person around when I started going at it. I moved to Olympia in ‘97 and I went on my first tour in ‘97 with and I realized, “Wow I can do this with my life holy shit why would I every do anything else.” Nirvana was happening when I was 14, kind of the perfect age. Growing up in Anacortes, Washington, it was close enough to Seattle that it seemed like a local thing. These people that worked with my dad doing landscaping were in a grunge band so the music on the cover of Rolling Stone was in a very real way connected to people practicing in the woods near my house while I was home doing my homework. From there it was just further and further specialization — tracking down weirder and weirder bands until I became aware of this local music scene. And then it became known to me: I can make tapes.

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In Anacortes, the one record store was run by this guy Bret [Lunsford] who was in the early K Records band Beat Happening with Calvin Johnson, so he had the store stocked with a lot of weird music of bands from Olympia that no one ever bought. But when me and my friends discovered this place we saw these 7” records and weird compilation cassettes and were like “Oh wow, what is this? What’s going on here?” And that was our entry point to alternative music. And we were able to get specialized through that route. And yeah…

Is that record store still open?
Yeah and it’s still there and it’s still the coolest place in Anacortes.

Where do you live now?
I live in Anacortes.

How far is it exactly from Seattle?
Halfway between Seattle and Vancouver — an hour and a half north of Seattle, two and a half or three hours from Olympia.

You did end up living in Olympia for awhile. What was that like?
That was my punk rock experience. The version of punk that happened in Olympia was very different then the version happening in England or in Washington, DC. The thing about K Records is you don’t have to be a badass dude with a fat neck. It’s whatever weird thing you want to do, that’s punk. And that was my introduction to that stuff. So it never occurred to me that whatever I was doing was a certain thing or not.

Does that very specific thing you do work as well when you need to play and collaborate with other musicians?
part of the reason I don’t have a steady band is that I live in Anacortes which is mostly elderly people and part of it is that I’m pretty specific. I have a hard time working with other people with my own songs because I have a pretty complete idea of how it should be. It’s usually just me multi-tracking which is better than coercing someone into doing my idea. But I have been in bands. When it’s not my songs I’m capable of playing other people’s music. And I’d like to find other way of performing live, but I don’t live in a place where there are people that can help me with that.

Have you been tempted to live somewhere else?
I’m probably going to live somewhere else to move soon. It’s challenging to live in Anacortes. I lived in Olympia for five years, went on tour for a year, ended up in Norway for a winter, and ended up back in Anacortes. But I have a long life ahead of me. I’ll probably live in many different places, and then die in Anacortes.

Hmmm, that’s interesting to me because I was going to say that all your songs are about being alone, and the other half of them are about being with other people. Does that ring true?
That sounds about right. I’m kind of wishy-washy.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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