Despite musical beginnings a decade ago in Athens, Georgia under the moniker Fillup Shack, Matthew Houck’s better known Phosphorescent guise only recently crept out of the woodwork with acclaimed 2007 LP Pride, the lo-fi, haunted tones of which earmarked him as an artist of a similar highly praised songwriting stature to Will Oldham and Iron & Wine’s Samuel Beam.
The now New York-based alt-country troubadour’s latest release Here’s To Taking It Easy marks a move to a more “classic rock” sound Houck informs me after their set at Wiltshire’s End of the Road festival (9th-12th September). “Obviously that term means different things to different people“, he reiterates, but for himself and his five-piece touring band that translates as the classic rock of the ’70s: Neil Young’s ’72 release Harvest etc.
As frontman and sole songwriter Houck’s composition of the songs, not just on this latest effort, but all those previous delineate a specific sound, a definite notion of how the lyrics and music would work on paper and how this would be recorded down. Unlike many of the bands going for the lo-fi, distorted sounds of a barn recording using a four track muffled under months of dust, Houck joked that recording an album that sounded as if it were from that era would be “pretty lame” – that is to say it is the timeless quality that they wanted to capture, a record that somehow has the ability to sound like today, now, ten years ago and ten years into the future.
“Yes, I had a definite idea of how [Here’s to Taking it Easy] would sound before we began to record”, Matthew stated, and he would also know who best to employ to get the job done; touring member Scott Stapleton’s E-Street style piano for example, or the saxaphones that debut to enliven the recordings. As with many solo artists who blur the line between individual and band; any kind of pre-recorded composition almost always will have a direct path to follow to get there; allowing their on-stage improvisations and rearrangements to show where the phosphorescence really sparkles.
“As far as live performances go these are all pretty much dependent on the environment we’re playing in”, the location, audience and so on. For a mid afternoon performance at EotR it was certainly one of the more memorable of the weekend, one which breathed new life into old tracks and going full pelt with the slightly more lighthearted feel of the lilting lyrics of the recent. Sombre track “Wolves”, (of 2007’s Pride) shed its coat to become a full band effort that somehow camoflagued the track’s tenderness, while others, like set closer “The Mermaid Parade”, though performed as arranged on the album, neatly married the whiskey-heartache of prior works with a live band that seamlessly matched the vivid imagery of the Coney Island parade. There’s an almost sepia-tinted tone to the retellings and again this harkens back to a picture postcard of timelessness.
This element of reinvention factored a lot on this summer’s UK festival stint, Houck tells me, especially as festivals are not a large thing at all Stateside. Besides odd day festivals like Austin City Limits or industry, showcasing events like SXSW, they are nowhere near the hundreds of festivals that pitch up across the UK’s countryside and city parks during the summer months. Playing to an unfamiliar audience wasn’t a huge concern however, punters at smaller intimate festivals where organisers, artists and campers alike are connected by their shared love of the music featured doesn’t make it something that has to be carefully calculated. That said, in order to play a collection of songs from the vast back catalogue of five albums and one EP there is a degree of adaptation that occurs to allow a set to run smoothly as earlier songs perhaps wouldn’t translate in a festival setting: and this of course is the kind of adaptation that welcomes old ears and new.
The great thing about these smaller festivals of course is running into friends, they mention, Matthew seemingly relieved that these few fields aren’t so gargantuan as the Isle of Wight’s Bestival. Just before I caught up with them, Phosphorescent had bumped into Black Mountain whose set they were hoping to catch later that evening, while pianist Scott Stapleton praised the likes of Deertick and Viking Moses, stating of the latter, “he’s the kind of musician who, in years, people will look back to and ask, who was that guy…?” He’s the guy Scott will be telling his grandkids about when he’s 85, he laughs, “a legend who no one knows”.
It seems some may still be asking themselves “who was Fillup Shack?” after a writer for the London’s Evening Standard, back in 2000 proposed Houck may well do for alt-country what Cobain did for grunge. Fortunately for these people they don’t need to look far, and for the European Phosie (amiably nicknamed by the band) fans, they’re on our doorstep ’til the end of the month.