Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
Phil Elverum has admitted quite a few times that all his work has been purely autobiographical. Not just the beautiful memoirs of his life after the passing of his beloved Geneviève Castrée in autumnal, illuminating detail on A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only. But also the epochal, impressionistic, homespun genius of It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water and The Glow Pt. 2. Elverum has been writing elegantly about his life since the 90’s, whether under his own name or any band pseudonym. But there is something special about the work falling under the banner of the Microphones.
Maybe it could be the personal attachment of a kid in his early twenties rediscovering indie rock after listening to rap music exclusively throughout his mid-to-late-teens. A kid who deeply identified with the region of the Pacific Northwest; moody, gloomy, a little on the weird side spiritually, possessing a beauty overlooked by those who don’t know it well. I was a sensitive, sweet soul back then, not nearly as fatalistic or cynical as I am today. I wonder what it would have been like if I had heard those Microphones albums when they were new, those albums I would come to feel in my bone marrow. Elverum’s music has always felt uniquely Northwestern, beyond any scene connections or aesthetic signifiers.
Microphones in 2020 is a shining example of Elverum’s restless creativity, his desire to keep articulating his story by trying new things musically. He has written plenty of long tunes -- for example, the opener of 2003’s Mount Eerie coming close to reaching twenty minutes -- but this full-length effort is essentially a 45-minute-long song; no progressing movements, no key changes, barely any chord changes. It is a moving history of the name “the Microphones,” which in turn means the album is a peek into more tiny corners of Elverum’s life.
Although I frequently describe myself as a “Nirvana kid,” punk, grunge, and the harder-edged stuff from Washington State mostly didn’t resonate with me until later in life, when I found an artistic and spiritual kinship with Seattle’s caustic, irreverent, and hysterical garage-punk scene. I was more always into Beat Happening and the Microphones (though I would now classify the former as a punk band). I don’t remember the hot summer I first heard It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water and The Glow Pt. 2 in immediate succession of one another. They feel as though they’ve always been a part of me.
Phil Elverum knows the true state of all things. “The true state of all things,” he sings, “is a waterfall / With no bottom crashing end / And no ledge to plummet off [...] It’s just chaos heaving.” In his soft, diaphanous voice -- still as boyish as it was 25 years ago, not made coarse by heartbreak or grief or worry about the state of the world -- he notes the waterfall is never not falling. It continues to violently push off the cliff, wholly unconcerned with the people who swim alongside and mostly apart from it. The true state of all things doesn’t stop for any of us. In its own way, this provides comfort for him and all of us. This is probably why we all love watching waterfalls from a distance.
I don’t remember the hot summer I first heard It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water and The Glow Pt. 2 in immediate succession of one another. I just remember the summer felt richer, fuller; the overcast skies we used to experience before climate change torched our forests for the middle of most of the past few years a comforting grey compared to harsh, bleak winters on the opposite side of the calendar. They were among the first pieces of art I found which showed me music could be both incredibly ambitious and wholly handcrafted; showing me I could chase any flight of fancy I had entirely by my own means.
X-Ray Means Woman and Mostly Clouds and Trees made way for Elverum to begin naming his project the Microphones after developing an interpersonal relationship with his recording equipment and a deep reward in putting songs to tape. The somewhat remote island town of Anacortes was his primary collaborator; wind rustling tree branches and oil trucks plowing down its barely-lit roads in the mid-90’s. Of course in time, Elverum would become practically synonymous with the earthy mysticism of his hometown, its quaint residence lodged in the shadow of Mt. Erie.
