Music Without Borders: Phil Elverum
By Tucker Petertil
Phil Elverum, AKA Mt. Eerie, AKA The Microphones, has a long history with Olympia music and will be returning June 17th for a concert at the Northern. His current project, Mt. Eerie, just released a new record entitled Clear Moon, a really lovely disc that at first seems to fall somewhere in the ambient folk category, but which reveals itself to be full of large orchestrated pieces and immense dynamic shifts. He’ll release Ocean Roar, a “bigger (weirder) sounding and more overtly metal inspired” companion record, this September.
Growing up in Anacortes, Phil began recording his own music while in high school, eventually joining D+, the band that Bret Lunsford started when he left Olympia’s Beat Happening. Phil says, “Bret ran the record store here in Anacortes and was the person who introduced me to the idea of making music and art myself. Eventually… we went to record at Dub Narcotic when I was 19. Then I moved there (to Oly) and got much deeper into recording and touring and everything.”
He started off as a drummer but has become a multi-instrumentalist and a renaissance sort of fellow who not only writes and records music, he also does the artwork, photography and graphics and runs a record label, P.W. Elverum & Sun.
He laments,“It’s pretty crazy how much time the non-musical aspects of making records can take up. I feel like actually making the music is about 20% of the project. I mostly spend my days packing orders, going to the post office, dealing with emails, photoshopping, managing my website, uploading mp3s, booking tours, etc. Meanwhile my garden is all weeds.”
While living in Olympia from 1997 to 2002, Phil named his band the Microphones to reflect his song writing method. “I have almost always written songs as they were being recorded. It’s very much a recording based project. That’s why it was called the Microphones.”
The change of band name from the Microphones to Mt. Eerie (named after the highest point on Fidalgo Island, Mt. Erie,) seemed to signal a shift from the manmade to the more natural, but Phil says, “I changed the name because I wanted a new project, aesthetically. There’s no clear difference between the two other than chronological.”
To those readers whose last exposure to Phil’s music was his metal album, Black Wooden Ceiling Opening, or the show Mt. Eerie played here with Wolves in the Throne Room and Earth, his new record will be a departure. Clear Moon seems to overtly reflect the natural world and Phil admits, “I wanted to make a record that was specifically about this place (Anacortes), like a landscape painting. The feeling of the north Puget Sound, looking west from a high ridge over the islands towards gold light at the end of the day, slowing down enough to see the islands as actual carved-out old mountains from when this place was buried in churning glaciers. I like to zoom out from the details of daily life and get an extremely broad perspective on things. Thinking about geologic time is a way to do this, and also looking across the land from a high vantage point does it too. This is what happens in some of the best landscape painting/photography. I was trying to do it with music.”
While Phil wrote and played most of the music on Clear Moon himself, he also had help from Geneviève Castrée of Ô Paon as well as fellow Anacortes’ bands Motorbikes and Hungry Cloud Darkening and Tacoma’s Takhoma.
I asked him about some of his memories from his days in Olympia and he reminisced. “It was great. Living at the Track House was amazing. Totally gnarly wild house surrounded by industrial zone, a block from the best studio in the world. It was total freedom. Full life immersion in the creative work. There were some excellent recording sessions in the old Dub Narcotic big room (R.I.P., now torn out flooring to make room for the brewery’s tall forklifts and beer shelves.) Karl Blau’s band camped out for a week in there, complete with camp stove. There was a summer when a bunch of us friends slept in there for weeks. More than just a recording studio, it was very factory-like. I guess at pretty much every session there was some crazy thing going on. For example, the Little Wings session, we recorded 2 guys skateboarding in a big circle, in stereo, just for atmosphere on “the Shredder Sequel.”
Besides everything else, Phil is currently arranging a July music festival called the Anacortes Unknown Music Series. “Everyone should come,” he says. ◙
Phil Elverum and Mt. Eerie play the Northern on June 17th with Motorbikes, Takhoma & Hungry Cloud Darkening. More info at www.pwelverumandsun.com.