Why I’m Starting to Dislike Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent (Personally, Not Artistically)
Lest readers dismiss this column as some kind of drive-by smear campaign, let me state right off that Phosphorescent’s 2008 album “Pride” falls squarely in my Top 10 – its songs, “Wolves” and “My Dove, My Lamb” display a level of poetic artistry that comes from another plane. I’d put it in the same category as “Blonde on Blonde”-era Bob Dylan, a period where he claimed to have been “channeling” his songs rather than merely writing them. Matthew Houck takes his place among the artists I have pored over enough that their music has taken on personal meaning for me. His new album, “Here’s to Taking it Easy” (Dead Oceans), while not on the level of “Pride,” richly deserves any exposure it gets.
And yet every time I’ve encountered the Phosphorescent frontman in the flesh (and note that this isn’t that many times) either he or his entourage has managed to irritate me on an equally personal level. I first heard of the Athens, Ga. native around two years ago, when “Pride” came out and Houck moved to Brooklyn, where he became a fixture on the music scene that I myself was then just being introduced to, as well. This was the heyday of the rural-indie-folk freak-music movement epitomized by bands like Iron and Wine, and I quickly decided Houck was its new heir. Unfortunately, when I got the chance to see him live (opening for Vetiver at the Music Hall of Williamsburg) my vantage point happened to be adjacent to what had apparently been designated (to borrow some World Cup terminology) his band’s WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends) table. The level of drunken obnoxiousness on display by these girls was mind-blowing, and as the leader of his band, I have to hold Houck personally responsible for condoning it. (Although I’m pretty sure most of the catcalls were directed at the drummer, not Houck —sorry). This was also the night when I first heard “The Mermaid Parade,” a brand-new song that would later appear on his just-released album, “Here’s to Taking it Easy.” Needless to say, that moment, lovely as it was, was not what lingered in my mind.
At a certain recent literary/music event, where I was one of the designated merch girls for the night, Houck seemed capable of little but gushing about Willie Nelson to the other girl selling merch, who had never heard his music before (Houck’s, not Nelson’s). Afterward, when I attempted to engage him in conversation about the event, he hung back catering to a clingy blonde. Make no mistake, I’m a journalist (sort of) so I encounter behavior like this all the time, from everyone, and usually it doesn’t bother me. Maybe I just hold Houck to a higher standard, in which case—my mistake.
I have never interviewed Houck, but fortunately for me he hasn’t been shy about talking to various media. I don’t know if he’s gone back and read any of these interviews, because I wonder if he’s satisfied with the way he comes off in them. When “Pride” came out, Jen Carlson at Gothamist asked him his opinion about the Pitchfork review, in which they gave the album an 8.0. Houck had this to say: “The review won’t affect me personally or artistically but I am glad of anything that brings more attention to the new album, ‘Pride.’ It’s a great record. It’s easily the best record released this year and probably of the last ten years. I haven’t heard anything that comes close.” He then went on to state that his band is “the best band in America.”
You have to wonder if Houck even listens to himself when he talks to interviewers, or if it’s just never occurred to him that coming off badly in interviews might come off, well, badly. Reviews and interviews matter, and how you come off in them matters (just ask M.I.A.) They especially matter for an underappreciated artist like Houck, who deserves all the positive exposure he can get, if only because it helps his music find an audience. Trashing the writers of those reviews (even if they are from Pitchfork) does not.
In the first line of Houck’s cover of Nelson’s “Reasons to Quit” on the record “To Willie” (“Reasons to quit the smoke and beer don’t do me like before”), Houck changed the word “smoke” to “coke,” then spent an hour or so talking to BOMB magazine about how “that addiction” has been mitigated “to some extent.” Happy to hear it, Matthew, just as I congratulate you on your other accomplishments, including being thrown out of bars you’ve played and being so excellent that you’ve evolved beyond the need to rehearse. Then there’s the ridiculously bizarre beefcake publicity shots (see above), which made sense for the cover of “Pride,” but not much sense anywhere else. (Not that he doesn’t have a good body, to be sure, but there are plenty of just-as-well-built indie rockers who don’t resort to such behavior).
If this all sounds trifling, it is. Essentially, I suppose this all comes down to the kind of entitlement syndrome I’ve found to be epidemic with some artists of a certain generation (mine), which makes them think they deserve to behave like rock stars the minute they pick up an instrument. Look, you don’t have to be a saint. You don’t have to volunteer at cat shelters and travel to Africa to play benefit shows for AIDS orphans. (Houck may do this, for all I know). But what you do have to do is court and cultivate your audience in a way that will last. (Which, by the way, can still be done while being true to your artistic vision.) The irony is that in another time, his talent might have even given him license to behave this way—just not here, not now.
Matthew, if you read this, that you can forgive me for being a spiteful, petulant, easily-offended attention whore who still loves your music anyway. You don’t really have much of a choice, do you?
Photo courtesy Dead Oceans Records
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