By Gabriel Mathews
Phil Elverum spent the back end of the 90’s making hushed, secretive records as The Microphones, a project defined more by it’s sonic particulars than anything else. The act’s name was as much a clue as the actual music that Elverum valued the process of producing music in a studio almost more than that of, say, writing the songs themselves. Or, more relevantly, of playing live. Microphones shows were legendarily unpredictable— would Elverum be alone, or have some of his K Records compatriots in tow? Would anything be amplified? Would he be playing in costume, or underneath a blanket? Elverum’s live act was always even less stable than his spritely recorded one, where close-mic’d fingerpicking would give way to drum blasts and organ drones with no warning.
In 2003, The Microphones put out its last record, Mount Eerie, a five-part saga in which Elverum’s character essentially leaves the his body and the universe by climbing the titular mountain. What this means about his continuation in music under the moniker Mount Eerie is unclear, but aside from a new interest in black metal, it seems Elverum is just continuing on the same path of impeccable sonics he started down as The Microphones.
Poet Tom Blood opened the show at Mississippi Studios, and while I was largely unimpressed at first with his florid poetry and accompanying hand gestures, a mid-set recorder interlude promised exciting new things. After the recorders, Blood whipped out a projector to show us some of his “Extremely Experimental Poetry,” which included cloud- lists such as “Things Birds Should Have Figured Out By Now” (“window vs. sky”) and “What Jesus Did” (“walked,” “ate,” “prayed,” “carpentry”) and a list of all the haircuts he’s even had. These had the entire crowd laughing, including Elverum himself. Blood should really consider a career in comedy—even his weird interjections in the middle of the emotional poems were significantly better than the poems themselves.
Mount Eerie’s setup consisted of a nylon-string guitar, a synth with some pedals, a mixer on a mail-crate, and two huge gongs. Elverum played all of these himself, in an earth-toned t-shirt and flip flops. The acoustic songs were generally pretty and reminiscent of the Zen koans he mentioned reading in the one called “Youth.” Elverum seems out of step with the rest of the world, and if I had to pick out a distinction between Mount Eerie and The Microphones based on this set, it would be that his lyrical concerns have shifted from the interpersonal relations detailed in Microphones classics like “I Felt Your Shape” to the more metaphysical concerns about existence and emptiness on display here.
The most interesting thing Elverum did that evening was to play the gongs in a way I’d never imagined gongs being played. He would trigger a note on his synthesizer, which got pumped out through a speaker sitting directly behind the gongs. They’d start vibrating, and the contact mikes he’d placed on them would turn these low vibrations into drones Elverum manipulated and played over. The drones were powerfully physical, in complete contrast with his airy, almost childlike vocal delivery. It was beautiful.
In the end, though, I have to say I was disappointed with the show. I knew I couldn’t expect any of my favorite Microphones songs, but it still would have been really nice. What’s more, I think that Elverum’s studio expertise is completely impossible to replicate in a live setting—his awesome faux-strumming trick created by quickly panning from ear to ear, his massively distorted percussion, his use of field recordings—none of these are really possible live, and so a solo set of straightforward songs that often felt like they were being played for the first time just couldn’t live up to, say, The Glow Pt. 2. Which obviously isn’t a fair metric, but… At least the girl orgasmically saying “Yes!” after every song was happy.