I first heard of Phil Elverum, who releases music under the name Mount Eerie (formerly The Microphones) through a series of mixtapes an internet penpal shared with me a few years ago. An experimental artist in his core, his songs feature narratives with natural and philosophical themes, with a sense of northwestern mysticism, created through several means such as manipulation of discordant chords, black metal influences, and calming melodies to name a few. There is always something different with each release. Outside of music, Phil spends his time on photography, writing, painting, trinkets, art jokes, and his label and publishing company, P.W. Elverum & Sun. When I sat down with him on a Saturday in June before his show at the Witch Room, I talked with him about his hometown of Anacortes, Washington, seeing Nirvana, Chief Keef and his music.
I saw you live last year at The Chapel with a backing band. This time I hear you’re going to perform solo. Do you usually play shows by yourself or do you often gather people together to play with you?
I don’t know if there’s a usually. It’s different every time. Statically, I used to do it more by myself but in the past few years I’ve had different bands so this is the first solo tour I’ve done in kind of a while.
I read about you going to a Nirvana show around 1992 and head banging while sitting down. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yeah. Somebody tweeted me this question, “Did you ever see Nirvana Seattle 93?”, and I thought it was so funny. I never knew anything about this video and so I thought they were just kind of doing a joke because they called the band Nirvana Seattle. Which, I thought was pretty funny. And then ’93. But I did see them in ’92 and ’94. So I was playing along with the joke being kind of a smart ass but turns out they were probably aware of this footage and I wasn’t. I didn’t realize it was about something up until a couple days ago when a bunch of people emailed me about it.
So the joke kind of turned around on you?
No, it was sort of like “oh I didn’t realize we were talking about real stuff.” I thought they were joking around. But, yeah. Seeing that video is so crazy. Because I remember that show so well. I remember the experience of being 14 and going to see Nirvana with my friends. In my mind I’ve been telling the story of it over and over for the last 22 years. Yeah, 22 years. And so seeing the footage all of the sudden of this vivid memory is so trippy because it looks just like how I remember it. I noticed that I act the same in the video and my friend acts the same in the video, the one smiling at the camera.
Was there one specific Nirvana song that you guys really wanted them to play?
No, we loved all their songs. It was like we knew every single song. Helmet and Fits of Depression, this Olympia band, opened. We were 14 though so it was like, that was the first rock show I ever went to. Before that, I went to MC Hammer. My dad took us to Nirvana’s Nevermind tour. It was awesome. But yeah we totally sat in the back and headbanged for real since we didn’t know how to behave at a rock show. Nirvana was so big then though, they played at the Seattle Coliseum where the Seattle Supersonics played. It was an arena and they were so small in the distance that we were basically watching them on the screen. It wasn’t like a punk show — they were very popular.
Can you compare the Seattle music scene from the 90s to now?
Well in that video I’m wearing a shirt that says Gravel and that is a band from Anacortes, my town. And they’re awesome. They remain one of my favorite bands. They part of that scene, “grunge”, so I looked up to them and I remember wearing the Gravel shirt to the Nirvana show because I wanted everyone to know “I’m into obscure stuff.” So yeah, I don’t know how much it has changed because for example the guys in Gravel have a new band called Enduro. I just recorded them two weeks ago. So, some things don’t really change. I mean the world has changed a lot in the last 20 years. For example, the internet has changed everything for better or worse. It’s difficult to summarize I guess.
It was thrilling to get to play with Julie Doiron. It wasn’t like an abrupt thing. I sort of got to know her gradually over the years. I would go see her shows whenever she came around. She was touring solo after Eric’s Trip and I was a big fan of that as well. I was just a familiar face in the audience. Once I started playing more shows we got put on the same bills together so we became acquaintances and friends. It sort of faded into it, but yeah. I remain a fan so it’s very exciting to have that transition where it became from being a fan to being a participant. I like it.
What was your approach to recording songs when you first started messing around with music?
I mostly wanted to mess around. I was really into recording, like self-recording. We had some recording equipment at the record store that I worked at. We set up a little studio in the back room and I was just obsessed with it. Like, trying out weird things and seeing what was possible with the medium of recording. It wasn’t even really songs, it were these sound experiments. It only morphed into writing songs later and then trying to emulate certain bands. There wasn’t one thing specifically I was trying to do; it was truly experimenting.
In “Pre-Human Ideas” you digitized and recreated a few of your older tracks. What gave you the idea to revisit the songs and morph them in a certain electronic matter? Also, what was the idea behind the humorous yet classy approach on the cover?
Phil: (Laughs) Well I’ll tell you. I have made garageband versions of those songs as a way of teaching my bandmates, in preparation for tours, by simplifying my studio recordings into these garageband Midi versions. I could then send them to people who are going to come on tour with me and say, “here’s your piano part” or “here’s your bass part”. Also, because I was building it up from scratch again anyways — just really quick on my home computer. The singing was just for a guide so they knew where it is in the song. I experimented with putting funny effects in my voice, and the more I listened to those, the more it grew on me. I really liked them, and after accumulating a bunch of those demoes I decided to release them. As for the cover, it was inspired by this funny picture I found on the internet of Leonard Cohen. ‘Cause for my iTunes library I like to put funny pictures for all the album art, so I spend a lot of time doing google searches of hilarious photos of musicians. It’s stupid, it’s a waste of time, but it’s what I do. And I found this picture of Leonard Cohen sitting in front of an early Macintosh computer with a track pad and a stylus. He’s like photoshopping something, if you look on the computer screen you can see it’s a picture of his own face. He’s photoshopping his own face and it’s a crappy flash photograph taken from behind him while he’s turning around looking at the camera. It’s most non-poetic, unflattering portrait of this amazing artist. I really liked how humanizing it is and how modern, demystifying because you think of Leonard Cohen as like a poet writing his zen notebook. It kind of goes with the idea of the album.
