I’m continuing with Chapter 1 of my blog-to-book project: Life After High School: Secrets To A Successful Life By Those Who Have Had Twenty Years To Think About It (or) What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. Today I have one of my absolute favorite interviews to share (sorry for the bias). If you missed the last post, click here, otherwise, you can start at the beginning here.
Phil stuck out to me in high school as a unique and extremely interesting and funny individual. Having passed in and out of artist communities my entire life, I have always found them a bit of a motley crew, and often full of posers and wannabes who associate with the artist community, not because of their talent, but because of their sentiments and sensibilities. Phil is absolutely not one of those people. Phil is a rare true artist, and I saw that the first day I met him. Not only does he have incredible talent, but he also has a sense of humor and a way of looking at the world that transcends his social circle and his surroundings. In high school, I laughed at everything he said and I think he even laughed at me too (at least I like to think so).
I think what set Phil apart from the many other artists I have met in my life is that he was always quite comfortable in his own skin. That kind of confidence is very rare in adults, almost nonexistent in adolescents at any age, and to see it in a teenager is startling and immediately interesting. Phil has always remained one of the most interesting people I have ever met. I am very sorry for his recent loss.
Thank you for sharing your heart, Phil…
(Formerly Phil Elvrum)
My Life In High School
Who were you in High School and how did you feel about it?
I could probably have been summed up as one of the “art kids.” I did art and music projects, some plays, photos, and lots of independent studies. I was hesitant to participate in the bigger mainstream social event parts of high school, but I don’t think I was completely dismissive or alien. I went to some stuff. I had friends. Mostly my friends and I did our weird projects together, not necessarily via the framework of school, but we still attended classes and interacted with everyone else civilly. I felt fine about it. I am not traumatized by my high school experience like many “artistic” people talk about. I haven’t used residual high school angst to fuel my subsequent work in loud alternative music and stuff. I felt like I was treated mostly nice by everyone and Anacortes High School felt like a more or less supportive environment for someone like me who preferred to explore their own ideas. Mostly.
What did you think your life would become when you graduated?
By the time graduation came I pretty much knew that I wanted to record music. I was already doing it. During my high school years I discovered the one record store in Anacortes, “The Business,” and Bret Lunsford, the owner there, opened up so many doors for me, introducing me and my friends to the idea that we could make music and publications and go on tour and do all this exciting stuff on our own. Mind blowing. So I got into all that during high school, working at the store and recording my music in the back room after hours, releasing cassettes and selling them, playing occasional shows. At graduation, I knew that I wanted to continue to explore this, although I never thought of it as a way to make money. I thought I’d just work at The Business forever, or perhaps move to some other small town and start a similar place of my own, but always with the idea that I’d make art and music with all of my spare time.
My Life After High School
What happened in your life to you, for you, and by you in the last twenty years (how have you used your time and who have you become)?
After graduation, like a couple weeks after, my girlfriend Bronwyn and I drove across Canada in my station wagon, sleeping in the back at rest stops and eating mostly cereal. We went all the way to Halifax and came back the US. I loved “On The Road” and was young and wild. Also, I just wanted to be going on tour but didn’t know how to book shows so we went anyway, no music playing, just exploring.
I stayed in Anacortes for a year since Bronwyn was a year below me so we could move to Olympia together and go to Evergreen.
By summer 1997 we’d broken up but I still moved to Olympia and enrolled there. I had also made some connections already with the people at K Records, a pretty important record label in the pacific northwest music scene. So, when I got to Olympia I was kind of torn between life at college and life downtown which was much more exciting and cool. I knew I wanted to be making music and touring and doing all that and so many doors were open to me away from college. I had access to the K Records recording studio and everything, so I only lasted 2 quarters at Evergreen. I “took a break” and focused totally on the exciting things going on downtown. I made many older friends who’d already graduated and were doing their young artist punk things, living cheaply and making stuff all the time. I recorded obsessively and began releasing albums under the name “the Microphones” with K. I started going on tour, booking them myself by calling up places around the country and asking if I could play.
My first tour was in September 1997 and I knew immediately that this was the life I wanted. So fun. Attending my Evergreen classes after tasting that was difficult. In addition, my classmates were a year younger than me due to my year off so they all felt like children to me. I wanted to be released!
I kept the same life going, just slowly building it. I lived in various cheap run down houses in Olympia from 1997 to 2002 and made many albums during that time, touring probably like a third of the year. It was kind of utopian with the group of friends that lived downtown during that time. Nobody had demanding jobs or TV or a computer (or much money) and everyone just fed each other and helped with whatever was going on. It sounds schlocky when I write it but it’s true. It was the type of dreamy situation only 20-year-olds could do. Young punks obsessed with strange ideas and making a new world, at least in their little bubble.
The records I made during this time have become my most popular, particularly my third album “the Glow pt. 2” by the Microphones from 2001. It still is selling.
In 2002 I moved out of my house and into the back of my 1979 Toyota pickup and went on tour “forever.” I drove to the East coast and then flew to Europe and toured solo there with a train pass. In November 2002 I ended my train travels above the arctic circle in Bodø, Norway. The young dude who put on my show there said I could stay with him for a while and he helped me place an ad in the newspaper that said (in Norwegian) “Cabin wanted…” and then helped me field the responses. I lived in a remote cabin in the arctic from November 2002 to April 2003. It was dark and super intense and I was very alone. It was excellent and I think about it all the time. I published a book of my journals from that winter called “Dawn.”
While in the cabin in Norway I received a beautiful package in the mail (my mailbox was a hollowed out stump with “Elverum” written on it) from a French Canadian cartoonist named Geneviève Castrée, sending me her books and saying hello. We made plans to play some shows together in the Gulf Islands of BC when I returned. I left Norway, realizing it wasn’t home for me, and got back to Anacortes in July 2003, touring along the way, playing shows every night.
