Phil Elverum On Critical Acclaim, Lil Peep, & Mount Eerie’s New Album Now Only
Since adopting the Mount Eerie moniker almost 15 years ago, Phil Elverum’s mostly remained in the same place. In the early 2000s, he returned to his island hometown of Anacortes, Washington after spending five years in Olympia making music as the Microphones, and borrowed the name of the island’s tallest peak. Outside of tours and one winter spent in Norway, the small port town has been his near-constant home base.
Elverum’s music, on the other hand, never ceased to churn, distort, and evolve. By Discogs’ count, Mount Eerie released 15 albums, 11 singles, four EPs, two compilations, and one film soundtrack between 2004 and 2015. Peruse their tracklists and you’d see song titles repeated or slightly altered. Listen to those different versions and you’d hear distinct shifts in tone, instrumentation, and genre. Catch two Mount Eerie shows a few months apart and you’d likely see a completely different onstage incarnation — a full rock band, a xylophone-and-synth-based trio, or a solo guitar act. Elverum, it seemed, could be counted on to stay in one place but explore many in his music.
That’s all changed in the wake of tragedy. Geneviève Elverum, a brilliant artist, musician, activist, and fixture in Anacortes’ arts community, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in 2015, and died in July 2016. She and Phil wed in 2003 and had their first child together just four months before the diagnosis.
Last year’s Mount Eerie album, A Crow Looked At Me, confronted terminal illness and death in such an unflinching, intensely personal way that Elverum deemed it “barely music.” Countless critical accolades later, it’s clear he was being a little self-deprecating. The album garnered far more attention than any other Microphones or Mount Eerie release ever has, even if you take the cumulative success of 2001 cult classic The Glow Pt. 2 into consideration.
Press play on Elverum’s follow-up, Now Only, and you might be surprised at its tonal similarities to A Crow Looked At Me. Or perhaps not, considering that it was made by someone who lost their “person,” as Elverum heartbreakingly puts it in one of his new songs, less than two years ago. There are differences to be sure — Now Only’s songs skew longer and more tangent-based — but they’re slight when compared to the month-to-month sea changes that used to be business as usual for Mount Eerie.
But as Elverum’s music nestles its roots into solid ground for once, he’s about to undergo a change of scenery. He and Geneviève had planned to move to one of the more remote nearby San Juan Islands with their daughter, and after putting it off in the wake of Geneviève’s death, he’s now about to live somewhere other than his hometown for the first time in years.
I grew up in Anacortes with Elverum’s music and kind presence as constants in the town’s fertile music community, and was excited and nervous to speak with him. I briefly met him and Geneviève a couple of times during my teenage years, but having lived elsewhere since 2009, hadn’t seen Phil since her death. When we connected over the phone, he was surprised to see my Anacortes area code. It almost felt like I was breaching a wall between our quiet hometown and a music press that’s spent the last year rummaging around his personal tragedy like a bull in a china shop. Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: There are clear connections between your last two albums, whether it’s the fact that the main subject matter is Geneviève, or smaller stuff like the Tintin In Tibet comic being in one album’s artwork and inspiring a song title on the other. Do you look at Now Only as a continuation of A Crow Looked At Me or an entirely separate entity?
ELVERUM: I think of it as a continuation, for sure. I didn’t really stop writing, there was only a brief gap. I just had more to say on the subject, so I kept writing. There are a few more instruments and slightly more production, but I recorded it all at home in the same room as the last one.
STEREOGUM: And your writing process was similar this time around?
ELVERUM: It maybe evolved slightly, but just barely. Starting with A Crow Looked At Me, it changed completely from how I used to do it, but yeah, between these two records it’s been very similar. I write on these special pieces of paper — I get superstitious about it, I guess — these big, long pieces of letter-pressed stationery that Geneviève made. I’m almost out, I’ve almost used up all of the pieces of paper that I’ve used for these songs, so maybe that means that I’ll have to stop writing songs in this style. But yeah, I write on these big pieces of paper in pencil, and I sort it all out on paper before recording anything, and that’s new. It didn’t used to be that way.
STEREOGUM: Your process used to be more improvisation-based, no?
ELVERUM: Yeah. I would hang out in the studio and make these sound experiments, and words would be less central to the process.
STEREOGUM: If you do end up running out of paper, or exhaust all you have to say on the subject, could you ever see yourself returning to that more atmosphere-based way of music-making, or is it completely out the window now?
ELVERUM: I never want to keep doing the same thing more than once, honestly. I made two records in this similar style just because I had more to say, and I might still have more to say after this, but the future is totally open. I’m open to making any kind of music, or maybe making no music ever again. That’s also an option, always. Who knows what’ll happen.
