Sitting in an ornate carved wooden chair in the rear of the balcony of London’s St. Pancras Old Church, tendrils of incense smoke drifting lightly overhead, Matthew Houck carries a strangely priest like aura with him. Houck – better known as the rudder of the ship that is Phosphorescent – is shortly to play a spellbinding, hushed set to a tiny congregation in this intimate North London venue, but right now, using language a more devout man would shudder at, he’s discussing the process of recording Muchacho, his upcoming sixth album under the Phosphorescent moniker.
“I got this old analogue console and an old tape machine and stuff,” he says. “A lot of it was just about knowing how to get the sound that I wanted out of those machines, then it was about applying those sounds to recording Muchacho.”
The “sounds” themselves? A product of several months of experimentation, “not knowing what I was working toward, just kind of playing around,” as the Brooklyn-based singer puts it. Those months were also partially spent wondering if, after the gruelling and lengthy tour cycle of previous LP Here’s To Taking it Easy, there was a future for Phosphorescent at all: “I put Phosphorescent on hold, outside of on tour… for about a year. I don’t think it’s normal to shut down from record to record, but I wanted to do that. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make another Phosphorescent record at that time.”
Were he to retire the name, it would surely prompt howls of discontent from thousands of fans; Houck has been working under this alias for a decade since debut album A Hundred Times or More (before that he recorded and toured under the name Fillup Shack) and in that time has amassed no small following. The aforementioned Here’s To Taking it Easy, possibly the most complete and rich of his offerings to date, contains a sun-dappled Southern warmth so tangible you can almost feel your skin tingle. Add this to the haunting ‘Wolves’ and incantatory ‘My Dove, My Lamb’ from Pride or the roaring country blues of Willie Nelson covers album To Willie, and you have a back-catalogue filled with diversity and ingenuity.
Now, pensively rocking on his oaken seat with beer in hand and leather jacket on, Houck ruffles his untameable blonde-brown curls and considers the transient tribulations he went through in the process of making Muchacho. “I had to move out of my studio, I had been there for like four or five years, which was really really hard. It took about a month to even find another place, and my life was kind of getting messy right around the same time. And so I ended up just checking out for a little while, and specifically writing.”
The combination of this period of more formal, get-pen-to-paper writing, along with the aforementioned, slightly more chaotic creative process created the songs for Muchacho almost by accident: “I ended up with a handful of songs that seemed like Phosphorescent songs within a very quick timeframe,” reveals the Alabama-born songwriter, “and so I just figured ‘well shit, I’ll make this record!’ But then I ended up using a lot of the sounds I’d been playing around with: a new arena of sound for me.”
In the end, however, this unorthodox elixir of the myriad sounds Houck teased from both his guitar and his “DIY” studio setup contributed towards the spectral depth that Muchacho’s first single ‘Song For Zula’ possesses. Reverb drums echo through it as if being played directly into a starry sky, mingling with the ebb and flow of strings and wistful guitar notes; listening to it, one can easily picture “racing out on the desert plains all night” as the song’s refrain depicts. How did its release as the lead single come about – a gut feeling, a special sense of pride about the song, or a sonic platform to preview what Muchacho has to offer?
Strangely, it was none of the above. “Actually the label chose that. I liked it, and I was like ‘sure!’ but I thought they might pick another one. I kind of just stepped out on this one, allowed other people , because I had lived with this record for six straight months.” The upshot of this cohabitation, we’re told, was that “you start developing weird ideas. Like I might be really excited about one weird guitar lick in the background of one song – I’ll think ‘yeah, that’s the sound!’ – but you realise you’re crazy at that point, so I don’t think you have any objectivity about what would be a proper single.
This self-critical streak, so often a hallmark of a truly creative musical brain, certainly reared its head in Houck’s own mind as he made Muchacho: “It’s easy to slip into lunacy,” he laughs, “when you’re trying to work out why something doesn’t quite sound like maybe it should, and what you can do to manipulate the sound and get it to.”
Then, inevitably, as you go back and try to fix something, you break something else – “that happens on a constant basis”. The only problem with analogue, a format Houck loves (“once you tune your ears to be able to hear the difference between analogue and digital, it’s just like night and day”), of course, is the lack of the sometimes-necessary Undo button.
But, having entirely recorded and engineered this album himself, is the choice on offer, not to mention the more complete overall ownership of the record’s sound, something he’d relinquish? “I’d love to get into a space where I could hand over that kind of stuff to a producer or another engineer, but the truth is I just seem to be really bad at it. At the beginning of this record I recorded a couple of tracks at Electric Lady studios which is a beautiful studio. It’s like your dream studio and I love it. I really loved being there, I loved playing there.”
For all this love, however, there’s an anarchic brilliance to Houck’s recording style which the traditional studio experience cannot tame: “I think I’m really spoiled by the ability to d-ck around on a guitar until midnight before I start doing anything. And in a studio, like the few days we were in Electric Lady, you’ve scheduled everyone to be there, and it’s like ten in the morning and it’s go time! I just don’t function that well, I just don’t!”
With a European tour in the pipeline, mixing larger venues with more intimate venues like the Old Church – “well, maybe not this intimate!” jokes Houck – and the imminent release of Muchacho, Phosphorescent’s name seems appropriate, Houck’s music glowing like a lighthouse’s beacon amid the turbulent, unrelenting seas of the ever-more-saturated music industry. But back when Phosphorescent was purely an adjective, even before Fillup Shack, when Matthew Houck was just a name among many names making music and the 21st century lay before everyone like a carpet laced with infinite possibility, was there ever a goal? A final marker to reach at which point the young musician would declare himself satisfied?
“Hmm, I wonder about that actually,” the bearded singer muses. “No, I guess is the real answer to that, unless the target was simply a straight notion to be able to do this for a living, and have a career, period. I guess that probably was the goal.”
So, job done then?
“Yeah, I guess we’re done!”
Muchacho is available now through Dead Oceans.