On Completism or “Why Phil Elv(e)rum must have seen me coming…”

I’m a sucker for a man with a big discography. As with so many things in life, a man’s discography should be judged, not by its size, but by what he does with it. But just as thrill-seekers will offer no better reason for scaling Everest etc. than ‘because it’s there’ I too find the gravity of a mountainous discography pulls me in.

And of course if you know Phil Elverum’s (née Elvrum) work, you’ll doubtless have anticipated that I’m heading for some clever pun on ‘Mount Eerie’ – for indeed Elverum has spent most of the last decade writing cryptic albums about the intriguingly named mountain which he grew up next to, and the world around it.

A teensy bit of history, Phil Elvrum (as was) started a one-man-plus-guests band called The Microphones in 1996 and did the usual 90’s American alt.rock thing of releasing lots of limited 7”’s, tapes and detritus alongside ‘proper’ albums… before hitting his critical peak with an album called ‘The Glow pt.2’ which I heard recently for the first time, prompting me to excitedly tell the other members of Local Sports Team ‘I think it might be as good as ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ (not a claim I make lightly).

Next he did an artistic backflip, releasing an LP called ‘Mount Eerie’ which had an 18 minute long first track which was mostly drum solo, and which charted some inscrutable narrative about birth, life, death, the universe and everything. He then changed the name of his band from The Microphones to Mount Eerie, changed his surname (in liner notes at least) from ‘Elvrum’ to ‘Elverum’ and has been releasing gorgeous abstract folk/black metal hybrid albums ever since, always centred on the mysteries of nature and the fleetingness of life.

Mount Eerie released two albums last year called ‘Clear Moon’ and ‘Ocean Roar’ which were recorded at the same time and though released separately are clearly two halves of a conceptual whole. In fact it would be truer to say that they’re just the latest parts of one long album which Elverum’s been working on ever since ‘Mount Eerie’ the LP. Most records have a ‘part 2’ of a song which appeared on a previous record. Certain phrases ‘the lights of town’ ‘through the trees’ recur in numerous songs. The sense throughout the body of work that he’s always grasping at something which eludes him is tangible.

Sonically the Microphones and Mount Eerie are quite distinct. Both are usually centered around acoustic guitars, but The Microphones then play with recording technology to deconstruct the songs. The use of panning is quite integral to some Microphones ‘riffs’ in a way I’ve never come across elsewhere, tape manipulation plays a role, as does destructive use of EQ’ing and distortion. Some of the earliest Microphones songs have fun lyrics about recording technology, such as ‘Feedback (Life, Love, Loop)’ which is about microphones and speakers ‘singing to each other’. Nice.

There’s a sense of playfulness and spontaneity to it, often the guitars are out of tune, a little out of time, it’s clear he prioritises ‘feel’ over perfection. He also uses a trick once or twice that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years, which is starting a propulsive punky backing, then gradually fading it down low and using it as the bed for a slow acoustic track. Damn him. I still want credit for thinking of it ‘first’ if I ever use it.

The last track on ‘The Glow Pt.2’ mostly consists of a single ‘bong’ sound – which has already reared its head throughout the album – repeating for about seven minutes, whilst snatches of the album reprise themselves almost inaudibly underneath. The ‘Mount Eerie’ LP which followed it then begins with the exact same sound, gradually mutating into a rhythm track for the opening song. I’m sold. Where do I sign up?

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Mount Eerie the band, outside some of the earlier recordings which just seem like slightly duller versions of The Microphones, by contrast is more polished. It really hits its stride with a 10” vinyl EP called ‘Mount Eerie pt’s 6 & 7’ (housed in a 112 photo book pictured above – don’t get me started on the care he takes with packaging, we’ll be here all day) which really started to nail this ‘Black Wooden’ (i.e. black metal using wooden instruments) genre Elverum’s trying to invent. You could mention shoegaze and Loveless and be in vaguely the right territory. My knowledge of black metal is, and is likely to remain, very limited but you can see the wall of dense sound approach in some tracks. Conceptually it works with the whole ‘Mount Eerie’/raw elemental nature idea – what better evokes the roar of the sea or the grandiosity of a mountain than a searing wall of distorted guitar? Can’t do that with a groovebox!

