Features | Interviews

Phil Elvrum

By Dom Sinacola | 20 November 2005

When CMG’s Dom Sinacola gave Phil Elvrum a call at P.W. Elverum & Sun headquarters, the two talked about a bunch of stuff, like No Flashlight and ’SINGERS’ and Corpse Bride and why it could have been easier to just preface the interview with, “The man needs no introduction.” With the release of 11 Old Songs and a new triple Thanksgiving album coming up, the man behind Mount Eerie makes a funny train noise.


Phil Elvrum (PE): Where are you?

CMG: Chicago. Next to the Sears Tower, actually. I answer phones.

PE: I went up to the top of the Sears Tower a few years ago, paid nine dollars to go up in the elevator.

CMG: I like to think that the view shouldn’t be taken for granted.

PE: Right. I got sort of swindled when I returned to the street, though. I stepped out onto the street and was kind of blinded by the sun and then there’s this man offering me a minidisk player for 20 bucks. I didn’t really want one, but I thought the price couldn’t be beat. Then I was lead here and there…I was swindled.

CMG: That happened to my roommate…I think there’s probably an army of these guys preying on the fresh faced business people coming out of the buildings.

PE: Or the tourists. Maybe it was the same guy. I think they figure that if you’re willing to pay nine dollars to ride an elevator, you’re more easily susceptible? As collateral he offered me a necklace with a tiny metal hand grenade hanging from it.
CMG: Do you still have it?

PE: Ya know, I wore it for a day as a kind of signal of my shame, but then we went swimming in the lake later that night and I threw it out into the water as a ritualistic deal.

CMG: You’re living in Anacortes now?

PE: Yeah.

CMG: I’d like to get an idea of the character of the town.

PE: Well, it’s a tourist stop. There are neighborhoods that are like old houses and then there’s the downtown which is coming back to life. In a lot of small towns in the country, the downtowns are just abandoned and dead, but the downtown here is coming back in a good way. There’s a lot of businesses that are doing well down there. People actually walk around downtown…rather than drive everywhere. There’s a little part of town where you can walk from place to place. The majority of the town is a big freeway. Well, not a freeway, but a long busy street where it’s hard to cross the street because there’s so many cars.

CMG: You used to live in Olympia for a while?

PE: Yeah, grew up here and then I lived in Olympia for five years and then I moved back.

CMG: Right to it. The W. Does that represent your middle name?

PE: Yup. My middle name is Whitman.

CMG: Oh, I just asked because I know two Phil Wesleys. It seemed like Wesley was almost a common middle name for Phils.

PE: Oh. That’s weird.

CMG: Yeah. The Elverum part? Let’s say you got a new library card, would there be the Elverum on there?

PE: No, it’s not legal.

CMG: This is a name you brought back from Norway?

PE: Yeah, I never really had a very good reason for it. I just thought that it would be cool? Remember how Kurt Cobain changed his name spelling all the time? I thought that was cool. (laughs)

CMG: Is there any family ties? An old archaic spelling?

PE: Yeah yeah, that’s the Norwegian spelling Elv-er-um with the extra E. I guess the E got omitted when they immigrated. A lot of people when they immigrated had their European spellings altered, simplified, by the immigration officials.

CMG: Is that a stage name? Or do you just not care what people call you when they refer to your last name?

PE: Yeah it doesn’t really matter that much, I write it that way. Unless I’m telling people to write me a check or something. I write it that way because I prefer it for whatever reason. I guess I prefer it because it’s the old fashioned way, it’s like the original way, and usually I like the original version of things. (smirk sound)

CMG: Speaking of that, I was reading that the Live in Japan album was an unofficial first Mount Eerie release…?

PE: I kind of think of it as, yeah, both that and the last Microphones release, like a weird overlap. But I put the Microphone in quotes on the cover of that just because it’s kind of not quite Mount Eerie, not quite Microphones. Those shows that are on that album are after I had decided to change into Mount Eerie and after I had written all these songs for the Mount Eerie project. But, um, yeah, I didn’t want it to be the first album…of Mount Eerie…officially.

