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FILTER 48: Everything, (Something), “Nothing”: Between Two Mysteries with Mount Eerie

By Breanna Murphy; art by Phil Elverum on May 24, 2012


FILTER 48: Everything, (Something), “Nothing”: Between Two Mysteries with Mount Eerie

Wander up to the very edge of the Pacific Northwest—deep through forests of trees that breathe in echoing silences, past wooden buildings that burn alight in the dark like inextinguishable flickering ghosts and where the Moon glows bright watching over it all—and you will find the place where Mount Eerie lives. Its curator, a contemplative musician called Phil Elverum, is sewn tightly to the landscapes and ideas of his home; when he creates sounds, he composes in the shapes and sketches of his surroundings.

Elverum grew up in Anacortes (pop. 15,778), a small fishing town in northwest Washington State, and has spent the majority of his 34 years there. However, he first came to prominence in Olympia’s indie music scene 150 miles south of his hometown. Upon Elverum’s arrival in Olympia in 1997, the then-19-year-old began putting out curious, exploring LPs under the moniker “The Microphones” for the revered K Records, the label owned and operated by Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson. The major recordings spawned during this time include 1999’s Don’t Wake Me Up, 2000’s It Was Hot, We Stayed In the Water and the culminant masterpiece, 2001’s The Glow Pt. 2. Elverum’s highly experimental blend of heavy, sometimes-terrifying drum and amplifier attacks under delicate, thought-provoking vocals and lyrics developed a passionate following in the Washington scene and beyond. 

The Microphones thrived in its community, with Elverum becoming known for inviting other like-minded K artists into the studio—including Johnson, Karl Blau, Khaela Maricich (The Blow), Mirah, and Kyle Field (Little Wings)—producing works that flourished under the guise of fuzzed-out effortlessness while retaining strict, unconventional methods of recording. Elverum toured The Microphones widely, these trips often used to expand his ends further: A long, isolable spell spent in a cabin in Norway during the winter of 2002–2003 provided a large amount of the source material for Elverum’s photo book Mount Eerie, Pts. 6 & 7 and his 2008 album Dawn; a 2004 tour with Little Wings was documented by filmmaker Ryer Banta and became an unofficial rarity called Wise Old Little Man; a series of performances in Japan that same year was released as the last Microphones long-player, unsurprisingly titled Live In Japan.

Around the time that Elverum left Olympia and returned to Anacortes, he aimed his musical conceit at a new direction, drawing off of one of the last Microphones EPs as well as the piece of Skagit County nature that had looked over him since childhood—the Mount Eerie name was born. Elverum began releasing his new output through his own methods, a curatorial label called P.W. Elverum and Sun, founded in 2004. The first LP, “No Flashlight”: Songs of the Fulfilled Night, came in 2005, followed in the subsequent years by no less than 15 various Mount Eerie undertakings.

To call Elverum “prolific” understates the obvious; the catalog of both The Microphones and Mount Eerie stretches beyond long-format albums, incorporating tour CD-Rs, split seven-inches, compilation volumes, a limited series of packing tape in two editions and a bootleg DVD of inclement weather called Fog Movies, in addition to “regular” releases like 2009’s black-metal-inspired Wind’s Poem. (Mount Eerie also collaborated with Fred Squire and Elverum muse Julie Doiron [Eric’s Trip] for 2008’s Lost Wisdom during a chance stay in Anacortes.) It all retains a lasting, albeit elusive feeling—recordings are pressed in limited quantities, and the majority of his works are out-of-print.

To go along with these organic, oftentimes stormy musical compositions and lyrical stories is the artwork of Mount Eerie, Elverum’s detail-attentive, tangible portion of the project. The aforementioned “No Flashlight” has album art that takes up an entire bedroom wall; The Microphones’ Mount Eerie LP has a hand-sewn gatefold; and Elverum nearly always includes handwritten lyrics and liner notes, journal entries and photographs with every physical release. And this is precisely why calling what Phil Elverum does exists beyond “a band”—it’s an art project with no end.

This year sees Elverum releasing two LPs, Clear Moon in May and Ocean Roar to follow in the fall—he has called them the fourth and fifth “real Mount Eerie releases.” Shortly before taking off on a five-week tour of northern Europe, Elverum discussed recording in his new studio called “The Unknown” (a desanctified-church-turned-sail-loft-turned-recording-space in Anacortes), his love for imperfect film development and, despite his noted collaborations, why the musician prefers to create the sounds of Everything, (something) and “nothing” in the solace of the solitary.

"Wind's Poem LP Collage"

A Conversation with Phil Elverum

In regards to the extensive timeline of your music, are there any significant differences between The Microphones and Mount Eerie, or was it a matter of one thing ending and the new music fitting somewhere else?
There is a difference, but it’s not really intentional. It’s more like I had noticed that I had changed. Because, I mean, who doesn’t change within the body of their work? It’s always fluctuating; the circumstances of my life kind of change how things sound. But they blur into each other. Hopefully, there’s a thread that is consistent through all of it [laughs].

There are recurring themes and imagery that stretch across a decade of both projects, though. Does Clear Moon’s title continue your “moon” series of songs?
No, those other ones are more personal stories about people. The idea with Clear Moon is… [long pause]. I should figure out how to talk about this. I’m still figuring it out myself. I know what it means, I just don’t know how to put it into words. It’s like when you’re walking down the street in the middle of the day and the moon is in the sky. And you catch it out of the corner of your eye, like some kind of weird light, but it’s not really light. It’s some absurd, out-of-place thing that is piercing and alien that wakes you up out of whatever thoughts that you were in. That moment of super-clear realization, and letting it into your life. That’s “clear moon.” So it’s not about the moon, actually.

