On 2010′s Here’s To Taking It Easy, Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, seemed to have left behind the hippie commune behind him. Armed with the crack country/rock/soul ensemble he’d assembled for his Willie Nelson tribute record To Willie, he crafted a hard-livin’, hard-drinkin’ country-rock record, a valentine to Gram Parsons, the Stones and more. Maybe this backwoods weirdo had looked in the cracked mirror, combed his beard and made up his mind to pursue his fortunes in the big city.
Or maybe not: From the opening moments of Phosphorescent’s new Muchacho, it becomes clear that Houck is as unalterably weird as ever. Muchacho is a fusion of everything Phosphorescent has been over the course of the last several unpredictable years: It is an ethereal meditation on fate and the limits of free will delivered by a sadly broken soul. It is a record full of beautiful, inscrutably poetic language — koans, charms, blades, invocations. And all those horn charts and pedal steel guitars are still here, but they’ve been put to a larger task than ever before: Houck is contemplating his place in the universe, and ours.
At a bar in Greenpoint, over afternoon beers and shots of Jack, Houck talked with eMusic’s Jayson Greene about the time he almost killed Phosphorescent, the damage inflicted by life on the road, and the mind-clearing trip that brought Muchacho into the world.
This album is framed by two pieces called “Sun Arise.” On Pride, you had a song called “Be Dark Night.” Were you trying to draw a specific contrast there?
I would like to lay claim to that much control over what I was doing. The “Sun Arise” thing was a very conscious decision, but not in reference to other work. I knew I had this piece, which is that synthesizer piece you hear in the opening, and I thought I thought it was going to be a recurring theme that goes in and out of the record. When I realized it was going to bookend the record, it seemed like the logical thing would be to have a sunrise and a sunset. But then I realized I didn’t want a sunset! Because it’s a relatively heavy record, and I think it needed some focusing on the brighter aspects of things, the ascension, as opposed to the downward spiral.
Your music always seems pretty heavy to me — what about this record feels particularly so to you?
There are parts here where feel revealed. I call this thing I do Phosphorescent as opposed to just Matthew Houck to have a degree of separation there, and keeping that is still pretty important to me. There’s a lot of fiction blended in with truths, but to me, I can hear some stuff on here that is heavy to me on a personal level. I don’t know if other people can pick up on that or if that’s just in my head. Which parts those are I think is for you, the reader, to decide.
What was the first thing you wrote for this album?
“Muchacho’s Tune.” And that one just kinda just came. We had gotten off the road after the last record, Here’s To Taking It Easy, and had been on the road really hard — both in length of time and the way we were traveling were pretty brutal. I came back really fried. There’s way worse ways of making a living, obviously, so you don’t want to bitch, but honestly it can be a very damaging way of life.
During that time, I was making these little ambient sound pieces and playing around with them, and was thinking about maybe not making another Phosphorescent record. Maybe I’d call my next thing something else. At the very beginning, I had Brian Eno’s first ambient record, Another Green World, and his last one that was a little more songwriter — Before And After Science — in my head. I went deep into those, where I wasn’t really listening to much of anything. There was about a year there where I was figuring out if I was going to keep doing Phosphorescent or not.
What helped change your mind?
I ended up going down to Mexico. I sort of checked out of my life for awhile — well, for a week — and went down there and the rest of the little fragments started to assemble themselves into something that I would consider to be a Phosphorescent record. It was a real spur-of-the-moment thing; I had some points on a credit card and jumped on a flight early one morning. I was in this place called Tulum. It’s this place that’s kind of off the grid — like, it’s literally off the electric or water grid. They run generators for water and power for a few hours during the day and then at some point everything shuts down. They have these little huts, like haciendas that you can just rent. People who are checked out of society a little bit, I think, tend to gravitate there, and there’s definitely a contingent of people who exist on that frequency at all times, and they live there year-round. Other people like me just stay for a while.
My friend had gotten a van to tour through mainland Mexico just for kicks, so I went down there to rendezvous with them for a night, but for the rest of the time I was completely alone. I’m sure there were people gathering together at night over the fire or something like that, but I was really on my own tip. I did a lot of walking, and swimming, and then a few hours every day of getting the guitar out and trying to do something concrete. I didn’t talk to many other people much. I think it gave me a chance to just write, just to focus, which I don’t always do. I’ve never really had a great work ethic about writing, as far as putting my ass in the chair and writing goes. It goes in spurts.
For that reason, I kind of like deadlines, how they force things into being. Like with the country records in the ’60s and ’70s — the reason they were so prolific was that their record company was bearing down on them, like, “You’ve gotta do this,” cracking the whip. I kind of like that notion that you can be pushed to do something that you wouldn’t ordinarily do if you were just treating it as your sort of whimsy.
This album sounds quite a bit unlike your last two records…
For me, Here’s To Taking It Easy and To Willie were these little detours, but I think for many people, it was the first thing they heard, so they assume this is what Phosphorescent sounds like, and this is somehow a departure. I really loved making those records, but for me, those were the departures and this is kind of the core. I had put that band together to tour for To Willie, and just realized how goddamned good they were. I was like, “I really just need to try to make a record while all these people are in one place.” It was my only time making a record for a band, instead of making a record and then finding the band for it.
I made a concerted effort to have the pedal steel not be a signifier for “country.” It’s a beautiful instrument, but I think by and large, the first time you hear pedal steel come in on a song, people are like, “Ah, country.” The pedal steel baffles me, honestly. I look at people who play it the way I look at people who are heart surgeons.
On that song, “Muchacho’s Tune,” you wrote “Fix myself up/ come and be with you,” which feels like an interesting sentiment: It’s oddly hopeful, even as it acknowledges that the narrator is in a bad place. Was that a personal sentiment for you?
If you’re asking me the specific “you” that I would have been writing that for, I don’t think I’d be able to give you one. To me, that song is about something higher than that; it’s aiming for a real redemption of sorts, I think. I think that’s what music does, or hopefully that’s what it does. And the theme for that song, and for this whole record is one of redemption.