Microphones, Mount Eerie and Melancholy
In another life, Phil Elverum could have had Conor Oberst’s career. A wunderkind recording wiz who made beguiling DIY recordings in the late ’90s, Elverum shunned the spotlight afforded to him after 2001’s The Glow Pt. 2 became a critical success. Retreating to his native Anacortes, WA, he’s since followed his own path, leaving a string of unpolished and unpredictable recordings in his wake.
The tragic death of his wife Geneviève Castrée in 2016, and the subsequent recordings on which he’s processed that loss, brought newfound attention to his work. This month sees the release of (After), a live album of tracks from 2017’s A Crow Looked at Me and this year’s Now Only, capping off a difficult period for Elverum even as he settles into a new life in Brooklyn with new wife, actor Michelle Williams, and their two children. “These death songs,” he tells Exclaim!, “I sort of view them as their own island that hopefully I’ll pass through.”
1978 to 1995
Phil Elverum is born in Anacortes, WA, 90 minutes north of Seattle. He learns about artists like U2, Bob Dylan and Neil Young from his dad’s copies of Rolling Stone. Nirvana’s Nevermind opens him to the idea of more aggressive and, crucially, local music. “In small towns around the world, people’s awareness of subcultures expanded a little bit. Looking at them, the way they dressed, they just seemed like you could see their past form, superficially. It made you realize that that path existed for me too, and for everyone else,” he says now.
Around age 14, he forms his own band, Nubert’s Circus, whose songs are mostly about food. He plays drums and writes lyrics. Elverum and his friends follow the “clues” from Nirvana to Sub Pop to K Records and finally Beat Happening. Eventually, they realize that Beat Happening member Bret Lunsford not only lives in their town, but runs the local record store, the Business. After hanging around the store being “celebrity-struck,” Elverum is offered a job by Lunsford, who becomes a mentor.
He begins experimenting with the eight-track reel-toreel in the back of the Business, which catches Lunsford’s ear. Elverum is invited to join Lunsford’s band D+, playing drums with fellow Anacortes native Karl Blau. Their debut release is a seven-inch called Book that is part of the International Pop Underground series on K Records, the label run by Lunsford’s Beat Happening bandmate Calvin Johnson. Lunsford releases the cassette-only Microphone, Elverum’s first release as the Microphones, on his own Knw-Yr-Own label. Like much of his early material, lyrics mostly revolve around his passion: recording techniques and gear. Before actually meeting, Elverum calls Johnson, who also runs the Olympia, WA recording studio Dub Narcotic. “I asked him, ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I love recording and I was wondering if I could be your apprentice at Dub Narcotic Recording Studios.’ He was like, ‘Uhhhhh...’” Elverum says now.
In the summer, Elverum attends the YoYo A GoGo music festival in Olympia, WA and moves there soon after to attend Evergreen State College. Elverum releases Microphone Mix as another cassette-only release by the Microphones on Knw-YrOwn; Blau and Elverum are the only credited players.
Despite their awkward phone introduction, Johnson gives Elverum a key to Dub Narcotic. “That was my apprenticeship. ‘Here’s a key, Go figure it out,’” he recalls. He spends as much time as he can at the studio, dropping out of college after two quarters. Some of the material he records, combined with selections from his previous releases, make up his first CD, called Tests, on Elsinor Records.
1999 to 2000
Johnson takes note of Elverum’s work and releases what’s considered the debut Microphones full-length, Don’t Wake Me Up, on K Records. It combines the experimentalism of early Microphones releases with a growing interest in lo-fi rock and folk. Rather than trying recreate the dense studio versions of his record, he opts to break his songs down to “get out the underlying idea of what the song is.” The Microphones follow up their debut with 2000’s It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, again on K.
The Microphones release The Glow Pt. 2 on K Records in September. Reviews are ecstatic, with many noting the expansive sound Elverum squeezes out of lo-fi gear. “It’s not like I am into having crappy instruments and making crappy-sounding records,” Elverum will tell freewilliamsburg.com the following summer. “I just have crappy instruments and I find ways to make the ‘crappiness’ so huge and impressive that it sounds more rich and beautiful than ‘non-crappy’ instruments.”
Pitchfork names it the best album of the year, and in 2009, the 73rd best album of the decade.
