IMAGE: Jarod Opperman
It’s 5 pm at the White Stag building, and Phil Elverum wants to show me his bedroom. “I think it’s just up this flight of stairs,” he says, the pit-a-pat of his flip-flops echoing as he bounds up two steps at a time. Once we reach the fourth floor, I realize we’re actually in the middle of the Portland outpost of the University of Oregon’s Architecture School, which has called the turn-of-the-century building home since 2008. The room is littered with iMacs, model landscapes, and one unlikely resting place. “I figured the only way to write about the building was to actually live in it,” Elverum says, opening a closet that’s become his makeshift bedroom. “Hopefully, I get a better [night’s] sleep tonight.”
Elverum, a 31-year-old musician and artist from Anacortes, Wash., is giving me a tour of the Old Town structure, where he lived during the first week of April. If that sounds strange, then you probably don’t know Elverum, whose recorded works under the names Microphones and Mt. Eerie over the past 10 years perfectly capture the mossy, damp isolation of the Pacific Northwest. The residency was Matthew Stadler’s idea—he’s the ambitious artist who recently took over UO’s Publication Studio in the historic building.
Stadler’s only direction for the project was to have an artist create some sort of audio or visual history of the White Stag block. In addition to spending his days wandering through the building’s basement tunnels, corridors and staircases, Elverum decided he needed to “be the building.” To do that, Elverum recorded the sound of rain on the roof, reverberations in the narrow stairwell and people’s voices along with his own drones and song fragments at night once the building cleared out. His goal: create an alternate history of the building.
“I’m not really trying to actually capture the history—real historians can do that much better,” he says. “The writing I’ve done so far is like creating a new mythology of the place, a fake history, based on the feeling I get living here for a week.”
But to create a new story, he had to bone up on the old one. Built on the corner of what is now Northwest Naito Parkway and West Burnside Street in 1907, the White Stag building was designed for the Willamette Tent and Awning Co. During the 1920s, it housed the Norcrest China Co., and over the years it was a hub for Warnaco Inc., an apparel and textile holding company, and the White Stag sportswear line. Most of the remnants are long gone, but a few things, like the old wooden-framed windows that face the Burnside Bridge, remain intact. In 2006, UO agreed to lease a space in the building and begin renovating the structure, using sustainable methods to make it one of the few buildings in the nation that is both LEED-certified and on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The division between rich and poor is embodied in this building—the really old remnants of a garment factory are still visible, and then now it’s this fancy, sustainable, energy-efficient school,” Elverum says. “But you don’t have to look far to see that it was basically a sweatshop.”
Notes from the past and present inform White Stag, the 10-song album (six with words and four “instrumental things”) Elverum completed during the seven nights of his stay. Elverum’s best songs capture a location, not only in the precise words and chords and sounds, but also in feeling. Back in 2001, his sprawling The Glow, Pt. 2 utilized space, too—manipulated acoustic guitars panging across stereo channels, washes of barely audible white noise, closely mic’d percussion—to portray the dense, wet swells of life in Anacortes. White Stag approximates the same reaction, only it’s a bit more loose and unsure of itself. Just like the building.
After walking through the basement tunnels, where the contrast between the old brick structure and modern amenities is obvious (including a hidden woodworking shop and ultrafluorescent lights), we head back upstairs. There’s a career meet-and-greet in a conference room, and Elverum thinks it’s too good to miss out on. Running to his “bedroom,” he grabs his four-track recorder and hurries back, sitting on a wooden bench and sticking his microphone in the air. He wants to capture both the sound from the conference and the rain falling overhead. It’s the last thing he’ll record before everyone leaves and things get a little, well, freaky.
“I was succeeding in creeping myself out last night, for sure,” Elverum says, laughing. “No one’s here, and it’s so David Lynch—walking through something that’s actually bright and then turning a corner and hearing the weird hum of the lights. Kinda perfect, actually.”
GO: Phil Elverum performs songs from White Stag at the White Stag building, 70 NW Couch St. 7 pmSaturday, May 2. $5 suggested donation. The event is co-sponsored by RACC, UO Cultural Forum and the Back Room.