The following article is a narrative written after an interview with Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum. It’s intended to be a reaction to his latest album, Clear Moon, and the things discussed in the interview. The full transcript can be found below the narrative, at the end of the article.
Mount Eerie loomed in white with curtains of mist surrounding it that were too low to be clouds and too high to be just fog. Water hung in the air, constantly threatening to condense into rain, but it hadn’t yet. The mountain appeared to be ever-changing and darkening, continually obscuring the peak. I had come to the mountain following a bright Clear Moon, or what I thought was the moon. That shield of grey made it hard to tell when day ended and night began without a watch.
I was looking to commune with nature. I had packed granola and trail mix with chocolate candies in it. I was looking for a story I had heard. Stories that had been floating around the country for more than a decade about a man living in the woods of Anacortes, Washington. Some said he was the spirit who guarded the mountain. Some said that he was just a guy who liked camping.
I heard that in 2001 the wind had blown him straight to hell and he had lost his head and had to fight to get it back, and in the end he had to face the fact that he was still living. I heard that in 2003 he actually died at the top of Mount Eerie and explored the expanses of the entire universe to become one with the mountain. I wanted to clear it all up, but in the end nothing was clear. There were only moments of clarity. Like the visage of the mountain in the mist, everything was changing and abstract, and more like a feeling.
My hike began in the woods at the foot of the mountain, but I never even made it anywhere close to the mountain. Swishing through the brush and fallen leaves and needles, I caught glimpses of Mount Eerie through the trees, looming before me. I heard something that was faint at first, the sound of guitars. As I walked, they grew louder. It sounded like they were all around me, maybe eight of them, each playing only one chord before jumping to the next one. Then I looked up at the mountain and it changed somehow. It became like a grid. It became rows of blocks of solid colors blurring before me, almost like pixels.
There wasn’t much time to think about it, because I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye. Edging closer, I found an acoustic guitar resting against a log. A little farther away, I saw a head poke out from behind a rather large stump and then jut back just as quickly. I knew it was the person I was looking for. He didn’t emerge again and I had no idea what to do, so I just went over and said hello. The guy jumped up and pretended that he hadn’t been hiding behind a stump. We had a pretty awkward exchange and he said something about how he was just playing guitar in the woods. “I like to be in my own head out here,” he said. “Usually I have some shitty song in my head.” Then there was a long uncomfortable silence as I decided what I actually wanted to say to this guy who I never really expected to find. I thought to myself, Should I just leave him alone?
Luckily the rain picked up and he said he didn’t live too far away, so I followed him through the dripping rain and swatting branches. All of a sudden, we were in the middle of a town. I looked behind me and I saw no line between the forest and the place with houses. As I hurried inside, he said, almost reading my mind, “There is no nature.”
I gave a, “Come again?”
He replied, “I don’t believe that nature is a thing that exists.”
His house wasn’t a cabin like I would’ve imagined, but just a house like any other house. We talked about a lot of things as we sat by the fire and watched the storm out the window. He said that he felt really misunderstood. “There’s not ‘nature’ and ‘not nature,’ ” he said, and I could feel the defeated frustration in his voice. He told me, “It just reinforces this dichotomy that we have, which is actually the source of the problem. The source of the problem of people’s alienation from their own lives and their own place where they live. They view wildness and the natural world as something distant and apart from them, when in reality we live among so much decay and life and wildness in our own bodies even.”
From his window, we could see nearly everything. The woods, the town, the storm, the clouds and Mount Eerie behind it all. Through the swishing and the patter on the glass, a lone bell rang out as clear as the moon in the sky. “It’s actually the sun,” he said. I was stunned for a moment and took another look at it. The layer of fog in front of the glowing orb in the sky made it easy to look at, made it darker, made it seem like night and moonlight. It was a strange moment that sort of felt like something in me snapped or clicked. “I mean the moon as a symbol of being snapped out of some other thoughts that you’re in, that your mind is occupied with and then you catch a glint off a passing car in your eye or a bird flies into your face,” he said. “It’ll remind you in a moment of the existence of the vast alien mystery.”