Most of his albums feature one or more instrumental tracks simply entitled ‘(something)’ – as if he created something he couldn’t explain and just included it anyway, hoping someone else could make sense of it. As a result, ‘(something)’ by Mount Eerie will probably soon top my last.fm charts (toppling, I think, a track by Guided by Voices, another band with an epic discography).

All this to say I’m really enjoying his work. And I’m enjoying it all the more precisely because there is such a vast body of it to dip into. I am cursed with an old fashioned affliction – an attention span. I’m willing to comb through nearly twenty years of a guy’s lyrics to see if he mentions ‘the lights of town’ again because that’s part of the fun of being a music fan for me. I narrowly avoided wasting a small fortune in my teenage years on the complete works of egotistical jazzwank bore Frank Zappa, precisely ‘because it was there’ (thankfully one day I had an epiphany ‘this is just awful’ – I think it was about halfway through the third disc of ‘Läther’…).

I’ve always been this way – I think it comes from my first real musical love affair being with Pulp – going into Andy’s Records in Bolton and discovering that they’d had a career as old as me before ‘Common People’ and poring over early albums like ‘Freaks’ and ‘It’ without really caring/noticing that they weren’t anywhere near as good as the records that steered me to them. I think that’s where I got my interest in always wanting to engage with an artist’s entire body of work. The same impulse that had me buy the two Captain Beefheart albums which are universally derided as being utter shit, including by him. I knew they were shit, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy them. I just wanted to understand why they were shit, to see the artistic bridge between his two ‘good’ eras.

Gotta catch 'em all

Gotta catch ’em all

In my own work I also include these little bits of continuity, repeated lines, parts 1 2 3’s, song suites, forward referencing the next album before I’ve finished the current one. My ultimate imagined listener remains the person who’s heard it all – a demographic which is in single figures if it exists at all. It’s why I finally put everything I’ve ever done on Bandcamp in 2011 (something Elverum has also done).

So this overt continuity of theme and sound is something which Elverum could have done specifically to get my hard earned paypal dollars (that and self-releasing and selling direct, which I try and support wherever possible). He saw me coming! Me and my big omnivorous attention span.

How Music Works

I’ve just finished reading this tome, in which David Byrne from Talking Heads effectively whizzes through several areas of music-related theory in an entry level sort of way, using numerous examples from his own career.

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Before I delve deeper I’ll answer a question I’ve been asked about it… is it ‘How Music Works by David Byrne’ or is it more ‘How Music by David Byrne Works’? Well there are times when it’s more the latter. The chapter on performance leans particularly heavily on a largely anecdotal account of how his performances have evolved over time – but then  what else does he have to draw on. A familiarity with Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo output would certainly help, and add a level of enjoyment for fans, but I’d still say this is an interesting read for anyone. There, that’s as close as I’m getting to ‘reviewing’ the book.

I say it’s about ‘music-related’ theory, it’s very much not a book about chords, scales, modes, harmonics or owt like that. Byrne’s central argument is that music arrives out of a specific context – be that social, technological, cultural, financial, or political – and that the old fashioned view of a composer who suddenly gets a gleam in his eye and furiously starts scribbling a score as an act of pure inspiration is a false one.

As an example, he discusses the impact of early recording technology on jazz. The crude ‘reverse-gramophone’/single microphone approach to recording a group would dictate choices about what instruments were used – banjos were used instead of acoustic guitars because they were louder, tubas came through better on the recording than a double bass, etc. Other groups of musicians in geographically separate locations would then hear these recordings and assume that a band with a tuba for a bass was how that music was ‘supposed’ to sound, and would promptly form groups with banjos and tubas.

