Mi­cro­phones, Mount Eerie and Melan­choly

Exclaim! - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Ian Gormely

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 freewil­liams­ 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 song­ 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 song­ 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 song­ 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.”

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