An interview with Phil Elverum
Phil Elverum is Mount Eerie. The thirty-year-old multi-instrumentalist has played in other bands, and worked as a producer, but he remains best known for this solo project, which he started as the Microphones in 1997. In 2003, he renamed it Mount Eerie (and added an e to his last name, Elvrum) after returning from a trip to Norway, where he lived alone in a remote cabin for a winter. “Mount Eerie” refers to the mountain on Fidalgo Island, an island an hour and change north of Seattle, where you’ll also find Elverum’s lifelong hometown, Anacortes.
To date, his most critically acclaimed (and popular) album is the Microphones’ 2001 shaggy-dog epic The Glow Pt. 2. The first official Mount Eerie album—following the Microphones’ final 2003 full-length, also called Mount Eerie—is 2005’s No Flashlight: Songs of the Fulfilled Night. It was followed by 2007’s Mount Eerie Pts. 6 & 7, a 132-page hardcover book of Elverum’s photography packaged with a 10″ picture disc. In early 2009, the journals Elverum kept and the drawings he scribbled in Norway were released as a 144-page hardcover book called Dawn. It included sixteen color photo cards and a CD of songs he wrote while living in the cabin.
Regardless of the moniker, Elverum’s collections include interlocking themes and references to earlier material, and are marked by a distinctive naturalistic, self-recorded lo-fi analog sound that mixes his whispered, gentle voice—which can also yell and bellow—with ambitiously varied instrumentation (organs, pianos, fuzzed guitars, field recordings, distortion, booming drums, tape hiss). His work can be delicately spare or layered and noisy, often in the same song. Lyrically, he focuses on memory, first-person storytelling, myth, naturalism, the everyday as sacred, and sense of place (in and out of Washington State), among other related things. In addition to his albums, Elverum has released self-published books (which he illustrates or fills with his photographs) via his own label, P. W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd. He helps organize the annual Anacortes-based What the Heck Fest and maintains a website, Every Book in the House, which consists of photographs of his entire book collection as of December 11, 2007.
In 2008, Elverum released Lost Wisdom, a collaboration with the band Eric’s Trip’s Julie Doiron and Fred Squire, which brought to light Elverum’s interest in black metal via its reference to the Burzum song “Lost Wisdom.” The collection’s cover art also echoed Burzum’s church-burning Aske EP. Following that path, Elverum is currently finishing his next official full-length, the dark and ambient (and often quite intense) Wind’s Poem, which investigates the “theme of wind and also destruction and impermanence.”
Our interview took place over a number of months on the phone (while Phil was driving across the country), via email, and in person at DBA bar on First Avenue in Manhattan, where we sat at a back table on a breezy afternoon before his set at the Bowery Ballroom. During our conversation, a tree branch made its way into the window and a small cat stopped by for a visit.
PLACE; OR, “THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST IS KIND OF LIKE NORWAY CROSSED WITH JAPAN.”
THE BELIEVER: How’d you decide to photograph all the books in your collection? What did you think folks might take or learn from it?
PHIL ELVERUM: I think I wanted to offer the spines of my books kind of as a bonus feature “behind the music” type of thing. Footnotes. Suggested reading. Also, I really like looking at other people’s book collections when I’m at someone’s house. I think it is an amazing cross section of a person’s brain and lifestyle. I think everyone should photograph their book spines and make a website. Seriously.
BLVR: Your middle name’s Whitman. Were you named after Walt Whitman? Did you grow up with a lot of books?
PE: Not really. Maybe. My family includes a lot of teachers. Not university professors, not super-scholars, but middle-school teachers. We read books. It was more like there was an awareness that there was a poet named Walt Whitman that I was named after, but, like, no big whoop. It’s not like I was read Leaves of Grass at bedtime or anything. But Walt Whitman is the voice that helped me find an acceptable version of “American Pride.” It was nice to realize that I wanted to live here and I am of this culture and it’s OK and we have a wild, fresh heritage that is tied to this amazing continent and that it doesn’t have to be totally fucked and destructive to be “proud” of being “American.”
BLVR: You own a number of editions of War and Peace. What’s the significance of the book to you? On the site, it starts and ends the collection—literally bookending it. I saw one or two copies of Anna Karenina, but not as many. Significant?
