Six is the magic number. Last year, Matthew Houck, who records and performs under the name Phosphorescent, released "Muchacho," his sixth album, behind a stunning, six-minute-plus single called "Song For Zula." "Muchacho" became a sleeper indie-rock hit, converting casual listeners into devotees and outselling Houck's previous efforts. Even Bruce Springsteen's on board. ("I like what he does," Springsteen told National Public Radio's Ann Powers.)
Houck, an Alabama native, is currently on the second leg of a tour, playing sold-out shows with a six-piece ensemble — bass, drums, percussion, pedal steel guitar, piano and organ — giving him a variety of tonal colors to work with. They'll arrive at the Spaceland Ballroom in Hamden on Wednesday, Feb. 5.
Houck spoke to CTNow from his tour bus in Charlotte, N.C. "Phosphorescent has always been a loose thing," he said. "People have come and gone as they will. But at least a couple of these guys I've been playing with for four or five years now, and couple of them are brand new as of this record. Everybody's just so good. It's an astonishingly good band."
After writing six of the songs on "Muchacho" in a beach hut on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Houck spent months crafting the arrangements on analog and digital equipment, tweaking and learning new tricks as he went along, while playing host to more than 15 guest musicians. When the recordings were finished, Houck was faced with the all-important task of sequencing them into a cohesive whole.
The process, Houck said, wasn't as difficult as on previous records: a matching invocation ("Sun, Arise!") and parting koan ("Sun's Arising") were clearly going to be the album's bookends, and the nine songs in between were recorded one by one, in order, as they flowed in Houck's mind. There are honky-tonk barroom textures, mile-high voices and solitary moments, where Houck's creaky groan expresses the turmoil of painful relationship situations. "Muchacho" unfolds almost as a palindrome, with the horn and pedal steel obbligatos of "Down To Go" (the penultimate tune) balancing the stacked brass and gang vocals (all Houck's) of "A Charm / A Blade," which would end Side One (if we were talking vinyl). Side Two begins with the reverb-drenched cowboy waltz of "Muchacho's Tune" (the first song Houck wrote for the collection), and the extroverted country-rock of "The Quotidian Beasts" balances out a similar vibe on "Ride On / Right On." It's heady stuff.
The album aesthetic is important to Houck, which is why he originally sequenced "Song For Zula" at the end. "I have faith in albums," he said. "If you invest in albums, it's absolutely fine for the last song to be your favorite. I wouldn't say I was burying ["Song For Zula"] at all, because I was seeing the whole album as one piece at all times. I could see all the songs."
Ultimately, Houck said, the final running order didn't matter with this particular collection of songs. "With other records, it was absolutely required that the songs appear in a certain order," Houck said, "and this one was the first where I had it sequenced one way and after bringing it to the label — I don't usually show the work until it's finished — they had a couple of suggestions, and it was still okay." Notably, "Song For Zula," the second song on "Muchacho," was supposed to be final track (before the koan outro). "To my mind, that was a really difficult song, and I certainly didn't think it would be the single or have gotten the attention it has gotten."
Dead Oceans pushed to have "Zula" bumped up in the running order, and Houck agreed. "The thought was [by the label] that maybe people don't think that way, that it would be burying it somehow by putting it at the end, and I understand that," Houck said. "To me, a big final song is a cool thing on a record, but I've made that mistake before on a couple of records of mine. Probably my favorite part of a record would be the last two minutes of a 12-minute drone piece or something, and it's questionable how many other people also appreciate that."
The overall length of "Muchacho" was also important to Houck as a sign of its completion; struggling with an extra track, once Houck realized the rest of the songs comprised 45 minutes, he was content to say the album was done. "[45 minutes] always seems like the perfect length, and it's weird because it's just a product of how much music a vinyl record could hold," he said. "Somehow that evolved into a 'long player,' which is what 45 minutes is. That stuff is super interesting to me, that the medium of it dictates what it is."
Live, Phosphorescent stretches out into long jams in unexpected places. They embellish songs on the fly and change up the set lists from night to night. Usually, as they did at a recent sold-out gig in Washington, D.C., the band plays together for the first set, then Houck does a solo set before bringing the band back for a few more numbers.
Performing the songs, Houck said, brings out elements he didn't realize were present. "It'll be the same group of people playing the music one night, and then the next night it's the same group of people, but the music can be drastically different," Houck said. "There are a thousand different factors going on at the same time that will change things. It's one of the more fascinating things, one of the things that makes it, for me, sustainable to keep playing songs night after night for a long time. There's always something in there that can be different, and on a good night, it can absolutely reveal something that you didn't know was there."
Although Houck hasn't written anything for a follow-up to "Muchacho," he has a sonic sense of what he'd like to do next.
"I learned a lot, I think, leading up to and making this record, just purely in terms of technical stuff, and I'm pretty excited to keep playing with that stuff, to keep pushing the boundaries of what I know how to do," Houck said. "In that sense, I know how I want to work, but in terms of songs, I haven't written anything yet, not the first thing. That stuff is always surprising, even to me, what's going to get dredged up once I sit down and start writing."
PHOSPHORESCENT appears Wednesday, Feb. 5, at 8 p.m. Spaceland Ballroom, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden, with special guest Caveman. Tickets are $18 to $20. Visit manicproductions.org for tickets.