Phil Elverum Speaks About the Microphones' 2000 Masterpiece It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water

Interviews, KEXP 50, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Photo by Dave Lichterman

As KEXP celebrates 50 years of bringing our love of music to the community, we find ourselves this week at the turn of the century. As part of our celebration of the year 2000 this week, KEXP features writer and columnist Martin Douglas recently spoke with Phil Elverum about his on-again, off-again project the Microphones and the sensational 2000 album released under its name, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water.

Not many artists can say they wrote their masterpiece and then a year later, wrote another masterpiece that would be widely regarded as the monolith in which its creator would never be able to escape the looming shadow it cast more than two decades on. But that’s exactly what happened to Phil Elverum’s gorgeous, strikingly original, majestic, beatific 2000 album It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, his second full-length LP as the Microphones.

Most fans of the Microphones will point to The Glow Pt. 2 as Elverum’s signature work as a musician. Present company included; I have the album’s sleeve pinned to my KEXP office tack board as I type these words. But it’s worth saying Elverum has written and recorded plenty of truly exceptional works since. He’s tackled grief as elegantly as any artist I’ve heard (A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only as Mount Eerie), he’s crafted immense pieces of intriguing sound design blended with truly affecting songwriting (the Microphones’ Mount Eerie, the album that led him to change the name of his project), he’s created albums with his idol, Eric’s Trip singer/bassist Julie Dorion (both volumes of Lost Wisdom) he’s wrapped up an entire era of his career with a 45-minute-long opus of a song (Microphones in 2020). 

But the thrill of discovery that comes from listening to It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water — especially without the frame of reference supplied by the dozens of pale imitators — is immense. Think about listening to this album when this sound was new. Is it folk-pop? Indie-rock? Experimental post-singer/songwriter/drone/found sound/chamber music? Florid, Wordsworth-esque poetry found on the floor of an Olympia house venue and set to art-damaged twee? The Microphones’ second full-length for the vaunted K Records is all of these things, as well as a shining test document of the left-of-center, homespun DIY explosion innovated in Washington State’s capital city and harbor towns like Anacortes. 

Any weirdo singer/songwriter crafting dense musical epics in their basement since the turn of the century owes a significant debt to It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water. The musical breadth, the lyrical depth; auteur theory applied to supposedly “lo-fi” recording techniques. Phil Elverum’s 2000 masterwork is the rain that sprung the forest.

From the stereo panning of a pinging acoustic guitar that fills the first minute of opener “The Pull” — my pick for Elverum’s best-ever Track One — it felt almost preordained that It Was Hot would be a fully engrossing experience, rife with twists and turns and jewels which only revealed themselves on repeat listens. Matt LeMay’s review of the album for Pitchfork hones in on the record’s unpredictability and makes a surprisingly cromulent argument for why indie music should be more like stand-up comedy.

When Elverum’s voice — as boyish as waking up from a nap after playing with sticks outside all morning — ambles in after one-and-a-quarter minutes on “The Pull,” his mellow, harmonious tenor sings of transitioning to the afterlife and “a blowy oceanside above the pounding of waves. The peace Elverum invokes here doesn’t take long to get split asunder by a rapturous noise-pop outro, all growling distortion and euphoric drums and wordless harmonies and the sort of blissed-out catharsis that probably only comes in the moments after a person dies.

A similar catharsis appears a little over a third of the way through the 11-minute, multi-movement emotional centerpiece “The Glow,” where an acoustic guitar’s loose strings and Elverum’s voice (and the breathy light touch of a singer named Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, now identifiable by her first name like Madonna) makes way for a rousing forward push articulating the warmth of finding love.

