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Cover Story: Phosphorescent - The Art Is the Art

December 6, 2013  |  3:25pm
Cover Story: Phosphorescent - The Art Is the Art

Mexico. I kept coming back to Mexico. That was the key to unlocking Matthew Houck, the man behind Phosphorescent. I knew if I found out what happened there—what spiritual epiphanies cured his crisis of faith and freed him to write the excellent Muchacho, Paste’s 2013 album of the year—I’d have my story. Mexico was the riddle, and something profound and heartbreaking and beautiful lay in the resolution.

I already knew the bare outlines. In 2011, after touring for more than a year off his 2010 album Here’s to Taking it Easy, Houck returned to his Brooklyn home in a state of near exhaustion. There, he found a life in disarray; he’d been evicted from his apartment in the Greenpoint Navy Yards, and the relationship with his girlfriend, strained by his time on the road, fell apart. As Houck himself memorably put it to Pitchfork, “I lost the place, lost the girl, and lost my mind.” He spent the rest of 2011 rebuilding his studio and working on atmospheric snippets of music that seemed to lead nowhere, and the lyrics weren’t coming. He thought about putting Phosphorescent aside and making a wordless album. He was tired of the way he constructed language, which, when you think about it, isn’t so different from being tired of yourself.

Then, in January 2012, it happened. At 4am, perhaps spurred on by terror and desperation at the prospect of his dying artistic dream, he booked a flight to Mexico. He was on the plane three hours later. Goodbye to New York, goodbye to the life that had worn him down. He spent a week in a town called Tulum, an off-the-grid retreat about 80 miles south of Cancun on the Caribbean coast. It was a kind of personal ultimatum, maybe. The wheels had stopped turning, and something had to happen.

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Something happened. In Mexico, the words returned. He wrote five or six songs in Tulum itself, and flew back to Brooklyn on fire. He toiled in the studio, burning with inspiration, and a year later, in March of 2013, Muchacho came out. It’s a stark, sad, and somehow uplifting work of indie folk carried by the quiet strength of Houck’s fragile voice. A lot of writers call the album raw, but it’s because of how it makes them feel rather than how it sounds. There’s a sense of something being stripped bare, that he’s bypassing the usual language of musical emotion and hitting us in a place that we haven’t learned to protect. The one you can’t escape, that hits you in the gut, is “Song for Zula.” It’s fierce and its mournful, an incisive treatise on love that rings clear even as Houck’s poetry eludes easy analysis. You may not know what he’s saying, but you know exactly what he means.

But that lyrical obfuscation…that’s what led me back to Mexico. You won’t learn anything from the songs. There’s no track called “I Went to a Lesser Known Caribbean Tourist Town called Tulum for a Week and Had a Spiritual Epiphany and This is How it Went Down.” The work on Muchacho is surely autobiographical, to some degree, but not readily so, and in the interviews I’d read, Houck wasn’t eager to discuss the meaning between the lines. I knew I had to draw him out on that mysterious week in January. That was how I could crack the code.

And how perfect, I thought, how essentially American, that Mexico was his destination. It’s the southern escape valve, and it has a psychological significances that reaches deep into our country’s history. It’s the place beyond jurisdiction where outlaws fled, from the bank robbers of the Wild West to the tax frauds of today. There’s nuance to Mexico now even in American minds, with the modern problems of immigration and the drug trade and corruption that’s destroying the country, but I’d argue that the country still retains that original context. It represents a new beginning for Americans in trouble, and for Houck to have sought his redemption south of the border gives his story an epic, elemental twist. He didn’t just go to Mexico; he went to the restorative Mexico of the collective American imagination.

What did he find there? I had my mission.

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I failed. So miserably, I failed.

The things I imagined happening in Mexico are frankly embarrassing to remember. I conceived of some Barton Fink scenario, where Houck met either a displaced, eccentric American or a wise local who showed him the hidden secrets of life he’d forgotten and rekindled his inspiration. Or darker, solitary dramas; Houck taking his guitar to the beach, staring out at the blue Caribbean, and deciding that he would either write something brilliant or swim out past the waves until his body failed. Something very cinematic.