He also looks at music’s social context. There’s a particularly opinionated section on how nouveau riche people have a habit of casting around for something to spend their money on, and ending up building an opera house (or similar temple to ‘high’ art) at huge subsidy. Why do this – he asks – and not fund subsidised pop concert halls ‘for the people’? In answering he links it to ideas about how the perceived superiority of classical and operatic forms of music are assumed (by the elite) to be good for the ‘soul’ of the common man (hi!) – John Maynard Keynes being a person who held such views – or in less abstract terms for the educational achievements of. In fact there’s no evidence that any one kind of music is better for the developing brains of children, though there’s clear evidence that learning some kind of instrument, and playing some kind of music is very valuable indeed – it doesn’t really matter what it is.

He also goes through how business models affect what music gets made, how radio broadcasting or night club PA systems affect how music sounds, how the amount of music that would fit onto a side of vinyl began to affect the length of compositions etc. All things which are obvious when you think about them – and most of these ideas weren’t new to me, and won’t be to many of you – but which all linked together effectively by Byrne, and are worth thinking about again.

How does context affect what music is made, Deadmau5?

Ultimately the central message is hugely positive. Byrne views music as a social phenomenon to its core, empowering, unifying and a way of communicating things words can’t. I think he’s right.

(Here’s where I stop talking about the book and start talking about me)

I don’t, if I’m honest, generally enjoy going to gigs. Even when I really like a band there’s so much about the live music experience which irritates me. The other people there, the poor sound, not knowing where to look, having to stand up, having to pay too much for beer, watching support bands, the set going on too long etc. Before I started university I’d probably been to about ten gigs ever and just a single music festival (Werchter 99 in Belgium if you were wondering). At university the gigs were largely local bands, and I would go mostly for the social side. There was probably one band in Aberystwyth that I genuinely wanted to hear for musical reasons.

Me trying to ‘play live’

The years 2006-08 were probably my peak gig watching years when I was touring a lot myself and was integrating myself into a new city by meeting friends who also played/went to gigs a lot. So I probably enjoyed those shows more because I had some sort of personal investment in the band doing well, and in them having a good time. More recently I don’t go to shows as much, and my own gigging has slowed down for a number of reasons.

But I buy more records than I ever have (partly just because I can afford to) and my love for music is as all-consuming now as it’s ever been.

Still I find my relationship with it is mostly based on its recorded form. I view a gig as an opportunity to basically evaluate a band and see if I want to listen to them at home. You generally ‘can’t hear the words’ at loud gigs, which is fine – but it means there’s nothing to connect with there. I tend to go to gigs in tiny venues that don’t lend themselves to music which depends on a very precise balance of sounds. Sound-based artists I love (like say Fennesz) don’t play in Cardiff – or anywhere near Cardiff – so I don’t know if I’d enjoy a gig like that or not.

Christian Fennesz playing live

There are bands I’ll go and see where I know the performance will be distinct from the recordings. A Hawk And A Hacksaw spring to mind. I’ll always go and watch them (because they actually bother to play Cardiff!), but I rarely buy their new album. Battles are great live and on record – but I think I appreciate them live so much because they’re such a hybrid of real instrument playing/computer and it sounds like it shouldn’t be possible to reproduce it live, but it is.

For the most part then I’m completely out of step with how the music ‘industry’ is perceived to be going. Records will ultimately, so the thinking goes, become adverts for gigs. They’ll be given free or sold at a loss in order to promote a ‘brand’ (formerly ‘artist’) which makes money from the concert and in other ways – as Byrne says in the book, this may include selling perfume, or lines of clothing. Whereas in the past concerts were viewed as promo for people to buy records, and tours would often lose money.

I’m still here happily buying albums, and deeply engrossed by the album as an authorial medium in itself. Am I saying music has to work in the context of a ten song 45 minute ‘work’? Absolutely not. A single song has just as much value. Only being able to write one or two great songs doesn’t mean you’re a crap band, most bands can’t even write one. But I grew up with albums, and I like the coherence, the ‘whole package’ that they offer.

In my own music I tend to think ‘I’m writing a new album!’. Although this only started with ‘European Monsoon’. Before that I would just think about new songs, and would clump them together in a vaguely pleasing order once I had enough to fill a disc. So Byrne’s right, considerations about format do affect how music is written.

