“It starts with a beautifully recorded chord on acoustic guitar for a while before the singing starts. And I really liked how it goes on for long enough that it ushers you into a new place. You forget the world you were in before you started listening to the album.”
That’s Phil Elverum in a recent NPR interview, describing the opening moments of a song from Red House Painters’ 1996 album Songs For A Blue Guitar by way of also describing the opening moments of two of his own albums. The first, It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water, was released 20 years ago today. The second, Microphones In 2020, arrived last month. All three begin with rhythmic, overlapping guitar tracks but otherwise diverge from each other in execution. On the Red House Painters song in question (Elverum doesn’t mention it by name, but based on its multi-tracking and intro length I’m guessing it’s “Revelation Big Sur“), the “while before the singing starts” is 32 seconds. On “the Pull,” the older of the two Elverum entries, it’s a minute and 14 seconds. On Microphones In 2020, it’s seven minutes and 40 seconds, a time-warping eternity of continuous, unchanged strumming.
The simple act of elongating a repetitive instrumental intro may seem too basic to illustrate where Elverum’s taken his music over the course of his career, but it’s just the sort of humbly bold move that’s made him a two-decade fixture in experimental indie music. He began the Microphones in 1996 as a sound experiment, dinking around with outdated recording equipment until he stumbled into transcendence. The exact moment that happened is up for debate — 1999’s Don’t Wake Me Up has some truly breathtaking moments — but for my money, it’s the aforementioned “the Pull,” an earth-shattering song that announces the arrival of a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
The lengthening of that Red House Painters intro is an integral part of “the Pull”‘s alchemy, but it’s not even the most arresting thing about the song’s opening seconds. The “Revelation Big Sur” guitar tracks may playfully overlap, but Elverum goes a step further and hard-pans them left and right so that they dance between the ears if heard on headphones. This feels like a direct result of the late nights he spent fiddling with beat-up recording equipment as a teenager, and the first moment in his discography where that formerly directionless experimentation yields something beyond “kid with a chemistry set” charm. It’s still a trick, but it’s one that inhabits its surroundings and blooms into a capital-S Song, rather than distracting from Elverum’s rapid improvement as a writer.
As Elverum sings very on-brand lyrics that wrap earnest, youthful horniness in layers of poetry about being outside in the Pacific Northwest, the guitars sporadically slow and drop out of the mix, leaving space for the delicate vocal harmonies that persist throughout the record. The song could easily end along with the lyrics — letting “When you breathed in I felt the pull” hang in the air as an unresolved come-on — but one lonely guitar note persists, and then something completely unexpected happens: A booming drum fill gives way to an unmistakably black-metal-influenced coda. If you’re familiar with Elverum’s discography, what with its in-the-red noise assaults and Xasthur namedrops, you know this flirtation with metal’s most evil-sounding subgenre isn’t out of character, but “the Pull” is the very first instance of it. A soft-spoken apostle of K Records, The House That Twee Built, is just about the last person you’d associate with black metal’s grisly stereotypes, but for the second time in one song, here’s Elverum taking still-recognizable influences and developing a unique palette of sounds.
Elverum was brought into the K Records fold via Beat Happening guitarist and fellow Anacortes, Washington native Bret Lunsford. According to 2012 label retrospective Love Rock Revolution, Lunsford urged label founder and bandmate Calvin Johnson to turn a teenaged Elverum loose in K’s Olympia studio, Dub Narcotic: “You should open your doors to this guy. He’ll be runnin’ the place in no time.” Johnson had a tough time convincing many artists on his roster to record at the unprofessional, makeshift space, but said of Elverum, “He didn’t have the attitude that this wasn’t a real studio. He was more like, ‘Hey, this is fun.’” What followed, as described by the book’s author, Mark Baumgarten, “set a new precedent for the label.”
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, K was a crucial purveyor of fresh sounds and DIY politics with dozens of eclectic classics to its name. It would be unfair to say that the label stagnated in the late ‘90s — acts as diverse and/or high profile as Modest Mouse, post-hardcore bands Lync and Karp, Corin Tucker side project Cadallaca, and Ian Svevnonius’ Make-Up all released projects on K from ‘97 to ‘99 — but many of its flagship acts had either broken up or departed, and longtime co-owner Candice Pederson sold her shares to Johnson in 1999. Of the bands still on the roster that didn’t opt for more professional recording locales, those that did log time at Dub Narcotic did little to reinvent the label’s lo-fi recording aesthetic. Enter Elverum.
“The equipment Phil was working with was not much better than it had been for the records that Calvin recorded,” wrote Baumgarten. “But the young musician had managed to master those supposed limitations, creating an album [Don’t Wake Me Up] that was praised for its production rather than accepted despite it.”
The Microphones’ full-length debut is clearly a product of Elverum treating the studio, to borrow a Brian Wilson-ism (whose “Good Vibrations” the album briefly covers), as an instrument of its own. Outdated organs, dubiously functioning tape machines, blown-out amps, and beat-up drum kits aren’t the standard arsenal of a canonical “studio wizard,” but Elverum corralled the equipment by meeting it on its own terms and not treating the whole experience like a practice run preceding a jump to shinier surroundings. Fittingly, Don’t Wake Me Up sounds like a wide-eyed kid given free reign in a room full of audio toys. A more brittle, charcoal-etched version of the paisley playfulness that the Elephant 6 collective was laying down concurrently, the album jumps around between songs and sketches, frequently interrupting its clear melodicism with cacophony, and vice-versa. It’s a fascinating, groundbreaking K release, but it doesn’t quite hang together.
