an interview with Phil Elverum on The Microphones’ first album in 17 years
Microphones in 2020. As a Phil Elverum fan, saying this seems so… strange, so anachronistic. With works as The Microphones dating until 2007, it was widely accepted that The Microphones was over and Mount Eerie was its replacement.
"The name distinction isn't a factor," says Phil Elverum over a Google Meet video chat. In his eyes, The Microphones is Mount Eerie and Mount Eerie is The Microphones. To view them separately is to disconnect from a greater body of art. "There is too much focus on the title of a thing," he continues. "Ideally, we can just make stuff without a title for it and without an identity for it. Things can just rest on their own merit, but that's too idealistic [laughs] and impossible."
But, whether he likes it or not, Microphones in 2020, his first full-length work under the The Microphones moniker since 2003's Mount Eerie, stands aside from the rest of his works, bearing passing resemblances to the music which stood before it. A 45 minute long song, this single track behemoth wasn't necessarily written like a song.
"It felt like writing a book, kind of," says Elverum, who literally prepared the album on an ever-changing scroll of moving verses and sounds. "It is actually so long that it's kind of useless since I can't hold it and use it to record with, but that was the process. It was very much on paper -- all my sheets of paper around, taping things together, moving verses around. I thought about it and I wanted there to be a good narrative and literary flow to it."
In a statement announcing the new album, Elverum states that The Microphones is inherently autobiographical, but he also negates that with varying layers of obfuscation, but Microphones in 2020, at least for the most part, is direct, with Elverum telling the literal story of the birth of this particular musical outlet.
It is a The Microphones album about The Microphones, but Elverum does this without ego.
"I wanted to do an autobiography for the purpose of shifting the purpose away from me," he states. "It seems counterintuitive or like there's a contradiction here, but it's an autobiography with the intentions of shifting away from the identity of me and toward the act of creation itself. The song, not the singer, if that makes sense."
Elverum's tender musings on his youth, paired with a series of photos meant to correlate with the album's lyrics, are a refreshing reflection on Elverum's earlier works. Here he is, the project's hero, turning his identity into a series of portraits, only to be covered up by a new one, and so forth. Instead of the inherent ego of the artist, Microphones in 2020 celebrates the ephemeral nature of life and art, and with a new, old title, it goes to show that it doesn't matter what you name art, it will simply be.
The album is out today (8/7), and today's also a Bandcamp Friday, so if you purchase it there, all profits go directly to Phil.
I've listened through Microphones in 2020 a few times at this point -- there's a lot to take in, a lot of autobiographical stuff, a lot of musical references and whatnot. I was curious, across its 44 minutes, and there are a lot of 44-45 minute long songs, but this is a continuous "song." No big interludes or anything. What was it like writing a song of this length?
Yeah, it was a whole new experiment. Yeah, it felt like writing a book, kind of. Like, I had a lot of outlines and… I'm going to show you this piece of paper that I used… [produces a large scroll]. I write on paper and it just says Microphones in 2019 because I thought it was going to be called that, but it took a long time to finish. You can see the scraps are taped together and cut. There's some erasing that happened but all these different pieces -- I was physically rearranging the verses. [unscrolls the paper]
Yeah! It is actually so long that it's kind of useless since I can't hold it and use it to record with, but that was the process. It was very much on paper -- all my sheets of paper around, taping things together, moving verses around. I thought about it and I wanted there to be a good narrative and literary flow to it.
No, I definitely had those ideas in mind, too, for when musical things would happen, especially the musical interludes. There's one in the center of the song where the tempo falls away and it becomes this organ wash for a couple minutes. I wanted there to be a place where it falls off the grid. I wanted it to work thematically, too. It's a song about waking up in the middle of the night in this ungrounded state and I wanted the music to reflect that, too. All the instrumentation was premeditated with the lyrics.
It's unique in that way in terms of what I'm trying to say.
It's all been autobiographical but with varying degrees of obfuscation or varying levels of interpretation and metaphor, but with this one I wanted to be as direct as possible for most of the album and get to a point where then, hopefully, I evoke this person, myself, at those ages and then sort of undermine or erase it. I wanted to do an autobiography for the purpose of shifting the purpose away from me. It seems counterintuitive or like there's a contradiction here, but it's an autobiography with the intentions of shifting away from the identity of me and toward the act of creation itself. The song, not the singer, if that makes sense.
It's very meditative, not something you see a lot in Western art.
No. There's so much music listening and coverage and art listening and art coverage. All forms of art are about who made it -- the new David Lynch movie, the new so-and-so album, the new art show of paintings by "this" person. There's so much focus on these personalities. And it's fine, it's human nature: we're social apes, but I think that we overdo it. [laughs] and I wanted to shift focus back onto the work itself if possible.
That kind of makes Microphones in 2020 a postmodern entity of its own, I guess.
Yeah well I feel it is its own weird thing, I guess. It's not really a song anyone would want to listen to [laughs]. That's really not the best thing to say in an interview, but I think of it more as an audiobook or something. It's like this big chunk thing that you can listen to if you want to sit down and devote some time to it.
I can't see myself listening to only part of it, it has to be taken as its own thing.
There are sections -- it works in that way, too -- but it functions as a whole.