PE: I had an epic session with War and Peace during an intense time alone in a cabin in Norway. My grandparents sent it to me as a Christmas present and I read it almost without stopping. I had never read any Tolstoy and only really knew War and Peace as the stereotypically long book. When I read it in Norway, really far away from humanity for a long time, it was such an amazing, affirming blast of “humanity” in all forms. It totally cracked my mind-nut open and rainbows shot out. I loved humanity and being alive, rather than wanting to bury my head in the snow like I had before. After that I read some Anna Karenina (it’s OK) and dude’s other shorter, more overtly preachy stories. I don’t know. I like his ability of making people seem transparent. The reason I have so many copies is because I am interested in reading different translations and comparing, though I haven’t yet.
BLVR: Elsewhere on the shelf, various books on Norwegian literature and landscape—and [the Norwegian black-metal history] Lords of Chaos right below Tolstoy’s Tales of Army Life—seem to be research material for your stay in Norway. Can you talk a bit about your interest in the country? How did you decide to hole up there and write Dawn?
PE: Norway is a pretty mystical land, especially from a distance. It’s similar to my home, the Pacific Northwest, but with a rich recorded history of superhuman Viking heroes and a folklore of mountain-shaped trolls and stuff like that. My last name/family is Norwegian. I guess I grew up identifying as a Norwegian descendant, so there was that element of roots pursuit. I thought maybe I’d end up feeling like I had found my true home, but I totally didn’t. It is Europe. I like the open West of North America and I don’t like eating exclusively bread. I didn’t go there with any realistic intentions. I thought I was moving there forever. It was a time when a lot of people were talking about moving to Canada because of George W. Bush. The USA seemed totally fucked. In my own life I felt like I wanted to do something kind of drastic to get over a murky love relationship. The writing project just happened because I didn’t have anything else to do, and plenty of time to think thoughts, and long, dark hours.
BLVR: Otherwise, while we’re talking geography, there are a number of book about Japan, books by Mishima.
PE: Yes, I also like Japan. That counts as the North, right? The Pacific Northwest is kind of like Norway crossed with Japan. Wet pine trees and salmon and an artist doing Zen meditation in her pottery studio on a small island in fog. Fine coffee/tea rituals. Houses made out of wood. Temperate forests with no big predators or snakes or poison insects. A vague sense of nature worship. That’s the vibe here, which to me is a good combo of Japan and Norway.
BLVR: When you changed the name of your project from Microphones to Mount Eerie, you opted to reference a particular natural object in the landscape of Anacortes. Can you discuss the reasoning behind the shift?
PE: Well, for one thing, a sense of place is lacking in most of our American lives and art and music and everything. Everyone moves around so much. Kids grow up in five different places and return to nowhere. Towns are all generic because if everyone is going to move soon, who cares if it’s an Olive Garden or something more permanent-feeling? The lack of “home” that most people feel is fucked. We have a shallow history (especially on the West Coast) and it’s getting shallower. I had the good fortune of growing up in a town where my great-great grandparents were some of the first Euro inhabitants, and a town that is town-like enough that I recognize faces at the post office. I love this place. It is home, in a deep way. The mountain (Mount Erie) is right in the middle of the island. It has this distinctive, dramatic rock face. It’s almost like the mascot of this place. I grew up under it, staring at it every morning waiting for the school bus. 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.”
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!”
BLVR: There’s a difference between being connected to a place and fetishizing nature.
PE: Yeah, I think that I probably inevitably fetishize nature, although I try not to, because it’s kind of embarrassing, repulsive behavior. But, I don’t know, I think it’s just an extension of me being old-fashioned. It seems to me that in the past people had a stronger sense of place than they do now. And also, they were more—I’m assuming—more proficient in working with the land, surviving from it. Even in a really basic way, like people in the city not knowing what to do when the power goes out. We just don’t have the skills.
DAWN; OR, “WHEN I SING THE SONGS, THERE’S A COLOR TONE AND A PLACE, AND IT’S NOT A PLACE THAT I REMEMBER IN REALITY.”