CMG: Then would the 7 New Songs be the first official album?

PE: The first official album is No Flashlight.

CMG: What would 7 New Songs be?

PE: Just this weird CDR that I made for tour. That no one was even supposed to know about it except for 200 Australians.

CMG: (laughs) And now it’s free on the internet.

PE: Yeah.

CMG: It sounds very different from No Flashlight.

PE: Yeah I just recorded it really quick for this Australian tour, and also I recorded a long time before No Flashlight.

CMG: I also read an interview where someone had asked you about the name the Microphones and you said it felt apt because you felt like an open door, a receptacle?

PE: Uh huh.

CMG: And that seemed to strike a chord as far as maybe the idea of caves…

PE: Mm hmm.

CMG: …and Mount Eerie. I’ve been reading the giant explanation to No Flashlight and trying to wrap my head around it. Would there be a connection there?

PE: Yeah I guess so. I never really thought of it. But it’s probably just because it’s my tendency to lean towards things that are like that. Like a description of an empty space, or of a vessel.

CMG: So, going to Norway for six months. During that time, is that when it’s always dark?

PE: Not always. But yeah, almost always.

CMG: Going there to this…long night, and then returning? You say you’re telling a story with No Flashlight, is that sort of your version of the story, doing that?

PE: I don’t think so. No Flashlight songs I wrote a long time after that. I wrote all these songs in Norway that I never got around to recording that I finally recorded and that’s this new album I’m putting out. It’s called 11 Old Songs. Those are more the songs that I equate with being in Norway. No Flashlight I kind of think about the last year living here in Anacortes.

We lived in these weird cabins that were up a trail. Two different ones that we had to walk up a trail at night to get to, coming from our studio in town we would go home and have to walk in the woods in the dark every night. So that was kind of the foundation of the idea.

CMG: I was fascinated by the ideas of mountains. Everyone having their own mountain that they return to. For me, I mean I’ve only been in Chicago for four years, but I sort of already feel like that idea would be the skyline of the city.

PE: Yeah, that’s what I mean. Everyone has their own mountain.

CMG: So, um…when you recognize your mountain, or the idea of your mountain, what does that lead to?

PE: A sense of home, a sense of place. Identifying yourself with this location. And a mountain is like, that’s my example of a sense of place. To me it’s like, this mountain here where I live is very much a symbol of this place, which I equate with this special feeling of home. But somebody from Chicago, for example, might have that same feeling when they see the skyline, or some other…very iconic landscape. And I think that it’s a really important thing that’s lacking in peoples’ lives nowadays, is a sense of home, and a sense of place that they equate with this snapshot of a very simple line, a line of the curve of the hill or of the buildings around where they live, or whatever it is. Ya know it doesn’t even necessarily need to be that big, but just a sense of place.

CMG: I can recognize that and I do get that sense of home. But it’s coupled with this sort of manic idea of the city. And it’s hard to reconcile how overwhelming and fast and, I dunno, disarming enough the city can be with the idea of the night. Being passive and open to that. I’m kinda wondering, how can you reconcile that? Or, how would you see would be a way to reconcile those two things?

PE: I dunno, I don’t know if it’s possible. I think that a lot of my songs were probably written very specifically from my experience here in this environment. I guess I haven’t thought too much about how those kinds of things would apply in a big city or, ya know, a different atmosphere…even a desert or a river.

I mean, I don’t think my point is that you have to be in total silence to be…pure. (laughs) Or whatever, obviously, because I think that ideally you can feel just as clear in any environment.

CMG: Right.

PE: Yeah, I’ve never lived in a city where there’s this constant rumble. I’ve never been in an environment like that for longer than a few days.

CMG: How do you usually approach an environment like that?