He went on, “We’re people, we’re alive, we’re on this planet, walking around and going through our lives and we’re in this crazy place. Earth. The experience of being alive is crazy. And for the most part, we don’t think it’s crazy. We just live our lives and do our jobs and watch TV or whatever. Nobody can feel swept away by the wonder of existence all the time. You would just be like drooling in the corner.” He was talking about existence, not just about the “wildness.” He was talking about “mountains and websites.” He said, “both are magical and mysterious and they’re all part of the same world. They’re both nature.”
I finally got around to asking him how he died and he told me he didn’t know. He was being chased by barbarians and he ran up a hill to escape them and he just died. “That’s what happens,” he said, “You reach the top of the mountain and you’re done.”
I thought it might be a touchy subject and I suggested we talk about something else, but he said, “There’s so much weird taboo about acknowledging mortality for some reason.” He continued, “I’ll talk about it and people are like, ‘Oh that’s depressing. Are you sad?’ And I feel like it’s this level of misunderstanding or an unwillingness to be honest with ourselves that annoys me.”
When the rain finally let up, I said goodbye and set back out into the woods. Through the trees I could catch glimpses of the mountain and through the trees in the other direction I could see lights from the town below. I was struck by the spinning orientation, in one direction there were people and in the other there were fewer people. Then the mountain before me changed again. I heard music in the wind, this time with synthesizers and saxophones and twinkling digital effects. A voice that had started out so clear became buried in noise and quietude as a woman also sang off in the distance. I looked down and I realized that there was a living creature underneath my feet. A living creature that I lived in and on and that was everywhere. I saw the mountain before me blur again into big pixels of color. Reducing everything to its simplest components. The basic, intricate emotions of awe or something we don’t have a name for yet. Of clarity, life, birth, awareness, knowledge, and hopefully understanding. I remembered him saying, “When you look at the mountain in the distance and it’s this mystifying, alien, beautiful thing, but you could say the same thing for the Internet.”
Then, it blurred back and I thought, well, even if it is about all of existence, there’s still a big emphasis on the wilderness. And maybe it was because it feels better to be awed by a mountain than a social network. Then, I thought about finding the awe in ugly places or just the common places that I pass every day.
I only stopped for a moment more to look back and I saw the house’s shape, just like the silhouetted mountain in the fog. It reminded me that I couldn’t stand there all day drooling and that I had to get going. One of the last things he said was, “The approaching mortality, it’s terrifying. But I don’t think it needs to be. It’s just a fact of life. Everyone is going to die and everything ends. So, why be afraid of it?” I would get to the peak eventually. For now, it was nice just to clear my head. I decided to get into my car and drive to a place that he mentioned called Neah Bay to hear the Ocean Roar.
Transcription of interview with Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum:
THE BOMBER JACKET: Do you think there’s a difference between Phil in the music and in real life?
Phil Elverum: When I make records, they’re not about me. They kind of are by default just because I write in the first person and there aren’t very many other people in my songs. They’re not songs about interpersonal relationships or anything. I think culturally, outside of the albums themselves, just as part of the mechanisms of making records and being a public figure and playing shows, this character of who I am, that person is different from who I am when I’m at home living my life. Everyone has multiple versions of themselves. I’m giving a really complicated answer, but it’s a really complicated question.
Since your project is called Mount Eerie, is the voice behind the lyrics ever the mountain?
Yeah, sometimes. I guess for the most part the songs are written from the perspective of a singular human observer experiencing the world and talking about it and asking questions and stuff, but occasionally some parts of the songs are like a reply from the external world. But it’s not always so clear. It’s not like a narrative. I’m not writing a play. They’re abstract. They’re songs so they’re kind of just raw words that should work as poetry.
Is there a struggle between the mountain and the man?
I don’t know about struggle, but there’s a disparity. We’re people, we’re alive, we’re on this planet, walking around and going through our lives and we’re in this crazy place. Earth. The experience of being alive is crazy. And for the most part, we don’t think it’s crazy. We just live our lives and do our jobs and watch TV or whatever. Nobody can feel swept away by the wonder of existence all the time. You would just be like drooling in the corner. For the most part, those moments of awareness and I guess rapture about the mystery of existence, those are the moments that are worth writing songs about for me. That’s where art and music and poetry and creativity comes from. Trying to examine those moments and expand them.
