As I made my way to the venue that was not even a 10-minute walk from my childhood home, a sort of quiet solace rolled over me. The streets of Grand Rapids were almost empty, and the sun had dipped below the horizon, swallowing the world in darkness. By the time I had reached The Wealthy Theatre, I had to question whether I had gotten the correct address. It wasn’t until I walked through the door that I was confronted with other human beings: a small line leading up to a small counter where we would pick up our tickets. As I moved slowly up to the front, more bodies began to trickle up behind me. It felt as though we were all walking into something not privy to the rest of the world, the looks of mischievous glee on several others’ faces told me I was not alone in this feeling.
It wasn’t even my first time being in this theater, and I still found myself a little shocked at how small the space inside really felt. Maybe it was the ornate decorative balconies on either side of the stage, the way the walls gently and seamlessly sloped into the ceiling or the way the black brick wall backgrounding the stage almost looked like an enormous hole was plastered over that made it feel as though the place was enveloping me. It was warm, it was aggressively intimate, it was the perfect place for Phil Elverum to perform.
After a while, the eclectic mix of ambient drone and folk music in a language someone behind me would inform me was Greek faded into the background, and a lone woman walked on stage with a guitar in hand. With her paper cup of tea at her feet and hoodie hanging over her head, she began to play. As an opener, Emily Sprague did about as good of a job as anybody could in cementing her presence within the concert. Playing songs from her project, Florist, her sound felt halfway between Ruth Garbus and Grouper’s more guitar-driven ambient output. She played with a level of introspection that certainly felt apt, both for the performance space and as a precursor to The Microphones. In a phone interview with The Michigan Daily prior to the start of the tour, Phil Elverum reflected on his preferences for tour partners: “I like a bill that is very diverse in terms of musical style … I don’t want to make another show that’s just more of the same.” At the same time — and this is something that he also agreed with — Sprague’s solitary sensibility captures a similar atmosphere to his own.
There was a break after she finished her act, which just as quickly turned into the beginning of The Microphones’ act. The lights dimmed, and two men walked on stage. As Phil Elverum approached the microphone, addressing the audience with few words, a sharp silence pierced through the crowd. A man in front of me turned on the recording apparatus attached to the brim of his hat, however, no one would tell him it was facing towards the seats in front of him for the entire performance. I had to ask myself, what was it that made these people stare up in wonder at Phil Elverum? Where did the mythos originate from? Whether it be as The Microphones or as Mount Eerie, nearly all of the works by Phil Elverum are inundated with self reference, to a point where it often feels like the music becomes his life. “Yeah, it’s not intentional, really, but I guess to some degree, there’s got to be some self-awareness and some intention there because I keep doing it,” he adds, “The self mythologizing thing I don’t want … exactly, but it just comes out that way.”
If there is any project of his that exemplifies this most of all, it’s Microphones in 2020, a 44-minute-long autobiographical song that would be the entire focus of this tour. The record feels like a culmination of every aspect of his discography, and thus his life, up until this point. Through both Elverum’s gentle delivery and the ceaseless waterfalling quality of the lyrics, it becomes almost akin to an old epic poem recounting moments in his life, something that strives to blend several forms of media. “I thought of it more as a literary or writing project than as a music thing.”
The only warning the audience was given about what was about to transpire was a diminutive “See ya” from Phil. Immediately, he and his tourmate Jay Blackinton began the ornate strumming pattern that laid the foundation for the rest of the concert. It wasn’t long before everyone, including the people on stage, were enveloped in the hypnotism of the music. I noticed that in the live set, certain parts of the song were either shortened or elongated compared to the original, almost creating a pattern of waves washing over me, each time getting sucked into a new oblivion.
Both within his work and outside of it, Phil has highlighted this idea of trying to create eternity within his music. It was hard not to stare out at him playing those same chords over and over again while that large black hole encircled behind him on the wall and feel exactly what he meant by that. Looking into his face, it seemed as though he was feeling the same thing. It was rare to ever catch him gazing at anywhere but open space. “It’s just like this whole pantomime of pretending that I’m the only one in the room at the show. Like it’s a survival instinct or something to stay sane,” Phil said. This sensation reached a fever pitch when he switched out the acoustic guitar for an overdriven bass. ‘Overwhelming’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. They had created the sound of the earth swallowing us whole. I had to look at the people around me just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Thinking back on it now, the looks of bewilderment from everyone else were probably the only thing anchoring me to reality at that moment.