The one time I went to Anacortes was on my birthday two years ago. Flush in the newness of a relationship which didn’t take incredibly long to sour, my then-girlfriend and I parked in the driveway of the Department of Safety and walked up and down Commercial Avenue for the better part of an afternoon. We browsed the vinyl section of The Business, one of its prior locations being where Elverum recorded a couple Microphones tapes before moving to Olympia. We thumbed around the used bookstore surrounded by fellow hippies, punks, and hippie-punks, and even though I’m certain I was the only Black person for miles, I felt a comfort I don’t often feel when I’m visiting a place for the first time. I felt the spirituality of Anacortes like a cloak falling on my head; I felt a nearly ancestral bond with its flavor of distinctly Northwest DIY culture, where the punks were like me and wore threadbare cardigans and considered D+ a punk band.
Phil Elverum lists a number of bands influential to the Microphones on Microphones in 2020 (including Tori Amos, the Cranberries, and Sinead O’Connor), but the portion landing squarely in my consciousness contained three bands a straight line to, leading from the inception of Elverum’s long-standing project(s). Eric’s Trip, Red House Painters, Sonic Youth. The latter directly informs the former, itself leading Elverum to a future collaborator in Julie Dorion. The heartbreaking delicacy of the band named second. Elverum describes a pivotal moment in his artistic life, seeing Stereolab play a set in Bellingham in 1996, leaning on the same chord for fifteen straight minutes. “Something inside me shifted,” he sings. “I brought back home belief I could create eternity…”
The 25-minute version of Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea” made me a more patient listener, and later a writer looking to employ a glacial, meditative approach to parts of my writing; not necessarily taking 1000 words when 100 would do, but applying a sense of longanimity to my work. Giving things more time to unfold.
Through the ephemera and spaces of time which ping-pong in the space of memory after every blink -- foldout tables populated with merch; Will Oldham and his band wearing matching tracksuits on tour in Italy; consumed zines, poems, seven-inch single artwork; a punk house with a couch on the porch -- Elverum is exceptional at the steady unveiling of scenes from his life, having made a career from artful memoir while other songwriters pivot to fiction or rehashed stories or self-parody. After one of his usual solo drives from Olympia to the ocean, he found himself at a $1 movie theater in Aberdeen watching the extraordinarily popular martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He remembers the date: Sunday, March 18th, 2001. In the rainy, empty parking lot, an epiphany washed over him. He felt he could convey the resplendent dignity of the movie in his music, the “purity of heart that transcends gravity.”
As the end credits rolled
I decided I would try to make music that contained this deeper peace
Buried underneath distorted bass
Fog imbued with light and emptiness
I think about this deeper peace whenever I hear the music of Phil Elverum, particularly this project he developed in 1995 and discarded in the waning days of 2002, literally burned in effigy within the halls of a Norwegian cave. “I made a boundary between two eras of my life / A feeble gesture at making chaos seem organized.” The ashes of the Microphones rustling in Elverum’s mind, in that small space underneath Mt. Erie where the project was born, where the project turned into another project halfway named after the mountain overlooking Fidalgo Island. And on a lark, the Microphones eventually returned a handful of years shy of two decades later, showing us the beauty of the cycle our work makes when we intertwine it with our existence. There’s no end.
My thoughts fade in and out of the rooms, the cars, the headphones where the Microphones lived with me. How many people I’ve been since then, my lives marked by what Elverum refers to as “the beast of uninvited change.” I remember those moments as if they’re dreams that I don’t trust.
I've been thinking about Marie Kondo a lot lately. I suppose not Marie Kondo the person, though I sincerely hope she's doing okay. You know what I'm talking about; the thing she says which has changed from a nifty housecleaning tip to such a powerful self-love mantra you could simply say "I'm going to Marie Kondo the fuck out of my condo" and people know exactly what you mean. "Does it spark joy?" I've been rewatching High Maintenance with my girlfriend (who has never seen it before) and a passing reference to Kondo's book led to me thinking about the sixty pounds of clothes and non-functioning computer I need to get rid of and her recommending the book to me. Getting rid of shit in order to make way for future joy, plans we have for the future that doesn't include the ratty jeans I haven't been able to fit in since my twenties.
