Discovery: Phox


PHOX is a sextet whose music falls somewhere between folk and rock music, and especially with lead singer Monica Martin’s sultry vocals, the band is indeed rather foxy. Up until now, the Wisconsin-based band had only released their Friendship EP, but earlier this year, the PHOX signed to Brooklyn’s Partisan Records—home to Deer Tick, Heartless Bastards and The Wytches. Now, PHOX is now about to release their debut self-titled album early this summer, featuring smoky vocals, thoughtful songwriting, and lots of unique instrumentation. In the meantime, the band has been touring the U.S. and Europe.

We spoke with Matt Holmen about fox hats, playing with Laura Mvula, and creating musical conversations.

HOMETOWN: Baraboo, Wisconsin

BAND MEMBERS: Matt Holmen, Monica Martin, J. Sean Krunnfusz, Dave Roberts, Matteo Roberts, Zach Johnston

PARTISAN POLITICS: It’s been a whirlwind. Not even this year, but the past two years really. I guess it was starting one year ago after SXSW. That’s when things became very different. We were friends living in the same house, working part-time jobs, and just playing music on the weekends or on the weekdays—whenever we could get a show. Now it feels like we’re doing something bigger. We’ve been trying to keep making quality music and playing good shows. We’re doing it so frequently that it has become a totally different animal. We’re doing well—we can’t complain. We’re in Paris!

BECOMING PHOX: We’re all from Baraboo, Wisconsin, which is a really small town. Some of us have been friends since grade school, some of us are brothers, and at the very least we’ve known each other since high school.  Anyone who makes art or music in Baraboo kind of knows each other that does the same thing.

AMERICANA AND SOUL: It definitely varies: if you ask me or Monica or anybody. We really like Feist and Sufjan Stevens. Who’s not influenced by him? We still sometimes play acoustically with like a Punch Brothers setup. Monica has definitely been influenced by half-soul singers and half-Americana singers like Brandi Carlisle. That’s an incomplete picture, but it’s a slice of it.

PLAYING WITH LAURA MVULA: That was great! I couldn’t believe how respectful that audience was. A lot of times we play at a show where a bunch of 21-year-olds are getting drunk at the bar, and I am that person sometimes and I feel guilty for calling anyone out. For Laura’s fans, they were so respectful. We only did four or five shows with her on the East Coast. They were so respectful, and they listened to everything. It was almost daunting for us because we could hear every note resonating in the venue. They were really good shows.

CONVERSATION ON RECORD: Really, these songs had been written over the course of two years. Some of them are the first things Monica wrote. Some of them have gone through a lot of changes because we’d played them live so many times. Some of them we had never played live at all. It was just like: these are the songs that we have that are our catalogue. We have a bunch more, but we thought these would go together. We have a couple of other songs, but they weren’t ready to be taken out of the oven. No real story, just what we’ve been playing. If you ask Monica, there are a lot of family and relationship stories. A lot of the songs are described as conversations more than stories. They’re bits of dialogues. The song “1936” is a dialogue between Monica and her sister Bianca talking about their family. There’s one speaker, but it is a conversation.

FOXES AND VIRGINS FOREVER: Well, there are two sides to it: we had this fox hat that had been sitting around for 20 years in my dad’s basement getting ripe with mildew. It was a fixture of our rehearsals for some reason, and we passed it around. I went to a show, and I was on the phone with the promoters of the show—it was the first show that we ever booked. I heard a couple of girls say, “We’re going to be virgins forever,” and high-five. At this time we didn’t have a band name, I was just like “Foxhat and the Virgins 4-Ever.” You can get that website for sure, but that wasn’t good enough to justify keeping the band name. We were fooling around with the “fox” idea, and the regional flower of the Midwest was the “phlox.” We weighed the two options of either being “Phlox” or “Fox,” but they were always goofy spellings. Having the homonym “Flocks” was even worse. The funny thing is, Monica always says, nobody thought the name had to stick. If you come up with something and call your band that, it’s whatever. You move on.

A COLLABORATIVE COMMUNITY: We’re in France, and we did an interview and someone described our music as “crazy folk-pop.” I was like, that’s great, I love that! People will always use different adjectives. I think something what separates us is that we’re a very collaborative group of people. We’re never short of things to say for a particular song. Sometimes that can be a catastrophe and leads us astray. More often than not, the song starts out with a melody that Monica has without anything around it. It’s a blank canvas stuck in your head. It’s the collaboration and having a wide variety of influences is what makes us PHOX. If there was one person directing the record, it wouldn’t be us. For us, it’s all about the push and pull—we like to give ground to someone not just for artistic reasons, but for personal reasons.