TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Musician Phil Elverum of the Microphones, Mount Eerie

This week we’re revisiting our 2017 conversation with musician Phil Elverum. Phil is a singer-songwriter best known for the music he records as the bands the Microphones and Mount Eerie. Earlier this year he released a new album titled Microphones in 2020. He joined Jesse to talk about grieving the loss of his first wife, cartoonist Geneviève Castrée, and how a trip British Columbia with his daughter inspired the album A Crow Looked at Me.

Guests: Phil Elverum

Transcript

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Gentle, trilling music with a steady drumbeat plays under the dialogue.

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

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“Huddle Formation” from the album Thunder, Lightning, Strike by The Go! Team.

jesse thorn

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. I wanna start this interview off with a quick warning. There is going to be some very frank and sometimes graphic talk about death and cancer coming up in this interview. It’s a conversation with Phil Elverum. He’s a recording artist and songwriter. Elverum’s career dates back over 20 years, first as The Microphones, later as Mount Eerie. He’s produced ambitious, beautiful records that mix genres like folk, noise, death metal, shoegaze, and more. It sounds a little bit like I’m listing off of the different bins in a record store, but it’s really compelling stuff. His albums have gotten a lot of praise—not just because of the studio experimentation, but because of the beautiful, ephemeral lyrics he uses to tackle big, existential questions. When we talked in 2017, he’d just released a very, very different record. On A Crow Looked at Me, he abandons pretty much all of that. His first wife, Geneviève Elverum, had died of pancreatic cancer earlier that year. Along with Phil, she left behind a daughter. Phil wrote and recorded the album in the room where she died, using instruments she owned. As an album, it’s raw, plainspoken, and therapeutic. He paints a portrait of grief by framing his music around really specific moments: trips to the hospital, getting rid of old clothes, getting stuff in the mail for her long after she’s passed. These days, Phil is still recording, as prolific as ever. A few months ago, Phil released another album—his first in over 15 years recorded as The Microphones. [Music fades in.] He called it Microphones in 2020. Let’s listen to a bit of it.

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“Microphones in 2020” from the album Microphones in 2020 by The Microphones. The true state of all things: I keep on not dying, the sun keeps on rising I remember my life as if it's just some dreams that I don't trust, burning off, layered thick [Volume decreases and continues under the dialogue, then fades out.]

jesse

Phil Elverum, welcome to Bullseye. It’s great to have you on the show.

phil elverum

It’s nice to be here.

jesse

Phil, I want to talk about a dumb thing because I think we’re gonna mostly talk about not dumb things. [They chuckle.] And so—

phil

Well, I’ll see about that—see what I can do about that.

jesse

[Laughs.] I just feel like we’re gonna have a hard time coming back around to dumb things. So, I wanna ask you about something that came up when you were a guest on my comedy show, Jordan, Jesse, Go!, that maybe has been the single thing that has generated the most response from our audience in the entire history of the program.

phil

Whaaat?

jesse

Yeah, I mean, we’ve been doing that show 10 years and I don’t—I can’t think of a single thing that has generated the intensity. Oh, maybe that one time that Jordan suggested a nonsense license plate that said FULL CHORT. But. [They chuckle.] But besides that. It’s a thing called WAD LORD. And I wonder if you could explain to our NPR audience what WAD LORD is?

phil

[Laughs.] WAD LORD’s hitting the big time right now. [Jesse laughs.] Uh. WAD LORD is a cash-based, very raw gambling game that we invented on tour, at the merch table, where you just have a wad of cash and all the players have to guess how much is the wad and whoever gets closest gets the entire wad of cash. It’s very high stakes. The participants each contribute to the wad. And then the WAD LORD is the person who’s not in contention for the wad, who knows the number and is the judge, basically. So yeah, all the players contribute some bills, but only they know what they’ve contributed.

jesse

But here’s the question, Phil. If everybody contributes to this wad of cash, why would anyone contribute more than they have to in order to get in the game? I mean, this is a gambling game where the buy-in is one bill and it could be any amount that’s—you know, there’s no reason to put in a 20 or a 50 or a 100 right?