How do you feel this approach compares to previous works where you have been autobiographical but obfuscated? What is it like being this kind of, I guess the word I would use is "nude" in your works?
I actually wasn't intending to be so explicitly autobiographical. I have wanted to get back towards poetry and more obfuscation. Not really more obfuscation, but more… away from the banalities of the everyday. I feel like this song, album, whatever, it has that. It ping-pongs back and forth between "I watched 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' and was walking around the parking lot" and other statements that are metaphysical. I feel like it goes between those and I try to use both to enrich each other. In the scope of my previous albums, this is a natural outgrowth from the more overtly autobiographical ones -- A Crow Looked At Me and Now Only -- which have less poetry to them and more, just, accounting of my life.
What was it like accounting this portion of your life since your last activity as The Microphones was so long ago?
Well, the name distinction isn't a factor.
But it feels natural. I don't know. The previous few albums like A Crow Looked At Me and Now Only were sort of backwards looking in the context of this death and grief and going through Genevieve's things. But I've sort of turned that attention inward, and I've kept in this state of going through the archives, sensing the past, and dealing with it, and moving on from it so we can arrive in a present moment unburdened by this baggage. That's the idea. And I'm not done going through the archives -- we're always taking on more baggage -- but it feels like good and useful worth. And during this pandemic I've been physically going through the archives and it feels so good getting rid of this stuff.
You had mentioned the name not being a factor, which is an interesting thing. Obviously in the statement you made you mentioned that you can still make music under the Microphones moniker. Do you feel that your body of work is a single piece, then? And it doesn't matter what the name is?
Yeah! Totally. And that's what this album and song is about -- me trying to make a case that there is too much focus on the title of a thing. I think I say at the end "So I walk into an unknown room without a name." Ideally, we can just make stuff without a title for it and without an identity for it. Things can just rest on their own merit, but that's too idealistic [laughs] and impossible. That's how humanity works.
No, art is still too much about the ego, unfortunately.
Plus, with music especially, which is just so.. It's art and it's a commodity. It's wrapped up in capitalism and you have to brand it.
So ideally we would be one large artistic unit.
Yeah, I don't know what the ideal would be. I don't really have an ideal. I'm just mostly with this thing… poking around in this territory like "what's up with this" and "what does it mean to carry a past in the present and be that old self and be my present self and embody it all in the present moment?" and then process it and move on and constantly be reformed.
I always enjoyed that about your music and lyrics, that you openly ask these questions, as well. Do you find that your artistic output is curious in that way, or is it more a function of the music?
No, it is curious, I truly, I want to use my time on Earth to investigate and, not that I think there are any big answers out there, but if there is a miracle of existence it is that we get to have these brains and these mouths and we get to ask these questions and od these weird things like play music and get theoretical about things. I don't want to waste my life by just merely enjoying music.
Have you found any answers thus far?
Yeah! I mean basically "uncertainty and impermanence" seem to be the most beautiful answers that I've found.
I like that, and there is definitely that ephemeral aspect to your music, as well. I feel like you really have grown to embody that over the years. Do you want your music to be ephemeral in the confines of the lisiten? Or is there something deeper you want?
I don't have any specific hopes or ideas about how i want other people to listen to it. I know that everyone's going to hear it on their own terms with whatever they're going through at that moment or whoever they are in life. So I don't have much thinking about what my goal is for the music other than to make the thing which is the best possible thing I can make. Yeah, truly, each time I make an album, I think I've done it! This is the best thing ever made! And I feel that way for five minutes and then I hate it, and then I work on the next thing. That's how it goes. [laughs]
Have you been working on new things yet?
Not music, but yeah, I'm working on different projects. I'm working on an art book of Genevieve's work, my former wife, she left behind a ton of unpublished art so I'm finally sorting through it all and putting it into a book.
Definitely looking forward to that. I have another art book of yours, so it would be cool to see that in its finished form.
Yeah, it's nice to work on it.
How has it been looking through all that art?
Great! It doesn't feel painful or sad or anything. It feels like hanging out with a cool person.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I don't know how to talk about this thing because I feel it is unique and demanding because of its length and scope. I didn't set out to make an ungainly, demanding thing -- I wanted to make something that was actually fun, and I think it is. I think for me, it has what I want in music and art, and it feels like a deep thing you can spend time in and keep discovering things on repeated listens. I don't know how to present it to people other than to just be like "here's this thing!" What else can you do!
There's not much else -- there's always the cycle of promotion, but in the end it's "here's a thing."
I did make a movie of it, did you see it?
It's kind of halfway a movie and halfway a lyric video or powerpoint.
I enjoy trying to find parallels between what is presented in the image and what's in the music.
It's all very deliberate. I worked for a long time syncing up the photos with the lyrics. I really agonized over those.
That's awesome! It becomes, what, a gesamtkunstwerk?
It essentially means "the perfect art form" where you're presenting something in as many disciplines as possible.
Yeah, totally! Film is that way. Smellovision would be the ideal.
Didn't someone try to scam people with that once? Smellovision?
Yeah, I don't know what the story is with that. Or like the band Sunn O))) -- that band has a physical impact in your body. That includes a sense of touch which most music does not.
I also feel that with quieter, more gentle music, there is that sense of touch as well, albeit different.
Yeah, that's true.