Saturday, July 14, 2012

"There Is No Nature," Mount Eerie Under the Clear Moon, Part II:: The Interview

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Below is the transcript of my conversations with Phil Elverum that inspired "There Is No Nature," Part I, found here.

I had brought a tape recorder with me just in case and switched it on before ever time I went out, so luckily I was able to capture our discussions. Read them below.

MANGO NEBULA: Do you think there’s a difference between Phil in the music and in real life?
Phil Elverum: When I make records, they’re not about me. They kind of are by default just because I write in the first person and there aren’t very many other people in my songs. They’re not songs about interpersonal relationships or anything. At least, usually not. Not lately. Not for the last ten years or something. Yeah, in my mind it’s not about “Phil” necessarily, but I think culturally, outside of the albums themselves, just as part of the mechanisms of making records and being a public figure and playing shows, this character of who I am, “Phil Elverum,” like playing shows, Mount Eerie guy that person is different from who I am when I’m at home living my life. Which I think, you know, everyone has multiple versions of themselves. I’m giving a really complicated answer, but it’s a really complicated question.

Since your project is called Mount Eerie, is the voice behind the lyrics ever the mountain?
Yeah, sometimes. I guess for the most part the songs are written from the perspective of a singular human observer experiencing the world and talking about it and asking questions and stuff, but occasionally some parts of the songs are like a reply from the external world. But it’s not always so clear. It’s not like a narrative. It’s not like I’m writing a play. They’re abstract. They’re songs so they’re kind of just raw words that should work as poetry.
Is there a struggle between the mountain and the man?
I don’t know about struggle, but there’s a disparity. They’re different things. That’s kind of what is interesting to me about making art. We’re people, we’re alive, we’re on this planet, walking around and going through our lives and we’re in this crazy place. Earth. The experience of being alive is crazy. And for the most part, we don’t think it’s crazy. We just live our lives and do our jobs and watch TV or whatever. Nobody can feel swept away by the wonder of existence all the time. You would just be like drooling in the corner. For the most part, those moments of awareness and I guess rapture about the mystery of existence, those are the moments that are worth writing songs about for me. I think, fundamentally, that’s what art is. That’s where art and music and poetry and creativity comes from. Those moments. Trying to examine them and expand them.
I read in an interview that those songs from Mount Eerie Parts 6 & 7 are about “clarity vs. obliviousness.” So, the connection is there to the new album with the word “clear.” Were you playing with those ideas on Clear Moon and Ocean Roar?
Yeah, very much. Same theme. It’s kind of my favorite theme I guess. Maybe I’m not done with it. Just because, that’s what life feels like to me. Occasional clarity, but also occasional fogginess. And coincidentally that’s what the weather feels like here where I live. Constantly shifting clouds and clarity. So, it’s a good link.
Are the ideas split up between the two new records?
Yeah, in general. Although there’s elements of both in both. In general, Ocean Roar is more of a fog wall and Clear Moon is more focused on those moments of clarity.
Do you see the ocean as something obscure, like fog?
No, not really. The ocean is crazy. It’s like a desert or something. It’s actually super alive, but the idea of just sitting right here and picturing the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a crazy thing. It’s like picturing another planet, but it’s not. It’s so close, it’s part of our world, but it’s so alien from us. I think the ocean on the record I made, it’s more about that experience of being on the beach. Particularly, this one beach that I’ve gone back camping many times for my whole life near Neah Bay, which is at the very tip of the continental US, the corner of Washington state. It’s just really raw, pretty remote. Usually foggy, usually rainy. Year round. The ocean just has this constant large waves that are not even surfable, just kind of churning. It’s a psychological weight. So I was trying to make an album that felt like that and also sounded like that. The sound of just not even rhythmic waves, just abstract roaring.
So the abstractness goes back to the fog and the unknown.
Yeah, exactly. I don’t know if the word is “obfuscation.” 
It’s a great word.
It might be appropriate.
Is the cover of Clear Moon the moon over Mount Eerie?
It’s actually a picture of the sun. 
Oh, it’s the sun.
The record is not actually about the moon. I mean, the moon as a symbol of being snapped out of some other thoughts that you’re in, that your mind is occupied with and then you catch a glint off a passing car in your eye or a bird flies into your face. Something weird that happens to snap you out of your thing. The moon, seeing the moon in the sky is also that type of thing. It’ll remind you in a moment of the existence of the vast alien mystery.
And also for a listener, when they realize that it’s not the moon, like I just did, it also gives you that kind of snap.
Yeah, hopefully. I’m into the ambiguity of it. It kind of feels like a picture of the moon. It’s in Norway. I took the picture by just holding my hand out the window of a van and I happened to get that good one.
