After the Glow
Searching for the source of the Microphones' masterpiece.
Here I am in Anacortes, finally, and there's no moon.
I was sure there'd be a moon. It was full a day or two ago, but tonight is cloudy and the sky is dark. "Why did we come here?" the Microphones are singing on my iPod as I wander around. "Someone made posters, and we called for directions."
I'm here to see Mount Eerie—formerly the Microphones, also known as Phil Elverum—perform at the Department of Safety, a converted fire station in the middle of sleepy downtown Anacortes that can't help but remind me of my old sleepy Eastside suburb and its own all-ages venue, also a decommissioned fire station.
But I'm really here for more convoluted, maybe embarrassing reasons. I'm here because the Microphones' 2001 album, The Glow Pt. 2, is being reissued this April by K Records, and I've been kind of obsessed with the album for the better part of my adult life. I'm here to try to understand where The Glow Pt. 2 comes from. I'm here because the opening lyrics of the album's third song, "The Moon"—"I drove up to the city at night/And found the place where you grew up"—have been stuck in my head for years, and I've decided to take the words as instructions: Anacortes is where Elverum grew up. I'm here because I hoped the moon over Anacortes might sing to me, might reveal some mystery. The moon, however, is not cooperating.
The audience at the Department of Safety sits on floor pillows and old couches. Elverum plays an acoustic guitar in the dark, sitting on the lip of the stage next to a projection of trees, water, and slowly shifting clouds. Every once in a while, he triggers a fog machine whose motor sputters and skitters like a jazz drummer loosely brushing the high hats. It blows real clouds out in front of the projected ones. Then the fog sets off the Department of Safety's smoke alarm, eliciting friendly laughter from the crowd.
It's not so different from the first time I remember seeing the Microphones play. This was in the fall or early winter of 2000, at the now-defunct Arrow Space in Olympia, a small, hardwood-floored loft with a low stage situated around the alley and up a steep, narrow flight of stairs from the old Phantom City Records. Elverum played an acoustic guitar, backed by some kind of tape recording; the crowd sat on scattered floor pillows. I don't remember as much of that show now as I wish I did, but I remember Elverum singing "The Moon," the song pulling me in with its initial melody (gentle, hushed, heartbeat slow), then sweeping me up in its rush of furiously strummed acoustic chords and rapidly whispered lyrics (overlapping memories of romantic road trips and lonely homecomings) speeding headlong to its sudden endpoint. Its scenes of camping out on beaches and rooftops, its homesick sense of place, its existential staring contest with the titular satellite, its feeling of safety and strength in the face of "certain death," its alternately dense and spare layers of sound—all of this is resonant and alluring in a way that's hard to describe even years later. It's a perfect entry into the Microphones' universe.
The Glow Pt. 2—part one was a single song, "The Glow," on previous album It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water—is epic. More than an hour long, it's full of simple, acoustic folk songs, expansive multitracked forces of nature, as well as clangorous and ambient studio experiments, from drums overdriven into the sound of wind to an intermittently sounding foghorn inspired by a similar sound on Twin Peaks.
Elverum's songs look to the phenomena of the natural world as muse and metaphor for romantic love as well as existential wonder and dread. "I Want Wind to Blow" yearns for a storm to sweep the singer out of the ordinary world, to animate him with life; "I Felt My Size" recasts a cave and a campfire as the universe and the sun, dawn and darkness with life and death. A recurring theme, on songs such as "I'll Not Contain You" and "I Felt Your Shape," is the impossible desire to hold on to fleeting things—people, feelings, the physical world, life itself. Throughout, Elverum plays with scale, leaping from minute observation to macrocosmic dilemma: In the album's title track, "The Glow Pt. 2," the mundane act of Elverum taking his shirt off in the sun becomes a confrontation with death, with him worrying: "The Glow is gone/I forgot my songs." The album ends with the furious drum storm of "Samurai Sword," followed by the half-song of "My Warm Blood," which cuts off into lingering ambient hum and echoes of the album's first track. It's a deep, enveloping record that's as inviting as it is impenetrable, at once frankly confessional and self-mythologizing, carefully constructed but intentionally rough.
