Mount Eerie: Interview
“I have almost never heard an interpretation of one of my songs that was what I intended.”
At this point, it’s hard to encapsulate the breadth of Phil Elverum’s artistic voice into a brief introduction. As a songwriter and performer, he cemented his place in indie-rock history with his work as The Microphones, especially on 2001’s touchstone The Glow Pt. 2. In his more recent work as Mount Eerie, he’s run the gamut from naturalistic experimentation (“No Flashlight”), haunting folk (Lost Wisdom), hard rock (Black Wooden Ceiling Opening), ultra-personal lo-fi (Dawn), and even a black metal-influenced opus (Wind’s Poem), among many others.
This year, Elverum is gracing us with two albums. The first, Clear Moon (TMT Review), is released today and will be followed by Ocean Roar in September. Both were recorded at the same time using a studio space converted from a “de-sanctified” church in his hometown of Anacortes, WA. With his penchant for experimentation, it’s easy to imagine how the new and unique environment led to some dense and complex recordings.
Elverum took some time to talk with Tiny Mix Tapes, revealing, among other things, a few clues about Clear Moon.
How did you come to set your studio up in the old building? Was it a functioning church while you were growing up in Anacortes?
The building hasn’t been a church for 30 years. It’s mostly been a sail-making loft (like for boats). The owners of the building are friends and notified me that the tenants were vacating, and so me and a friend figured out how to make it work to rent the place and make a studio.
Do you feel the church setting affected the final product? Is there an element of sacridity there?
The building definitely affected the albums, but probably not the sacredness. It’s more just the epic sound in the room that came through on the album. If anything, I probably was leaning harder on the vulgar to balance out any residual holiness. The pews and altar are gone now. It’s just a giant empty wooden room with high ceilings and nice morning light.
I think the songs are essentially just a way for me to explore my own mental self, like an abstract non-narrative diary. Just riffing on ideas, writing them down so I can experience it echoed back to myself from the page or tape.
Why did you record Clear Moon and Ocean Roar at the same time? How are they linked?
I didn’t have a clear goal for much of the recording. I was just working, experimenting, and exploring the new space. The songs that make up the album all came during this raw exploratory period. About two-thirds to completion I started forming them into two distinct albums, which are two sides to the same idea. It’s clarity vs. obscurity, vision vs. fog blanket.
I did an interview with you back in 2009, right after the release of Wind’s Poem. In it, you said, “I hope to make an even huger, denser sounding record next. A wall.” Do you hear a wall with these recordings?
The wall-sounding one is Ocean Roar, although it’s not the wall I was imagining in 2009. I realized that a solid black wall is boring. Also, immensity only sounds big if it’s next to something smaller for scale. So, like always, the songs range all over the place. But yes, I’m still trying to make a more giant sound than ever.
The only song from Clear Moon I’ve had the chance to hear so far has been “House Shape.” In it, I believe I heard synthesizer and organs with sequenced swells. Can we expect some synth exploration on these records?
There’s actually no synthesizer there. It’s all this 1800s pump organ and compressors and many detuned acoustic guitars. There are some synthesized tom fills on the drums but mostly it’s acoustic. I think people will think it’s really computer-y, but I made these records totally analog. There are a few moments where a keyboard is used for the tone but buried inside other organs and strings.
How much of your recording process is elbow grease, and how much of it is flashes of inspiration? Does isolation play a part?
It’s difficult to describe. It really is just spending days and days fucking around and trying things, moving it a little bit, accidentally leaving the mic on and hearing the tape rewinding through the speaker echoing through the room, recording that sound onto another piece of tape, pitching it down, putting it with this other thing, spending two days pursuing this weird possibility only to realize it sucks. It’s the luxury of not paying for a “real” recording studio, and also of having these analog limitations to force me to search for solutions and accidentally discover things I never would have tried before.
Since you spend so much time discovering sounds in the studio, I think it’s interesting that your live show is so comparatively stripped-down (excluding, of course, the full-band setup that toured for Wind’s Poem). Do you conceptualize the songs differently when you’re molding them in the studio as opposed to when you’re strumming them alone on an acoustic guitar in front of an audience?
