Noah Britton and Phil Elverum Make Hate-Based Rock & Roll

The friends and recent collaborators catch up.

Noah Britton is a Boston-based singer-songwriter who has also performed as ACLU Benefit and Request Freebird; Phil Elverum is the singer-songwriter behind The Microphones and Mt. Eerie, and the founder of the label P.W. Elverum and Sun. Recently, the old friends collaborated on a track, “Wings,” off Noah’s forthcoming I Love You EP — out June 17 via Gentle Reminder Records. To celebrate, they hopped on the phone to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Noah Britton: What’s up, Phil, good morning.

Phil Elverum: Good morning. 

Noah: How are you?

Phil: I’m good. I was just sitting at my computer scanning old negatives.

Noah: Oh, reviews?

Phil: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s what I call bad reviews.

Noah: That’s a good way to inspire you to approach the day. Like, I’ll get those bastards today.

Phil: Yeah, morning negative affirmations. 

Noah: That’s like how I have a picture of me but with an X over it that I keep next to my mirror just to inspire myself. Like, Oh, right, that guy, fuck that guy. [Laughs.] The thing we want all the Talkhouse readers to know is that me and Phil are both totally driven by pure hate.

Phil: A quest for vengeance. 

Noah: Far Beyond Driven pales in comparison to our music as far as hate-based rock & roll. 

Phil: [Laughs.] What’s it called? Powerviolence? Is that what we’re doing? 

Noah: Yeah, powerviolence. I consider our music to not be so much powerviolence, but like lack-of-powerviolence. 

Phil: Weaknessviolence. 

Noah: [Laughs.] “I’m so mad that I’m such a loser, ah!” 

Phil: [Laughs.] Wow, we’re really hitting on some important new ideas here. 

Noah: This is a new genre. I’m excited for the thinkpiece that talks about how we finally know what to call Noah and Phil’s music. What do you say when people are like, “What kind of music do you play?” You know, to people who have never heard you? 

Phil: That’s a tough one. I remember being like 15 and struggling with that question.

Noah: Ditto.

Phil: I didn’t know how to answer it, even though I was in a silly punk band playing songs about food. 

Noah: I don’t know if I would call Tugboat a punk band.

Phil: Or whatever. Exactly! I still struggle with it. I just avoid the question. One time I heard Calvin Johnson get asked that question by a tow truck driver — we were cleaning out the Dub Narcotic van after an accident in Montana, and this tow truck driver was like, “Oh, so you’re in a band? What kind of music do you guys play?” Without missing a beat, Calvin just said, “Contemporary.”

Noah: [Laughs.] It’s never wrong. God, even with a concussion he was that fast. 

Phil: He nailed it. And then he handed the guy a Dub Narcotic CD from the wreckage of the van. It was a brutal moment, but also so beautiful. 

Noah: That probably is the best description of your music. Such a brutal moment, but beautiful — sounds pretentious to describe yourself that way, but that’s how I would describe your music.

Phil: Yeah, there’s brutality in there. 

Noah: Yeah, that’s true. I was standing here trying to pee this whole time, and it hasn’t happened.

Phil: [Laughs.] Oh, god. 

Noah: I’ve just been distracted, I don’t know. I guess you can say your genre is prostate-enlarging, or whatever.

Phil: That’s a power move to start an interview while peeing.

Noah: Well, sadly we’re not on Zoom, so it doesn’t quite work. 

I discovered something very depressing last week, which is that Kurt Cobain has now been dead longer than he was alive. Which means we are now farther away from 1994 than 1994 was from 1967. So we should probably have our organs removed and sold to the young people. 

Phil: Yeah. It’s interesting to think about Nirvana as very old music from a long gone era, as classic rock. I saw a boat the other day out on Puget Sound called The Nevermind, and it was in the font, that white wavey font that’s on the cover of Nevermind. It was so cool.

Noah: I wonder… Whoever inherits The Nevermind will probably have been born in 2005 and not be familiar with them.

Phil: It’s like the equivalent of being really into John Philip Sousa or something. It’s old music now. Nirvana’s been on the classic rock radio stations for decades already. 

Noah: Well, when they were around they said, “Oh, we’re classic rock already.” So I don’t feel like things have aged that much because of that. But also, today, what music I think of as normal is seen as, like, John Philip Sousa. And [new] music that exists today, I don’t think of as music, because I’m old and should be chopped up and have my organs donated to younger people who have a chance. 

Phil: Yeah, you’re telling me. I feel that way constantly, but I try to ignore that feeling. It’s interesting, that feeling of aging out or becoming irrelevant — it’s the natural progression of things. But at the same time, I also think it’s kind of an illusion and it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s all perception.

