Interview: Phil Elverum and Matthew Stadler on the White Stag Building
Posted in: Current Speculations on May 10, 2009
Born and raised in Anacortes, Washington, Phil Elverum began writing and recording music as a teenager in the backroom of his small-town record store. His tape experiments eventually turned into a series of full albums released under the name The Microphones on Olympia’s K Records, including the highly regarded The Glow Pt. 2 of 2001. In 2003 Elverum began recording and producing under the name Mt. Eerie, a reference to the geography of his hometown.
Mountains in their own right, Elverum writes large songs and epic records about big things. Yet he posesses a knack for drawing the intimate and the intensely personal out of the most common of experiences. His talents for poetic description of the grandeur and vastness of the natural world and the corresponding vastness of the human emotional world are matched only by his ability to create stunning sonic representations of these spaces. Elverum’s largeness is not really about celebrating the boundlessness of the human capacity for generosity, nor is it framed by an expansive global acoustic consciousness. His sense of largeness is derived from the constant slippage and conflation of a psychically expansive world located inside a small physical body positioned in an unthinkably large physical universe. It is largeness derived from forced perspectives and changing scale.
Elverum’s latest record, White Stag is the product of a week long residency at the newly refurbished White Stag building in old town Portland, Oregon. The historic structure, which dates from the turn of the last century and once housed a logging machinery company, a tent and outdoor supply factory, and a china importer, now serves as the Portland campus for the University of Oregon’s program in Architecture and Allied Arts. Matthew Stadler, project initiator and director of public programming for White Stag, had been impressed with the Mt. Eerie record and challenged Elverum to make a record in, about and using the spaces of the historic structure. I spoke with both Stadler and Elverum in the White Stag building and in a coffee shop across the street as we folded the packaging for the finished album.
David Knowles: Could you describe the general scope of the project?
Matthew Stadler: Sure. I guess I’ll start by saying that we met because Phil Elverum is at the White Stag Building in Portland, Oregon making a composition out of the building. The reason that Phil is here doing that is because I heard his piece Mount Eerie long ago and in particular heard the piece Headwaters in which he laid out the source materials that went into the composition Mount Eerie. In this piece you can hear the recordings of TV shows and ferry foghorns. In Headwaters he unpacked all the materials that made up the piece Mt. Eerie and I loved that disc and it made me aware that he’s someone that exists in a particular relationship to space and place and makes music out of that relationship. I love music but he’s one of the few people who make a real place in music. And when I came to the White Stag Building where I work one of the goals I had was to get people to imagine and think about the building more richly and I thought Phil Elverum could be in it and turn it into music. It’s an older building and it has a location in the middle of downtown Portland at this particular spot where a guy named Captain Couch had a boat that he parked here and built a dock. And it was the travelers who came and went from Couch’s dock that allowed the city to grow, moving pillaged resources out of the region and bringing money back in. And I thought Phil would be interested in that layered history and that the physical space of the building itself would produce ghosts of its own past and sounds. And my motivation for asking Phil to come to the building then was to have the place made into sound and in doing so, and recomposing it, you make a document that is thought provoking and enchanting and connects people to a place without them actually being there. It’s portable. It’s a portable space.
DK: Are all of the artists in residence that you’ve planned out so far working with sound or music?
MS: I thought that it would be great to have a series of people to come and work with sound and turn this place into music.
DK: Why sound and why music? Why not sculpture or visual art or photography?
MS: I can think of two retrospective reasons. One is the portability. I think the complexity of an architectural space can be conveyed richly with something that is totally portable. This thing that he’s made can go anywhere now. It’s not like a piece of visual art which is object based -
DK: Or doesn’t lend itself as well to replication.
MS: Right. Because now that I think about it the visual production could be portable too. But I think the richness with which you can express the spatial qualities seems easier in music somehow. Which leads me to the second point. We’re going to have discussion on Saturday at the show. We’re going to talk to him and Daniel Menche, who is doing a piece where he recorded waterfalls at the Columbia River Gorge and is using those soundscapes. It seemed to me. There’s something similar about sound and the past. Sound and the past are more like each other than the past and a photograph or the past and a piece of writing or performance. Particularly the idea that it happens and then disappears. So sound seemed like the right medium.
