Twenty-seven has become an ominous age in rock ‘n’ roll and, really, an ominous age for just about anyone. A time hits where the frustrations of relationships, careers, and life in general merge into a deep malaise. Things that once seemed exhilarating and fun begin to lose their lustre. The body begins to show the first signs of wear. And a greying of emotion, previously unseen, takes hold. This is the onset of the quarter-life crisis. Maybe it doesn’t happen for everyone at 27, but it strikes at some point in the 20s with surprising regularity. Thankfully for Phil Elverum, the worst of these trials appears to be over.
Elverum, who recently survived his 27th year, now rests comfortably in Anacortes, Washington with a wife, a newborn record label, and a band named Mount Eerie. These days much of his time is spent in the quiet island town, where he enjoys cooking meals, relaxing with friends and mucking about in his print shop. He also records the occasional Mount Eerie album and, every so often, leaves town for a tour or two.
However, all was not so calm a few years ago. A bad break-up, a ridiculously long world tour and a period of seclusion in frigid Norway led Elverum to some serious reevaluation, eventually throwing him into a whirlpool of change. After some regrouping in his hometown of Anacortes, he got married, traded his previous Microphones moniker for Mount Eerie, added an “e” to his name and left K Records to start a label of his own, P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd. With these adjustments came a shift in sound and musical direction.
The 2005 Mount Eerie album, No Flashlight, found Elverum trading many of the larger-than-life qualities of his lo-fi Microphones records, such as Don’t Wake Me Up and The Glow Pt. 2, for a more inward-looking and humble approach. The transformation caused a divide among critics and came as a surprise to much of his fanbase. This was understandable, considering the massive shift between the unassuming No Flashlight and its predecessor, the Microphones’ LP Mount Eerie, which took the listener on an epic journey of death and rebirth much like the one Elverum himself went on.
Now, two years after No Flashlight’s release and almost a decade since the first fuzzed-out Microphones records, he appears to be on the verge of yet another makeover as both a songwriter and label owner.
After a long day of shenanigans, which involved Elverum connecting himself to a parachute and blowing around a parking lot, his aching body sits down to explain how his songwriting and label are slowly growing up. “It’s a weird thing to feel like you have people’s attention, and, really, you only have their attention for such a short period of time,” Elverum says. “So lately I feel I want to say something that’s actually important.”
Tired of the cryptic messages of his older albums, Elverum wants to communicate more clearly in his newer work. “Playing shows and touring can be a bit disorienting because you don’t want to take for granted that people have an interest in you,” he says. “So it ends up being, ‘Okay, I’m standing on stage here with my guitar and everyone’s waiting for me to say something. So, it better be good.’ And at a certain point, it becomes, ‘Do I really want to say these ambiguous metaphors about clouds and my body, or can I say things more directly?’ This is where I’ve been trying to push myself with my newer songs.”
Elverum’s new direct line of attack is clearly evident on his latest 7-inch, Don’t Smoke/Get Off the Internet, which only holds two tracks/commands from a much larger body of songs that he describes as “preachy.” Elverum says the idea behind these command-like songs, which are essentially about what the titles suggest, is to encourage people to take a bit more responsibility for their actions and to take things somewhat more seriously. But ultimately, he hopes the songs get people to grow up a little.
“I’m a little bit self-conscious about how overtly preachy and condescending the songs are,” he says. “But at the same time, I’m frustrated with always being seen as a trippy nature guy who has nothing substantial to say or feel, which I know isn’t true.”
Perhaps in an effort to challenge this misconception, Elverum has reinstated the Microphones name for the 7-inch. When questioned, though, he claims a simpler reason for the change. “I switched back to the Microphones because I felt like the 7-inch was different than the Mount Eerie stuff, and I guess just to confuse people a little. And no real reason other than to be weird, I guess.”