I was reminded of lengthy vignette about removal when listening to Lane Lines' addictive single "Sweater," a sleek, bright, incredibly fun song about replacing a thing in your life with something that sparks joy. Inspired by artists like Frou Frou and Fleet Foxes, Mandi L. Kimes has sang her way through children's choir in the town of Gilbert, AZ and high school choir performances at Carnagie Hall, displayed in artful detail in the myriad harmonies on "Sweater." The first single from her forthcoming EP Canceled Plans (which will be out December 4th), "Sweater" shows the empowered side of a breakup, a metaphor for finding better things in life than a recently dissolved relationship.
In the Tyler Coray-directed video, Kimes' impressive sweater collection is in full splendor as she embarks on a solo excursion through Seattle -- Porchlight Coffee, Volunteer Park, Queen Anne, and Fremont Vintage Mall displayed and explored with a loving eye. The colors of the video are matched in kind by the song's melodies, truly inescapable from my mind's caverns as I throw my old clothes into trash bags. Kimes has a few things to say about making the videofor "Sweater" below, along with the video itself:
One lesson I learned through the process of filming this video is possessing the ability to be flexible and patient. The original concept was going to show me visiting all my favorite spots, from record stores to a diner, as well as the coffee shop and thrift shop we ended up using. When we (Tyler and I) started planning the video, it was when quarantine shut everything down, so we had plans of "When these places reopen, we'll film in there." But as quarantine dragged on and temperatures were rising, we couldn't put off filming around town with me in multiple sweaters, so we worked with what we got. Additionally, the last scene was supposed to be a dance party of all my friends wearing their favorite sweaters, but we had to scrap that idea as well since we couldn't safely practice social distancing in a studio apartment. In the end, I'm happy with how the video turned out because it really amplified the message of the song: you don't need to rely on another person to provide the warmth you're looking for when you have the simple joys of a comfy sweater, a cup of coffee, or a scenic walk through your neighborhood to provide that joy for you.
The COVID-19 pendemic rages on and there is still no word on the horizon regarding when it will be safe to put on or attend live shows again. By this point, most of you know live streaming has served as a good alternative for catching live performances from our favorite bands. With the annual November extravaganza known as Freakout Fest sadly canceled this year, our friends at Freakout Records have corralled some excellent bands for their new Freakout Live series, dropping every Thursday starting today! The series will feature bands all over the world -- Mexico, Germany, France, Canada, and naturally, right here in the Northwest. The series will start with French psych/garage band Foggy Tapes will kick off the series, with a new band every week for I guess the remainder of the foreseeable future! I reached out to Freakout co-founder Skyler Locatelli for a few words about Freakout Live, and here's what he had to say:
Back in March/April one festival after another kept getting cancelled or postponed. With Freakout being in November and in small venues, we really weren't sure how much we would be affected and had hopes we would still be able to do something... As the pandemic and current leadership continuing to prove this was not going to be the case, we started working on the only alternative.
Live streaming is the thing everyone is doing, and now there are so many of them and getting people's attention is really difficult but we wanted to create something that lives forever in the video world and is the sessions can be used as promotional material for the bands. Welcome, Freakout Live! Each session features one band, 3-4 songs and an interview.
We are featuring Freakout family artists we love and want to highlight from France to Mexico City and right here at home in the PNW. We hope everyone enjoys the sessions and that we are all back to seeing live music again soon. We'd also like everyone to stay involved with organizations like NIVA and #SaveOurStages.
Catch a new Freakout Live session every week here.
Ahead of KEXP’s Music Heals: Beyond Cancer event, Sound & Vision host and producer Emily Fox talked with Elverum about tackling grief in his music, performing these harrowing songs in front of festival crowds, and reflects on the art and void left by his late wife.
Mount Eerie's 2017 album, A Crow Looked at Me, was a stunning and devastating document of loss. On Now Only, Phil Elverum attempts to move on with his life while recognizing the grief that is still -- and will likely always be -- with him.