Phil Elverum, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Mount Eerie
In many ways I still feel like the same teenager in my bedroom in the mid 90s writing bad lyrics and writhing around ...
Phil Elverum is an American musician and songwriter whose work spans decades. As a member of 90s legends the Microphones and, more recently, as a solo artist writing and performing under the Mount Eerie moniker, Phil’s DIY sounds are permanently etched into the foundations of indie folk and rock. In October, Phil will tour Australia for the first time in five years, road testing new material from an in-progress album. He’ll be stopping at Brisbane Powerhouse for an intimate solo show on Sunday October 8 – we took the opportunity to chat to him about his latest work and the connections between music and memory.
It’s been five years since you last toured Australia. A lot has happened in the world during that span, but we love to know what you think the biggest difference is between you five years ago and you right now?
My last 5 years have been a pretty wild transformation personally. I was living a totally different life on the other side of the country in a huge city with a totally different family. I can’t pick a “biggest” because all of it is the biggest. Okay, maybe the biggest difference is that I lost my old hat and I got a new one.
You’ve debuted a couple of new songs this year, with hints at more to come from Mount Eerie currently in progress. Can you reveal anything about the notions, experiences, external stimuli or general inspirations that are fuelling and/or filtering into your songwriting practice recently?
I’m too in the thick of it to have any good zoomed-out perspective on what it’s all about. I usually don’t choose a theme in advance, but instead just proceed intuitively and then maybe later say it’s about what it’s about after I can stand back and see it all, or hear it all. The songs are probably about living aware of dream and myth with my two feet still on the ground.
Previously, you’ve likened your musical output as a form of autobiographical exploration – a way to document certain memories with sound and verse. In what ways does encapsulating these periods influence your relationship with the past and appreciation of the present?
The urge to archive ones own life is strange, and I have it a little stronger than others I guess. Impermanence is real and also who can be totally cool with it? So I let my mind linger on the years I’ve lived through a little longer just to squeeze any last drops of meaning out of them before they’re fully forgotten dust. Ideally though, I’d just release it all and sprint forward.
On a related note, does the act of performing these songs make certain passages of time easier to move on from, or does it serve to keep the feelings associated with certain moments close at hand?
I think you’re probably mostly talking about my one big long song ‘Microphones in 2020’, which I played for a few tours and then put it on the shelf forever. Other “old” songs I still play have something that still feels alive and mysterious and illuminating to the present moment. I don’t actually want to go backwards.
In addition to time, place seems to have a role in your music – particularly the way ambient sound often filters into your recordings. Do you think a sense of place has a role to play in the Mount Eerie process? If so, can you shed any light on how it’s influencing your latest work?
It’s true, a sense of place is a big value of mine, but that’s about as much insight as I have on the question. The way it makes it
into the songs is still somehow unclear to me. I just work following the feeling and it comes out this way. With this new stuff, yes, once again it’s all anchored in a specific time and place. But what isn’t?
Most creative endeavours are subject to change and evolution over time – has there been any noticeable change in the way you approach your craft, or the metrics you use to gauge personal satisfaction in Mount Eerie’s output?
In many ways I still feel like the same teenager in my bedroom in the mid 90s writing bad lyrics and writhing around. The ideals and intentions are basically the same. What’s changed is that I spend less time on trial and error now – I have made decades of errors and I am able to remember what not to do. The pursuit of the idea is not as slippery as it used to be.
Your Australian tour will see you perform with both a backing band and alone, with the Brisbane Powerhouse audiences experiencing Mount Eerie in its more intimate solo format. What do you enjoy most about performing on stage by yourself and in what ways do you feel that setting offers a different listening experience for those in attendance?
Playing alone is a good opportunity to make more “legible” music. It’s more about communicating with words. With a band it can be more about raw atmosphere, with words often obscured a little.
Finally, beyond music, we’d love to know what are things in life that you are finding particularly nourishing – be it creatively, socially, spiritually or emotionally. Is there anything that sticks out as a source of joy or personal fulfilment?
Sometimes people ask what I’ve been working on, especially during the fair weather months, and unfortunately I’m embarrassingly on brand, saying “chopping firewood, long hikes, solo backpacking, meditation, lake swimming”, stuff like that. But it’s true – that’s my life. I’m happy and lucky that I get to live it. So what if I’m a cartoon.
Mount Eerie will be performing at Brisbane Powerhouse on Sunday October 8 – head to the Brisbane Powerhouse website to snag a ticket.