Phil Elverum, known as The Microphones and more recently as Mount Eerie, brought a subdued solo performance to The Chapel last Thursday night that I didn’t quite expect. While his albums as Eerie evoke the hugeness of nature with their sprawling instrumentation, Elverum’s live performance featured only his acoustic guitar, his voice, and a few musical gadgets lying around. Only after did I realize–to understand Elverum is to expect the unexpected.
In 2012, Elverum released his fifth album as Mount Eerie, Clear Moon. On Moon and other Eerie albums, Elverum creates intricate soundscapes: soft layers of dusty analog keyboards, sparse drumming that is more textural than rhythmic, and heaps of toneless guitar feedback that sound like being dragged underwater at 100 miles per hour. Jayson Greene, in his review for Pitchfork, wrote: “[it] has the misty-but-tactile feeling of a sense memory…like anxious, living beings that are trying to whisper something to you that you don’t want to know.”
As we waited for him to go on, I wondered how Elverum could recreate this overdubbed sonic grandeur by himself. The six foot gong was a good sign, at the very least. The first song “Sauna” featured a reverb heavy organ and other knobby pedals that seemed to have a life of their own. Alone, he was still creating enough noise to sound like Mount Eerie.
Then Elverum told the engineer to take all the effects off of his mic, strapped on an acoustic, and went into Bob Dylan mode. By the time he finished his campfire rendition of “Through the Trees Pt.2,” the reality had set in. The textural instrumentation from the albums that occupied a common ground between Eno and black metal had officially been eschewed. A man in front of me exhaled pot smoke in a defeated sigh.
Mount Eerie is only a facet of Elverum–the sound he creates is a solemn, brooding, vast construction that does not reflect his levity or humor. Though his feather soft voice speak-singing about rocks, trees, and feeling alienated may seem as straight-faced and un-self-aware as possible, his music still shows hints of light heartedness. His songs have indistinguishable song titles (such as “The Place Lives” and “The Place I Live”) and “Pt. 2” designations without a predecessor. He writes weird and funny tweets, such as: “Ghostbusters except no ghosts and there are 7 guys and they don’t know each other and live in different states.”
The latest Mount Eerie album, Pre-Human Ideas, is comprised of remixed, auto-tuned covers of his older songs. He has also released versions of albums Clear Moon and Ocean Roar in which all the songs are played simultaneously on one track (they don’t sound as terrible as you’d think.)
During a brief encore song, Elverum stopped to explain that another character was speaking and made a talking puppet with his hand as he sung. For his opening acts, he had on a guitar noise improviser called GNAGORIACEHT, who described his sound as “pre-music,” followed by Oakland comedian Jessica Sele: “I’m sorry, this was Phil’s idea. He’s an awkward, awkward man. I’m a comedian, I’m sorry.” What does all that say about Elverum? Is he both a stand-up and guitar drone?
There is no Mount Eerie, no The Microphones, and no other projects that will inevitably come up later on; there is only Phil Elverum. Even now, I do not know what to make of this evening. Is he an artist that only thrives in his home studio? Does he prefer to tour alone so he can drive and be alone with his thoughts? Is he too cheap to put the rest of his band up for a motel room? Elverum is the type of artist whose output will come in shifting permutations and moods; his uniqueness as a person and a creative mind is one his main appeals. I just hope I get to see Mount Eerie as a full band sometime.
-Written by Tom McLaughlin