I read in an interview that those songs from Mount Eerie Parts 6 & 7 are about “clarity vs. obliviousness.” So, the connection is there to the new album with the word “clear.” Were you playing with those ideas on Clear Moon and Ocean Roar?
Yeah, very much. It’s kind of my favorite theme I guess. Just because, that’s what life feels like to me. Occasional clarity, but also occasional fogginess. And coincidentally that’s what the weather feels like here where I live. Constantly shifting clouds and clarity.
Are the ideas split up between the two new records?
Yeah, in general. Although, there’s elements of both in both. In general, Ocean Roar is more of a fog wall and Clear Moon is more focused on those moments of clarity.
Do you see the ocean as something obscure, like fog?
No, not really. The ocean is crazy. The idea of just sitting right here and picturing the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a crazy thing. It’s like picturing another planet, but it’s not. It’s so close, it’s part of our world, but it’s so alien from us.
I think the ocean on the record I made is more about that experience of being on the beach. Particularly, this one beach that I’ve gone back camping many times for my whole life near Neah Bay, which is at the very tip of the continental US, the corner of Washington state. It’s just really raw, pretty remote. Usually foggy, usually rainy. Year round. The ocean just has this constant large waves that are not even surfable, just kind of churning. It’s a psychological weight. So, I was trying to make an album that felt like that and also sounded like that. The sound of just not even rhythmic waves, just abstract roaring.
Is the cover of Clear Moon the moon over Mount Eerie?
It’s actually a picture of the sun. The record is not actually about the moon. I mean, the moon as a symbol of being snapped out of some other thoughts that you’re in, that your mind is occupied with and then you catch a glint off a passing car in your eye or a bird flies into your face. Seeing the moon in the sky is also that type of thing. It’ll remind you in a moment of the existence of the vast alien mystery.
I’m into the ambiguity of it. It kind of feels like a picture of the moon. It’s in Norway. I took the picture by just holding my hand out the window of a van and I happened to get that good one.
The stereo effect on “Through the Trees, Part II” reminded me of “The Pull” from It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water.
Yeah, I was going for that.
It’s cool. How do you do it? Is it one guitar panned or are there two guitars?
There are two guitars. On that one it’s actually like eight guitars. Yeah.
It seems like in the music the character of Phil is constantly dying and being reborn and it comes up right away in “Through the Trees, Part II.” Why is he dying so much?
I guess I don’t mean to be so narrative. Death is a common theme, because I think it’s important to remember. It’s important to go through life thinking about it. There’s so much weird taboo about acknowledging mortality for some reason. Like people are so emo about it. I’ll talk about it and people are like, “Oh that’s depressing. Are you sad?” [Laughs] And I feel like it’s this level of misunderstanding or an unwillingness to be honest with ourselves that annoys me. Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to keep writing songs about death.
Then, the rebirth thing. I don’t know, I guess I think that everyone is constantly changing shape and form and style and personality. Not only in our lives, but the whole world around us is morphing all the time.
How did you die in the Mount Eerie record?
It’s all myth style fiction. I’m on the beach or something and everyone I know leaves. Then, another boat of some kind of barbarians shows up. The idea with that wasn’t barbarians, but it was just like an awareness of my own approaching death. So, I’m running away from that up this hill and then I make it to the top and I die there. I think…I don’t know what the idea was. Kind of a metaphor for our life. We’re running away from some perceived threat of mortality and then…we die. [Laughs] We run towards death also. I don’t know how I die actually. I just do.
Just at the sheer weight of the thought of mortality?
Well, that’s what happens. You reach the top of the mountain and you’re done.
Do the female vocals on Clear Moon symbolize anything like the voices on Mount Eerie?
Kind of. When I write them down in my notebook, those lines are sung in quotes, as if they are being sung by some other. Another voice, not necessarily a person, other than me, the narrator of the story or whatever. I guess they don’t symbolize anything other than that necessarily. Of “the other.”
How do “mountains and websites” relate on “Through the Trees, Part II?”
