Phil Elverum has produced two decades worth of records as The Microphones and Mount Eerie that span a wide spectrum, from studio heavy atmospheric landscaping to simple, raw songs. His upcoming album, Now Only, is an exploration of death, remembrance, and legacy. It is out March 16th on his own P.W. Elverum & Sun. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Here, Talkhouse is republishing the text of a pamphlet Phil Elverum, the person behind the musical projects Mt. Eerie and the Microphones, distributes in lieu of signing autographs.
—Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music
When I get asked, “Can you please sign this?” a complex chain of emotions and thoughts is triggered in me, every time. On the spot, in that moment, it is too much to try to get into these complexities with the asker, who is usually a sweet and embarrassed fan who has just purchased a record from me at the merchandise table at my concert. So, instead of attempting to talk about it with that person, in the past I have just swallowed my words and discomfort and written “PHIL” or “PHIL ELVERUM,” sometimes adding the date. In writing this now, I hope to release myself from this position and communicate my thoughts on the situation with enough depth to release both of us, the prospective asker and signer, from guilt, confusion, or misperception.
I collected football cards when I was like, 10. My favorite player was Walter Payton from the Chicago Bears, #34. His nickname was “Sweetness,” and his persona was “nice guy”.
I got his mailing address somehow and mailed him my collection of his cards, kind of a lot, pretty special to me, with a letter asking him to sign them. He did! He signed them all and mailed them back. He was nice. I treasured them, and they are still in my parents’ attic today. These little pieces of cardboard were important to me mostly because the boundary had been crossed and erased between this godlike football man from TV and me, a kid from the forest outside a small town in Washington. The autographs represented that breach to me: proof that this special man and I were inhabitants of the same world and there was a real, tangible line between us, with evidence!
In 1992, Nirvana got popular and a similar boundary was crossed, but maybe going in the other direction. I saw Kurt Cobain on the cover of Rolling Stone and recognized a regular person—a peer of any of the older scrubby young men that worked with my dad, doing cement work in the bad weather, and played in bands at night. Hearing Nirvana on the radio station that barely came in from Seattle breached the boundaries of fame and accessibility and made me realize that people—humans—make this music, and that the door was theoretically open to me or anyone. Working from Nirvana, my friends and I followed the thread back through progressively more obscure music and labels, voraciously consuming whatever we could find and sharing it on dubbed tapes.
A major breakthrough was when we discovered that in our town, Anacortes, Washington, there was a strange small used book and camera store that had a little corner dedicated to music, and in that little corner was a box of independently released 7-inches from Sub Pop, K, and other small and radical regional labels. Not only that, but we discovered that the man working at the store was Bret from the band Beat Happening, a very important and revered band from K Records—Beat Happening was referenced all the time by the big, famous grunge bands on TV as foundational and major. We looked at him as a legitimate celebrity, us teens whispering to each other and loitering among the used mystery paperbacks, rarely purchasing anything, just basking in this new world of proximity to alternative culture.
My friends and I bought the new Beat Happening album on release day. All three of us had ordered a copy. Jeremy and Brandon took the shrink wrap off the jewel case right there in the store and asked Bret if he would sign it. Embarrassment washed over me. We’d been hanging out at the store for months, becoming more comfortable, acting cool (we thought), and earning trust and respect. Not gawking too much—just letting the weirdness of that celebrity perception wash away and blur into a mutually respectful young person/old person relationship. When my friends asked for Bret’s autograph (and I didn’t), I was embarrassed for them, and to be with them. I wanted it to be known that I didn’t care if Bret signed my CD. I could sense a slight awkwardness on Bret’s part when they asked, which now I know in hindsight was just gentle bemusement at these quaint small-town teens—nothing very bad or truly uncomfortable. He obliged. I remember clearly that he opened the jewel case and, with a dull black Sharpie, wrote “BRET” on the disc, almost like one would do if they were labeling their property.
