Song Writing

Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie

by Trevor Morelli

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Growing up in Washington State, Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum was undoubtedly influenced by the Seattle grunge explosion of the early '90s. He came of age in a time when rock and punk music were exciting, dangerous, and challenging, so it's no surprise that those elements are transmitted through his own unique sound.

Elverum began recording music as The Microphones in 1996. After six albums and some success in the indie alt-rock world, he changed the name of the project to Mount Eerie in 2004. Elverum would be the first to admit that he doesn't know exactly what the name means to him or where it comes from, but he does know that it inspires and enables him to take his knob-twisting melodies and emotion-packed vocals to an entirely new level.

Listening to a Mount Eerie record is a mind-bending escape from reality. At times, it's mellow and cool; the perfect chill-out disc to help you wind down your day. But it can also be messy, weird, and spontaneous. It's a trip down memory lane where the memories are blurry. It's Radiohead with dirt and fuzz smeared across the stage. It's an experience that will make your mind race while you lay in bed long after you've stopped the music and turned the lights out.

In 2012, Mount Eerie released two albums, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar. Elverum says the discs are meant to be different, yet complimentary. They're Yin vs. Yang, Clarity vs. Chaos, and most notably, Dark vs. Light. In 2013, Elverum plans to record more new music, reissue some of his old discs from The Microphones era, and tour Australia and New Zealand – the latter of which he's never toured before. He's charting his own course for the New Year and living happily by carving out his place in indie music history along the way.
Trevor Morelli (Songfacts): Last year you released two albums, which seem to have put you on the map a little bit more. Do you feel that way?

Phil Elverum: I guess so, yeah. I mean, I'm definitely happy about how they were received. But I also don't pay that close attention to that type of thing. I don't read music websites or magazines or anything. But I do know that it's going well, because I put the records out and so I actually have to pack orders all the time and notice that orders were busy.

Songfacts: Do you enjoy that part of the business side of it or do you find that more annoying and distracting and taking away from your music?

Phil: It is a problem, it takes up a lot of time that could be spent making art. But yeah, I do really like it, idealistically.

Songfacts: Why did you think it was important to get both of these albums out in one year?

Phil: I wanted to put them out at the same time. 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.

Songfacts: Which songs on each album do you think contrast the most - if you had to take a song off Clear Moon to compare it to Ocean Roar, which two are the most opposite?

Phil: Well, Clear Moon on average is softer, with more round synth sounds. The last song is called "Synthesizer," and it's just instrumental new age synth noodling. It's not representative of the album necessarily, but it's the extreme exaggeration of what that album is.

And then on Ocean Roar, there's an instrumental track that is called "Engel Der Luft." It's a cover of a Popol Vuh song, it's just kind of distortion and black metal style music. So those are the polar opposites.

Songfacts: That reminds me of another song you've got, it's called "Over Dark Water." It starts with distortion and builds to sort of a drum climax at the end. What are you playing there?

Phil: I had kind of a black metal song with drums throughout the whole thing, but I couldn't really make it work with the singing. And so the final mix ended up just leaving most of the instruments out of the mix, most of the guitars and drums. And so what you hear on the final version of the album is just bass, guitar, and synth bass playing in unison, but panned, so it's kind of two bass notes battling each other with an occasionally distorted string sound on the keyboard.

Songfacts: So you play all these instruments yourself?

Phil: Yeah.

Songfacts: I know it's kind of a solo project, but when you go on tour, you have to translate these songs to a full band. How do you work that out with your bandmates?

Phil: Well, it's a different band for every tour. And sometimes I tour alone. So it's a constantly morphing thing. I like it that way. I like there to be infinite versions of the song. Although for the last couple of tours we did a pretty accurate rendition of the songs, meaning how they are on the album. There are some songs, of course, that are just impossible to play live, because they are studio things that have impossible drum sounds or whatever. But about 60% of the album is playable.

Songfacts: Looking back at all of your albums, which songs have been the most difficult to translate live, but in the end turned out really well?

Phil: Well, it's only been recently that I've even tried to translate them. In the past I used to just make very loose new versions that had maybe the same chords and same lyrics, but I didn't even try and make it sound like the album. For Wind's Poem in 2009, I put a band together that more or less was going for the album sound.

The most difficult one - and we only played it at a few shows before giving up - it's called "Waves" on Ocean Roar, and it's really loud. I find that really loud music is the hardest to figure out how to make it feel right live.

Songfacts: Is that typical of the kind of music you listen to?

Phil: I listen to all kinds of music. And honestly, I don't listen to that much music recently. I used to always have music playing, but for whatever reason, the last few years, I don't.

It's weird, though, because I am into music. I love it. And I still buy music. It's just that I am behind on listening to it. I have a stack of records that I haven't listened to yet. But I listen to lots of ambient music or piano, classical, just like solo sparse piano music. I really like Tim Hecker.

