We spoke with Phil Elverum about parenting by instinct, the texture of lavender, why sports are dumb and his knowledge of the wildlife outside his house.
I’ve been raising my daughter in a heavily reinforced atmosphere of food chain participation. It’s ancient and also just the actual way things are every day.
As a child, I was always taught to be conscious of my physical impact on any space I occupied. When I take stock of my memories, they’re full of “turn the water down, we’re in a drought!” or saving a shared resource for the next person. I’m not sure how well I’ve managed to follow that, but I am always trying to improve. What do you try to impart to your daughter about considering those around her?
I haven’t done much reading or analysis of different parenting philosophies. Probably due to my life circumstances during most of my daughter’s life I’ve had to just wing it and go on instinct, which is probably what everyone ends up doing anyway, reading or not. I just try to act like a normal person around her, to show her a good example. I am pretty regular about putting things away when we’re done using them. Saying “excuse me” before addressing a stranger. Saying please and thank you. Just manners and curiosity. I haven’t engaged in much resource conservation worry with her yet. Mostly I’m focused on making her into a nice human. So far she is very nice.
We talk about the animals all the time now. From the very beginning I was holding her in my arms standing in the yard pointing out the crows, ravens, deer, pigeons, squirrels, etc. We say “Hi raven!” and they squawk and I tell her they’re saying hello to her specifically. It seems kind of twee or romantic maybe but I also think that kind of deep coexistence is the way things really are and her child-mind is perfectly able to accept that kind of broad intimacy, at least for now.
Plus, when we eat fish or other meats we talk about the animal and where it came from, which friend of ours caught it and brought it to us, etc. Then when we’re on the ferry she runs around on the deck yelling “Hi orca!” and looking for salmon in the water. I guess without an organized effort I’ve been raising her in a heavily reinforced atmosphere of food chain participation. It’s ancient and also just the actual way things are every day.
If you didn’t do music, would you have a predilection toward any extreme sports or risky activities? Did any of them interest you as a child?
No. I don’t like fear. I climbed Mount Baker in 2004 and realized that I love, extremely love, being in the mountains, right up on it, in the vicinity, in that alpine world, but I don’t care for summiting. The mental sense of achievement about getting to the mathematical summit doesn’t matter to me.
When I go up in the mountains and eavesdrop on the other climbers and hikers in their high tech gear, they are all talking about their stats, which mountain they’re going to tackle next, what their time was, their pulse, this app on their phone that monitors their steps, how great their yoga pants wick balls sweat.
Surely there must be a more poetic appeal for them to being in that place. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable talking about it so they talk about the athletic aspects. Sports are dumb.
I dealt with a very sad and strange loss recently. One coping method I didn’t expect was getting into some very tangible hobbies. I bought a chessboard and started reading the Master and Commander series and I’d probably also get into model trains if I could. Is there anything totally unrelated to art that relaxes you or works a strategic part of your psychology?
I would probably follow that same trajectory if I wasn’t otherwise completely occupied by single parenting. I don’t have time to discover new things about myself very much these days. I just manage to get through each day and then go to sleep. Sometimes I can work the schedule so I can sneak forty-five minutes of songwriting time, or watch ten minutes of a movie, or answer some emails. Maybe it’s the effort to maintain mere functionality that relaxes me. I’m doing it, it feels like a major achievement.
I personally feel a duty to witness harshness, to be honest about reality. But who am I to compel a stranger to look into the abyss if it hurts them?
It’s been noted that you’re working on a large-scale book about Anacortes. Can you tell us about a few things you’ve uncovered in your research? Did anything shock you or make you laugh?
I had to put that project on the shelf as I got absorbed in other projects but I do intend to finish it someday. Basically it’s just my life story, starting with generations before I was born. Just trying to document all known things about me and my time on earth, all my memories and all potentially relevant background information. I enjoyed reading the existing family diary fragments of my Anacortes ancestors in the early 1900s, thinking about their day to day life, waking up in the smoldering stump field, working on the shore and on fishing boats, trying to make a life. One shocking episode involved a great uncle who died unexpectedly at sixteen years old of a brain aneurysm on Christmas Eve and my great grandparents’ different grieving styles, their different ways of diving into work or avoiding society.
