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How To Be A Mountain Within A Brutal American Culture: An Interview With Phil Elverum

02/06/2015 08:24 am ET | Updated Feb 06, 2015

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Like many of his fans, my obsession with Phil Elverum certainly borders on being far too fanboy-ish, especially considering the low-key nature of his songs and the relatively small level of fame that has come from his two musical projects, the currently ongoing Mount Eerie and the earlier work as The Microphones. In high school, "I'm a Pearl Diver" from the "Song Islands" compilation of rarities would soundtrack my drives to track practice in a Northern Virginia suburb. In college, I'd run concerts for the radio station and just about every year send Elverum an email in the hopes he might leave his home in Anacortes, Washington, and travel all the way across the country to Colonial Williamsburg. At one point, I tried to organize various bands nationwide to release a covers album of Microphones songs and, although it was cringe-worthy going back to our email exchange -- due to my over-enthusiasm -- it was obviously cool to remember Elverum had been so nice, saying that he was "flattered."

In 2001, a little more than a week after Sept. 11, Elverum released "The Glow Pt. 2" as The Microphones, his most iconic work. At the time, although the site was still in its fledgling early days, Pitchfork named "Glow" the best album of the year, beating out Radiohead's "Amnesiac," The White Stripes' "White Blood Cells," and even The Strokes' "Is This It." Pitchfork's founder Ryan Schreiber wrote the list blurb, concluding, "The Glow, Pt. 2 is to big-budget rock epics what camcorded home movies are to sci-fi Hollywood blockbusters: infinitely more affecting and sincerely moving." Although comparing Elverum to "The Blair Witch Project," which came out just a couple years before this in 1999, may seem a bit strange out of the context of the early 00s, the claim that Elverum is a sort of anti-blockbuster artist that still goes after creating pop songs makes sense.

Despite pursuing a rather unique version of noise experimentation, the cores of the songs are still straightforwardly affecting. Inevitably, when an artist finds a way to be great and epic in a lo-fi manner, that means fans feel as if they can get far closer and know the artist far better than it'd ever feel with Radiohead or The White Stripes or The Strokes. For this reason, admirers will do things like recreate one of Elverum's recent Mount Eerie records on Twitter, a phenomenon he jokingly called out, and then further brought attention towards as it kept going on:

His humor lends to Elverum's appeal, despite the weight of his songs. His playful nature reveals itself in a Twitter personality or when he sings Lil Wayne at karaoke or in the names of his record label -- P.W. Elverum & Sun -- rather than overtly in his music. But, occasionally, the distinction blurs: adding a lot of Os to a song title -- "The Mooooooon," because there's a lot of ooohing in it -- or writing one called "Get Off the Internet."

"I do like being playful with the form and definitely don't want to treat music as this sacred, serious thing because it's play essentially," Elverum said during an interview to promote "Sauna," his latest Mount Eerie Album. "That's what art is, it's play. That can also touch on serious and profound things."

This is probably where I should reiterate that I highly anticipated conducting the interview. Over the years, Elverum has worked to create sort of a myth around himself -- the quiet songwriter who lives on a remote West Coast island in Washington, beneath looming Mount Erie. He changed his name from Elvrum to Elverum, while also switching up band names at The Microphones height. The "real" artist. So it was kind of surprising, but certainly interesting to find out Elverum is kind of over that and wants to take back some of the myths he'd built in previous interviews.

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In a 2009 interview with The Believer, Elverum talked about his shift to Mount Eerie:

So I called it “Mount Eerie” to marry myself to this place because it is the center of my universe. I guess I had this idea that everyone must have some similar landmark that could be the center of their universe. Some places have a mountain that’s always on the horizon. Maybe for some people it’s a grain silo. Maybe a tree. Maybe a flat field. Maybe an apartment building. The iconic mascot of a place that is “home.” And then, of course, I was having success with the name “the Microphones” and I thought it would be snotty and challenging to change it right at an inopportune time. Kind of like, “Fuck all the laws. I don’t need you. I’m eccentric!”

This occurred later in Elverum's career, and the myth-making was more openly self-aware. But, while talking with him, it was clear he's sort of moved on from thinking about the myth. When discussing whether he still sees a division between Phil Elvrum, his legal-name, and Phil Elverum, he explained, "I don't know, I think I just sort of gave up on trying to curate how those things were compartmentalized and decided that I can leave it up to people to understand the divisions themselves." He continued, "And the truth is, I am a complicated person. I do have all these aspects to me. And so it's just sort of disingenuous to try and curate it too much, because of course I'm not only this one thing and I should give people the benefit of the doubt and hopefully they can sort through it all."