BLVR: Do you see a new set of circumstances emerging with age? Not that you’re in your 50s or anything, but you have been around for a bit. I’m curious how age will affect your project. Or is it sort of timeless and outside of that?
PE: I am still not taking my “career” in music for granted. It is constantly surprising that it works. Generally my thinking about the future—I don’t know if you’ve noticed—has this assumption of an impending apocalypse. [Laughs] It’s always about hunting and gathering in the near future. Dog jerky.
BLVR: Were the Dawn journals heavily reworked or are they close to what they were when you wrote them in Norway?
PE: They weren’t reworked at all. It was how it came out… a little sloppy. It was a question I thought about for a little bit—should I edit or just leave it in its raw state… and I decided to just not edit. At all.
BLVR: We’ve spoken about the “punkness” of your process in the past. Dawn is a travel narrative, but it also has that sense of a zine like Cometbus or something. Did you have anything like that in mind when you wrote it?
PE: While I was writing it I don’t think I was consciously planning on publicly releasing it, although at some point I became aware that I was writing to someone, to a reader. I guess I started writing just because I didn’t have anything else to do. As an exercise.
BLVR: Part of going to Norway is the romance of going to Norway. When I talk with American black-metal guys, a number of them say they were drawn to it because of its mythology. When you went, did the reality of the place squash your black-metal fantasies?
PE: I didn’t have much of a black-metal fantasy built up when I went there. I had more of a Viking thing—like I knew all the sagas and the idea of the modern-day utopian social democracy where everyone is really good-looking and everyone is really wealthy and there’s a lot of nature and they haven’t ruined it yet and everyone appreciates it. That was my vision of it. And also the artwork—really dark and beautiful. But then being there, you’re kind of like, “Oh, wait, it’s just Europe.”
BLVR: I admire the way you clearly love black metal. I love it as well, and it’s good to see someone who gets it, who doesn’t treat it like a cartoon. The brooding hillsides and dissolving bones, the atmosphere, the darkness, etc. When did you discover black metal?
PE: I guess that’s why I was saying I’m hesitant to talk about black metal too much, because I can’t help feeling like for most people it’s a novelty cartoon thing (which it kind of is, I mean, let’s be honest), but I wanted to lift the aspects of the lyrics and imagery that I found sincerely powerful and touching, plus the amazing musical extremities, and make my own thing. That’s what making music has always been for me, though. Synthesizing a nonexistent kind of music that I wish existed because I wanted to listen to it.
I think I first became aware of the Norwegian stuff around, like, 2000 or something, living in Olympia, someone was passing around the Lords of Chaos book. Probably the most common introduction, right? So for a few years it existed in my mind as the tabloid cartoon version, with the murders and arsons, without ever hearing any of the music. I forget how I got sincerely into it. I think probably from just randomly buying records at stores based on their amazing covers. I remember being underwhelmed with how evil Burzum actually sounded, or Emperor, or Mayhem and the big names. The imagery is often so much more powerful than the music, and I’m really into that, actually. I like the beautiful absurdity of a band spending so much time on their promo photo before they have written any songs. Or reading things like “They thought of the idea for the band in 1988. They wrote their first song in late 1991. They broke up in early 1992. They never played a show.” Yet there’s bands like this that are well known within the scene just because of their excellent photo and logo. That’s hilarious and amazing to me, the power of that imagery. From the outside, it’s clear it’s just an angry teenager who’s in the woods out behind his parents’ house with black clothes and a bunch of studs and carrying an ax that he got at the D&D shop. But still, there’s something totally amazing about that to me, because that’s that person’s way of appreciating nature. That’s that person’s portal into—it’s their awakening into lucidity, into the world around them. It’s totally beautiful.
BLVR: While you were in Norway you added the e to your last name. Can you explain how that came about?
PE: It was just more convenient. There’s a town there called Elverum. I guess that’s where our name comes from. It got changed during immigration a hundred years ago, or whatever. I just started writing it that way there. I think I had to fill out a government form, like for money for a show I played, and I just wrote it that way to avoid the conversation of having to explain why it was spelled wrong. [Laughs] And then I just kept it that way because I thought it would be confusing. And also, like, just do it the old-fashioned way, you know? Use the original form. Kinda like making your food from scratch rather than from a mix.
