Phil Elverum creates eternity
As I made my way to the place that wasn’t even a 10-minute walk from my childhood home, a sort of quiet solace washed over me. The streets of Grand Rapids were nearly empty and the sun had dipped below the horizon, engulfing the world in darkness. By the time I reached the Wealthy Theater I must have wondered if I had gotten the correct address. It wasn’t until I walked through the door that I was confronted with other human beings: a small queue leading to a small counter where we went to pick up our tickets. As I slowly moved forward, other bodies began to stream in behind me. It felt as if we were all walking into something not deprived of the rest of the world, the looks of mischievous joy on the faces of several others told me that I was not alone in this feeling.
It wasn’t even my first time to this theater, and I always found myself a bit shocked at how small the space inside really was. Maybe it was the ornate decorative balconies on either side of the stage, the way the walls sloped smoothly and seamlessly into the ceiling, or the way the black brick wall in the background of the stage looked almost to a huge plaster-covered hole that made the place feel like it enveloped me. It was warm, it was aggressively intimate, it was the perfect place for Phil Elverum to perform.
After a while, the eclectic mix of ambient drone and folk music in a language someone behind me would have informed me was Greek faded into the background, and a lone woman took the stage with a guitar in hand. With her paper teacup at her feet and her hoodie hanging over her head, she began to play. As an opener, Emily Sprague did pretty much the best job possible of cementing her presence within the concert. Playing songs from his project, Florist, his sound felt halfway between Ruth Garbus and Grouper’s more guitar-driven ambient output. She played with a level of introspection that certainly felt appropriate, both for the performance space and as a precursor to The Microphones. In a phone interview with The Michigan Daily before the tour began, Phil Elverum discussed his preferences for touring partners: “I like a bill that’s very diverse in terms of musical style…I don’t want to do another spectacle. it’s kind of the same thing. At the same time – and this is something he also agreed with – Sprague’s solitary sensibility captures an atmosphere similar to his own.
There was a pause after finishing his number, which just as quickly turned into the start of the Microphones number. The lights went out and two men came on stage. As Phil Elverum approached the microphone, addressing the audience in a few words, a sharp silence passed through the crowd. A man in front of me turned on the recording device attached to the brim of his hat, however, no one told him that he was facing the seats in front of him during the entire performance. I had to wonder, what made these people look at Phil Elverum in awe? Where does the myth come from? Whether as The Microphones or as Mysterious Mount, nearly all of Phil Elverum’s work is awash in self-reference, so much so that it often feels like the music becomes his life. “Yeah, it’s not intentional, really, but I guess to some degree there has to be some self-awareness and some intention there because I keep doing it,” he adds. he, “The self-mythologizing thing that I don’t want…exactly, but it comes out that way.
If there is one of his projects that is the best example of this, it is Microphones in 2020, a 44-minute autobiographical song that would be the focus of this tour. The record feels like the culmination of all aspects of his discography, and therefore his life, up to this point. Thanks to both the smoothness of Elverum and the relentless quality of the lyrics, it almost feels like an old epic poem recounting moments in his life, something that strives to blend multiple forms of media. “I thought of it more as a literary or writing project than a musical thing.”
The only warning the public received of what was to come was a diminutive “See you soon” from Phil. Immediately, he and touring mate Jay Blackinton began the ornate strumming pattern that laid the foundation for the rest of the concert. It wasn’t long before everyone, including the people on stage, was enveloped in the hypnotism of the music. I noticed that in the live set, parts of the song were either shortened or lengthened from the original, almost creating a pattern of waves that washed over me, each time sucked into a new oblivion.
Both in his work and outside of it, Phil has brought out this idea of trying to create eternity in his music. It was hard not to watch him play those same chords over and over as that big black hole circled behind him on the wall and feel exactly what he meant by that. Looking at his face, it seemed he felt the same. It was rare to catch him looking away from an open space. “It’s like this whole pantomime of pretending I’m the only one in the room at the show. Like it was a survival instinct or something to stay sane,” Phil said. That feeling reached his climax when he replaced the acoustic guitar with an overdriven bass. ‘Crushing’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. They had created the noise of the earth that swallowed us whole. I had to look at the people around me just to wonder. to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Looking back now, the puzzled looks from everyone else was probably the only thing grounding me in reality at the time.
