Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

Band Interview: Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent

This interview originally appeared on the Austinist on March 11, 2008.

Phosphorescent, the woodsy and brutally honest project of Brooklyn-by-way-of-Athens-and-Alabama musician Matthew Houck, used the strength of last year’s Pride to firmly establish itself as an act to be reckoned with. Combining haunting natural effects and skillful understatement, the album presents an intentionally rough-around-the-edges sound that has drawn complimentary comparisons to everyone from Dylan to Oldham. In advance of Phosphorescent’s three SXSW shows, including the Austinist/Gothamist get together on Wednesday, Matthew Houck spoke to us while snowed-in in New York.

So people listen to your music, and they get this idea that you’re some somber mystic, wandering through the forest in a pit of despair.

(laughs) Yeah, I see that.

How does that image compare to who you actually are as a person?

Well, I think music is one thing and life is another. To a certain degree I don’t really care all that much about what picture people might have of me as a person based on my music. They’d have to be kind of idiots to think that, really. No one really thinks you’re a certain way because of a song you sing, but then I might be way wrong about that. Maybe they do think that, and if they do there’s really, you know, I can’t spend too much time worrying about that.

You don’t really see your music as being necessarily your “heart,” but rather a separate product?

It’s not really separate, it’s just a specific part of it. It’s not a whole picture. It’s just a narrow little slice, of what you happened to write down that day, or you happened to sing. It’s not a full picture, and that’s fine. It’s not supposed to be a full picture. If every song you wrote was for the purpose of representing yourself as a complete human being, to the world, the song would be, I hope, more than three or four minutes long.

I’ve heard you like to look at your albums as cohesive wholes, rather than as a collection of singles.

Definitely. It’s not some kind of dogma or anything like that—I just really like albums. And I feel that most of the time for me a collection of songs gets written, it’s all kind of the same period. I never, in fact, like going back and using an old song from a year or two ago when I’m making a record—it’s always the most recent batch of songs. And for me they all kind of have a common feeling, it all kind of works together. And, like I said, not for any kind of dogmatic reason, or like I’m “against the single” or anything like that. [Songs] just tend to make more sense to me as an album as opposed to singles—I never think of songs as singles, I just think of them as albums. For some reason.

The whole idea of creating a complete work, rather than saying I just have all this crap lying around and just putting it on the same disc.

Exactly.

But in that context, the song on Pride that seems to have the most singlehood attached to it is “At Death, a Proclamation,” because of the video and everything, and that song’s not even two minutes long. It provides an interesting juxtaposition to all the longer, more sprawling songs.

And I didn’t actually even think of that as a single, but it’s just been the one we’ve shot that video for…yeah, it’s a short one. I really liked it, too, and thought about making it longer, but just stopped instead.

One thing about the video for that song, the dancing with the tiger-headed woman, you have a beer…what are you trying to say in that video?

That video actually got shot at the end of about, I don’t know, eleven weeks of touring. Hard touring. A solid seventy or eighty days, probably seventy shows in that time, all over the States and in Europe. We shot that thing in London and I was actually…I was living kind of hard at that point. I wasn’t trying to say anything too specific with that video, but it was kind of like what my life was feeling like that night, the concept of the video. The director had all those ideas, the art directors brought in the tiger. I thought that was really strange and gorgeous. I liked it.

One thing that has sort of stood out as a theme, a behind-the-scenes theme of the album Pride, pride obviously being number one, but also there’s this other thing…the whole, not wearing a shirt?

(laughs) Yeah.

I was like, what made him want to make this a fundamental centerpiece of what was going on, as far as the image of that album was concerned. The press photos, the album cover, the video…how does that relate to the theme?

The theme was, sort of, just being proud and not afraid of any of the stuff in this life. To bare your chest and stand tall and strong. I had an idea to stand completely naked on the cover and I was trying to get a photo that would be the cover, but it didn’t work out. So I just went with the shirtless one. I was going to get a full-length body shot on there, but it just didn’t look right.

So it’s kind of a vague idea about pride, and being absolutely unashamed and unafraid of putting yourself out there.

Like a literal openness, stripping it all down and not having any shame. That seemed to be the, I guess, “literary” interpretation.

I’m glad that’s coming across. It’s definitely been a conscious choice.

*****

Phosphorescent [MySpace] [Label]

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