PE: It’s really exciting. I was just in New York City the other day. I don’t really feel like I’m there to stay, at all, so I just get really into it because I know I’m about to leave.

The other night I had to catch an airplane home at five in the morning, so me and Adrian, the Thanksgiving guy, we just stayed up all night in Manhattan and we were walking around. And it was just…ROARing. And Adrian was saying to me, “Oh, do you ever listen to the sounds of the city?” And so we just listened to this ROAR for a while and talking. It was amazing. Then we were in Times Square and we saw this grate where, I guess there was a subway under there or something. But there was just this sound coming out of the grate, so loud like a deafening horn sound? Loud, just like WAAAAAAAAAAAAWNNNNHHH, continuous thing, it wasn’t stopping. It sort of felt like, Wow, this is where it comes from. This is the source of the whole city. We found it! They just pipe it out of here and it fills the city.

(Dom giggles.)

PE: Have you seen War of the Worlds yet? The new one?

CMG: No, is it good at all?

PE: Not really.

CMG: Yeah.

PE: But the Invaders have this sound. They blast this terrifying horn sound. It’s amazing, it’s the best part of the movie. Especially if you see it in the theater where it’s turned up really loud. But that’s what it was like. So, it was exciting being in the city and experiencing that, like, YAR, It’s four in the morning! We’re running around, there’s tons of traffic! And, WAHAHHHH! It was exciting but also a novelty. It didn’t feel like that’s where I lived, like that’s an everyday thing.

CMG: That’s funny cuz I’ve told my friends that there must be only a few people in the city who’re paid to scream and run around. That’s their job.

Have you seen any good movies lately?

PE: We watched a few movies on tour that were pretty bad. We watched 40 Year-Old Virgin, which was pretty funny. And then we went to, uh…(chuckle) ya know, I’m just saying the movies I’ve seen recently. We walked out of Corpse Bride.

CMG: Ooh. Burn.

PE: We were kind of just killing time in the middle of the day at a Superplex. But it was pretty bad.

CMG: I’ll take that into consideration.

PE: If you’re in the mood for it. We just weren’t in the mood for it. I guess.

CMG: Has there been any new music you’ve been into lately at all?

PE: I don’t really get into music that often…I dunno why, but, we played a couple shows with this band called the Good Good. And, they’re really, really really good. That was good.

CMG: Do you know where they’re from?

PE: They’re from Brooklyn. I guess we were playing with them for a special edition of the band. Usually there’s maybe three or four people, but the shows we were playing there were nine. They were all acoustic, so it was just this massive group of people singing these amazing harmonies. It was really great.

CMG: The Good Good.

PE: (sighs) yeah.

CMG: I want to go back to No Flashlight. And the giant poster. Which I gotta say, when I first opened, I wanted to maybe hang up, frame on the wall or something. We just have this huge white space on our wall. We’ve been trying to figure out what to put there. So I thought maybe that would work, if I could find a frame to fit it. I unfolded it and got up to go to the bathroom, but when I came back my cat had thrown up on it.

PE: Oh nuhhhoooo. (laughs at Dom)

CMG: It was really disappointing.

PE: Wow.

CMG: But I wanted to ask, why did you go so far to give such a detailed examination of the album?

PE: I don’t really know. I wanted to make it really huge, and, uh, well OK, here’s the reason: Have you ever heard of this band Crass?

CMG: Crass?

PE: Yeah, they’re this punk band from England. They have these really inspiring record covers that are like that. They fold out, and one side is a poster and then the other side is just dense text. It’s a lot of footnotes, and the lyrics, and quotes, newspaper articles, references. Especially this one album of theirs. Christ the Album? It’s pretty cool. But it has this booklet on it that’s just insane how much content there is. I was inspired by that. Wow, content. And a huge poster that explains it. It sort of elevates the record from a record to this literary object, which is something I’m totally attracted to. So, that was the idea, although I had the idea before I had an idea of what I would write on it. I kinda had to come up with explanations to write. I haven’t read it recently, I mean, haven’t since I wrote it.