BLVR: [Laughs] I talk to people about Microphones music or Mount Eerie and they say, “Oh, I think that guy lives in a cave. Or maybe a tree.” You changed your last name because it was easier, but it also adds to the image “This guy shifted his name, what’s going on?” Is this sort of mythology something that’s fun to know exists and to be able to be inside of, but also to be able to stand outside of, and at the same time not be able to shape entirely?
PE: It is fun to play with it. There is this mythology and maybe weird rumors about me, and so if I’m publishing this book of my journals, it’s just totally feeding it. But I’m uncomfortable with it. I don’t know; it’s a weird thing. People come up to me and say, “Oh, I like your songs, I like nature a lot, too, I like how all your songs are all about nature and how you like nature,” and I’m like, “Really? Is that how they sound?” Because that’s not what I’m trying to do, but I guess I can’t help it, it just comes out like that. Since high school one of my favorite bands has been Eric’s Trip, and they totally had a mythology. Maybe it wasn’t intentional, but they did. I mean, you can tell from their recordings that you’re listening to some voyeuristic view into their lives. “Oh, this song’s about this other person in the band, and they used to be in a relationship, and oh God, it’s so intense that they’re singing about it.” And you can hear them talking in between the songs because they forgot to press stop on the tape recorder and so it was like this portal into this vast world. And I think that maybe I tried to create that same kind of thing. Inviting people to infer the mystery.
BLVR: I notice in Mount Eerie Pts. 6 & 7 there are a ton of photos from Norway. There are a lot from your hometown, too.… One or two of Iceland, a few other places, and then tons from Norway. There are moments where you have a Norwegian forest next to a forest in Pennsylvania that looks kind of similar to it. The presence of Norway is so heavy in there, though.… When you were putting this stuff together, was there a narrative in mind or was it more just how one of them looked next to the other?
PE: We just arranged it visually, looking at the spreads, paying attention to the feeling of the two photos together. There’s no narrative. And then about Norway, I just took a lot of really awesome pictures in Norway. [Laughs] That’s all. It looks good there. No other reason.
BLVR: There’s one thing on your site where you talk about Mount Eerie Pts. 6 & 7 and say it’s a key to your work from the beginning to now. How so? Because of the influence of these places you’ve been?
PE: No, I’ve always written songs with a visual counterpart in my mind that no one else can see. Even on really early albums, in my mind, when I sing the songs, there’s a color tone and a place, and it’s not a place that I remember in reality. It’s usually based on a photo that I took—’cause those photos don’t look like the real world. The film distorts them, and the colors get exaggerated. A lot of them were taken at night. And so the feeling that those photos have is kind of the visual world that I picture when I’m recording albums. And it always has been.
“I WANT TO BE ACCOUNTABLE FOR MY OWN ECONOMY.”
BLVR: Can you talk about your Fancy People Adventures comics?
PE: The comics started when I was a teenager on family vacation with my little brother—we would just draw them on the plane as a way of killing time, and then I just kept doing it. I was living in this house in Olympia with a friend who was hilarious. It was just kind of my way of writing down all the hilarious stuff he would do and say, documenting jokes. It’s called Fancy People Adventures because a lot of the jokes are about how absurd it is to be a person. Especially in 2009 in the United States. There’s so much amazing absurd shit that everyone does. And everyone acts so fancy about it.
BLVR: I saw an article online where someone was wondering whether or not you have a sense of humor. My guess is that he doesn’t know about Fancy People Adventures. Do you find people approaching you being especially earnest, thinking that you’re this dour guy who’s just swimming in lakes and cooking pinecones for dinner?
PE: [Laughs] Yeah, totally. Definitely. And I used to be kind of careful about it, actually. I’ve always put out the comics anonymously. And it’s still pretty much like that, where Fancy People Adventures isn’t really connected to Mount Eerie. So I guess that is a thing that doesn’t fall under the Mount Eerie umbrella. ’Cause it’s not part of the same lineage. But it is a part of me, like who I am as a person.