The reissue, out this week on K Records, comes with a second disc of added material—newly recorded songs, "destroyed versions," instrumentals, and a new sleeve with collected old photographs of Elverum and friends. The alternate versions reveal hidden dimensions to the album's songs or hint at the way they came to life as they were recorded. Of the newly revealed songs, "Where Lies My Tarp?" a version of which also appears on the out-of-print album Singers, is the most satisfying. It's as precious as anything on The Glow Pt. 2 proper, a sweet song of love deferred, Elverum's quavering voice and shape-shifting metaphors backed by twangy guitars, relaxed drumming, and a multitracked chorus.
In the seven years since The Glow Pt. 2's release, Elverum's self-contained universe has expanded, collapsed, and begun again, attracting a legion of fans in the process. He released a final record by the Microphones, a concept album called Mt. Eerie (named after a real mountain in Anacortes but with an extra e) in which Elverum journeys up the titular rock to face Death and the Universe. Following that record, Elverum disappeared to Norway, presumably to grapple with Death and the Universe there, then returned to the states as Mount Eerie (at this time, Elverum also added the second e to his last name). His songs became ever more self-involved and reflective, still unfolding through multiple parts, sequels, and versions across different albums, with Elverum referencing and sometimes refuting old songs, singing about his old self, naming names of old loves. It's an immersive body of work that encourages and rewards obsessive attention.
Nothing Elverum has done since has entirely eclipsed The Glow Pt. 2. The album finds him at the apex of his productive prowess and his songwriting skill. Elverum summons from his studio both vast, turbulent spaces and small, delicate stillness, his simple acoustic songs emerging from and then disappearing back into a dense, shifting sonic fog. The songs form their own world, not like the designed narrative of a concept album, but like a naturally occurring environment, a place discovered rather than constructed.
When I learned it was being rereleased, I determined to find its source, to visit Anacortes and to revisit Olympia (where he recorded The Glow Pt. 2, where he and I both used to live), to try to see the moon and Mount Eerie as they appear in his songs.
On a Monday morning in February, a month before the trip to Anacortes, Elverum picks me up at The Stranger offices in Seattle on his way to Olympia, where he's stopping to pick up a few boxes of freshly arrived vinyl copies of the soon-to-be-released Glow Pt. 2 reissue. Then he's heading south on a road trip that will take him to Marfa, Texas. The canopied bed of Elverum's pickup truck is packed with blankets—this is where he'll sleep en route—and the cab is stuffed to the roof with bags and his guitar.
Elverum is wearing sandals, even though it's maybe 50 degrees outside, along with plain khaki pants and a coarse gray and brown sweater. He has short brown hair and piercing eyes; he speaks softly, but he's not awkward or shy. Even though I've met him before, and even though he doesn't look the least bit mystifying in person, I'm still kind of stupidly starstruck. Listening to his albums, it's easy to build up an impossible vision of Elverum. For instance, I'm irrationally shocked that Elverum drives an automobile—he should be walking barefoot to Texas or just floating on the wind or something. Of course, I know Elverum is a person, if a uniquely gifted one, and not some Olympian deity. He's used to such misconceptions, though.
"It's kind of been an issue for a long time," he says. "I'm not always camping and riding a horse around nude with a sword, you know. It kind of feels out of my control, even though I realize that the mythology is maybe because of my songs."