I would also, in the past, think about how I’d be able to perform stuff live. In reality my gigs have never been that ‘live’, because they’re so reliant on pre-recorded material. At one point my songs would be entirely electronic, and only have space for one guitar part, because I wanted to be able to perform them live and have them be similar to the recordings. Then when I started to use a laptop rather than a groovebox it would feel less weird to have an acoustic guitar strumming away in the background and another real one in my hands.

Ultimately I always felt the more I went down that road, the less successful the gigs were. The more I felt I needed to ‘perform’ and engage personally with the audience for them to enjoy it. Performing with a laptop feels less ‘live’ than performing with a sequencer does – even if all you do on the sequencer is press play. Strange. I think I slightly offended a fellow laptop-toting artist once by asserting that I’d ‘never seen a genuinely great gig involving a laptop’ – lots of good gigs, lots where I heard good music, but nothing truly exceptional. A possible exception would be Germlin, where Joe would do nothing but scream and throw himself around whilst 100% pre-recorded music came out of his laptop. No real vocals, no ‘playing an instrument’ – but I think it worked better than most because his actions were such a great embodiment of the music the audience was hearing.

Fundamentally I’m a writer before I’m anything else – a singer, instrumentalist, sound recordist, performer – and I’ve just spent a happy few minutes gazing out of the window trying to decide if I listen to so much stuff in that ‘prolific one man band’ genre because I am such a being, or if I am such a being because I’m drawn to that approach. I remember being fascinated by the early solo Graham Coxon records (yeah, that’s my reference point) where he played every instrument, and finding that really appealing. The idea of that independence – much closer to the idea Byrne dismisses of the solo composer’s inspiration, than to the social ‘influenced by context’ writing of a band.

It’s only been the last 12 months where I’ve been part of Local Sports Team, writing genuinely democratically, and making allowances for other people’s musical strengths and shortcomings (usually I only have to contend with my own!), that I’ve realised how writing can be constrained by ability, context, number of hands. At home if I want five guitar tracks I can have them, in LST we have one guitar so I’ve got to make it count. Still I sort of view LST as something I do more for social reasons, and I save my best lyrics for my own stuff. So why do I value this hermitude?

I wonder if it stems from the role music played for me in childhood? One of the reasons I went to so few gigs was because no one would come with me, not because I didn’t have any friends, but because the friends I had didn’t like the music I liked (for the most part). I always felt a bit of an outsider at school, and amongst the friends I had where I lived (which were totally separate groups) so was I drawn to weird music because I wanted to further define myself as an outsider? And did my passion for the likes of Aphex Twin and Tortoise in fact further drive a wedge between me and the people I grew up with (purely a cultural if not social one)?

To this day I know no one who entirely shares my taste in music. There aren’t many records in my collection that someone else I know doesn’t own, but no one has them all (to be fair I do own hundreds and hundreds of records). No one also seems to like stuff in the same way I do. Not many of my friends would read a book called ‘How Music Works’ for example.

William Wordsworth – what a prick

There’s a fear of knowing too much about music, this ‘we murder to dissect’ idea which both I, and David Byrne in the book, categorically reject. The reason I love music as much now as I ever have is precisely because I keep digging into it. I’ve read about sound mixing, about how synths work, about how music affects your brain, about the social context, never mind the linguistic and theoretical stuff around language I did in my degree (woo!). Every new thing you learn about music affects how you hear the music you love. Music isn’t a magic trick, it’s part of what makes us human. If you suddenly understand a bit more about how X artist made the synth sound on song Y then you love the song more, not less. Or I think so anyway…

I’m not saying I like music in a ‘better way’ than people who, say, just enjoy songs that remind them of fun nights out, or see records as souvenirs of great live shows they’ve seen. There are very few songs where I think I like it because it reminds me of something from my personal life. I think I mostly try and engage with music because of whatever I perceive to be ‘innate’ in it. I’m thinking of something like a Fennesz record which is genuinely moving in its raw state – it’s just a beautiful sound – but then I cherish it more because it’s deeply original (sonically, though not compositionally), and I value the idea that he’s found a new way to make sound beautiful.