Going back to that Mount Erie, Elverum explained it didn't have the exact significance he used to claim. "I try and make albums about all kinds of ideas and I think maybe I've said that thing about Mt. Erie just to try and explain my weird band name," said Elverum. "Just to attach some kind of significance to it, rather than have it just being some meaningless word. Because it does have some meaning to me but it's just not the central point of my project."

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Elverum has lived on Anacortes since childhood. "I grew up under it, staring at it every morning waiting for the school bus," he told The Believer. "It’s a special place for me, and the mysterious beauty in the rock face is potent. It has a similar vibe to much of what I am trying to do in music. 'The voice of an old boulder.'" Earlier in his career, he traveled extensively in Norway and briefly considered moving there when he thought it'd be more like the Norwegian black metal aesthetic he'd fallen in love with (much like the often-compared to songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats). It wasn't like that, and so Elverum returned to North America: "I think it's the best one," he said of the continent. In lifestyle and songwriting, he seems to be drawn to static objects, such as the moon, which is referenced in many of his songs, and the mountain.

Easing into a conversation about leaving home, I brought up a recently discovered MTV News video from 1992, in which a young Elverum is briefly interviewed before a Nirvana homecoming concert in Washington. In the footage, floppy haired Elverum is asked whether Nirvana's fame is problematic. He quickly shrugs, and says, "Yeah, kinda."

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Asked about it decades later, Elverum laughed. "That's funny that I have to answer for my 14-year-old self," he said. "I don't find fault in people doing what they need to do. Everyone makes their own choices ... I know that I'm lucky to be from a place, to have grown up in a place that is nice and that I'm happy to call home, but if I was raised somewhere shitty, I probably wouldn't feel the way I do."

I was curious about his penchant for naming things in parts, another way of keeping things the same. It's kind of strange how one of these "parts" -- "The Glow Pt. 2" -- became what Elverum is arguably most known for. Speaking of the name switch to Mount Eerie, Elverum said, "They have different names, but I see it all as this one big thing. And I'm into that interconnectedness, because I think it's accurate." Perhaps answering it all, Elverum continued, "I think that's what the world is like. And the name thing is more just a matter of convenience. A convenient umbrella to put this flow under. It's like naming a river kind of. Like a river has an end, but it's actually just all different water flowing down all the time."

Many fans have found a home in the glow, because the light and warmth continue on and on and on and it's not easy to get to the end. That's what we should want from our best art and our day to day existence, a mountain that climbs through the clouds, a river that flows father than you can see. He paused, and lightly mocked his "super poetic metaphor."

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Elverum, 36, named his project The Microphones nearly two decades ago, a nod to his obsession with recording. He revealed a bit of the inspiration: "I was just really into recording and into this idea that a human is this vessel that experiences, that takes in, is like perceiving vessel and that's what a microphone is." Adding, jokingly, "I don't know I was a teenager too so I wasn't totally conceptualizing everything that deeply."

Under Mount Eerie, Elverum has just released "Sauna." The final track is called "Youth." The last lines: "But my youth and self assurance fill the sky / 'There’s no moon,' my young mind thinks / 'In a totally black night sky' / But there is a moon."

At one point, Elverum touched on his feelings about America and the current state of the world:

The countries that we have super imposed on top of this continent, particularly the United States, are bad. I mean I'm not proud of [it]. There's a lot of things to be embarrassed about what we've done to this place. So it's complicated, but yeah. We have a pretty brutal culture that we have put here and we really messed up the continent and the world. And I think that the traditional sense of being American in the Walt Whitman sense of being like something other than European, something more wild and more connected to the frontier that is something I can get behind. But in actual practice I think we're pretty far removed from that type of wildness in 2015 and, in fact, we have all types of new perverted excess that is the primordial day-to-day experience. That said, I don't necessarily think other parts of the world are much better. I just think humans are pretty devolved these days.

But at the same time, whether on the island of Anacortes on the western tip of America or driving with the car stereo blasting on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. -- maybe there is a moon. Elverum told The Believer, "We sing about what’s missing and what we admire from a distance."

All images from Phil Elverum & Sun website, except for top and green-shirted images which are WikiCommons.

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