“One thing you should know about me is I don’t pay attention to music that much,” admits Phil Elverum. “So some of the things you think I might know, I probably won’t.”
What Mount Eerie‘s main member – and the onetime frontman of the Microphones – means to say is he doesn’t keep up with today’s music. While he’s fully aware of, say, Clams Casino because a friend (Nicholas Krgovich) wrote a slice of electro-soul over one of his shadow-boxed beats, Elverum doesn’t seek out new songs. Not when he’s got proven LPs like the ones below to keep him company, from the readymade indie rock of Eric’s Trip and Beat Happening to such left-field selections as Popol Vuh and Sunn O))). All of which can be heard rippling through his two highly recommended 2012 records, Clear Moon and Ocean Roarâ€¦
I don’t know what this is, but I like it. Hold on; let me turn it a little louderâ€¦Is this Harvey Milk – a band I’ve never listened to but I keep feeling like I should?
Well it’s from the same label, so you’re kinda on the right track. It’s Jesu, which is the main guy from Godflesh. I picked it because some of the vocals on Wind’s Poem remind me of him.
Yeah, I’ve never heard anything like this before – people making really dense, heavy music, but singing in a softer way over the top of it. Other than something like My Bloody Valentine, where the vocals are intentionally buried in distortion. I want to make black metal essentially, but I can’t screamâ€¦Recording heavy music is tricky for me because I can make it work instrumentally, but something about an instrumental song doesn’t feel quite as real.
Do you have a hard time finding the right balance between the way you sing and the music itself?
Yeah. With black metal, you usually can’t decipher the words, and that’s fine for them, but for me, there’s something I’m really trying to convey. And in order for them to be legible in the mix, you have to put the vocals high up where the intensity starts to suffer.
You must have gotten more confident with these last couple records, though.
I have, but for the most part, when the heavy parts come in, the singing stops. I originally wanted the new records to be more extreme – totally stop/start, where some songs are just singing and some are just music. Like a friend reminded me how in Medieval times, a bard would noodle on his lute for a while, then say a poem, then noodle on his lute some more. Music and words weren’t necessarily intertwined.
In your case, you want to shred, then do your poem?
I can tell from the hiss that this is maybe Eric’s Trip.
You can recognize them simply by the hiss?
Yeah. It’s music that I’ve listened to a million times – so foundational in my mind. This is the first track on Forever Again.
I think that’s an amazing way to start a record – with a fade-up of rain, then this other sound that’s like scraps from a session tape, and then the song starts. They’re the best.
What do you love about them so much? Or is it hard to put into words, especially since you’ve played with some of them in the past?
Oh no, it’s not hard. I was a teenager when I first heard them. I had never heard anything like this before. I guess Sebadoh would have been in the same ballpark, but I hadn’t heard them yet either. And by this point, they were more of a rock band anyway, with their Sub Pop albums. But um, yeah; I don’t know. Starting an album like that – who would do that? It seems crazy, a mistake that’s so beautiful, mysterious and deep. I remember listening to that so intently as a teenager, like, “Is that a recording of rain? And then a car drives by? Where are they? What world is this?” It’s so rich, taking music so far beyond instruments, in a John Cage sort of way. It made me realize that sloppy homemade things could make up an amazing album.
So before them, you were more of a verse/chorus, verse/chorus sort of guy?
Yeah, or something like Nirvana’s Nevermind, for example – music, not a cassette recording where you can hear people talking in between songs. I stole the idea of starting a song with quiet hiss from this. [The Microphones] record Don’t Wake Me Up starts the same way because of this idea.
You ended up doing your Lost Wisdom album with some members of this band; when did you meet them?
When I was 19, my girlfriend and I drove across Canada because we were fans and wanted to go on a trip anyway. We went to their town and I was just so starstruck being in this random east Canadian town. We happened to see a show – not Eric’s Trip, because they’d broken up, but Elevator to Hell, the band some of them became. I guess I met Julie Doiron through going to her shows every time she came here, and I gradually got on the bills myself. I was an enthusiastic fan that became a friend.
You drove all the way across Canada to see them? That’s quite a drive.
Kinda. It was mostly just to go on a trip, but that was the place I fantasized about the most because I was so into this music.
