Last night, Phosphorescent took the stage at the Mercury Lounge. Their new album, Here’s To Taking It Easy, has just been released on Dead Oceans. It was their last show in the United States before heading out for a European tour. Before the show Luke Degnan spoke to the band’s singer and songwriter Matthew Houck.
Luke Degnan How do you take it easy when you’re on tour?
Matthew Houck We don’t. That’s the reason the album is named that. It was kind of wishful thinking or rather a directive to remind myself to try and take it easy.
LD So you have no downtime?
MH No, not really. It’s kind of on all the time. Which isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable or fun, it just doesn’t slow down a whole lot.
LD This is your last show in the states before a long tour of Europe. Is touring life in Europe pretty much the same as touring in the US or are there noticeable differences?
MH It’s more structured over there. It’s more like theater type shows. They all feel very structured.
LD Less relaxed?
MH No, more relaxed. Everything’s taken care of and they feed you well and put you up. It’s not like a lot of rowdy bar shows. It’s more like respectful audiences, which has its ups and downs.
LD In interviews you’ve said that your tours are rambunctious, filled with booze and drugs. In the first song on To Willie, “Reasons To Quit,” you substitute the word “coke” for “smoke.” Do you live or feel the message more now? Have your habits dwindled? Do the “coke and booze not do you like before”?
MH The reason I changed that lyric, first of all, is because I’m not that much of a grass man. So singing about smoking weed seemed silly to me. It made sense to change that. However, yes. Particularly the time of recording that album was a time of utter exhaustion so it made complete sense and it still does. So to some degree yes, we have curtailed those habits. We’re getting better at maintaining this schedule. I hope.
LD In an interview with the Wall Street Journal you said that you were aiming to make a “classic sounding record” when you recorded Here’s To Taking It Easy. Can you talk about this?
MH Starting with To Willie, because I produce the records well and engineer them, I learned more about how to make records sound how I want them to sound. Most records from ‘72 to ‘78 or so sound amazing. I don’t know why. There’s a magic in electronics and producing and engineering and the way that they were doing that stuff. As far as I can tell no one knows how to capture that anymore. I got really nerdy about that kind of stuff and learned a lot about production techniques. A lot of it was trial and error as well. I was specifically aiming for that mid-’70s sound that’s really hard to capture these days.
LD On the record there are some down lyrics, but it seems like your most musically upbeat album. What is the relationship between the lyrics and the music?
MH A lot of it has to do with the sound of the band right now. It’s a six piece. It’s steady right now. They’re all really amazing players. Making that classic country record with the Willie stuff, I think we learned a lot about those sounds. Even when it’s about gut wrenching stuff lyrically, it doesn’t have to sonically rip your guts out which again ties into the taking it easy idea. These things can rip your guts out for sure, but maybe you don’t have to sonically dwell on that.
LD Do you still not practice? You said before that you trust your band because they’re great players. Do you trust yourself that much? Do you play these songs on your own?
MH No. I trust the songs themselves. Every time I’ve ever tried to practice something…you end up manufacturing something that was already there already. You wind up cutting its wings somehow. Over-practicing somehow takes away the freshness of it. I have faith in the songs. Keeping them loose and fresh as much as possible is the way to go.
LD You must play them enough to remember them. What’s the line where you know you can stop playing them? There’s writing them and then there’s playing them and then there’s practicing them.
MH There’s recording them too which is a whole other thing. That just happens to be the one way that’s going to be heard so much more. There’s two different things I guess. In respect to the recording of them, which you have to be aware is going to be the definitive version for most people, I definitely labor over those. As far as live, when we play, it’s more about the feeling the moment. It has to feel good to the person doing it. To me it doesn’t feel good if it feels rehearsed. If it happens naturally it’s far more powerful than if you manufacture it, but on the record it’s the opposite of that. You gotta shake that stuff up.
LD What are some of your favorite country artists other than Willie Nelson?
MH So many. Merle Haggard, George Jones, Lucinda Williams”. Really so many, it could go on all day.
LD What do you think of contemporary country music?
MH Some of it’s alright. What was the last good thing that I heard? It’s a game we like to play on these tours. When you get to the Southeast and Southwest finding the country stations and hearing what’s going on. Mostly it’s just awful. Even sometimes when it’s so bad, it’s good. I don’t think I’ve heard anything in the last couple years that knocked me out. I sure do like that “Ain’t As Good As I Once Was” song. I think it was Toby Keith. It’s hard to get behind him. That was a good one. Also “I Love This Bar” was around the same time. Oh no, I know exactly. The last Dwight Yoakam record is phenomenal. It’s called Blame The Vain. It’s phenomenal. Top to bottom great record.
Listen to Phosphorescent on their MySpace page.
Matthew Houck. Photo by Elizabeth Hoy.