Songfacts: How about books or other forms of art?

Phil: Yeah. It actually feels like a job trying to keep up with all the media that comes in.

Songfacts: So on Clear Moon there's a song called "The Place Lives." You sing a lyric, "If I look or if I don't look, clouds are always passing over." What do you mean by that lyric?

Phil: I mean that the weather and the world around us doesn't care about us, it's just ongoing whether or not we're paying attention to it. I guess that's meant to set an atmosphere of human insignificance.

Songfacts: Do you see that as a positive or a negative, though? Like the pace of the world and just how everything's constantly changing and moving.

Phil: Yeah. I think that it's good to be aware of the ultimate insignificance of all we do. But the conclusion that I draw from that fact is not, Well, might as well just watch Friends DVDs all day. It actually is inspiring.

Songfacts: Another one of my favorite songs was from Wind's Poem, the song "Between Two Mysteries." And in that one there's sort of a motif you're singing over about how we're buried in space. What did you mean by that line?

Phil: I climbed a mountain six years ago: Mount Baker. It's the only actual alpine legitimate mountain climbing trip I've been on with ice picks and ropes and stuff. And I was just thinking about the absurdity of that endeavor, like getting to the top of the mountain and seeing, well, this is here. And then the world keeps going up above us. Like, there's more space.

And also the idea of Mount Eerie. I'm constantly thinking, What does this band name mean? Which is kind of why I have this name, because there's something to it that I don't quite understand, so I keep making up these songs to try to explain this ambiguous concept. It's kind of like a looming mountain above the world, invisible.

So "buried in space" means that there's a mountain, but it's actually not the top.

Songfacts: I see. Along those lines, I read in an interview that you said you constantly feel misunderstood. Do you feel that way with what you're working on now?

Phil: Sure. Of course. I guess part of that is that I'm not the best at explaining myself. I like to write songs that are ambiguous and mysterious, to me, even. Which is maybe kind of a copout. But there is no right answer, I suppose. It is kind of disillusioning to be at shows or on tour and to average out the feedback from people who are giving me compliments, and it's very flattering. But their perception, what they take from it, is sometimes pretty far from what I intended. It's actually disheartening.

Songfacts: Interesting. So I also read where you were talking about some of your influences growing up. Do you still listen to the Canadian band Eric's Trip?

Phil: Oh, heck yeah. That was back when I was like 14.

Songfacts: You grew up in the Nirvana era. I kind of wonder why you're not inclined to make music like that rather than what you're doing.

Phil: I'm trying. I'm legitimately trying to make music like that. It just comes out wrong.

Songfacts: I think the emotion is there. You can hear it in your voice the same way Kurt Cobain had that in his voice. I think it's just the style is quite different.

Phil: I guess the difference is I can't scream. Although Eric's Trip, they weren't screamers. 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.

Songfacts: And you've worked with Julie Doiron since then, right?

Phil: Yeah. We got to make a record together.

Songfacts: Do you still keep in touch?

Phil: Yeah. We toured a few times and we're friends. But we don't keep in touch that well just because we're both living these hectic lives. But we see each other. I saw her last September in Toronto at my show, and she actually came out and sang a song with me.

Songfacts: That's really cool. Are there any other musicians that you're looking to work with or you'd want to work with in the future?

Phil: Yeah. I'm not the best at collaborating, but I want to be pushed out of that. I want to be pushed out of my comfort zone. I would like to make another record with Julie, actually. But a loud one instead of an acoustic one.

Songfacts: You recorded both these albums completely analog, on tape. But I read last summer you were messing around a bit with Garage Band and things like that. Has that progressed at all?

Phil: I use it sometimes for demos if I'm trying to make a quick example to show bandmates before going on a tour, to show them their part. But no, I haven't explored that very much more.

Songfacts: And it's more because you've been trained in the analog realm?

Phil: Yeah. And those are the tools. The studio here is tape. And it's just more comfortable. I mean, 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.

Songfacts: What are you working on in 2013?

Phil: Probably not any major Mount Eerie albums. But I'm putting out five albums by The Microphone, I'll be reissuing all the records that came out on K Records. They are out of print. So I'm putting versions of those out on my own label. That'll be really fancy.

Songfacts: What exactly does that involve?

Phil: They have to be remastered to press vinyl. And I'm rescanning all the artwork and touching everything up and printing them at higher resolution, just making the most beautiful jackets possible. They're going to come with downloads and special foil... blah, blah, blah.

Songfacts: That sounds like you're going to be doing a lot more on the business side.

Phil: Yeah, I know. I have some other music projects, but they're more peripheral. Not a new Mount Eerie album.

March 12, 2013.
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