The term “genius” is thrown around way too much when referring to music, but Phil Elverum, first as Microphones and now as Mount Eerie, seems to have the bona fides. His projects, while experimental and personal, evidence the work of an artist unafraid to follow a muse that leads him to both beautiful and terrifying spaces. Elverum’s latest Mount Eerie project consists of two related albums, Clear Moon and Ocean’s Roar, that give two very different tonal descriptions of his home in Anacortes, Washington. Prior to the release of Ocean’s Roar, Elverum talked with Prefix about his new records, the importance of analog recording, and his upcoming national tour.
How did you come to conceive of these two records?
I just had a large collection of recordings that I wanted to release, and I didn’t want to make a double album. I wanted to find a middle ground between making a double album and two separate albums. I just wanted them to be linked. The last couple of records that I made were double vinyls, and they were so long. It just seemed like that was too much music for the listener to digest.
How closely are these albums linked in your mind?
Well, it’s abstract. I really don’t know. I think it could work as a double album. It could be a big clump of songs, but they would be dynamic and weird and have all kinds of different things. But I did put them into two different groups to amplify the difference one group of songs has in tone and character from the other. They’re very closely linked is the answer.
As these two albums are always going to be linked, could you imagine a listener only hearing one or the other?
That’s fine. I was also planning for that. That’s why I made them self-contained records that stand on their own. I wanted that to be part of it as well, so they would be sovereign.
Do you think that one stands alone more fully than the other?
I think they both stand separately very well, but they would probably be filed in different sections of the record store. They are almost two different types of music. Clear Moon is more songs, even though some people see it as experimental, especially compared with Ocean’s Roar, which is where there is more of the raw, experimental things- not even songs. I mean, there are obviously songs on there, but it’s definitely not the type of record that you’d be singing along with.
When it came time to record, were there any special challenges with this project?
I didn’t know I was going to do it this way in the beginning. I started off the recording process very abstractly. We moved into a new studio about three years ago, so at the beginning of the project I was just exploring the space and trying to figure out how to get the studio set up based on what worked and what didn’t. I didn’t even have songs. I was just doing these experiments. As it developed, it turned into some more songs and I had some more ideas. It was really only at the end that I divided these experiments into two different groups and packaged them as separate albums.
When you say analog recording, a lot of people are nodding along without knowing what that means. Explain what that means to a Mount Eerie recording.
Yeah. I don’t use computers. That’s all. I just don’t use computers. If you’re listening to a vinyl record, it has not been made digital at any point. I record on tape. I mix down to the tape. I send the tape to people who cut it into a record, and they press records from that. Of course if you’re listening to mP3s, it was digitized at some point, but I don’t ever record with computers. That’s just the way my studio is set up.
If you’re not using computers, how do you achieve the layers of sound that characterize your work?
I don’t really know. Recording is just what I love doing. I like hanging out in the studio for a really long time by myself. That’s why I have my own recording set-up; it’s so I don’t have to worry about paying for studio time. I have the freedom to try things, make mistakes, erase them, and try other things. I guess a lot of what I do is really accidents- trying things and then seeing what happens. It is recorded on a sixteen track, so there’s a lot of bouncing. I also work in a huge room, so I try to use the space to get a lot of the effects. I also try to treat instruments not as themselves in a way. If I record a guitar or a piano, I would try to make them sound unusual. There are some sounds on this record that maybe sound like computers, but I just took keyboards and played them through an amp into the room.
How many hours of tape did you record to make the album? Is that even something you keep track of?
No, but I do know, because almost everything I recorded made it on. I don’t waste tape. I knew what wasn’t going to make the cut, so I taped over it. Tape is so expensive- I use every bit that I can. So, two hours.
Given the amount of freedom that is available in digital recording, why do you choose to do analog?
It’s just what I have, I guess. I have a computer. It has GarageBand on it, but the way that I learned to make music was on tape. First I got a four-track, and then an eight-track, and now a sixteen-track. It’s a very basic process: plug the microphone in here and then plug this other thing into the mixer. It’s hands-on to me, and I enjoy thinking about creation in those terms, rather than sitting in front of a computer screen and having to update my preferences and deal with a USB adapter. It’s not conducive to creativity to me.
So what I’m hearing is that you’re probably not going to be trying a digital album in the future?
Actually I have been exploring it a little bit. I made some demos of some of these songs to be able to send to friends to teach them how to play them live. I made some GarageBand versions really quick, and it was pretty fun and very efficient. So I have dipped my toes in it a little bit. I might do it some more in the future just for fun, but it’s not like a door has been opened or anything.
You mentioned that this is something you’ve done by yourself in the studio. How do you set up your live band?
We just got finished playing a weeklong little tour. There are five people in the band, and we got together and figured it out. Of course some of the songs are unplayable, but some of them work out really well. I play guitar, and we have another guitar and bass and drums. It’s kind of a traditional band set-up, but we do have two singers. In the past I haven’t done it that way- I toured alone and played versions of the songs from the album that don’t actually sound like the album versions, but it’s pretty fun to be able to play them in a way that’s close to the intended recorded version.
How are you going to integrate these two very different albums into a single concert?
I think the more different the better, actually. When I’m at a show watching a band play songs that are pretty similar, it gets exhausting and boring. I appreciate the opportunity to have some gentle songs and some shredders right next to each other.
When all is said and done with this project, what about these two albums and the tour will satisfy you as an artist?
I already feel that way, actually. I have that kind of moment of reckoning before an album is even out. That feeling comes as I’m mixing or as I’m tightening up the album and seeing it as a whole for the first time. I kind of know whether it works out artistically or not. Of course, that changes as I get older; I look at my albums from ten years ago and there are things I would change or I’m embarrassed about this part or that part, but really, I’m very happy with the things I’ve made.