As some may have guessed, us Spook Houses guys are big Microphones/Mount Eerie fans. I'm not gonna front and say I have been a fan for years, but the first time the music clicked for me (about 2 years ago), it opened up a whole world of interesting sounds, thoughts and genuinely-crafted pop songs. Naturally, Colin and I were beyond excited when Impose asked us to conduct an interview with songwriter/mastermind, Phil Elverum.
Elverum just reissued a hefty load of old Microphones records via his own record label P.W. Elverum & Sun. The reissues include Mount Eerie, The Glow Pt. 2, It Was Hot We Stayed In The Water, Don't Wake Me Up, and Song Islands. F yeah that rules! The packaging is beautiful, the sounds are even better, and you've even got a cool digital download in there to keep your computer happy. We caught up with him on the web to speak about the reissued material and some other fun things.
Hey Phil! You are about to complete a “massive repressing” of five records from the Microphones. What prompted your decision to do this?
No special occasion. They had been out of print for too long and I was able to get permission from K (the original label that released them) to just do the repressing myself. It made sense to just do them all at once. I wanted it to be more like keeping the records in print and less like a special commemoration, but at the same time I wanted it to feel special a little.
I received my LP copy of It Was Hot… in the mail about two months ago (loving it) and noticed you had addressed the package by hand. Though a sweet gesture, does this not grow tiresome when addressing (presumably) hundreds of preorder packages? Why do you choose this method?
I enjoy the satisfaction of doing things myself. I also enjoy writing words with black ink and a brush. Still though, yes it does get to be too hectic when I'm trying to also do other things with my life. Lately I've had help from my friends at The Business in Anacortes who handle my orders when I'm on tour or too busy.
Just stopped in at The Business when I was passing through Anacortes on vacation with family (wonderful place, picked up some cool records by The Music Tapes and Mind Spiders). Any new sounds you've been digging lately?
I don't explore new music that much unfortunately. The quantity can be overwhelming. I end up coming back around to the same favorites over and over, almost like a seasonal thing. At the moment I keep listening to Popol Vuh and also Gurdjieff's organ improvisations. Actually though, I keep listening to this one song, “Go To Jail” by Chief Keef. Severely autotuned rap. I want to find more borderline-psychedelic synthetic hip hop like that.
Moving on to your records… I think most listeners notice a clear evolution of sound and production technique throughout the Microphones catalog. Could you talk a bit about your process in this early part of your musical career and how it has developed?
I'm not sure what to say about it. It has all been pretty haphazard and experimental. I just spend a long time mostly alone in the studio trying out ideas, imagining sounds and trying to work towards them using the tools that are in the room. No clear process other than constant experimentation.
How prolific are you with different versions of songs in that experimentation? Is it the kind of thing where you keep going at the same song until you’re “wooed” by it? Or is it more about looking for sounds in a more abstract sense that you can then apply to songs that are already more stable?
It's more like I'm working on a 3 or 4 minute long piece of tape, creating a feeling or a distinct world made up of tones and textures. Only at the end does it really become a “song”. It starts super abstract and gets wrestled into a shape with repeated chord sequences and patterns. A sung melody and words is usually the very last layer. Since there is rarely a pre-existing “song” to work from, I almost never record different versions.
Impose asked us to write a short “Guide to the Microphones Reissues” to post along with this interview. Its goal is to inform new listeners of good places to start in a somewhat daunting amount of listening material. As 'creator', which recordings would you want the rookie listener to hear first?
Well, of course I'm most excited about the stuff I'm currently making. The Microphones albums seem ancient and foreign to me, even though I still like them and think they're worth attention. Also, every listener is unique and weird and who knows what they will like? It's an impossible task. Choose your personal favorites and present them as personal favorites, avoid empiricism.
Mmhm. How about your own relationship to them? Aside from what you’re excited about lately, are there any that you’re most nostalgic for or maybe fondest of?
I'm not sure, let me look at them really quick to remember. OK, I looked. I guess they are all distant enough that they seem more or less equally foreign. Now when I hear them my favorite parts are the crazy mashed up walls of distortion that I don't remember how I made them. Most of the time I was recording Don't Wake Me Up I remember living nocturnally, mostly in the wet winter in Olympia, newly moved away from home for the first time. I feel nostalgic about that time. Drinking pots of black tea all night and layering half tuned-in AM radio station interference through the amps with distorted bass and broken amps. Basically living with ghosts in a huge empty warehouse studio, getting dark and half-dreaming everything, being 20. Particularly “Here With Summer” from Don't Wake Me Up, the 2nd part of “(something)” from It Was Hot… are good examples of this vibe.
A consistent element throughout your catalog is a use of language and lyricism that sometimes lends itself more to literary traditions than pop music traditions. Do you think this is an important aspect of listening through the catalog? I know that you've mentioned an interest in Gary Snyder in the past, and I feel like George Oppen has some relevance, too.
