by Cory O'Malley
Editor’s Note: Ooh La La contributor Cory O’Malley met an untimely death last month at age 35. We met several years ago when we both wrote about music for the defunct Silver Lake Press, later known as LA Alternative Press, and laughed about how I’d previously assumed he was a girl and he’d thought I was a guy based solely on each other's bylines. We became friends. Not too long ago he told me he’d “dropped out of music” to concentrate on raising his daughter and to attend to other professional endeavors, but a few years before that, in late 2003, Cory interviewed Phil Elvrum for Ooh La La. At the time I felt his piece was too serious in tone for this cheeky zine, and much too long besides, so I ended up chopping it to bits. Revisiting it now, I realize what a disservice that was to his thoughtful prose and the genuine enthusiasm he had for his subject. As a tribute to Cory, here are both his original narrative article and the interview transcript in its entirety.
Although it made a kind of sense at the time, Ooh La La now seems like such a wrong publication for an article about Phil Elvrum. This magazine is—I think, having read one issue—about things like Hella and quasiprostitution and the editor trying to force that nine-year-old rocker into puberty (whatever that means). And here I am promising Elvrum, during the interview upon which this article is largely based, to refer to him as a nature poet. And he likes the idea, which maybe says more about him than I could ever do in the next thousand words.
It’s not like I didn’t see myself making this sort of suggestion. Considering my emotional response to the music of Phil Elvrum (should something like an emotional response—like, one that has nothing to do with an inspiration to have sex or get intoxicated or turn up the volume—even be considered on the pages of Ooh La La?), it was totally reasonable. His music is broad and (at times) profound and weird and novel. It’s not about real life in the temporal, day-to-day sense; it’s about esoteric stuff that’s often a little too idiosyncratically rendered to be accessible—but sometimes it’s recognizably about the essence of love, and the function of creativity, and the beauty of nature and being part of the natural world around you. “I don’t set out to [write about nature],” he tells me before a recent show at Koo’s Café in Long Beach. “At this point, I’ve gotten enough reviews that talk about it that I’m consciously trying not to do it. I’m trying to think about tires and stuff.”
I don’t care what he says. The guy is a nature poet; he’s just utilizing the platform of indie rock because it’s cheaper than earning a PhD and maybe he understands that poetry critics can be totally unforgiving. Over the last eight years, Elvrum, recording and touring as The Microphones, has compiled a body of solo work that has addressed nature to a degree largely unrealized within the realm of rock music. But nature is just too big and too boring for rock.
(Hane said yes to the pitch, so ultimately it’s not really my fault if he doesn’t rock.)
The Microphones is one guy, Phil Elvrum. He’s made about ten albums, many for K Records, his most critically appreciated being It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water (K, 2000) and The Glow, Pt. 2 (K, 2001). “I love K,” he says, and it’s really cute. “I used to live across the street from them, but I’ve moved now.” He often records with the help of various side players from the K roster, for many of whom he has returned the favor by playing on their records. Elvrum has shown up on releases by The Blow, Mirah, Little Wings, Dub Narcotic, Jason Anderson, Dennis Driscoll . . . The list goes on.
Now that I think of it, there actually was a rock link here. The Microphones do rock out on occasion, but Elvrum has been involved with some stuff that rocks out on all occasions. Although he totally tried to downplay it in the interview, Elvrum used to play a lot with—I’m even inclined to suggest that he was in the band, but whatever—Old Time Relijun. “I’m actually hardly even involved with at all. They have a different drummer.” That was the first question topic of the interview, and he didn’t seem too pleased. “How long ago was that?” I ask him. “Two years, something like that,” he says with a dismissive shrug.
Elvrum has also spent a lot of time playing with D+. “Yeah, D+ is just kind of like whenever we happen to be in the same town, which is never. It’s really, really casual.” (I imagine I’m going to catch some bad karma for this, but) Elvrum is primarily a drummer, which was his contribution to both Old Time Relijun and D+. Considering the output of those bands, both far more straightforward than his own work, he wasn’t doing a lot of the songwriting in those projects. “Those are just, like, things that I do maybe once a year, at most,” he tells me. Maybe I’m pushing that angle a bit too hard.
