Text by Lee Wang
Photograph by Kava Gorna
Nestled in Anacortes, a small town on a small island in Washington state’s Puget Sound, Phil Elverum has carved out a niche as one of music’s quirkiest indie darlings, and he’s quick to credit his hometown for the quality of his music. “To me they’re sort of inseparable,” he says. And when you consider that the bashful artist once performed a show under a blanket, Anacortes and Elverum both start to look quaintly down-to-earth.
Being unfettered by rock conventions has been a hallmark of Elverum and his music, which is explained by how secluded Anacortes is from the mainstream cultural world. “I didn’t really participate in pop culture at all, ’cause we lived out of town,” he says of his early-teenage self. Back then, “I really didn’t know what was cool.” But when Nirvana and grunge exploded, first in the Pacific Northwest and then all over the pop culture scene, Elverum remembers his own personal breakthrough which is unsurprisingly bathed in pastoral images. “I just sort of became aware of this world of underground rock music that was very tangible in Seattle and in Anacortes, and there were shows happening and there was a band practicing at the other side of the lake that I could hear.”
The natural serenity of his environment and the noisy influence of grunge eventually coalesced into the Microphones, the name under which he first rose to indie fame (now he records as Mount Eerie). He released the bombastically intimate The Glow, Pt. 2 to universal praise, alternating gentle guitar-work and loud blasts of noise, a heritage that makes sense once he mentions that he had just been blasting Dinosaur Jr. at home.
The Glow, Pt. 2 continued his increasingly ambitious musical sights that were first borne out in its preceding album It was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, which happened to contain a song entitled “The Glow.” And considering that The Glow, Pt. 2 ends with the far-off moans of a lighthouse horn, and its follow-up – the epic concept album Mount Eerie which grapples with, of all things, the universe – opens with those same horns, continuity seems like an important concept.
However, Elverum brushes off the idea that he has any grand, overarching schema that connects all his albums, saying simply, “I’m really into [continuity]. I don’t know why, really, other than it’s cool.” He laughs at himself, then continues. “Also it attaches more significance to the thing, it makes them more deliberate and special, like some thought went into it. You know, like it’s being done on purpose, rather than just, ‘Oh, here’s another 15 songs I recorded that don’t have anything to do with each other.’” His concern for the alleged thrown-togetherness of his albums probably stems from the organic nature of his recording methods. “When I record music, none of the sound is really a conscious decision, because I’m never proficient enough to do anything on purpose, so it just kind of happened that way.” Instead of mapping everything out beforehand, “part of the creative process for me is recording and figuring out the song, and basically writing it as it’s being recorded.”
But sometimes his writing process manages to outsmart him. At one concert, when opening act and good friend Thanksgiving blew him away, Elverum stepped onto the stage suddenly unsure about his own songwriting. “I was doubting my songs really deeply. I was kind of listening to them and assessing them as I played, and trying to clarify them at the last minute, because I was like, ‘What does that even mean?’”
Speaking of his live shows, what about that gig under a blanket? “Yeah, I remember playing under a blanket,” he coyly admits, “a few times.”
Oh, so more than once? “Well, one show that I played under a blanket was at a beach, and only five people came, and so in order to make it seem like there were a lot of people there, we all got under the same blanket. Because just five people standing on a beach was really humbling.”
And that wasn’t the only time. At another concert, the crowd was still filing in as the other bands were playing. “I made a fort in the back of the room with a bunch of blankets and chairs and I hid in there with a microphone,” he recalls gleefully. “I played my show from inside the fort through the microphone, and nobody knew where I was.” And considering how off-the-cuff his methods and personality are, nobody knows where he’ll go.