“The Glow” is indicative of the musical ambition of It Was Hot; teeming with resplendent doo-wop (the eponymous ode to Karl Blau), decaying drone-pop (“The Gleam”), threadbare experimental folk (“(something)”), and an ominous, doomy, droning outro (“Organs”). In the tradition of K Records artists providing a counter to the boringness of hypermasculinity, Khaela Maricich (later of neo-twee icons the Blow) lends her most gorgeous vocals. The second movement of “Ice” and instrumental “The Breeze” are respectively foreboding and melancholy, and “Drums” — what you see is what you get there — is celebratory and vibrant. Not to mention fairly geographically accurate; my first visit to Elverum’s hometown of Anacortes found me stumbling on an honest-to-god drum circle practice wrapping up.

In the warm, naturalistic intimacy of It Was Hot, one perfectly chosen cover fits seamlessly in the diorama of the album. Originally written and performed by indie-rock cult heroes Eric’s Trip, Elverum flips the arrangement of "Sand" into a tearjerker of a mini-ballad, wringing all the emotional power out of what sounds like a hurdy-gurdy and melodica to convey the original’s themes of crush anxiety and connection over a mutual, undefined sadness.

If you’ve followed this story at any point in the last two decades, you know how it ends. The musical scope, the aesthetic and lyrical beauty, the sheer wonderment of It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water became dramatically overshadowed by its immediate successor a year (almost to the day) later. The Glow Pt. 2 would turn out to be the defining moment of DIY, psychedelic folk/noise/”bedroom”/drone/indie pop, regarded as a “best of genre” salvo by most of the people who have been lucky enough to have had their lives touched by it. There’s a cliché that goes, “Nobody remembers who came in second.” Regardless of the high regard in which many people hold the Microphones’ third full-length, that does not apply here.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Phil Elverum about the majesty of It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water. About happy accidents and improvisation. About friendship and the natural world. About the distinction of getting to have the K Records shield stamped on your work. And ultimately, about creating back-to-back masterpieces and people only attaching themselves to one.

KEXP: So what was your mindset coming out of recording and releasing and touring behind Don't Wake Me Up

Phil Elverum: It was 1999. How many years ago was that? 23? It was a long time ago. I was 21 years old. What was my mindset? I was not a kid anymore, but I was a young adult, if you call it that. Well, first of all, I never really toured behind albums, I never did things in that way. I always was not playing the songs that anyone had ever heard before. Just kind of moving on or playing works in progress. Back then, I was recording constantly and touring constantly, and so the distinctions between albums sort of flowed into each other; everything was an extension of the thing before in a really fluid way. And in hindsight, it looks like, yeah, those are two different albums, Don't Wake Me Up is this one vibe, and it's like dark and foggy and black and white, and It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water was colorful and it felt different. But at the time I was just like, in the river midstream. 

At the time, did you feel any sort of romantic sentiment about being a K Records artist?

Oh, for sure, yeah. K Records was a big deal to me as a teenager. It was sort of my portal into the world of independent music, discovering K and Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars, all the Pacific Northwest independent labels and sort of scenes was a big deal for me to discover as a small town Anacortes teenager, via Nirvana — and then giving smaller and more local and micro-labels, and then to become involved with K later was pretty unbelievable to me. Yeah, definitely romantic. 

So tell me about the early stages of recording It Was Hot, We Stayed In the Water. When did you know that you were actually working on a new album? 

It was probably about halfway through, like when about half of the songs were done, is when I thought, "OK, this is an album. These songs that I'm accumulating are not just some various compilation tracks or singles." These go together and there's a theme here, and there's also a theme to my life. I was really driving out to the ocean at Westport a lot. Just all the ocean beaches outside of the Aberdeen area, the shortest access point from Olympia. But anyway, yeah, it was really ocean-oriented and lake-oriented, swimming, that was like the social scene for me and my friends in Olympia. And so it made it into the songs I was making, and it felt like that's what this album is about. That was the jumping-off point at least and got more mystical than that. 

That actually jumps right into my next question, which is, are you explicitly referring to a body of water in the album's title? 

No, not a specific one. There were lots of different lakes and oceans that I remember, lots of swimming spots. I could list off the specific ones. But no, it's not [just] one. 