phil

No. There’s—by putting in a higher denomination bill, you are buying yourself the advantage of knowing that the amount is at least, you know, $50 or $100. You—so, I have a friend who I played a really crazy round with. He put in $100 and he’s, like, a poor guy. And so, he won. He won the wad. Of course. Because he knew it was like $122. And so, that—but, you know, it’s a greater risk as well. It started as a joke, this game, but then as we thought about it more like this, the subtleties of it really revealed themselves.

jesse

It sounds like the kind of game that would lead to violence, honestly.

phil

Yeah, well, the game itself is kind of like economic violence. [They laugh.]

jesse

What’s the most money that you’ve won playing WAD LORD?

phil

I’ve only played a few real rounds, ‘cause it’s so terrifying. So few people—there are so few times where people are like, “Okay, let’s do this for real.” So, it’s only really crazy moments. But I think I lost $80 once, in a—you know, in one wad.

jesse

I mean, $80 is enough money that you miss it.

phil

Yeah, oh yeah. It was worth it though. [Laughs.] It wasn’t worth it. It’s so stupid. [They laugh.]

jesse

I actually wanna talk to you about the island that you live in. You’re talking to me from Anacortes, Washington. [Phil confirms.] And it’s where you live and I think also where you grew up, right?

phil

Yeah, I’m from here. I grew up out of town, but yeah. Basically. Five miles out in the woods, but this is the town. This is the island.

jesse

What’s it like there?

phil

Just small town. Small city. Like 15 or 17,000 people or something. And my family’s been here for many generations. It’s very beautiful here and kind of awkward, too. [Laughs.] It’s a retirement town. It’s a tourist town, now. Some oil refineries.

jesse

Why did you stay there?

phil

I didn’t stay. I moved away. I lived in Olympia for five years and I went on tour for 20 years. I mean, you know. I entered a part of my life where I just am always leaving. So, I think that’s a big part of why I’m able to keep living in Anacortes, is because I leave all the time.

jesse

I feel like a lot of people that I talk to who are artists who grew up in a small place—a sort of bounded place—all they thought about when they were a kid and a teenager was their plan to leave to a boundless place, you know? To go to someplace where they could do anything they wanted ‘cause nobody cared. [Laughs.]

phil

Yeah, I don’t—I never felt that way. I—my friends and I, in high school—I mean, that was definitely the consensus for everyone else—that everyone couldn’t wait to move to Seattle or New York or whatever. But not me. My friends and I, we just were so busy with our own weird stuff we were doing, our art projects and bands and zines and it just never seemed—it never seemed true that this place is boring and nothing ever happens because we’re just so occupied with our weird stuff. But you know, I knew I wanted to leave just for the experience of living a full life.

jesse

How did you meet your wife?

phil

She’s French-Canadian. She was French-Canadian. And she was living in Victoria, British Colombia—which is pretty close to Anacortes. It’s like 30 miles or something, but across an international border. But there’s a ferry from here to there. Anyways. She was in the neighborhood and she was putting on shows. This was in, like, 2003. And so, she met a bunch of people, friends of mine, in like the music world before she met me. And I started hearing about her—this magical French-Canadian person named Geneviève that lived in Victoria and, “Oh, Phil. Just wait ‘til you meet her.” And so, there was this sort of buildup. People knew that we were gonna—something was gonna—that we were meant to meet each other, I think. And she actually wrote to me—I was living in a cabin in Norway by myself, this one crazy winter. I went and tried to do that for my life. I was like, “I’m moving to Norway forever! Goodbye, everybody!” And I went and lived in the Arctic. And anyways, she sent me a letter there. She sent me a little package of her books that she made. She was a cartoonist. So, that was how I first encountered her. And then we met in person. I went over there, and she set up a bunch of shows for the two of us to play around Victoria and all those islands up the Canadian Gulf Island coast.

jesse

Did the two of you correspond or were you just looking for an excuse to get out of Norway?

