Phosphorescent interview: "I wrote in a different way on this album. To me, it feels more direct than in the past."
Today sees the release of C’est La Vie, the new album from Phosphorescent and first in 5 years. In that time, Matthew Houck has undergone some radical changes; welcoming two children into his life, moving from New York to Nashville, building his own recording studio Spirit Sounds, and staving off meningitis. Judging from C’est La Vie, he’s come out the other side of it all with even deeper wells of love, compassion – and worry – than ever before.
Sitting down with Matthew at a central London bar, after he had fought through traffic to get there on a day flush with press duties for him, he immediately ordered both a beer and a scotch on the rocks. Any initial twinges in my mind that this was him clocking off for a couple of hours were immediately removed when we began our conversation, in which he earnestly and honestly talked about the triumphs and struggles of making the new record. In the end I came out the other end understanding that the man behind Phosphorescent is a much more grounded, humble and genuinely thankful person than I had ever anticipated. I hope you’ll enjoy reading our chat about C’est La Vie below.
C'est La Vie comes 5 years after Muchacho, which people might automatically think is a long time, but considering everything you've been through it's actually pretty impressive that you've done it in 5 years.
Thanks, yeah! It didn't feel that long to me. I felt like I was working on something the whole time even though I wasn't really working on this record.
So you've had children, built a studio, had meningitis, but you weren't writing the whole time?
No. I knew I was gonna make a record, and I bought an old mid-70s console, and thought naively that I thought I'd get it up and running in a month or so and get to work on the record - but it took a year. And I also needed space, so I ended up building a studio to have room for it and have a place to wire it in, and that took about a year and a half, two years. The actual nuts and bolts of working on the music was really only about 8-10 months, something like that, maybe a year.
So when you say you built the studio, do you mean literally the walls and everything, from the ground up?
Yeah, including power and running everything. Concrete, walls... None of these things were what I set out to do, just each little step necessitated the next step, and the next thing you know it was a huge project. Every step of the way I thought "I'll just do this and then I'll be ready to record,” and just each step snowballed into another step.
But it's there now.
It's there now! It only just started working without problems. I got it working just enough to make this record. I would like to have it be a fully functional place that people can use, but it's got a long way to go for that. It was a job to get to just where I could make this record. I'm kind of deciding whether or not to go the next step or not right now.
What's the next step?
It would be more soundproofing, fixing a lot of little wiring gremlins, because as it is now I truly don't think anybody else could work there except me, because it's held on by a thread - I know which channel has certain problems, which headphone line doesn't work, you literally have to kick the desk to make the last 4 channels turn on [laughs]. You gotta get it in the right spot. It needs tweaks.
Where is it?
It's in East Nashville, where we moved to after we had a baby - after we finished touring. We were on the road for the first year of my daughter's life, then decided we wanted to get out of New York so we moved to Nashville.
Let's talk about C'est La Vie. It is bookended by the instrumentals with 'Black Moon / Silver Waves' and ‘Black Waves / Silver Moon’, which you also did on Muchacho, so what is it about these framing devices that you like?
I like them in the sense that they usher you into a place and then can take you out of it as well. I like the sense of a welcoming, a ceremonial feeling like "here we are." But also it’s because I really love pieces like that, I'd be interested in making full records of that kind of material.
So after the instrumental opening, the first actual lyrics on the album in 'C'est La Vie No. 2' are "I wrote all night/ Like the fire of my words could burn a hole up to heaven/ I don't write all night burning holes up to heaven no more"; that was quite a purposeful opening salvo?
Yeah. That was the last song that I wrote, and the last song I recorded from scratch. I had the other songs and had been messing with them and working on them for a while, they were in a state of flux but they all had pretty strong personalities, but they didn't seem to really all work as a piece yet - I couldn't get my head around it. So 'C'est La Vie' kind of locked it in place for me as the keystone that reached out and gave all the other songs a place to live, a common thread. I think it worked as the first lyrics on there in a sense that I do think that this is a different kind of record than the ones before, and I think I wrote in a different way on this album. To me, it feels more direct than in the past.
Is it also significant that 'C'est La Vie No. 2' is the only song where you played all the instruments yourself?
Kind of, in the sense that it came together quickly and I recorded that one in 2 or 3 days and it was done. That's also why the record is called that – as well as thematically. Recording it like that straight through with just me felt like a very familiar way of doing this. It felt correct. It's probably the only song that I was able to record without having major technical issues going on with the board - everything was finally clicking. I already had pretty much a whole record, and then that ushered in and influenced the final stuff that I did on all the other tracks.
