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Interview: Phil Elverum

Interview: Phil Elverum

For more than a decade, Phil Elverum has been toiling away in the small town of Anacortes, WA, quietly perfecting his craft. The exact nature of this craft, however, is up for debate. The classifiers of the world–and there are many–have done their best to find an appropriate label; indie-folk, noise-pop, folk-tronica. Elverum’s unique sound is far too elusive to be captured in a hyphen.

His career began in the mid-’90s when he founded The Microphones in the back of a local record store. Elverum rose to independent fame on the back of two stand-out albums, 2000’s It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water and 2001’s The Glow Pt. 2, lauded for both their superb technical execution and vividly imaginative songwriting. Since 2003, Elverum has been recording under the name Mount Eerie but his unique production style remains. It’s a solid foundation for an ever-expanding lyrical labyrinth that centers on his introspective philosophy.

Wind’s Poem is the latest piece of Elverum’s enigmatic career and his most ambitious Mount Eerie effort yet. It’s a colossal album that borrows elements from the dark world of ambient black metal, but its core substantially extends the Mount Eerie concept. He’ll soon depart for a fall tour in support of the album, but Elverum took time out to check in with Spectrum, discussing his new album, his giant gong and the most terrifying thing he can think of.

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So you released Wind’s Poem this week.

Mmhmm.

It’s your third official Mount Eerie album, after No Flashlight and Mount Eerie Pt. 6 & 7.

That’s right.

What grants these albums “official” status in the Mount Eerie dogma, as opposed to other recent albums such as Dawn and Lost Wisdom?

That’s a good question. I guess both Dawn and Lost Wisdom to me feel like just collections of songs that hadn’t quite been compiled yet and these other albums are more deliberate and cohesive.

Let’s talk about Wind’s Poem, it’s been well documented that black metal has been a significant influence on this album…

Yeah…it has been well documented, but I don’t know why. I think it’s Pitchfork that started it.

(laughs) They had a big headline right? “Mount Eerie to release black metal album!”

It’s been kind of annoying actually because I never said that and I’m embarrassed that people think that I might have said that. It’s definitely not a black metal album and the whole idea of doing kind of a kitschy genre album is so embarrassing and shallow. I would never do that. But it’s true that I do like black metal, it’s just I’ve read a few things that are like, “He’s been claiming that it’s finally time for his black metal album! He’s doing black metal and blah blah blah!”

How would you prefer to think of the album? Is there a new direction that you’re going for?

I don’t know. I mean it is kind of new and different than what I’ve done before. It’s weird. But I’ve never been comfortable saying what kind of music I make. Even at family reunions or whatever, talking to my uncle-in-law (laughs), “So what kind of music do you make?” It’s impossible to answer. Even on some really shallow level.

What do your relatives think of your music when they do listen to it?

My family has been really supportive, but I don’t know what they think. I never really ask. The prospect of playing a show with my family members in the audience is the most terrifying idea I can think of. But not because what I do is edgy or anything. It’s just that I feel like I can get away with less around people who actually know me. Going on tour and playing in front of strangers I can kind of be whoever I want. People can think whatever they want about me.

Well there are definitely some big sounds and massive riffs going on in a lot of these songs.

Well yeah. I have been listening to black metal and taken some things from it, or have tried to replicate things on my own, the things that I like from that music. But it’s kind of the same as with all of my recording projects over the years; compiling different ideas that I hear in the world and trying to synthesize this new kind of music that I hope hasn’t existed yet. Mostly it’s just music that I would like to listen to that I haven’t found, so I try to make it.

So these metal bands are more something that you’ve been listening to and picking up on?

Well lately I’ve been listening to almost exclusively Top 40 rap (laughs). I don’t know what’s up with that. That’s been going on for a couple years now actually.

(laughs) Nothing wrong with that.

But I listen to metal. Sometimes.

How did David Lynch’s Twin Peaks influence the record?

