We came across Wisconsin band Phox a while back and were immediately hooked by the band’s melodic pop and frontwoman Monica Martin’s beautiful vocals.
The band is preparing to play Los Angeles next week as part of Red Bull Sound Select‘s 30-day takeover of LA, featuring a different show at a different LA venue every day in November. We got a chance to talk with Matthew Holmen (second from the left above) about the band’s origins, what it’s like to live and write in small town, rural America, and how people are awesome. Give Phox a listen below and read on.
raven + crow: Alright, outta the gate—where does the name come from? It strikes us as an intriguingly unique one. What’s the story? Are you guys automated reasoning math geeks at heart?
Matthew Holman: It’s actually a long-running joke that no one seems to have cracked yet. It’s crazy, because we’ve been dropping clues all along. Maybe we’re being too obscure. We’ll ramp it up.
Hm. Now I’m truly intrigued. Is it PHOX, all caps then?
That’s a common stylization, much like koRn or Panic! Mixed case band names are much more likely to appear on Gorilla VS Bear, or CSPAN, and we’re not sure we’re ready for that kind of coverage.
Fair. To me, the two things that make your music really enticing are the beautifully crafted, earnestly wrought, yet still humble music and Monica’s truly unique, personable voice and the personality you can hear behind it. Can you talk a little bit about how those things came together? I know the initial work for the band started out in fledgling form in the Bay Area, but you’re all originally from and now based in Baraboo, Wisconsin, right?
It began in two forms. The first was in Jason’s youthful imagination, as he thought combining various members of local bands would make for a real neat Baraboo supergroup. Around the same time, Zach had written a record under the name Sonntag, which Davey was producing. Zach had virtually every musician in Baraboo perform on the record, the result being the first collaboration of the soon-to-be members of phox. We didn’t form as a band until a couple years later.
History aside, the best excuse I can give for our music sounding the way it does would be the fact we all know each other outside of a musical context so well. For us, music and art are byproducts of living life, and it has only been through our knowledge of each other’s strengths (and weaknesses) that we’ve been able to sculpt tunes without totally trampling one another.
Nice. I’ve always thought that was the ideal environment for a band and good, collaborative song-writing, everyone being friends outside of the band, that is.
I know you recorded your full-length at Justin Vernon’s home studio—did he work on the actual album?
I’m guessing you field this question a decent amount, but do you have any insight into the WI-MN indie music explosion in recent years? I mean, not just Bon Iver and you all, but also Volcano Choir, Gayngs, and Poliça (do they still do that weird c thing?)? …also, I just realized Justin Vernon’s a common thread in every one of those bands. Is it just that dude in a hamster wheel powering the whole scene?
I think having the confidence that we can do it, and having very legitimate role models has helped. There are a ton of great bands coming up right now. Dolores, We Are The Willows, J.E. Sunde (from The Daredevil Christopher Wright).
Oh, and who can forget Daytrotter? Sean Moeller has a fine ear, and he never stops looking for bands. The ones from the Midwest happen to be coming through the Quad Cities a bit more, so we get great opportunities. DAYTROTTER BEST WEBSITE ON INTERNET (-CSPAN April 21, 2013).
I don’t recall that headline, but I’ll take your word for it. I’ve yet to visit the great state of Wisconsin, but I adored Minneapolis when I visited…in the summer. What do you all like about Wisconsin and, in particular, Baraboo?
Who said we like Baraboo? hahaha I live in a retirement home here, which is pretty cool. Actually, the coffee shop is great. AND you know what? I do like Baraboo. I like that it’s a small town that is so supportive and proud of us. But it sucks that young artists might feel squashed in a town that doesn’t have many resources to support and encourage their creativity. It can be done, and done well, but it’s most likely to occur behind closed doors.
On another note, I love MN, WI because our people are kind and humble.
Yeah, I feel like I’m always drawn to living in urban centers in my life but I romanticize the pace and…openness of less built up, more rural places and the idea of creativity coming from that environment. Do you find that your environment influences your writing and musical style at all?