One year later, It Was Hot further solidified Elverum’s sound, sacrificing none of its predecessor’s roughshod charm while corralling its wilder impulses into more purposeful statements. As is abundantly clear on “the Pull,” there are still neck-snapping transitions between light and dark, soft and heavy, but each part’s more well-defined in relation to the other. Its centerpiece, the 11-minute epic “the Glow,” effortlessly flows from acoustic singer-songwriter territory to a cappella Pet Sounds vocal harmonies and back in its first two minutes before Elverum lets his production chops take the reins. Don’t Wake Me Up’s noisy, atonal passages are still all over this album, but they seem less random because Elverum unleashes them like forces of nature, whether they’re composed of instruments, effects, or field recordings (see: interludes titled “Drums,” “Breeze,” “Organs”). On “the Glow,” a foggy beach breeze of a sound collage — organ drones, feedback, woody creaks — blows us into the next movement.
The next voice we hear belongs to Mirah, the K-signed singer-songwriter whose Elverum-produced debut album was released just three months prior. The Blow’s Khaela Maricich also pops up throughout the album, lending credence to Elverum’s liner notes assertion that, “Of the Microphones albums, this is the one that comes closest to resembling ‘collaboration.’” Maricich and Karl Blau, another Anacortes-based K affiliate, have co-writing credits on a few songs, and Blau and Jason Wall are even credited with some instrumentation, a rarity among otherwise Elverum-dominated Microphones albums. So despite It Was Hot’s more methodical sound, it’s also got a shaggy co-op vibe that borders on twee, making it the most quintessentially (or even stereotypically) “K Records” album Elverum’s ever made.
But this is still very much The Phil Show, and as “the Glow” moves into its second half, he lets loose, showing off his skill as a freewheeling, fill-happy drummer in front of a roiling backdrop of studio textures that make for another hypnotically engaging ride. Don’t Wake Me Up-era Elverum might’ve abruptly cut things off just as they were getting into full swing, but instead we get (surprise!) some continuity, returning to the foggy breeze of effects that initially preceded Mirah’s vocals. The song’s narrative loosely tracks Elverum as he’s lured from snowy hills by a glow that leads him into the ocean and drags him under, and he plumbs his finest lyrics from the depths of the song’s conclusion: “On the cold dark ocean floor/ I felt warmth from behind a door/ I asked to come inside/ And the glow replied.” Again, it’s not hard to decode the lusty messages inside of those earthen metaphors, but the imagery is sharp, mystical, and charming. As in the aforementioned interludes, we see natural phenomena represented both as characters and as sound — the glow’s “reply” comes immediately in the form of a clarion organ chord that juts out from the noise to conclude the song.
On It Was Hot, Elverum puts elements of his music in conversation with each other — lyrics, instrumentation, production, worlds both lived and imagined — in a mesmerizing way that would become a hallmark of his work over the next 20 years. Placing himself among the forces of nature (“my misty escape,” “we rose as smoke and then as a puff of ash,” etc.) as well as mimicking those forces with studio trickery (like a lyric about a growing fire leading into the crackling noise of a vinyl record’s runout groove), he fully inhabits the album, likely a consequence of his intense inhabitation of his two primary nonhuman muses: the studio and the Pacific Northwest. Throughout his career, those meta-conversations have only grown, linking albums, re-recorded songs, and self-referential lyrics into what feels like a living, breathing discography.
After the release of It Was Hot, Elverum picked up the thread that began on the album’s longest song and, just 364 days later, wove it into the towering Glow Pt. 2, still the most beloved release of his career. Together, these albums would form the bedrock of a career into which Elverum would continue to burrow deeper, culminating (in terms of recency and career-spanning subject matter, not finality) in Microphones In 2020, the first album released under the “Microphones” banner in 17 years. Along the way, he reignited K Records and influenced many an emo indie kid. “As the new millenium wore on,” wrote Baumgarten in Love Rock Revolution, “Phil and his fellow producer-musician hybrids would make up a considerable portion of the label’s output,” citing Maricich’s the Blow among others. Outside of the Pacific Northwest bubble, lo-fi producers everywhere, as well artists as far-flung as Lil Peep and Sylvan Esso, have taken cues from Elverum. (Notably, longstanding emo fixture Tigers Jaw took their name from a Microphones lyric and bastardized It Was Hot’s “Between Your Ear And The Other Ear” for a song title of their own.)
It Was Hot lacks the vast scope and deep emotional core of its follow-up, but it’s a stunning, complex gem of an album that’s unfairly lived in the shadow of the generational masterwork that followed it, a fate similar to that of My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything, Nirvana’s Bleach, or Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island. It’s an absolute joy to don headphones and lose yourself in just about any Microphones/Mount Eerie album, but It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water is such an immersive experience that upon first listen, you forget the world you were in before you started listening to Phil Elverum.