Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum hears the Wind in black metal
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Whether he's calling himself Mount Eerie or The Microphones, Phil Elverum has a penchant for exploring the unexpected. First recording as The Microphones in the late '90s, Elverum honed a distinctively lush lo-fi style, interweaving haunting acoustic ballads with harsh analog experimentation. But just as his popularity was rising, Elverum made the contrarian move of swapping pseudonyms, taking his current name, Mount Eerie, from the peak presiding over his home in Anarcortes, Wash. Since The Microphones became a mountain, Elverum has self-released a steady stream of beautifully packaged vinyl records, a photography book, and a journal from his solitary stint in a cabin in Norway. His latest musical release, Wind's Poem, opens with a blast of intense black metal, a jarring departure from the hushed folk and soft-spoken vocals Mount Eerie is known for. His current tour—hitting Rhinoceropolis tonight, Oct. 20—features dual drummers, gongs, walls of amplifiers, and an intensity one wouldn't normally expect from Mirah's former recording partner. The A.V. Club sat down with the reclusive Northwest musician to discuss the very Washingtonian topics of wind, Twin Peaks, and Nirvana.
The A.V. Club: What inspired you to make a record about "the wind"?
Phil Elverum: I wanted to do an album about violent changes. For the last two years that's been my creative theme. While making this record I was focusing on a spot on the hill where I live. The wind would come across the water and through the trees. It was a beautiful thing. In a way, all of my records are about the same thing, which is mortality and how everything is temporary. So wind as this force of erosion, but also this beautiful omnipresent thing that's around us at all times, but invisible. I was listening to black metal and I was like, "This screaming, what's up with that?" It doesn't really sound scary to me, it doesn't match with the imagery of this music. I realized that, at least in some of the music, it sounds like howling wind. There are parts on Wind's Poem that are literal recordings of wind. I had this old sound effects record that I got some wind from and then I figured out that distorted cymbals sound just like wind so I used that a lot.
AVC: Is this focus on mortality a morbid thing?
PE: To me it doesn't seem dark. It's a beautiful idea to focus on how everything is temporary and always in flux. It may feel bad now, but it will feel good later, and vice versa. To write about those things brings this satisfying feeling as a creative person. There's a lot of music out there that's like, "I'm so mad! I'm sad! I'm into skulls and crossbones and the color black," and that's just meaningless and shallow. So much of metal is about that and it's hard to find metal that is substantial and meaningful in terms of its content. I was driven to make something that sounded huge but also created larger more significant feelings.
AVC: You've said that on the next record you're going to try and be even louder. What's driving this effort to push up the volume?
PE: It's not just volume but that feeling of loudness. Technically my acoustic album is the same volume. Nirvana really touched me as a teenager and started making me pay attention to music as a participatory thing that I could do. Music that you want to throw your body into it—that's a feeling that I'm not quite satisfied with having made yet. I recorded two songs on the album that were loud the whole way through, but the other 10 songs are like synthetic goth-pop or something. I don't know what they are. It's weird. I feel like I'm still trying to make something as big as that feels.
AVC: Where does the softer edge in your music come from?
PE: Well, after getting into Nirvana I got into other less-famous grunge bands like Eric's Trip, and then My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. On all these records, they're kind of quiet-loud-quiet-loud, but the loud parts feel louder if they're right next to a really quiet part. And the greater the disparity, the louder the loud parts feel. It's because of the juxtaposition that it feels so awesome. And it's so simple. I'm still trying to do that.
AVC: You've mentioned that Twin Peaks influenced the record. Where did that come in?
PE: I re-watch it every few years so. It's kind of always playing in my head. I like that world they created. The idea of, "Oh, well if you go out in the woods at this certain time of night and there's a clearing, you go into this Black Lodge, this other world. It's this circle of stones, there's some water in it, or is it oil? And it's really confusing." I like that whole idea. Also the fact that it's in Washington State. It's another way to be referential to this part of the world that I'm patriotic about.
AVC: You just released a collection of writings, Dawn, from the time you spent living in a cabin in Norway. What was the experience like?
PE: It was a weird thing to do, but it was awesome. It was really refreshing mentally to just start over. In general I like to be alone, but the whole reason I went there was to see how much I liked being alone. And I liked it. My mind had so much space to expand into its own thoughts and its own weirdness. I went a little bit crazy in a good way. I think that for people who live there full time and the novelty wears off... I mean the novelty was starting to wear off toward the end of my time. I was like, "Okay, I'm pretty excited to see people again." And that wasn't even that long, I was only there for a few months. So, I think there are people who live the hermit lifestyle who are legitimately insane and you just need to avoid. Don't go down their driveway.
AVC: You do almost all of the labor for your label P.W. Elverum & Sun. Do you ever feel that the DIY approach is taking too much energy away from your music?
PE: Yes. Definitely. It's getting to that point. I'm selling more records, so it takes more time to keep up. But for a while there it was a good balance. I'm getting to the point where I feel like I need some help, or I need to scale back. Maybe I should change my band name again. [Laughs.]