In December of 2013, Phosphorescent played a four-night run of sold-out shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, finishing out a leg of tour dates in support of his excellent latest full-length Muchacho. Matthew Houck, the man behind the project that can range from a solo setup to a six-piece band, played for over ten hours, all of which was recorded and ultimately whittled down to 19 tracks for Live at the Music Hall, a three-album set to be released via Dead Oceans on Feb. 17. Houck talked to Paste about playing with his band, the concept of a live album and the way ceremony played into these live performances. Stream the album in its entirety in the player above, and read Paste’s interview with Houck below.
Paste: What made you decide to record and release a live album?
Matthew Houck: It’s something I wanted to do forever, but never really got it right. Recordings would come in—we’d record some shows, but this was kind of the first chance to really set up a multi-track. We had a four-show run at the Music Hall [of Williamsburg] and it just seemed like a good time to try to capture what this band can do live. It was a special time. I didn’t know until after I heard the tapes that we were going to release it at all. I knew they were special nights, but I didn’t record them with the idea of releasing a live record. I just recorded them because I do that any chance I get. Once we listened back to the recordings, it was pretty clear pretty quickly that we should do something there.
Paste: You said you record shows as often as you can. What is it like to listen back to something like this? Does it affect the way you perform?
Houck: It truly is a real learning experience to pore through recordings and listen to the band play and listen to yourself play. Especially being able to have a multi-track, where you can solo out any instrument and any voice and hear what’s going on independently and how everybody’s playing, it was super educational and interesting and really cool. I really enjoyed that part of this process. It was a real joy to just be in the studio for many hours and just being able to listen independently to what everybody’s doing. When you’re playing it, you can only hear it as a whole. Even most of the live recordings I’ve listened back to, I’ve only had as a whole live performance. So, it was truly a fascinating thing to listen to everybody independent of each other.
Paste: Tell me about that run of shows in particular.
Houck: We had been on the road for about ten months and we were about to take a break for the holidays and for the new year. I think the last show of any tour is always a special thing, it’s like one big homecoming or celebration or something. We had been working with that material for, like I said, about ten months, and I think we were in such a good spot with how good everybody was playing and how just vibey we were playing together, so it was a really good time.
Paste: Your performances for that leg of tour dates had a very distinctive aesthetic. The candles, the way you were dressing in the muchacho suit. Do you feel like you’re able to communicate some of the same things on this record without those visual aspects?
Houck: What I was trying to do, I think, with that stage setup and the muchacho outfit and all that was trying to give everything some sense of ceremony. Ceremony: that’s the word for it, honestly. I think it’s like anything else. There’s a reason people get dressed up for certain occasions. It’s part of what humans have done to signify that something is a special thing. So it definitely did impart that kind of energy to the whole thing, and I think the crowd felt that as well. Just by that happening, I think it couldn’t help but be captured a little bit in the audio and in what we were doing with the performance.
Paste: Some of these songs are almost a decade old. Are there any songs, in particular, that evolved for you in the time that you’ve been playing them?
Houck: The short answer is all of them, really. They’ve all kind of taken on new lives, as they tend to do. I think in particular on this album, there’s a song called “Dead Heart,” which is probably the oldest song—well, not the oldest song, but one of the oldest songs on this record. From, yeah, about eight years ago. This band, this lineup, we really just latched onto that song and it really kind of served as a guidestone for how we were all gonna play together. Every night, we would take that song to different places, which was just a real blast, that song. So that one really has taken on its own life, and I think is a shining example of the way we communicated as this band.
Paste: When you recorded many of these songs for your previous releases, you were doing all of the instrumentation yourself. Tell me about how those songs became what they are on this live album.
Houck: Doing songs from Muchacho was really the first time that I was able to have the people who recorded on the album also be the live band, and it was kind of the first time that I wanted to make the live band sound like the record—we tried to actually recreate live what the sounds were on the record, which in the past I would always make the record and then just put together a band and then however the band played those songs would be the new way they went. So the Muchacho songs were the first time that we had consciously tried to recreate the record live. Of course that, eventually, with this particular group of people, has lots of room to stretch out. Particularly the older songs. The way that I would arrange those is honestly just to start playing them and let the band rip. I think there’s a freedom in the live stuff that I don’t feel as controlling over as I do about the record. Within reason, of course, I trust these guys to let the songs go wherever they’re gonna go on any given night.
Paste: You have a lot of songs on this release. What do you think of the concept of a live album as just that, an album?
Houck: What I wanted, and I think we achieved, is that I wanted this record to be a record in and of itself, regardless of the fact that it’s a live record. I wanted it to feel like an album. And I think it does – I think it really does hold up. I think that it would be fine if, for example, if this was the first anyone ever heard from this thing called Phosphorescent. I don’t think it would be a misleading introduction. At the same time, the people who know these songs already from the albums or have seen us live over the years, I think there’s something in these particular versions that… it’s just a good recording of a really good band.
I think we could have, for example, released any given night that we played on this tour, but it just worked out that this was recorded well and we were able to mix it in a cohesive way that made it come together as a full record.
Paste: Most of the songs on this release are from Muchacho, but how did you select some of the older material that you played?
Houck: As far as choosing from night to night what to play, it’s always kind of up in the air. I have a relatively big back catalogue at this point, and I’m lucky enough with these guys to be able to sort of throw out a song that they maybe haven’t ever played on before and they’re gonna be fine, we know enough about how we play to kind of wing it and do something special with it. Night to night, I think of the live shows in the same way that you make a record in the sense of trying to have a cohesive arc to the performance. Hopefully you’re taking people on some kind of journey, and taking yourself on a journey as well.
Dacey Orr is Paste’s multimedia editor. You can follow her on Twitter.