It was roughly after that when I remembered that they hadn’t taken a break yet, nor would they until the end of the concert. According to Phil, “It’s very much like there’s no safety net playing the song. We just start it, and we have to do the whole thing.” Everything began to feel so fragile at that point, like any moment was susceptible to misfortune. There were certain times when this fear felt more justified than others, like when Phil bumped the microphone with his head or had to readjust his strumming to fall within the meter, but overall, the chemistry between him and Jay was airtight. Jay knew how to perfectly accompany Phil and vice versa. That being said, I still found it baffling how they were seemingly able to navigate the stress with such poise, a stress that wasn’t limited to just the performance. Phil and Jay were responsible for nearly every aspect of the concert; selling merch, setting up the tech and presumably many more backstage affairs. Phil would be at the merch table and then, what seemed like seconds later, he would be onstage fixing cords. And yet, he seemed content to do the work, stating, “I don’t know, it feels good to be sort of responsible for the mechanics of my own livelihood. So I mean, yeah, I love putting out my own records and making physical things.” This was all just part of the process of being a touring artist.
It was the verisimilitude of an ordinary man laying bare his existence on stage, the way he would weave personal memoir with personal philosophy until it gave way to pure emotive experience, that proved his place unequivocally belonged within the creative process. To him, The Microphones, Mount Eerie, his music: It’s just one living thing. There’s no place that emphasizes this more than in the way he subverts the perception of time. Phil isn’t afraid to detach nostalgia from its chronology on Microphones in 2020, relaying experiences from when he was 20 and then 17 and then 23. By disengaging and challenging the natural progression of things, he invites us to avoid thinking of it as nostalgia altogether. The phrases “now only” and “there’s no end” get repeated often within his work and feel in some way connected to this idea. When I had asked him about the meaning behind them, Phil had to pause for a moment, “‘Now only’ to me means like, inhabiting the present moment. And ‘there’s no end,’ it’s just like this eternal stretching backwards and forwards of time.” He added, “It seems like on the surface, (Microphones in 2020) is about me digging into my past and trying to be nostalgic or make sense of the past. But ultimately, my goal was to talk about the present moment, like even now the moment you and I are talking, you know, each present moment to bring the person listening to this grounded present, like waking up in the right now.” All moments become one moment and one moment becomes all moments, eternity and singularity lose their distinction.
A common sentiment regarding Phil’s work is that it is deeply depressing music. The reality is that, much like with any one-dimensional take, things are far more complicated than they seem. “To me, actually, none of it feels that depressing. Even A Crow Looked At Me or just the very heavy songs, I tried to have a take away and that be that it’s about love and light and survival in a way or memory in a loving way … I’m singing about how everything is temporary, life is fleeting, emptiness is at the heart of all things. To me those are like cool and beautiful ideas to think about.”
There came a point in the performance in which the hypnotic veil conjured by the acoustic strumming alternating between an F sharp minor and D was gently lifted. The sound became less encompassing. The volume dropped to a constant murmur. I wondered why I had lost the two people on either side of me in my peripheral vision until I realized how far I was leaning towards the stage. Moments later their figures returned, not because I had sat back in my seat, but because they had imitated my position. We had just swapped one immersion for another. However, I knew what this musical shift implied. The ride was about to end. The question is, how do you end such a monolithic creative entity? The strumming gets even quieter, and Phil lets himself sink further into introspection. “That’s the question about making art at all. I think it is being able to know when it’s good enough to stop working on it … Deciding that something’s done and releasing it is an act of choosing to live with imperfection and just move on.” In what has to be an intentional bit of irony, the final words escape his lips “Now only and there’s no end.” He lets the final note ring out for just a little longer than everyone expects, and once we all return from eternity, an almost imperceptible smile of contentment envelops his face.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.