Phil Elverum looms large in the history of turn-of-the-last-century independent music. In recent years Elverum devoted himself to his wife, the highly accomplished visual artist and musician Geneviève Elverum, and their daughter. But in 2015, shortly after giving birth, Geneviève Elverum was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away in 2016. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me, released in March, is a powerful, emotional and beautiful reckoning with this new reality. L.A. RECORD spoke to Elverum just prior to his first tour performing the songs from this new album. He performs Tues., Apr. 11, and Wed., Apr. 12, at Hollywood Forever. This interview by Tom Child." /> L.A. Record


April 10th, 2017 | Interviews

illustration by dave van patten

The name Phil Elverum looms large in the history of turn-of-the-last-century independent music. Doggedly pursuing his own musical path since the mid 90s—as the Microphones and later Mount Eerie—Elverum distinguished himself as an innovative sonic experimentalist, able to conjure up extraordinarily deep and evocative sounds from relatively modest equipment, to say nothing of his considerable talents as a songwriter. It’s not overstating things to say that the Microphones’ 2001 The Glow Pt. 2 is generally considered one of the definitive independent folk releases of the genre, and its acclaim seems only to grow with time. In recent years Elverum devoted himself to his wife, the highly accomplished visual artist and musician Geneviève Elverum, and their daughter. But in 2015, shortly after giving birth, Geneviève Elverum was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away in 2016. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me, released in March, is a powerful, emotional and beautiful reckoning with this new reality. L.A. RECORD spoke to Elverum just prior to his first tour performing the songs from this new album. He performs Tues., Apr. 11, and Wed., Apr. 12, at Hollywood Forever. This interview by Tom Child.

I want to say right away that I know talking about pain and loss can be difficult and I also tend to feel anxious with interviews anyway … so I just want to start by apologizing if I get awkward or nervous.
Phil Elverum: No, it’s OK. I wish there was a way to ease everyone in the world’s mind about that because I’m fine talking about it. I mean, I made this record about it and it flows from me easily. Maybe too easily. It was interesting to realize that probably when I go out in the world with these songs there’s going to be a pretty wide spectrum of degrees of awkwardness and willingness to talk about it that I’m going to have to navigate. It’s like I’m putting a big sign up that says ‘Ask me about my dead wife.’
Well, good—I’m glad I established my awkwardness right away. You’ve said you don’t like what you called the ‘pitiful attention’ you get out in public these days so you stay home mostly—how do you balance the desire to keep this experience to yourself with wanting to reach out to other people?
Phil Elverum: It’s kind of worn off now that over seven months have passed but for a long time after Geneviève died—and also when she was sick—like with those in town that knew us, there were all these extra layers of social complication and difficulty to have to navigate through … even just going to buy broccoli at the store. Which is fine. I mean, it’s all totally normal and natural. But my tendency … I don’t want to help someone else through their discomfort around me. I already have enough on my plate, trauma-wise, and also just single-parenting. So I don’t need to help an acquaintance through their awkwardness. But then it is true that I made this record and that’s very much opening it up. But maybe it’s different because it’s on my own terms and it’s through the lens of these songs. And it’s not an exchange. It’s my one-sided announcement rather than an interaction.
You wrote that after Geneviève died, your internal moments felt like public property—the idea of having a self seemed absurd and self-indulgent. Did anything not seem absurd in that moment?
Phil Elverum: Just the domestic realities. That seemed like the thing I could count on. Geneviève and I were very wrapped up in our creative pursuits and for the whole time we were together—thirteen years—that’s just who we were. Our house has always been this house of production, this house of projects going on. The kitchen table is always full of different paints and … you know. So when she got sick—and it was already sort of moving in this direction because she was pregnant and we were having a baby and it felt like, well, let’s move the paint off the table and let’s get ready for a baby—and then she got sick and death was looming and the things that we used to be so wrapped up in emotionally … it just seemed, like, why? Why did we care about that? The shift in priorities was massive and immediate. And it still is like that. I mean, I think that this record is great and I’m very proud of it and I want to do a really good job but I don’t feel like it’s my life’s work in some cosmic grand sense and that it’s going to define me for history, you know what I mean? It’s just some music.
Was it difficult creating work about this profound kind of grief?
Phil Elverum: It wasn’t difficult at all. It felt good. It felt like therapy. It was difficult to not do it. It was difficult to have these things internalized. Getting to sort of organize them and express them and kind of twist them into … there are moments of beauty on the record. That felt very good to do, even as hard as some of the songs are—particularly the song ‘Swims’ where I can’t get the image out of my head of her … the last morning. I mean, that’s not beautiful. That sucks and I want to forget. But I have this song now that I’m going to sing, which is going to remind me of it and cement it more into my consciousness.
That line where you sing about your daughter asking if mom is swimming and you tell her that’s maybe all she does now … That was really powerful for me. A lot of your previous work seems to reckon with isolation and the uncontrollable forces of nature and on the new record you sing, ‘Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about, before I knew my way around these hospitals.’ Was the experience of this grief different than you might have imagined it would be?