Is that drive as barren as you’d imagine it being?
Yeah, in a really beautiful way. It was like going on tour, but with no shows.
[Recognizing the song within seconds] Burzum.
Buzum is complicated [laughs]. He’s an asshole, you know? A horrible person – a racist, and I also don’t like that much of his music. I really liked his Belus album because it’s trippy and deep, but I don’t knowâ€¦I heard about Norwegian black metal by reputation before I heard any of the music. Like most people did probably – hearing about the murders, and the church burnings. It painted this picture of music that was so over the top and evil, but actually hearing Burzum or Mayhem was underwhelming in its evilness.
Because it was so lo-fi and campy?
It’s just so trebly and thin, and the voices sound like whining teenagers rather than demons. It’s corny – a Halloween costume situationâ€”but there’s something beautiful about the earnestness of living that costume. Occasionally with bands like Burzum, there’s true musical transcendence where it gets psychedelic from all the repetition. The thinness has grown on me, too. I understand the idea behind it.
You think there’s an actual reason for it instead of being a matter of having limited means?
I do. I heard Varg [Vikernes] talk about those early albums in an interview once, about how he wanted to use the shittiest possible amplifier – the tiniest practice amp. I think he called it the “crypts sound” or something. Not wanting to sound professional is interesting in an Eric’s Trip kind of way.
Didn’t you name one of your albums after this song?
Lost Wisdom? I didn’t name that record because of this song necessarily. I just thought, “Oh, well, that’s a cool name! I wonder which Burzum song it is? Oh well, I’m not even going to look it up.”
So I assume you have a bit of a history with this song.
Yes. A very deep history.
Where shall we start then?
Well, I grew up in Anacortes, Washington, and a member of Beat Happening is also from around here – Bret [Lunsford], the guitar player. When I was a teenager, the one record store in town was owned by Bret. This would have been ’91/’92, when Nirvana was happening and Beat Happening was kinda winding down. We were just starstruck teenagers, seeing Bret in a record store. He opened our world to the idea of underground culture, of recording and making things yourself.
We were into Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains – all these hair bands, basically – and then Beat Happening, but we didn’t see a disparity there. It was just the music we liked. In hindsight, it’s kinda funny that we liked Alice in Chains almost as much as Beat Happening. But yeah, I didn’t like them equally for long. I grew in one direction.
And it didn’t involve Alice in Chains?
No. I saw them at the Seattle [Center] Coliseum and got the idea. Never got to see Beat Happening, though. I tried to book them a few times, but they were slippery.
It must have been an honor to be on K Records.
Totally. I got into that by being in a band with Bret. He invited me to play in [D+], so we got to record with Calvin [Johnson] in Olympia, which was very exciting.
Someone who’s 20 years old now might not know much about K’s importance or history. What’s the best way you could sum up its impact?
I guess I take it for granted that it’s a big deal historically. But that’s the thing about history – it slips away. To sum it up, K is the foundational punk label that redefined what punk is, from D.C. hardcore or whatever to some dude playing an acoustic guitar and bongos. Punk is the method, not the result.
This is Stereolab. You’ve got me pegged. This is from Dots and Loops right?
Yeah, it’s the opening track.
They’re one of my favorite bands too. They made me think differently about song structures, but [I was] mostly into the [records] before this. Emperor Tomato Ketchup really hit me. Dots and Loops is the beginning of their transition into lounge-y, math-y stuff. I still like it, although the glitchy sounds were always a little problematic for me because they immediately sound dated; like six months later, they’re completely out of fashion. Whereas an organ drone will always sound amazing.
Is that why you use it so much in your music?
It’s pretty useful.
Stereolab were always looked at as “record-collector rock” because they clearly referenced so many other artists. Did you discover other kinds of music through them?
I didn’t actually. I probably should have explored Neu! or Can, but I just kept hearing those names and never looked them up. On the other hand, I looked up lots of things Sonic Youth referenced, like Stockhausen or Glenn Branca. I got really into experimental music through them.