Noah: I have some actual questions for you. This is such an honor for me, because you remember me when I was 19 and a giant poser, and now I’m an old man who doesn’t have any hope for the future, which is, I guess, better. [Laughs.] But I was wondering, did you go through a period where you were — because, speaking of Nirvana, I saw the video from when you were a teenager, that interview for MTV or whatever. Have you seen this? 

Phil: Yeah.

Noah: You’re totally you still, you’re exactly the same but younger. And it made me wonder, how did you avoid going through the insecure poser phase that so many of us do? Do you have any suggestions of how one prevents that? Because, you know, so many people are like, “I’m 12, I’m goth!” and I can never imagine you having done anything like that. 

Phil: Well, that’s nice of you to perceive me that way, but it certainly can’t be true. I must have definitely been so embarrassing in so many ways that maybe don’t come across in that Nirvana video. I’m scanning negatives now, going through very old photos, so I’m pretty tuned in to what I was like as a 14 year old. Embarrassing poser is a slippery definition — I think part of it was I grew up pretty disconnected from what was going on in the mainstream.

I remember one time we went to Bumbershoot, this big, huge festival in Seattle, a street fair kind of thing. And my friend Andy was there, he was a skateboard guy, and he had his skateboard and cool skateboard haircut and skateboard clothes. I wasn’t a skater, because I lived on a gravel road, so there was no way to make a skateboard roll. But I loved walking around Bumbershoot, and Andy let me carry his skateboard so I was perceived as a cool skateboard guy. That’s a poser.

Noah: [Laughs.] How old were you? 

Phil: Probably like 14. I wore surfing clothes, even though I’ve gone surfing two or three times ever. I identified as [being], like, really into surfing. 

Noah: I’ve known people who have never met you, and they have a really skewed perception of you, that’s very outside the realm of what’s possible. Like once you referenced Super Mario Brothers 3 on stage, and a guy I knew was like, “That’s such a funny thing for him to reference because everybody thinks Phil is this mountain man who’s like a Luddite and stuff.” I guess I can see where that comes from, but it’s not like you don’t have electricity in your house or something.  

Phil: I’ve encountered lots of that stuff, too. It is pretty silly. And we just chalk it up to the fact that most people don’t have a frame of reference for — like if I talk about the wilderness just a little bit, most people don’t have any wilderness in their life, most people don’t get to go camping even. And so even mentioning it a little bit, I think, makes people think, Oh, wow, he’s truly living off the grid, hollowing out moose in Alaska. 

Noah: This is something I really want to talk about, I’m glad you made me think of it — the first What-The-Heck Fest in 2002 was really life changing for me, because it gave me some of that Anacortes spirit third hand. Which I think is so, so incredible, and I wish everybody who ever lived in the city had gotten to go. My insecurities and fears around just doing the thing were not totally quelled, but certainly decreased by that experience of seeing everybody just be like, You can go up and play your music and no one’s going to be critical at all, and everyone’s super positive. And even if someone secretly doesn’t like it, they’re just gonna be so nice about it. 

I wish every autistic person got to experience an environment like this, because, growing up, my whole life was like Everyone is mad at me and I don’t know why, and I’m trying really hard to stop them from being mad at me, and I keep screwing stuff up and making it worse. I think that’s true for a lot of Aspies, and What-The-Heck Fest was really the first time that I got to go in public and was like, No one’s mad at you. Here, have some food. Here, dance at this show. If you want to make music that isn’t very good, it’s OK. And I was like, Oh, my god, that’s so good! It was so soothing, in this almost hormonal way. 

Phil: That’s a pretty good definition of my idea of what punk means. It’s not this, like, orthodox punk thing with a certain costume, and harshness and aggression. It’s more about a place where anything is possible. And it doesn’t even have to be positive encouragement, it’s just more like permissive.

Noah: Like how Jad Fair invented punk rock — that’s a totally different definition than a lot of people have. 

Phil: And that was the sort of version of it that I came to. I mean, I kind of tried to like the Sex Pistols for a minute when I was a teenager.

Noah: Didn’t we all.

Phil: But it didn’t really click. But for me, my portal into underground music was Beat Happening. 

Noah: That’s punk, truly.

Phil: Yeah, a version of punk that is feminist and doing its own thing and amusing, original.

Noah: So good. But this brings me back to another question I was wondering about — when did you start screwing around with recording projects? 

Phil: I’d been in bands for a while, maybe two years before I got the chance to record with myself. 