phil

No, when—we corresponded a little bit and I knew that Norway, it wasn’t gonna work out for me to live there alone forever. [Chuckles.] Like, the romance bubble popped pretty quickly. And I came back the next spring and—with plans to play shows and we were corresponding the whole time and talking on the phone and we met in person—yeah, it was pretty much instant, as soon as we met each other. It was like, “Oh, okay. You’re my person forever. Hello. Nice to meet you.” [Chuckles.] “How—what a surprise that you’re French-Canadian. And how did we happen to meet each other? Crazy.”

jesse

We’ll finish up with Phil Elverum in just a bit. After the break, he’ll tell me how after years of singing and writing about big, philosophical ideas, it all seems kind of meaningless now. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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Rich, thumpy transition music.

jesse

Support for NPR and the following message come from the new Showtime limited series, Your Honor: an edge-of-your-seat thriller starring Bryan Cranston. Your Honor is the story of a respected New Orleans judge whose teenaged son is involved in a hit-and-run. What follows in a deadly game of lies, deceit, and impossible choices. Your Honor, premiering December 6th on Showtime. Try 30 days free, then just $8.99 a month for life. Go to Showtime.com. Terms apply. New customers only. [Music fades out.]

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Music: Eerie, unsettling music punctuated by police sirens. Sidney Madden: Women have been written off in rap and marginalized in the prison system. Philly rapper Isis Tha Saviour is pushing back against both. Isis Tha Saviour: Think about the music industry. It’s really, like, only five labels in the world. And who owns them? Old white men funding Black toxicity. Sidney: Listen now to Louder Than a Riot podcast, from NPR Music. [Music ends.]

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[A quick, energetic drumroll.] Music: Exciting techno music plays. Jarrett Hill: Hey, I’m Jarrett Hill, co-host of the brand-new Maximum Fun podcast, FANTI! Tre’vell Anderson: And I’m Tre’vell Anderson. I’m the other, more fabulous co-host, and the reason you really should be tuning in! Jarrett: I feel the nausea rising. Tre’vell: To be FANTI is to be a big fan of something, but also have some challenging or “anti” feelings toward it. Jarrett: Kind of like Kanye. Tre’vell: We’re all fans of Kanye. He’s a musical genius, but, like, you know… Jarrett: He thinks slavery’s a choice. Tre’vell: Or, like, The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Like, I love the drama, but do I wanna see Black women fighting each other on screen? Tyler Perry (as Madea): [Singing] Hell to the naaaaw. To the naw-naw-naaaw. Jarrett: We’re tackling all of those complex and complicated conversations about the people, places, and things that we love. Tre’vell: Even though they may not love us back. Jarrett: FANTI! Maximum Fun! Podcast! Tre’vell: Aa-ow! [Music fades out.]

jesse

Hey all, it’s Jesse again with a reminder that now—the end of the year—is a great time to support your local NPR member station. Do it now. Go to Donate.NPR.org/bullseye. And thanks.

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Bright electronic music.

jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. If you’re just joining us, we’re listening back to my conversation with the singer-songwriter Phil Elverum. Phil is the founder of the bands The Microphones and Mount Eerie. He just released a new record, called Microphones in 2020. It’s a frank and beautifully written look back on his 30+ years in music. When we talked in 2017, he’d just released A Crow Looked at Me, which dealt with the devastating loss of his first wife, Geneviève, to cancer. When you and your wife started to plan a life together, did you feel like you could—as a cartoonist and an entirely independent musician—like, that was ground solid enough to, you know, plant a family in?

phil

No. I mean, not in a traditional sense. We were scrappy punks touring all the time and people raise kids like that and they’re fine and they have fun lives. But I don’t think that was our style. But at the same time, we knew we wanted to make a baby—at least a baby—all along. And so, we didn’t really overthink it. We were like, “We’re doing this thing and let’s try and have a baby, but we’ll see what happens. We’ll figure it out.”

jesse

Did you feel confident you could figure it out?

phil

Yeah. I think both of us are that way. Confident that we could figure it out. Like, whatever the question was, we would kind of dive into pretty stupid ambitious things sometimes and try and figure it out.

jesse

How far out did you plan with your wife?