It’s a shortcut to a feeling, kind of a cheat, to use a cultural reference like that. But also I have a deep affection for that show from growing up here in Anacortes which resembles the fictional place of Twin Peaks. I remember when it was on, it was touching. Also traveling the world and having people say “Yo, you’re from near Twin Peaks right!” and I loved that. I loved that kind of patriotism, “Yes, this is my part of the world.” (laughs)

Even though it’s fictional.

Even though it’s fictional. I love not telling people that it’s fictional and saying “yes, I am from Twin Peaks.” (laughs)

The song “Between Two Mysteries” most directly references the show, correct?

Yeah, that’s right. It has a melodic reference and it also says the words “twin peaks” (laughs), it wasn’t trying to be subtle.

You collaborated with Nick Krgovich of NO KIDS on the album, what was his role?

Well our collaboration was on four songs; “Through The Trees,” “Between Two Mysteries,” “Ancient Questions,” and “Stone’s Ode”. It was really free-form. We didn’t know that we were recording an album or anything. He just came down and we were doing these recording experiments, “Hey let’s try this! Let’s make something that feels like this other song that we like, or a culmination of these two things.” Just both of us bringing our ideas, which is totally new for me. I’ve always been very solitary in my creativity.

Nick has much more of a pop sound with his band, was that an influence?

Yeah, that definitely was. Also, he allows himself to go into the synthetic and corny a little bit more than I ever do. I think it works. There were some parts where I had to have him back off a little bit. It was always kind of pushing my comfort-zone, in a good way. I think it’s just him and I that have a particularly good working chemistry together. I don’t know how open I am to trying it with other people who I don’t know as well. I do have pretty complete ideas when I have them and I just do them the way I want to do them.

Do you find more freedom in that way, having your own label?

Yeah, totally. I do what I want. All the time (laughs).

So Nick is also accompanying you on tour, right?

He is yeah, and also Julia from NO KIDS is going to play in the band.

How is the tour going to sound?

Well we haven’t played together yet. Not all of us, at least. But yeah there are two drummers and two keyboard players, Nick and Julia, and I want to make them experiment with distortion on those so there’s just these huge washes of fuzz. I’ll play guitar, and we’re all going to be pretty loud I hope. I got this big gong, really big gong.

That must be some work to travel with.

(laughs) Yeah, it’s new, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m actually working on trying to figure out what van, like renting a big enough van for the gong. Also Tara Jane O’Neil is going to play guitar.

So the more massive moments of Wind’s Poem are going to be heard loud and clear.

I hope so. Yes. Definitely, I mean. But louder. Although it’s always hard to do that live I think. A lot of bands have a lot of people and amps and stuff and it’s harder to pull off that feeling because I think that feeling of a massive sound actually kind of relies on an intimate listening experience which is harder to duplicate in a live setting. I mean we’re not going to be Metallica or anything (laughs). It’s just using some of those tones to focus feelings.

A lot of the feelings, themes and imagery of Mount Eerie can be clearly traced back to your work as The Microphones. What would you consider to be the major conceptual difference between the projects?

Really there isn’t much of a difference, besides the chronological thing; one is before 2003 and one is 2003 and on. It’s just the name that changed to more accurately name what I’m working on. The Microphones had kind of grown irrelevant. “Mount Eerie” as a name still feels potent to me as a concept or as an idea. I still don’t quite understand it and I’m still not satisfied. It doesn’t seem like I’ve eaten all the meat off its bones yet.

To finish things off, let’s move backwards a bit, are there any Top 40 hip-hop artists that particularly pique your interest?

Um, I have a short attention span when it comes to it all. But I guess that’s what that music is made for (laughs). But I’ve been listening to the new album by The-Dream, over and over. I don’t know what it is about it. I usually get tired of things pretty quickly. I don’t know, it’s kind of like eating candy or junk food. Although there are some things that happen in pop music that are really…magical, and that I don’t understand. Like why is it so catchy and infectious? What is it that they’re doing? It’s weird.

Something about it really brings people together.

Yeah, and it literally infects the brain (laughs), and that’s pretty impressive.

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