So, mostly, Elvrum is The Microphones, except he’s not calling the project The Microphones anymore. He’s now referring to it as Mount Eerie. “It’s new to me—new ideas,” he notes, with a gleam in his eye. “It’s not just a change in name.”
Mount Eerie, fans will recall, was the title of last year’s LP by The Microphones. The recording soared so far beyond standard rock structures, even for a musician whose output has largely bucked rock convention, that it was hard to even consider it an indie rock record. The album was presented in movements, which incorporated the gamut from moody, ominous percussion to arty noodling to a cappella vocalizing to noise to pop to folk-funk rave-ups (with the briefest of cameos by Calvin Johnson, to boot). “In a way, my other albums before that were sort of going in that direction. Everything kind of connected, thematically, ideally,” Elvrum says of his music. “But with Mount Eerie it was a conscious thing. I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to make this, there’s going to be five parts, they’re going to have these names, and this is the rough story,’” he explains. “And I sat down and recorded it.” Mount Eerie is less an album of songs than it is a collection of pieces, each evolving and transforming as it goes. The record is moving in its density, a function of its arrangement and recording.
Elvrum, of course, now dismisses The Microphones with his typically casual flair. “I just felt like The Microphones idea had sort of completed itself. I was ready to start over, thematically.” He recognizes the adoring fans out in the audience who sing along to his songs and buy his extremely limited-run releases on eBay for prices never anticipated by the musician. (“It’s insane what people will pay to get the thing they don’t have. And then they buy it and they’re not any happier.”) But you would barely detect his real sympathy and affection for that kind of fandom from his speech. “The Microphones was a five- or seven-year project with a certain amount of albums that all sort of blended into each other, and that concluded with Mount Eerie. I didn’t really want to keep elaborating on Mount Eerie.” I think he means that much of his musicianship as we know it is over.
The variety, pace, and multi-instrumentation found on a recording like Mount Eerie is a little difficult for a performer who enjoys playing alone. Elvrum pulls some of it off onstage, but there’s a definite disconnect between how broad the recorded music can be and how singularly solo the live performance is. And there’s been a conscious effort on the part of Elvrum to take a more spacious, solitary approach to songwriting. During the set, he performed a piece from Mount Eerie and he forgot lyrics to the song. Someone from the audience yelled out the lyrics, reminding him as he played. I kind of felt like the audience cared more about the music than Elvrum did, and although he had already moved on from this part of his career, The Microphones stage, his audience was not yet willing to let go.
The new stuff is pretty spare, and really introspective. His latest release, Live in Japan Recorded Feb. 19th, 21st and 22nd, 2003 (released in 2004 on K), is pretty close to what I saw the night I interviewed him: emotive, wistful sighs from a guy and his guitar. The unorthodox creativity that has always marked his artistry is still there, to be sure. He started the set on a steel drum—honestly the best solo performance of vocal and percussion on a steel drum that I could possibly imagine.
At the start of his set, two small girls—I think they were his nieces, although I never got the story straight—came onstage with him and stood several feet behind him. With only the slightest suggestion of humor, Elvrum addressed the audience, “We don’t do this very often,” and you got the feeling that while he’s not used to performing with small children, it has happened a few times. He began, and the girls behind him entered into an interpretive dance that, while not particularly in sync with the music, was somehow completely appropriate. After maybe two songs, the girls were called offstage by their parents, and having set aside the steel drum by then, Elvrum was left alone with his guitar.
Ooh La La: What’s the setup?
Phil: Just me. It’s usually like that.
Can playing by yourself live—or just playing live at all—be compared to playing in the studio, to recording? Or do you enjoy one more than the other?
They’re just too separate to be able to compare at all.
There’s no relation to you?
No, they’re distant echoes of each other.
So, aside from the solo stuff, Old Time Relijun and D+—are those your major projects?
Um, no, The Microphones is my major project.
I mean, outside of The Microphones.
Those are just, like, things that I do maybe once a year, at most.
Do you not have a lot of investment in those?
Old Time Relijun, I’m actually hardly even involved with at all. They have a different drummer.
How long has it been since you played with him?
Two years, something like that.
So, with D+, you’re not really doing—
Yeah, it’s just kind of like whenever we happen to be in the same town, which is never. It’s really, really casual.
You’re not doing any writing at all, outside of The Microphones?
