Intimacy. Ever since the heyday of the Beat Happening, this quality has thoroughly permeated much of the underground music of the Pacific Northwest. From the mid-’80s emergence of those lo-fi heroes to the contemporary dominance of their indie-folk descendents, “intimacy” seems to be the operative word in describing former-Happening frontman Calvin Johnson’s K Records oeuvre. While casual listens may only yield the description “precious acoustic music with loud percussion and gratuitous analog hum”, each of these artists and bands delightfully combine artistry, DIY studio wizardry, and the distinct impression that they might play your basement if asked nicely enough. And while the Olympia-based collective’s denizens are certainly all unique, no two acts seem to better define the label’s now-archetypal sound than Little Wings and The Microphones.
In his documentary Wise Old Little Boy, rookie filmmaker Ryer Banta follows Kyle Field and Phil Elverum — the respective alter-egos of Little Wings and The Microphones — during their spring 2002 tour of the same name. Following the two songwriters as they explore rural landscapes, discuss the natures of performance and musicianship, and perform together at oddball venues in miniscule Northwestern towns, Banta’s film is a minimalist exploration of the quirks, eccentricities, and genuine honesty and intent of his subjects. The narration — culled from interviews with Field and Elverum themselves — is sparse, allowing the performances and excursions to take prevalence. We see the duo constructing a paper fort before a show in a gyro shop. We see Kyle patiently scribbling lyrics on his hand while Phil runs around a field with toilet paper streaming from his sweater. We see the two spread-eagled across a stage during the middle of a show, casually debating the meaning of the word “boom” amid the audiences’ giggles. And somewhere within the sheer weirdness of it all, we happen to see some damn good performances.
As the film begins, our protagonists rehearse in true Beat Happening style in the backyard of Kyle’s Portland home. With Phil sitting behind a half-complete drum kit and Kyle jaggedly strumming his electric guitar, the two practice the call-and-response “Boom!” from Little Wings’ 2002 album Light Green Leaves. A warm-up show at Reed College soon finds them performing the multi-parted “Mount Eerie” — from the Microphones album of the same name. Keeping in tune with the album’s conceptual nature, Kyle abandons the drum kit during the song’s bridge to assume the Blue Meanie-esque character of “Death”, cartoonishly frolicking around the stage and screaming “Do you see what happens?” before making a joking attempt at suffocating Phil.
In an early narrative, Phil muses on the uncomfortable duality of being a recording artist, mourning the “weird, limited public version of myself” that presents itself to fans and critics. While the film’s bulk isn’t so explicitly existential, it is fascinating to see its scenes slowly reveal the legitimate childlike fascination and artistic aversion Phil and Kyle feel towards their own unlikely roles as critically-acclaimed musicians. In a coffee shop in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho the two eye a local newspaper proclaiming them “the two greatest singer-songwriters in America.” Kyle exclaims, “That’s awesome!”
Just as Banta seems intent on capturing little moments like these, the songs themselves seem to strike a balance between the intimate and the artistic. Elverum and Field write challenging, ambitious, and oft-indulgent music, but the presentation and lo-fi aestheticism lends a sincerity and ultimate believability, especially when watching the two on such an unconventional tour. This is most manifest during songs from Mt. Eerie, the ambitious “final” Microphones album recorded around the same time as the Wise Old Little Boy tour. Stopping for a brief appearance at an Idahoan radio station, Phil performs “Universe”. With humbling deliberation and reserve, he transfigures the album’s epic centerpiece from a sprawling vision-quest narrative into a bare-bones acoustic dirge. It is performances like these that might make Wise Old Little Boy a confusing introduction to the K Records pantheon, but fans of the label should find this documentary a delight. Microphones fans, in particular, should rejoice — Phil Elverum, now performing under the moniker “Mt. Eerie”, rarely performs these songs anymore. It may be too subtle to stand alongside Stop Making Sense or any of the other canonical rockumentaries, but Ryer Banta’s Wise Old Little Boys is a brief and enjoyable glimpse into the unique worlds of Phil Elverum and Kyle Field. And that’s all it needs to be.