How long have you been doing photography? Did you study it at all?
No, I didn’t study it. I’ve been doing it since high school. My first job was in a darkroom here in town and also working in a camera store here. So I got into it through that.
Do you use photography like your music, to try and capture the world or whatever?
I guess. There’s a few different types of photography that I like. Some of it is, I guess, taking pictures of beautiful weird light that happens in the world and the world seen through a curated angle.
The stereo effect on “Through the Trees, Part II” reminded me of “The Pull” from It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water.
Yeah, I was going for that.
Were you trying to get back to the Microphones sounds or style or anything like that?
No, not necessarily. I just like that sound. That effect.
It’s cool. How do you do it? Is it one guitar panned or are there two guitars?
There’s two guitars. On that one it’s actually like eight guitars. Yeah.
At one show in Boston a couple of years ago, I shouted out for you to play “Headless Horseman,” but you said you couldn’t play that anymore. Immediately, in my head I thought that for some reason it must be because fictional Phil had died on The Microphones’ Mount Eerie record. What was the real reason?
Well, I don’t remember the words. I think I could remember the chords. It might come back to me. But, I also just don’t relate to it at all anymore. It would feel weird singing it. It would be like expressing some angst that I felt twelve years ago or something. It just feels weird.
Did The Glow, Part II tell any kind of story?
Gosh, I don’t remember. [Laughs] I remember the record and how it sounds, but it’s hard to recall my feelings that I was going through as I made it. 
It seems like in the music the character of Phil is constantly dying and being reborn and it comes up right away in “Through the Trees, Part II” (on Clear Moon). Why is he dying so much?
I guess I don’t mean to be so narrative. I don’t want it to come off a directly storytelling. Sometimes I do, like on the album Mount Eerie, that was more deliberately meant to be a story. I guess death is a common theme, because I think it’s important to remember. It’s important to go through life thinking about it. There’s so much weird taboo about acknowledging mortality for some reason. Like people are so emo about it. I’ll talk about it and people are like, “Oh that’s depressing. Are you sad?” [laughs] And I feel like it’s this level of misunderstanding or an unwillingness to be honest with ourselves that annoys me. Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to keep writing songs about death. Then the rebirth thing. I don’t know, I guess I think that everyone is constantly changing shape and form and style and personality. Not only in our lives, but the whole world around us is morphing all the time. So I write songs that try and talk about that.
How did you die in the Mount Eerie record?
It’s all myth style fiction. I’m on the beach or something and everyone I know leaves. Then another boat of some kind of barbarians shows up. The idea with that wasn’t barbarians, but it was just like an awareness of my own approaching death. So, I’m running away from that up this hill and then I make it to the top and I die there. I think, I don’t know what the idea was. Kind of a metaphor for our life. We’re running away from some perceived threat of mortality and then…we die. [laughs] We run towards death also.
So the barbarians don’t get you then?
No, I don’t know how I die actually. I just do.
Just at the sheer weight of the thought of mortality?
Yeah, that’s what happens. You reach the top of the mountain and you’re done.
Do the female vocals on Clear Moon symbolize anything like the voices on Mount Eerie?
Kind of. When I write them down in my notebook, those lines that are sung are in quotes, as if they are being sung by some other. Another person- or another voice, not necessarily a person- other than me, the narrator of the story or whatever. I guess they don’t symbolize anything other than that necessarily. Of “the other.”
I thought that maybe the idea of different voices might come into play on “The Place Lives” and “The Place I Live.” What’s the connection between those two songs?
Well, let’s see. I don’t know. [laughs]
Did it just happen that you wrote two songs with a similar name?
No, I mean the names are important to them. They are named that because they need to be named that. Also, they are related to each other, but they’re kind of about the same thing. “The Place Lives” comes first…No, I wrote “The Place I Live” first, because I’m talking about this place where I live and I’m sitting there on a hill watching the clouds pass over and other things and just kind of observing this place in a slow way. Then, “The Place Lives” comes after that. Kind of the result of me observing, realizing that an undulating living thing. But they don’t go in that order on the record, they go in an opposite order. So…whoops.
How do “mountains and websites” relate on “Through the Trees, Part II?”