He sympathetically recalls how he idolized Sub Pop and K Records as a kid, how he had some romantic idea of Olympia as "this world of gods walking the earth and living in this new way." The mythic proportions of Olympia are easy to get swept up in. For over 25 years, the state's capital has been an epicenter of punk rock, independent music, and DIY culture. It's where Bruce Pavitt founded Sub Pop as a zine in 1979. It's where Calvin Johnson founded K Records and Beat Happening in 1982, radically challenging the punk-rock orthodoxy with the idea that independent music could be twee and fun. It's where, along with sister-city Washington, D.C., Riot Grrrls and Kill Rock Stars erupted in the early 1990s. It's the reason Nirvana dethroned Michael Jackson.
I moved to Olympia in the fall of 2000 to go to the Evergreen State College—Elverum would have been about halfway done making The Glow Pt. 2—mesmerized by the romance of the place. I lived in a house, since burned to the ground, where Elverum played a Valentine's Day show during which he poured a bottle of red-colored corn-syrup blood over his head and all over the living-room floor. I interned at K Records the summer of 2001, mostly filling mail orders while Elverum and Mirah were likely upstairs recording. I volunteered at Yo Yo a Go Go, where Elverum and some friends played for a continuous 45 minutes (there was a clock radio set up onstage), switching instruments from organ to piano to drums to guitars, one song bleeding into another, never pausing. I snagged an advance copy of The Glow Pt. 2 when it arrived at K, and listened to "The Moon" at home over and over again, totally fixated; it would be years before I fully discovered the rest of the album.
We're driving past the Tacoma Dome and Elverum is giving me his biography, talking about growing up five miles outside of Anacortes on a lake in the woods.
"For maybe 10 years of my childhood, we were building this big house on the other side of the lake," he says. "My room was the first to be finished on the bottom floor, so I moved in first. The whole rest of the house was just the skeleton, no walls, and no roof. My room was three walls, and a tarp flapping in the wind. It was around then that Twin Peaks was on, so I would watch these Twin Peaks episodes and be like, 'Good night! I'm gonna walk down the trail now and go to my weird room that looks exactly like Leo's house.'"
As a teenager, Elverum got his driver's license, started hanging out in town more, and got a job at the Business, Anacortes's lone record store, owned and operated by Bret Lunsford, formerly of pioneering Olympia twee punks Beat Happening. Elverum set up a studio in the back of the store and started staying late after work recording, sometimes until two in the morning. These recordings became the first Microphones tapes. Elverum started playing with Lunsford and Karl Blau in D+, recording in Olympia with Calvin Johnson at K Records' in-house studio, Dub Narcotic.
In 1997, Elverum moved to Olympia to go to Evergreen. Lunsford suggested that Elverum call Johnson and ask to be Johnson's apprentice at Dub Narcotic. "I was really scared to do that, but I did, and Calvin was like, 'Yeah, sure, kid.' End of discussion. No actual plan made. So I went to college. He just gave me a key to the studio, and that was my apprenticeship: 'Figure it out.'" Music quickly took priority—a tour with D+ and Johnson's funk project Dub Narcotic Sound System made Elverum a week late for school, and he dropped out (or, in the parlance of Evergreen, "took a break"). "I didn't need to go to school, because I knew what I wanted to be," he says. "And I was already doing it."
Elverum fell in with artists like Mirah and Khaela Maricich (Lunsford's cousin) and "a lot of other people who don't happen to put out records" and spent most of his time in the studio. Back then, K Records lived in a large, white warehouse on the corner of Jefferson Street and Legion Way. The studio was upstairs in an expansive room with wooden floors, big drafty windows, a small kitchen, couches, and piles of vintage gear set up in various corners and islands.
By the time I moved to Olympia in 2000, Elverum had more than figured out Dub Narcotic Studio. He had become an instrumental producer for K and a fixture at the studio, adding his spacious sounds, odd touches, and helping hands to records by Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, Mirah, Khaela Maricich, Old Time Relijun, Karl Blau, D+, and others. At the same time, Elverum was writing and recording the songs that would become the Microphones' masterwork.