DK: A photograph is about preserving an instant of the past than the experience of becoming past.
MS: It’s certainly a very different relationship to the thing you’re trying to interact with. There’s a necessity to fix it in a certain moment. There’s finality to the act. Part of the attraction is Phil’s being here and making this piece of music and he will perform it and it can then be re-performed. The relationship you have to the source is very different than you would have in a photograph. And I know that I don’t have thought out or refined ideas about all those differences but I do have an un-ignorable impulse that music is right. And that’s what led to the choice. And when you start talking about the aspects of the question you were asking about the different relationships music can have to architecture, about different spaces that can house music performance or ways in which music can express something spatial, it reminded me of how much the complexity of musical space is like physical space. I don’t feel like the dimensions that you can explore in a photograph or even in object-based practice or performance introduces me to architectural space as easily or thoroughly as music does. Somehow the definitions and distinctions made in space by music seem very like the ones I experience in buildings.
DK: It may be because sound plays a huge role in cognition. The inner ear is what allows us to orient ourselves and maintain balance in physical space.
MS: And it’s multiply patterned in ways I can deal with. When I’m dealing with things visually I tend to think very analytically about them. I make logical relationships and explain them. Whereas with music I experience the same complexity without ever resolving it. I’m much more concerned with inhabiting it rather than figuring it out.
DK: What is your role in this building? Besides running the residency program?
MS: I don’t run anything. One of the people who hired me here described me as a squatter. He said what you’re doing is a lot like squatting and when you’re a squatter you try to set up positive relationships between people around you. A lot of programs from U of O have been moved in here and they have all sorts of different things they do. They realized that there is common ground that could be interesting for them. That they could have a speaker who they are all into or a workshop that has to do with digital arts as well as architecture as well as journalism and I was hired because that’s something that I think about a lot and something I have done in the past is to make that common ground between disciplines. And so my place here for six months is to think about that stuff. How can the building get full of more things we can do all together. And how can that become visible to and known to a larger public who might also be interested. So they call it Public Programming and Publications Studio and so those are the two things I do here.
Phil Elverum: The direction I took with the project was pretty dark. The thing that ended up happening was a lot different than what the invitation was. The invitation was ‘come live in this building and make a project about the building.’ To write songs about it basically. But I actually didn’t write songs about the building, barely at all. Some of the songs I ended up focusing mostly on what was there before the building. So like the river banks and the swamps at the end of the river. Completely imagined things. But in kind of a dark way – like maybe this city shouldn’t have been here. I think this started because I heard a rumor that other cities were more suitable sites for a city geographically but that Portland succeeded because some entrepreneurs just started bragging about it.
DK: The founders of the city were speculators and hustlers.
PE: I think that’s the case with most cities in this part of the country. Like Anacortes is similar. Basically mid to late 1800’s real estate speculation. I think I could get some boats to park here or I think I could cut these trees down and ship them to San Francisco. It’s pretty brutal and economic.
DK: So the record didn’t end up being as much about the building itself? You’re music for me is very tied to place and space. These are consistent themes in what I’ve heard. And I was curious how your process would change when you were working with a manmade structure or an architectural structure as opposed to a natural environment or something more pastoral.
PE: It didn’t really work. I knew that was the intent though.
DK: Or that was the challenge of the project.
PE: Right. And I kind of side-stepped it by focusing on the time before the building was even there. But in a way it’s not just ‘before the building’ it’s about thinking what’s underneath the foundation in the mud.
DK: The background.
PE: Right and the spot. The haunted spot. Also I can’t really imagine what it would be like if it was about the building. Would it be like (singing): ‘The light switch is on the left, there’s three rooms…blah blah blah.’ It’s harder for me to find poetry in that kind of thing than it is in something pastoral or mythical.
DK: I would imagine that it would be less about the objective qualities of the architectural space than it would be about the subjective experience of such a space.
PE: Well then in that way I didn’t sidestep it. Because my subjective experience of being in the space brought out these feelings of dark shit happening here. And I wanted to explore that by looking beneath the building. I think it’s true that my work is typically referential to a space. But I don’t know how intentional it is or how much control I have over it. I think it might just come out like that.