That song in particular, I had just done this interview with someone who was in high school and had a bunch of questions that were mostly about nature. I just felt really misunderstood after doing this interview, because the questions were mostly like, “So, you’re into camping? Cool,” um, “You know, nature’s great, huh?” I just felt really unsatisfied. I felt like all of the songs I had written had been so deeply misunderstood and I just felt like, ok, fuck this, I’m going to spell out what I’m trying to say, not even use any metaphors. I’m just going to say it as directly as possible. And of course the song turned out to be more metaphorical and poetic eventually. But, I was trying to just be super clear. And the song starts where I’m saying, “It’s hard to describe this thing of  being enraptured by the world around you and the mystery in it without sounding absurd and corny and like I’m talking about nature and camping.” But, “I know that there is no other world,” meaning, “There is no nature.” Which is the truth. I don’t believe that nature is a thing that exists.
As a concept or as a thing?
As a place. It’s annoying for me to hear about nature and people going to nature, because it just reinforces this dichotomy that we have, which is actually the source of the problem. The source of the problem of people’s alienation from their own lives and their own place where they live. They view wildness and the natural world as something distant and apart from them, when in reality we live among so much decay and life and wildness in our own bodies even. But even in our super clean houses, if we live in a skyscraper in Dubai, there’s still so much nature. 
To be fair, the word nature exists and an effective descriptor to talk about some place where there’s maybe a couple of trails, but for the most part un-intruded by people. But it’s just such a weird concept and totally modern and totally fictional really. I say, “I know there’s no other world,” meaning there’s just this one world, there’s not just nature and not nature. Then I say mountains and websites as a way of saying both of those things exist and both are magical and mysterious and they’re all part of the same world. They’re both nature. Well, I guess websites is the same as saying perfectly sterile apartment in Dubai.
The internet is a place.
Or it’s just part of our reality. Both are equally mystifying. When you look at the mountain in the distance and it’s this mystifying, alien, beautiful thing, but you could say the same thing for the internet. Like, what?! What is that?
I noticed that there were a lot more references to houses and cars and towns and high schools that pop up in the lyrics, like the song “House Shape.” Does that have to do with this idea of nature?
I was making more of an effort to use those settings just to balance out the image of…nature man. Because, I’m not actually. Yeah, I love quote-unquote nature. It’s inspiring and beautiful and stuff, but I don’t want to come across as thinking that’s the only world. Anyways, “House Shape” is about my life in my house. Just an average day. I guess it’s similar to “The Place I Live,” because I was sitting there, looking out the window and it was raining and I was cold and I didn’t want to make a fire and I was not quite living my life completely but just observing and watching these slow patterns, cars drive by and the clouds passing over and feeling the house creek and feeling how it’s just a pile of stuff and my body is also a pile of stuff. Then at the end of the song I go out and see the house’s shape in the dusk and it’s kind of like, “Oh yeah, I’m alive.” I should get to work. I should do some stuff and not just space out and observe all day.
Thinking about a person as a pile of dust makes it seem like a real temporary thing. Is there any philosophy there?
I don’t know where I got that image. It’s a classic image, I think from zen poetry. They refer to the body as a doll of dust. Dust meaning, not necessarily dirtiness or anything, but molecules. It’s accurate. The zen poets were talking about that way before physicists discovered molecules. They were on the ball.
I thought it was funny that for all the ideas of death and rebirth and the focus on “nature” and place, I never really pick up on any lyrics about the end of the world. Are there any songs about that?
No, I don’t think the world is going to end.
You mean, like Earth exploding?
One way or another. The sun going supernova and consuming the Earth.
Yeah, I guess that will probably happen eventually. There will still be other things happening. I believe in infinity. I think the universe is endless.
Was any apocalyptic stuff going on with Wind’s Poem?
Kind of, but only as emotional symbols. That record was about fear of mortality and hearing a voice in wind and wind’s powerful force, shuffling the world around and eroding things and hurrying on the forces of change. But, not actually the end of the world. I don’t know. I mean people think of the end of the world in this way. Like on Mount Eerie, it’s seeing the barbarians coming. The approaching mortality. It’s terrifying. But I don’t think it needs to be. It’s just a fact of life. Everyone is going to die and everything ends. So, why be afraid of it?
The last thing I wanted to ask was, if I were backpacking in the woods of Anacortes near Mount Eerie and I ran into Phil Elverum from the music, what might the first thing he’d say to me be?
Oh! I’d probably hide behind a stump if I saw you coming. I like to have solitude moments out there and when I see other people out there on the trail, it’s always super awkward.
So you don’t make friends in the woods?
No. I don’t know why. I think it’s a cultural thing. I just like to be in my own head out there. Usually I have some shitty song in my head. It takes a long time to actually clear the mind, but that’s the project.

Read Part I here.

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