Of course! Winter is the best creative aphrodisiac. There just aren’t many distractions besides Netflix and beer, which you can certainly exhaust.
Mmmmm. Netflix + beer. No, I actually have a hard time pigeon-holing your all’s sound, which, for me, is good. Some of my favorite bands—People Get Ready, Purity Ring, Owen Pallett, Efterklang—tend to evade classification. Plus it just seems kind of one-dimensionally offensive to be like “you guys are like a modern day these guys.” How would you all classify your sound though? Or who/what would you say influences it?
Oh good call! I’ve meant to save People Get Ready for some time. Done. Check. Cheque.
Anyway, having a classifiable sound is pretty beneficial for finding an audience. If you play into a genre-niche like hardcore, you’ll have somewhat of a built-in fan base, but it can be hard to differentiate from the horde. Unless you have, for example, something defining like good melodies.
For us, genre isn’t so much of a consideration as is dressing Monica’s melodies appropriately (or inappropriately, sometimes). Some songs, like “Calico Man” or “Barside” are better left to their raw form. Others like “Evil” work when spirited and live, and some songs we don’t even know how to do right, like “Laura” which was beautifully remixed by our friends in Kiings.
How was touring with Blitzen Trapper? Did they make you all sit around a fire and sing Civil War battle hymns? They seem like those type of guys.
They certainly shared their cheese platter, and Eric Earley had wonderful insight into production and recording. They are stellar musicians and even better gentlemen.
Did you all enjoy seeing a bit of the country? I feel like many of us are pulled from coast to coast to cities and centers of commerce most commonly for our work. It’s always struck me as really important and…freeing, kind of, to trek across the country and see the many, many other people and places that are just as much a part of the US.
Dude, you gotta see America’s mini-malls. They’re soooo sick. Mattress King? Game Stop? True gems.
But really, yes. Of course travel is enlightening and entertaining. Tourist traps in the desert are cheeky and refreshing. Every city has its own voice and every highway its own drawl, but the best thing, as you might guess, is the people. We love seeing old classmates (one of which seemingly lives in every city we play), or other musicians (why do they come out to our shows when they’re only home for a week?! just stay home and enjoy yer barcalounger fer cripe’s sake!)… Yeah. People, man. People.
They’re the best. And you’re playing Iceland Airwaves next month? That’s gotta be exciting. Iceland’s such a crazy Petri dish for insanely innovative music. We did a phone interview with Sindri Már Sigfússon—AKA Sin Fang, one of our favorite new artists out of there and he was telling us about the fest. Sounds so cool.
Sure does. They have heated sidewalks, so that’s impressive. And don’t they all publish books?
Pretty sure. Then you’re playing a Red Bull show in Los Angeles Tuesday with Courtney Barnett. Forgive me, but I keep getting notices about those Red Bull shows and I just feel like they’re creepy ploys by a corporation to commodify our online presence by enticing us with cheap shows awesome bands we love are playing. Tell me I’m missing something.
Hm. Cheap show with awesome bands… and what’s bad about that? Red Bull has been endorsing folks like that for a long time (remember this?). Google is reading your email anyway, why not get some cheap tickets out of it? We saw Dirty Projectors at Capital Hill Block Party in Seattle last summer, and it was tops. Totally worth your work email, right?
Touché. Who are some little-known bands you all like of late?
Definitely the MN/WI I mentioned. I don’t know if he counts as little-known, but please please please listen to Blake Mills‘ new record. And Moses Sumney. Oh another Baraboo band, Daniel and the Lion. And Foreign Fields!
Excellent shout-outing! Finally and most importantly—spirit animal(s)?
Richard Dunn, milkmen, using vinegar as a cleaning agent, narwhales, ex-girlfriends, and milkmen. Did I say Richard Dunn?
If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you can get tickets for Phox’s show at The El Rey Theatre by signing up with Red Bull Sound Select for their 30 days of shows in November. Otherwise, try to catch the band on the road and order their debut self-titled full length from their site or iTunes.