CMG: Wouldn’t there be a taboo surrounding something like that? That kind of explication of your songs, do you think some people would see it as a crutch?

PE: Like the songs wouldn’t stand on their own?

CMG: Yes.

PE: Yeah, maybe. I considered that. But, I do think they stand on their own. Totally. I sort of look at it like, here’s all the information you could possibly need on these songs. You can go as deep as you want, but it’s all available to you. But I definitely concentrated on making a good album, making one you don’t need any information on. Not even song titles. So if you find the CD on the street, it’s still a good album.

CMG: Do you think that maybe since you’re making these allusions, saying where a lyric comes from or something, it may take away from the listener’s subjective intimacy with the music?

PE: Yes. Certainly.

CMG: And you’re willing to forego that?

PE: It’s nice imagining that people are going to listen to it before they read the thing and have this first impression that’s very much their own. But after so many years of people telling me about what certain songs mean to them and having them be so…off…

(Dom laughs)

…of what I meant, I kind of would prefer people to know what I meant really clearly, rather than people being like, ‘Hey, I love this song, I think of it every time I go jetskiing.’ I kind of want to be as accurately understood as possible. I know I’m sacrificing some of the romance of people being able to bring to it what they want, but I think I would gladly get rid of the romance of it and pay for accuracy.

CMG: I’m guessing you don’t read your own reviews then.

PE: No. Yeah, that’s the thing, because reading the reviews it’s like every single time, even if it’s positive, it’s just off. I don’t blame people for being off at all, I know my albums are confusing. They’re confusing to me, too. It’s just, um, a special kind of terrible feeling reading something that’s so off. It’s something I’ve tried really hard to be clear about.

CMG: I don’t know if this would be something you’re very aware of, but growing up in a smaller suburb and being introduced to a lot of music through the Microphones, whenever I would hear of them or someone would recommend them to me, it all almost got inevitably attached to you as a kind of do-it-yourself vanguard of independent music. I don’t really know what the word ‘lo-fi’ means anymore…

PE: Mm hmm

CMG: …but that’s always paired with you. How do you feel about that, considered by a lot of people to be one of the leading…from-scratch artists that’s succeeding out there?

PE: I don’t know how it happened, but I guess I have had a little sense of that lately, too. More like Phil Elvrum as a name than these Microphones or Mount Eerie. Recognizing that people know my name as well as my band names. It’s weird, because all I’ve my efforts have been in the opposite direction. I’ve never used my name. On my albums, my name is written as small as possible with all the other contributors. It sort of happened just outside of me, that I’ve become this figure. I don’t really comprehend it or think about it at all.

CMG: Have you seen the documentary, Wise Old Little Boy, in a while?

PE: I watched a little bit of it just recently actually. It’s funny. It seems like it’s really old. It was 2002, which isn’t that long ago, but I just look so different from myself, the way I’m talking and the things I’m saying. I feel like I’ve changed a lot since then, so it feels like I’m watching a really old thing.

I’m glad that it was that tour that got filmed, because we were playing in these very small towns and it was really not like a normal tour. Because we were just playing in like Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, these places where almost no one plays. It was really nice, it wasn’t like driving for five hours a day, playing a show at a normal venue. Just driving through the countryside for maybe 45 minutes to go to this other small farming town.

CMG: The backstage pass kinda idea: how do you feel about that, to have a movie about you, almost more than your music? It could be taken as indulgent. What were your thoughts when you were doing it?

