ASK YOUR FAVORITE musician what a particular song is "about," and you're probably going to get a perturbed stare, an anxious can't-you-tell?, or some mumbo-jumbo about a bad breakup or painful memory. And forget about asking them what an entire album is about, unless, that is, you're talking to the Microphones' Phil Elvrum.
Mt. Eerie, the Microphones' latest K Records release, is a five-part epic that combines environmental recordings, skewed folk/pop, mythology, and strange harmonies in order to contemplate the natural word, explore the vagueness of existence, and complete an Odyssean adventure. It's also something of a love letter to Elvrum's native Fidalgo Island (located an hour or so north of Seattle) and Mount Erie, the island's captivating centerpiece. These elements are all evident and readily available to even the most casual listener; nevertheless, pose the question of what the record is truly "about" to Elvrum and you'll get an extensive reply.
"I usually figure out the albums about a year after making them, but I think it's about coming to terms with the Void, the universe," he offers. "In my mind, it is a story of a person, played by me, who is left alone on an island and catches a glimpse of some black ships full of marauders coming over the horizon; so he runs off to the middle of the island and up a mountain, through a glacial valley, and notices the sun has set and reminisces about how nice it was to be lit up by 'her.' Then, upon coming out of the valley, he notices outer space and sees the summit 'buried in more air buried in space.'
"Like, even at the top, there's still stuff above that. Then he watches King Dark Death come in a big black cloud from across the water and kill him, then a bunch of vultures come from Samish Island on a wind and eat his body and fly off. Then there's an awkward silence, then another song by 'him' as an invisible person about how finally he sees the universe's true deep face. Like, it looked like a beautiful starry painting before but now it's 3-D."
Try getting something that exhaustive from one of those flash-in-the-pan rock bands.
ALTHOUGH ELVRUM has barely taken a bite out of his 20s, he's played on, produced, or patted the back of nearly everything K Records has put out in the last couple of years—while simultaneously keeping time for avant-indie bands Old Time Relijun and D+, engineering a Sean Na-Na record and another for Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System, helping K's Mirah out with a few of hers, and assisting ex-Beat Happening guitarist Bret Lunsford in running a small label called Knw-Yr-Own. All of that while touring extensively (mostly solo), in addition, of course, to helming the loosely configured Microphones and issuing no less than seven records under that name. Taking all of this—and Elvrum's expansive album concept—into account, it's fair to assume he's got one of those chronically creative minds that doesn't quite work unless it's hard at work.
"I have never been comfortable [being] in a band for that long," he says. "I love playing music with other people, but it has to be flexible. It has to change often. Playing in D+ is good because (1) we barely ever do anything, and (2) when we do play, it is different every time. I like to be alone, but I also think that part of my personality has become a fault. I sometimes feel like I have built a really comfortable bomb shelter for myself and gone in and locked it. It's comfortable, but . . . "
The point where Elvrum trails off leads us back to the nature of his explorative, curious music. Even the most dedicated loner needs some kind of company, and Elvrum draws from a fairly extensive set of influences.
"The first 10 minutes of Mt. Eerie are pretty much directly stolen from the soundtrack to Black Orpheus, a Brazilian movie from 1959—my favorite movie," he readily admits. "And there's a poem by this old Chinese guy named Han Shan that was pretty inspirational for the album. It was like, 'I brewed potions in vain search for life everlasting. I read books. I sang songs of history. And today I've come to Cold Mountain to pillow my head on the stream and wash my ears.'
"I think you really have to concentrate on it to get something out of it," he says finally. "It's work."
The Microphones' Mt. Eerie is out now from K Records.