Interview: Matthew Houck steps from behind Phosphorescent

Matthew Houck makes records under the name Phosphorescent. He will be backed by a full touring band at his Jefferson gig on Thursday. Matthew Houck makes records under the name Phosphorescent. He will be backed by a full touring band at his Jefferson gig on Thursday.

Musicians. They’re just like the rest of us. Some of them you hit it off with immediately—you get them, and they try their best to understand you. With others, you just don’t see eye-to-eye.

Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck is the type of guy it would be hard not to see eye-to-eye with. An Alabama native who recently relocated to New York by way of Athens, Georgia, Houck embodies the title of his breakout 2010 album, Here’s to Taking It Easy. He’s laid back, but there also seems to be some recognition on his part of trying to take it easy. He speaks with a deliberate Southern drawl, but there’s an intensity, a burning in his voice when he gets going on something that he’s passionate about.

While “Phosphorescent” has been called Houck’s stage name, or his nom de plume, when he talks about the name of the band—in which he is the only constant—it seems it’s more than that. It’s its own thing, and according to Houck, there was even a chance it had run its course after Here’s to Taking It Easy.

Fortunately for his fans, Houck produced Muchacho as Phosphorescent in 2013, and the album that almost wasn’t turned out to be one of the most celebrated indie releases of the year.

Before Houck and his current road band ambles through the Jefferson Theater on January 23, he took some time to talk to C-VILLE Weekly by phone about the differences between Athens and Charlottesville, working in the studio versus playing for live audiences, and how a stage name can be a safety net.

C-VILLE Weekly: I understand you’ve played Charlottesville before.

Matthew Houck: Yeah, I’ve been there a couple times. I can’t remember the names of the venues, but they were small. It’s a cool town y’all got there.

Charlottesville kind of has a case of Athens-envy. You spent some of your formative years there; what do you think makes it special?

The thing about Athens is it is this little oasis in the middle of the Southeast. Other than Atlanta, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. People end up being more glued in, and there is a solidarity. From Charlottesville, people can scoot up to DC or Philly or even New York without too much difficulty.

Being from the South, do you listen to a lot of mainstream country music?

I used to listen to a lot of mainstream country when we were touring in a van all the time. I’ve always liked it, but with a grain of salt. I appreciate it for what it is. I think across all forms of music, right now songwriting and lyrics are taking a back seat. I don’t get too bent out of shape about the state of mainstream stuff. With the Internet, if people care about things like craft and lyrics, they can find it.

Because Phosphorescent is really a solo thing, I’ve never heard much about your band. What can you tell me about it?

It’s a seven-piece right now, with two keyboards, a drummer, a percussionist, a pedal steel/guitarist, a bassist, and me playing guitar and singing. Over the years, it’s changed a thousand times. What I used to do was just put the band together and go out and play and let the songs take their own shape based on who was there. But with this lineup, we’re able to bring the arrangements from the records to life. We’re able to flesh out the songs in terms of lushness, and then we can take them into whatever weird places feel correct on any given night.

How does the process of creating a studio album compare to the way you guys operate live?

It is basically a solitary thing. I sit in there and work on stuff on my own for a while and then bring people in as parts present themselves. I end up working kind of like a painter or sculptor, sonically fucking with these things, maybe for months and months even, and just keep digging around to try to get the songs shaped into a way that sounds good to me.

What are some of the choices you have to make when you decide how to interpret a studio song for a live audience?

Thousands of small decisions go into that. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting the live band together and just playing a song and realizing what you can pull off live and what you have to sacrifice. A lot of times, those things actually make the song better, and after playing the song for six months, you wish you could record that version. There are a lot of layers on the records, especially vocally, and a lot of times you change those arrangements to give more room for instrumentation.

I feel like Here’s to Taking It Easy is less introspective than the rest of your albums, including Muchacho. Would you agree?

I feel very much that way. But the thing about it is a lot of that stuff is sonic. I think lyrically it all seems very similar, with the exception of a couple songs. You can still present introspective lyrics and wrap them up in a different package and they come out sounding different.

What is Phosphorescent? Is it a stage name, or is it something else?

It’s always evolving, but in the beginning, it was a matter of convenience and kind of a shield. I wanted it to feel like a bit of separation. I still do rely on that separation, because art is art and life is life. Also, the word itself I thought of as a mantra for a while—the definition of the word being to give off light without combusting, without burning up. I think that is a good thing to keep in mind all the time.

So what is the next evolution of Phosphorescent and Matthew Houck?

I’m excited about making the next record in a way I don’t know that I was at the end of Here’s to Taking It Easy. I wasn’t sure I was going to make another Phosphorescent record. It didn’t seem like the rewards were enough for how much damage it was doing and how much toiling it was. It seems more sustainable now, on a personal level, and a logistical level. So at the very least, I definitely am going to make another one, and I’m very excited about that.