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20 Years of The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2, An Aural Tapestry of Sound Art and Avant-Folk

Songwriter Phil Elverum discusses the sounds he dreamed up two decades ago

The Microphones The Glow Pt 2
Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    Sixty miles south of Seattle, in Washington’s sleepy capital city of Olympia, a 22-year-old Phil Elverum sits surrounded by microphones in a warehouse that once housed a knitting mill.

    Wires stretch between amplifiers, instruments, and two different analog tape machines in a space so large that Elverum uses a skateboard to zoom from one end to the other to adjust a mic and hurry back to the control board. Sometimes the glare of dawn spills through the windows, and at others it’s the wan glow of the moon. The knitting mill is an apt forerunner for the room where Elverum weaves together an assortment of acoustic instruments and electronic sound experiments.

    It takes him ten months of hours-long studio sessions, piecing together scraps of ideas, but the final result is an album unlike any before or since. That sprawling magnum opus was The MicrophonesThe Glow Pt. 2, released on September 11th, 2001 and celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

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    In the late ’90s, twee-pop king Calvin Johnson, owner of K Records and singer for Beat Happening, literally gave a young Elverum the key to Dub Narcotic Studios in downtown Olympia and told him to use it as he pleased. He didn’t even have to walk the one block to the studio from the famed Track House, where he lived while making The Glow Pt. 2. Instead, he scrambled out his bedroom window and onto his roof where he could see if the lights in the studio were on or not. Off meant the studio was free, and he would head over.

    At Dub Narcotic, Elverum helped pioneer the weird, genreless music that echoed from the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century. Mirah, The Blow, Little Wings, and Karl Blau all emerged from the Olympia scene, but over time, Elverum proved the most renowned from this cadre of like-minded musicians who shared a refusal to adhere to one style. He has since turned his idiosyncrasies into a miniature empire, founding his own label and developing a steadfast fanbase that purchases absolutely everything he produces, including photographs and designer packing tape.

    By 2001, he had already released a number of cassettes and records, but The Glow Pt. 2 catapulted Elverum into widespread acclaim. Incorporating elements of folk, rock, brass instruments, and experimental production amid earnest angst about breakups, the absurdity of life, and the power of the universe, the 20 songs of the album stretch out over an hour-long odyssey.

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    In the opening moments of the first song, “I Want Wind to Blow,” a melody is plucked and a rhythm strummed on a nylon-string guitar. It’s easy to hear this as a simple, folky style, but an attentive listen reveals multiple layers of guitar tracks bouncing back and forth in the mix, panned aggressively from left to right. In the background, the faint shuffle of a drum rises and falls, a musical metaphor for a passing thunderstorm that foreshadows the song’s conclusion. Elverum ambles through low, whispery vocals and introduces a harmonium and a güiro.

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