Phosphorescent: Peeling Back the Surface
Phosphorescent’s Matt Houck talks about his kicking country band, a brush with big time country at Farm Aid and the psychedelic weirdness that lurks just below the surface of his songs.
“The Mermaid Parade,” off the new Here’s to Taking It Easy, just might be Matt Houck’s best song yet, a sprawling narrative of melancholy and regret and mystery that feels like, a short story or a novel. Its storyline traces the dissolution of a brief marriage, the husband away touring, while his wife takes up with an older, married man. Lyrically, the song is utterly realistic and modern, heartfelt without veering into sentimentality and all the more powerful for its blunt, unornamented language. Yet it is the chorus, drawing inspiration from the boardwalks of Coney Island in its parade of naked mermaids that really catches the ear. Houck’s words tap into a vein verging on magical realism, using the street and its denizens to evoke a mythological dimension. That sense, of other, weirder, wilder worlds lurking just beyond the threshold of our perception is what lies at the core of Phosphorescent’s music.
“Most of the writers that I like have a way of taking a normal situation, just regular activity or being alive, and all of the sudden introduce some kind of magical quality,” says Houck. “You find yourself in certain situations where the surface gets peeled back a little bit -- and there’s all kinds of weirdness underneath."
Houck has been pursuing that strange, spooky magic, one way or another, for the last decade, at first as Fillup Shack and, since 2003, as Phosphorescent. Born in Alabama, he emerged as a musician in Athens, Georgia, with his debut A Hundred Times or More on Warm Records in 2003, with Aw Come Aw Wry following in 2005.
Houck moved to Brooklyn in the mid-'00s and signed to indie label Dead Oceans. Then, in 2007, the breakout album Pride was released to heady praise. It won an 8.0 rating from Pitchfork and a slot on Stylus’ “Top Records of 2007", while PopMatters’ , “With Pride, Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck has taken his style of rambling, mystical, American folk music and distilled it into a softer, slower, and even more mystical package. In the process the pretty, mysterious and spiritual sides of Phosphorescent have been multiplied by a thousand.”
Houck could have let Pride’s success go to his head, looking for a way to replicate it and build on its momentum. Instead, he took a sharp left turn, returning to the Willie Nelson songs that had fascinated him since childhood. His 2009 album To Willie was a collection of covers, some reverent, some raucous, that distilled his love of Willie Nelson and also pointed the way forward. For this fourth full-length, he gathered a full band, bringing in Scott Stapleton on piano, Jeff Baily on bass, Chris Marine on drums and Jesse Anderson Ainselie on guitar. And as they toured the album relentlessly for most of 2009, Houck’s sound continued to evolve from ghostly bedroom country folk into a full-bodied twangy rock.
Along the way, Houck and his bandmates caught a glimpse of what mainstream commercial success looks like when they were invited by Nelson himself to play Farm Aid. “That was an amazing experience, just seeing that level of how this whole thing can work, how big it can become,” he recalls. “You see how bands can become institutions, really, major things. They’re like whole traveling cities. I don’t even know how many people are involved in the production of some of those shows that we played. But hundreds, hundreds. It’s just weird thinking on that scale and seeing this sort of joy that it brings people on such a big level. It’s inspiring. Especially when the artist has been able to maintain a really good body of work. It’s really exciting to me that we might pull that off.”
Beyond getting him excited, the experience got Houck thinking on a larger scale. “Having made the To Willie record, and then having toured that year, it became clear that we would be able to make this really fun classic rock record,” he says. “I’ve been wanting to do that with this record. To push it as far in that direction as I could, because you know…a lot of the songs lean heavy on band arrangements.”
Houck began to write the songs for Here’s to Taking It Easy on the road, sketching out melodies and jotting down phrases. “The road is sort of rich as a source for ideas, but in terms of getting a moment to sit down and craft something, that’s very much impossible,” Houck admits. “You end up putting things on hold, because you don’t have all the instruments with you. So you have to keep things on the back burner in your mind until you get about two weeks of instruments and recording gear.”
With the full-band sound in his head, and the loneliness of the road as a backdrop, Houck wrote gritty rockers and melancholy ballads. Yet even the hardest, most electrified cuts -- such as the Neil Young-esque “Los Angeles” that closes the album – have an eerie spirituality to them. There’s a sense of other dimensions, alternate realities even, that flow just out of sensory reach, and of sudden plunges from this world into a less corporeal one.
No song sits closer to the spirit world than “Hej, Me I’m Light”, a luminous mesh of blues-spiritual overtones that Houck says is a throwback to earlier, pre-road-warrior days. “That one is the exception to the rest of the record,” he explains. “I think I had probably written all these songs with the knowledge that we could have a band and have these guys who are crazy good flesh them out.” “Hej, Me I’m Light,” by contrast, was written old-style, with just Houck and his four-track, layering spooky vocals over one another.
“Most of the time in Phosphorescent I’m trying to reconcile two worlds,” he says, meaning the excitement of live, full-band performance and the mystery of dreamier, more personal home-recording. “But I love drone-y repetitive mantra things like that. I think there’s a real power you get from something like that, something really spiritual and amazing to me. To make those two worlds come together. “
There is no doubt that Here’s to Taking It Easy is a road record, full of stories about moving restlessly from one town to another, romantic connections inescapably fraying and breaking under the pressure. Its landscapes are viewed through windows on highways between gigs, amps bumping in the backs of vans. Yet if there’s a home here, a place remembered and obsessed over, it’s Los Angeles, a city that turns up in both “The Mermaid Parade” and the closing song that’s named after it. Houck says his connections with LA go way back. “I’ve lived in Los Angeles. Years and years ago, I spent some time out there in, I think, a relatively unhealthy mental state,” he says. Asked how a songwriter as true and unadorned as he is would fit into Los Angeles’ image- and consumption-obsessed ethos, Houck says that the falseness and superficiality of LA are just that – on the surface. “There’s an underbelly of LA that isn’t false. It’s really real and kind of dark. There’s a darkness, something, out there. I don’t know what it is,” he admits.
Right now, Houck is getting ready for yet another tour, this time in support of Here’s to Taking It Easy, and he says he’s excited about the prospect. Yet he’d also like to get back to work on some new ideas that have been percolating in his head. “I’m really looking forward to touring with these guys for this record, but I also would like to get right back in the studio and make some more music. I’ve got a whole slew of ideas. I’m really excited about that.”