What Byrne’s book has reminded me is that I bring a whole lot of that to the table myself. There isn’t anything innate in music, it’s a sound which you hear and then it’s gone. Being able to hear the exact same sound over and over is a very new development, and a slightly artificial one. More than ever before you can analyse a ‘composition’ which consists not just of notes and chords, but of how those notes are played and sung, how they’re arranged, and specific decisions about how things sound. Previously music could only have been an event, a specific moment – not a ‘text’.

Reading ‘How Music Works’ has been refreshing, it’s opened my head up a little, and given me a few more ways to appreciate something I love.

Why John Maus is my awesome

My new year’s resolution is to read and write more about music (feel free to hold me to account for this). So it’s somewhat intimidating to try and make my fresh start with a blog post about John Maus….

Maus is himself an uber-articulate, academically minded gentleman, more often covered by the likes of The Wire adjectivising generously on his art as an immanent critique of pop music itself. Or something. Here he is talking about how he performs live…

…what he describes as the Hysterical Body may look to some like a man punching himself in the face whilst he sings over a backing track, but you can see that he’s very much Thought About It. [Shocking to think any artist would show so little regard for the medium of ‘live’ music *cough* – at least I delete the vocals on my tracks before I sing over them!.]

Clearly we’re dealing with a man who needs no help analysing what he does. Shall I plunge deep into the darkest depths of my long-neglected BA in English to deconstruct his lyrics? Shall I wield my literary scalpel and split signifieds from signifiers in his verse? Okay, let’s pick a lyric at random…

Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
Right now / Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
And medical care / for everyone!

Erm….

Okay so I didn’t pick that at random. I picked it because it’s funny. One of two John Maus songs which has made me giggle on public transport during the last few weeks. The other is ‘Don’t Be A Body’ which I’ll let you discover for yourself (see playlist below).

‘Rights For Gays’ is from his 2007 album ‘Love is Real’. Lyrically it is something of a curveball, most of his other songs are less overtly daft – and if you read the Pitchfork review of the album, the writer seems to want to gloss over the song as being faintly embarrassing – bordering on inappropriate. But for me it does encapsulate what I think Maus is doing with most of his other stuff.

If you take it at face value ‘Rights For Gays’ comes across as a somewhat guileless lefty protest song. As if the person who wrote it sincerely wanted to unite the world behind their big positive message but couldn’t quite get the lyrical chops together to come up with anything better than ‘Rights for gays / oh yeah!’. The ‘medical care’ line feels like ‘and while we’re at it, I demand action on this other liberal poster issue’.

The early Maus stuff has a kind of ‘found’ quality to it. Like the ‘outsider music’ work compiled in that ‘Songs in the Key of Z’ book and CD. In particular it reminds me of Wesley Willis, the paranoid schizophrenic electro punk artist who made hundreds of near identical mini-anthems with stream of conscious pop culture heavy lyrics about pretty much whatever he last thought of, releasing them on dozens of short run self released albums.

Outsider music recordings generally feel like they’ve been made by someone who’s ‘missed something’ – some nuance of either the social context of pop music or of the form itself. They often come across as overly earnest, savant-like bursts of creativity, that survive only through the miracle of home recording (see also Jandek – who I’ve written about before, Daniel Johnston etc).

Except that Maus’ music isn’t, it’s made quite knowingly by a smartly dressed, well educated, seemingly fairly well-adjusted, and frankly quite attractive young man from Austin, Minnesota. The lo-fi nature of the music is presumably a logistical thing rather than a committed aesthetic choice, I’m guessing all his stuff is homemade in some way, but it certainly adds to the ‘vibe’. Whether he’s conscious of this I don’t know. As far as I know he’s using his real name, which would generally point away from an attempt to play a character. So who then is this ‘John Maus’ coming out of the speakers? Sure doesn’t seem like the same guy talking in that^ video.

The rest of his work poses the same questions. Even a less ostensibly silly track like ‘Do Your Best’, which immediately precedes ‘Rights for Gays’ on the album, seems to do pretty much the same thing.

Reach out your hand to the one alone
In your city tonight
You gotta do what’s right
In your city tonight

What? Really, John? You want me to go find someone who’s lonely and have a chat with them? Well okay….