You include a cover of Eric Trip's "Sand," which is how a lot of people, myself included, first got into Eric's Trip. What made you want to include one of their songs and that song in particular? 

That's crazy that you say that was how you got into Eric's Trip, because I mean, I get it, I guess, but my perspective is fully flipped. They're my favorite band, and so I just will forever think of myself as this little twerp that is like, a little peanut down here. And Eric's Trip are these legends, they're a big deal for me, but I maybe recognize that not everyone knows about them. And actually, they're super obscure. But for me, it was a big deal. I'm sorry, I forgot what your question was. Why did I do that?

Why did you include "Sand" in this set of songs? 

Good question. It is a very rare occurrence of me doing a cover, and maybe it's like the only time I've done a cover, at least put it on a regular album of mine. That song was recorded for a compilation that was a cassette compilation tribute to Eric's Trip that somebody was making in Ontario. And I liked it a lot. I like how it turned out a lot, I like Khaela [Maricich]'s singing on it and the organ. I just put it on the album because it felt like it fit for some reason. Kind of doesn't. But that's OK. 

I feel like it does fit! Your reimagining of the musical arrangement really brings out the song's emotional power, and I feel like it transitions pretty seamlessly into "The Glow." So I wonder, how much consideration did you put into that particular transition? 

That particular transition, none, because, it's been a while since I've listened to it, but in my memory, "Sand" ends with the tape running out in sort of this like, [incoherent] sound right? It doesn't like fade out or anything. Oftentimes, when I was recording a song on the end of the reel, I would just record it, every track on the song, I would record it off the end of the tape. So whenever the reel ran out, it would do that little loop sound and then the first chord of "The Glow," part one, starts right away. No thought was put into that transition other than just, I liked doing that weird, abrupt ending of a reel running out. 

That's really interesting.

But I might be wrong. Is that actually how "Sand" ends? I can't remember for sure.

It does have that little [sound of the] tape reel running out, but then it goes into the first chord of "The Glow," which is very similar musically. 

I see. No, that was just a happy accident, which was sort of the basis of all of my recordings, being lucky with the accidents. 

What percentage would you say the happy accidents make it onto the recording?

A lot. A high percentage. It's sort of a recording philosophy back then. Especially recording on tape versus nowadays recording on computers. The computer almost wants you to do it over and over again and try and like hone it and get it perfect. And then even after it's recorded, you can do so much to it to pursue some idea of perfection. 

But back then it was a pain in the butt to do it over and over again, and so I always avoided doing multiple takes of a thing and was more tuned in to just getting the feeling right. So that was the technological reason for pursuing charismatic sloppiness, maybe is a way to put it, but also it just sort of aligned with the punk ideals of not trying to make something quote-unquote "perfect," but just trying to make something real. Yeah, I can't put a percentage number on it, but a lot. 

What led you to write an ode to your friend, Karl Blau? 

That is a half cover, actually of a Karl Blau song. At the end part of that song where it's like, "Long live his words or caught up on his own." It was one of Karl's songs that I really loved, and I realized that it applied to Karl and how I saw him as this sort of wandering genius musician, but also a little bit unappreciated and sort of off on his own doing his own weird thing. I think in his song he's talking about, that's the Moon rotating around the Earth alone and beautiful and sort of special, but also disconnected. Having that duality of being beloved and nearby, but alone. So I wrote the first half, it was a dream I had about Karl. Karl was in the water, encouraging us all to swim out beyond the breakers and tread water. And it fit well with his song, the second part. Plus it fit with that reference to the song "Blue Moon" and then Blau means "blue" in German. It's just sort of this little web of references. 

I assume that this next question is one you get a lot, but do you ever think about the significance of your relationship to nature? Because a lot of your work, especially this album, takes place almost exclusively in outdoor spaces. 

