Interview: Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum
When SOTC caught up with Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum on the phone a couple weeks ago, he wasn't quite ready for us. "Just let me turn down my Nirvana," he said before asking me to call him back. It felt very appropriate. The Washington native's latest, Wind's Poem is an ode to the massive guitars of grunge and Kurt Cobain at his absolute creepiest. Just don't call it black metal. Elverum turned off the Nirvana and helped clear the air about a lot of things, from touring with a full band to Buddhism to Elverum's enduring love and artistic affinity for David Lynch's Twin Peaks.
Where did this black metal album come from?
It's not black metal. At all. But it is getting called that for some reason. I guess maybe it's my fault. Maybe I started it because I did mention black metal in the one sheet as one of the sources of inspiration for it. Somehow from that it turned into "Mount Eerie's Black Metal Album" [laughs]. I mean, if people are familiar with black metal, like actual black metal, and then they heard this, they would...I don't know. It's kind of embarrassing for me actually that it gets called that because there is some black metal that I really love, and I am not capable of making that kind of music [laughs]. It's just really challenging to make. But it is inspiring for me.
All around it's a much heavier sound.
Yeah I was trying to make the loudest record I have ever made. Or at least parts of it are the loudest. There are plenty of weird kind of mellow parts, kind of new age...[laughs]...something.
What made you want to record the loudest album of your career?
I really like loud music. And not just loud music, but huge sounding things, and production that creates bombastic sounds or just colossal sounding things. With most of my recording projects that's what I'm going for. Maybe it's getting bigger and bigger sounding because I'm figuring out more tricks to use.
Somewhat uncharacteristically, you're touring with a pretty extensive band in the fall.
It's interesting. I work so much by myself and I love it. It's so easy to travel alone and everything, but it's also limiting what I can do artistically and musically at a live show. So that was the idea behind getting a band together and going on tour. But creatively, I'm still pretty much telling people what to do in the band. We're not writing songs by jamming together or anything. I'm with the band, at least for this year's tour, telling them what to do. We're learning the album, so it's maybe not like a typical band in that way. It seems like a lot of bands out there work together and collaborate and write songs. I'm not quite to that point yet with my own project. I like to be in control [laughs].
So do you like being a frontman?
[laughs] I don't know, I guess so. Maybe subconsciously. There's something totally weird about it too.
What's weird about it?
The weird thing is just playing shows and having all this attention on me. There's something socially weird about that in a human sense. It can mess with the mind. But I am okay with it. I've gotten used to that dynamic of being the frontman. And being a solo performer is the same thing, but more concentrated.
There's a love of nature embedded in Wind's Poem. It's also a pretty dark sounding album. You grew up very close to the real Mount Eerie. What was that like?
It was just the world that I knew. I didn't know any other world. I grew up--not camping or anything--you know, in a house, but surrounded by forests and on a lake. Swimming and playing in the woods rather than skateboarding. I mean, I had a skateboard, but we didn't have any paved ground [laughs]. That was just the world I knew as a kid, and so still, as an adult, there are remnants of that sense of the world. That's what the world seems like to me. When I write songs these are the symbols and metaphors that make sense to me. This is the language, the tools I have to write songs with--rather than write songs about, I don't know, interpersonal relations or cities and society.
Twin Peaksis all over the album. How does the television series fit into this project?
Well [pause] I like that show a lot. When it was on TV, I was [pause] 12, I think? Not quite old enough to stay up and watch it, but old enough to be aware of its existence and to see a few episodes. It really marked me. Living in a place that looked just like the TV show, it kind of I guess informed my own romantic view of the creepiness in the woods. Which has stayed with me and I guess become part of my whole aesthetic that I try to create, this idea of a dark presence in nature. For some reason that's interesting and beautiful to me. Also, when I'm traveling the world, that TV show is semi-popular. It's got a cult following everywhere. And being in some place like Poland and having someone say, "Oh yeah that place you're from, Anacortes, WA, is that near Twin Peaks?" [laughs] and just really loving that reference. It's a form of patriotism I think.
There's a long tradition of Washington being represented with this kind of darkness, artistically.
What else is in that tradition do you think? Do you mean Nirvana?
I think Nirvana definitely. A lot of the music produced from that part of the country has this tinge of sadness to it.
There is darkness up here. Not only physical darkness. I think it has--in some places at least--something to do with the fact that the cities and towns that are here are so relatively young. The most relatively young in the world actually. And then the native cultures that were here are kind of just swept under the rug, but they're still visible. You can tell something bad happened here. There were these thriving cities of native people here a hundred years ago, and now? Now there's a Costco and this unacknowledged darkness.
You've avoided things like MySpace, Twitter, and personal blogs. I sense a difficult relationship to technology in Mount Eerie.
I am overwhelmed with the amount of work that I have to do on the computer already--which is actually a lot. I spend a lot of time on the computer. Just doing stuff like answering e-mails, booking tours, manufacturing my records and selling them, and then I have my web site--just one web site. And so the idea of having more web sites that I have to maintain like Facebook or MySpace or whatever, I don't understand why I would want that for myself [laughs], why I would want the few hours that I have away from the computer to be occupied with more computer time. But it's not an ethical thing at all. The computer is an amazing tool that makes it possible for me to live in Anacortes and have a successful record label with my customers all over the world. So, it's very useful.
"Stone's Ode," which closes Wind's Poem is one of your most concrete, peaceful resolutions to an album. The song focuses on the "world of dreams," which you introduce early on in the record as a kind of desire to escape the harshness of the wind. It feels like this peacefulness is found by the end.
Hm. I haven't thought of it that way. The world of dreams thing is a poetic reference to--well I guess in Buddhism they refer to the real world as the world of dreams. The whole idea is that existence is just an illusion, all perception is an illusion and a dream. And so I keep saying that in the album because there's this poem that I really like from China from a thousand years ago where he says something like that--the guy is sitting on a mountain and looking down at the world and he thinks, "I don't need them anymore. What do I care about that world of dreams"--referring to people going about their lives, getting stressed out about things, conducting business, and then dying. Just, you know, life. So that's what that means on the album. And the end of the album, I guess I'm still too close to it to have a sense of the arc of the album and how it ends.
All of your work can be read as a narrative I think. Each of your albums closes by looking forward to the next one.
Yeah I like ending my albums with something that seems like the flavor changes, like it's going into some new direction. Even though I don't know what that new direction is gonna be quite yet.
So this heavy sound you've produced on Wind's Poem, you're not sure where it's going to take you next?
No. Hopefully louder.
Wind's Poem is available now.
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