Let's go on to 'New Birth In New England', which almost sounds tropical, do you think it's the happiest sounding song you've ever done?
Yeah, for sure. I argued with the label about that being the first single; I thought it was a weird choice, because I think that's definitely the outlier on the album, and it's also an outlier career-wise, in the whole catalogue. But I like the song and I understand why it would be the most accessible one. But I still think it has been a red herring; in several of these interviews people have said "this is a new upbeat sound for you" and it's like "well, sorta..." I don't think it's the thematic big one on the record. That's 'Christmas Down Under' or 'C'est La Vie', they seem to be the ones that do the heavy lifting.
Were you surprised with how 'New Birth In New England' ended up sounding?
I was surprised when I wrote it! I wrote it pretty early on, and then I knew what I wanted to do with it, but definitely I was surprised with what came out from it. But the way that the recording happened, we had a festival and then we had a week off and then another festival. At that time no one in the band lived in Nashville, so I had flown them all down to play the festival, and then they had a few days off while we waited for the next one, and I had 5 or 6 songs that I wanted to just play with them and see. My studio wasn't ready yet at that time, and so I had to book a place to play with them, to rehearse, so we booked a studio and I just went ahead and recorded it as well.
So what happened is that I ended up recording the very first time that anybody heard these songs, and they weren't even finished, I wasn't anywhere near ready to get to work on them, I just wanted to play with them a little bit. But I ended up with really amazing tapes, really amazing playing, really free and magical and intuitive. There's something special that happens in the first spark of playing things. So anyway, that would've been two years ago, it was 3 day session, and then I started building the studio and that took a year. So I didn't really get back to those recordings for a pretty long time, and when it came time to really get to work I used those as a reference point and was rebuilding the songs. But, there was so much magic on those tapes so I ended up going back when I could and pulling things from them, slowing down the tape or speeding up the tape and making it fit, hence these new recordings. So for example in 'New Birth In New England' I re-recorded it totally, but the organs in that song are from an initial take that had to be sped up a little bit and then pitch-matched, but those organs were on fire! They were so good and there was no way to recreate that. So there was a lot of weaving it all in, like editing a movie or something. That song definitely found itself right away playing live - even though that's not what is recorded.
And lyrically how much truth is there?
That one's pretty direct, it's pretty straight.
Have you played it to your partner?
She loves it - that's her playing the organ!
Oh, amazing! Tell me about the line "we were shaking in the medical basement/ everything was all in arrears".
That's about when we found out that she was pregnant, and everything was a mess. It was an unexpected event. That bridge break down there, I don't know if you can tell, that's my daughter's heartbeat! It was the first time we heard that. That song is basically about the birth of my daughter.
In 'There From Here' you namecheck Rumi, who are your other favourite poets?
Oh gosh, in that realm there's this guy named Hafiz, he's one of the Sufi poets - I'm not educated on this stuff so I'll probably say something wrong. Rumi was 1300s and I think Hafiz was before that, but I think those guys are great.
Do they have an effect on how you write lyrics?
Absolutely, yeah. Neruda as well is a big one, has been for years. I often go back and always find something. Some of those guys are so good, and have so much, there's always something that will knock your socks off.
Do you ever write poetry, separate to lyrics?
Yeah - I used to more than I do now. I don't know what is considered poetry these days, I guess. I consider these songs to be more poems than song lyrics, to me.
That's why I'm unsure about asking about specific lines, because I think it's spoiling the magic, but I'm also very curious.
Yeah, I feel this often. Historically I decided not to divulge, but I also feel like right now, in this moment, and with this album, I'm feeling different - I'm feeling OK about it. Why not? I don't know if it's better or worse, so I'm interested in trying.
OK then, so how about the central line of 'There From Here', “If you'd have seen me last year I'd have said/ "I can't even see you there from here"”?
That was the first song that I wrote. I actually started it in New York, and ended it in Nashville. It's just specifically about where my life ended up at that point - I wouldn't have expected it. I truly wouldn't have seen it coming a year before that; I wouldn't have expected that I would be with a partner and baby and all that.
Let's go on to 'Around The Horn', which definitely seems like a new sound for Phosphorescent, it's almost space rock! What were you channelling on this one?
I was thinking a lot about krautrock. To my ears, I did it all over this whole record, it's trying to stay in a pocket of some sort rhythmically. In the past I've allowed songs to have more dynamics and more sway, but I really wanted it to lock into some very specific grooves. I was thinking something about krautrock and J. J. Cale records - they just sit right in the pocket. It's played along to a drum machine, so it's a specific non-human rhythm. Except for the ending, which then opens up.
