Death doesn't become Phil Elvrum. But Phil Elvrum once became Death: During one memorable show, the 24-year-old man behind the Microphones dressed up as the Grim Reaper and strummed a few songs on his guitar. He has also arm-wrestled a bear and simulated a plane crash while onstage.
This month the minimalist ballads that accompany these gloriously surreal performances can be found on Song Islands (K Records), a collection of previously released and new tracks on which Elvrum sings about dreaming of thunderstorms, imagining what it's like to be a pearl diver, and thinking about how his friends will react when he's buried six feet under. While talking with Elvrum, we discovered a few ways to keep our own funeral at bay: Always cover yourself in lard while swimming, and never hang upside down for too long.
CITY PAGES: Last August you went on tour with K Records frontman Calvin Johnson and a few of your friends for the Paper Opera Tour. I heard it was like scary children's theater. What was a typical show like?
PHIL ELVRUM: I played this character, Death, who had a big wolf head. There was a plane crash--we'd turn the lights off and make a plane-crash sound--and I'd come out and sing my Death song and talk about how I ate all of the bodies, and say, "There's no avoiding me! I'm Death!" But there's a survivor to the plane crash, like in that Jeff Bridges movie Fearless. She says, "I survived! I'm invincible! I can do anything!" I get mad about it, but she takes off my wolf mask and unveils me. I'm Death, but underneath the mask, I'm a total sweetheart.
CP: A lot of your shows seem more like performance art than concerts. The last time you played in Seattle, the show ended with the audience hanging you upside down from the ceiling. How did that come about?
ELVRUM: That might be my favorite show of all time. I started playing the guitar, and there was this cave behind me--which was really just a fort with blankets that said "cave" on it. My friend Cara was in there in a bear costume. In the middle of my third song, she let out this big growl. I said, "What was that?" And someone in the audience said, "There's a cave behind you!" So I went into the cave with my flashlight, and I met the bear. We did a duet where we battled each other in song, but we had a tie, so we needed to settle our dispute. And we arm-wrestled each other, and the bear won--obviously, because it's a bear.
So the bear won my flashlight, and without my flashlight I'm nothing. The bear was like, "There's one way that you can get your flashlight back, but you wouldn't be interested."
People in the audience were like, "No, tell us!" They were actually getting really concerned about the flashlight.
The bear said, "Everyone has to levitate Phil without touching him for the space of three songs, and hold hands in a circle around him and sing along"--even though they didn't know the words because they'd never heard the songs before.
And the people said, "Levitate him without touching him? Yeah, right!"
In the back, I had already told a friend of mine to shout out, "Hey, I have an idea! Let's use this rope!" So they tied my feet together and hoisted me up to the ceiling of this warehouse space. It was incredible. People really did it! I played guitar hanging upside down for three songs, and they held hands and sang around me. It hurt so bad because all the blood went to my head, and the singing was forcing more blood to rush to my head. I think if I had stayed up any longer, I would have gotten brain damage. But I love physical challenges like that.
CP: Speaking of physical challenges, I read that you raised money for your tour by swimming the Guermes Channel in Washington. Was it difficult?
ELVRUM: It's not that long; it's about a 30-minute swim, but I was really afraid at first. People were thinking that we might die. But when we actually did it, it was fine. I was playing around underwater and splashing around. We put lard all over our bodies, and that really made a difference. We didn't get cold at all.
CP: You moved out there, to Olympia, and started playing music when you were really young, right? Like 14?
ELVRUM: No, at 14 I was listening to Vanilla Ice and collecting football cards! I met Calvin [Johnson] when I was 18 and moved to Olympia when I was 20.
CP: After living there all of those years when Olympia was the center of the music world, you recently left. I hear that you're thinking of moving to Norway after the tour. How do you think leaving what was once the hub of alternative music will influence your albums?
ELVRUM: Well, I've been touring so much that I haven't recorded anything. I have all of these songs that I might not ever record. I'm really happy to let them be live experiences and then just let them die. I just got this truck in December that doesn't have a radio or a CD player, so I'm just constantly singing to myself. I've developed this way--maybe it's bad--of doing freeform word association and doing little exercises in improvisation. Sometimes I'll say some really nonsensical things, and it makes a good framework for a song.
CP: Do you ever get lonely, singing to yourself in that van?
ELVRUM: No. I don't remember ever getting lonely. I like being on the road. But we'll see what Norway does to me.
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