Yeah, I mean, I do think about that a lot. Or kind of. Maybe I've gone beyond thinking about it, and it's just sort of like the background question that is always there with my life. And there have been times in my songwriting life where I have more directly engaged with that question and I pushed against it and been a little bit like, hey, you know, everything is nature or, you know, gotten more meta and philosophical about engaging with that question. But lately, I just sort of let it be. I personally have my views about what is nature and what is not nature and what it means to be engaged with the natural world. 

But back then, when I was 21, singing about swimming in the ocean, the clouds and the beach and dah dah dah — and using these big, huge natural world metaphors to try and tell my own stories. I think I couldn't see outside of it. I couldn't. It was like my only vocabulary. It was what seemed normal and almost neutral to me. I wasn't trying to sing only about the natural world. It was just that was the world that I knew of to speak about. What I'm trying to say is it seemed like the world itself. I wasn't exaggerating-ly trying to be like, nature guy. It just seemed like I was talking about the regular world. I didn't realize until other people pointed it out that I was overly nature-y. 

I think it's kind of a symptom and effect of growing up in the Pacific Northwest, right? Because we have these beautiful, gorgeous, majestic outdoor spaces, you can't help but be outdoors. You find that the people who were more city kids are people who came from elsewhere. 

Yeah, exactly. It totally seems normal because that's the world I'm from. But then I zoom out or I travel or encounter more of the world and I realize, Oh, it's not normal, it's just this weird little bubble I'm from. At the time, though, I mean, I wasn't totally naive. I wasn't an idiot. I knew that cities existed. But part of it was also like, I'm making these songs, I'm not trying to represent the entirety of existence. I'm not trying to sing about Quiznos or whatever [laughter], I wanted to sing about what seemed like the most grounded. And so that, to me, seemed like the world in its most basic state, which is sort of a pre-human idea. 

Was there a sense of collaboration with the people that you worked with or did you write all of the parts? 

No, there was definitely a sense of collaboration. It was pretty loose. I mean, I had ideas, but then I was also open to other people's ideas, especially on It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water. There was a lot of like, I don't know what's going on here. For example, is the song "(Something)" on that album? 


Khaela Maricich wrote that song. That's her song. So, yeah, totally collaborative. It's almost like a compilation, in parts. 

That's awesome. I love the parts where you can hear, you know, you and other artists talking to each other in the background. I think that's one of those cool things you were talking about, you know, spontaneous artistic creation when it comes to recording on tape. 

Yeah, exactly. 

Was there any existing inspiration for how you write your lyrics or were you just writing what you feel, as they say? 

I for sure had inspiration, I was mostly trying to tune in to my own ideas, but I can look back and sort of see the different phases of inspiration. I think right around then was when I had a little shift in my songwriting. After listening to early on Palace Brothers, Will Oldham, his songs and how they were sort of like folky country, but also deeply poetic if you actually listened to the words and like, kind of obtuse and just mysterious. But like in a literary way, I hadn't really been placing that much thought or importance on my lyrics before then. So it made me write in a more free and kind of deep way. Or at least aim for depth. 

Do you think about sequencing as you're writing and recording, or does it tend to come to you after the fact? 

I think sequencing usually enters into it when I'm about two-thirds or three-quarters done with the album, and I can sort of feel the order of the thing and then I can recognize there are some gaps or some bridges that need to happen. And so that's when I'll write a few songs or not even songs, just chunks of music that can work as glue to make it flow. 

And my last question. Do you feel any type of way about this masterpiece being dramatically overshadowed by The Glow Pt. 2

That's funny, "any type of way."

Oh, not really. I mostly don't pay that much attention to how the stuff I've made is ranked in comparison to itself. Since I'm also my own record label, I do notice which ones sell more copies, so I'm aware of that. Or just people saying things to me, yeah, I'm aware, but it doesn't get under my skin or anything. It's really nice to be appreciated for anything. I think it's just a strange phenomenon of being a human that we all have these kind of tendencies to rank things. I don't have much of that tendency. I don't think. I have a seven year old daughter, and she's constantly just like, 'What's better, a hamster or a cat?' Just ranking everything and it's pretty annoying. And so it feels that same way to me.

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