It was about after that that I remembered that they hadn’t taken a break yet, and that they weren’t going to take one until the show was over. According to Phil, “It’s like there’s no safety net to play the song. We have just started and we have to do everything. Everything started to feel so fragile at that moment, like any moment was susceptible to misfortune. There were some times when that fear felt more justified than others, like when Phil hit the mic with his head or had to readjust his strumming to fall into the meter, but overall the chemistry between him and Jay was hermetic. Jay was able to accompany Phil perfectly and vice versa. That being said, I still found it baffling how they were seemingly able to handle stress with such aplomb, stress that wasn’t just about performance. Phil and Jay were responsible for nearly every aspect of the gig; selling goods, setting up technology, and probably many other behind-the-scenes deals. Phil would be at the merchandising table and then, what seemed like seconds later, he would be on stage fixing the ropes. And yet he seemed content to do the work, saying, “I don’t know, it feels good to be in some way in charge of the mechanics of my own livelihood. So I mean, yeah, I love putting out my own records and doing physical stuff. It was all part of the process of being a touring artist.
It was the verisimilitude of an ordinary man laying bare his existence on stage, the way he would weave personal memories with a personal philosophy until it gave way to pure emotional experience, that proved his square belonged unequivocally to the creative process. For him, The Microphones, Mount Eerie, his music: it’s just a living thing. There’s no place that highlights it more than in the way it subverts the perception of time. Phil isn’t afraid to detach nostalgia from his timeline on Microphones in 2020, recounting experiences when he was 20, then 17, then 23 years old. By disengaging and questioning the natural flow of things, he invites us not to think of it purely and simply as nostalgia. The expressions “only now” and “there is no end” are often repeated in his work and somehow seem to be related to this idea. When I asked him what they meant, Phil had to pause for a moment: “’Now only’ to me means living in the moment. And ‘there is no end’ is just like this eternal stretching back and forth of time. He added: “It seems that on the surface, (Microphones in 2020) is about me digging into my past and trying to be nostalgic or make sense of the past. But ultimately my goal was to talk about the present moment, like even now the moment you and I are talking about, you know, every present moment to bring the person listening to that grounded present, like waking up in the present moment. Every moment becomes a moment and a moment becomes every moment, eternity and singularity lose their distinction.
A common sentiment regarding Phil’s work is that it is deeply depressing music. The reality is that, as with any one-dimensional take, things are a lot more complicated than they appear. “To me, actually, none of this feels so depressing. Same A crow looked at me or just the very heavy songs i tried to have a takeaway and that is that its about love and light and surviving in a loving way or memory in a loving way… I sing about how everything is temporary, life is fleeting, emptiness is at the heart of all things. To me, these are like cool and beautiful ideas to think about.
There came a point in the performance when the hypnotic veil evoked by the acoustic scratching alternating between an F sharp minor and a D was gently lifted. The sound has become less enveloping. The volume dropped to a constant whisper. I wondered why I had lost the two people on either side of me in my peripheral vision until I realized how much I was leaning into the stage. Moments later, their silhouettes returned, not because I had sat in my seat, but because they had imitated my position. We had just swapped one immersion for another. However, I knew what this musical change entailed. The ride was about to end. The question is, how do you end such a monolithic creative entity? The scratching becomes even quieter, and Phil lets himself go deeper into introspection. “It’s about making art. I think it’s being able to know when it’s good enough to stop working on it… Deciding that something is done and releasing it is choosing to live with imperfection and just move on. In what must be a bit of intentional irony, the last words escape his lips “Only now and there is no end.” He lets the final note ring out a little longer than everyone expects, and once we’ve all returned from eternity, an almost imperceptible smile of contentment wraps his face.
Daily art writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at [email protected].