DK: I read that, I think it was in Willamette Week (‘Going Stag’, issue #35.25), that you wanted to ‘become the building’ while you were working on this project.
PE: Yeah. I don’t remember saying that. I read that too. I might have said that. I wonder what I was thinking.
DK: I’m interested in what kind of approach you take to the spaces you work on. Do you try to distance yourself from a space in order to achieve a more objective or descriptive approach or do you want to lose the boundaries of your consciousness in a way that allows you to become part of a space? Do you position yourself in a space or do you allow yourself to become possessed by a space?
PE: I think most of my work is sung from the perspective of an observer positioned in a space or outside of a space, not from a God perspective. And a lot of my writing outside this project is from a first person perspective. But not necessarily in direct relation to space, but more in the world and what it feels like to be in the world in between spaces or among large spaces. This record I just finished for example, thinking about it in these terms, I think that the way I write is very visual. I have a very sophisticated angle and quality of light and time of day, an almost cinematic angle that I’m writing from, which doesn’t necessarily make it into the song but in my mind it is there and its very clear. It’s there and occasionally parts of it end up in the final song. In this record I just finished there are parts where a song happens on a specific street in Anacortes at 5pm. I think that eventually I should start making movies. I think that’s what I really want to do.
PE: Because I think that’s how I think about creating things. I actually have all the images in my mind already worked out. All the colors and flow and pacing, and I make records out of them instead of films. But I think that all the material is there to make it into an actual film. I used to make movies. That’s what I thought I was going to be when I grew up when I was a teenager. That was my thing. It’s complicated. You have to work with other people to make movies, which is not something I’ve figured out how to do yet.
DK: It depends on the type of movie you want to make.
PE: I want to make big ones.
DK: Big cinematic feature films?
PE: I would want to if I were doing that.
DK: That’s how your music sounds: expansive. Not polished though. There’s a sheen on big pictures that doesn’t strike me as compatible with what you do now.
PE: Right. A big rough thing up on the movie screen. A 70 foot movie screen with beautiful distortion.
DK: Like a YouTube clip blown up?
PE: No, not digital distortion. Analog distortion. Like David Lynch’s last movie Inland Empire, all shot on video. It’s weird. Three hours long and definitely weirder than anything else he’s done. That’s an example of beautiful distortion on the movie screen that doesn’t mean anything. I’m very inspired by that.
DK: The reason I asked about this, about this idea of separation from a space versus becoming possessed by a space is because you chose to take the name of a very specific place as your performance identity, allowing it to consume you in a way.
PE: I think my thinking behind it wasn’t related to the place at all. That was just a bonus, the fact that it was referential to a place I liked. But I thought that those two words together, Mount Eerie, evoked the vibe I was going for with my music: a gloomy, creepy, invisible force.
DK: I want to talk about this record that you just finished. I’m interested in what kind of tension occurs when you have this architectural space at your disposal as opposed to just the natural landscape.
PE: There are lines like “roaring machinery” and “humming ventilation”
DK: So it is about the architecture. That phrase you were singing about the light switches isn’t such a joke.
PE: I guess not. Lets see…ventilation…I use the words ‘architectural students,’ ‘urban honking,’ ‘sustainable harvested thin veneer.’ I guess I tried to be pretty overt about the fact that I was singing about a building. Way more than I would be outside of the project. I mean, that was the assignment. And it was outside of my comfort zone, it was a challenge.
DK: Do you use recordings from the building itself? How did you work with the building as a material or an instrument?
PE: Some of the songs I just recorded in a really beautiful sounding place or a really beautiful sounding room and just moved the microphone far enough away so the sound of the room was audible. But I think I set out to use it a little more than I did. Like I did a lot of field recordings of a specific hum in a specific corner in the basement where a fan was really loud and was meshing with this other fan and doing this weird thing. I don’t know that it ended up on the album so much. A little bit. But it just wasn’t quite as exciting or interesting to listen to. It was interesting to look at me recording the hum but it doesn’t really translate to a CD. So what’s on the CD is basically me recording songs on a four track with an electric guitar. It’s simple. And sloppy too. Because I would record them and then sing them for the first time into the mic and usually keep that first take. So you can hear my voice figuring out how it goes as its being recorded. I mean one possibility would be to come down here and spend a week amassing samples and then take it home and make it in to something that was a lot more constructed. But I didn’t want to do that. I feel like it’s more evocative of my experience here. Of being immersed.