Phil Elverum: I don’t know how much thought I ever put into grief, if any, before this, of course. It’s not logical. It’s not on our radar. I had nothing in my recent history where I felt, like, ‘What? Woah! Weird! How disorienting!’ But that sharpness fades. That awareness fades. I didn’t have an expectation for what it would be like. One surprising thing is the first stuff I was talking about—all the social subtleties of having to navigate through other people’s stuff for them. I wouldn’t have expected that being such a major part. I mean, the difficulty hasn’t been that much. Primarily it’s been good. We have a really excellent support network here—friends and family and people that have been so amazing. That’s why I was able to make the album because we have a schedule of people who take my daughter probably four days a week. She’s outside the house for a few hours at least. That’s where she is now. And my mom takes her all the time. We wouldn’t be able to do that if I was living in isolation. It’s so crucial. I wouldn’t be able to be a person if I was living in isolation so it’s definitely worth it. And my appreciation for that stuff has only been increased by this experience. I’m closer with my community now.
Do you feel a conflict between wanting to heal and wanting to hold on to that pain because it’s also a connection in its way?
Phil Elverum: Definitely. I feel that way still. It’s a tug of war, I guess, between those two drives. When she first died, I was really motivated to just deal with everything: to transform the house, move the furniture around, get rid of her stuff and, you know, move forward, not be surrounded by so much, so many reminders. But then I didn’t totally finish. Her studio is mostly cleaned out but then I just kind of stopped and now it’s this room that I go into and it’s mostly cleaned out but still her desk is there and still her plants are there and there’s something in me that’s preventing me from taking that last step and transforming it into a totally different room. Likewise with the album. I didn’t want to finish making it really, even though I was very rushed. I wanted to get it out as soon as I could while it was still sharp in me … but also working on it felt like hanging out with her, kind of, so I wanted to keep that going. But then, I’ll just keep writing more songs if I want to do more of that feeling. It felt good to go up into that room at night when my daughter was asleep and go back into those ideas that I was writing down and organizing and erasing and noodling on the guitar. It felt right and good. I’m not sure what it all meant and why it felt good but it definitely did.
What sort of feedback have you been getting from people who have heard the album? Have people been reaching out and saying it’s been helping them?
Phil Elverum: Yes, some. I’ve gotten some nice emails from people who have told me that it was helpful. I mean, it’s not out yet so most of the talking I’ve done about it has been with interview people. I wasn’t sure if we should do a PR campaign at all. It felt sort of crass or something in a way, to do the usual record industry thing with it—so we aren’t doing the usual thing. This unique situation and how to proceed … the idea is just to be a little more selective and adult about it, I guess. To not just be like, ‘Hot new track from Mount Eerie!’ The people I’ve talked to so far have been very sensitive and intelligent about it, which is surprising.
I mean, I can’t imagine someone asking, ‘How did you get that guitar sound?’
Phil Elverum: One thing I’ve heard a lot… maybe the majority of people have said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t think I can listen to it,’ or ‘I don’t think I can listen to it more than one time. It’s very powerful and beautiful but I think one time is all I can take.’ Which is surprising to me because … I mean, I guess it’s painful. I can see that. But that painful? I tried to make it pretty. I tried to make it also a pleasant experience in a way.
I do think it’s a beautiful album. But I have to admit when I heard it for the first time, I was so emotionally moved by it and it did tap into some things that maybe I don’t always acknowledge about my brother’s death. There are definitely times where I was crying but it did feel cathartic even for me so I think you achieved that and I think that—not to draw up a barrier between people who have gone through something like this and people who haven’t—but I think that maybe not going through it, it’s a little harder to…
Phil Elverum: Yeah—that’s true and that’s been my experience with the people who have emailed me and told me, like, ‘I lost my mom.’ That’s incredible and I didn’t think about that in advance at all but it has given people a way of thinking about this stuff that they didn’t allow into their mind or didn’t have a vocabulary for. It feels crazy to make something that is useful emotionally to someone. It feels beyond my ambition and I’m very happy if that ever happens.
You really hit on a lot of shared experience. The stuff about getting mail addressed to her still. That was something I experienced because I was living with my brother so I’d get his mail. His room was still there. I don’t think it’s something we necessarily always talk about too openly and I think it’s good to be able to put on headphones and listen to your album and have that connection but still have it be a somewhat private moment because it’s not always easy to be emotionally vulnerable in that situation. You’ve said that it’s important to zoom out and accept the bad shit because good is also coming inevitably—how do you feel about that now?
Phil Elverum: It’s probably has been my general stance always. I don’t know why but I do tend to always remind myself to zoom out and look at the long-term picture. I don’t think it’s optimistic—I don’t think I’m particularly optimistic. I’m not hung up on saying, ‘The good thing is right around the corner!’ I forget where but someone was using the term ’silver lining’ about my record or about Geneviève dying. Yeah. I hate that. But whatever. That’s just an example of one of the things that people are going to say and that I have to brace myself for.