Once I had Houck on the phone, though, those fantasies died quickly. What I can tell you now is that Mexico was basically a dead end. Every writer who has told that part of Houck’s story has succumbed to the same temptation I felt; we need romance in the private lives of our artists. Deep down, we’d like them to become legends. Remember the story of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and the Wisconsin cabin where he wrote his album? That cabin, which was just a wooden building in the forest, took on its own personality, and came to symbolize the metaphysical Bon Iver; more than a musician, more than a man. The narratives of mystic creation add a layer of depth that is totally (and understandably) irresistible. And Matthew Houck in Mexico was this year’s Bon Iver.

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I spent 24 minutes on the phone with Houck, which I used to poke and prod my way around this Mexico thing. He gave me nothing. In my career as a journalist, I’ve interviewed lots of artists and lots of athletes, and it’s always more fun to interview the artists. They’re smart and willing to talk, while the athletes are dull. Sometimes, yes, it’s because they’re not very bright, but even the smart ones are taught by their handlers to speak in cliches and spend long minutes saying nothing. They know from experience that revealing anything too personal or stirring up controversy with a thoughtless quote only leads to future stress. So they stall for time until your 15 minutes are up.

I bring this up because interviewing Houck was a lot more like interviewing an athlete than interviewing an artist. I don’t mean that as an insult; he was warm, he was kind. And I don’t think he was being intentionally evasive. But he instinctively and quickly shut down any inquiries into Mexico, his lyrics, or his personal life. He’d make a game effort to give me some kind of answer I could use (again, I want to emphasize that there was nothing malicious or snide at play…he was tired and hungover, but not rude), but invariably he’d hem and haw before saying something like, “the art is the art” or “craft is craft.” Banalities, on the surface. Athlete quotes. The kind you hear as a writer, and think, “Wow, am I ever screwed.”

When it was over, I was annoyed at myself for doing such a poor job eliciting new information, and prepared myself to mine whatever useful nuggets I could find beneath the slag heap and write the romantic Mexico story I’d been planning all along. A sad little re-hash of all the stories I’d read online while doing my research, except, frustratingly, my quotes were even worse. Whatever free-flowing conversation I envisioned in my head had died beneath a crackly connection, his polite reticence, and my increasingly long-winded, aimless questions.

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Then I transcribed the conversation. And I’m sorry for all the inside-journalism business, but I just want to say that while the act of transcribing is a slog, it’s one of the most useful slogs going. And it’s where I realized that quotes like “the art is the art” weren’t the empty cliches I had taken them for. Houck wasn’t giving me the information I wanted, but he was conveying a very personal philosophy nonetheless. Mexico was the story I wanted, but it wasn’t the real story. Pursuing the Mexico line would be dishonest. There was something that mattered more…

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A weird place to start: There’s a line in Belle & Sebastian’s “This is Just a Modern Rock Song” that came to my mind the minute I’d finished listening to our interview:

Now I could tell you what I’m thinking
But it never seems to do you good
It’s beyond me what a girl can see
I’m only lucid when I’m writing songs

I’ve always loved that line, because it contains the history of Stuart Murdoch’s interactions with women who approach him expecting the wise, gentle, funny person who spends large swaths of his artistic life writing with empathy about girls. But no—what happens in the quiet spaces of creation has little bearing on the day-to-day. And if you expect otherwise, you’re making a mistake.

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Houck doesn’t strike me as the calculating or even mildly promotional type, but still, I can imagine that the Mexico story served a convenient purpose when the album hit. It was an easy way to avoid explaining the meaning behind “Song for Zula,” for instance. Sure, take the Mexico line. Run with it. It doesn’t hurt me, and it saves time. And Houck wasn’t above feeding into the drama, at least a little, because the truth was that something was happening. Even with me, he compared the moments before his Mexico trip to a religious person experiencing a crisis of faith. “It’s kinda like having something you’ve believed in always kinda of disappear from you a little while,” he said, and it’s not like he wove it from whole cloth. There was a certain amount of panic happening, but it was the kind that every artist experiences. There was actual real-world difficulty, but he’s not the first person to lose an apartment and a girlfriend, and it doesn’t sound like he was handling it any worse than average.

