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Art and Where You Make It:
A Conversation with Phil Elvrum of The Microphones

by Bret Nicely

In the broadest sense of the word “artist”, meaning a person who consciously uses their creative imagination to produce aesthetic objects, Williamsburg is saturated with artists. That’s the draw, and hoards of musicians, writers, visual artists, architects, and designers move to Brooklyn to live and work amongst people like ourselves.

We thrive on the energy. And by it, the neighborhood’s character is being defined. Yet this community is not insular. The artists working in Williamsburg (and all of New York City) are fed by the creative output of their neighbors. We’re influenced equally though by art that’s made elsewhere, in very different places.

Phil Elvrum's Olympia
Click on an image above for a photo essay.

Phil Elvrum is The Microphones. His record “The Glow pt.2” was by many accounts the best of 2001. It was recorded in Olympia, WA at the K Records studio.

“The Glow pt.2” is a complex and emotional record. Less like a collection of songs, it plays as an hour-long piece of music exploding with both richness and austerity. Yet for all of the pleasure of listening to Phil Elvrum’s music, one can’t help but marvel that it’s the expression of an artist’s creativity; that this is a guy working alone in his studio, and “The Glow pt.2” is what he made.

How does an artist working in such a different community from us in Williamsburg make something that we here relate to so strongly? I spoke with Phil Elvrum about his creative community and how he makes music.

BN: To begin with then, where do you live and work? About how large of a community would you say it is?

Phil Elvrum: I live in a house in downtown Olympia. I don't have a real job, but I go to the studio and K records (same building) every day as if I was going to get paid to show up. I make money by going on tour and selling CDs and books and stuff. I am a traveling salesman. Olympia is a relatively small town. Downtown is like 5 blocks. You see the same people every day but never say hi because that's how it is. It certainly feels like the focus of the world has shifted off of Olympia/Seattle in the last few years. Now it feels like it's back to "normal", everyone just working their jobs and getting married or whatever. When I first moved here in 1997 I could get a sense of the tail end of some weird huge excitement. Nirvana and stuff. People everywhere considered Olympia to be some kind of mecca or something.

BN: That feeling you described, the weird excitement of something big going on, is what attracted most of us to move to New York. Did you follow any such feeling when you decided to move to Olympia in 1997?

Phil Elvrum:: Sort of. Not so much "something big" as something interesting. It seemed like the obvious thing to do. I liked a bunch of K records stuff; I thought I should go to a college and Evergreen State College here is sort of a weird hippy school.

My "role model" in Anacortes was the famous Olympia band Beat Happening... it just made sense. Where else would I go? The first time I came here was during the YoYo A GoGo music festival in the summer of 1997. It was such an overwhelming introduction to the place. There were all these people doing things I never thought possible. I was enchanted. I met pretty much all of the friends that week that I still have.

I've heard it quoted that there are more artists living in this neighborhood of New York City, Williamsburg, than any city, at any time in history. True or not, the fact that this is a believed "truism" around here says a lot of the self-consciousness of this community. Living here, you get the sense that everyone knows what it meant to live in Greenwich Village in the 40's, or Haight Ashbury in the late 60's, or SoHo in the 80's...and people in Williamsburg have an expectation that this place just has to be as happening as all those other places. Is there an air of expectation about Olympia?

Phil Elvrum: I think that once a "scene" becomes aware that it's supposedly significant in a larger picture it's over. Self-consciousness like that works against being creative and lucid. Haight Ashbury of the 60s has, at this point, become a souvenir gimmick, just a bunch of postcards and calendars. The self-consciousness in Williamsburg now is the beginning of the transformation into that dry dead version of a living "scene". The people who were in Greenwich Village in the 40s had no idea they were in "Greenwich Village In The 40s", you know? Plus, a large quantity of artists does not necessarily mean the art is any good, or new or anything. It just means that the conditions are just so in the world right now that it makes sense for all those "artists" to move to that particular place, or for people who already live there to become "artists". The same thing is happening in Portland. I think that a big place with lots of the same exact kind of person is not a healthy environment to live in, let alone try to make "art" in. The advantages of that sort of clustering are things like having support, having more doors open for your particular lifestyle, having an easier time living by doing what you like to do...