STEREOGUM: A few things on the cover stand out to me — the Walt Whitman quote, the photos of Beat Happening and Geneviève. Are the other images significant to you in more subtle ways?
ELVERUM: Well, that’s just a photo of our fridge. It’s still on the fridge; it looks just like that. It’s all significant, it’s all these totemic objects that enter my life and consciousness every day. Some of them are from Geneviève’s time, some are from after, some are condolence postcards, or just friends’ writing. In lots of people’s houses, the fridge becomes like a shrine, in a way, even though we don’t treat it with so much heaviness. As I was finishing making these songs, I noticed how many things on the fridge had entered into the lyrics themselves, just by subconsciously looking at these pictures many times a day as I walk past the fridge.
STEREOGUM: That focus on objects or aspects of life that people view as commonplace, or even boring, seems to be an overarching characteristic of these last two albums.
ELVERUM: I guess so. There was a shift in me where I consciously tried to let go of the goal of figuring everything out and making some big statement. When Geneviève died, maybe even when she got diagnosed with cancer, the bottom fell out of everything. The meaninglessness felt confirmed. It just seemed like a totally pointless pursuit to try to point it out and describe the big picture through big statements and poetry, so the options were either never say anything about anything ever again, or only talk about very basic things that I knew for sure. So that’s what started to feel good: bearing witness to my own existence, describing things how they are, and not worrying about interpretation or metaphor or wisdom.
STEREOGUM: That reminds me of the part in “Distortion” when you say that the childhood image of your great-grandfather’s body “spoke clear and metaphor-free,” as opposed to the Bible verse you were asked to read at his funeral. Was that stark, shocking memory of seeing death for the first time an inspiration for your writing style on the past two albums?
ELVERUM: I was too young to have any good perspective on it at the time, but it still lodged itself in my mind as like, ‘I saw a dead body, wow.’ And also, that great-grandfather, who was incidentally also named Phil Elvrum [note: Phil of Mount Eerie added an extra ‘e’ to his last name in the mid-2000s], he was the first person that I knew that died. It was my first encounter with, like, a person is alive, and then the person is dead. It was more of a blunt impact.
STEREOGUM: On Now Only, you seem to jump around the timeline more dramatically than on A Crow Looked At Me, while still touching on similar themes. Do you think that’s a product of having a bit more distance from Geneviève’s death?
ELVERUM: I think that’s what it feels like to be alive. Even though I’m living in the present moment, like we all are, my mind is jumping around all the time, especially now in the aftermath of her dying. That’s what this record is about: the disorientation of trying to stay in the present moment — that’s why it’s called Now Only — but still being pulled, mentally, into the past, and into thinking about the future and what will be remembered of me when I die. Even in the present, I’m witnessing the memory of what remains of Geneviève coalescing into some version of her that is not her, of course. She, in her entirety, is gone and can’t be preserved, so right now I’m witnessing this strange transition into some diminished version of her. The jumping around on the timeline is really what day-to-day life feels like when I’m pulled by memory and concerns about the future, as well as raising a child who is going to live into that future with the baggage of these memories. Writing songs that also jumped around seemed like an accurate way to depict what life feels like.
STEREOGUM: You’re playing strings of shows behind both of these albums, which I imagine has to be tough. If touring was a zero-sum game for you — either you didn’t make any money off of it or didn’t need to make any money off of it — do you think you’d still want to play these intensely personal songs in front of audiences?
ELVERUM: That’s a good question. I love going on tour, but it’s not easy to play these songs live. For a while it felt necessary and therapeutic, but I might be reaching a point very soon where it’s like, “OK, this isn’t therapeutic anymore. I did it enough. I want to sing other songs.” Part of that’s just a natural process though. As my own engagement with where I am in my life moves on, it feels strange or dishonest to be revisiting a thing I said a year-and-a-half or two years ago.
STEREOGUM: Another artist who frequently, albeit very differently, wrote about death was Lil Peep, who also sampled your music a couple of times. There’s significant generational, lifestyle, and musical gaps between you and him, but when you tweeted that you were thinking about him shortly after his death, what specifically were you thinking about?
ELVERUM: I was aware of him when he was alive and knew that he sampled my songs. But when I first saw his videos I was like, “Argh! No! Yuck!” I just really didn’t get it, and I think it’s just because I’m old, honestly. It’s a thing for people who are 20 years younger than me, or younger. It’s one of the first times I felt truly alienated from, you know, kids these days. But I mostly just felt bad. I didn’t want to be associated with it, but also I didn’t want to be a hard ass. I’m mostly fine with anyone using my music for whatever. Everything’s just compost that gets reused.