Adding to an already busy year, the Microphones’ Blood is the first record released on St. Ives, a vinyl-only label distributed by Bloomington, IN label Secretly Canadian. Its 300 handmade copies feature alternate versions of songs from The Glow Pt. 2.
2002 to 2003
In August 2002, K releases Song Islands, a collection of Microphones singles and rarities. Elverum spends the winter in a remote Norwegian cabin and has little contact with anyone else. “Having that much time alone with yourself was basically a meditation retreat that was unaffected by anyone else,” he’ll tell Vice in 2013.
In January 2003, the Microphones release Mount Eerie, an album named after Mount Erie, the tallest peak near Anacortes.
It features five long songs, with a narrative summed up by one interviewer as “you die, are eaten by vultures, and then in your bodiless invisible form you realize the size of the universe as it unfolds in 3D.”
Elverum announces his intention to retire the Microphones; he’ll now perform under the name Mount Eerie. “The Microphones was completed, or at least at a good stopping point,” he’ll tell Discorder. “I am not satisfied with the ending of Mount Eerie the album, so maybe by calling myself that, I am attempting to elaborate on the ending.”
Elverum meets Quebecois artist and musician Geneviève Castrée, who lives in Victoria, BC. They’re introduced through mutual friends for whom she booked some local shows. They marry soon after and both move back to Anacortes. Castrée joins Elverum’s touring band, though the two keep their relationship relatively quiet. “Before meeting her I used to be pretty open and write songs about whatever specific turmoil I was going through. But when I met her, I felt like, ‘No, this is different, this is too special to share with the world.’ I couldn’t sing about it. We lived in this bubble of privacy,” he’ll tell The Atlantic in 2018. In a contemporaneous interview with Discorder about the Mount Eerie tour, he says “the tour has felt more like a honeymoon than a tour. That’s the theme. Living love.”
Elverum considers “No Flashlight”: Songs
of the Fulfilled Night to be the first official Mount Eerie album. The full-length includes what’s purported to be the world’s largest album fold-out — a three-and-a-half by fivefoot illustration.
It’s the marquee release in a busy year for Elverum. Eleven Old Songs of Mount Eerie features Elverum performing songs written between 2002 and 2003 on a Casio keyboard. The tracks from 2004’s Two New Songs are reissued, with different names, as Mount Eerie Dances With Wolves on his new label, P.W. Elverum & Sun.
2007 to 2008
Mount Eerie pts. 6 & 7 is a four-song ten-inch included in a 132-page art book featuring photos from the first ten years of Elverum’s recording career. The songs are intended as a sequel to the Microphones’ Mount Eerie album, picking up where its narrative left off.
Released in October 2008, Lost Wisdom sees Elverum team up with Fred Squire and Julie Doiron. The pair were heading to Olympia for a recording session, stopped in to visit and ended up recording an album’s worth of material together. The recordings are mostly live-off-the-floor, recorded with a single mic. “Meeting Julie through music and playing a few shows together over the years has been really kind of weird and a dream come true,” he’ll tell Pitchfork in 2009. “Eric’s Trip is still a huge influence on me. The style of those recordings and the rawness of them is very inspiring. And the density of the distorted parts, amazing,” he’ll tell songfacts.com in 2013.
At the end of the year, Buenaventura Press releases Dawn, a 144-page journal of sorts featuring writing and images collected during the three-month period over the winter of 2002/03 Elverum spent in a Norwegian cabin. It’s accompanied by a CD of songs written during this same period.
He reissues The Glow Pt. 2 on his own label. “I don’t feel a connection to it, really, ’cause I’ve heard it so many times,” he says of the record now. “It’s hard for me to listen to it and not be aware of perceptions of it, or people talking to me about it. It’s hard to just hear it as music.”
Wind’s Poem is recorded with Vancouver artist Nick Krgovich between February 2008 and March 2009. The record is partly inspired by the extremity of black metal. “This idea of the darkest, heaviest music appealed to me because I’d always been into extremes,” he says now. “What’s the loudest, most extreme, dense sound I can make and the quietest sound I can make and how do I combine them?” The first of three nature-themed records, it’s released in July. In assembling a touring band, it’s Elverum’s intention — for the first time — to try and recreate the sounds of the album live. He incorporates two drummers, a gong and keyboards. “I like the experience of being in the audience and being overwhelmed by sound, like thick, oppressive loud sound and distortion,” he says now. “I wanted to make a show like that, which is really hard to pull off, I discovered.”
