Phosphorescent is Matthew Houck. Sometimes he plays by himself, sometimes with a band. No matter what is standing behind him on stage however, what comes out sounds like a gloomy version of Willie Nelson's lovechild with Jeff Mangum. Although Houck gets lots of comparisons to the Neutral Milk Hotel sound, he is really like no one else performing today. His quiet demeanor matched with an explosive and seemingly untrained voice makes for some of the prettiest live and recorded performances in the past few years.
Houck has played two shows in New York in the past few months, one at Suite Lorraine in Brooklyn and one at The Mercury Lounge. I was there for both and as soon as he unplugged his jean jacket with Christmas lights at Mercury Lounge, I tracked him down to do a little Q and A for the Tripwire. Enjoy it, then get up and run, not walk, to your local record store to pick up everything this Athens, GA, artist has ever done.
J: I know you just got off of a short tour that was preceded by a longer one in Europe. Did you like one better than the other?
Matthew: No, they were both pretty good, they were different. Different things. The European tour was a solo show for Phosphorescent and then I was back for a couple of days and took a band out.
J: Were there any highlights from Europe?
M: Yeah, Europe was fantastic. Do you mean highlights musically or highlights...
J: Anything. Cool stories, anything. Things that can be recorded onto tape.
M: Yeah, Exactly right! I'm not very good at recalling anecdotes to be honest, but it was a really good tour. Lots of debauchery.
J: Is there anything you can tell me about the new album? When it's coming out? What it sounds like?
M: Yeah, before leaving for Europe I had a couple of weeks, maybe three weeks, and I was going to try to record the record during that time but it wasn't enough time, and that was way back in October. And I was working up until then really and essentially I've been traveling until about week ago. I put it down October 20th and I haven't picked it up since. In fact, I was going to start today. I'm really excited about it. I've listened to a few of the mixes again, like I said, I really hadn't listened to them in this whole time. So, yeah, I'm excited.
J: Does it sound similar to the other records? Is there any new direction?
M: Yeah, it's pretty different. I don't know how to really explain it but it feels different to me. I'm doing it all by myself.
J: Meaning you're playing all the instruments?
M: Correct. I decided to try to really see what could be done. Some of the solo shows were...I don't know, different things about layers and sounds, it's not really stripped down in any way. It's not "band-y." It's lots of layers of sounds.
J: Ray from Castanets played bass on your last tour and you've toured a few times with him. Other than the "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" cover you did at Suite Lorraine, do you have any plans to collaborate with him?
M: Yeah, we keep talking about it. We toured over the past year. It seems like he and I were in one form or another touring a bunch. We keep saying that we're going to get something together but I think we're both a little distracted and maybe lazy too. We've talked about putting out a split, so maybe we'll have something like that out soon. Maybe.
J: Most of the people at Suite Lorraine kept saying that they loved your set so much because how emotional the songs and performance were. Is it difficult night after night to still get pulled in by them?
M: No, that's actually the one saving grace of a tour. It's kind of the opposite of that. It's difficult and nothing to bad, nothing you can't handle, but it's kind of hard for quite a bunch of days in a row, you can start to forget what you're doing. But the set is always, it's sort of this comfort zone. It's the opposite of being difficult. It's the easiest part of the day.
J: A lot of those songs are morose and a little heartbreaking. Is that sound something you strive for or does it just come out like that?
M: It definitely seems to come out that way. It's funny, that's the weird thing. You have some control of it more or less, I think if I was smart about it, I'd be able to not be so heavy handed. But no, the songs just kind of happen.
J: I got to ask you how "When We Fall" came about. It's one of my favorites.
M: That one was, when it was written, was a really really sad song. Somehow the singing of it, before everyone came around, became this weird hopeful thing or something. It wasn't all that sad anymore. When we were there to record it, we just got everybody to gather round and they had never heard it before and we handed out a sheet of lyrics. We just went for it and left it as rough at is was.
J: Is there a song that you've written that you consider one of your best? You're most proud of?
M: I'm actually most proud at the moment of these songs that I'm working on. I think that, you know I'm still in the process, but I feel really good about this record and the songs are coming together. I feel really excited.
J: Is there something about Athens, GA, that has created such good music over the years?
M: I don't know the answer to that really. I think that a lot of it has to do with that it's sort of this weird little oasis in the middle of the south that anyone who cares about this kind of stuff eventually will move here if they're going to stay in this region. I also think that is has to do with the fact that everything is real cheap around here. Everybody can be real relaxed and not having to worry about rent.
J: It seems as though you grasp onto a lot of older music. You cover Willie Nelson and "Worried Blues" and Kristofferson. What are some of your favorite albums of yesteryear?
M: That's a tough one. How about I tell you what I've been listening to lately?
M: George Jones, that stuff is amazing. Also, Nina Simone. That's not old I guess. '60s I guess. Still going back into country. Those early Waylon Jennings records. Stuff like that.
J: Are there any new bands you dig?
M: It's funny, I was having this conversation with Phil from my label. I don't know. Everything that I hear these days, I'll like it. But I'll be interested in it for a few minutes or even a day, but I haven't heard anything in a while that I want to go back to. Friends of mine bands, which seems to be a little tricky, because if it's that subjective. Basically all my friends bands I think are amazing. Have you heard anything good lately?
J: I think I'm in the same boat as well. I have a very short attention span.
M: What's that all about? Mine is getting shorter these days.
J: With music? Or with everything?
M: With everything. I wonder if it's...
J: It's too easy. You don't hunt everything down anymore.
M: You don't have time to grasp onto anything.
J: Do you have a favorite version other than your own of "Sunday Morning Coming Down?"
M: Probably the Kristofferson version. I'm not wild about the Johnny Cash version. It's got this wrong production on it. It's got these happy horns.
J: My roommate Daniel wanted to ask you a question as well. He wants to know a) have you ever been in a fist fight, and b) if you haven't, who would you want to get into one with?
M: (laughter) Tell him, let's see, I get into fist fights weekly, if not daily.
J: With anyone particular?
M: Anyone who crosses my path.
J: Also, how do we get our troops home from Iraq?
M: Oh, Jesus.
J: Just kidding.
"I Am A Full Grown Man (I Will Lay In The Grass All Day)" MP3
"Joe Tex, These Taming Blues" MP3