Phil Elverum: “All music can be like a sauna”

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Mount Eerie is Phil Elverum. He was born in 1978, in Anacortes, Washington (EUA), where he currently lives. He is best known for his solo project, The Microphones, which he kept from 1997 to 2003. It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water (2000) and The Glow Pt. 2 (2001) are still considered his most praised albums. In that year of 2003, after returning from Norway, where he lived alone in a remote cabin, Phil decided to change the name of the project to Mount Eerie. He has released some albums since then, including Lost Wisdom (a collaboration with the band Eric’s Trip’s Julie Doiron and Fred Squire), Dawn (which we wrote in Norway), Clear Moon and Ocean Roar. Sauna is his most recent album, and it’ll be out in 3 February via his P.W. Elverum & Sun label. The interview which follows was conducted entirely by e-mail. We talked, among other things, about his books. As we did not really visit his personal library an explanation is required. A few years ago, Phil decided to create a website (Every Book in the House), which consists of photographs of his entire book collection, something he considers everyone should do.

When you changed the name of your project to Mount Eerie you said that The Microphones was a “completed project”. However, you still go back to some of your old songs. Is The Microphones really complete?

I enjoy being loose with these distinctions because I don’t think the name of the project is that important.  Also, I like the idea that songs are never finished and that each time they are sung is a new life or a new version. Being ambiguous with the boundaries between names and specifics is fun and true to the way I see the purpose of making art in the first place.

One of the characteristics of your work is that you revisit your songs many times and in different contexts, exploring alternate versions. Do you identify with that idea of always writing the same poem?

Kind of. I wouldn’t put it exactly like that. I think songs are “living” in a way and they should evolve. Of course, recording makes this idea weird because it freezes versions in time, so I enjoy working hard to make these recordings be excellent fossils.

You changed the name of the project after returning from a trip to Norway. In that time you also added an “e” to your last name. Why? Was it for the same reason that you added an “e” to Mount Erie?

There’s no big conceptual significance behind the spelling changes. I started spelling my last name “Elverum” while living in Norway to avoid confusion with the locals. Elverum is the original Norwegian spelling and my family name got changed at some point many generations ago, probably due to an error. I usually choose the old fashioned version of everything. It’s called Mount Eerie because the word “eerie” is a cool word that means ominous, unusual, etc. “Erie” is just the name of a historical war character, and many places he’s named after, I think. But like I said before, I don’t think the name of this stuff is very important. It’s not the point.

You said you usually choose the old fashioned version of everything. Is it for cultural and ideological reasons or just because you like the way it looks in the end?

I guess it’s just a habit, or my natural inclination. If I could read Tolstoy in Russian I would prefer it. If I can eat a vegetable in the garden where it grew I would choose that. I lean towards the idea of an “original source”, even though I don’t think such a thing really exists.

Is that why you have three different editions of Tolstoy’s War and Peace? Have you been looking for the most accurate translation?

Ha. Yes, I guess. I have only read 2 different versions, but yeah, I know none of the English versions are the most accurate or the same as the original Russian, but the idea is that by reading many different versions I can get a sense of the original by looking at the negative space, the phantom original somewhere between all the translations. I think this analogy also works with my songs. I don’t think I have ever done a perfect job of saying my idea totally directly, but all the songs are like different fingers pointing at the same thing from different angles. The “thing” they are pointing to in the middle is this unsayable idea. I guess I call it Mount Eerie.

I suppose this is why the first lyrics on Clear Moon are – “Misunderstood and disillusioned, I go on describing this place”. You said you have never done a perfect job of saying your idea totally directly. What makes you think so?

I don’t mean it like I am unhappy with my work. I just mean that I never feel 100% satisfied. It’s a personal feeling. I still have a drive to make things, to keep painting this huge picture. It is not clear enough yet.

Why have you decided to go to Norway and live there for a winter in a remote cabin? 

It was many years ago when I was 24 years old. It was the perfect thing to do for a 24 year old. I needed to look closely at my own mind and start everything over from scratch. Maybe I needed to draw a line between childhood/adolescence and adulthood. At the time I had no explanation for it, I just needed to disappear.

Adolescence and adulthood? What are the differences between them?

For me it was a difference in how I took responsibility for myself and my actions in the world. I think before I spent that winter in Norway I thought of myself as separate in some way from the rest of the world, like I could drift through life doing what I wanted. In our modern western cultures, the line between adulthood and adolescence is a personal feeling that we each have to discover for ourselves since we don’t really have any traditional rituals for making that line clear.

Had your interest for Norwegian culture, especially for the Viking age, something to do with that trip? Or did that interest come later?

I was interested in Norway before going in 2002, partly because of my family name, which have a Norwegian background (although I am not a big believer in the idea of blood heritage or whatever), but partly because the idea of a wild northern place with a charismatic landscape appeals to me. I still don’t know why exactly I am interested in reading the Icelandic sagas, because the truth is that the vikings were assholes. They held revenge and power and pride to be very important values and I don’t. Still, it is fun to read about.

How were your times there?

My time there was unusual. I was there from November to March and lived in the far north, north of the Arctic Circle, so it was dark most of the time. I was alone in a remote place so I just talked to myself and went a little crazy and gathered firewood and read and wrote letters. But yes, your description is pretty accurate.

You said you went to Norway because you needed to draw a line between childhood/adolescence and adulthood. Is Mount Eerie more adult than The Microphones?

Yes, pretty much. I think of Microphones songs as being mostly about human scale interactions and emotional stuff. Mount Eerie songs expanded outward to include bigger questions.

What are those questions?