phil

Maybe about four months. Not very far. I mean, we had vague things like, “Let’s have a baby,” but it just wasn’t happening. We—for, like, ten years we didn’t have a baby and we were—I don’t know how graphic you want me to get, but we [laughs] we weren’t, um.

jesse

You were—you had the window open for the stork.

phil

Yeah, the stork window was open for ten years and it just—no stork came. And it was actually only when we kind of gave up on the idea and we thought about, “Oh well, maybe we can’t have a baby. That’s fine too, I guess.” We [laughing] weren’t existential about it. It—‘cause, you know, we had proven, like, we were happy together. And this is a good life, also. With no baby. So—and then, of course, a couple weeks later she was pregnant.

jesse

That must have been astonishing.

phil

Yeah, I was so—I don’t know. Desensitized or skeptical, I guess. I just didn’t—it took me a few months of her pregnancy to really get behind the reality of it, because I didn’t wanna get my hopes up again.

jesse

How did you find out your wife was sick?

phil

Well, in hindsight now—looking at the last part of her pregnancy, there are some things that were like, “Oh, that must have been the tumor doing… pressing up on the thing.” Or whatever. Like, you know, she threw up a bunch of times towards the end. But yeah, it was—she had a great pregnancy and did amazing at childbirth. Like, no drugs or anything. Really intense, long labor but made this great baby. And then four months after, she went in for just, like, a post-partum checkup and had some mild abdominal pain, but nothing—you know, it’s just a regular checkup. And the doctor saw something a little suspicious on a X-ray or on a scan and so sent her in for—or on the ultrasound and sent her in for a CT scan. And we weren’t engaged with any of that worry. We were just like, “Huh. That’s unusual. Wonder what that could mean.” And Geneviève looked it up on the internet and saw it could be this, could be that. Oh, and then down at the bottom of the list—like, the least likely thing it could be is pancreatic cancer. But you know, that’s less than 1% likelihood or something. People her age don’t get that. And she was extremely healthy, as a person. Like, you know. No risk factors really. But yeah. It was, like, scan led to another scan led to, like, the doctor having this very weird, ambiguous meeting with us where she was like—had to rush out of the room and said, “Well, we don’t know.” And Geneviève says, “Well, is it cancer?” And the doctor said, “Uhhh… likely. I’m so sorry. Do you wanna talk to the chaplain? Okay, well, I have to go. Somebody’s giving birth.” And then we were left with that. Like, “What?! Likely?! Chaplain?! Uhh…” And then we had to wait ten more days to get to the next appointment in Seattle, where it was officially confirmed. So, yeah. That was May. Beginning of May, 2015. And we were just like spiraling into this pit.

jesse

What was the meeting like when you went to Seattle and the doctor confirmed the diagnosis?

phil

It was awful. I mean, it was—I had to leave the baby with my sister, in Edmonds—which was the first time we had ever been away from our baby. We, like, dropped her off and we were late for the appointment. So, “Here’s this baby. Gotta get back in the car.” Everyone weeping. No—kids, my sister’s kids not understanding really what was going on. And then go down to the University of Washington and it was actually, like, a surgical procedure to get the biopsy. So, she had to get anesthetized and I had to—I couldn’t be in there anymore. I had to go out and walk around. I just went and cried in the car. It was, like, medical realities—taking the baby away, taking Geneviève away. And I’m, like, in this car in a parking garage, eating a sandwich that my mom had packed for me. Like—ugh. It was total annihilation, really, of this—the joy, this life that we had. I mean… destroyed.

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“Toothbrush/Trash” from the album A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie. The quiet, untreasured, in-between times The actual experience of you here I can feel these memories escaping Colonized by photos, narrowed down and told My mind erasing The echo of you in the house dies down [Volume decreases and continues under the dialogue, then fades out.]

jesse

Were you dealing with things just one at a time as they came or were you thinking of… it as goal-oriented—as… you know, I often hear of people talking about how, you know, “We’re gonna beat this thing,” or something and… like, there’s a plan and—you know what I mean?