Within Bret’s simple four-letter “autograph,” I perceived many layers of commentary. By not writing in an illegible scrawl, by making his name readable, in all caps, he was making fun of the absurdity of traditional signatures. Funny! And by writing just his first name in that hyper-legible way, he was gently mocking my friends about their autograph-seeking, especially in the context of this record store in this small town in which we had all grown up—Bret included. He made it feel like asking the mailman for an autograph. “You want me to write my name on it? OK, here is my name.” In his four letters, I saw the word, “Why?” I agreed.
I remembered this day many years later, whenever it was that someone first asked me to sign something I’d made. Probably the first few times it happened, I straight up asked the person, “Why? Why do you want me to sign it?” From there, the interaction did not go well. So, I fell into the habit of emulating Bret and writing “PHIL” and being super mechanical about it, getting it over with, trying to comply with the request and straddling the line between gentle confrontation and possible happiness on the requester’s part.
I believe in equality and I don’t believe in God. That shift that happened for me when Nirvana got popular—the opening-up of possibilities, and the recalibration of my ideas about access—that has stayed with me. I believe that successful and well-known people are regular people, of course, and I am made uncomfortable by our tendency as humans to elevate some people while not elevating others. What is the deal with royalty? Why do we do that? What is the deal with unqualified and exaggerated veneration? I view god/figurehead worship with this same apprehension. I see it as a dangerous pathway to abuses of power, insanity, inequality, unnecessary suffering, domination, etc. Of course, some people become more well-known than others. Of course the ground is not flat. But the adulation behavior that comes so easily to some people seems dangerous and bad to me. It’s not that I don’t have long, rich fantasies of the conversations and interactions I’d like to have with my favorite artists, writers, thinkers. I do. I want to personally know these brilliant people, and I enjoy hearing about their secret, unglamorous regular-life moments, the mechanics of their normalcy. I enjoy the reminders of my sameness with them, because it reinforces the possibilities that lay open for me, always.
An autograph is detrimental to all of this door-opening.
Of course, it is an exaggeration to talk about atheism and abuses of power in a pamphlet about whether or not I should sign your record, but this is the very real spiral of thoughts that goes through me when I am faced with that request.
The harsh reality is that, when I am at my concert sitting behind the merch table or even just walking around the venue, there is a built-in imbalance of power. I’m the person who was on the stage. I’m the person whose name you maybe know from the thing you read on the internet, whose picture you’ve seen, whose backstory you’re maybe familiar with. I don’t know you. You are the un-met person who pays for me to live, who paid to come to the show and paid for the record. I owe everything to you, and I don’t know anything about you. You are my anonymous employer. When we meet, we are inherently shouldered with this burden of imbalance and alienation. You act deferential to me because I have been placed in this higher-status position by my circumstances, when really I am your servant, traveling and singing to please you. It’s fucked up. These are big preexisting barriers to the two of us having any kind of sensible interaction.
It has gotten more intense over the years. I’m not sure why. It used to be a rare and funny thing to be asked to sign someone’s thing. I used to make a doodle, write a poem, take a moment to try to transcend all this worry and over-thought and make a legitimate human connection. But there is not time for that when I am on tour, doing my many jobs of playing music, running the show sometimes, working the merch table, worrying about parking, worrying about getting paid, etc. Taking the time to be present and write something cool is rarely possible. On top of that, it is emotionally exhausting to try to summon presence and familiarity with stranger after stranger, to power through the imbalance of roles in that moment and become peers, and to simulate a bond of equal footing through a quick little doodle in a dark, loud room.
At a certain point, it became common for me, at pretty much every show. There’s a pattern. The evening starts out with people looking at the records, buying them, not talking very much, just occasional chit-chat. Nice mellow compliments, human interactions. Then, someone buys a record and is like, “I don’t mean to be weird or anything, but would it be at all possible for you to sign this?”, and then, like previously explained, I swallow all of my turmoil and say “yes, sure” and write my name. When they see that I’ve merely written my name I can usually sense—and it’s possible I’m projecting this—I can sense a slight embarrassment and disappointment on their face when I hand the record back. It’s possible they detect my resistance to the act, that me writing “PHIL ELVERUM”—often on the back of the record or on the inside because I actually worked really hard designing the artwork without my name written on it and I prefer it without the defacement—that me writing my name in that direct, caps-lock way conveys an attitude of mockery and derision toward them for asking in the first place. The already fraught imbalance in status that we were operating in then quickly crumbles, and I become the asshole who signed his fan’s record in a snarky, sarcastic way. Why couldn’t the big, cool, famous musician come down from his pedestal for one second to fulfill a simple fan’s request without making fun of them? I imagine the person thinking as they walk away.