Yes, I’ve always thought of the live versions as almost a different project. I try to think of how I can use the tools available to me in any given situation to convey the feeling of the song. In the studio the tools are endless and versatile. On tour, it’s very limited, but I am aiming to evoke the same feeling, just by a different route. Sometimes it’s through words and explanation and lyrically focused performances, sometimes with loud distortion, sometimes some movies, or fog machines. But [I’m] always thinking of what the song is trying to say and how to say that with my given tools. Plus, a song should be a living, breathing thing (I think), and it should take a different form over and over.
That’s interesting, because one of the elements of your songs I find most interesting is the fact that you revisit them in different contexts. One of the best examples I can think of is “Don’t Smoke,” which is presented as a ripping rock song on Black Wooden Ceiling Opening, often as a quiet acoustic song during your live shows, and as a more controlled burn on Song Islands, Pt. 2. You’ve also explored many alternate versions, alternate takes, and revisits of “The Moon.” What leads you to this as a songwriter?
I think music and art is fluid. It’s more natural to let it take many forms than to stick to any one commodified album version or whatever. Songs are ideas that don’t die once they’re recorded. It’s only modern popular music that doesn’t work this way. All music in history is about constant reinterpretation and communication.
Speaking of “The Moon,” the song has always sounded to me like one of your most directly love and relationship-related songs. These themes are reflected in many of your other songs, but the specifics are often obscured, even if the emotions behind the songs are naked and poignant (my favorite example of this is “My Burning” on Dawn). As you progress as a songwriter, and after getting married, do you feel your approach to these sorts of subjects in your songs changing?
Yeah, totally. I don’t want to sing about domestic arguments anymore. When I was 20, it all felt so important and epic but it’s not. I want to explore things that are hopefully more meaningful than human moods and drama. I think this shift is part of getting older. Teenagers think the world is going to end if they don’t get the right jean shorts.
One of the most striking things about your music is how intensely personal it often sounds. Maybe it’s the introspective vibe of your lyrics, maybe it’s the soft and intimate nature of your singing voice, but it’s easy to hear a lot of personal meaning in your lyrics. Have you been able to discover things about yourself and your life through writing your songs?
Yes, I think the songs are essentially just a way for me to explore my own mental self, like an abstract non-narrative diary. Just riffing on ideas, writing them down so I can experience it echoed back to myself from the page or tape. I discover all kinds of shit about myself this way. It’s all for me really, if I’m being totally honest about it. I’m not making this stuff so other people have experiences with it. I am making a thing that I want to hear and think about, but then I’m making many copies of it because that’s what we do with music.
About two-thirds to completion I started forming them into two distinct albums, which are two sides to the same idea. It’s clarity vs. obscurity, vision vs. fog blanket.
Have any friends or family who the songs are about recognized themselves in the lyrics? What was the result?
I haven’t written songs about other specific people for years, but in the past some song subjects have certainly identified themselves. It was never a challenge to see, for those close enough to me to know what I’m singing about. The result was that I felt weird and apologetic for making my personal therapy/diary project too public.
Did you ever hear an interpretation of one of your songs which was different than the one you intended?
I have almost never heard an interpretation of one of my songs that was what I intended. I mostly feel like I’ve communicated poorly and am misunderstood. It’s probably my own fault. I often feel like I’m being clear but then later realize that not many people are on the same page as me, but maybe are getting some other meaning out of it. This is why the first lyrics on Clear Moon are “Misunderstood and disillusioned, I go on describing this place…” I keep trying to make my ideas clearer.
Well, you do have some songs that are explicitly instructional, where the message is clearly defined, like “Don’t Smoke,” and “Get Off the Internet.”
That was a weird phase I went through where I was experimenting with being more “punk” or “political,” in the sense of using my moment in front of the microphone to maybe change people in some tiny way. It was worth a try.
This year will mark the 10-year anniversary of the winter you spent living alone in Norway, which produced the album and book Dawn. Do you feel that experience was transformative for you? How do you feel you’ve changed in the near-decade since then?
Yes, it was totally transformative. The decade since then has been a more gradual transformation, but still a slow change. It’s all that slow shedding of romantic tendencies and growing awareness of the wonder and excellence of “the everyday.” Ten years ago, I’d be, like, sprinting towards the mountain with my camera and yelling about how amazing the view was and then writing 20 poems about it. Now I just look and say “Woah, nice…” and think about it to myself maybe.
Do I sound like a dead body? I think grown-up style is nice.