Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Colin Joyce talks to Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie about his quiet lifestyle in Washington that has yielded his latest album, Sauna.
Back in September, it looked for a moment like Phil Elverum might have taken hold of the age-old mantra and quit while he was ahead. While winding down a lengthy tour in the last quarter of 2014, a celebratory trek marking the recent completion of his latest, towering double album Sauna, the man who records as Mount Eerie took to his irreverent Twitter account for what seemed to be an uncharacteristically straightforward missive.
“House show in Minot, ND tomorrow will be a big final Mount Eerie concert,” he wrote. “One of many retirements. Chilling for a while.”
Dismayed fans immediately latched onto the “final” aspect of that tweet, pouring out their grief for Elverum’s surprising withdrawal from the public eye at just the moment when the public acclaim around him was swelling for the first time since he stumbled into wider indie rock consciousness in the early 2000s. Fresh off the finish of his proper follow-up to Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, his critically acclaimed and tumultuous pair of 2012 albums, he seemed to fall in line with the conception of the misguided masses who see him as a sort of mystic wise man on top of a mountain and take off into the forests of his hometown of Anacortes, Washington.
But ask Elverum himself about the incident, and he expresses some combination of frustration and bewilderment that anyone thought his retirement was even a remote possibility. “I just kind of rolled my eyes,” he says over a crackling phone call from his home. “It never even occurred to me that anyone would think it was possible for me to stop [Mount Eerie].” In Elverum’s eyes it was all just a big misunderstanding, but it’s the sort of misunderstanding that’s been happening with unfortunate frequency as his public profile has risen over the decade-plus that he’s been working under his moniker.
Whether it’s interviewers and critics positioning him as some sort of nature fetishist or, as he explained it in a manifesto of sorts that he posted to Tumblr in October, the natural misinterpretations that come about because “a song is brief,” Elverum has found himself battling a host of misconceptions about himself as a public figure. Each record over the course of the last 10 years has been a more careful attempt to state his admittedly heady philosophical ideas more clearly and more directly, but as he’s done that, he’s quietly become something of a prankster when it comes to his own persona — an effort he decided to double down on in the wake of the bewildering confusion about his so-called retirement in September.
“I can’t try to wrap my head around it,” he sighs. “If anything, this particular misunderstanding made me want to up my confusion game a little bit.”
And so, he’s used the last couple of years to launch into some public misdirection, including a series of bizarre end-of-the-year interviews. Over the course of year-end lists for Under the Radar, Self-Titled, and Indiestreet, Elverum painted himself as an unrepentant womanizer, a reformed prescription drug addict, a tattoo enthusiast (“Nothing to squirt over,” he disgustingly deadpanned), an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, and the proud owner of a time-share in Utah, among other peculiar things. If nothing else, it represents a strange and striking contrast with the largely domestic, existentially minded singer-songwriter who appears on his records and in other interviews — provoking a fellow music critic of mine who was assigned to review Sauna to send me a link to one of the interviews with an incredulous message: “What do you make of that?”
If you had your own suspicions that the sensitive, searching songwriter could be using those absurd interviews as a way of letting out his secret interests in expensive cars and horse racing, talking with him over the phone is a quick way to disabuse yourself of those notions. Elverum is far more likely to offer household maintenance tips or talk excitedly about how he’s finally started directing music videos (fulfilling a long-held dream of making films, something that he’s largely abandoned since a productive stint doing so in his early teens) or his childhood love for Tim Burton than he is to inhabit the “total asshole character” he’s started fleshing out.
When Elverum begins to expound upon the confusion he hopes to inspire, he brings up these interviews, chuckling, before I even have a chance to ask about them. Partly an attempt to “play with reality,” which he says is always an interest of his even in his music, and partly an attempt to highlight what he sees as the blindly trusting “cut-and-paste” nature of some music journalism, he explains that he’s begun to outsource some of his more “formulaic” press to Jason Anderson, a fellow former K Records artist and the proprietor of an absurdist “publicity firm” called Ando-PR. With tales of “wet-grinding” at high school dances, fracking, and gun collecting, these strange fictions are full of material that seems too absurd to be true or at least relatively concerning if it were true, and yet he was never questioned about the responses, even after they were published.