Noah: Was that at Dub Narcotic, the first place you got to screw around? 

Phil: No, it was at The Business [a record store/book store in Anacortes]. I worked at The Business, and then Bret [Lunsford] encouraged us to set up a little studio space in the backroom and use it after hours. So that was my first experience. I didn’t even have a cassette 4-track to play with at home, which is how most people get into recording, or at least that used to. 

I had been in the studio with my first band — we went to a “real,” quote-unquote, studio in Seattle, and raised money and paid $600 or whatever to go record at Egg Studios. That was my first exposure to recording, although it didn’t really click with me because it felt like, you know, there was this professional engineer sitting there touching all the knobs, and I didn’t know what anything was. It didn’t feel like I was allowed to know what was going on.

Noah: I had a very similar experience with my first band. 

Phil: Yeah, exactly. The studio can be kind of alienating. 

Noah: Right. And also, not worth the investment. These studios are definitely predatory in that they recruit teens to book their time sometimes. We won a Battle of the Bands, and they were like, “You win five hours of studio time, but you should book eight just in case, you don’t have to use all of it.” And so the producer very intentionally screwed around with effects for the additional three hours so we would have to pay. I was like, Man, I’m 16 years old, let me go home. My mom was really mad because she didn’t know where I was, and I expected to get home after the five hour session, but eight hours later, he was just messing around.

Anyway, as far as when you’re screwing around with stuff at The Business, what were the principles guiding you in coming up with the stuff you recorded? 

Phil: Well, it was different than writing songs with words and playing the drums in this band with my friends. When I started recording it was kind of a pivot to… not even music really… not songs, just truly experimental. I loved Sonic Youth, and then I started listening to Lee Ranaldo’s solo CD, and experimental music via them. And so this idea that music didn’t have to be musical — experimental noise is a valid expression — that was sort of my angle. I was also listening to Stereolab, really drone-y. It was all just totally experimental, just noise, like working with the fundamental building blocks of music before writing songs. Then I came around to writing words for it later when it started to feel like, OK, enough self-indulgent noise.

Noah: It seems like you did the opposite of what a lot of us do, where you learned how to make stuff sonically good and interesting and built up from there, instead of having like a melody or a beat or something, or just a desire to rip off a genre. Maybe that’s the secret — you had, like, a Montessori approach.

Phil: [Laughs.] Yeah, I would write song structures mostly just to have something to record. It was the recording back that I loved, and the composition of tones, sounds and atmospheres.

Noah: I think that answers my question as to how you avoided being such a poser, you were just into the sounds and not so much into the, like, romantic bullshit that comes with… 

Phil: I think even back then, also, I was pretty attuned to when it felt like somebody was singing in a fake accent, for example — it really bugged me. 

Noah: That’s fair. 

Phil: It still does. I think that’s an early signifier of a poser — somebody singing in a British accent, or a blues accent.

Noah: Right. So you’re not a big Southern rock guy, which I’m not surprised to discover. At the same time, it seems like there were still people you looked up to a lot, and I want to talk about Bjork for a second. It seems like you got into her later in life, right, as an adult? 

Phil: Yeah, totally. I was aware of her and it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Then it clicked at some point.

Noah: Did you have that poser impulse of like, “Oh, my god, Bjork is so cool, I want to do stuff as cool as Bjork”? Did that come up for what seems to be almost the first time? 

Phil: Mmm, no.

Noah: OK.

Phil: I do remember, I think it was the song “Hunter,” on Homogenic. My friend Jeremy made a die cut that we were using to die cut the LP jackets for It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water — they needed to be die cut because it was a pop-up record over. We were working on that project together, making these blades, and he put on that tape and that’s when it clicked. Something about the way the bass drum sort of flutters, and the ideas that she’s singing about, these kind of primal things — that’s what clicked for me. Because what I had heard before was like house beats, club music, and really bombastic singing, and it just wasn’t my music. I’m not into dance music.

Noah: I can’t see you rocking out on the dance floor to “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” or whatever the young people are dancing to these days.

Phil: [Laughs.] Yeah, they’re just listening to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” still.

Noah: [Laughs.] I mean, it’s the same shit, different era, right? I don’t know, I’m too old and should have my organs removed.

Phil: It sounds like you really want that to happen. 

Noah: Do you remember the [Simpsons episode] where Homer was talking about old people and was like, “They shouldn’t be out doing fun things, they should be studied so that we can use their fluids to find out how to keep young people alive.” And then Marge was like, “Stop reading that Ross Perot pamphlet.” [Laughs.] So I think about that all the time, as I discover I was as old as Bart when The Simpsons started, and now I’m as old as Homer was when The Simpsons started. I’m looking forward to the day I’m as old as Mr. Burns.

