Understanding Phil Elverum’s creative vision as Mount Eerie is a process of observing transitions within the music and within the artist himself. In his seven-year tenure with the Microphones, Elverum (then spelled “Elvrum”) displayed a tendency to abbreviated noise-pop with only the occasional glimpse of the ethereal atmospherics he would later fully embrace with Mount Eerie. The connective tissue of Elverum’s music between both projects is the subtlety of movement. That is, the muted sounds of the Microphones naturally progressed into what would become a definitive underscore of his work in Mount Eerie. It suggests that Elverum works within the realm of chance as it relates to where the music guides him, with himself serving less as a conductor and more a conduit.
With the release of Sauna, Mount Eerie’s seventh full-length, Elverum is again at a point of change, grounding the ethereal pulse of an album like Clear Moon into a succinctly executed folk music framework. As rooted in the texturing of Scandinavian black metal as it is in the classic minimalist style of La Monte Young, Mount Eerie’s music has continually drawn its primary strengths from the willing vulnerability of its creator to allow the music its due guidance from album to album. Elverum isn’t simply open to transition and change with his music. He thrives on it.
On first listen, it seems like the songs on Sauna are much more focused on intimacy with the sound.
That’s cool that it sounds intimate. I did aim for that. In the studio we recently got a 24-track tape machine which is an upgrade from the 16-track so having those eight extra tracks to record made this record more hi-fi if that’s the right word for it. I got a little more finicky about sound quality on this record in a good way. I’m not into finicky hi-fi sound. I focused harder on the details.
When did your own relationship with music begin as a creator?
Music was always around when I was a kid and I played tuba in the school band but I don’t count any of that. It didn’t feel like creation in any way. It was probably when I started playing the drums in a band when I was 15 that it started to feel like a thing I actually had a hand in creating. I wrote the lyrics with the singer and played guitar in my room. So that’s how it started, but really the big breakthrough was figuring out that I could record myself and having the little eight-track studio set up and starting to do other recordings that would become the Microphones tapes.
For you, what’s the difference between working alone over working with other people where you’re having multiple creative perspectives coming in? Was that a liberating thing to have complete autonomy over what you wanted to accomplish as a musician?
Yeah, I think it is just a different type of project; it was a composition type of project. The format of a rock band comes from the social tradition that there are four musicians on the stage performing for other people and it’s more of a social thing. Rock bands then went on to make rock albums but they were still operating from that social tradition. When I first started doing these recordings — not even songs, just these sound experiments — that was part of a different tradition. It wasn’t a social thing. It’s never felt like a thing I could do on stage. All of the tours that I’ve done have been a different project from the album in a lot of ways even though I play the same songs. I think of it differently.
When creating and completing a song, do you feel like it’s finished or that it’s opened up and kind of a continual composition that you’ve created and it’s something that can be added to and reinterpreted to?
I guess I want to have it both ways. The version on the album has gotten to a terminal point and I’ve decided it’s how it’s going to live forever on the record, but I also really enjoy the tradition of folk music and oral history and the idea that stories and songs are these living things to be interpreted as they are sung. I’m into that. I try and keep messing with things every time I play a show. It’s almost like a song has a second or alternate life when it is performed live.
That ties into the thematics of Sauna and the Viking imagery and mythology referenced throughout the lyrics. Was that something that was more of a metaphorical influence on the album?
I think it was less about the actual mythology of Vikings and more about the everyday human moments that might happen in Iceland in 900 A.D. or whatever. The daily reality of being in a cold and real place and looking at the sky and seeing a poem and arguing with your neighbor, like tying in that type of other experience to my own experience right now and feeling this link. I don’t know, it might be totally superficial, the influence, but I have been really into thinking about everyday Vikings, ancient Scandinavians.
It’s something that speaks to the current cultural climate, because we find parallels in the constant search for identity.
I do read the [Viking] sagas a lot and I’m a fan of that writing. After all these years of reading them, I can’t put my finger on what it is that attracts me to it because those guys are assholes [laughs] and like jealous and vengeful…brutes. I’m not into those qualities in any other aspect of my life but for some reason I’m attracted to their style, I guess. I think maybe it’s the idea that life can be that brutal but also they have this elegant world of gods and myths and poems and carving beautiful boats and stuff. I’m into the idea of that. I’ve also been really into these Native Northwest people on the west coast, the Haida, similar to the Vikings. They had the most beautiful artwork and also they were the fiercest warriors.
What lies ahead for you for the rest of the year?
I’m taking time off from touring so I don’t have any tours lined up or anything basically [laughs]. I’m starting a new project, and I’m at the very beginning so I don’t know what form it will take at all. I’m giving myself the space to take its own shape.
Is it a musical project?
Yeah, I’m probably going to make another record. I’ve been thinking a lot about movies. It’s definitely too early to talk about it but I’d like to make a movie. Who knows? I don’t know how that world works [laughs]. It seems intimidating. I think I might give it a shot.