“I was like ranting about my weapons stockpile and nobody said anything to me about it,” he says with a mischievous chuckle. “That didn’t raise any red flags? Like, ‘Dude, are you alright?'”
Yet there’s no need to worry about Elverum, if his activities since finishing Sauna are representative of how he spends his days. Over the course of our conversation, he details me in on his recent bathroom renovations and a shed that he built, pausing for a moment to offer some instruction on the finer points of preparing firewood for a wood-burning stove (“It’s better to do it before the summer, so it has time to cure,” he explains), suggesting that IRL Phil probably spends more time around the house than tearing down ski slopes in Utah.
“I’m really busy all the time, but it always feels like a million tiny things,” he says of how he spends his time these days. “Just like … dealing with food and the mundane things that fill up a life.”
Curiously, despite those cheekily deceptive interviews and the fact that he maintains an unabashedly playful (and hilarious) Twitter account, it’s these “mundane” moments that seem to mean the most to Elverum. Though you’ll find amorphous tape-splicing, bass drones that owe to Sunn O))), and a couple of tracks that breach the 10-minute mark, Sauna largely finds Elverum working in a more direct mode than albums past, spinning foggy little stories about making coffee and walking down the street rather than offering serpentine meditations on the very nature of existence itself.
“I’ve been making a conscious effort to just say the ‘thing’ rather than indulging in too much poetry or metaphor,” he explains of the more easily comprehensible lyrical content. “Maybe these ideas are impossible to say directly … but a lot of times flowery language seems more like an embodiment of fear.”
Elverum finds the “ideas” at the heart of the record difficult to discuss, but they seem to tie into one of the major threads of that autobiographical Tumblr post. “Whenever I stop moving for long enough to sit still and think,” he wrote incredulously, “I realize that the fact that I am alive and thinking at all is crazy and what the hell?” Past Mount Eerie records approached such existential uncertainty from more oblique methods, couching them in metaphor, but here he uses simplicity and daily life as an easier way into these lofty ideas. These are Benji-esque portraits of the ultra-mundane, but instead of just stopping there he reaches outward and upward. Making coffee and looking out the window, on “Turmoil”, is a jarring reminder that he can’t remember “when, or if, I woke up.” On “Pumpkin” — which Elverum self-deprecatingly refers to as a straightforward account of “a super boring day” — a stroll through town presents the striking image of a pumpkin washed up on the black rocks at the shoreline, and it’s a moment of shocking clarity, one of those images that briefly stuns you and makes everything real. Couple that with the swooning, melodramatic guitar parts and totemic organ drones that populate both of these shorter tracks, as well as the record as a whole, and you’re left with an album that packs a pretty serious emotional wallop. It’s an LP that’s as ambitious as it is relatable — one of the few folk-minded records over the course of the last decade that’s able to aim for such high instrumental drama without sacrificing the slow boil of its intimate lyrical content.
But Elverum himself, despite admitting that he’s “super proud” of Sauna, expresses some concern about the emotional work of Mount Eerie as a whole, especially insomuch as it’s become a public project that’s intimately tied up with the humdrum details of his daily life.
“If I think about it,” he says, while musing on the process of writing lyrics, “it’s like, ‘Who am I?’ Who am I to bug other people with all of these abstract ideas? I should just keep my mouth closed and have my ideas and enjoy them.”
It’s moments like these that triggered fan hysteria when he started talking about the end of a tour as “one of many retirements.” Though he disavows the idea of “diaristic” music, the little details about his life, and on past records about his town and the wilderness around it, there’s a sense that Elverum’s music is something that we’re only privy to. Even if, as he says, there’s no way that he could ever stop making the stuff, it feels private enough that he could just as easily recede as he once did — if not again to a cabin in Norway, then just into his own private domestic life.
“Maybe I will recede a little bit,” Elverum concedes later on in our conversation. “I just want to live my life. And up until now, living my life has meant making records and going on tour and playing shows because that’s what’s been fun. But who knows what the future will be.”
Colin Joyce is a writer from Tampa, Florida, living in New York City. His work has been seen on Pitchfork, The Fader, Spin, and many others. He tweets.