Thursday March 6th to Saturday March 8th, cult singer-songwriter Phil Elverum is playing a handful of California shows. We've used this as an opportunity to talk to him about hardcore punk, nature worship, and where he wants to die. Here is the unexpurgated Q&A.
– Read Pt I
– Read Pt II
Are you still working with a record label? Your most well-known album, The Glow Pt. II, came out on the well-known Olympia, Washignton cult imprint, K Records.
No I’m putting out my own records these days. I'm working mostly on my own stuff. Occasionally I might do a single with somebody else.
I’d like you to talk more about the philosophy embedded in your music and lyrics?
It's not necessarily about anything. Some of these things are not sayable at all. But these five words, if I say them all together, they give you some feeling that is so weird and beautiful to me…
So, I go through… I do notice I go through themes where I’m thinking about the same thing over and over, and going through it at many different angles and trying to articulate this thing that I just go around and around, zeroing in on it, and that's where I’m not…
I'm working on a bunch of songs where I keep using the wind. They're all about the wind somehow, and thinking about symbolism.
Do these nature themes only get stronger in your work as time goes by?
Actually I tried to get away from it but I can't. For awhile the only thing people were talking to me about my music, that's all they ever said: “You must be a nature lover. Are you camping all the time?”
I like camping, but I was like “No that's not the point,” and I have made efforts to talk about the real world. But that's… For whatever reason, that's the language that is most powerful to me, these tales that take place in…in place without humans…
Do you have musical influences? Literary influences? Or do you feel that your music comes from someplace else?
I don't really see myself in a lineage which is fine with me. Sometimes I do try to explicitly copy an exact song, an arrangement, a sound — and I fail. And so you can't even tell I was trying to do that thing. It makes sense in my own head but I'm incapable of copying. I listen to all kinds of music and sometimes I try to do something that's referential to an era or a genre, but it still sounds like me. That's what my weird thing is.
It is a bit weird. You have billed your new EP Black Wooden Ceiling Opening as being Mt. Eerie’s take on hardcore punk.
Again, I think if someone who actually listened to hardcore heard this, they'd say this isn't hardcore at all, but it is my attempt. I had a band for this short tour. It's mostly this drummer, Kjetil Jenssen, this Norwegian kid that I met there, and he can play that kind of music really well. And then combined with me and my songs which have melodies and actual lyrics the music turned out to be… Maybe it's just hard rock? They're inspired by hardcore and the most intense music I can find.
After the jump, Phil Elverum delves deep into what he likes about hardcore punk.
Does that make “Don't Smoke” your equivalent to Minor Threat’s famous anti-smoking, anti-drinking song “Straight Edge”?
Kind of. I don't know. I was writing all these very preachy songs during this phase and trying to be more overtly political in a more direct way — political in that I'm telling people around me what to do. I'm not in that zone anymore and I'm a bit embarrassed playing those songs. I'm actually uncomfortable doing them. They're preachy. So, in a way it is my version of being straight edge.
We haven’t spoken yet about Jeffrey Lewis’s new project, 12 Crass Songs, which is all covers of the British punk band, or Dirty Projectors’ Rise Above, an album that reinterprets Black Flag’s Damaged. I’ve been wondering why hardcore punk has become such a powerful meme in indie culture recently. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I remember seven years ago when Bush took power my first thought was “Oh that's fucking awful but at least we'll have a punk renaissance and that'll be the upside to it.” I took this for granted because that’s how it happened in the Reagan era. But then it never happened. The music has been kind of neutral. I don't follow that much music so maybe I shouldn't even be talking about this.
Maybe we’re seeing a weird delayed reaction?
Yeah! Also I think it's just that that music is old enough that it's reached a valid age for nostalgia, it's old enough for it to come back into style. For me, personally, a lot of it has to do with the fact that I got married to this person and that's her music. Crass is her favorite band. She grew up listening to Crass and Subhumans and Minor Threat. My exposure to independent music was via Nirvana and grunge so I'd never gotten into punk. I don't really like that music of Crass, but I love the band, and I love their way, and their presentation. Like [the Mt. Eerie album] No Flashlight, the cover is totally inspired by Crass and Crass's LP packaging. What I was drawn too was how their heart was in the right place, that they were doing it for a reason beyond popularity and money.
The interview will conclude on Tuesday morning.