The Only Truth is Music

I think it was Jack Kerouac who said he would one day find the right words, and when he did, they would be simple. Mount Eerie‘s short acoustic tour this summer, opening for Bonnie “Prince” Billy, has been a study in such simplicity. The final night of their joint tour found them in The Neptune Theatre in Seattle. A fitting venue, with neptune’s face high above the stage, the ancient god of waters, with his green glowing eyes. And Mount Eerie (Phil Elverum) is all about the mysteries of water, island dharma, and watery places under the stars.

He Sees a Darkness: Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Finally, a chance to photograph an Indie legend, Will Oldham, who performs under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, live at the Neptune Theatre in Seattle. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, but has deep ties to the Pacific Northwest. I took a lot of pictures and will post two sets, one of his performance, and the other of Phil Elverum, who fronts two bands: Mount Eerie and The Microphones. Phil is equally mysterious. Both artists have been extraordinarily productive in their careers. This was my first shoot where I had to remain seated the entire time, which presents a whole different set of challenges.

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No Road Back: Experiencing Mount Eerie Live

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I’ve been thinking about what it feels like to be a fan of an artist who, far away from the world I live in, creates music that, when followed to its logical end, flows to places of great beauty and great detachment. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s statement that “From beauty no road leads to reality.” When the music stops, it leaves me without a clear way back to reality.

Seeing Phil Elverum’s latest Mount Eerie band launch their spring tour juggernaut at The Business, the small independent record shop in Anacortes, Washington (which is also Phil’s home town), dropped me into the world of Elverum‘s own map. I say latest “tour band” because he selects different backing musicians for each tour, this time choosing Julia Chirka (from No Kids), Ashley Eriksson (from LAKE), and his partner, musician and visual artist Geneviève Castrée (from Ô Paon). The one and only consistent member of Mount Eerie being Phil.

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Melody and song structure become lines on a map. Lyrics become ghosts. In Elverum’s world, lyrics walk like rootless wandering spirits through a landscape he alone sees and creates with his layers of big sound. Drums and bass crash and pulse and pump energy through his construction. A thin, tough thread of continuity defines itself as it follows the contours of the land Elverum creates.

Listening to Mount Eerie perform songs from the two latest records, “Clear Moon” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2012) and “Ocean Roar” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2012), his sometimes soft, sometimes crashing, sound enveloped me, these songs that poured out of Phil’s teeming mind in one intense, prolific year. I’m drawn into Phil’s shadowlands. I become lost in the wild. And then, the music stops.

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The one-hour live set started out shaky as these four musicians began the process of spooling up their road energy, adjusting to their live energy together, getting the mixing board to balance them out, exploring their ability to navigate through the songs as a single living entity. There were naturally a few false starts to songs, one song interrupted and restarted, all part of learning to read each other through the song. I’ve come to believe that the most vital aspect to the success of any art form is the artist’s ability to accept vulnerability. As the band’s vulnerability opened up, it made me feel vulnerable, too. If the exchange between artist and listener/observer is right, I think we’re supposed feel what they feel.

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I usually rely on song lyrics to serve as a map to where a songwriter is going, literally and figuratively, what the artist wants me to hear and see and feel. Mount Eerie’s songs all have something inside them, a worry or a fear that death may arrive unannounced before something essential can be experienced or finished. The symbols are cloudy, and meaning is just out of reach. All life is shorter than we think; time seems to move faster than we can cope with. Even in a song. Our lives, like Mount Eerie’s lyrics, are a little like ghost lives.

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Lines from John Keats’ poem float into view: “When I have fears that I may cease to be” and “Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance….” Time is short. Mystery is long. Death may arrive unannounced before something essential can be experienced, or finished. No matter how many years remain, I know I’ll never finish all I start, there will never be time enough to experience the “high romance.” Elverum knows that, too.

Unmoored, what do I do next? When beauty leads me into a place where no road leads me back, what can we do? Hannah Arendt is so right. John Keats is so right. And Phil Elverum is so right. In the end, it’s pure desire, which is to say pure delusion, to think that we, as fans, can get someplace, to feel something ultimate, to possess something ethereal. We can see the symbols, but the mystery remains.

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Driving home after seeing this amazing intimate performance in a small shop in a small seaport town on an island in Puget Sound, I felt absolutely no closer to understanding anything about the music of Mount Eerie. I even felt a little sad. A few days later, as I write this, I can feel the doubt in my breathing. I can feel the desire in my memory. In the words of John Keats, “Love and fame to nothingness do sink.” I may not be able to describe it, but I know what it is I love. It’s there in the shadows. Love into nothingness.

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Mount Eerie’s Business

Phil Elverum, Geneviève Castrée (Ô Paon), Ashley Eriksson (LAKE), and Julia Chirka (No Kids) played a live in-store performance (kicking off Mount Eerie‘s current tour) on 10 April 2013.