Not really, no.
Has this always been thought of by you as a solo project or, at times, a collaboration with anybody else?
Yeah, different people help me out. I like keeping it ambiguous, too, about who it is. A lot of times people think of [The Microphones as a] band—I think, for the most part, people think of the band.
Was that what was going on when I wrote you and you said, “I’m The Microphones or whatever?” Is that the ambiguity of who’s involved in The Microphones?
Yeah. I think. It’s just me. It’s my project. Other people are involved, but they’re helping me with my project.
What was the story with the name change? [Elvrum had recently stopped performing as The Microphones and was currently performing as Mt. Eerie.]
Mt. Eerie is a new project.
Are these going to be separate things?
It’s new to me. New ideas. It’s not just a change in name.
Totally different projects . . . So, is Microphones going to be no more?
Yeah. But, I mean, it’s just the same thing. Me. I don’t know. It’s just kind of ridiculous. I just felt like The Microphones idea had sort of completed itself. I was ready to start over, thematically. The Microphones was a five- or seven-year project with a certain amount of albums that all sort of blended into each other, and that concluded with Mt. Eerie. I didn’t really want to keep elaborating on Mt. Eerie.
So, when people look in the paper and they see “The Microphones”—is that going to change anytime soon?
Yeah. A lot of the shows on this tour have just been “Mt. Eerie.”
Is that how you want it?
I don’t really have any interest in what the band is named. So it doesn’t make sense to me to be uptight about . . . “No, call me Mt. Eerie!” If somebody’s setting up a show and they want to use “The Microphones,” I’m fine with that.
Are you going to continue working with K?
Yeah. Sorta. Yeah. They’re putting out a live album [KLP 158, Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st and 22nd, 2003, released in 2004].
So, is working with the label more of a geographical thing, or is it because K has similar artistic goals?
Sure, I love K. I used to live across the street from them, but I’ve moved now. It’s not a geographical thing. But, yeah, I’m going to do stuff with the label versus putting it out myself. They’re really supportive.
Do you think there’s a cultural tone in the Northwest that makes your work sync with some of the people that you’ve worked with or some of the other people that have worked with a label like K? Could this all have happened in, say, Madison or New Orleans?
Yeah, there’s something weird in Olympia. There’s some kind of special—I don’t know—people talk about it. I don’t notice it when I’m there, but people talk about how motivated a vibe they get from being in Olympia or other places up there. So, probably it’s true, to some extent.
How important are projects like the St. Ives albums? [These were two 300-copy collections, each uniquely hand-painted, that were released by the Secretly Canadian–associated St. Ives label in 2002.]
That’s the whole point: they’re not important. We only made 300 because they’re not really albums that should be focused on. But, because they are limited, they get so much more attention than they deserve. [To his audience, in exasperation:] Ah . . . you guys . . .
Did you not put as much effort into the work?
They’re just studio scraps, like, leftovers from other albums. Which is interesting. I love listening to that stuff. But, yeah, studio scraps, ephemeral stuff.
How do you feel about limited-edition stuff in general?
I love it.
Are these kinds of releases sort of unique keepsakes for the “real” fans or . . .
I just think that it’s important to make things special. I guess being just “limited edition” is kind of like not necessarily special. But, oftentimes, limited-edition things are handmade, in a way, and they have some kind of individual detail, individual attention paid to them. I think that’s such an important part of making CDs, albums, books, anything. At least a flourish of human touch on each one, if not the whole thing. That was the thing with those St. Ives albums—the covers were all painted. That’s why I like them so much. I just think that projects like that are hard to come by these days. Mass production is so easy. It really doesn’t “make sense” to make things by hand anymore. It’s stupid. So, like, I’m really attracted to it.
On the consumer side of limited-edition releases, you—as both someone who likes the stuff, to buy for yourself, and as someone who creates the stuff—can you say anything about the way that there’s an exclusivity to it, in the way that’s it’s special because nobody else has it?
