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After the mic drop: Phil Elverum reckons with his musical past

April 1, 2022

Kyra Tan

Islands of black-clad fans congregated outside the steps of Portland’s First Parish Church on a Sunday evening in early March. The cool aura of cigarette smoke and septum piercings couldn’t hide their earnest anticipation. To the random passersby, the crowd might have provoked pause, as if Portland’s bygone punk scene had been shaken out of hibernation by the unseasonably warm night. But for those among the crowd, the cause for commotion was obvious: The Microphones were in town.

Admittedly, my friends and I fell into the latter group. We’d purchased tickets back in October. Due to high demand, the venue had since been moved from the cramped SPACE Gallery down Congress Street to the cavernous Unitarian church where we now found ourselves, too, indulging in a pre-show smoke to calm our excitement.

More specifically, the feeling that hung in the air that night was an acute sense of nostalgia. For those such as myself who hadn’t been to a concert in over two years, it was the fulfillment of a yearning for live music long-deferred by the pandemic and its unpredictable surges. For the die-hard fans who’d bought tickets for the band’s October 2020 stop in Portland, the long-awaited arrival of March 6, 2022 was even more cause to celebrate. For all attendees, though, the show occasioned nostalgia because Phil Elverum, the singular enigmatic figure behind the project, had officially disbanded The Microphones nearly twenty years ago—what many fans thought was for good. We were awaiting the revival of a project that, in some respects, no longer existed.

This, at least, is one of the tensions at the heart of Elverum’s 44-minute-long single-track concept album, “Microphones in 2020,” his first release under the name since 2003. Elverum retired The Microphones’ label that year in favor of the name Mount Eerie, under which Elverum continued to release music through 2019. Then, ever since playing a small, one-off show in his hometown of Anacortes, Washington back under The Microphones moniker, Elverum has been reflecting on this younger version of himself, the simultaneous freedom and baggage of a name, and what, if anything, it has to do with the music he produces. The anachronistic “Microphones in 2020” was the result, which Elverum played in full to the packed Portland audience.

Against a backdrop of pink and blue light, Elverum and a fellow guitarist strummed two chords, out of sync and on repeat, until time took on a new depth. The deep rhythmic space before Elverum leaned toward the microphone accounted for the time he spent away from, well, The Microphones—a name originally chosen in homage to his beloved studio.

“The equipment seemed to be living and it sang to me like static interference,” he chanted over soft strumming. In an NPR interview, Elverum compares this deep time to a sort of meditation. “I wanted to push up against the edges … the way that it wears down at your sense of time and reality and makes you forget yourself.”

Through its hypnotic soundscapes, “Microphones in 2020” is Elverum’s attempt to paradoxically detach himself from his “self” in order to see his past with renewed clarity, and to see it embedded in the present. “What from these times do I carry with me still?” he asks.

With his eyes half-closed, Elverum gently muttered memories of this past life while he strummed—a Stereolab concert that inspired his stripped-down rhythms, moments of pristine solitude on the Washington coast, late nights spent working in record stores. “All past selves existing at once in this inferno present moment,” he mused in the album’s press release. The Phil Elverum of The Microphones is at once impressionable, naive, contemplative—and very much still with him.

At times clutching our ears as well as each other, we sat there entranced by Elverum’s piercing, elusive songwriting as my friends and I, like Elverum, were transported back to a past life brimming with live music—the looks of awe exchanged with friends that substitute for speech when sound drowns out your voice, the vibrations of distorted bass creeping across the floor and into your chest, even the sharp buzz of feedback from an amplifier that leaves your ears ringing.

While his audience crooned with nostalgia for The Microphones and for the days of live music, Elverum cautioned against such wistfulness. “Instead of shoring up the tilting walls of whoever I think I am, I push at the seams and try to tip it all over,” he declared. At abrupt moments throughout the show, Elverum set aside the $5 acoustic on which he’d written and recorded his entire oeuvre, and picked up a jet-black electric bass. With the help of his fellow guitarist, he shook us from the contemplative trance into which he’d just lulled us. In these riotously distorted interludes, he actively triggered brash fits of feedback by hitting his bass against his amplifier.

Just as he inspired us into deep presence, Elverum invited us to “undermine our delicate stabilities.” He may have revived his past band name, but, in reality, “there is nothing to reunite.” Though his past shows up in his work, there is nothing fixed about Elverum’s artistry. His chaotic, improvised interludes and unending chord progressions are a testament to this fact.

“Microphones in 2020” offers something valuable as we, too, wax nostalgia for pre-pandemic times; we find it easy to settle back into familiar routines.

There is a way to honor our histories without self-memorializing or assuming a fixed identity. There is a way to revive traditions and renew them at the same time, a way to temper nostalgia and embrace uncertain futures. Elverum’s suggestion? “Burn your old notebooks and jump through the smoke. Use the ashes to make a new thing.”


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