But if you’re on the lookout for a story like that, it’d be easy to latch onto those quotes and lead with something dramatic like, “Matthew Houck had lost his God.” To do that, though, you’d have to ignore everything else he said.

On Mexico:

“I know what you mean about the way that stuff gets played up and blown out of proportion. It didn’t really feel like that was…it feels funny that it became the story. It was significant, but I didn’t feel it was the main thrust. I wasn’t having the sort of stability or any kind of quiet place to sit and work on them, so I just decided to go down to Mexico real quick and I was there for about a week. It wasn’t like do-or-die for me. It was kind of like well, if it doesn’t happen, then fuck it.”

So much for the suicidal Caribbean swim. What about the breakup, though?

“It’s very hard to say, man. I like to think the work is the work and, sometimes I like to think that it really has nothing to do with me personally. I know that’s not true, but the lines between where my life is directly affecting what I’m writing about are kind of blurry to me, even. It’s really hard to say at what point things are just kind of figurative writing things and beauty and art and just personal bullshit, it’s really hard to know the difference. Sometimes I don’t even know until way later what I was writing about.”

But what happens in the moment of writing, when you have to choose how much autobiography you include?

“I’ve been doing it for a while now, so hopefully some of that stuff kinda becomes like muscle memory. Same as an athlete. You have muscle memory, and you start hopefully making those decisions instinctively.”

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Houck is weary of talking about that week in January, especially now that whatever usefulness it once held has now expired. And you can’t blame him; it’s a small part of his history that’s been blown into a false narrative of enlightenment. It’s a sexy story for a culture that craves hidden insights into brilliant people, but you can tell it’s unsettling for Houck. It’s a misrepresentation, even if it’s a well-intentioned one.

Which leaves us with two questions: The wrong one, and the right one.

The wrong question is, what do we actually know about Houck? The story of Muchacho’s creation is painted in broad strokes, but that was his call, and he backed away from it for a very good reason; the story is only true in the broad details. He had a bad turn, he went to Mexico, he found a spark (“little lighthouses, or something, that you follow,” is how he put it to me), he made the album. Get more specific, and the interpretative stuff goes off the rails. What else do we know? He’s from Alabama. He’s 35 years old. He’s no stranger to drugs and alcohol, and he particularly seems to like his booze; in every story I read where he meets up with a writer, he immediately orders a shot and a beer. When we spoke, he was hungover. But maybe he just likes a little buzz before enduring more probing questions about his life.

Want more than that? Too bad. He’s not the type, and as I eventually figured out, it’s not the right question.

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The right question is, what do we need to know about Matthew Houck? And I think the answer is, simply, the music. That’s all.

Which is an argument against human nature. I get that. J.D. Salinger quit writing and became a simple person who lived in a cabin in New Hampshire, but that didn’t stop young pilgrims from trekking to his house hoping for a contact high. Salinger’s wife would put them to work in the garden. Maybe they’d get to have coffee with the man himself, but probably not. They’d leave unenlightened. But they wanted more than Catcher in the Rye, because the thing it made them feel had to have a bright, burning source that could maybe teach them. Maybe heal them. Like God on Earth.

There are a thousand stories like that, and Houck’s is only the most recent. But everything he wants you to see, you can find on the albums. And because he’s a great artist, the music will also be the most compelling version of the human being called Matthew Houck. The flesh-and-blood person who, in the end, has a gift that he can’t transfer or explain. There were no visions or sudden epiphanies. He used the word “accumulation” again and again. Mexico could have been anywhere. It could have been Fort Myers, Florida. He just needed some space to clear his head. To let the pain breathe, so the muse could return.