Today, K Records and Dub Narcotic Studio operate out of an old synagogue just a few blocks away, across some train tracks and up a shallow slope. We pull up and Elverum offers me a tour.
The studio in the basement of the synagogue isn't as spacious and open as the old Dub Narcotic Studio, where Elverum did his definitive recordings, but it's cluttered with all the same arcane recording equipment. Some street-level windows let in a little natural light, but it's nowhere near the solarium that the old space was. It seems too small and plain.
"About all I would ever use was this 16 track," he says, pointing to an antique mixing board. "And it was breaking. Sometimes still, it's a 13 track, sometimes it's a 15 track, and it's really unpredictable. You'll record something and it'll play back totally distorted or sometimes it won't be there at all. I just worked that in. A lot of the sounds on the album are not intentional."
The weird, old, wooden speakers Calvin Johnson had were difficult to mix with, so Elverum mixed most of the album on headphones. He recalls scanning the Olympian classifieds for the piano that would be used on The Glow Pt. 2, how Maricich made a sign saying, "Come, Piano," and how it must've worked; he holds up what's left of the sign now, just "Piano." He recalls long solitary stretches in the studio as well as sleepovers and dinners, group recording experiments and work on other bands' albums, in between all of which he was working on his own.
He says, "The Glow Pt. 2 took a year because it wasn't like I had the songs, here's the album, I'm gonna go in the studio and record an album. The way I've always worked is, I would have an idea of a sound, I'd experiment and see if I make this sound, and from that it would take shape as a song, and I would write lyrics in the end. The writing of the song was the recording of it."
This spontaneous creative process coincided with romantic strife in his personal life, which not surprisingly manifested as all manner of inclement weather and meteorological distress on record.
"I was in one of those kinds of relationships where you don't know if you're going out or not for years, and it goes back and forth," says Elverum. "I guess a lot of people already know, because I use her name in songs about it; it was Khaela from the Blow. But as much of a struggle, frustrating, heartbreaking, back-and-forth thing as it was, it was also a learning experience and very productive. Not just the recording of songs or whatever, but the thinking and conversations that came out of that, between the two of us, and with myself. What does it mean to be connected to someone in a relationship and what does individuality mean? Where is the border? I guess it was a lens to reexamine my own existence, and be like, 'Hey, what do I really want, and why am I so fixated on this person, what does it mean to be a good person with healthy attachments?' I think that's what those songs are about."
He goes on, "Like, 'I Felt Your Shape' is basically about hugging, the difference between hugging someone and grabbing them and squeezing them and not letting go, or hugging them in a lighter way where you're feeling their shape. Not in a desperate, grabbing way, but in a way that's sensitive or something."
He explains that the album's use of recurring images and themes is indebted to another band, the relatively obscure Canadian indie-rock band Eric's Trip.
"I was really into interconnected, self-referential stuff," says Elverum. "Like part twos, and part ones, and a line from this song reappears over here, but in a different context and it's referencing something else. There was a lot of that going on [with Eric's Trip], and that was my portal into their music. One song would be part two of this other thing. It felt like a treasure hunt."
In between the two K Records buildings, across the train tracks and some halfhearted blackberry patches—which, Elverum says, used to be so tall and thick that hoboes cut tunnels into them and camped within—is the house where Elverum used to live, the Track House, named for the tracks that brought trains rolling by just a few yards from his old room. "That's my old room," says Phil, pointing to an upstairs window. "That one facing this way. That's where all of The Glow Pt. 2 happened."
The house is now painted all black. It's one of a handful of properties owned by a dentist who is, in the popular lore of Olympia, a satanist, and who supposedly paints the houses black to lower the property values so that he can pay less in taxes. On the peeling porch, some of the place's old gray-blue coat is visible. There's a rickety, green velvet-upholstered chair, wobbly and sunken, on the sidewalk by the house. "This is my old chair," says Phil, kicking it gingerly. "I bought it at an antique shop. It's still got some life in it."