The little Gulf Islands tour with Geneviève was explosive and we fell in love right away. She moved to Anacortes and we got married on February 29, 2004, (Leap Day).
From 2003 to now I have lived in Anacortes. I stopped working with K records around 2003 because I wanted to be 100% self-sufficient and they weren’t paying me. I changed my band name to “Mount Eerie” to reflect my return to Anacortes, added an extra “e” to my last name to revert to the original Norwegian spelling, and started my own small record label called “P.W. Elverum & Sun,” not a real label, just a way to put out my own things.
Geneviève and I were both very driven self-sufficient artists who did both music and visual art, and we were both thrilled about going everywhere. Over the years we traveled (always to play concerts, the perfect excuse to travel and make money at the same time, not to mention the fun of playing music) to so many places. Every state and province, all of Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland… so many places.
Also during that time we organized a music festival every July in Anacortes called What The Heck? Fest which got pretty big. At its biggest, we probably had 500 people.
In my quest to be self-sufficient while still making music and selling it within a framework of manufacturing and distribution I’ve had to sort of reinvent the wheel, doing many things the hard way. I release mostly vinyl and I assemble the components myself usually. I ship the orders I receive on my website almost every day. I book my own tours by email mostly. I am my own manager, designer, etc. I guess this isn’t totally remarkable. These days everyone has to learn all these skills just to do their job. I just feel fortunate that I still get to pursue these ridiculous music ideas and there are people out there interested enough to give me money. I haven’t had to have a job since working at the Business in high school! I’ve been hustling and making it work for that long.
In January 2015 Geneviève and I had a daughter, our first kid after many years of wanting one. She is incredible.
4 months later Geneviève was diagnosed with advanced and inoperable pancreatic cancer, a really bad one. It was so insane. Totally out of nowhere, unreasonable, inexplicable. She was so extremely health conscious.
So, from May 2015 until July 2016 she did hardcore chemo and a million alternative health things, back and forth from our house to the hospital while I effectively single parented. She was very brave and tough but eventually died on July 9, 2016, in our house.
I haven’t done any music or anything resembling work for about 2 years now. I’m totally focused on my daughter, and now that Geneviève is dead, on getting rid of stuff, grieving, discovering a new life. I want to move. I want to leave Anacortes. I have plans to move to Orcas Island and make a life there. I am traumatized but I think dealing OK. There is a great support network for us that has been there through cancer and remains strong now.
I would have attended the class reunion but I am raw still. I don’t like the pitiful attention I get out in public so I stay home mostly. In addition, I have a one-and-a-half-year-old which means I don’t get to make many choices of my own. She is very wonderful.
In hindsight, and apart from cancer and death and baby stuff, it seems like I am pretty much the same person I was in high school. I am still doing the same thing essentially: Making my experimental music and trying to sell it directly to people, as legit and simple as possible. I always wonder when I’ll have to grow up and get a job but I’ve been postponing that for a long time now.
My Life Lessons
What were the major life lessons and wisdom that you gained during your journey over the last 20 years?
It’s difficult for me to think of my life as successes and failures, or to sum up any useful lessons. I think my default mode is more “go with the flow”-y. Everything seems to blur into the next thing, all inseparable and necessary, the good and bad. Sorry to get Yoda-ish.
Maybe that’s my lesson? Zoom out and accept the bad shit because good is also coming inevitably.
Also, I think I might have been raised with a built-in assumption that I can do what I want, or that I am not excluded, even though these things might not be true. This inherent confidence has served me well I think, letting me plunge into places and projects I maybe would have been hesitant about. I don’t know if this is a lesson, but I often tell younger people to try to assume that they’re invited to do the thing and to not get hung up on their own insecurities. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
Letter To My High School Self
If you could write your 18-year-old self (or however old you were when you graduated) a letter, and send it back in time, what would you say? What lessons, wisdom, encouragement, or warnings would you give yourself?
It’s me, Old You. You little twerp, wipe that smirk off your face.
I don’t want to give too much away and mess with the fabric of space and time, but you should study your French. Get good at French. Bone up. You may or may not meet someone in the future who is a French speaker, and you may or may not someday have a daughter who will be half French-Canadian whose mother was tragically killed by cancer who you’ll be responsible for maintaining the link to her strange Québecois heritage. It would help if you didn’t goof off in French class with Jeremy. I know the words are in there, just get some flash cards or whatever and learn it. Speak it better.
That is all. Other than that I think you are perfectly oblivious to the mysterious and good and bad things that await. If you held any more expectations than you do I think it would be a rougher ride. Just go with it.
Three years have passed since my 10-year reunion. Many of my classmate’s lives have already changed drastically.
One of the most popular posts on my blog was my interview with Phil Elverum. In July of 2018, after my discussion with him, he married Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe winner, actor Michelle Williams. They amicably separated in April of 2019, less than a year later.
There must have been some soul connection between the two. Just as Phil lost his wife to pancreatic cancer only 16-months after their child, Williams lost Heath Leadger while their daughter, Matilda was young.
Of course, Phil is not defined by this. He not only led the way for the late nineties and early two-thousands indie music scene, but he has also continued with albums as A Crow Looked at Me, which the New York Times named one of the best albums of 2017.
I hope you enjoyed chapter one. In the next installment of the Life After High School blog-to-book project, we begin chapter 2, called “REACH For The Stars,” where I dive head first into some of my personal funny high school memories (the ones I am not too embarrassed to talk about).
Are you from Generation X? I want to hear what you think! Please comment below and participate in the conversation about What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. What do you wish someone told you when you were eighteen?