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Music In Conversation

Phil Elverum with Aaron Lake Smith

The singular force behind Mount Eerie and the Microphones never skimps in his efforts or attention to aesthetic detail—Phil Elverum is prolific. Elverum’s newest release, Black Wooden Ceiling Opening, is a foray into dark, heavy music pounded out with the help of Jason Anderson and Kjetil Jenssen of the Spectacle. The creative whirlwind around Elverum seems to only intensify his production of books, zines, and niche cultural commodities as time goes on.

Aaron Lake Smith (Rail): So there is a real Mount Eerie?

Photograph of Phil Elverum by Aaron Lake Smith.
Photograph of Phil Elverum by Aaron Lake Smith.

Phil Elverum: Well, there is, but it’s spelled differently—it’s Mount Erie. Mount Eerie with two Es has this meaning of creepy or ominous. It sums up this vibe that I go for with a lot of the stuff I make.

Rail: Mount Eerie has recently taken on a black-metal look. Is that just aesthetic preference or a sincere interest in Northern culture?

Elverum: Northern culture is what I’m interested in. And yeah, I have been getting into black metal in the last couple of years. There’s this absurdity in it—these angry teenagers who live with their parents. I’m really into the aesthetic—this really dark form of nature appreciation.

Rail: Nature appreciation?

Elverum: It’s difficult to write and do creative work about “nature appreciation” without being pigeonholed. For example, I could be a “hippie” or a “conservationist.” I really like this new dark, almost spiritual, but fundamentally non-religious belief—basically all these black-metal dudes, these suburban teenagers have figured out that there’s something powerful about going on a walk in the forest by yourself at night.

Rail: Can you talk about the writer and environmentalist Gary Snyder, who you’ve quoted in the liner notes of your records?

Elverum: I read Gary Snyder and think, “Yeah, he put into words how I feel, too!” But it’s tricky. Every time I read a review of my music or get talked about people seem to say, “I’m really into your music—I’m into nature, too!” And I’m like, Really? It seems kind of shallow—like, “Yeah, I like camping.”

That’s what I’m talking about when I say it’s difficult to talk about nature to the accurate depths of my feeling about it. I think Gary Snyder had a good way of doing that. He looks at nature as the world we live in—the Wal-Mart parking lot is nature. Also in terms of time—he goes back to primitive times and says, Hey, it’s not primitive and modern. It’s about a sense of character—how do you go through with your life in the present moment? What are your values, regardless of the era you were born into?

Rail: What values do you want to express other than an appreciation of nature?

Elverum: An awareness of one’s surroundings. Being receptive to the moment. So, for me, a lot of those moments take place in “nature,” like, you know, going on a walk after dinner. But that’s not the main thrust of what I’m interested in saying.

“Green” is a brand now. It’s a commodity. I want to remove the artificial distinction between like, Here I am, and over there is nature. It’s this place where we have to go and we’ve got to drive there and go to the Yosemite parking lot and bring an energy bar, go up the trail and be like, “OK, so here’s where I appreciate this.” No. Every day you wake up in your bed and you go make coffee in the kitchen. There are these natural phenomena going on around us all the time.

Rail: Did you make the conscious decision to scale down your involvement with the indie-rock apparatus? You’re no longer putting out things on K Records, which had its own PR—now you’re just doing your own thing.

Elverum: Yeah, it was a conscious decision, when I started putting out my own records. I decided to just put out vinyl, and not do promotion because I don’t like CDs. But now I’m actually doing promotion and putting out a CD for this next release to experiment with what that’s like again. The effect that I’ve noticed of only putting out vinyl, and doing it myself, is that I have fewer fans who are specialists, the kind of people that buy every single thing. That in turn alienates the casual fan. It just becomes more and more specialized and more fanatical. My friends are scared away from my shows. It makes me want to be more accessible to the normal person who doesn’t want to feel like they want to get all the way into it, like they’re joining a cult or something.

Rail: Do you come out of the tradition of do-it-yourself and zines?

Elverum: I totally came out of that. I was really into zines. I put out zines, I had pen pals and stuff.

Rail: So you went and lived in a cabin in Norway for the winter?

Elverum: Yeah. I went there for ultimate solitude. I kept this journal that someone is publishing as a book with a CD in November. It’s basically me just walking around thinking and talking to myself. And cutting wood. And kind of mapping the thing, noticing the changes in the light. It was great. The pace of living was way down there in a way that’s really hard to get in normal life when you have distractions and actual tasks.

Rail: What prompted you to go live a season in the wilderness?

Elverum: The original idea was that I was going to move there and never come back. It’s kind of like how a lot of people said, “Oh god! If George W. Bush gets elected I’m totally moving to Canada.” I don’t know if people said that where you live, but it was a little bit of that. “Oh god, this country’s crazy, I’m going to see what it’s like to live somewhere else.” I lived there for five months, and that was enough to realize that it didn’t feel like home.

Rail: So solitude has a big draw for you.

Elverum: It did. It was a strange period in my life where I didn’t quite know why I was doing it. But in hindsight it was me drawing the border between the first part of my life and the second. It was why I started calling my project Mount Eerie. I moved back to Anacortes from Olympia. I felt kind of like an adult, you know? I’m a little more mature.

Rail: What was the difference between adolescence and adulthood?

Elverum: It was the pacing thing. Not feeling freaked out all the time and just being a little bit more mellow about everything. Taking my work a little bit slower. When I lived in Olympia before going to Norway, I was usually running when I was going from one place to another—when I was recording in the studio, I would run across the room instead of walk because that was the pace of my life. So much to do! So inspired and passionate all the time! Oh I’m so upset! This food is so good! After Norway, it was like, Yeah, this food is pretty good. I’m fairly inspired. Time is not going to run out.

Rail: What do you want your relationship between your art and commerce to be?

Elverum: I have this attention to aesthetic detail when I’m doing things that I really don’t want to let go of. I only play all-ages shows. I don’t like playing bars, even if they’re all-ages. I like to play a show in a weird place. Those things tend to get lost, I think, with my friends that become commercially successful. Because the way they do things is, you have to get a booking agent, and the booking agent doesn’t want to find weird places; they just want to call up the guy at the bar where they always book shows, where it’s easy. I think that I’m as famous as I want to be. It’s just that there’s the phenomenon I was talking about before: the collector fanatics scaring off my friends and other normal, casual listeners. So it’s kind of a balance.

Rail: I often feel like now is the time for decadence, with electricity and computers, and the future will be the time for survival.

Elverum: Yeah, I picture it the same way. I think the way I live now is getting there. I know my farmers, and have a farm share where I get my food. I’m kissing up to them so when the time comes, they’ll let me into the compound. I’m stockpiling weapons [laughs]. No, I suck at growing plants, but I have some skills. I grew up in the woods outside of town with wood heat and kerosene—I’ve lived in cabins. I’m not worried. Plus, I live in this place that is still really wild and lush with lots of edible food. So I think I’m pretty well positioned.


Aaron Lake Smith

Aaron Lake Smith makes fanzines and lives in Brooklyn. He has a website at


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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