The line that hit me the hardest was, ‘It’s dumb and I don’t want to learn anything from this.’ I mean, it feels crass to say, ‘Well, it’s a lesson.’ And I definitely had well-meaning people say things like, ‘Well, everything happens for a reason.’
Phil Elverum: God, yes. It’s the worst. One thing I heard yesterday on the radio … a woman was talking about loss and grief and stuff and she pointed out that people say really dumb stuff but beneath all of that idiocy, they’re all well-meaning and really the worst thing is silence. And I know that before all this, my tendency as a person would be silence. I know that I’ve done that in the past to people around me who have experienced loss. So now I know how truly shitty that feels, to be the recipient of silence because people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing. That’s a public service announcement to get out there: silence is the worst possible response. Even if you say the stupidest thing, it’s still worth it.
What sort of relationship do you want to have with your audience now? Not even speaking of your personal life?
Phil Elverum: I’m kind of dreading playing these songs live, honestly, because of that. I want to play them live but I don’t know how ready I am to do that thing of helping strangers through their discomfort … like, making people feel that whatever way they are reacting is OK. Which it is. That’s the answer. However people react or whatever they say to me is fine but knowing that people are kind of walking on ice around you … it’s a hard feeling. But I haven’t done that yet though. I just played one local show, which I didn’t really open my eyes for. I just powered through it and walked out the door so it doesn’t really count. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I’m going on tour in April and I’m thinking, ‘Oh wait, what about the merch table? I want to sell records but how…’ It’s also going to be sort of a meet-and-greet table and people are going to say stuff to me and I’m not really interested in doing that.
I read the review in The Stranger about that show.
Phil Elverum: I was nervous. I was really nervous because it had been a long time since I’d played a show of any kind because I was very much out of the zone. My life is not that life anymore. And playing in Anacortes is always the hardest place to play just because people know the ‘real me’ here or whatever. It’s my friends and family. Maybe out on tour I had more leeway about saying some bullshit and people would just believe me. Here, I can’t get away with that. So it’s already kind of nerve wracking. And also I was really sick. I had a very painful voice. I was focused on singing as many of the songs as I could physically get through with my voice. I walked in the door and then I walked out the back door. I feel like it doesn’t count. It was very much like ripping the Band-Aid off. Now I’m ready to go on tour and weather the storms of all kinds of weird places and people.
Is there a way to prepare emotionally to perform these songs over and over again?
Phil Elverum: No, I haven’t been thinking about it really. I’ve been thinking about how to travel with a two-year-old. That’s absorbing my mind. The shows are the whole point of the thing but I haven’t been thinking of them at all.
As someone who has been performing and touring for two decades, are you able to … adjust your vulnerability onstage as the situation dictates?
Phil Elverum: I do. I used to be at least. I don’t know who I am anymore. But I can remember being able to just jump in the car with my guitar and go play a show and it would work out and it would feel good. But I don’t think I should take that for granted anymore. I should do some preparation. I’ll probably just learn the songs really well. I mean, I already know them. But just brace myself for awkward places and people.
How has this experience affected your relationship with humanity as a whole?
Phil Elverum: [laughs] That’s a cool question. My relationship to humanity? It’s probably improved it, I guess. I feel like the capacity for people helping each other… I mean, we had this very successful financial fundraiser that was really overwhelming. People have been driving from Seattle to come bring us a sandwich or whatever. The generosity and the support that’s out there has been made more apparent to me. Which, I’m kind of like… I mean, I like the idea of being a hermit. I can’t let go of the beauty of that idea of living that sort of a removed lifestyle so I’m a little annoyed that I recently learned that being supported by a loving, supportive society is good. I’m like, ‘Aw dammit … I have to live among people.’
Where do you imagine yourself going from here—creatively or just in life?
Phil Elverum: I’m not sure. I want to write some more songs along these lines. Maybe they won’t get recorded. I feel like I don’t want to play any of my older songs anymore. They seem irrelevant now. And I’m going on tour but I only have eleven songs now so I feel like maybe I need more songs. But I don’t know. If I make another record, I feel like maybe it would be something extremely loud and instrumental. Something the polar opposite of this. I also have some writing projects that I’ve been working on. Mostly I just want to make a good domestic life and do a good job making a good childhood for this kid.
You said you don’t even necessarily want people to ask you about the album but is there anything we haven’t covered?
Phil Elverum: No … but I do want people to ask me about the album. I’m into doing interviews. It’s more that thing of saying ‘Thank you’ at the merch table on tour. People come up and say nice things but if it happens enough times in a row and I say ‘Thank you’ enough times in a row then it stops feeling real. I stop feeling it and I don’t want to stop feeling it about these songs. I want it to stay sincere.