Phil Elverum, who records as Mount Eerie (and formerly as Microphones) has the distinction of releasing not one but two acclaimed records, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, in 2012. Recorded in a church-cum-sail loft in Washington state, both albums have a sense of vastness that makes them feel blissfully eternal.
Clear Moon has more vocals than Ocean Roar, but on both albums, the dominant element is an intricately maneuvering drone. In many artists’ hands, that drone would get repetitive and boring, but Elverum manages to infuse it with a sense of longing that transcends the sound itself.
The Rumpus: I found a quote of yours really interesting where you said that you had never heard an interpretation of one of your songs that was what you intended. Do you feel it’s important for your songs to be interpreted as you mean for them to be, or do you like it when people take them in a totally different direction?
Phil Elverum: Gosh, I mean it’s inevitable that it’s going to be misunderstood, but at the same time I feel compelled to continue explaining myself, ‘cause like, that’s what the song is in the first place, is me trying to say a kind of ambiguous idea. I’m extra sensitive to being misunderstood, I think, and I have set myself up for some weird feelings by making some pretty ambiguous music.
Rumpus: I read that you refer to your music as being like a non-narrative diary.
Rumpus: I’ve been studying non-narrative film the past few days, so just your use of that term really stood out.
Elverum: Uh-huh. Yeah, I didn’t know if it was a term that was a thing, but it’s true; it’s non-narrative.
Rumpus: So would you describe your music then as non-narrative?
Elverum: Usually, yeah, I mean, in the past I’ve done some more deliberate, like stories, but usually it’s more abstract than that; it’s just songs.
Rumpus: I was wondering about that, because on the new record you have, there are so many instrumentals, so you don’t have the lyrics there to tell any kind of story. What role do lyrics play for you or did they play for you on the new record?
Elverum: Well, there are two new records, just to be clear, and the first one has more lyrical songs, and the second has more instrumentals. I think that the point, like, the flow of both of those albums is kind of a transition from day-to-day, more narrative, more understandable, relatable, human moments, and then gradually transitioning over the course of both new records into this more abstract, wordless, chaos/void type of feeling, and that’s why there’s more instrumentals later, and it kind of culminates in this one weird, long, distorted guitar thing. It’s not even really a song; it’s just this sound, and so I wanted–weird sort of anchor to, like, human comprehensibility.
Rumpus: I listened to the two albums back-to-back earlier tonight, which was an interesting experience, hearing that progression. Is that something you suggest people do, listen to them together, or do you have any preference about how people experience them?
Elverum: I don’t have a preference, but that’s awesome. I mean, that’s probably the best way to do for anyone who cares to devote the attention to it. Thanks for doing that. But, yeah, I mean, they’re made to be listened to as a pair, yeah, a group.
Rumpus: Now you referred to the second one as being kind of like a movement into more chaos and things like that, but how but how else do you see the two interacting?
Elverum: I don’t know. I mean, I know that they are related, and I know it’s a pair, and I know that they were recorded at the same time, but I haven’t really conceptualized it beyond that, and usually I figure out how things are working only in hindsight. Not much of it is very deliberate. I mean, it’s abstract the way it’s deliberated, ‘cause I just mostly, my creative process is going with what feels right, and then figuring out what it means kind of afterwards.
Rumpus: On the subject of recording them at the same time, I read that you didn’t really sort them out into two different records until pretty late into the process, so were you, can you walk me through a little bit, like were, would write a like song from Clear Moon, and then a song from Ocean Roar, just like writing them all at once, or how did that work?
Elverum: Yeah, It’s very much a studio-based project, so, yeah, I got a new studio space, and a lot of the recording for this was a process of exploring the new space, and figuring out what worked in there and what didn’t work, and I didn’t have any songs, and I wasn’t really writing songs. I wasn’t sitting down to write songs for new albums. I was more just recording pretty abstract music experiments in the space that I knew I was probably going to throw away most of it, and we did throw away a lot of stuff, but I think if I arranged them in a chronological order, it would make a lot more sense. You would be able to hear a transition from these weird, kind of boring drone things where I’m still figuring out the room, to kind of tighter, more song… songs, and I wasn’t writing songs though; it was very much recording these kind of sound ideas that became songs out of necessity ‘cause I needed a form to record.