This time the track is much doomier, slow chugging basslines and swelling synth pads, vaguely Joy Division-y. There’s no campy trill to his vocals, this is closer to his usual mode. But again the lyrics seem like a clumsy attempt to advocate some lefty cause – let’s all join a befriending service cos our favourite electro pop act tells us to! Or maybe he was just lonely when he wrote it… who knows?

And oh yeah, the music… ‘Electro pop’ pretty much suffices as a description of John Maus. Short of some more neo-classical stylings to the keyboard playing on his earlier stuff (a bit like the Magnetic Fields), and the slightly choral feel his layers of vocals often hint at the music is fairly straight retro electro. Usually a bass guitar chugging over unshowy drum programming, smothered in glistening synths. This isn’t sophisticated sound-designer stuff. The sounds he uses are straight out of your favourite ‘eighties presets’ sample pack, all drenched in unsubtle amounts of reverb.

There’s a seemingly wilful amateurishness to how it all comes together. His early albums have the occasional crackle and mic hiss, which is mostly gone on his ‘breakthrough’ record, 2011’s ‘We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves’. However there’s still a general lack of fidelity which gives it a ‘cheap horror film’ quality. Is this part of the schtick? See above.

We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

Again this adds to the feel of the music as something ‘found’. Like there shouldn’t be a real guy called John Maus wandering round out there. We should be trying to track him down for a retrospective documentary, Searching For Sugar Man style, or Mingering Mike not waiting for him to tour and release a new record.

I’ve got to admit that it’s taken me a while to get to my current status as whatever the Maus equivalent of a Belieber is. On the listening post at Spillers I switched off ‘Streetlight’ about a minute in because the synths sounded naff and the vocals were just utterly lost in the reverb. I still think the synths sound naff and wish I could hear the lyrics better on some songs, but now I love it for the same reason. It also took me nearly twelve months after finally buying ‘We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves’ to finally come to love it (I got it as part of a Bleep albums of the year bundle, if you were wondering).

It’s rare for me to listen to an artist on repeat, never mind one song or album. But last.fm tells me I’ve listened to Maus about 100 times in the last month, and that’s just iPod and laptop listens. He’s sent me back to the days of being a teenage pop fan, playing the same song on one side of a 7” over and over again.

Maus does seem to inspire the same in others. There’s a small, delightfully nutty online community dedicated to him called Mausspace. It wasn’t quite as Capslock House as I was hoping it might be, but there’s similar levels of adulation. If you search you can see a Happy Birthday message to John from his mum in one of the threads, it’s quite sweet.

So what swayed me? What made me a Mausketeer? Well I think it helps that his songs are catchy as fuck, and that even whilst you can sit and write a lovely blog post about the levels of irony in his work there’s still a core of soul in it all. Songs like ‘Bennington’, ‘Big Dumb Man’ and ‘The Fear’ give the impression of being rooted in real experience of demons and lost love, even as they use humour to introduce distance by sleight of hand (a technique I know well).  And ‘Believer’, the last track from ‘…Censors’, has a soaring uplifting quality which isn’t remotely diminished by the fact you can’t really make out a word of what he’s saying. It’s one of two tracks – the other being ‘No Title (Molly)’ – that I wish went on for twice as long as it does.

Ultimately I think it’s those ambiguous lyrical and stylistic hooks that go along with the musical ones. He walks elegantly the tightrope between irony and earnestness, and wrong foots you with occasional moments of ‘hang on, what am I actually listening to here?’. You can’t hear ‘Rights for Gays’ and not do a double take. Maus has made something so convincingly ‘faux outsider’ (I feel a bit sick for coining that expression) that it is actually possible to forget that he’s out there washing his socks, eating bread, and finishing his PhD or whatever, and that believe that you live in a world where the guy in the video doesn’t exist, and ‘John Maus’ is the great lost King of Pop.

I will now scribble his lyrics on my exercise book.

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If that’s whetted your appetite, here’s a Spotify Playlist I made of my ten favourite John Maus songs.