Phil Elverum: Exploring the Artistry That Led to “Microphones in 2020"
// Image courtesy of Phil Elverum.
Phil Elverum is the driving force behind The Microphones and Mount Eerie, two projects of his that have found immeasurable success even years after their peak activity. Born in Anacortes, Washington, Elverum grew up around music and started to build himself as a multi-instrumentalist early on. Music even extended itself into his work life as he took up a job at a local record store, which would also serve as a facility for him to begin recording music. His clear devotion to music and artistry led him to be a local influence in Anacortes and in Olympia, where he lived for five years.
Phil’s most critically acclaimed works include The Glow, Pt. 2 (2001) and A Crow Looked at Me (2017). Elverum’s most recent release is a 44 minute and 45-second long album accompanied by a film of photographs, which can be found on YouTube and Bandcamp under the name of Microphones in 2020. This is the first time in 4 years since Elverum has used the branding of The Microphones. And although this release is labeled as an album, it’s continuity shapes this track to be one long song that features about three main chords throughout its entire duration. Now, one may be thinking, “44 minutes long, and only three main chords?”
Well, yes. But don’t let that discourage you. Microphones in 2020 features various layers of beautiful and earthy guitar, primarily acoustic with hints of electric scattered throughout. As for the vocal aspects of this release, Phil’s words can be easily followed like a story recounting his life, which in a way, gives context to the various pictures being shown. Much more than a song, this release proves to be a bountiful and multi-artistic approach to expression and the telling of one’s life story. Unlike prior releases, Phil seems to speak very literally and straight-forward at times, which he considers being a more “orthodox” approach to music.
So why these names, and why transition from one to the other in such a way?
Elverum responds, “There isn’t really a difference between the two things, it’s just a name. They’re just different sort of mileposts along the route of all of the work that I’ve done in my life. This Microphones album that I just released was my attempt to say that in more detail. To talk about how the superficial name and umbrella that it’s under is insignificant and it’s all part of the same compost heap.”
And though the answer is quite simple in itself, the true beauty is what Phil creates under these names. A name is just a name, and his art is countless levels deeper than anything a label can convey. Even so, there is some significance to these names. Around 1995, Phil was a young high school student, creating recordings he had no idea would lead to such huge success. His earliest recordings featured him singing about microphones, and given the equipment he used, he figured what better name than The Microphones, “Well, I started calling my tapes that I was making starting in like 1995 The Microphones, and I did that because I was singing about microphones and recording and stuff.”
As his musical ability progressed, Phil realized that it was time to move on from this title, “Over the years, I stopped singing about those things and eventually evolved into singing about more ambiguous things. Mount Eerie felt more potent to me as an idea, and it’s an actual mountain where I’m from. It felt more appropriate to what I was actually singing about and doing.” And more than just a way to “rebrand” himself, Phil expressed that this can also be viewed as a restart, “Also maybe I felt like I sort of needed to reset and have a fresh start in a way, artistically.”
Many listeners can’t help but wonder what Elverum’s songwriting process looks like. He says that it is true that he often records in the middle of writing songs. This also contributes to the name of The Microphones, Phil says, “And that’s kind of why it was first called The Microphones actually because all I wanted to do was be recording.” Regarding his early work, Elverum says that “they weren’t songs really” whereas recently he has been writing more “orthodox songs with words and narrative and story.” Another aspect that plays a role in his process is the fact that he records in his own studio, removing the barrier of studio time which many growing artists face. “And I always record myself, so I’m not stressing about trying to be super-efficient with my studio time. It’s pretty important to me to give myself limitless time while I’m recording.”
Moving on to his earlier successes, Elverum first gained considerable popularity and momentum with his third studio album, The Glow, Pt. 2. This 2001 album was entirely produced by Elverum and is often categorized as one of the best albums of the 2000s, especially within the indie rock scene. Even beyond indie rock, this album lives up to its ambitiousness by embracing other genres such as lo-fi, noise rock, alternative rock, and ambient. Speaking about his reaction to its success, Elverum says, “It’s all a surprise to me honestly. The fact that I’m able to do this and that anyone is interested at all is still a surprise to me.” And regarding favoritism amongst his work, he says, “It changes from day to day, my perception of my own self and the stuff I make. It’s not frequent that The Glow, Pt. 2 is my favorite one, usually, I’m most interested in what I’m currently working on.”