Well, I think that people have a really obsessive, completist approach to music. And everything—people think of the world in terms of shopping. I think that’s unfortunate. Maybe by putting out limited-edition things, it’s sort of wishful thinking of me: “Well, the people that get it will be happy, and the people that don’t will move on.” Not true. People that don’t get it get obsessed with it, and it ruins their lives. I’m not talking necessarily about my projects, but the limited—like eBay—it’s insane what people will pay to get the thing they don’t have. And then they buy it and they’re not any happier. I’ve noticed that on this tour a lot. I don’t have a new release—I’m selling just stuff that I’ve had for a while. I’m playing all new songs, and everyone’s like, “Are you recording? When are these songs available? Can I get these anywhere?” That makes sense, but, also, I’m like, “I just played them. Weren’t you paying attention? Weren’t you here?” It just seems like people are at the show and they can’t get past the consumer standpoint about it. So, I’m attracted to the idea of never putting out another album. People thinking about things when they are shopping, like, going to a show and wanting to buy it rather than just enjoying it . . .
There are a lot of bands that do something like a tour-only single. The idea that you can have that and no one who didn’t go to the show is important to a lot of people.
Yeah. I’m really into that stuff, too. Given a choice between two things, and one of them is more “collectable,” [I’ll take the latter]. It’s undeniable, but I don’t want it to be. It would be nicer to just see things for what they are.
Getting back to the eBay thing—have you ever seen any of your releases on eBay?
No, but people have told me that some of those St. Ives records go for way too much.
What’s your reaction to that?
It makes me really mad, and it makes me really sad. Just because of that same thing I was talking about: it wasn’t meant to cost that much. It’s just people’s weird obsession and fixation that leads to that. And I just feel sorry for people, in a way. I mean, if they’re dumb enough to pay that much money for it, then it’s kind of their problem. But I feel sorry for them. Like, imagine them getting the record in the mail and—I imagine [laughs] this deep, sad feeling of, “I got it. Now what? It’s not that good.”
Those St. Ives records in particular—would you consider reading those as primarily art rather than primarily music? In that sense, they have a formal artistic value that has, in part, to do with their exclusivity. Is it necessarily wrong that they are going for inflated prices? Because even if they’re going for $300, or whatever, that’s still not bad for art. It’s totally relative. . . .
I see your point. But, also, even with art, I’ve never been able to convince myself that it was OK to pay that much for art. In high school, before I started making music, I would do art shows. I was in the art club, and I had paintings. But I couldn’t bring myself to sell things for “art world” prices. I would sell things for like $15, for every painting. Why should it be more? I paid $3 for the paint and spent twenty minutes painting it. I don’t think it should be so exclusive.
Getting away from all that: what do you listen to?
Kool Keith, mostly. That’s about it. I just got the soundtrack for Bram Stoker’s Dracula—really over-the-top, dramatic music. And Kool Keith.
Is that a bit different than maybe what you listened to when you started The Microphones?
Yeah, I go through all kinds of weird phases. A lot of times I don’t listen to that much. But we rented this car for this tour and it has a CD player. I’ve just been bumpin’ rap, really loud. Or the Dracula soundtrack, super loud, driving through Hollywood. [He had played the Knitting Factory the night before.]
Would you say that you pull your inspirations, for the music that you make, from things outside of music?
[Hesitantly] Yeah, sometimes. Definitely for the words. The music itself, I feel like I take a lot ideas from [inaudible].
Would I be wrong in thinking that the music on Mt. Eerie was presented in movements rather than as songs?
Yeah, it’s all one piece of music.
Was that any sort of attempt to move beyond a traditional pop structure?
In a way, my other albums before that were sort of going in that direction—everything kind of connected, thematically—ideally. But with Mt. Eerie it was a conscious thing. I was like, “OK, I’m going to make this, there’s going to be five parts, they’re going to have these names, and this is the rough story.” And I sat down and recorded it.
A lot of your music could be said to be cinematic, and I think Mt. Eerie fits that. Would you consider getting farther away from the pop structure and making music for movies, or have you in the past?
I never have, other than little movies that I used to make. But I always think of music in that way. It’s like telling a story, illustrating things. I think cinematic—it’s a compliment, but it’s kind of accurate for my approach. I always mean to make movies that go along with the songs, but I just never get around to it.
Is nature a consciously recurring motif in your work, or is it just something that when you’re writing, you’re impressed by?
I don’t set out to do it. At this point, I’ve gotten enough reviews that talk about it that I’m consciously trying not to do it. I’m trying to think about tires and stuff.
