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« Review: Andrew McMahon @ Lincoln Hall, 4/4/13 See Pegi Young at Mayne Stage April 11 »

Interview Mon Apr 08 2013

Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck Discusses Muchacho's Desperate Excitement


It's hard to tell what exactly is going on in the cover photo for Phosphorescent's new album, Muchacho. Frontman Matthew Houck sits cropped out of the frame on the right, wearing a cowboy hat and what looks like a rhinstone-studded Western shirt. A woman wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and an unbuttoned shirt laughs on the bed. Someone appears to be lying down just next to her. It looks like they could be in a hotel room. Perhaps they're back after a night of heavy drinking.

Either way, the image is a good companion to the songs on Muchacho, which often convey similar feelings of weary excitement. Whether it's through the balance of synthesizers and live instruments on "Song for Zula," or the radiant electricity of a song like "Ride On / Right On," Muchacho operates on a thin line between this seemingly celebratory and weary mood.

Last month, I spoke with Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck over the phone as he was preparing for the start his North American tour, which rolls through Chicago this Saturday for a sold out show at Lincoln Hall. Houck answered questions about the making of Muchacho, what life is like both on and off tour, gentrification at home in Brooklyn, and the subtle tension between darkness and light that runs through the new album.

I want to talk about Muchacho and definitely some other things. But to begin here, I'm curious to know what life is like between the moment of album completion and the start of touring. What are you up to right now?
Well you know what, it went really quickly from just kind of an impatience--well, the impatience to get the record out is still there [Muchacho was officially released on March 19] . You know, it's hard to finish a record and then have to wait six months before the record label puts it out. But what's happening day to day right now is just a lot of work. It's been a lot of interviews, and I'm directing a video in a couple of days, and putting the band together and rehearsing and trying to figure out what the crew is that's gonna come out, who's going to be in the band for this tour, and all that kind of stuff. It's a lot to figure out.

You're directing a video?
Yeah, I'm gonna direct a video for "Song for Zula."

Have you directed before?
I have not. It's been a learning experience. But I'm really excited about it.

What made you want to do that yourself?
I've actually always been interested in directing, but I didn't actually think it would be on this. But I had talked with different people about some ideas about the video for "Zula," and I had an idea that I wanted to do, but I don't think I was able to convey it to some of the people I was speaking to. So I ended up having to just say 'What the hell, I'll direct it!'. [laughs] I hope it works.

With your previous album, Here's to Taking It Easy, I know you alone were responsible for the recording and mixing. Was that the same deal this time around for Muchacho?
Yeah, same thing. It's always been a pretty solo kind of endeavor in terms of a lot of solitude in the mixing and all that.

Did you have people to come in and help at all?
The way that it went down was that I did a lot of the basic tracks, and then I called in musicians just one at a time to lay down their part on every other song. Everybody you hear on the record, I only had them for one session, and you know, that speaks volumes to how good they are. And you know, they're not session musicians, they're--well, they are session musicians, technically, but they're people that have been in the Phosphorescent live band for the last two records. I had a steady group of people I was working with, and it's fantastic. But then I brought in about six or seven people that I hadn't worked with before.

Could you talk a little bit about how the songs on Muchacho formed into an album? I know it's been about three years since your last record.
After Here's to Taking It Easy, we toured for mostly a year and a half, almost two years, really. Coming back off of that tour, I kind of put everything on hold for a little while. I built out my studio here in Brooklyn and was kind of just enjoying staying at home, being off the road, and trying to play around in the studio and make some noises. I wasn't really writing lyric-based songs for about a year, really. I kind of took a year off of writing lyrics is what I mean to say, because I still was just working with music. So at that point, I was considering putting out something that maybe wasn't called Phosphorescent. I didn't know if I was going to make another Phosphorescent record. But then these songs just kind of kicked in the door, and it very quickly seemed like there was another Phosphorescent record brewing. I actually had to move my studio, too. I got intruded in the New York fashion by the landlord. He refused to renew my lease and all.

Yeah they do that shit all the time up here, neighborhoods all of the sudden become super popular--you know how it goes. I couldn't get my lease to renew, so I had to move the studio, and that was a really tumultuous time. It was very hard to find a new studio. But during that shakeup, I started writing the songs. And when I got the new studio put together, it took six months, from the moment I started recording Muchacho, it took about six months total.

You mentioned that you were sort of just messing around in the studio and not having the clear vision of an album yet. I'm wondering if you prefer, or if you think that's more productive for you as a songwriter, or do you thrive more when there is a looming deadline?
I do think I'm more productive when there's an end goal. With that being said, even though it wasn't tangibly productive in terms of having an end product, I don't do a lot of like practicing [laughs], so what it ended up doing was that all that time--while I don't think that's what made it the end of it--I think I learned a lot during that period of exploration in the studio.

I guess one of the things that immediately grabbed my attention with Muchacho is the production and use of synthesizers. I read that you told that the songs you had written were demanding to be produced in a different way that wasn't just like strumming a guitar. What do you mean by that?
I don't know. Maybe it's just as simple as the fact that I was excited about how these newer songs turned out. Just like I said, during that time of messing around, for lack of a better word, in the studio--you know, I didn't go to any recording school or anything like that. I never properly learned how to do this. So I think what happened is that I learned a lot about what I could do. I had fooled around with synthesizers and drum beats on previous records, but I just don't think I was as successful at it--and not that I'm necessarily successful at it now--I just think this record sounds good. I had this sense that the possibilities of what to do in the studio were expanding by the time it came around to record.

At least within the first few songs of the album, and then having that paired with the cover image on Muchacho, there's just this feel to me of a very late-night, party atmosphere--almost this weird electricity running through. Did these songs come out of a similar situation?
Yeah, the record cover, I really think it's a great photo. I think, for me, the conveyance there is that it's sort of like--I like that you say "electricity," because it's kind of like a desperate excitement, if that makes sense. It's sort of a desperate grasp at pleasure, at joy. There's a lot of dichotomy in the lyrics of this record in terms of darkness versus light, as a glaring example. And I think that informs this record from top to bottom.


Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck

In the last song on Muchacho, "Sun's Arising (A Koan, An Exit)" which repeats the theme of the opening "Sun Arise! (An Invocation, an Introduction)", I had never heard the term "koan" before. Could you tell me a little bit about what this means?
To me, the "Sun Arises" theme, it was really important--I thought there was a lot of dark subject matter on this record, and it seemed that maybe in the idea of having a bookeded piece, that maybe you would have a sun rising at the beginning, and then even the sun setting at the end. But I definitely didn't want to do that. It seemed important to me to have the sun rising in the beginning, to bring in light and all that, but then at the end, having another sunrise that leads us on to whatever the next thing is. It's like crawling out of the darker stuff that gets brought up in the course of the record, to really have the sun launch into the realization that no matter how dark it gets, you can always hopefully remember that there's light just around the corner.

How you do you occupy your creative muscles while you're on tour? Do you read, or do you listen to a lot of music?
I'm making a lot of changes actually on how we're going to tour because there's a certain mental laziness that is upsetting about being on the road. It's hard to keep your creative muscles flexed, to be honest. It's just practical stuff. By and large, creative muscles just kind of have to be shut down and put on the back burner. It's funny to complain, though. It sounds a bit selfish and stupid, I think, because it's a beautiful life. It's an exciting way to live if you can find a way to sustain it and not destroy yourself in all those good times, to not let the good times kill you. It's a great life, and I'm hoping to find a balance to make it sustainable and productive and creative.


Phosphorescent plays Lincoln Hall this Saturday, April 13, at 10pm with Strand of Oaks. This show is sold out.

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