When he died, I tweeted, “Lil Peep is on my mind” because death was on my mind. More people dying, young people dying, people dying before their time, Geneviève dying, and people grieving in this sloppy, chaotic, public way, which I was also doing. It just poked at all these issues in a fresh way, surprisingly. I didn’t think about Lil Peep much at all, but when he died there was a video online of his friend videotaping his dead body. It was gross, but at the same time, it was putting actual death into all of our faces once again in this really raw way, and it’s all just so potent.
STEREOGUM: A few days later, you tweeted that A Crow Looked At Me’s inclusion on a New York Times year-end list netted you a grand total of six album sales. Overall, did that increased attention on your last record result in much concrete success for you?
ELVERUM: I sold tons of records, so I’d say the business side of it has been doing really well. With the New York Times thing, I wasn’t complaining. I just found it interesting, the correlation between this prestigious accolade and what it actually translates to. But no, I sold lots of copies of that record and I still am. I keep on re-pressing it.
STEREOGUM: I imagine it must feel deeply weird to receive the most widespread critical acclaim of your career for an album about your wife succumbing to cancer.
ELVERUM: It was super weird, but I didn’t pay that much attention to it and I still don’t. I still live in Anacortes, and my day-to-day life is not like that at all, so it’s mostly this abstract fiction to me that there’s this attention out there.
STEREOGUM: You’ve always seemed to enjoy a low profile in Anacortes, but now that you’ve been covered more in mass media, that’s not any harder to maintain?
ELVERUM: No. That’s the nice thing about living here, nobody really knows what I do, still. People are just confused by me, or maybe at this point they’re like, “Eh, Phil. He’s just around. Where does he work? I don’t know where he works. Nobody knows.” But it still doesn’t enter my day-to-day life at all.
STEREOGUM: You recently wrote about the experience of meeting [Beat Happening guitarist and lifelong Anacortes resident] Bret Lunsford as a kid, which led to you “basking in this new world of proximity to alternative culture.” That’s exactly how I felt growing up seeing you two, as well as plenty others, playing shows, operating record stores, and organizing music festivals in Anacortes. It made me feel like a life spent doing music-related things wasn’t a fantasy. Do you think you would still be playing music if you grew up somewhere else?
ELVERUM: No, absolutely not. I don’t know what I would be doing were it not for Bret, specifically. There are other people who have opened doors, like Calvin [Johnson] from Beat Happening, when I moved to Olympia. But the generosity of someone like Bret, who devotes their life to just making things possible, makes me feel so lucky.
I don’t want to think that Anacortes is unique in that way. I want to believe that everywhere has the potential for young people to find those open doors and those cool, vibrant artists in their own communities if they just open their eyes, but I don’t know if that’s true. That might be too idealistic. I might think that just because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a place where it was true, but maybe some places are just shitty.
STEREOGUM: I can’t imagine even being in high school in Anacortes now, without the Department Of Safety [an all-ages venue that ceased operations in 2010].
ELVERUM: I can imagine it, because I did go to high school here without the Department Of Safety, and it was fine. My friends and I made our own stuff happen. I used to think, “Oh man, if the DoS ever closes, I can’t imagine living here. We’ll have to move.” And then they closed, and it was fine. I grew up without it, I knew it was possible to have a vibrant arts community without it, so that’s a point in the column for, “It doesn’t matter where you are if you’re resourceful enough and open-minded enough.” I think that’s mostly the truth. Vibrant scenes are made by people who are devoted to the idea that it’s possible and believe that it can happen anywhere.
STEREOGUM: But now you are planning on moving away from Anacortes. Will you miss it?
ELVERUM: Yeah, I’m sure I will. This is home. My family’s been here for seven generations, so it goes really deep here. I’ll always come back and have lots of connections here. But it feels right to be moving away now. I just need to be somewhere else.
Now Only is out 3/16 via P.W. Elverum & Sun. Order it here. Mount Eerie will be playing select cities in North America this month, performing songs from A Crow Looked At Me and Now Only. Elverum performs with just guitar and voice. Here are the dates:
03/22 – Maspeth, NY @ Knockdown Center
03/24 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Cathedral Sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian
03/29 – Portland, OR @ Revolution Hall
03/30 – Vancouver, BC @ The Vogue Theatre
03/31 – Everett, WA @ Fisherman’s Village Music Festival