I had just done this interview with someone who was in high school and had a bunch of questions that were mostly about nature. I just felt really misunderstood, because the questions were mostly like, “So, you’re into camping? Cool,” um, “You know, nature’s great, huh?” I just felt really unsatisfied. I felt like all of the songs I had written had been so deeply misunderstood and I just felt like, ok, fuck this, I’m going to spell out what I’m trying to say, not even use any metaphors. I’m just going to say it as directly as possible. And of course the song turned out to be more metaphorical and poetic eventually. But, I was trying to just be super clear. And the song starts where I’m saying, “It’s hard to describe this thing of being enraptured by the world around you and the mystery in it without sounding absurd and corny and like I’m talking about nature and camping.” But, “I know that there is no other world,” meaning, “There is no nature.” Which is the truth. I don’t believe that nature is a thing that exists.
As a concept or as a thing?
As a place. It’s annoying for me to hear about nature and people going to nature, because it just reinforces this dichotomy that we have, which is actually the source of the problem. The source of the problem of people’s alienation from their own lives and their own place where they live. They view wildness and the natural world as something distant and apart from them, when in reality we live among so much decay and life and wildness in our own bodies even. But even in our super clean houses, if we live in a skyscraper in Dubai, there’s still so much nature.
To be fair, the word nature exists as an effective descriptor to talk about some place where there’s maybe a couple of trails, but for the most part un-intruded by people. But it’s just such a weird concept and totally modern and totally fictional. I say, “I know there’s no other world,” meaning there’s just this one world, there’s not “nature” and “not nature.”
Then I say mountains and websites as a way of saying both of those things exist and both are magical and mysterious and they’re all part of the same world. They’re both nature. Websites are the same as saying perfectly sterile apartment in Dubai. Both are equally mystifying. When you look at the mountain in the distance and it’s this mystifying, alien, beautiful thing, but you could say the same thing for the Internet. Like, what?! What is that?
I noticed that a lot more references to houses and cars and towns and high schools pop up in the lyrics, like the song “House Shape.” Does that have to do with this idea of nature?
I was making more of an effort to use those settings just to balance out the image of…nature man. Because, I’m not actually. Yeah, I love quote-unquote nature. It’s inspiring and beautiful and stuff, but I don’t want to come across as thinking that’s the only world. Anyways, “House Shape” is about my life in my house. Just an average day. I guess it’s similar to “The Place I Live,” because I was sitting there, looking out the window and it was raining and I was cold and I didn’t want to make a fire and I was not quite living my life completely but just observing and watching these slow patterns, cars drive by and the clouds passing over and feeling the house creek and feeling how it’s just a pile of stuff and my body is also a pile of stuff. Then at the end of the song I go out and see the house’s shape in the dusk and it’s kind of like, “Oh yeah, I’m alive.” I should get to work. I should do some stuff and not just space out and observe all day.
Is there any philosophy there?
I don’t know where I got that image. It’s a classic image, I think from zen poetry. They refer to the body as a doll of dust. Dust meaning, not necessarily dirtiness or anything, but molecules. It’s accurate. The zen poets were talking about that way before physicists discovered molecules. They were on the ball.
I thought it was funny that for all the ideas of death and rebirth and the focus on “nature” and place, I never really pick up on any lyrics about the end of the world. Are there any songs about that?
No, I don’t think the world is going to end.
You mean, like Earth exploding?
One way or another. The sun going supernova and consuming the Earth.
Yeah, I guess that will probably happen eventually. There will still be other things happening. I believe in infinity. I think the universe is endless.
Was any apocalyptic stuff going on with Wind’s Poem?
Kind of, but only as emotional symbols. That record was about fear of mortality and hearing a voice in wind and wind’s powerful force, shuffling the world around and eroding things and hurrying on the forces of change. But, not actually the end of the world. I don’t know. I mean people think of the end of the world in this way. Like on Mount Eerie, it’s seeing the barbarians coming. The approaching mortality. It’s terrifying. But I don’t think it needs to be. It’s just a fact of life. Everyone is going to die and everything ends. So, why be afraid of it?
Last question: if I were in the woods near Mount Eerie and I ran into Phil Elverum from the music, what might the first thing he’d say to me be?
Oh! I’d probably hide behind a stump if I saw you coming. I like to have solitude moments out there and when I see other people out there on the trail, it’s always super awkward.
So, you don’t make friends in the woods?
No. I don’t know why. I think it’s a cultural thing. I just like to be in my own head out there. Usually I have some shitty song in my head. It takes a long time to actually clear the mind, but that’s the project.