DK: You said that you spent four months last year touring. Where did you go?
PE: In February I went to Texas. That was really a vacation. Drove down to West Texas and back. Played a couple of shows. Drove up California on my way home. In April and May I went all over Europe for six weeks. And Quebec. I’m trying to remember. All over. A big US tour.
DK: What kind of places to do you usually play on tour?
PE: I only play all ages shows so that can lead to some weird shows. Colleges when I can. When school is in session. Conference rooms, chapels, art galleries, art spaces, cafes, community halls. All over the place. Basically I write to someone in the town who has set up a show or has invited me to come saying, ‘what’s the situation there? Where do you do shows? What’s you’re favorite place to go to a show? What is it like? Is it all ages?’ So usually we just try to get a space that works and bring in a P.A.
DK: What’s your favorite place to play?
PE: Cathedrals. Not only is the sound amazing but it feels like a big happening. And I can swear and talk about really evil shit and its cool and you can just do that in a really beautiful cathedral. You can talk about pagan gods in the dark forest or whatever and it feels good. Churches are built to make the people inside them feel something big and important. But even an empty room can be amazing.
DK: You’re music, for me, is very inspired by this part of the country.
PE: Again, it’s probably not that intentional. And that’s just the perspective I have to write from. Actually…no. It is intentional because I care about it. I care about being form a place and letting people know about it. I think that’s something that’s getting lost as we move into the future. People are becoming so decentralized and disjointed and no one knows where they’re from. There’s no regional identity or at least it seems to be getting a lot weaker. But I read somewhere, some study that regional accents and regional slang in North America are actually getting stronger. But at the same time everything is nowhere.
DK: The idea of home and this idea as a metaphor in your music is interesting to me. Because a house or a home is an architectural space that illustrates the immateriality of certain architectural concepts, because it can slide out of it’s material structure, be carried around with someone in their head, or then reinvested or reinserted into a different structure.
PE: Not only that but often times a sense of home is not rooted in the actual structure but in the place and the neighborhood or if you live in a town where your family has gone back many generations than all of those places where your family has lived as well and where you’ve spent time. It’s a web of home. That’s the case in Anacortes for me because my family goes back there and I have a very deep sense of home. And I feel like that’s rare these days, especially on the west coast where everything is so new. So I hold on to that pretty tightly. I still live there. I just bought a house. I’m putting roots down. And it feels amazing.
DK: How much of the largeness of your sound comes from the space you are recording in and how much is manipulation of sound that you’ve already recorded.
PE: When I’m recording and putting the instruments down I’m mixing at the same time and establishing how loud things are in relation to each other. It’s like working on a collage or something. So making things sound huge is something that happens from the very beginning. The question is always: how do I make something that sounds way bigger than possible?
DK: Is it possible for you to achieve this without effects or manipulation. You were talking about playing in a church earlier. Things naturally sound very huge there.
PE: Oh right. I don’t really use any effects like delay. I use distortion. I don’t use reverb. I use large rooms.
DK: So what we’re hearing on the record is an index of the space you are recording in.
PE: And I even try to EQ as little as possible and make it sound as close in real life to how I want it to sound at the end, which I think is pretty standard practice for recording. I used to EQ everything so extremely, like when I was in high school I just thought this is what it was for. Like when I would record a tambourine it wouldn’t matter how it sounds when you do it because you’re just going to twiddle all the knobs. And eventually I sort of changed the way I was doing it and my ear was actually attuned to how it sounded coming into the microphone and how a thing actually sounded when it was in the room. And in a way it was being mixed before it got to the microphone. Like it was being mixed in the air. Just the raw sound waves mixing themselves.
DK: So now the mixing process involves creating differences in position in physical space.