That kind of goes with the message of the song, or my interpretation of it, which is about how life just goes on.
That's precisely it, exactly.
Did you match that idea with that driving motoric sound on purpose, or did it just happen?
I would be lying if I said I thought about it like that, but I do feel like a lot of times these things have a way of informing themselves. There was never a question of making it shorter - I knew that it was gonna be a long, simmering thing. Maybe somewhere I thought consciously that that's also thematically important, but more probable is that the song dictated it.
Are you looking forward to playing this one live?
I really am. That's another one that I pulled a lot of material from the initial session. I think we only played that one once, in fact, so a lot of the crazier guitar and swirly pedal-steel stuff is my guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson's first gut feelings on the first take, the first time anybody had played it. It was all over the map and it wasn't really structured yet, but I had to sneak those back into the final song.
You said 'Christmas Down Under' is where everything culminates, why do you feel that?
I'm not sure it would make sense to anybody other than me. Some songs just have a sense of importance right away. It just felt like something big was going on.
There's some religious touchstones in it too, which tends to happen when you're going for something big.
Yeah, or it tends to be the thing that you land on. I really didn't set out to do that - again it's like this chicken and egg thing. It was Christmastime when I wrote it, and I was in Australia, and maybe that's what's special about it to me, is it's one of those songs where you enter a certain feeling when you're making it, it somehow feels like a rarefied zone.
You've had a son as well as a daughter in the last 5 years, and as well as ‘New Birth In New England’ being about your daughter’s birth, you've written 'My Beautiful Boy' for your son - was it inevitable that they'd end up on the record?
I think so. Everything gets in there. To be perfectly honest I did think about not doing that - but at that point you're actively trying to shape something rather than just letting things be what they are.
'My Beautiful Boy' is so full of passion, the tenderness sounds like you're standing over his crib as you're singing it. It's very personal as well.
Yeah man, for better or worse they are. I definitely tried, on that one for example, to open it up so that it wasn't specifically about my son, that it could also be a romantic song, because it's similar stuff. I do wonder if these interviews and telling the story about it will take away from that. I do think that one is for sure the most on-the-nose of these songs, but I hope that it can also exist as a love song in a romantic way.
'These Rocks' is one that came from one of those original sessions, right?
Yeah, that one I pretty much left alone. I put stuff on top of it, but I didn't re-record the basic piano, guitar, vocals or drums. It was just a very special take. I had thoughts about redoing it, I had thoughts about changing some of those lyrics, but it was just special.
The lyric you thought about changing was the one “I was drunk for a decade/ Been thinkin of puttin that stuff away"; does it bother you that people might assume that that's real?
Well it is real - I'm not saying I've put it away, I'm saying I'm thinking about it. I may regret this way of approaching this stuff right now, I may change my mind later, but it's why the record's called C'est La Vie - it all ties in. It's just about letting go of having too much concern or being too protective of what I do or don't want out there. The only thing that concerns me is that it is a line that might distract from the rest of the song; to me that song is very much about the first and last verses, so my only concern is that it overshadows the rest of the song, not that it reflects on me personally.
What kinds of things are these metaphorical rocks in the song?
This record is really sad to me, it's a lot of sad stuff. There's a heaviness that is everywhere, even if you allow yourself 2 seconds of reflection. It's a rough world and it's rough on people, it's rough on all life. It's just essentially an acknowledgement of that.
The instrumental ending of the record feels quite hopeful to me. Was that the intention, to leave people on a more upward trajectory?
Always. You feel it's hopeful?
Yeah, I feel like I'm being blasted off to somewhere else.
Great! I feel like... things happen so fast and you go from thing to thing to thing to thing, and what I hope this record does, and what I like about albums that work as a whole, is that you need a minute for it. To me it is a space to sort yourself out. Without it, the record would just end with 'These Rocks', it would end too quickly; it needs some breathing space, a little raft to carry you out.
Awesome. Before I go I just want to ask is there anything you'd like to recommend to people? Maybe something that had an impact on the record?
Yeah! I really like those last couple Nick Cave records, I'm not sure that they have a direct influence on this, but I think those were special during this time. Again J. J. Cale, I was listening to a lot of J. J. Cale.
Where's a good starting point with J. J. Cale?
Oh gosh, his record called Troubadour, that would be the one to start with.
Phosphorescent’s new album C’est La Vie is out now on Dead Oceans.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 5th October 2018.