There’s a strange need in our culture for many things to be “chill” – often in entertainment. But I don’t think anything actually is. It’s a weird, imploding planet where very little actually ends well for us. Should we all have a duty to witness that? Or do we collectively need to relax and watch a soothing nineties movie to deal with it?
I think it’s all personal. Maybe I don’t believe in duty. I personally feel a duty to witness harshness, to be honest about reality. But who am I to compel a stranger to look into the abyss if it hurts them? Yeah, it’s sad to watch so many people numbing themselves because reality hurts too much but I guess that’s the way it must be.
There’s also the argument that some small amount of numbing relief, like thirty minutes of Happy Gilmore, could restabilize a traumatized person and allow them to engage with the difficulties more effectively. That’s how I work at least. But yeah it does seem like most people live full time in that state of idiotic avoidance. It sucks. Drugs too.
Can you describe the last weird gift or action your daughter made or did for you? Did you need to pretend to like it?
So far I haven’t needed to pretend to like any of her gifts, they are all legitimately excellent. Earlier today she stopped on the sidewalk to examine some lavender and kept stroking it and smelling her hand. I asked “what’s it smell like?” and she said “lavender” and brought her palm over to me with the smell residue on it. A minor thing and a constant thing but still very nice.
I’m trying to change my life and lay the groundwork for as good as possible of a life for my daughter.
I’ve always had this very crippling sensitivity to sound. I live in New York, and if I’m talking to somebody and an above-ground subway rattles overhead, it just shuts my brain down completely. Same for car stereos, people who shriek when they talk, vacuums… are you allergic to the sound of anything?
Yes, I’m sensitive in that same way. Here in Anacortes the interruption is these military jets that circle from a nearby base. They circle right over town and if you’re standing talking to someone you just have to stop and stare dumbly at the person mid-sentence for a minute or two until the jet recedes.
Then it comes back a few minutes later. It’s super oppressive, for the sensory ways you describe but also because it’s this brutal reminder of our geo-political fucked-ness. Some assholes here have bumper stickers claiming to love the sound.
Lastly, what do you want for the rest of your life? Do you think in the short-term or think of what will happen in five, ten, fifteen years?
I am currently thinking long term. I’m trying to change my life and lay the groundwork for as good as possible of a life for my daughter. We’re building a house on a different island in a big stretch of forest and I plan to raise her there and live for the rest of my life in this quieter place. I will probably continue to visit the cities and play shows there as long as people are interested, but my focus is on a quieter life, slowly declining into happy obscurity and dignified poverty, eating the food around me, reading books and puttering around, maybe rowing a row boat sometimes. Very shitty internet access.
TEN PHYSICAL POSSESSIONS
We asked Phil to describe or take a quick photo of each of these items in his house.
View from a window
Deadly if misused
Symbol of absurdity
Most played record
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: July 26, 2017
Total questions: 9 + 10
Word count: 1498
Reading time: Six minutes
Mosquito larvae: Yes
Weapon drawer: Yes
Food chain: Unavoidable
New islands: 1
A Crow Looked at Me, absurdity, abyss, access, alpine, Anacortes, analysis, ancestor, ancient, app, book, bumper sticker, Christmas, conservation, crow, curiosity, daughter, deadly, deer, fish, fishing, food chain, generations, geopolitics, gifts, Happy Gilmore, harshness, high tech, hiking, household, human, internet, larvae, lavender, manners, Master and Commander, meat, military jets, misused, mosquito, Mount Baker, Mount Eerie, obscurity, orca, parenting, Phil Elverum, pigeon, poverty, pulse, putter, raven, reading, record, salmon, sidewalk, smell, society, sports, squirrel, summiting, sweat, The Microphones, Washington, weapons, wet, wick, yoga pants, zen
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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