PE: I’ve done some sessions where I’ve just used one microphone and a bunch of people. And it is like that. It’s like, ‘okay your guitar is too loud, you need to step back ten feet,’ ‘you’re singing the third note too high, you need to tilt your head up when you sing that note.’ And it’s very mechanical. It’s the same as like adjusting the levels on a mixer but you’re moving people around.
DK: Like you’re tuning a giant instrument.
PE: Yeah. And it is mixing in the air on its way to the microphone. I’m lucky enough to have a group of people around me willing to do it. I love being able to make my eyes roll back in my head when I’m working on something like that cause they’re just not being used. I’m just focusing so much on my ears.
DK: People also have eyelids. You can even shut them.
PE: I forget. But I love focusing that much on one particular sense.
DK: Does a kind of synasthesia, or link between sense faculties happen when you’re in nature? I’ve had experiences before where I’ve gone out in the forest in the middle of the night and everything feels very close because I’m incapable of judging distance and all I can do is hear.
PE: Yeah I love that. I think that does happen. In regular life we forget how much stimulation and how much noise there is. So we tend to build up dampeners on our sensitivities, so when it’s taken away those sensitivities are expanded. It’s a weird time in 2009 for humanity and nature and this whole complicated way we have of relating to nature and thinking about nature as this separate thing. Very complex times. And this idea of nature is this really sticky thing. Especially for me as a person who writes these songs that tend to be pretty heavy on the naturalism. It’s not my intent to be like ‘hey lets go camping all the time buddy.’ It’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that’s the world that has the most potent metaphors for me. The stone, the wind, the river. These are things I think that are ingrained in our mind as these powerful symbols. Like there’s probably a modern man made equivalent for stone or wind.
DK: But what do those things even mean for us now? I feel like I can only understand these things as metaphors. I have no real connection to these things.
PE: Sure you do. The river is right over there. They’re in our lives in different ways and they have been for the entire existence of humanity.
DK: That’s what I mean when I say I can only understand them as metaphors. I can only relate to them as symbols because they’re not tools for survival anymore and they only appear as real things in the context of natural disasters, when they exceed the controls we’ve placed on them. Because I have buildings that protect me from the wind or I have factories that filter water from the river and bring the water to me directly. Nature is not part of my daily life. Only its resources and products.
PE: It’s really tricky. Because I still feel like fundamentally we’re living a life that is not that different from primitive people roaming the hillsides looking for firewood and killing animals. All this stuff is built up but we still have the same drives and same quests throughout our days. It’s just our tools are a little more advanced. These cars driving by outside are not that different from mammoths or cattle. So I feel like a lot of my poetry tries to relate on these universal levels. So I use the word stone instead of cinder block or whatever. Maybe that’s what I mean and that’s my justification for writing so many nature songs. I feel like I’m writing using the original language of the subconscious.
I mean there are definitely fundamental differences between humanity now and humanity in the past. But most of human history is here and then we got clothing and now we’re here. But we have the same brains and they have the same issues going on. We’re not that far from the raw period of a very tangible relationship to the world around us. Like, I’m going to die if I can’t make this stick to make fire
DK: I can definitely appreciate this then. You’ve only been dealing with the first 8000 years of humanity and now you have to come up with a way to talk about buildings.
PE: Sometimes I make an effort to sing about hanging out behind Arby’s, next to the dumpster and suddenly there’s this beautiful light coming in from the side and there’s this plastic bag blowing in the wind and then I got in my car and drove for a little ways. People write beautiful songs about the human place in the contemporary world. I guess I’m not even really interested in writing songs that take place in a primitive world. I just want to write songs that take place in a dream world. In something that is in us. Not using actual literal descriptive language about the real world but more talking about the way something feels. And in my dreams and in my raw feelings I don’t often encounter things like a cinder block and a hummer and if I do I know that those things are just symbols for something else. But yeah. It’s tricky because its such a weird convoluted way of thinking about it that it makes sense that the end product of my work is often perceived as very pastoral or shallow nature appreciation. Which is frustrating sometimes.
DK: What disarms this for me is that there is a real sense of danger and fear in the songs. There’s a lot of fear. Nature can kill you.
PE: Not only that but emotional shit that we all go through can kill you. That’s what it means when that storm is happening and you fall off the cliff. That’s what I’m singing about.