"You can see into the studio from here," he says, turning to point two streets away at the large, multipaned windows of the old Dub Narcotic Studio. "Sometimes, when I was recording, I would climb onto my roof here to see whether or not anyone was in there. These two blocks were like my whole life. I wrote 'The Moon' just walking around here one night."
In total, it's honestly not much of a tour; it's two blocks long, and there's really nothing to see. The building that used to house K, where Elverum did all his definitive recordings, is a "wellness center" now. His old house belongs to someone else, and they scowl at us from the upstairs window as we walk back by. The new studio is just a basement full of cool, old gear. It's weirdly deflating to learn where all those sounds and songs came from—this broken mixing board or that Canadian grunge band or that trying romance. It all seems too small and plain and close. And, at the same time, removed: Stalking these blocks, even unearthing the sources of things, doesn't get you anywhere near the worlds Elverum has created. As enraptured as I've ever been with the album, I've never really, rationally thought it to be more than an astounding work of art. On some level, I had these mythic expectations, but I knew of course that they were going to be dashed.
"It's funny," says Elverum, back at the synagogue. "This is like a ghost of that studio. And that house is my old house, but it isn't really my house."
The Glow Pt. 2 absolutely dwarfs these places. It's big enough to get lost in for years. It's a universe. It seems impossible that these few streets, or an old 16-track mixer, could have ever contained the thing.
So, four weeks later, there's no moon over Anacortes, a quaint, quiet town that would seem suburban if not for its distinguishing old downtown strip and its proximity to the ocean. I decide to climb Mount Erie (the real one, single e), and it turns out to be dispiritingly easy. You can drive right up to the top of it, where there's some nice views, easy parking, an outhouse, and, of course, a cell-phone tower. The only hint of the supernatural is a plaque, in memory of a teenager who fell from the mountain's sheer rocks, that reads, "Due to a fall on Mt. Erie, August 26, 1992, I was changed in an instant from mortal to immortal."
At the Department of Safety, Elverum is busy setting up his merch table and his projector, and, as he warned me via e-mail, doesn't have time to talk. I sit around before the show feeling less like a reporter or a critic than a sad stalker, enviously trying to find some place, some phenomenon that doesn't exist. Of course, you can't visit Elverum's imagined Mount Eerie any more than you would be able to talk to his moon, even if the sky were clear.
In an e-mail some time later, Elverum further demystifies the Glow I came out here to find:
"There were a few different big words I was stuck on back then: 'the Gleam,' 'the Pull,' etc. Eric's Trip/Elevator to Hell did that same song titling technique, and I thought it was cool and dramatic, kind of literary feeling, like chapter titles. 'The Glow' was just one of my 'the's."
"In the first song, called 'The Glow' [from It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water], the Glow was a glowing window that you see as you are freezing to death in the snow, or the light you go into supposedly when you die. But then, during The Glow Pt. 2, it became one's inner 'life force' or whatever, like the fire that the elephant is stoking on the cover."
I've been grasping after all the details of this record's creation, all its mythological sources, hoping to hold the thing or inhabit it. But it's both too big to contain and too small to enter, and there's really nothing here to grasp. It's only a little disappointing.
But that night, after leaving the Department of Safety to catch a midnight ferry, there is finally an almost supernatural moment: I'm walking up the dark, moonless path to my friend's cabin, on an island across the water from Anacortes, in the woods, and the wind is roaring through the trees, and the trees are groaning above me in the dark. It's the only sound in the whole world.
When I get to the cabin, there's a fire flickering against the damp cold. There's a record player and three records, one of which happens to be The Glow Pt. 2. We listen to it in its entirety, facing the heat from the fire, the confines of the room, the hum of the record, the surrounding night. It sounds as fantastic as ever.
Mount Eerie play Thurs April 17 at the Vera Project, 7:30 pm, $9/$8, all ages. With WHY?, Julie Doiron, Generifus.