September 12, 2002

The Man Behind the Microphone

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On Wednesday the 4th, the Fanclub Collective, a recently established student organization dedicated to promoting independent and local music on campus, kicked off its fall season of shows with a K Records showcase of sorts. The Microphones headlined a show which also featured Calvin Johnson, Wolf Colonel, and local band Earl’s Garage. Having previously staged successful shows by the Dismemberment Plan and Rainer Maria, the Fanclub this year presents the Indie Rock Seen film series at Cornell Cinema as well as fall concerts by Brendan Benson with Cex, The Walkmen, and Explosions in the Sky. For all those who missed this past show, daze is here to get you excited for more excellent performances on the Cornell campus.

After a rocking opening set by Cornell band Earl’s Garage — which was well-received by the slowly growing audience — K Records founder and influential Beat Happening frontman Calvin Johnson took the stage accompanied by only an acoustic guitar. As it turned out, that was all he needed. Since this was the first date on Johnson’s tour in support of his unconventional first solo album, What Was Me, nobody really knew what to expect from the famously quirky singer.

But despite the audience’s unfamiliarity with the material, Calvin’s charismatic presence got everyone — from converted fans to complete neophytes — into his performance, and his unforgettable dancing style was the least of it. At one point, the singer led the entire audience in an impromptu whistling session, encouraging everyone, in keeping with the K aesthetic, to do their own thing. During another “song,” Calvin jumped off stage, moving all around the room, inviting people to join in a “dance party” and singing seemingly whenever he felt like it. When, during between-song banter, a fan requested a song, Calvin said he’d play it only if the fan joined him — which, of course, he did, and the pair sang a touching duet that brought back memories of Johnson’s innocent Beat Happening heyday.

But the true highlight was an off-the-cuff improvisation based on newspaper headlines, including choice lines like “Bush is being pimped,” “Ashcroft is an ass” and “Cheney is a heartless corpse.” Johnson’s entire set was less a concert than an exercise in audience participation, and it was always entertaining.

Next up was Wolf Colonel — the alias of Jason Anderson — who was accompanied for the first several songs of his set by Phil from the Microphones and the other Jason who was touring with the bands. Wolf Colonel’s performance was much more traditional than Johnson’s, but no less fun. Armed with delicate, introspective songs, Anderson seemed to enjoy every minute he was on stage, and very grateful for the audience’s appreciation. And he got plenty of appreciation, especially when he worked humorous indie rock references into his lyrics. His upbeat strumming and emotional vocal delivery were a great contrast to the laidback country of Johnson’s set, and a perfect soundtrack to summer.

The night was capped off with a phenomenal set from the Microphones, on which the band’s frontman (and often, only member) Phil Elvrum was joined by all the night’s other performers, as well as two Cornell students who Phil pulled from the audience to improvise along. From opening note to ending squall of feedback, the Microphones mesmerized the entire audience. The band played two cuts from the recent album The Glow, pt. 2 (the evocative image-poem “The Moon” and “You’ll Be In the Air”) and two from the singles compilation Song Islands, plus several new songs (one of which Phil called “Universe”).

Every song was an example of pure emotion, with Phil pouring his whole soul into the performance. He shook around frequently, threw his head back and howled and yipped, and laughed whenever his band executed a particularly great solo or drum fill. As Phil told us after the show, “there were amazing guitar solos tonight … a lot of the set, I was just cracking up, realizing that I was like playing in a jam band, with really professional equipment and just really huge solos.” And he was right, too — the band was tight throughout the entire hour-long set, turning the Microphones’ intense songs into epic jams, bristling with raw power. In many ways, the concert outdid even the Microphones’ excellent studio albums, and the crowd was obviously as into it as Phil was, dancing wildly to the raucous jam at the end of “The Moon,” and swaying along meditatively for the rest of the performance.

Calvin Johnson joined Phil and co. on stage, still dancing crazily and chiming in with his distinctive baritone. Johnson’s presence — and that of Jason Anderson and all the other musicians — was the best indication all night of K Record’s sense of friendship and unity. The whole night was just a bunch of friends jamming and having fun, and those who were there were privileged to witness it.

After the show, standing outside Noyes Community Center, daze had an opportunity for an informal chat with Phil from the Microphones.

daze: It looks from your website that you’ve got a pretty rigorous tour schedule, with gigs almost every night?

Phil: Yeah, that’s the way to do it.

daze: Yeah, how does that work for you?

Phil: I get into the zone, like it doesn’t seem hectic, in fact, if I don’t play during a night I feel weird usually, like once I’m in the pattern of it, it gets to be about 8:00 and I start to feel like, umm, shouldn’t I be sound checking?

daze: You’re heading across the pond soon, do you have time there to stop and look around a little bit?.

Phil: Yeah, more time. I have stretches where I am playing every night and I have, you know, chunks of days off in places, and then I end in Norway, in November and then I’m just going to stay there, so I have a lot of time off there, just an indefinite amount.

daze: Is there a certain aim or purpose you have in touring?

Phil: To connect with people, like you know, go touch and be touched.

daze: How do you know the audience is getting it?

Phil: Vibes, you just have to feel, I mean obviously the audience is getting it in some way or another and obviously I’m getting something from the audience too. It’s not just a one-way transmission, you know what I mean? Or it can be, but I hate when it is, it’s not what I’m going for.

daze: Do you usually tour your material before you record?

Phil: Yeah. Well no. Lately I haven’t, probably all these songs I’m playing I’m not going to record; like the difference between the live and the recorded is just getting wider and wider. And there are songs I sort of play versions of live but I don’t try and emulate the recording. I usually make up songs at shows, like while I’m playing them. Every night play a little bit more of it and make up a little bit more of it.

daze: So, you mentioned you ate at the little place over there [motioning to J’s], right? What did you think of Cornell dining?

Phil: Amazing pizza, just incredible. I mean I’ve traveled all over Italy and this pizza … [laughter]

daze: Completely unrelated to pizza, but how do you think of the themes for your albums? A lot of people have said that you sing a lot about fire on The Glow, and the different elements on other albums

Phil: Yeah, they sort of happen by accident … Recording the album, a lot of the songs over the course of months will sound the same, just because I’m going through weird phases in my life, it’s inevitable I think.

daze: Do you have any advice for future musicians out there?

Phil: Geez, no. Uh, no. Not really. I mean, I’m not really into the idea of having people thinking they should follow my advice, becaus
e I’m just some guy.

daze: I noticed, sometimes right before you deliver a line, you’ll shake your head from side to side … and then after a part of a song where everything just seems to fit, you’ll be laughing.

Phil: Really? Yeah, there were amazing guitar solos tonight, and that drum set … It was really odd. Halfway through, I was just like “wow, look what I’m doing!” But … you heard the solos — Jesus … I don’t know about my facial expressions when I sing, I just try to be aware of the words I’m saying, rather than singing it the same every time and forgetting what I’m saying.

[at this point a nearby fan jumps in]

Fan: Do use local people whenever you go somewhere? Have you ever been in a situation where it didn’t work out?

Phil: Uh, no. Well, what would be “not working out?”

Fan: I mean, if for some reason the guy couldn’t play.

Phil: What do you mean “couldn’t play,” though? Lately I have been doing this, and I’m into it. It’s sort of founded on the idea that there’s no such thing as bad playing. Everyone’s so self-conscious about their skills, and as soon as they get up there … the songs are so simple, as long as people are just hearing themselves, it works. With ten people on the stage, you don’t need to play chords.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman