Getting in touch with Phil Elverum is remarkably easy. There’s an email address on his website which we’re invited to use, so long as we don’t send him ‘a million emails’ and so long as ‘it seems worth it’. Elsewhere on the site, he warns that he is ‘possibly sociopathic’, though clarifies that he actually wishes that ‘everyone else was a little more focused on the song, not the singer.’
Briefly, then: a songwriter and producer from Anacortes, Washington, Elverum’s best known for his prolific and wide-ranging recordings under the monikers of The Microphones and, since 2002, Mount Eerie. His music is, as is so often written, dense and rough and expansive, drawn together from a bursting catalogue of foley sounds and interesting instruments.
After emails traded back and forth, we feel a bit closer to Elverum. His responses to our questions are personal rather than PR-tinted, his answers comprehensive but conversational, their prose imperfect and honest. It’s reflective of his latest album, Sauna, a record that is at once born out of a harsh, natural soundscape but which sounds warm and inclusive, rather than the inhabiting the colder worlds of his older work. “For me, it doesn’t sound cold, I was going for depth and warmth, and I wasn’t trying to say anything specifically about ‘nature’,” he says of the new LP. “Nature is just an idea of place.” It’s this central point that Elverum says he wanted to explore in his recent output. “The album is about the human capability for constructing new, immersive atmospheres – like saunas, or music, for example – to change our perspectives, to manipulate and explore our own minds, and hopefully to find some fundamental, basic truth."
As we said in our review, more often than not this is most clear in Mount Eerie’s lyrics – each a window into a mundane, ordinary moment that leads the speaker away to a moment of greater significance, manifested in woolly mammoths tearing through tree lines. This is most significantly signposted in an opening track, which shares the record’s name. ‘I don’t think the world still exists / Only this room in the snow, and the light from the coals’, Elverum admits in his unmistakable tenor. Though reality rolls on outside, undisturbed, storytelling can continue inside the safe haven of the sauna.
Elsewhere on the Mount Eerie site, he writes about his appreciation for the literature of Zen Buddhism and, fittingly for sauna, pre-Christian Vikings. “I am not so much into Norse myth, but I do like the sagas, the actual stories of real humans,” Phil tells us. “I like imagining life in a semi-primal time, right on the edge of literacy, with fine art, but still a brutal existence in a cold place. I'm not sure why it appeals to me.”
“I see my songs as part of that long history of people trying to figure shit out, indulging in the unknown.”
These are the stories that Sauna tells, we suggest, of holing up in a warm, safe place, away from the cold, and telling stories to explain away the dangers of the outside world. “I guess I am interested in myths from a historical perspective, like looking back on earlier peoples and seeing how they tried to answer the big questions, but my interest in myths – which is not a big interest – is not in a relevant-to-me-right-now kind of way,” he replies. “I don't believe in god or gods or mystical anything. I don't believe in easy explanations, but I do love the wide history of human exploratory thought. I see my songs as part of that long history of people trying to figure shit out, indulging in the unknown.”
These ideas are also played out beautifully and viscerally through Elverum’s mastery of sound, considered distinctly from his mastery of music and song. In the title track, which sets out his ideas for the rest of the album, an organ drone and sparse percussion are interrupted a crackling fire and the hiss of water hitting coals. Though in reality they are un-musical sounds, on Sauna their combination means that with a single drone or note, one evocative sound can communicate a huge amount of mood or texture. As a result, nothing sounds quite like a Mount Eerie record, and nothing is quite so absorbing. Elverum tells us that this was chiefly achieved through his approach to recording the album. Though he says the sound of a live band is “rarely something I want”, Elverum’s music is inescapably intimate and unrefined, both precision-engineered and authentic. “It is challenging to make live performance sound deep and cool. Recording is an opportunity to make things sound new and crazy.” Was there something about recording Sauna that was new, then? “I am always trying to find new techniques, every time I set up a microphone. The goal with these recordings was to build up a very rich texture, with strange chords spread out over a wide spectrum of instruments and tones.”
The choice of space in which to record, he continues, was reached out of necessity rather than to make any high-minded point. “I needed a studio space because my house wasn't big enough,” Phil explains. “The former Catholic Church building was empty and available, so my friend and I combined our equipment and built the studio there. It's a nice big wooden room. There is no religious significance for me. I don't care.”
There are no current plans to take Sauna on tour, though he’s given some thought to how it might work. Last time on the road with dual albums Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, this took the form of a two-part set that moved from the quiet contemplation of the former into the darker, louder walls of noise in the latter. The details are still murky, however. “I’ll change the live arrangements for every tour because I like to keep the project shifting.” It’s for certain though that, even away from the control and nuance of Sauna on record, a live Mount Eerie show will still be something special – a specially-created warm space where Elverum and co will undoubtedly pick at our minds and guide us to some fundamental truth.
Words by Laurie Havelock
Interview by Rachel Grace Almeida