Phosphorescent :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

A decade ago I saw Phosphorescent play to a small crowd at an intimate art gallery in downtown Phoenix. It was a chilly November night in 2005, and Matthew Houck played most of his new Phosphorescent’s Aw Come, Aw Wry completely solo that evening, wrangling his voice and guitar into strange shapes through a string of loop pedals on the plywood stage. He sounded like a coyote in a sleeveless black t-shirt, singing songs like “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues” and “South (Of America)” from behind his curly beard.

These days, Modified Arts is surrounded by trendy businesses and dwarfed by high-rise apartments. In the years since, developers have moved on to the downtown street, which seemed so charmingly seedy back then. The gallery hasn’t hosted live shows for years, but I found myself thinking about that night and that place listening to Live at the Music Hall, the new live album by Phosphorescent. Documenting a four-night stint in December 2013 at Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the record finds Houck backed by six (sometimes eight) players. The songs sound more like the Stones, the Heartbreakers, or Waylon Jennings than they did in downtown Phoenix that night, but he still sounds like a desert wolf - his howling voice, a line that’s carried through on the records he’s made since: Pride, Here’s to Taking It Easy, Muchacho,. It’s a thrilling live document: the band sounds unhinged on rockers like “Ride On/Right On,” bruised on “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)” and hallowed on “Song For Zulu.”

I caught up with Houck and asked him about the record, finding good boots, and creating a “ceremony” with a rock & roll show.

Aquarium Drunkard: What was the impetus to put out a live album? Why now?

Matthew Houck: I don’t really think of it as a “live record,” you know? I really think of it as a record. For me, I just think it’s a good record. Because it holds up on its own like that, it made sense to put it out. Also, I thought it was really important to document this band, because I think they’re really astonishing. Such a good band. It wasn’t recorded with the intention of putting it out; it was recorded just to see, to see what’s there. I really quickly I realized it held its own.

AD: In terms of live albums though, did you have reference points? Live albums you find yourself pulling out and digging when you’re just hanging out?

Matthew Houck: I think that I mentioned [Bob Dylan’s] Hard Rain early on in the press, so it kind got blown out of proportion, and it made it into the one-sheet that I was inspired to put out a live record by Hard Rain, which isn’t quite correct. Somehow, that’s not at all what it feels like to me. But I do love that record, and I guess what I meant is that what that record does for me, I hope this record does for other people. It’s a specific picture of two or three nights, and it’s not cherry picking from across a decade of performances. It’s one performance basically. It’s one room…it’s a set, it’s a show. On that record, what I get out of that record is just hearing how different the songs are. They’re all songs you know, but they’re so drastically different than the versions you’ve heard before.

I feel like this record is kind of the same. I don’t know if they recorded it with the intention of releasing it or not, but it sounds loose enough that I can’t imagine they were thinking, “This is for an album,” you know? [With Live at the Music Hall] no one was thinking, “Okay, we’re making a live record, so let’s play our A game.” It's really loose, but it was our A game just by the nature of that. Something different happens when you’re making a live record as opposed to really sinking into a live show and just playing.

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