PE: I didn’t really have anything to do with it, actually. It was this guy who made it, Rier, who just wrote to me before we were going to go on that tour, and he was like, hey I just graduated from Montana film school, I want to do this project, is it OK if I follow you on tour for a few days, film you? And I was like, yeah, OK, whatever. Free country. So he did, and then he left, and then he put out a DVD of it. And so, I guess maybe it comes off as this project me and Kyle did to promote ourselves, but totally wasn’t. In fact, it’s pretty absurd and weird to have it out there, and I’m totally opposed to the idea of the backstage pass DVD, to sort of like glorify my everyday life because I’m so important because I’m this cool celebrity because my everyday life is so much better than everyone else’s. I’m opposed to that, but there it is. (laughs)

CMG: The show that I saw you at, at the Open End, over a year ago. Did anyone come up to you and ask you about filming?

PE: Uhh, I don’t remember.

CMG: There was someone walking around the audience with a camera. I asked him what was going on, he said he was doing a documentary on Thax Douglas…

PE: Yeah, I kind of do remember that. Yeah, he asked me some questions. Somebody asked me little interview questions.

CMG: I couldn’t for the life of me imagine the connection between you and Thax Douglas.

PE: Well, Thax has come to pretty much every show I’ve ever played in Chicago, for some reason. He does that at a lot of shows, right?

CMG: He’s one of those faces that if you see him pop up on stage beforehand, it’s like, well, there he is again.

PE: Every show I play, he’s done that. Even when I was in other bands, like when I was in Old Time Relijun, he came to shows, read poems. He read a poem for the band. I really like it. I just know him because he comes up to me before a show. ‘Hey, Phil, can I read a poem?’ ‘Yeah, sure, Thax.’

CMG: I’ve heard briefly about this, and I can’t find this at all, I don’t even know if it’s out there to find. The book, “What Wonder,” is this even available to buy?

PE: I don’t think so unless anyone is selling their copy they have. I just made maybe 150-200 copies of those a long time ago. Yeah, I sold out a long time ago. Just a little zine. I’d like to make more booklets. I don’t have any specific plans. I love the idea of releasing things other than records.

CMG: That seems to be the purpose behind P.W. Elverum & Sun.

PE: Yeah, totally. Although I’ve only put out records so far.

CMG: Is there anything non-record coming up?

PE: Well…I had this idea of putting out a book of Thanksgiving lyrics. But I dunno if that’s going to happen because his other label, Marriage, has more first dibs, and I guess that’s a project they’ve been talking about doing. But yeah, books, I like to do books a lot.

CMG: As far as ‘SINGERS’ goes, would there be more albums that would be in the same kind of vein, or same approach?

PE: The idea with ‘SINGERS’ is that it’s a band, ‘SINGERS,’ I just made up of a million people. Ya know, it’s like different on every song. ‘SINGERS’ was the first album, the debut self-titled album…by ‘SINGERS.’ I had this idea for the second album, which I want to get a group of people together to record it.

CMG: Can you tell me what that idea is?

PE: Yeah, there’s this band from Anacortes called the Pounding Surfs, and they’re like from the late ’80s. It’s a small town, so all the people that are in bands are in every other band. Those guys later became this great grunge band called Gravel. The Pounding Surfs was kind of this folk-grunge band. Really incredible. They put out one record that was one of the first K records releases, like KLP5. I don’t think anyone has it anymore. I’ve thought about trying to re-release it on my own label, or something, it’s one of my favorite records ever. But I thought it would be a good ‘SINGERS’ second album to just cover the whole album. All of the songs are really good sing-alongs, and that’s sort of the tone of the Pounding Surfs too. Everyone sings all the time.

CMG: Aaron, from our site, wants to know where Mirah is.

PE: Right now?

CMG: I think he meant…where in general. Spiritually? What’s she doing?

PE: I’m not that frequently in touch with her either. She lives in Portland. She’s taking a year hiatus from performing and she’s working on a remix album. I mean she’s not working on it. Various people are remixing her songs. Including me, that’s something I have to work on pretty soon.

CMG: Do you have a song picked out?

PE: I’m gonna do “Don’t Die On Me,” which is one of the few songs that I’m not involved with. (laughs) I’m pretty excited. Also, it’s the one that’s got amazing Brazilian drumming.