As to whether future releases will also use the Micro-phones name, Elverum would not say. He was also unsure if his next album would feature a similar brand of sermonizing songs like those on the 7-inch. In fact, Elverum says he’s yet to make any concrete plans for a new record, but feels it’s about time to do one.
But until that time comes, he’s happy to busy himself with his label, P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd., which began as an avenue for Elverum to release his own records and the records of his friends. So far the label has had about a dozen releases, with a couple more lined up for this year. Elverum pretty much runs the show, taking charge of everything from dealing with mastering and pressing discs to artwork and sales. He describes running the label and making music as very right brain, left brain. “I really savor the tedious work of doing something over and over. There’s a certain satisfaction in taking care of a bunch of paperwork that’s totally different than writing a poem or playing guitar,” he says.
Everything at P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd. thus far has been printed in limited runs on white vinyl with a CD version slipped inside. The limited editions of some of Elverum’s past releases have led to some hefty eBay battles, causing certain records like the Microphones’ The Blood (with a print of 300) to go for more than $200. Elverum says he’s forced to make a very limited number of some releases due to the elaborate artwork, such as mammoth posters, photo books, engravings and silkscreen prints.
“That tendency of people to be collectors and elitists over records—which I have, too—is a vice that needs to be taken care of,” he says. “My idea is not to create a collector’s item. I hate that somebody will spend hundreds of dollars on a record that should cost ten. It’s just such a waste, especially with all the imbalance of wealth in the world. But I guess a record isn’t the worst thing you can spend your money on.”
Even though Elverum spends the bulk of his time working on P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd., he is still hesitant to call it a “real” label. “It’s really an experiment in self-sufficiency. I want to see if I can release a record in a low quantity and sell just enough copies that I can exist at a sustainable level rather than just always trying to pump some big record and deal with all the promotion that comes with that,” he says. “And, really, I just think that it’s a good way to live your life: by doing as much of it as you can on your own. I guess I’m very traditional that way.”
For now, Phil Elverum is content with the new direction his life has been taking and plans to keep the label going as long as he can. He may not be living the typical rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, but who says small business owners can’t have fun? After all, there was the parachute incident.
THE OFFERINGS OF P.W ELVERUM & SUN, LTD.
Phil Elverum’s main outfit, which has had several releases on the label such as No Flashlight, Singers and 11 Old Songs. The latest release by the Microphones is the 7-inch Don’t Smoke/Get Off the Internet, which can now be ordered from the label’s website, pwelverumandsun.com, and hits stores in March.
A Norwegian hardcore band Phil Elverum met while travelling Norway. This group of Scandinavians wrote three records before breaking up, and their second, Rope or Guillotine, is slated as the label’s next release. The Spectacle’s tendency to turn it up to 11 sets them apart from the label’s other calming bands.
A one-man band from Portland, featuring Phil Elverum’s close friend, Adrian Orange. Orange has churned out a long series of impressive folk records in his short career. His out-of-print classic, Welcome Nowhere (the label’s first release), will get digitally remastered by the label this year and printed as a double gatefold album with several unreleased outtakes.
A mysterious party band from Revelstoke, BC, that Phil Elverum has yet to meet in person. Their sound has been described as “semi-acoustic, multi-culti folk-hop,” which is two parts hilarity, one-part confusion. They have also spawned World Peace, a cover band made up by K Records’ Jason Anderson and Adrian Orange. PEACE’s album, On Earth, comes out later this year.
A project featuring Phil Elverum’s wife, Geneviève. Her brand of soft-spoken Québécois folk is in a similar vein to other shy chanteuses, such as Julie Dorion. She greeted last year with the 10-inch, Gris.
Books: Audio and Otherwise
Following last year’s seven-disc audio book of an Icelandic saga, Phil Elverum plans to sit down and read into a microphone again this year. The audio book will likely be an American classic this time, such as Moby Dick, but Elverum has yet to make definite plans. He also intends to enter the publishing world by releasing a series of coffee-table books, featuring photos and artwork from himself or other artists.