BLVR: For some people I think Dawn will be an education—maybe not an education, but it’ll expand perceptions of you and your work, which will be interesting. In some ways it has the mythology intact and people will say, “Wow, it’s true, he lived in a cabin in Norway by himself.” But then they’ll get more of a look at the humor and the making-fun of yourself while you’re, like, cooking food or, like, trying to gather wood, or this or that.
PE: Totally. I think that’s one of the main reasons why I was compelled to publish it. Like, sure, maybe it’s just more fuel for the mythology, but maybe also it would help dispel all of that, ’cause of how much I talk about farting or whatever.
BLVR: What compelled you to start putting things out on your own?
PE: It was mostly to see how hard it is to put out a record, and because I had enough money saved up that I could try it. Also, I usually want things to be done in a very specific way. I actually really enjoy dealing with all those details and talking to the printer and just every aspect of what I do. And also, reading books like Walden totally inspired me to be like, “This is my life, I want to build this from the ground up. I want to be accountable for my own economy.”
BLVR: Years ago, I really associated you with K Records, as a K artist. With the rise of the Internet, that scene feels very different to me.
PE: I’ve always been a little uneasy about being perceived as part of a supposed K scene, or any scene. I’m just a guy doing my thing. The aspect that I wasn’t uneasy with was the vision of K as the revolutionary punk thing. It’s an honor to be associated with that. I feel like that’s something that’s missing for young people in music these days, that whole Dischord/K music-as-rebellion thing. I mean, music-as-rebellion exists today, but mostly as a gross mockery of it to sell Converse shoes or something.
BLVR: Ian MacKaye has spoken about how he doesn’t want to play in bars because he feels like it becomes a thing where you can’t go to a show without buying a drink, so he wants to use spaces where it’s not a show that’s there existing to sell drinks. When I was younger I was really into hardcore and would read that sort of stuff all the time. Now it seems a little shocking to me… in a good way. I’m glad he’s still doing it.
PE: In 2003, I was at this transitional point, considering getting a booking agent, considering releasing my own records; I had a new name. Everything was being restructured and I was debating all the changes with myself. On tour with Dub Narcotic Sound System, we went to the Dischord house and Ian was like, “Yeah, this is my office. I’m setting up a Fugazi tour right now.” And it was, like, a rotary telephone, a Post-it notepad, and, like, a bunch of pieces of paper and I was just like, “I don’t need a booking agent. If he can set up Fugazi tours like this, and they’re on this label that’s massive and legendary, what am I even debating? It’s possible, so possible. And Calvin has always been like that, too. Saying, “Well, people always ask me, ‘Calvin, doesn’t that make it hard for you to only play all-ages shows?’” and he’s always like, “No, it’s not hard, just tell them that you only play all-ages shows and the decision is made. It’s just what you do.” And so that kind of stubborn, old-fashioned behavior has always been really inspiring to me.
BLVR: You’re wearing a George Bush shirt, so we’re free to comment on political situations. Do you feel… Is this something—on the next record or anything like that—where you’re going to—
PE: Probably not. There was a period where I was making more of an effort to make “political” music. And being more like, “Kids these days aren’t punk enough! I’m a punk! I want to show them how it’s done.” But it was embarrassing. I didn’t even go that deep. My approach to that stuff was on an interpersonal level. Like “Improve your life and yourself.” I like the idea of politically charged music a lot, but it usually seems to be preaching to the choir and ineffective. So if my music is political in a way, and it might be, it’s in the way of generating a sensitivity in people, a deeper awareness of the world around them. That’s my goal, at least.
WIND’S POEM; OR, “QUIET/LOUD/QUIET/LOUD”
BLVR: Can you talk about Wind’s Poem?