I've never heard of George Oppen. I'll look into him. I love books and am interested in making use of the preexisting groundwork of all written human knowledge. I guess my records are meant to hopefully function both as just fun music to hear and as interesting ideas to explore with your mind. People listen in all different kinds of ways.
How old were you during the release of Don't Wake Me Up? and during the release of Mount Eerie? Looking at that span of time in your recording career, how did your work parallel your personal experiences, coming of age, etc?
Don't Wake Me Up came out in 1999 when I was 21. Mount Eerie was 2003 when I was 25. I went through many phases during those years. Much of Don't Wake Me Up was recorded in Anacortes at the same place where I did my high school recording experiments, so it was still very connected to adolescence. By the time Mount Eerie came out I'd had all kinds of crazy experiences traveling the world and getting happy and sad in a million ways, but still was basically a teenager. Right after finishing recording Mount Eerie I moved away from Olympia and went on tour for a year and lived in Norway for a winter, a deliberate, forced, self-imposed “coming of age” procedure.
There's a game that our friends and I used to play called Minecraft that I was thinking about recently. It's a game in which the character lands in an unknown wilderness with nothing but his/her bare hands. Starting with wood and building the way towards more refined materials, the protagonist learns to either become comfortable amongst the wilderness or to create a warm fortress to avoid outside danger. How do you think this narrative relates to your music?
Funny question. The game sounds like Taoism vs. Euro-Christian thought. I don't know how it relates to my music but I do know that just in life I think it's better to not build a fortress. Maybe there's some connection to my stubborn residual pioneering west coast never-ask-for-help self-sufficiency aims too.
What was your favorite movie during the Microphones days? What about now?
I go through a lot of favorite movies. Maybe my favorite back then and now is Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa. Black Orpheus was a big one for me in those days too.
I haven’t seen Throne of Blood, but Black Orpheus is really wild. Will definitely have to check Kurosawa out, though. Phil — Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and good luck with all your things!
SPOOK HOUSES’ “ROOKIE’S GUIDE TO THE MICROPHONES CATALOG”
In the past few years, we’ve become very aware of the different ways that people engage with music and get introduced to new (or old) musicians. In the case of us with Phil’s work, the entire catalog of Microphones’ “classics” was released before we were introduced to his work. Peering into somebody’s world is overwhelming, and I know Dave and I had completely separate experiences of taking on the daunting landscape of sounds. We’re excited to have the chance to lend a hand as any rookies take on this task so as to not be put off by hearing the wrong things at the wrong times. We put these records in order of “best place to start” to “best place to finish up” along with our own personal favorites, Davey B’s Stellar Picks (DBSP) and Colin A’s Rockin’ Licks (CARL).
#1 The Glow Pt. 2
The Glow Pt. 2 is a solid place for anyone to start and was the fourth chronological release in this five LP catalog. It’s the most critically acclaimed of these five records, the most accessible, and the best place for this songwriting to build your trust. An array of heavy sounds, noise experiments, and tape loops mix with intimate songwriting and cereal bowl twinkling in the background. Certain melodies hook you in and then destroy you later! Now you’re crying.
DBSP: The Moon, I Felt Your Shape
CARL: I Want To Be Cold
#2 It Was Hot We Stayed In The Water
This record was released a year previous to The Glow Pt. 2. It has a lot of similar sounds and songwriting styles, but it really took me in because of its roughness. The songs are often a little more directly recorded and include a larger amount of heavy, driving rock songs.
DBSP: The Glow, Karl Blau
CARL: The Pull
#3 Mount Eerie
By this time, having been wooed by The Glow and It Was Hot, chances are you have the interest and the patience to really listen to Mount Eerie. This is currently my favorite release of the catalog as it acts as a retrospective look into THE LIFE OF PHIL. In this tribal five act play, Phil builds his own mythography for us to laugh and cry over. There is a heavy emphasis on percussion on this record, which gives the few melodies it does hold even more impact. Featuring Calvin Johnson as THE UNIVERSE and Kyle Field as DEATH, this is a really emotional listen for me every time. I can only do it a couple times a year.
DBSP: III. The Universe
CARL: I. The Sun
#4 Don’t Wake Me Up
Phil gives some nice insight to this record above. Released when he was 21 and recorded in a nocturnal state, the roots of the catalog show a real progression of thought, an interest in sound, and a series of experiments between softness and heaviness. It’s arguably the least refined of these five records, and has a great honesty to it. I really enjoy the use of group vocal/harmonies in these songs.
DBSP: I Felt You, Ocean 1, 2, 3
CARL: Tonight There’ll Be Clouds
#5 Song Islands
The Song Islands records are described as such “These songs are islands, unrelated to any ‘real’ albums, created between 1997 and 2002, mostly in/of Olympia, Wash., and collected on CD by K.” It’s great to have these as a follow up once you’ve swum through the rest of releases. You think you know ‘em all, and then you get a whole new rack of gems. I really enjoy seeing these songs laid out; life isn’t like a movie and scene changes aren’t always so smooth. There’s a little higher sense of reality in this mat of songs.
DBSP: I Lost My Wind