This is Popol Vuh, off Aguirre, I think. I love them a lot. For the past 10 years or so, they’ve been the most inspiring band to me. When I start recording, I’m usually trying to do this. Not this song in particular – the hugeness. They have a lot of songs that are just jamming electrical guitar solos basically. I usually don’t like that kind of thing, but I like when they do it. My favorite stuff is their Herzog soundtracks, though.
Right; you’re fully aware of how corny some of their music sounds, and yet, the soundtracks are rather awesome.
They actually make me like the corny guitar stuff even more. Sometimes it’s the perfect thing to put on during a long drive – those 10-minute guitar solos. You should try them out the next time you’re driving through Montana.
Do they sound dated to you at all though?
I guess the blues solo guitar jams do, but this kind of thing doesn’t. Maybe if I listened to more ambient music, it would, but this is still new to me.
Did you struggle with what song of theirs you wanted to cover on Ocean Roar?
I didn’t start off wanting to cover one of their songs. I was just listening to ["Engel Der Luft"] and thought one of the melodies was so beautiful and would work well as a chord experiment in a black metal style.
Could you ever see doing an entire record of synth-y textures like this?
Definitely. It’s what’s most exciting to me lately, what I’ve listened to the most – music without singing. Even when I was young, I listened to music in this way, focusing on the atmosphere and vibe more than the words or story. I listen to so many soundtracks because of that.
You do photography on the side too. Couldn’t you fuse your visual work with instrumental songs someday?
Totally. That’s what I thought I was going to be when I grew up.
Yeah, I made a lot of movies, but then I got distracted by music. And I still am.
You can skip ahead about 10 minutes in this song if you want.
It seems like Sunn to me. Is that right?
This is the infamous track where they locked Malefic from Xasthur in a coffin [to record the vocal].
From Black One? Yeah, this is the [record] that got me into them. [Laughs] They’re intense. My favorite concert ever was them.
Really? When was that?
It was in like 2008 in Seattle. It was at a rock club, probably one of their smaller shows. It was gross and super hot – just physically painful being there with all the metal dudes. But yeah, the achievement of taking all that noise into other sensesâ€¦it’s similar to black metal in that, yeah, the robes and the aesthetic has got a lot of corniness to it, but it’s done so well. It’s so beautifully packaged, such a wonderful presentation.
Do you like Xasthur for the same reason – not for his shrieking so much as the tones he goes for?
Some of his stuff is pretty horrible, but the record Subliminal Genocide – which is almost cringe-y to say – is what I imagined black metal would sound like when I first read all of the tabloid-y stuff about murders and church burnings. It sounds suitably evil and so huge. I think he’s the best screamer too; [laughs] his shriek is really good. It’s so distorted coming right out of his mouth.
As if that’s how he speaks right?
Yeah. It’s like he has distortion on his throat. But with the record after Subliminal Genocide, he decided to record more drums, and it just sounds so thin, like he’s in your uncle’s practice space. It doesn’t fit with the music.
Is this Tim Hecker?
No, but that’s an interesting comparison.
Oh, gosh, what is this? It’s Wolves in the Throne Room!
Yeah, although I didn’t pick them because you’re into black metal. I picked them because I feel like you’re both heavily influenced by the environments you choose to surround yourselves with. It’s not just about nature, either; it’s something deeper than that.
We’re very much peers. We’re friends, and have played some shows together, although it’s been disappointing in that mostly their fans have come to the shows and they don’t seem to see the link. They’re like, “Oh, this guy isn’t metal. This guy’s just playing a guitar.” But I identify so much with the romantic picture they’re painting of this place. I’ve been trying to think of ways to do something with them that’d make it more obvious, because I really admire what they do and I think it’s mutual. We’ve talked about recording together butâ€¦
Yeah, I hope so. Their production is usually more exacting than I’m capable of being. When I record bands, it’s usually pretty raw. I can’t send the Pro Tools files, you know? Like they have very calculated fades and everythingâ€¦I’d love to cover them and bring out something in their aesthetic that’s kinda buried at times, in the lack of legibility to their words.
You mean bring out the deeper things they’re trying to say? Like their views on the environment?
Yes…I love them.
Why have you stayed in the Pacific Northwest for so long? Because it feels like home at this point?
It definitely feels like home. I could see living somewhere else as a novelty, but I’d talk about here a lot and it’d be annoying to everyone around me.