photograph: Dusdin Condren/courtesy of Dead Oceans
The musician Phosphorescent, AKA Matthew Houck, always sounds busted, broken-hearted, and on the verge of giving it all up and hightailing it south of the border. In March, the psychedelic-meets-alt-country rocker with a gravelly voice and certified swagger released his seventh album, Muchacho (Dead Oceans), much of which he wrote, well, in Mexico. He plays two upcoming tour dates in Chicago: a concert this Saturday at Lincoln Hall (sold out) and the Pitchfork Music Festival. He spoke to Chicago from his studio in Brooklyn.
So I’m supposed to ask you a bunch of questions for our Stalker Quiz—
I’m not an actual stalker, but I have seen you perform several times.
Empty Bottle was the first show. 2010.
Chicago has always been a good city for us, even back early on. It was always like we’d be playing dives everywhere, but Chicago would always be a nice crowd.
We have something in common: We’re both from Alabama. Where’d you grow up exactly?
Out in the country, right near Tennessee. A place called Toney. I went to high school in Huntsville. What about you?
Birmingham. . . . Were you aware of all of the musical greatness around us? The Drive-By Truckers were coming up nearby, for example.
I wasn’t aware of it when I was there. I definitely know all about that now, I was just too young to appreciate how close I was to such a rich musical heritage.
What were you soaking up when you were there?
Mainstream ’80s, nothing too regionally specific in terms of Alabama. A lot of country music was on the radio. My mom and dad both picked on guitars a little bit, and there was a piano around.
You started performing in Athens, Georgia, and eventually moved to Brooklyn. Why did you decide to give yourself the stage name Phosphorescent?
I thought it was a really beautiful, evocative word that is a good definition for a project. I didn’t want to put records out as Matthew Houck. It is a protective measure—a division between my work and my personal life. With music there is a tendency for people to assume you are writing directly about your personal life at all times. Songs are very personal things. I have always learned to have a separation from my name and my personal life and this thing I like to do for my work. I call it Phosphorescent because I like the idea of something that can burn and shine without combusting. There’s no heat. Nothing being combusted.
Your new album, Muchacho, sounds more atmospheric and psychedelic than your previous work. It’s a very different sound. Did it start that way?
We were doing a lot of touring—playing upwards of 200 shows a year—and I was pretty wiped out. When I came back to New York, I spent about a year in my old studio working on stuff. I considered maybe putting Phosphorescent down for a while, and then these songs came kicking in. I just decided to go to Mexico [to finish writing them.] Mexico doesn’t influence the album sonically, but it influences the title, obviously, and the lyrics. The bigger thing that happened was just getting out of New York.
How much of the broken-heartedness on this album, in particular, is fact, and how much is fiction?
It’s funny. I read some quote the other day, something to the extent that, as a writer, you should never let the facts get in the way of the bigger truth. I think that is something that I definitely follow. I don’t think it matters, at a certain point there is a deeper truth that you should honor. Those lines, as long as I know there is fact and fiction in all this stuff, I feel safe not revealing. There will be a line [in a song] that I’m really nervous about keeping. Nobody will ever say really anything about it. Another line that means nothing: People will ask me to explain. There is a healthy mix of both fact and fiction, and that’s important.
What’s different this time around in terms of the tour?
Some people are the same, but we have an amazing new girl on the keys and a new percussionist. It will be a six-piece in Chicago, and they sound amazing. We just played a secret show in New York to test out new material, and I couldn’t speak highly enough about them.
OK, so now I am going to ask you a few stalker questions that I feel I should ask. Keeping to the format and all.
What do you listen to in the tour bus?
Mostly hip-hop. Lil Wayne. We go back and forth wildly between hard country and hard hip-hop.
What’s on your mental bulletin board?
What’s inspiring you?
I’m directing my own video for “Song for Zula” [the video is out now: you can see it here]. I’m really excited about that, and I’m doing a lot of visual thinking. I can’t actually tell you what about, because if it doesn’t work, I’ll feel like an idiot.
You have to play a cover: Britney, Christina Aguilera, or Beyonce. You choose—
Is there a particular song? Or do you just want to leave it at that?
Let’s just leave it at that.
Listen to “Song for Zula” here.