Rumpus: I read that you recorded in a church that is now used for like shipbuilding or something like that?
Elverum: Yeah, the sail loft.
Rumpus: That’s right. What role do you think that space played in the creation of these two records?
Elverum: Huge, huge role. It’s a big room that sounds a certain way. It sounds big and echo-y, and it’s difficult to do stuff that doesn’t sound kind of epic in there, so that’s how it turned out.
Rumpus: Did you get any new instruments or any new gear for these recordings?
Elverum: Yeah, not for the recordings, but since the last record I have gotten some new things that I’ve inherited: this vibraphone, which actually didn’t really make it on the records; this giant gong that I got for the last tour. Of course that didn’t make it on the recording that much–one hit, I think, somewhere. But, yeah, mostly using whatever tools that happened to be around.
Rumpus: You said that there’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make it on to the records. What kind of stuff did you leave behind?
Elverum: Just, kind of, I dunno, it’s boring to me. It doesn’t grab me when I listen to it. Maybe I’ll come around to it eventually and with some distance, but I used a lot of the, I figured out how to use most of the experiments that I did, how to, like, add to it, what it needed to push it into something that was interesting.
Rumpus: I was watching your new video earlier today, and I was wondering what motivated you to make a music video after all this time.
Elverum: I’ve been wanting to for a really long time; it’s just I haven’t made the time. And [I wanted there to] be songs on Clear Moon that are be pretty directly about this place, and about like observing landscape, and you know, just being kind of a wanderer and looking at stuff, and in this particular place. Specifically in kind of gray weather, and I thought I had missed the window of opportunity, because it was summer, and I didn’t do it before when it was still the rainy time, but then, earlier this summer there were a couple days when it just got really gray and rainy, and so I took the opportunity with my friend Paul, and we went and filmed it really quick. I’d been meaning to do it. It wasn’t a deliberate choice to not make the video. It was more like I wanted to do it myself, and I hadn’t met the right person that I could trust with participating in this art project of mine.
Rumpus: Do you have any other filmmaking experience?
Elverum: It’s been a long time, but when I was in high school that’s mostly all I did, was make movies with my friends, before I got into making music. That’s what I wanted to do, and I still do. I still totally love it. I’ve been distracted by music.
Rumpus: What kind of films did you make?
Elverum: Dumb ones, mostly, just, like running around. Chase movies, kind of novelty things, Mostly for the fun of making the thing. The stories weren’t important, but they weren’t meaningful. They were super fun, and kind of nice looking. It was just fun to figure out the mechanics of how these things are built, how movies work.
Rumpus: Do you feel like your love of film inspires your music at all?
Elverum: Probably, yeah, I mean, I think they’re very related, even though I don’t have a filmmaking career at all. I have–It’s just a non-existent thing, but I think it actually is–I do think about music in a very visual way a lot of times. Just in my own head, when I’m trying to describe a music idea to other people, there’s usually some kind of image component to it that, it’s just there, in my head. It makes sense that I should maybe at some point try and make movies of them.
Rumpus: Do you think you’ll ever do anything like a boxed set or something to commemorate these two releases?
Elverum: Probably not. I was actually just think about this, and just talking about it with friends, ‘cause the next project is I’m re-issuing Microphones albums, that were released on K, and I’ve been debating if I should make some kind of box that they go in, or should just release, like, put them back in print as albums, and I decided to not do that. I think a boxed set can inhibit your openness to it, listening to it as music, in a way. It makes it more of a commemorative object, which I don’t like it. It’s awkward.
Rumpus: Now, you wrote a book about your time in Norway, and I saw you reference writing poems, and I’m a poet myself, so I always get excited when I hear musicians talk about writing poetry. Do you write a lot of poetry?
Elverum: I think, oftentimes I’ll use the word “poetry” to mean songs. Like that, for me the distinction, I’m trying to make there be no distinction. They come from the same place historically, and that’s what songs are. It’s just that songs are, there are so many bad ones. I mean, there’s just so many bad poems, too, but the problem with poems have a more prestigious reputation or something.