The mysterious case of the Microphones who climbed away to Mt. Eerie
Madonna. Prince. Britney. Christina. Bjork. You probably know who I'm talking 'bout.
There once was a time when a single name would suffice.
Then the '90s birthed at least one indie music trope which has faded somewhat in recent years: the scene's most beloved & quirky singer-songwriters asked that we call them not by their own names but by weird secret identities. Lou Barlow was Sebadoh. Chan Marshall was Cat Power. Will Oldham was the Palace Brothers. Jason Molina was Songs:Ohia and then the Magnolia Electric Co. Conor Oberst was Bright Eyes. John Darnielle was the Mountain Goats. Jeff Mangum was Neutral Milk Hotel.
The examples go on and on, and the one we're going to focus on for the next week is Phil Elverum aka The Microphones. He debuted on the scene around the same time as those aforementioned artists did, but had the misfortune of gaining his moment in the sun on September 11th, 2001 when his record The Glow Pt 2 was given a sparkling 9.2 review in Pitchfork and later went on to be named their album of the year. True, Pitchfork was not yet the tastemaking powerhouse it would become a few years down the line, but the lack of attention had more to do with...other stuff. People were understandably focused on other things in the fall of 2001 -- new wars, losing their jobs, deciding what to blow up, worrying about anthrax in the mail, figuring out if their uncle who worked on Wall St. was still alive. Et. al.
Listen to this sample of one of song from that about-to-be-reissued album, an alternate version of "The Moon":
It's weird, huh, that a record that actually sounded like post-9/11 disintegration got a bit lost in the shuffle. But all of a sudden, the mysterious masked crusader vibe of indie rock became a lot harder to take seriously. There were, after all, new Al Qaeda tapes to decode. Plenty of mystery there.
Today, the tendency of masked men and women performers shows signs of fading off entirely as indie takes its place more deeply in the heart of mainstream pop culture (or, if you'd like to think of it this way, as mainstream culture becomes a series of niches, thus giving more prominent placement in the cultural canon, relatively speaking). Today Bill Callahan, once Smog then (smog) has returned to his given name. Will Oldham is now known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, a name (slightly) befitting an individual human. More interestingly, our newest musical voices who, a decade a ago, might have been tempted to call themselves Moon Flower or Dog Park proudly go by their given names: Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, Neko Case, Devendra Banhart. The names are plenty quirky on their own for sure. Are we merely witnessing the first generation of singer-songwriters with hippie parents? Maybe, but I suspect the reason for using their given names has less to do with that, than a lessened embarrassment at the notion of being a singer-songwriter. Nick Drake is no longer an obscure figure; and no one need be sheepish when admitting a fondness for David Crosby -- as seemed the case when Sebadoh covered songs by both artists on their 1992 album, Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock.
Nowadays you can let your freak flag fly or your inner Cat Stevens shine, as the case may be.
After the jump, hear about Rudolph Giuliani & Phil Elverum's dueling existential crises; the latter guy's California mini-tour; why we must remember 9/11; and some video evidence that ties it all together:
By contrast to today's stripped bear indie stars, let us consider that blurry image at the top of this post, one of the top hits when searching for pictures of Elverum, an artist who has so far gone by two names -- first, The Microphones and later, after what was reportedly a kind of existential crisis Mt. Eerie. I don't want to pull a Giuliani here, but perhaps 9/11 had something to do with it. And if you think I'm imagining things, listen carefully to the lyrics of this song, filmed last April at the Smell. Also note the, erm, less than stellar video quality:
But more about the names...
Both Elverum's names are somewhat novel, quixotic, whimsical -- like those pseudonymous artists I mentioned earlier. But his secret names can also be taken literally. There is so much ambient sound captured in the mix of Elverum's recordings, so much random magic, I wonder if he sees himself as a picking up sounds not only from his instruments but from the universe; there is such a sense of nature worship -- or, more correctly, nature respect -- in most everything he makes, I wonder sometimes if he feels he's setting off to leave our society and travel to some haunted fjord.
In any case, mystery seems to be a theme I've been returning to recursively, repeatedly. In other words, I'm talking about it again and again on this blog, and I don't want to stop. So when I found out Elverum was playing a handful of times in California over the next few days, I decided heck with it, I would talk to him about it. Check back over the next week or so as we learn about his mysterious ways.
Oh yeah, and here are those tour dates:
03-06 Irvine, CA - UC Irvine
03-07 Los Angeles, CA - The Smell
03-08 San Francisco, CA - Enola Maxwell High School Auditorium