PE: I’ve been writing lately about wind as this force for change and destruction, focusing on the destruction half of the destruction-and-rebirth cycle. But also wind as an example of the personality that exists in dark nature. And specifically like when wind blows through trees and sounds vaguely like whispering, pretending that it actually is words. Like “What’s it saying? It’s saying something really intense.” So that’s the idea of Wind’s Poem, thematically at least. There are a couple different perspectives I sing from on the album. Sometimes I’m doing the voice of the actual wind, what it would say, and sometimes I’m speaking from my own perspective, the human observer, and sometimes there’s a duet between the two. On “Through the Trees,” for example, Nick Krgovich is singing all the words with me, but his voice is high and distant. I think of it as the wind. Many of the same phrases appear all over the album, typically self-referential. Like always, it’s a weird stew of various unrelated influences. Sonically, yes, the flow of the album covers all parts of the dynamic spectrum. Quiet/loud/quiet/loud. I like being thrown back and forth. I am still into things feeling dreamy, so the vocals are mixed a little low to encourage people to turn the volume up so the music wraps around the listener more, like a dream. Less of a literal communication of ideas than a summoning of a temporary world for the listener to inhabit…
BLVR: You’re writing songs about wind and impermanence and the destructive side of wind. We’ve discussed how you view your project as an excavation. At this point what do you get out of Mount Eerie? What are you learning or investigating or finding out about yourself or finding out about whatever it is you’re trying to tap into?
PE: I guess it’s just kind of an ongoing thing. And probably I’ve already been focused on impermanence for a long time. A lot of my songs are about death and the fleetingness of life. It just feels good to remind myself about that a lot. For whatever reason. And it’s a beautiful thing, actually. It seems to me like it’s a beautiful way to live in the world and to relate to things, with an awareness of temporality.
BLVR: When “Wind’s Dark Poem” opens, it really does sound like straight-up black metal. It shifts when your vocals come in, then reenters… the wind sings like a black-metal musician, but you don’t. It’s a really interesting mix, the closest you’ve been to black metal. Do you agree? Can you talk a bit about that song and why you chose it to introduce the collection?
PE: Thank you! That was the goal. I knew I wanted the album to start at 100 percent volume. All noise at once, and then back off into song a little. This is one of the two or three songs I’ve recorded that do this, and the lyrics aren’t really organized. It’s just a collection of images and ideas that came out of me at the very beginning of the writing of this album that were kind of the seeds that the rest of the songs came from. I sing them in a kind of random, disorganized way, almost like reading a poem more than singing it. I consider it the table of contents or something, not really the first song on the album. Just a bunch of noise and ideas that are a preview for what’s to come. Track 0, before track 1.
BLVR: “Through the Trees” is paired with “Wind’s Dark Poem” as side one. How do these two songs work together? You discussed “Through the Trees” when I asked you to write about six songs, and mentioned its Twin Peaks vibe. It’s the longest track on Wind’s Poem. Also one of the softest. Why did it stand out in your mind when I asked you to choose a Wind’s Poem song to write about?
PE: I don’t know why I wanted to write about this one. It’s the first song I recorded for the album, totally as a fun experiment over a year ago. (It was recorded on February 14, 2008.) It’s a weird thing, to have an eleven-plus-minute song on an album, and it makes most sense at the end of the album, so I put it right at the beginning, compulsively difficult, just to clearly define that this album is weird and a little challenging right at the beginning. No easy rides. Also, since it was written so long ago and the words are so autobiographical (“from up on the hill I can see the lights of town”), it works well as an early scene-setter.
BLVR: On the album, wind is destructive. Even in spring, the wind is cold. Could you imagine writing a cycle of songs about wind as generative or regenerative? In a way, maybe it does here: “Hold on to something and watch it go / everything you love will end up on the breeze.…” Things are spread around and replanted, becoming parts of other growths.
PE: Not really. For some reason focusing on destruction and mortality is more poetically exciting to me than hope and love.
BLVR: A stone shows up here and there as well. How does that fit into Wind’s Poem?
PE: A stone is the opposite of wind. It’s the thing the wind is eroding. And when I say stone I mean all tangible things. My face, this building, that mountain, that flower. So, Wind is singing to Stone, and Stone has a song too (“Stone’s Ode,” at the end of the album) about wind and erosion (kind of like me singing about wind). I guess the romantic idea is that all things in the world are singing a song, reciting a poem, inaudibly, to their surroundings, to the things they encounter. Wind (also signified on the album as “River,” like a river of air) sings about “form and assembly” because it lacks it. Stone sings about “wind and dust clouding” because it lacks that kind of amorphous beauty. We sing about what’s missing and what we admire from a distance.
Read this article’s companion piece,
“Phil Elverum on Six of His Songs” »