phil

Yeah. I know what you mean. I wasn’t. Geneviève’s role and my role diverged pretty early on. And I—what my job became is, like, maintaining life. Maintaining the household, taking care of logistics, insurance, baby, food, just everything. And Geneviève was wrapped up in the bigger goals and her goals sort of took a different path than what mine would have. She got really wrapped up in alternative therapies and also chemo and conventional stuff. But just, like, reading—researching to the point where she was totally consumed in that world. She couldn’t look away from her computer screen. And she was not available to us, even though she was still alive. That was—that was really hard.

jesse

Did you feel like you were looking at a horizon? Did you feel like there was gonna be something good at the end of all of it?

phil

The truth is—no. I wasn’t… the stated goal in our household—and, like, the rule—was positive thinking. Think positively. Stay focused on positive thoughts. But if—and I said those things. And I would never express my pessimism, but the truth is that I knew what was likely. And I couldn’t turn off the part of my mind that was trying to strategize and prepare for what was likely. And so, I was just kind of also quietly, the whole time, lining things up. Making sure that… that I understood what happens when a person dies. What is the deal with cremation? How does that work? Reading these websites at night, after she had gone to sleep. Like, I couldn’t turn it off. Even thinking about planning her memorial as she was alive. And those were invasive and problematic thoughts, but they were real. So. That’s what I was doing. I wasn’t—it felt a little bit like betrayal, ‘cause I wasn’t toeing the line of positive thinking. But I was also not swept away in that sort of new age-y stuff. I had to be pragmatic.

jesse

Did you feel guilty about that?

phil

Yeah. For sure. Well, because it is, like, deception in a way. Geneviève was really adamant that everyone positively think about her, even friends around the world. She was really, like, “We’re doing a meditation at 10 o’clock. Everyone focus on me.” And I probably, at 10 o’clock, would have been, like… doing something gross in the kitchen. Or, you know, cleaning the garbage can or doing the necessities.

jesse

Why did you start writing songs about it?

phil

[Chuckling softly.] Yeah. That’s a good question. It just happened. It just happened. I wasn’t planning on it. I wasn’t—I didn’t think I would ever come back to making music, really. I felt like, “Eh, I wonder what I’ll do with the rest of my life besides be a dad.” And it was about a month after Geneviève died. I went on a long trip up to these islands in British Columbia, with my daughter, in this place called Haida Gwaii. And it was just really remote and out there and I was alone with the kid and my thoughts and writing in my notebook. It just sort of happened. All these things needed to express themselves, I guess. And then I came home, and this notebook thing started refining themselves into songs. [Music fades in.] It came out really fast.

music

“Ravens” from the album A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie. Surrounded by growth Nurse logs with layers of moss and life Beyond the cedars, the sound of water Thick salal And God-like huckleberries The ground absorbs and remakes whatever falls Nothing dies here But here is where I came to grieve To dive into it with you With your absence But I keep picking you berries [Music ends.]

jesse

There was something in one of the songs that [chuckles]—that, frankly, made me start crying to an unsafe extent while I was driving my car today.

phil

Whoops.

jesse

[Chuckling.] Which was—don’t worry, there were a couple of them. I’ve seriously thought, “Should I not—should I get off a highway and finish my drive to work [laughing] on the surface roads?” But one of them was an offhand mention of the fact that your wife did most of the remembering for you.

phil

Mm-hm. Yeah, that’s true.

jesse

It was something I related to and it’s such a—and it’s such a—it’s such a scary thing to lose, because it’s… it’s such a part of how you understand yourself.

phil

Yeah. My grandparents were like that. And I think it might be typical of people that are in a couple for a long time. They sort of become this two-headed beast, where one person is doing more of certain brainwork. And my grandparents were always like that—just kind of a funny, cartoony way of finishing each other’s sentences—but that was us. That was me and Geneviève. She held the details. “When were we in New Zealand? Or when—” We never went to New Zealand. There’s a good example of me not even remembering. I never was in New Zealand with her. [They chuckle.] But uh, anyways. I think that the way these songs turned out, where I’m just trying to cram in the specifics might be related to that memory thing, where I’m trying to record for posterity the events that happened, even the banal stuff that maybe doesn’t belong in history. I think that I recognize that my—this, like, hard drive of memories is now gone, and I need to make an effort to remember it and record it.