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm dissing your turf. I'm just pretty skeptical of situations like that. I find my inspiration far away from everyone else. (but that's just me)

BN: The group that you fell into in Olympia must have felt welcoming because you shared beliefs and tastes in things. Did you relate to them creatively as well, as musicians? How did you begin to play music with people?

Phil Elvrum: Well, honestly I don't really play that much music with anyone. Most of the music I do is by myself. I feel like the collaboration part of it is a tiny sliver. It's true though that I am in a group of friends with similar musical tastes (but who isn't?). I don't have THAT similar of tastes as my friends, but we are all different in a way where we bring interesting new things to each other. The music I have played with other people (mostly playing drums in Old Time Relijun and singing with Jenn Kliese) happens almost accidentaly. That is, the more spontaneous stuff. There are times that are more premeditated, like recording with Mirah or "doing a choir section" with friends on a Microphones song, but they aren't as risky and exploratory. The "fuck it" approach of Beat Happening has flavored the aesthetic of everything we do though. We don't have nice things, but the things we have are the nicest things we've ever seen.

BN: When you say that you don't have nice things, are you referring to the process and equipment you use, or are you referring to the end results, the music? Because, I'd read many people who describe The Glow, pt.2 as being so beautifully produced and recorded, that it has to be listened to on headphones. Many bands spend their six-figure advances trying to sound like what you accomplished with that record. How much do the methods you have at your disposal affect your music?

Phil Elvrum: The methods I have at my disposal are hugely connected to my music. I named my band after it. What I meant by "nice things" is that the instruments and equipment we have is either all broken or non-present. They are not treasured like some people treasure their instruments. There is a really relaxed approach to "tools" around here. Calvin has created with K records a big building full of resources and people and a chill vibe. Everyone shares with each other, so the focus is not on the instrument but on the music. "the song not the singer" I think my record sounds good too. I spent a lot of time recording it and getting it to sound cool in headphones. It's what I love doing. It's not like I am into having crappy instruments and making crappy sounding records. I just have crappy instruments and I find ways to make the "crappiness" so huge and impressive that it sounds more rich and beautiful than "non-crappy" instruments.

It's not like I think it's a unique situation, having not-that-fancy equipment. That's how everyone gets acquainted with music, playing in the basement or on borrowed instruments. It's just that instead of trying to work to get away from that we have embraced it. (And nowadays even that is not uncommon. Everyone has their bedroom and 4 track, or computer now I guess, and they do their thing no matter what.) I just wanted to say that I don't think my situation is special AT ALL. (Except the whole K records Factory Vibe thing, that's special). Being "down to earth" about music is not a new discovery.

BN: Okay, I'm going to try something with this next question. I am not a professional journalist. Here's a long quote from Waylon Jennings:

"They think you just get up there and sing your songs...They think that it's just a one-way deal, but it's not like that at all. Because you start out playing for people who are just like you ...Then one day, you're not playing for people like you anymore. You look out there, like I did tonight, and realize that you're playing for people that want to be like you, and you can't trust those people…"

Do you experience this disconnect between people that participate and contribute to your music and people who are spectators, in Olympia or as you travel?

Phil Elvrum: No not at all. That's interesting though. I think Waylon Jennings was probably playing to larger weirder audiences when he felt like that. I still feel like everyone at all the shows I play is just a different version of me.

My music exists still in a relatively small and distinct age and social group. Also, it's not easy for me to simplify people into 2 basic groups like Waylon Jennings did.

Everyone seems to have their own intricate motivation


- Phil Elvrum, Jason Anderson/Wolf Colonel, and K Records founder Calvin Johnson will be playing a special show with us in Brooklyn this September.
Check back for more details

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