Phil Elverum Is Looking Back to Move Forward
Phil Elverum spent nine months adrift in 2018, living in his now–ex-wife Michelle Williams’ swank Brooklyn townhouse — and he didn’t write a thing. Instead, he filled his hours playing two chords on loop on a $5 guitar: D and F sharp minor, over and over again, the only music he found he could make away from his home, the lush city of Anacortes, Washington.
Those droning chords became the germ of his new record Microphones in 2020, an album consisting of a single, nearly 45-minute track — and the first piece of music the songwriter has released under his Microphones moniker since 2003. A gorgeous story-song about being a young musician coming of age in the Nineties and early 2000s, the aural autobiography is really about all the versions of Elverum: the man, the musician, the husband, the wide-eyed teen. “It comes off as sounding almost improvisational, but I agonized over every word, believe it or not,” he tells Rolling Stone.
Since 2003, Elverum had carefully built his musical reputation behind his most recent alias, Mount Eerie. After years of under-the-radar acclaim, he notably broke out 2017 with A Crow Looked at Me, a musical eulogy to his late wife, artist and musician Geneviève Castrée. It was a gorgeous gut-punch of a record praised by everyone from rapper Danny Brown (he called it the album of 2017) to Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast. The latter told Tidal that it was one of the five albums that changed her life, saying: “I’ve never heard something so personal, so vulnerable and just very sad.”
Now Only, released in 2018, saw Elverum still ruminating on his wife’s death; he remarried that year as well, relocating to New York to join Williams. But he soon found himself unmoored from his hometown — a place where he “grew up to blur the boundary between myself and the actual churning dirt of this place,” as detailed in Microphones in 2020. He also made a brief cameo in the unfamiliar world of mega-celebrity, his face splashed across tabloids beside his famous wife. After their divorce, Elverum headed back for the Pacific Northwest, where he wrote and recorded 2019’s Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, which touched on both his divorce and Castrée’s death. “Today the tabloids told the world you separated me,” he sings on “Widows.” “My phone began dinging more than usual/In the open sky/It was just like the day they found out that we’d gotten married/Because we’re all gonna die.”
Back in Anacortes, Elverum had to start over, having sold his old house. “I happen to be in the forest right now. I’m doing some work; I’m building a house,” Elverum says when Rolling Stone rings him up to discuss his new record. “I found this piece of property and just knew that that’s where I needed to live. And there was no house there, so that’s what needed to happen.”
Elverum approaches his return to the Microphones name — his primary musical outlet from the late Nineties to the early 2000s — with a similar sense of zen. The Microphones were a roving, experimental project with Elverum as its only constant; he filled out the lineup with mainstays of the Olympia, Washington, indie scene that orbited K Records, including founder Calvin Johnson, Karl Blau and Mirah Zeitlyn. The band’s third album, 2001’s The Glow Pt. 2, became a benchmark for lo-fi music and earned wide critical acclaim. Elverum wasn’t all that impressed by its place in the canon, though; in a retrospective interview, he said: “I’m grateful for the attention and for the fact that I have been able to make music and art for so long, but I know for a fact that the idea that albums are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘essential’ or not is a total myth that can usually be purchased by getting a more expensive publicist.”
After returning home in 2019, Elverum reunited with his music scene friends, including Beat Happening’s Bret Lunsford, whom the singer-songwriter previously partnered with on the What the Heck? Fest, a local music event that ran for 12 years. The duo decided to throw a reenactment of the first lineup and, since Elverum went by the Microphones in 2003, that’s what he called himself in 2019. “That was, I would say, the extent of my thought about it,” he says with a laugh. As such, he was baffled when news outlets picked up word of the “reunion.”
“It was absurd,” he says. “The whole like cash-grab reuniting thing isn’t for me — and maybe I’m not desperate enough yet. Maybe I’ll get there eventually. But at the moment, I don’t know. I would rather just work at McDonald’s or something.” Still, he did tap back into the well of inspiration that was the Microphones, if only to write a single, albeit lengthy, song.
Microphones in 2020 chronicles Elverum’s youth in music. Following a tension-building instrumental stretch featuring those two aforementioned chords, the track cycles through his early days playing and crashing at punk houses (“Coffee and low-tide smell and my life stretching out”), lingering in movie theater parking lots (“I watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a dollar theater in Aberdeen”) and, of course, adopting the Microphones name: “When I was 17 it was 1995/I put the name ‘Microphones’ on the tapes I would make late at night after work at the record store.” Throughout it all, though, Elverum touches on how much weight each moment carries during formative periods in our lives: “When you’re younger every single thing vibrates with significance,” he sings.
“It’s hard to sum up how I would characterize those years,” Elverum recalls. “[My friends and I] were truly just living like young people with not many resources and were totally engaged with our art and somehow nothing cost money. It was totally utopian, in a way.” Although Elverum disdains nostalgia and all its trappings, Microphones in 2020 seems to be about home — whether that place is internal, external or a memory.
“The point of this song was sort of: Here I am right now in 2020. I am currently all of those things. I am still that embarrassing stuff and the good stuff and everything has happened,” Elverum says. “It’s all part of the recipe of the present moment. That’s what I was trying to get out with the song. I really tried to paint a picture of what ingredients made up that six- or seven-year period in my life. The Microphones period. What defined it in the way an autobiography works, I guess, in literature.”
As for what he would tell that earlier him — that child, teen and young adult? “I would say: ‘You’re, doing great, Little Phil,'” he says, laughing. “I don’t know. I made plenty of mistakes, but maybe they were all necessary.”