26 September, 2002
a n o t h e r s e x y r o c k b a n d
[ interview with the microphones ]
j i m m y n e w l i n
It's not two minutes into a conversation with Phil Elvrum that you see where the sweet tenor from the Microphones' albums comes from. His speaking voice is charmingly aloof, gentle, and in a high, boyish register. I warn him that virtually everyone reading this article will have never heard of his band, and Elvrum sheepishly chuckles that "I like it like that."
Of course, the Microphones are more than just another indie rock band you've never heard of. Phil Elvrum reinterprets the do-it-yourself aesthetic in ways its forefathers may have never anticipated; more so than any other independent artist I can name, the Microphones challenge the very nature of how records should sound. Phil Elvrum's songs can be elegant, sonic portraits of nature, or they can be explosions of noise like that of My Bloody Valentine or Sonic Youth. Sometimes, like on the lovely "I Felt Your Shape," he sounds like Elliott Smith on happy pills. "It's really important to me to be varied," Elvrum explains, "It drives me crazy when people put out records or any kind of art that has no variation in it. It's just lazy...figuring out your formula and just doing it. I think that with every single song I record, or every single sound, I try to discover something about it."
Like the rest of the best songwriters of today, Elvrum's "band" is little more than an alias. "I think that my approach is similar to someone like Will Oldham or Smog," Elvrum tells me, referencing his contemporaries. "My whole idea with using a band name is that it's ambiguous about who is in the band." The liner notes to his last album, The Glow Pt. 2, list nine members in the Microphones, but Elvrum admits that "at this point people have figured out that it's mostly me...I couldn't do it without other people, but at the same time, I would do it without other people."
All of the Microphones' songs are written in the studio, Phil Elvrum informs me, and "they just sort of come out how they come out." But despite the improvised arrangements, the songs sound anything but half-assed. A multi-instrumentalist and admirer of odd sounds, Elvrum espouses production values that have been compared to those of pop-music demigods Brian Wilson and Phil Spector. "I used to be really into Phil Spector...I just liked the big drums and stuff," Elvrum recalls, sounding refreshingly distant from the rest of the music world. Which is fitting, of course, because his music is so distant from the rest of the music world: the guitars and vocals seem more influenced by wind and the sounds of the tides than by other guitarists or vocalists.
The Microphones have just released a collection of singles called Song Islands for K Records, his home label in Olympia, Washington. "It's not a cohesive album in my mind. I don't think it sounds cohesive to other people either," Elvrum muses, "but that's fine...These songs are just îislands' that aren't really connected to each other. An archipelago of songs or something." He stops for a second and then suggests, "Maybe I should have called it that: Song Archipelago..."
Phil Elvrum doesn't hold a day job but stays busy producing and playing with other Olympia-based acts, and he gets by on record sales and selling self-published books of photography and prose. Elvrum published a score for the Microphones' album It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water ("That took forever. I don't really read music that well. Or at all."), and he's considering publishing a libretto for his upcoming work Mount Eerie. Presently, he's touring all over the Midwest and Europe, with a live show that he admits is an experience wholly different from the albums. "The studio songs I don't really play much. The recordings have too many little parts to actually try and get enough people together, teach them the part, and then boss them around enough so they do it right, and I'm not into that," he laughs. "And," he admits, "there's not that many of the songs that I remember how to play."
After my conversation with Phil Elvrum ended, I reviewed my notes and saw that his casual demeanor may give the impression that his work isn't serious. But I think that his playfulness and love of sound is far more genuine than anything that arises from other supposedly "emotionally" charged pop music.
And, of course, the music speaks for itself: at its best, it is breathtaking. The Microphones' albums are rich with lush layers of tones that pan from speaker to speaker and dynamics that go from near silences to shrieks. This isn't party music, or music to play in your car on a drive to the store. It's best heard on a good set of headphones with your eyes shut.