[Laughs] I don’t know, I don’t keep up. Rap changes so fast it’s hard to stay on top of it. It’s overwhelming but I guess I don’t really keep on top of any music. There’s this one song by Chief Keef that I really like called “Go To Jail“. I heard about it on a podcast and I just got obsessed with it. It’s all auto tune, you can’t make out any of the words. It’s really crazy sounding.
Would you give skateboarding a try like Lil Wayne is doing right now or have you ever tried when you were younger?
I can go on flat ground and I can go off a curb.
That’s pretty sick, still.
(Laughs) Yeah, where I grew up we didn’t have any pavement and it was just gravel roads. I had a skateboard and I would roll it on the gravel but I’ve never developed my skating skills. I might be too old.
How was life like back during the D+ era? How did it feel to get encouraged to make your own zine the “Paintbrush? Were there other notable zines around the area that influenced you?
Well all that sort of happened in the same time. In my town Anacortes, the one record store was run by this guy named Bret Lunsford, the guy in Beat Happening and affiliated with K Records. So my friend and I, we were teenagers, and exactly around the time of that Nirvana video actually. We discovered this record store in our town and we were like “Wow, Beat Happening, K Records. Kurt Cobain is into K Records. What!? That’s the guy in the band, he’s right there selling records to us”. It was like our world opened up. Bret encouraged us to make zines and gave us zines he collected from tour. I don’t remember any that stick out that we were trying to emulate but it was awesome.
A couple years later I was working at the store and we were friends. He invited me to play with him in his music project D+. We ended up going to Olympia to record at K. One thing led to another. It was very exciting, it still is. I feel like I’m still on the same path right now. I feel lucky to have a person like Bret live in my town. I don’t know if I would have been that generous to my local teenagers. He was just so generous with his guidance and sort of steered us into amazing directions. I wouldn’t probably be doing any of this if it weren’t for him.
Elisa Hough, our publicity director from a few years back, was wondering what your favorite thing to eat for breakfast?
Almost everyday I eat two pieces of toast. I’m into baking bread. So I eat my toast with peanut butter and jam, one egg, and coffee. Sometimes I need to switch it up and have oatmeal.
She also wanted to ask if you’ve ever built the giant bass drum in a field?
I talked about it a lot but I never built it. Maybe someday still. I did a lot of architectural sketches and plans, but I never did it.
To what extent does David Lynch related films and shows have an influence over your music creation?
Mm, maybe. I feel like everything I watch, experience, see, or taste influences what I do with music, but it’s true there may be a more direct connection to Twin Peaks. Although, I never sit down and watch Twin Peaks then go write a song about it. If anything, I’m trying to resist that direction because my natural tendencies is already to make kind of northwesty dark stuff. I don’t always want to be the same tone, I’m interested in discovering new things.
How do you decide the difference between how your songs sound live versus how they sound in the studio?
It has more to do with ability, especially when I’m playing alone, because there’s only so much that I can do with two hands. There’s a lot going on with the studio versions frequently so I try and do what I can to capture the same feelings as the studio versions but not necessarily the sound.
What’s up with your twitter icon? Is that a wizard?
No, he’s an author from Montana. A small self-published author, who’s name I forget. I was in a bookstore in Livingston, Montana when I started my Twitter account. I was on a road trip and I just took a picture of this man’s face and I never changed it. I should give him credit and track him down somehow.
What have you been listening to lately on the road?
I’ve been trying to keep my iPod on shuffle for the whole trip, which is really challenging because there’s a lot of bad stuff in there. So all over the place.
Still listening to Black Metal?
Oh yeah, that pops up. Black Metal, Soundtracks, Classical Music, Rap, Podcasts. Uh, bleeps and bloops.
What kind of rappers do you listen to a lot?
I still listen to Jay-Z and Kanye West.
Early Kanye or late Kanye?
All of it. I really like the album “Yeezus” — I think it’s good. I think what he says is so stupid. The content of what he’s saying is so idiotic and embarrassing but the production ideas are really exciting to me.
Any place you recommend people to visit in your hometown Anacortes?
It’s a nice town. Go to Anacortes and walk around. There’s a really good record store called “The Business”. They’re close friends and also my distributor. They’re my home record store. The forests around there are amazing. There are a lot of protected forest lands with trails. That’s another good thing to do.
Are you recording a new album right now? How is that going a long?
Great. Yeah, I’m really happy with it. It’s almost done but it will probably come out much later. I’m just going to give it time to breathe and make sure I like it. I’m in the thick of it. I don’t have a good perspective on it since I’m inside it. I don’t actually know what it sounds like but I’m happy with how it’s going. It’s really nice and I’ve been working on it for almost two years now.
by Joshua Hong