2010 to 2012
In 2010, Elverum takes a year off from touring, builds and moves into a new Anacortes recording studio called the Unknown, which is housed in an old church. It’s open to the public, with himself and Nicholas Wilbur acting as the two in-house producers and studio engineers.
Completing his nature-themed trilogy, Mount Eerie releases Clear Moon in May and Ocean Roar in September 2012. The two records are later paired as a double album. “They’re a pair. They go together aesthetically, logistically. But I also didn’t want to make them be one double album. So it’s kind of an experiment to see if it was possible to put out two that were linked as a pair. I think it went pretty well,” he’ll tells songfacts.com the following year.
2013 to 2015
Despite massive leaps in digital recording tech, Elverum remains committed to analogue tape. “I spend so much time on the computer already doing other aspects of the record label work, like designing and packing orders and booking tours. So getting a respite from the screen to actually record music is pretty nice,” he tells songfacts.com. Nevertheless, Pre-Human Ideas is recorded on Garageband, with Elverum’s voice filtered through Auto-Tune. They’re recordings, with some added material, meant to be instructional guides for band members who helped him bring the previous year’s Clear Moon and Ocean Roar to life onstage.
Mount Eerie release Sauna in February 2015. Following the birth of their daughter, Agathe, Geneviève Castrée sees a doctor for a routine postpartum checkup and some abdominal pain. A few weeks later she is diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer.
In January, lo-fi MC Lil Peep drops his California Girls EP; the track “Beamer Boy” samples The Glow Pt. 2 track “Headless Horseman”; in the fall, he drops “White Wine” which samples The Glow Pt. 2 instrumental “(Something).”
In June, Elverum and Castrée set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for medical bills and other costs associated with Castrée’s illness. “We don’t know what the future holds and how long this uncertainty will last. In any case, the amount we’ve spent over the last year alone has left us in a precarious financial position as a family,” writes Elverum on the page. Castrée dies on July 9 surrounded by Elverum and her parents. “It’s all very sad and surreal. So much is left unfinished for her. She was a firehose of brilliant ideas that never turned off. We loved her and everything is weird now,” writes Elverum on her GoFundMe page.
In March, Elverum releases A Crow Looked at Me. Work began on it the previous September and was recorded in the couple’s bedroom where Castrée died. Inspired by the Gary Snyder poem “Go Now,” it is sparse and stark, using only acoustic guitar and a laptop. Elverum confronts Castrée’s death head on in plain-spoken lyrics that leave little room for interpretation.
“I felt compelled to open up totally to the world again. It was scary to make that leap,” he tells The Atlantic. It receives some of the best and most mainstream reviews of his career. “People are relating in a way that is so open and human. So the thing I learned from the album was that everyone is much kinder and more mature than I expected.”
In March, Elverum releases Now Only, a companion to A Crow Looked At Me. Though written and performed in a similar style to his previous album, where that record explored the rawness of grief and loss, Now Only is about memory and acceptance. “It wasn’t over. I had more to say still. And I didn’t want to stay in that feeling of A Crow Looked at Me. I knew the only way out of it was to continue writing songs. There wasn’t even really a gap in the production. I just kept writing,” he tells The Atlantic.
(After), a live album recorded in an old church in the Netherlands at the 2017 Le Guess Who? Festival, arrives in September. It features performances of songs from A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only. In a July Vanity Fair cover story, film star Michelle Williams reveals that she and Elverum had married earlier that month in the Adirondacks, having been introduced to one another by a mutual friend. That same month, Elverum and Agathe move to Brooklyn to live with Williams and her daughter, Matilda.
Elverum admits that with (After) capping off a particularly tumultuous period of his life, he’s unsure of his next move. “I’ve got this new life and family shape. There’s just so much that I have to let settle down,” he says. “I need some time to write songs and work on my thing, but I’m just living my life and doing family stuff and letting inspiration come when it comes. But I also don’t feel a desperate need to keep pushing myself into people’s faces to stay cool and relevant. I’m artistically satisfied and happy.”
“I have crappy instruments. I find ways to make it so huge and impressive that it sounds more rich and beautiful than ‘non- crappy’ instruments.”