And what he was trying to tell me—the thing I couldn’t hear until I listened again—was that digging any deeper was pointless. He goes by Phosphorescent instead of Matthew Houck because the songs are some mixture of autobiography and pure invention. Any given line you hear will come could be composed of a fragmentary personal experience, a moment from somebody else’s life, and a third thing he dreamed. And when we consider that so-called confessional art is wrapped up in how the artist chooses to present himself, maybe it’s more honest to camouflage your source material. The truth you aim for, then, is deeper than the thin revelations of “real” experience. Call it a cliche, but Houck aims at a spiritual truth that’s divorced from whatever form his life takes outside those moments of creation. The art is the art.

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To me, the ending of “Song for Zula” is the most powerful moment in indie music this year. Houck—strike that, the narrator—begins by tackling the nature of love, which he finds not like Johnny Cash’s burning ring of fire, but fickle and disfiguring. He uses the language of confinement, of a beast who refuses to rise again for “a touch from his gnarled hands.” And here again we see the poetic fog, the disguise. Are the gnarled hands a symbol of love? Some other entity? There’s no clear answer, but the as the singer refuses to open himself to whatever forces are responsible for his pain, the song enters its third verse and loses its bond to a traditional emotional structure. He rejects the language of pity and endless melancholy, which is rare enough in these kinds of songs. In his mind, he’s running on desert plains, free and primitive.

One of the few times that Houck became animated in our conversation was when I asked him about this urge, present in all his songs, for something wild.

“I don’t know if wild is the word,” he said. “Though…I think wild is the word, actually. I always think of it more like being in touch with your animal self. Which is strange, because the way I access it sometimes is just through language. But hopefully for some reason, it can sort of tap into the opposite part of yourself that’s animal.”

In the last verse of “Song for Zula,” you can hear that animalistic urge dueling with residual bitterness. It begins with the latter:

Oh but I know love as a caging thing
Just a killer come to call from some awful dream
O and all you folks, you come to see
You just stand there in the glass looking at me

But what comes next is pure defiance—against the confines of love, against the sadness of a breakup, and against the formula of lovelorn songs, which always end in lament. It’s a triumphal note that is paradoxically stirring within the frame of Houck’s muted, raspy delivery, and it’s reflected wonderfully in the music video, when the chained protagonist breaks free and sprints away in slow emotion with a look of that is part rage and part euphoric survival. This is the artist’s unforgettable choice; exhilarating, savage resilience:

But my heart is wild. And my bones are steam
And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free

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I’m no better than anyone else, and I would have killed to know the backstory behind those lines. By the time my eyes scanned down to that question in my notebook, though, I had the sense that asking for a line-by-line director’s cut would probably get me laughed off the phone. Still, I took a chance, and I think it’s worth revisiting the fallout, with all its stammers and hesitations:

Me: Do you remember the moment when you knew that would be the last line, or how it came about?

Houck: Yeah, I mean, I remember that…I remember it really well, actually, um…but I don’t, that one’s…it’s weird, that one’s a little tough to talk about without, uh…

Me: Oh, without getting…

Houck: Without, without…yeah, without fucking it up, I think, to be honest…I think, uh…people have really, uh, it seems, uh…brought a lot, you know, a lot of their own…I think it closes it off to talk about it too much. But I mean, specifically that line, you know, there um…there had to be, I had, you know, there needed to be some strength, uh, and resilience, uh…and it seems, it seems, yeah, that that was the appropriate way.

He laughed when he finished; realizing, I think, that he had said nothing at all in the most obliging way possible, but seeing no way around it. I thanked him for the answer while privately agonizing, but looking at it now, it’s perfect. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad all artists aren’t as reluctant to discuss their inspiration. But once in a while, it’s nice to see a mystery sustained. Whatever ethereal forces were responsible for those two lines, and that song, and this album, whether they came in a Brooklyn studio or a Mexican beach, are destined to stay inside Houck’s head. I don’t necessarily agree that he would spoil his art by opening up, but I take his point: We have all we need.

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