Despite Phil’s musical growth in genre and expression, he has made it a clear point throughout his music that his works are somehow connected. Not only connected to him as the artist, but connected to each other. “They’re all part of this output of my life. I think that that’s the true state of existence, everything flows into the next thing. These albums aren’t isolated from each other.” As some listeners may recall, The Glow, Pt. 2 presented the recurring sound of a foghorn that would even sometimes play unhindered by other instruments. Phil cites this example to emphasize the interconnectedness of his albums, “For example, having the same background fog horn go through a whole album and even begin the next album. I try to start an album where the last one ends off.”
Interestingly enough, this stylistic choice of adding the fog horn was inspired by the popular TV show Twin Peaks, where Phil recalls noticing, “There was always this sort of distant *brrrmmm* and maybe a *ding ding ding* just to like put you in the place of it. But it was so subtle and I noticed how effective that was, to play something in a specific atmosphere.” He describes this atmospheric effect as an entire layer of art to which he can add on, “It’s almost as if I had recorded the album not on blank tape, but on tape that had a tone to it. Or like painting on colored paper.”
The 2020 Microphones album is a masterful culmination of Phil’s existence as a person and as an artist. After so many years of creating music, this album appears to largely be a conglomeration of reflections. And when reflecting, it is hard to avoid the thought of other people’s conceptions about your work. When it comes to misconceptions about Elverum’s work, he expresses that he is mostly “in an ocean of misconceptions,” but he has come to accept the inevitability of misunderstanding. However, one big one that he does go through the effort of addressing is the idea that Phil and his music are exclusively sad. “I notice people think that I’m just sad. People think that my music equals sadness or sorrow and that that’s what I’m pursuing, and that’s not true at all. Even A Crow Looked at Me, even though it’s talking about humongous and devastating facts, what that album is about is the beauty and the love that shines through all of those experiences. It’s frustrating to have it simplified to the point where I am just a symbol of sorrow for people that can’t think more deeply about it.”
Given Phil’s years in the music industry and his vast experience, I wanted to ask him about his stance on streaming services and why Microphones in 2020 was not published on Spotify. To this, Phil stressed, “Everyone should know and everyone should tell their friends that Bandcamp is more supportive to artists than Spotify even though it might be one inch less convenient for them. It just comes down to the fact that I feel I deserve to be compensated for my work, and Spotify doesn’t pay artists fairly at all. It’s just like a really exploitative and destructive business model.” Thus, to give your favorite artists significant support, “you have to pay money,” which means forfeiting Spotify and other exploitative streaming services.
This task is not as easy as it seems, especially seeing millions of users gravitate towards the convenience that streaming services like Spotify offer. Music listeners have grown accustomed to this convenience, which Phil describes as an “illusion where things are free for however long people have grown accustomed to this reality. It’s maybe going to be hard or impossible to go backward from that, but that’s what has to happen.” Continuing in the realm of the music industry, it is important to note that Phil has had his own music label since 2004, named “P.W. Elverum & Sun.” The reason behind this is simple. Elverum loves every aspect of music, whether it be creation, distribution, printing, or artwork. “If I wanted to have a sustainable life in this music world, I was going to need to do most of it myself to maintain control and to get paid,” Phil states.
As fans of the Microphones and Mount Eerie enjoy, eat up, and dissect the 2020 record, Phil continues to work on advancing his art in various forms. Elverum has released and will continue to release content such as photo books, art books, posters, and obviously new music. Phil specifically shared that he has a new “extra” on the way, which is probably going to be a vinyl-only “Foghorn Tape.” As the name suggests, this tape will include approximately 30 minutes of the foghorn sound that many recognize from The Glow, Pt. 2.
// Gilberto Sepulveda Rabago ‘24 is a staff writer for Record Hospital.