Walking into a Phosphorescent concert, prepare to see the venue and the concept of live performance in a different light — literally. Bending the concept of your standard rock 'n' roll lighting, the band's seemingly never-ending string of dates in support of 2013's Muchacho are liable to include candles, flowers and soft luminescence that make for a very visual interpretation of the band's name.
"I thought it felt like a disheveled classiness," says singer-songwriter Matthew Houck, the man behind the moniker, of the stage decor. He notes a similarity to religious ceremonies, a theme that extends into the way he has dressed for many shows: a "muchacho suit" complete with an ornate jacket and hat.
"I'm getting into the idea of uniforms," he says. "It kind of goes back to the ceremony thing. Churches and all kinds of ceremonies, and any kind of thing like that. It's good that it has its own sort of structure and outfit. It helps get in a mind frame to do a certain task."
But the visual embellishments are where the predetermined aspects of this particular task end — an extensive background on the road playing all types of venues and festivals has yielded Phosphorescent a live show that heavily relies on responding to the audience.
"I don't generally go around with a preformed idea about what kind of set to do," Houck says. "It kind of ends up within the first song that you can tell what the vibe is going to be, reacting to the audience. You kind of just have to play off of that and let the songs go where they go. I'm lucky that I've ended up with a really amazing group of musicians behind me, so really we're able to kind of go where the vibe goes."
This collaborative, reactionary live approach is in stark contrast to the recording process that birthed Muchacho. The record was created by painstakingly layering parts, adding instrumental tracks one by one without any of the musicians even playing in the same room, eventually creating a product that is ambient and richly textured and has earned descriptors as varied as psychedelic pop, indie country and Americana.
"That's just how I come to work," says Houck. "I've kind of always worked that way, but exclusively worked that way for Muchacho. This time it just happened to be a one-inch-at-a-time kind of record."
Houck's attention to detail is evident in the instrumentation as well as the lyrics, which seem to have the sought-after capability of resonating with masses of people for individual, varied reasons. This is perhaps evident most in the album's popular single, "Song for Zula."
"I've always been a little bit hesitant to talk about that one," Houck says. "All songs really, but specifically that one. I've been surprised: The whole time, it's been really rewarding and surprising to see how people took to that song. I think it's a rough song, lyrically. There's a lot of rough stuff going on in there. ... I don't want to take away from that experience by telling exactly what I was going through when I wrote it."
Although the powerful execution of tunes like "Song for Zula" yields highlights during performances, Houck still has an affinity for performing softer songs solo. In New York earlier this year, he played a full solo acoustic date on top of selling out three consecutive nights with his band at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. But even on dates when he's with the full band, audience members are likely to see a shift in energy during the set.
"It is a tricky thing," Houck says. "I do feel like those are two very different worlds. It's one thing to do a very empty and moody, sparse set. If you set that vibe, you can maintain that vibe. But it is kind of hard to switch vibes. Kind of like if you were watching a heavy drama of a movie and then all of a sudden it wanted to just switch gears into some slapstick comedy."
Phosphorescent is set to continue touring throughout the summer, including a stop later this month at Bonnaroo. After this, though, Houck says he might seek out an environment more conducive to creativity than the road.
"I think I'm definitely gonna do that more for writing," says Houck. "Having some distance now from the songs, I can see lyrically where their direct influences are from, where I was writing them. I'm pretty sure the lyrics wouldn't have been that if I had been sitting in my Brooklyn apartment or Brooklyn studio."
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