Phosphorescent: “I am usually happy – I’m not a wreck of humanity”

Matthew Houck on Crazy Horse jams, escaping to Mexico and his LP Muchacho

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Houck’s debut for Dead Oceans was 2007’s astonishing Pride, on which he played everything himself, as well as producing and mixing the thing. It was also the third album Houck put out as Phosphorescent, a name that sounds not lightly chosen. “It wasn’t,” he says. “I decided on the name specifically because of the idea of something being able to burn and produce light without combusting itself, without burning itself out and the fact that it self-perpetuates and never goes out.”

On Pride, Houck found more clearly than ever before his own artistic voice – or voices, at those moments where his multi-tracked vocals create a truly cosmic soundscape on psychedelic hymns like the nine-minute “My Dove, My Lamb” and the ravishing “Cocaine Lights”. There are miasmic sonic expeditions on Pride, as out there at times as Tim Buckley’s Starsailor. His fanbase was by now as devoted as mujahideen. What a shock to them Houck’s next record must’ve been. 2009’s To Willie was an album of Willie Nelson covers, inspired by To Lefty From Willie, Nelson’s 1977 tribute to Lefty Frizzell. For the album, he enlisted members of a crack bar band called Virgin Forest, who in various permutations have been with him since, Crazy Horse to his Neil Young, The Band to his Dylan. To Willie was a fabulous country rock album and less the career digression it seemed to some to be. Its follow-up was 2010’s swaggering Here’s To Taking It Easy, an album that evoked memories of ’70s Stones and Dylan, with echoes too of Neil Young on the smouldering guitar epic “Los Angeles”, which sounded like something that could have been recorded for On The Beach or Zuma. Here’s To Taking It Easy gave brilliant voice to Houck’s growing authority as a songwriter, arranger, producer and a singer with the vulnerable bravado of vintage Gram Parsons. If it wasn’t exactly Houck’s Born To Run, it brought him even more lavish praise than Pride and his healthiest sales to date. He toured the arse off the album over the following two years. What kind of shape was he in when the touring was over?

“Not the best,” he says, not laughing now. “Whatever your best intentions, you fall into certain behavioural traps. That’s just the way it goes. It’s really not a lifestyle I’d particularly endorse or recommend. It’s not a healthy way of living and it does have repercussions, to say the least, on your well-being and the well-being of people around you. The kind of routine you get locked into breeds a mental laziness I don’t like. You get to a point where you just have to numb your mind. You have to shut down your mind, learn to function at a lower frequency, at least until showtime, which is the highlight of your day, or should be. I’m not complaining. I knew what I was signing up for, but it can be very confining. You’re just getting through the days, the weeks, the months. It’s a very frustrating way to live. At the end of all that touring behind Here’s To Taking It Easy, the last thing I wanted to do was just come back and crank out another record like that. I wasn’t real sure what I was going to do next, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be anything like the record I ended up making. I didn’t expect this record to come out the way it has at all. I really didn’t see it coming.”

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