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Sonic Alchemy 

by Mike Corrigan


The north Puget Sound logging community of Anacortes is a little off the beaten path and quite a jog from anything that could be remotely considered the center of the indie pop universe. Maybe that's why Anacortes native Phil Elvrum, the leader (and for all practical purposes, the sole member) of THE MICROPHONES, seems to thoroughly dig the Inland Northwest.


"Last fall, I was on this long tour by myself around the country," he recalls by phone from somewhere in North Idaho. "And on my way back, I played in Moscow and Walla Walla and it was just so nice. I really love this area. So I wanted to do a more extensive tour because I knew there were places here I could get shows."


So far the "Frozen Shoulders Tour" (as Elvrum calls it) has included colleges, sandwich shops, coffeehouses and friends' living rooms. This time around, he's sharing the stage with another one-man band of sorts, Kyle Field of Little Wings. They play a free show at Whitworth College this Saturday night.


"We've played three free shows in a row, so we're not doing that well financially," he admits. "It's an interesting tour."


Elvrum's do-it-yourself touring modus operandi meshes perfectly with his similarly DIY approach to recording. The Glow Pt. 2 (on K Records), his fifth proper album to date, is an expansive, 67-minute epic featuring the songwriter's trademark: peculiar yet engaging sonic assemblages. The songs move from deeply introspective to stream-of-consciousness storytelling with Elvrum's soft, immediate, occasionally mumbled vocals sung over various aural textures from simple acoustic guitar or piano to sound loops, samples and luxuriant walls of feedback. Elvrum plays all the instruments himself -- with friends, collaborators and whoever happens to stop by tossing in guest vocal tracks.


Though Anacortes has, over the years, produced its share of notable Northwest indie pop sensations (the Crabs and the Pounding Serfs immediately spring to mind), it's a safe bet that Elvrum's early artistic ambitions were not generally encouraged or even understood in that quiet, secluded community. There was, however, one person who did give him a leg up.


Around 1992, while still in junior high, Elvrum became friends with Bret Lunsford (of Beat Happening) who owned the town's only music store. Lunsford gave him a job and let him use the store's copy machine (to produce his own 'zine) and the store's backroom (to set up a makeshift recording studio). Elvrum thus, became obsessed with making music. His tape explorations soon caught the ear of K Records' big cheese, Calvin Johnson, who signed Elvrum to his label and invited him to record at his Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia.


The titles of Elvrum's early songs were curiously self-referential -- not necessarily of Elvrum, but of the equipment and techniques employed to produce them ("Tape Deck Ghost," "Wires & amp; Cords," "Eyes For Volume," etc.).


"Yeah, I used to be really preoccupied with that. That's where the name The Microphones comes from. I used to be into trying to sing about the technological side of it, but in a way that sort of metaphorically talked about people and emotions. That was the idea. It didn't last very long. I probably have five good songs that made sense like that."


With each successive album, Elvrum's "experiments" have evolved into something more fully realized -- although he says to this day when he sits down in the studio to work out a song, he has only the vaguest notion of how it will turn out.


"I usually write as I'm recording," he says. "Since it's just me, it's all kind of in my head, and the decisions that get made are all very subconscious. I'm in the studio, by myself, and things just happen. And I don't really realize they're happening. Whereas working with other people, it's more like, 'Oh, how about we add tympani on this part' or whatever. That's really conscious. When I'm recording the Microphones, the sounds just come directly from the idea rather than having to be translated."


Those sounds are at times highly orchestrated and not easily identified. A lot of what Elvrum has achieved on tape has been as a result of what he calls "happy accidents."


"When I'm recording, I'll hear a sound in my head and I'll try to make it with the instruments that I have by recording them weird or messing them up in a certain way. And it never quite works but it usually turns out interesting anyway. I started off not really knowing anything about writing a song. I used to just do it all as recording experiments. But since then, I've sort of figured out how to just make up a song and play it."


I mention the fact that much effort has been expended on technically "correct" songwriting methods.


"Yeah," he shoots back. "And all those songs are boring."


Recreating the sound of a Microphones' album with one or two players for a live audience presents Elvrum with a formidable challenge. In fact, it's impossible. He resists the idea of assembling a full-time supporting band: "For one thing, I'm not that good at working with other people," he laughs. "I get really weird." Again, Elvrum finds himself improvising.


"It's just a totally separate thing," he says of performing. "I've kind of given up trying to translate the songs. I translate the feeling. But that's all I try to do."


Nevertheless, the Microphones' live show (with Field temporarily in a supporting role) is every bit as exciting and spontaneous as its recordings.


"We kind of assist each other," Elvrum says. "We just brought a bunch of instruments and we switch around every single night. It's really cool because we kind of know each other's songs pretty well, and so it's fun trying to accompany each other on just whatever."


So don't be alarmed when all you see Saturday night in place of your expectations is a couple of fairly normal-looking guys, a couple of microphones and a small pile of oddball instruments.


"I think generally, people are pretty confused when I play live," he deadpans. "It's understandable because I present it very ambiguously. But almost every time I show up to a place where I'm going to play, it's like, 'Cool, so are you guys going to load in? You need a sound check? How much room do you need for the drums?' People totally think it's a band. And they're always wondering why only one member of the Microphones ever shows up."





LEO KOTTKE is revered by acoustic music lovers as a master finger-style guitarist. He is admired by his peers as a true innovator. But that's not where the real love comes in. That level of devotion is reserved for his audiences, who adore Kottke the performer for his willingness to take chances, to walk the edge in front of a crowd, knowing full well that he may fall flat on his face.


And while his guitar chops are immaculate, his monologues -- typically the highlight of any live performance -- occasionally lead him to the precipice. These frequently meandering verbal bridges range from the topical to the utterly obscure and are spiked with absurdities, non-sequiturs and moments of keen insight. They are all delivered with Kottke's charm and wry sense of humor. The guitar virtuoso performs at the Met Friday night.


Kottke's journey to international recognition as a musician was, not surprisingly, a twisting, winding, rambling one. Born in Athens, Ga., in 1945, Kottke was raised all over the country and was exposed at an early age to the full spectrum of American musical styles -- an experience that would figure prominently in his later musical development. He first picked up the guitar at age 11, and his teen years were spent playing in the country-blues style of Mississippi John Hurt.


After being discharged from the Naval Reserve -- his hearing was damaged during a firing exercise -- Kottke entered college but soon dropped out, electing instead to acquire his education on the road. He hitchhiked his way across the country with his guitar before settling in the Minneapolis area. He quickly became a fixture of that city's folk scene, and by 1969 he had released his first album, a live recording called Twelve-String Blues.


Since then, Kottke has made a career out of defying expectations, and has virtually redefined the boundaries of modern acoustic guitar music. He's been highly prolific as well (with roughly two dozen albums to his credit) and relentlessly dedicated to the romantic notion of the itinerant performer, the wandering minstrel with a guitar in hand and a story on his lips.





File this one under "the end of an era." After years of cranking out barbecue and providing almost nightly live music, THUDPUCKERS -- the fully loaded, hillbilly truck-sporting restaurant on the corner of Riverside and Browne -- is calling it quits effective immediately. That's one less live music venue in Spokane and one more question mark for downtown development watchers. Word is, the current building has been sold and will be demolished to make room for a new bank and office building. (Yawn.) How very exciting.

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