jesse

There’s something about fixing those things. I mean, you’re—the songs that you wrote for this album are so… so plain and specific. They’re not about—you know, they’re not about grand emotional, spiritual themes. They are, in that you lived a grand emotional experience, the, you know, one of the most powerful and intense emotional experiences that any human being could have. But they’re not about those big capital letter, wide-view things. They’re about… you know. Getting a package that—she ordered something online before she died, and it came after she died.

phil

Mm-hm. I don’t wanna make big, capital letter, existential statements anymore. I feel like that’s a thing that 25-year-olds should do. [They chuckle.] And I did. Like, a lot. I did a lot of that. And I feel kind of embarrassed about it now, because I didn’t know what I was talking about when I sang about mortality and… I feel only a little embarrassed about it. Because I—they are questions worth asking, even if you haven’t experienced them. That’s, like—that’s the meaning of life, I think, is to, like, poke around in these big ideas. But I definitely didn’t know anything. And now—now that I have experienced it and I feel kind of humbled by the realities of it, I just realize that it’s not for—it’s not for playing around with. So, if I’m gonna sing about something, I’m just gonna sing about what I do know. Which is, like, taking out the garbage. And, like you say, I do think that there’s some—something gets communicated when you’re singing about taking out the garbage and it’s—you don’t need to talk about the grandiose stuff using the exact words of the grandiose stuff. Somehow you can point at it from the side by talking about taking out the garbage. That—I think. I mean, that’s my idea, at least, with this record.

jesse

Phil, I know you’ve gotta get back to that pool and get your kid from your mom, so I’m not gonna take any more of your time but thank you so much for talking about all this stuff. I really appreciate it and I really appreciated the record. It was really—it’s really something special.

phil

Thank you very much. I’m very glad that we got to talk.

jesse

And I wish we were in the same place, because I was thinking, “Man, I sure would like to give Phil Elverum a hug. I like that guy.”

phil

Well, we’ll see each other someday.

jesse

Great. Maybe we can do some high-stakes WAD LORD.

phil

[Laughs.] God. That’s scary. I’m already nervous.

jesse

[Laughs.] You know, I go to the flea market on Sundays. I gotta stop by the ATM, get $500 in cash out before I go, because you know, nobody’s gonna take my card. So, sometimes I got some real cash on me. I’m just putting that in your head to kind of mess with you a little bit.

phil

Yikes. So, it might be $500+ in the wad?

jesse

I mean, we’ll see. We’ll find out. We’ll see how gutsy I am. You know. I just—you’re gonna have to look into my eyes and see what your prepared to do.

phil

Yikes. Yeah. Okay. Let’s do it. I’m ready.

jesse

[Chuckles.] Okay, Phil. Thank you so much. [Music fades in.]

phil

Yeah. Talk to you later. Bye.

music

“Swims” from the album A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie. We are all always so close to not existing at all Except in the confusion of our survived-bys grasping at the echoes [Volume decreases and continues under the dialogue then ends.]

jesse

Phil Elverum from 2017. His new album, Microphones in 2020, has a short film that accompanies it. You can watch it in its entirety on YouTube. You can buy A Crow Looked at Me on Phil’s website. We’ll have a link to it on ours: MaximumFun.org. We wanna emphasize that Bullseye and NPR do not endorse you playing WAD LORD—a high-stakes gambling game Phil invented.

music

Upbeat, cheerful music.

jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is created out of the homes of me and the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around greater Los Angeles, California—where I am working on the puzzle, “What do you serve for Thanksgiving when there will be a total of five people at the dinner table and three of them are under ten and only eat cream cheese on rice cakes?” The show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our producer is Kevin Ferguson. Jesus Ambrosio and Jordan Kauwling are our associate producers. We get help from Casey O’Brien and Kristen Bennett. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme song is by The Go! Team. Thanks very much to them and to their label, Memphis Industries, for sharing it. If you wanna hear the latest about what we are up to, you can keep up with the show on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. We post our interviews in all of those places. And I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature sign off.

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

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Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

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