I can’t summarize this. Every song is aiming at its own question. I don’t have a small number of themes. I am trying to zoom out and get a big picture.

You did that trip to Norway in 2002/2003. During that time, you wrote an album (Dawn) that would be release only in 2008. Why?

I really liked those songs and I had it in my head that I would record a proper “studio” album for them, with big weird production ideas and everything. It never really happened though because I became too accustomed to the solo acoustic versions because I was touring so much playing them the way they were written, solo acoustic. This is unique for me because normally I don’t write songs away from the studio. In Norway I got a whole bunch of songs and no studio, so finally after all those years I decided to let the simple versions be the official album and I gave up on the idea of doing a big production. The reason is that I feel weird working on something that is not immediate, not from the present moment. I could never do old songs in the studio. It must be raw.

The name of the last song of Dawn is “Goodbye Hope”, and it’s about saying goodbye to hope and to its “ambushes”. Was that what this record was about? Give an end to something?

Yes, pretty much. Those songs were written in a period of letting go of everything. I viewed the idea of “hope” as a dangerous negative thing because it only encouraged wishing, it looked away from the real present moment. Hopeful feelings would sometimes swell up by surprise like an ambush and weaken the resolve of the actual hard solo work I was doing. I was letting go of weird interpersonal relationships but also letting go of a more immature attachment to things being a certain way. Being free from hope, “hopeless”, meant allowing myself to relax into my natural shape, to let things just happen. That was the goal.

Han Shan, the 9th-century Chinese poet and philosopher, wrote a collection of poems titled “Cold Mountain”, which is also the name of the second track of Dawn. Is that a coincidence?

It’s not a coincidence. That was the book I had with me in Norway (the Burton Watson English version). Also, Han Shan (which means Cold Mountain) named himself after the mountain where he lived.  This is the inspiration for me changing my project to Mount Eerie, the mountain where I live.

There’s many books of Gary Snyder in your book collection. Did he influence your work in any way?

Yes, definitely. I love Gary Snyder and very much admire his intellect and long wide perspective. I like it all, but my favorite writing of his are the essays. He is an expansive thinker. You should get “The Practice of the Wild”.

You said in some interviews that you are sometimes misunderstood because people think you are trying to express something about nature. Aren’t you?

I’m not trying to express anything about nature. I don’t even like the word nature. I try to write songs with the most basic elements: one person experiencing things, raw materials, weather, landscape features, bare experience. This means that huge iconic symbols like “mountains” and “lakes” and stuff are the figures in the songs, but I am trying to use these things to clarify various ideas about my personal idea of what it means to be a person in this place and time.

You also said in an interview that “there is no nature”. Can you explain this?

This idea is very much from Gary Snyder. I think the word “nature” can only exist if you agree that there is something that is “not-nature”. I don’t agree with this. I am opposed to simple dualistic thinking, and it’s not just a rhetorical point I’m trying to make, it’s actually dangerous. The result of this pervasive simplified thinking is that most people alive today live alienated from the simple elements around them, allowing mistreatment and ignorance of the actual magical and wild place where we exist, wherever on earth it might be. “There is no nature” means that every place is wild and rotting and blooming and “civilization” is a complicated performance we humans are doing.

Let’s talk about Sauna. You also said in an interview that you always have a moment of reckoning before an album is even out. You started to see the album as a whole, as if you were seeing it for the first time. Was it the same with Sauna?

Yes, it was the same with Sauna. I think this must be fairly common with people who make long-form works of art, to start vague and gradually see it more clearly. I was just reading Björk describing the making of her new album and it sounded very similar. Just writing at first, just making something with no shape and no purpose, and then eventually it becomes clear what the thing actually is. It makes itself in some way.

According to a press release, the theme of Sauna is “vikings and zen and real life.” Are there any remnants of your trip to Norway in this album?

Probably no remnants of my 2002 trip in Sauna, but maybe? I still have frequent vivid dreams that I’m in the snow there looking for wood. I announced that theme mostly because it seemed the best way to describe the song titles, such as Boat, Emptiness, Youth, Books, etc. Some kind of triangulation between those 3 things. Two very alien times and places, vikings and zen, and then real life, to make a complete triangle which is my actual mind.

You wrote in your site that although the idea of sauna is a symbol, you tried to make the song Sauna as literal as possible, using recordings that you made in your parents’ sauna. You also compared your music to a real sauna. What’s the relation between Sauna and the idea of purification associated with saunas in certain places?

No, not purification, but transformation. The idea of “purity” seems like a lie to me. And I meant that ALL music can be like a sauna (and all art and poetry and literature and movies, basically every creative pursuit), not just my music. I mean that we make this weird stuff, art, that doesn’t feed us or shelter us, so what is the purpose? It is to explore our big brains, to find new ways of understanding and to shift perspectives. A sauna has the same purpose. It is not a big heavy point, but just a kind of dumb link I am making. I also like the aesthetics of traditional northern Scandinavia and the nice blend of highly developed art and literature and also the very primal experience of sweating your brains out in a dark log hut. This combination of literate and totally wild is what I am going for in my music and life

“Ultimately I have no goal with this stuff other than to explore my own mind”, you also wrote. In which way this new album, Sauna, contributed to your personal investigation?

I think I’m still a little bit too close to the album to have any good perspective on what it meant to me. It usually takes me a couple years to see an album from a far enough distance to be able to recognize what was happening. At the moment it feels like I have made an audio artifact of some raw and weird ideas that passed through my head in 2013/2014. But I think it’s my best work, to put it bluntly.

Máquina de Escrever, 28-01-2015

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