(And, of course, saying “no” is not even worth considering. What would the repercussions be of that? Unthinkable. Likewise, engaging in any of this philosophical talk. I have tried that, and it has never been good: the apologetic tone that both of us take just makes the whole thing murky and sad—two people competing to let the other off the hook.)
After the first person asks the question, there is usually a bystander who sees the signing take place, and one of two things happens. Either they honestly wanted a thing signed, but were afraid to ask, but now the gates are open and they ask, or they don’t actually care or want an autograph, but they realize I’m the artist guy sitting there selling my merch and they wonder if, now that it’s happened, I expect the ego-massage of being asked by every person to sign their thing, that I’ll be offended if they don’t ask, so they ask even though they don’t want me to do it. In either case, it becomes a line of people all asking me to sign their record.
I die inside while doing it. My skin crawls. I hate it so much. The embarrassment of being placed on a stupid and absurd pedestal, of performing this pointless and ugly act, writing my name on a thing that shouldn’t have my name on it so a person can feel superficially connected to me (even though, if only they knew how intimately physical I get with pretty much every single copy of every record I make—stuffing, folding, packing, lifting, dropping, etc. These things have my literal hairs and cells in them, fingerprints, body parts, fluids—way more significant than a written name), the shame of sitting there signing everyone’s thing without being able to speak up about it feels horrible. I feel bad for the world, for the future of creativity, for the ongoing spiral into royalty/celebrity culture that we are all in. And I do it anyway, because I don’t know a way out.
When someone asks me for a record to be signed, they are asking out of genuine love and appreciation. I know that the motivations behind this request are completely innocent and sweet and don’t deserve the amount of anguish that I go through about it. It is simple gratitude taking form in a benevolent tradition of personalization that has been going on since forever. It doesn’t have to be hard. The asker doesn’t deserve to be thrown into all this.
Surely someone will read this and say, “Oh, poor baby! You’re so popular that too many people want your autograph. Wah wah!” I’m aware that this is a problem only a very fortunate person can have. And I don’t even have that many people asking me to sign a thing. It’s just that, for me, even one person asking triggers all this. So I had to make this pamphlet.
My resistance to signing my name on my records comes from a feeling of anti-status, not a protectiveness about my own importance or a fussiness about my art. I want to spread equality, destroy these old barriers to participation. I don’t want to hide in the backstage area at the show. I love selling my own merch. I love doing this stuff and interacting. These simple and obvious statements are not a popular person putting on an act of, “I’m just like you.” I really feel it deeply, and it hurts to be nudged into a position of awkward reverence by the symbolic gesture of an autograph. I feel that it is anti-human, anti-fellowship, to sign autographs and to want someone’s autograph. In my ideal world, we would see the person who made the work of art that we loved and we would engage with them as a peer for a moment and appreciate and remember the exchange without the need for this empty souvenir.
As a person who makes records and goes around trying to sell them, and lives from this money, my constant dominant feeling is a feeling of overwhelming gratitude to all the strangers who buy my things and attend my concerts. A person who does these things and asks for an autograph is included in this gratitude. Maybe even more so, since it is generally a deep appreciator who will ask for an autograph. Thank you! Obviously, your attention and love and presence keep me alive. I owe you everything.
I even owe you an autograph. I am not being sarcastic when I say I am your servant and employee. Essentially, I should shut up and sing. I should suck it up and do the relatively easy things requested of me. If I am rambling about equality and rebalancing the unhealthy celebrity power dynamic, yeah, I should let go of asserting my views and whims.
I am politely asking to please be understood on this subject. I am opposed to autographs and it hurts my soul to sign them. Please don’t ask me to do it. And please don’t be embarrassed when you do ask and I hand you this pamphlet and say no. It is the only way I could think of to release us both.
very sincerely yours
(Image of Phil Elverum by Jeff Miller)