Has the media interpretation of your work kind of ruined that subject matter for you?
I try and ignore it, but it’s hard. Not the media necessarily, but just people’s attention. Meeting people who listen to the music, it’s hard to ignore the fact that they’re [seeing this in the music]. I never really consciously try and talk about nature. That’s just the way it is.
I tend to think, from a critical standpoint, that when people address the topic of nature in your work, what they are trying to do is say that your music is not inhibited by the topical and emotional themes that a lot of indie music is about. They’re trying to create something larger out of your work—a greater art. Do you think you’re aiming at something larger than what’s being considered by a lot of the music that’s next to you in the bins?
Probably. I don’t think I’m really that aware of the music that’s next to mine. I don’t think I listen to that much music that sounds like the music that I make. So, I sort of feel oblivious, to some extent. From what I know if the world of music, I don’t want to make just punk. It’s kind of what ends up happening anyway, but I don’t want to make up songs about my own little emotional struggles. But, in a way, what else do I know? What else can I relate to? I guess I try and figure out ways of talking about my own little emotional struggles in ways that are bigger. As if I was—it’s hard to think of myself in those terms.
How would you feel about being described as a “nature poet,” as opposed to, say, a musician—a nature poet that happens to be working in the medium of indie rock?
[Mildly] Yeah. [He considers the concept.] Yeah, sure. That would be nice. I think that’s probably in my ingredients. My middle name is Whitman. My parents were so into Walt Whitman. That’s probably part of my makeup, that way of thinking. Often, I’m like, “Oh, God, wouldn’t it be cool to be remembered as a scholar, and by no other profession than just this sort of sage.” So, yeah, that would be nice.
What was the deal with Norway?
I went there saying, “OK, I’m moving away forever: goodbye, you’ll never see me again. I’m going to settle down. Maybe if you can find me, we can [work together]. But bye.” Just because, psychologically, for myself, I needed it. So, I went there, got a cabin. It was really important for me to do. It was sort of a dividing line between one part of my life and another.
Was the move abrupt?
No, it had been something that I had been fantasizing about for ten years. Not Norway specifically. I used to, in high school, all the time, be like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to move to eastern Canada.” Or some place weird, like Alaska. Or some place where I don’t know anybody, and just, like, deal with it. And I ended up just doing it.
Do you know anybody there?
No. Well, now I do. But I didn’t before. I was setting up shows. I played as many shows as I could in the country, and then my train pass expired. So, I was stuck in the farthest northern town that the train goes to. And then kid told me that I could stay with him for a while, until I found my own place.
Had you played in Norway before?
How was the response to your music?
It was good. Yeah, it was okay. I mean, it wasn’t like everyone knew who I was. I was [there] several months, and by the end of it, more people were coming to the shows.
Do you ever consider moving back?
No. I sort of realized that my home is Anacortes, Washington, where I grew up. I thought maybe that I would go there, or anywhere—I traveled around quite a bit, and I thought maybe I would find a place and it would click—“OK, this is where I belong.” But it clicked that I belong in Anacortes, Washington.
Getting back to the ambiguity of who The Microphones is, which we discussed earlier: is your Web site—the link from the K Web site—is that an attempt to be evasive?
Does that make your computer crash?
It took a really long time to load.
I don’t know what’s up with that. This guy who used to work at K made it, and he was really into Flash. So, all the Web sites were really fancy, but he never got around to fixing mine. I’m really into that, though [laughs].
A few things that I noticed: there are pictures of a lot of people that the site says you’ve worked with, but there are not captions saying who they are, so if the person viewing the site didn’t know the people . . . [Elvrum laughs out loud] and then there’s these seemingly random nature scenes [Elvrum emits another guffaw], which the Web site refers to as “Pictures of Light.” And then there’s a really, really abbreviated discography, and all the stuff on there is by now totally impossible to get.
The thing is, it’s a pain in the ass to update it. I don’t know how to do that, and the person that works there is in charge of so many Web sites and just didn’t have time to do [my site] all the way. [Man comes by and gives Elvrum a book.] He was at the show last night and thought that I would like this author.
How do feel about your work being analyzed by critics? Do you think about it at all?
I try not to. The thing that affects me more is meeting people—you know, just people—at shows. I really like that. But sometimes it’s difficult: sometimes people can be a little too affected by [the music].
