Phosphorescent's "Wolves" | Song of the Week | Indy Week
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Phosphorescent's "Wolves" 

Matthew Houck on ukuleles, New York and indie rock's new breed of wolves

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Phosphorescent's gorgeous, weepy "Wolves" is campfire vagabond music assisted by an extension cord: Opening only with frontman Matthew Houck's sleepy voice and his drifting ukulele strums, the tune builds slowly over its six minutes, gradually folding minimal percussion and a thick accordion brood beneath the otherwise docile melody. A thin electric guitar lead soon takes its seat on the surface, offering a sharp accent to the song's wild roots.

Indeed, everything sounds delightfully out-of-doors here, as though the wolves Houck sees in his house are ripping the walls down, letting the chilly Brooklyn breeze overtake his dimly lit space. This song is about temptation in the face of promise, violence in the face of majesty. But from end to end, it's pure resplendence.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Do you remember how "Wolves" developed?

MATTHEW HOUCK: It was wintertime, last winter, in New York. Just being in New York and this house out in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood is where I wrote it.

The song's written with a ukulele, very gently strummed. Was that a byproduct of living in a house where you needed to be quiet, as opposed to just strumming a loud guitar?

No, actually. It was just a matter of I had never really played the ukulele before. There was just one laying around, and I was just playing with the few chords that I figured out on it. It just kind of happened like that.

How does living in Bed-Stuy, as opposed to Georgia, play into your writing or how you think of sounds—going from the South to the North?

I really don't know the answer to that. It's really hard to say you know how much your environment affects you or what you're pulling from, when you're writing something, whether it's from recent experiences or past experiences or, you know, even imaginary experiences. It's hard to say how much real life and real stuff creeps in or how much is just a product of the thing, you know?

On the same tip, is it easier to write songs when you're still or can you write songs on the road?

Absolutely easier when still. I almost never write anything on the road. I've worked on like a really small thing and then maybe later revisited it.

When you moved to New York, you immediately became more entrenched, it seems, with several bands already there. Was moving to an area just teeming with bands mostly interesting or frightening for you?

It's actually not been all that different, actually. It's been a lot of years now that now I think I've pretty much been pretty involved, or at least just among, other artists. I don't know how much I've been really involved in any kind of artistic community, I guess. But I mean I definitely have all this—Bed-Stuy, with other people making the same kind of stuff or doing the same kind of thing.

For "Wolves," what came first, the uke chords?

I think they did, yeah. I remember I ended up ... Yeah, no, they definitely did on that one. It was directly the product of playing on the ukulele.

What was the gestation period for "Wolves," from start to finish?

I wrote that in about two or three days. Kind of the original idea happened pretty quickly, and then I think it took just a couple days to kind of flesh it out. We went back to it the next day and fleshed out another verse I think or something like that. Yeah, I definitely didn't labor over it too long, but I didn't do it in one sitting either.

Is that how songwriting generally goes for you?

Yeah, I think I've learned that that seems to be the case. I think that there's a bunch of songs that I've worked on for long periods of times, and most of those, kind of still, I just haven't finished or wouldn't be finished. I just kind of wasn't just happy with them. I think generally, if something is good, it comes pretty quickly.

How satisfied are you with how the song itself and the version on Pride compared to your original concept?

I'm actually very happy with both. It's funny: I haven't listened to the version on the record in so long. I still think it's a great song. I'm in no way tired of it or anything like that. We've played a bunch of shows since that record came out, and every song got changed around a bunch. So it's been played a hundred different ways. I think the recorded version actually stands up really, really well.

The song works on these images of frightening beauty: You think the wolves are gorgeous, but they're also destroying your property. We've already mentioned today's election, but I feel like some people approach today with that same fear. They're excited for change, but it scares them.

Are they, you think?

Sure. Change rarely comes without a cost. But, generally, does that interpretation of the song hold for you?

Well, in terms of the song, it was definitely about that sort of stuff and specifically I think about women and kind of lust and things like that and ... I don't know, romantic damage or something like that. But in terms of the larger sense of what you're saying, I guess I don't know exactly. It's really hard to say, but I can't ... Personally, specifically in this situation, I don't think that anything but positive can come from this election. I don't know that there's any lurking danger other than any kind of lurking danger that's always there. I guess in that sense it's always true.

The lust for women you mentioned: Did the song come from a specific event, or is it a general idea?

It was a general. It was a vague thing. It was also, you know, it was a little specific, trying to figure out about how to maybe handle some of the demons that kind of come up when you get involved in a relationship. ... It's all beautiful, so that's the reason you're in there I guess. It seems to bring up a lot of trouble sometimes. It's just a reaction to some of those kinds of feelings, I think.

This song's written in first-person, as you talk to mama...

It's actually not a mom. It can be taken that way, too. I definitely like the duality of that. But I was definitely writing it in terms of talking to your lover and calling them mama like that.

That makes sense. Still, the song is told from one person's perspective. He sees the wolves as frightening. Do you think it works the other way: As in, the pacing wolves are frightened by their surroundings?

Sure, absolutely. It's not in an accusatory tone. It's more, I think, inclusive of everybody in there, in that situation.

Lot of wolves in music lately—Wolf Parade, Wolves in the Throne Room, Bon Iver's "The Wolves (Act 1 and 3)," Josh Ritter's "Wolves," references on the new Mountain Goats record... Where are these wolves coming from?

I wonder about that. I mean, there might be a direct correlation subconsciously with what you were saying earlier. I mean, we've been, I think under a pretty, pretty nasty, obviously, a nasty political climate for about eight years now. Maybe it's bringing up all kinds of threatened and threatening feelings in the minds of artists.

Phosphorescent plays Local 506 Thursday, Nov. 6, at 9:30 p.m. with Virgin Forest. Tickets are $8.

  • Matthew Houck on ukuleles, New York and indie rock's new breed of wolves

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