Phil: [Laughs.] 250.

Noah: My hero. Talking about Bjork though — you found this moment where you’re like, Wow, Bjork’s awesome. So what happened to you after this as an artist? What did it do for you? What shifted in your perspective, aside from just your opinion of Bjork. 

Phil: I didn’t get obsessed or anything. It was a progression, I just realized I liked her music. And then Dancer in the Dark came out, and I was blown away by that and by the ideas in that, especially the song “I’ve Seen It All.”  It’s about romance — “let’s get out of the romance,” kind of. It’s kind of about not being swept away by the idea.

Noah: Was that what inspired “Let’s Get Out of the Romance”?

Phil: I’m sure it was in the mix, yeah.

Noah: Wow, cool.

Phil: But yeah, I think that maybe comes from, like in Buddhism not getting too attached to your meditation practice — pulling the rug out from whatever the thing is that you’re clinging to as your salvation, or as your practice. Even that needs to be eliminated, that’s true non-attachment. 

Noah: Have you tried to get in touch with Bjork ever?

Phil: No, not really. I mean, I think once on Twitter, I invited her to come record in Anacortes.

Noah: Woah.

Phil: I used to have all these dreams — it wasn’t her in the dream, and clearly my own imagined version of her. But I don’t know. I feel ambivalent about if we were to ever encounter each other or work together. I don’t feel strongly either way. First of all, I’m not an obsessive fan of anyone, at this point. The illusions of big personalities who make stuff — I’m pretty grounded about it all. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I met someone I was a fan of, and then fell in love and got married to them.

So now this idea of… It’s all reality, it’s all very grounded and no big deal. So with Bjork it’s like, maybe it’d be fun, maybe not. She’s just a person. She’s got her own things going on. I don’t want to mess with her schedule. 

Noah: Well, I can’t imagine that would be a non-consensual collaboration. She would have had to be into it for it to have happened.

Phil: Another thing is, I’m not good at collaborating with anyone. [Laughs.] I don’t typically pursue collaboration. 

Noah: I don’t know, you did pretty good with Julie [Doiron]. 

Phil: Yes, that’s true. That’s an exception. 

Noah: I have a few more questions. 

Phil: Let’s do a lightning round.

Noah: What’s your favorite pop song? 

Phil: Lately or ever?

Noah: The Phil Elverum of right now, what’s his favorite pop song?

Phil: I like this reggae dancehall artist called Koffee. She’s got some great songs, “Rapture” and “Toast.” 

Noah: OK, cool. What was the review that made you stop using poetic lyrics and start being more literal? You said that the thing that made you decide to be very direct and clear was somebody totally misunderstood what you were trying to say. 

Phil: I don’t think I could pinpoint that. I feel like that to some degree with every single review. It’s also not totally true, because metaphor and poetry are pretty great. 

Noah: Yeah, definitely. Maybe it was around the time of “Don’t Smoke,” which was such a direct and literal lyric. It was maybe on that tour that you were like, “I really want to get away from people misunderstanding what I’m trying to say, so I’m just trying to be really clear.” Do you feel like it worked?

Phil: No.

Noah: There are still people who smoke.

Phil: [Laughs.] Right.

Noah: What’s something that you want people to give more attention to that particularly got less attention than it should have compared to your other work? 

Phil: Oh, that’s a tough one. Maybe it would be the other people’s music that I’ve released on my label. 

Noah: All great stuff. I highly recommend Wyrd Visions and Adrian [Orange]’s record, and obviously Geneviève’s stuff. I feel like that’s a very you answer, because you’re very generous, and I know it’s sincere too. 

Thank you for giving all of us so many wonderful experiences over the years. I feel like a Deadhead from all the bootlegs of yours that I’m like, “On this version of ‘I Say No,’ there’s a choir of us humming in the background, so it’s better than the version on the Live in Copenhagen album.” That [fandom]’s on the level of Deadhead shit — but obviously it’s the exact opposite musically, because it doesn’t sound like dogshit. I know you hate The Dead as much as I do, if not more.

Phil: [Laughs.]

Noah: So thank you for all of those things. Well, hopefully you’ll play live again soon, and I can go. 

Phil: I hope so also.

Noah: So when does the interview start? Are we gonna prank some banks? [Laughs.]

Noah is playing an album release show tomorrow (Tuesday 6/15) at 8PM at Deep Thoughts in Boston. 

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.