I take it there’s a kind of disconnect for you between the music as a personal creation of you and the music after it’s interpreted by people and taken home and personalized. Are these totally different things for you?
Yeah. It’s tough to keep them segregated, though, but important to figure out how to do. Because I want to be open to people and to be open to talking about it. I don’t want to be coy or standoffish when people are telling me that they like my music. But, at the same time, it’s intense having people talk about it sometimes, because it’s such a personal thing for me. So, I need to figure out how to just say “thank you” and move on, or something. My music is really personal, and it makes sense that people can personalize it, because the nature of it is so personal. And I know what it’s like to really identify with music, so I can relate in that way, too.
Outside of the fan level, and then the rock journalist level, how would you feel about your work being assessed in, say, an academic environment?
That would be neat. I would love that.
Would that be difficult for you, scary at all?
Prob—Well, gee, I don’t know. I have no experience with it. I like the idea, because academia seems a little more, like, it doesn’t allow as much. And with journalism, rock journalism—I don’t even know—but with the fan stuff, it’s built upon this premise that “Oh, this person’s on a higher level.” Academia seems more like, “This is what it is. We’re going to try to figure this out.”
It’s kind of demystified in academia . . .
Yeah, demystification. That’s—I love that. That’s what I feel like it’s all about for me: touring, playing shows, putting out records. I was talking about [the St. Ives records], the handmade aspect of it. I just want to demystify it, because it’s so mystical. Music—it just shouldn’t be.
Not to suggest that this is why you make music, but do you have any interest in your work being appreciated after you death, and sort of not being forgotten, canonized on some level?
I don’t know. Yeah, I think subconsciously I think about it like that. Because, I remember being a little kid, or probably ten or eleven years old, and coming to terms with my mortality, in a way. I remember having this conversation with my mom: “Well, mom, we’re all going to die. I’m going to do something that will last a little bit longer than my death.” I was really into the Renaissance artists, like Leonardo. I was really into Michelangelo. I read all of these books about him and was very intrigued that people still knew who he was. His paintings were on walls, and people knew them by heart. And that just seemed so—like, “He lived a good life” is what I equated it with. Or, like, a successful life.
Sure. Well, he did good work.
He did good work, but it lasted a long time. And people say his name and know it. And so I remember saying that thing to my mom: “Yeah, that’s what I want to do: to be remembered for a long time for some reason. I don’t know exactly what. But I want to do something.” And not necessarily kill a bunch of people. I mean, some people can do that. Make something—like, invent a helicopter, like Leonardo, or whatever. Because, I mean, we’re all going to die. Wouldn’t it be nice to stretch it a little, for five hundred years longer or something. I don’t think I think that way anymore, except subconsciously.
I should probably mention the live record coming out. What was the impetus to do that?
It’s been an option. There have been a lot of shows that have been recorded, and I’ve thought about it. I’d really liked keeping the live performance thing special, and, like, unavailable, other than just experiencing it. In February, I was with—
[Someone passes in a truck and hollers “Phil!” while sticking the top half of her body out the window toward us.]
[Softly] Hey. I don’t know who that is. Um, in February, I was living in Norway, and then I went to Japan for the tour and met some friends there. And I hadn’t seen anyone I knew in like six months or something. I hadn’t really been around humans in a long time, and I just went to Tokyo. And so the tour was really intense. I had all these new songs, like thirty new songs or something, from Norway. So, the shows were just really good, because I was just in shock from being around all the people. I got recorded. I was like, “If I’m going to make a live album, this is it.” There are really, like, vivid performances. This is the first time these songs have ever been played in front of people, good recordings. I’ve played some of the shows with this backing band, that band The Mools, this band The Mools from Tokyo. I don’t know. And, also, I didn’t have any other thing coming out, so it seemed like a good idea to put something out. And I had all of these songs that weren’t going to go on the Mt. Eerie album.
I’ll leave the question about “When are you going to record the material that you play live?” to somebody else . . .
I’m working on it. I’m just taking my time. I’m going slow. With the starting up Mt. Eerie again, I’m just trying to start over in every way possible. I’m starting from scratch and giving myself lots of breathing room.
See more of Cory's writing here.