More than a decade in, Phosphorescent – the performing band and recording moniker of Matthew Houck – is suddenly attracting the biggest crowds and best reviews of its career. The moody, orchestral and beautiful album Muchacho might be much of the reason why. A home studio project that sounds like anything but, the album works out classic themes of sin and redemption with an artistry that led Paste to name it "The Best Album of 2013 So Far."
One of the great highlights of my career is getting a phone call from Willie. He's great.
Time, meanwhile, named Muchacho's "Song for Zula" a Top 5 Song of the Year, which helps explain how Phosphorescent went from playing touring shows on the inside stage at the Mohawk to presiding over the vast fields of Zilker Park. In anticipation of the band's upcoming ACL Fest shows, we called Houck to discuss his love for Willie Nelson, the burdens of a home recording studio, and where he'll hang out during his Austin downtime.
CultureMap: The ACL Festival is two weekends this year, which is new. I know you're playing the festival both weekends and an ACL Late Night show at Emo’s, but what are you going to do with your week off in Texas?
Matthew Houck: That is a good question! I'm sure we'll hit the springs. It's still going to be hot as hell. We're also going to play a show in Houston somewhere in that mix. But hopefully we’ll just hang out. The guy who's going to be playing pedal steel on this tour lives in Austin, so we have a little Austin outpost there.
CM: On a related note, I was a big fan of your To Willie tribute record a few years back. How did you pare down your 10 or 11 favorites on that record? And have you met Willie since that record came out?
MH: Well, the paring down wasn't hard. It really clicked naturally when I got the idea to do the record. The 10 or 11 songs were right there, you know? The songs have just been with me forever. I've always loved them, and when I saw that album To Lefty From Willie, a light bulb went off. I said: "I'm just going to do this record, and the songs will just click."
CM: Did he respond to it?
MH: Yeah! He was really gracious. One of the great highlights of my career is getting a phone call from Willie. He's been great.
CM: Let me ask you about the new record. Even though it has an elaborate sound, you recorded everything in your home studio. Is having that work environment where you live challenging? Do you feel guilty if you're not creating, or does it take the pressure off?
MH: You're absolutely right about that [guilt]. Next month, I’m actually getting a separate place to live for the first time. I've always lived in a studio space. It's a fair trade, though, because it is nice to have the freedom to experiment openly. There’s no clock ticking and nobody around. But yeah, the trade-off is definitely one of living in the studio space. There are amps and broken gear everywhere! I've never had a home separate from that, where you go to relax. But I'm looking forward to testing that out.
CM: There seems to be purposeful dichotomy on this record between some of the arrangements and the lyrics. Was it hard to get the sonic balance right? If you listen to the end of "Quotidian Beasts" and you weren't paying attention to the words, it can sound pretty uplifting. It seems like it would be really challenging to find that balance.
MH: That's one of the tricky things about music. It always defaults to optimism, beauty and light. Which is strange, because no matter how dark the material, it comes off in the black, if that makes sense. And that’s why you do it. I think that’s what art does. It’s kind of intrinsic in the process, I think.
CM: I liked the Muchacho album artwork – there’s this surface happiness, but it also feels foreboding and ominous. How did you come up with the concept for that photo shoot? It’s really good.
MH: Thank you. That’s specifically what I was going for on this record and these lyrics. The whole record for me is basically that notion or feeling, played out in 10 different scenarios. That is the theme, like you said, the dichotomy between – or, actually, "paradox" is a better word for it! It’s these places where light and dark, death and life, and loss and redemption are all coexisting in these moments. And beauty and ugliness are all somehow not at odds – they’re both absolutely coexisting at the same time.
CM: I saw Phosphorescent play a few years ago. The sound is bigger and different now. Did you have to reconfigure the band or change around the personnel to produce this record in the live setting?
MH: Yeah, there has been some shifting around. It wasn’t hard though. It happened organically. My fiancée is playing keys, and so she’s in the band. In the past, the records were the records, and I would put together a band and we would play and however the band sounded was just how we sounded. We certainly weren’t trying to make the sound of the record live. But this, for the first time, we’re bringing it to the live setting a lot closer to what the record sounds like. That has taken some effort. For the first time, we’re stepping up the gear we’re traveling with, and we have a dedicated sound person that we work with to bring these sounds to a live setting. It’s been fun.
CM: In interviews, you’ve talked a lot about the destructive influence that road life can have on you physically and mentally. As the counterpoint to that, outside of the time you’re on stage, what is enjoyable about road life?
MH: There’s loads of stuff! Traveling is good. Being places is always good. The logistics of getting from place to place is where things can very quickly become torturous. It can be a burden getting from place to place. That being said, you know, it’s a good job. The enjoyable aspect is being able to, if you have the chance, immerse yourself in the town that you’re in, and experience these different places. It’s the inherent joy of that.
Phosphorescent plays the ACL Fest on Sunday, October 6, and Sunday, October 13, at 6:15 pm on the Austin Ventures Stage both dates. They also perform an ACL Late Night Show at Emo's on Thursday, October 10. Tickets for the festival are available here and for the Emo's gig here. The band's latest album, Muchacho, is out now on Dead Oceans Records.