Do you ever focus on something specific on these bigger records, like a mood or an idea that defines each one?
Yeah, definitely. With all of them there’s a theme to it, or a general feeling I’m trying to create. I’m really into “the album,” obviously. Like “the album” as the work of art, rather than just a collection of disassociated songs.

Previously, you spoke a lot about the black metal influences on Wind’s Poem. Was there anything quite that specific that inspired you to experiment in the studio for Clear Moon?
Not as specific, but there’s been this imaginary music that I’ve been thinking about for a couple years now, especially after all that loud touring with that Wind’s Poem band [Tara Jane O’Neil, Karl Blau and members of No Kids, Hungry Cloud Darkening and Motorbikes]. After the show every night, after being bludgeoned by all this sound, we wanted to listen to music in the van, but I always craved this specific kind of music that I just couldn’t find anywhere. I was in the mood for something that didn’t exist, and I had these requirements for it. So I started taking notes about it: no snares; no high-hat; really round sounds; no attack on any of the notes, just the decay; really ambient—not ambient, though, because they’re still songs with words—and rich and deep. There is a lot of music that I listen to that is like that, but not quite. I set out to make recordings like that. And, of course, it ended up getting crazy-sounding, sometimes.

You’ve worked with a number of collaborators on your records in the past—who were the voices in the room with you for this album?
The woman singing is my friend Allyson [Foster]. She lives in town here. There’s a couple of other friends who play a little bit of guitar on one of the songs, but everything else is just me, and Allyson singing.

In general, I have a hard time working with other people. Usually, my idea is pretty fleshed out. Even back when I was more collaborative in Olympia with Mirah and everyone else, mostly my own songs—the Microphones stuff—was something that I did when everyone else was…away [laughs]. And then occasionally, I would have a very specific instruction for them to come and do. I think that I am most comfortable thinking creatively alone.

You’re releasing another album this year, Ocean Roar. How will the two LPs connect?
All of these songs were recorded at the same time, but I didn’t want to make a double album. It’s just too hard to listen to a double album. [Laughs.] It’s too much to take in.

The feeling I was trying to create [with Ocean Roar] is like total fog bank. Like you’re getting buried under so much. The opposite of Clear Moon, the opposite of sharp clarity—a blanket of fuzz. That’s the idea. They go together in an abstract way, but I want them to be linked because both of them are focused heavy on the one aspect of the idea, and I feel like it’s more interesting when two aspects of the same idea are represented.

"Place Breathes"

Moving to art, when did you first begin drawing and painting?

I always did. I think that every kid does, I just didn’t stop. But taking it seriously has never really been appealing to me—that sounds so lame. I’ve always made these things for fun and to flesh out ideas and to make decorations for my house [laughs].

Your photography spans everywhere from your parents’ driveway in Washington to a remote cabin where you stayed in Norway. How did you begin documenting places this way?
When I was in high school, my first job was in the darkroom at an old camera store. I got weird, old cameras working there. I wasn’t really interested in photography before that. Since then, I’ve always had a camera with me and, traveling a lot, I take a lot of pictures.

Do you use a specific camera, or do you have a small collection to choose from?
All the photos in my photobook were taken with this one, weird, old 35 mm half-frame camera. So the negatives are really small. The ones that made it into the book are mostly accidental exposures. [The camera] was so old that it didn’t have any metering or anything like that. So I mostly guessed on focus and exposure, usually guessing wrong, and the way it was wrong turned out to be interesting. The colors were exaggerated and super grainy in a nice way. I haven’t been shooting film for a while just because processing color film has gotten horrible. Nobody is doing it optically anymore. So I gave up and have been shooting with a digital camera.

You focus on light a lot, the different ways natural light can cast itself. 
That’s what typically draws me to a photo. You can tell when that sort of thing is manufactured, in Photoshop or whatever, by adjusting the levels. I mean, maybe I can’t tell, maybe I’m often fooled, but I feel like my favorite movies and photos are ones where they capture the rare moments when the world actually looks that way.

I’ve seen interviews with David Lynch where he’ll talk about loving Los Angeles so much, particularly because of this quality of light that only happens there. It’s true, and I’ve noticed it. Like at 6 p.m. in October, that certain type of dusk where before the sun has set all the way, there’s this feeling—maybe it’s the temperature, too—and this quality of light that is very kind of magical. For a moment.

How do these extra things that supplement your music—art books, packing tape, detailed liner notes—fit into the Mount Eerie catalog?
Well, I guess they would fit into the presentation of the thing. Even back at the beginning with the Microphones albums, the artwork and the packaging were really important to me. I was always making side stuff, like a booklet of writing or stories, or plays that I wrote, ’zines and shirts and other souvenirs. I think that all of these scattered things add depth to the project as a whole. They’re pointing at the same idea, which is in the middle; it’s just different angles on the same idea of whatever it is I’m saying. And hopefully the music is also able to work on its own. I always try to make music that doesn’t require all these accessories, but it nice to have the option to go deeper for people, if they want to.

According to your discography, Clear Moon will only be the fourth “real” Mount Eerie release, even though you’ve had two releases between Wind’s Poem and it. What characterizes a “real” release to you, and how do you see the smaller releases fitting into your catalog overall?
Well, I guess the “real” ones are the ones where I go deep and get lost in recording because, for me, it’s always been primarily a recording project. It’s called “The Microphones” because of that. And that’s how I got into making music. It used to be only that type of stuff when I first started making music, but since then I’ve figured out how to play live and record in other, less-involved ways. There are releases that I don’t stand behind [laughs] as much or something. They’re part of a different lineage. So, in my mind, I do have a lot of releases, but there’s this lineage of these ones that are more sculpted...or something...

I’m into the confusion, too. I like it to be kind of baffling. F

This article is from FILTER Issue 48