I am Phil Elverum of the band Mount Eerie. Here is my brief autobiography for journalists and other fact-seekers. (updated Aug. 31st, 2014)
I don’t think it’s necessary for anyone to know my biographical details in order to relate to my music but I know that it’s a common curiosity. In my opinion, we have a weird unfortunate infatuation with “royalty” and this makes charismatic individuals the focus of our attention rather than whatever art or song they might create. Possibly sociopathic, I personally don’t care that much about people and wish that everyone else was a little more focussed on the song, not the singer. I know the world is not like this so here is some information about me:
I was born in 1978. I am from Anacortes, Washington and I still live there. I am a recording artist, interested in finding new worlds through recording sound, usually working alone. I’ve released albums since the pre-internet era under the names “the Microphones” (1997-2002) and “Mount Eerie” (2002-present). Aside from this music stuff, I make books of photographs and words, paintings, poem books, trinkets, art-jokes, etc., and also I run a pretend record label/publisher called P.W. Elverum & Sun (since 2004), primarily a portal for my own projects into the wider world. These are the facts.
You can easily find out what my music sounds like. I will not try to describe it.
You can also easily find out what critics have said if you want that. Type in Mount Eerie to the internet.
Here is an attempted explanation of my intention with making any of this stuff:
Whenever I stop moving for long enough to sit still and think, I realize that the fact that I am alive and thinking at all is crazy and what the hell? So I am curious about how my mind works and how the world outside it works and how those two realms interact and overlap. I am on a quest for meaning, to be trite. Raw data knowledge is cool, and thought-free drifting is cool, but the ancient act of song/poem is the best; a beautiful deep spring that somehow cuts through all layers of complication and can hold permanent and true wisdom in a few simple words or sounds. So I have spent most of my grown-up life exploring these ideas, thinking about the big picture and learning about other peoples’ big ideas throughout history.
I have struggled at times with my tendency to use the vocabulary of the natural world, singing about “mountains”, “clouds” and similar icons, and sometimes feeling misunderstood. The reason for this misunderstanding is that I am tackling a complicated issue when I sing about “mountains” and “clouds”, and probably not giving myself the space to fully get into the nuances. A song is brief. On top of that, I believe that our current western-descended culture is damaged in regard to its relationship to the non-human systems we live in/on. In my opinion, there is either ignorant disregard (litterbugs) or over-enthusiastic point-missing fanaticism (artisanal camping gear), so I have felt that my mention of the mountains or the woods often gets mistaken for a celebration of the merely picturesque. We live in superficial times and I want to go deeper. I don’t like the word “nature” because it does a quick job of drawing a mental curtain between “us” and some other realm, separate from where we live and what we are made of, perpetuating the damaging illusion that we humans can exist in some exemption, leading to irresponsible thinking and acting. Fuck nature. I believe there is only one big THIS.
With these sentiments in mind, I should mention that I enjoy reading about zen buddhism. I am not a buddhist but these simple ideas of emptiness and illusion ring very true for me. Over the years I have filled my songs with references to classic zen poetic tricks, mostly unnoticed. The moon in the song is not the moon in the sky, neither is it the reflection in the puddle, or the reflection in your own mind’s perception. All are separate layers of one big misunderstanding, a mirror with a bunch of dust and paint and scotch tape on it.
Likewise, I enjoy reading about Scandinavians from 1200 years ago, the pre-christian vikings. They are not as wise or as peaceful as the old zen thinkers but I enjoy spending mental time with them in their boats, yelling poems at grey skies, always close to death and the cold ground, telling stories all winter about invented worlds of gods, living as gods themselves. The connection between these two literary worlds, for me, is that they both venerate the immediate, the sword-sharp present moment. They are both simultaneously exotic and relatable. The concerns of a man in 800 AD about the sounds on his roof are the same as mine. We both inhabit the eternal present moment, lost human animals in a vast wild world, pretending to be part of our respective “cultures”.
Now in late 2014 I am finishing up an album called “Sauna”. I have been working more than ever on cutting through superfluous symbolism and trying to just say the thing directly. The idea of a sauna is obviously a symbol, although I tried to make the song Sauna as literal as possible. I used steam recordings that I made in my parents’ sauna. I tried to directly translate the feeling of being in a super hot small wooden room and doing that weird thing to your body and mind. Here’s why: I realized that the sometimes absurd act of making music or art is not as useless as it might seem. Like a sauna, music can be an almost mystical short-circuiting of our assumptions that we self-inflict in order to see the world with fresh eyes, to clear away the gunk, both mentally and physically. I have always tried to record music that was deep sounding enough that a listener could potentially inhabit the world of sound totally, similar to watching a movie in the theater and forgetting that you are in any other world than the movie’s world. From this point of total absorption, it has been my hope that actual shifts in perspective were possible. I don’t want to boss anyone around, but if I can create a deeper nudge towards more curiosity or awareness in a listener it will feel like this work is useful. A sauna is this same exact thing. It is an immersive world that we subject ourselves to in order to create a new understanding, a new and fresh perspective, a raw awareness. When you plunge into icy water after insane heat everything is taken over by a mandatory thought-free deep now, if only momentarily. There are similar moments of clarity possible in music. That is why it’s called “Sauna”.
As for the economics, I realize that it might sound pretentious or misguided to be aiming for such big ideas but releasing them in the form of short pop-ish songs on cool vinyl LPs. I don’t know. I accidentally started doing it this way as a teenager and it has worked out economically. Over the years as I’ve gotten thirstier for meaning and the ideas have gotten more complex I have remained a participant in the fun-oriented economy of music. A record is funner for people to buy than a book of poems or essays, unfortunately. So I try to do it in the best way I can, fully impure, full of contradictions, trying to understand the shifts in the ways people relate to music and ideas. For now I press records and occasionally books, working hard every day all day but enjoying the freedom of needing no “real job”, free to work on this weird shit. I release everything myself, and I enjoy doing all of the mundane details. I align my work ethic with the historic mentality of early northwest settlers, carving out a stubborn self sufficient existence in a semi-raw place. Anacortes, Washington still feels a little bit like this, just barely. This style of stubbornness chimes well with the punk ideas of the 1980s, although I missed all that growing up in the wet woods.
Ultimately I have no goal with this stuff other than to explore my own mind. It is a lucky fluke that it is currently working for me to release these things publicly and subsist, but I would probably be doing it anyway. I almost never try to understand how someone else might experience these recordings because it is immediately disorienting, and plus I am a particularly self-enclosed person. This project of private/public art creation requires all kinds of self deception; closing my eyes while performing, smiling and saying thanks, pretending the orders I mail out are unlistened to… but the truth is that I am sensitive to any thematic or lyrical misunderstandings because I actually do want to get my idea across, beyond just me, and I continue to try to get my blade sharper. Making album-length song-worlds is my life’s work and I will continue to try to get at the simple core of the idea.