“That happened? All those things you just described?”
Phox guitarist Matthew Holmen is reflecting on Phox’s unexpected rise. This Wisconsin sextet’s ascent only started last year, when—as I described to him—Phox started delighting early-bird crowds at the iTunes Festival and Lollapalooza. They signed a record deal with Partisan Records. Hell—we heard they were going to be on the cover of Paste this month. And though Holmen has been in the band for the whole ride, his understanding of this overnight reaction is likely the same as Phox’s fans. After all, on the heels of their debut album, Phox’s members are still figuring out what this quickly rising band means to them.
“It wasn’t like we were seedily planning, like ‘How can we make this so accessible,’” frontwoman Monica Martin says. “I’ve had 14-year-olds post about the music, or 70-year-olds come up to me. It warms my heart, it makes me so happy that what I am feeling is affecting people. I’m confused about why people might like anything that I would be a part of. But it’s proving to be more universal than I would have thought.”
Part of this universal quality has to do with that sound of theirs—a blend of pop, art-rock, folk or Martin’s favorite, “nap-pop”—but the six-piece doesn’t exactly fit in a niche. The band’s instrumental spread, which ranges from horns to keys to homemade percussion, makes for a strong, sometimes whimsical backdrop to Martin’s vocals. It all fuels tunes that aren’t painfully scripted or fussed over, either; I imagine a Phox writing session like elementary music class, where players are acquainted with their instruments shortly before erupting into some joyous noise. But with Phox, what comes out is undeniable. This is noise that will land you on festival bills.
But these sounds had to start somewhere, and according to Martin, Phox’s formation played out like their breezy tunes: Good humored. Casual. Fun. Phox came together through an improvisation of sorts, capitalizing upon varying degrees of closeness from a bunch of high school classmates, spanning around five years in school.
“Jason, when he was really young, really loved Matt and Zach’s high school band,” Martin says. “So he fan-girled about them for a really long time and they finally met on their own. Then Davey and Matteo, the brothers, they make music, just like they’d been classically trained. The very quick answer is that Matt Holmen is sort of the common guy.”
It’s true. Holmen has a disarming, friendly demeanor and a succinct way of finishing his bandmates’ sentences. It’s not difficult to see why he’d be a linchpin in the chaotic, affable mess of talent that is Phox. The band spent most of the past two years living together in a house outside of Madison, Wis., and they have that familial quality of bragging on their peers while deflecting their own individual praise. For a group with such a strong lead in Martin, they remain a unit with six vital parts, but finding such a force of a frontwoman was its own challenge.
“They basically said ‘Who can sing that we know? Who can write songs that we know?’” Martin says, remembering her first rehearsal. It was a meeting that would ultimately inspire the band’s name, however indirectly. The hat she wore in that rehearsal—a renaissance fair castoff—was complete with a fox face and a tail.
“When we played our first show, Matt ended up calling us this ridiculously long name. It was like, ‘Fox Hat and The Virgins.’ Or ‘Sex Hat,’” Martin laughs. “And so after that show, which was a disaster, six months went by and there was this conversation. Are we gonna do this? Is this a thing? Are we trying to write songs at all?”
The band’s recently released full-length would suggest they did, but it took time to figure out the process. For a band that was brought together by spontaneity, the members of Phox have cultivated their sound largely the same way. Full tunes unfurled in casual writing sessions, trying this or that until the vibe was just right. It was a strong beginning, but one that’s hard for Martin to look back on now.
“I don’t listen to the older recordings at all,” Martin laughs. “Because it’s annoying to me, mostly because of the vocals. I’m excited about this new record because I think it’s the best representation of my best self. I just perform better on it, because I was just very clumsy the first year I was singing. And that’s all captured and immortalized.”
It doesn’t take more than a peek at Phox’s original videos on YouTube to see what kind of immortalization Martin’s referencing. Unblushing, the first of two homemade video EPs, was an improv-heavy five-song set recorded in one take, “mistaken lyrics, wonky notes and all,” as the video’s description details. “Take all of us. Yeah, baby.” Between Unblushing and the band’s most popular video EP, Confetti, Phox had a strange way of reaching people, but they were building up a scattered, steadfast group of fans.
“The video process has always matched the music-making process,” says Zach Johnston, who directed the video EPs. “Confetti was a very improvisational project, so the video is improvisational as well. There was some planning, to some degree, just as there’s some planning in the music. But a lot of what comes out is improvised.”
But for their first proper studio recording, Phox took a fussier approach, plucking their favorite songs from their growing catalog and punching record with a more deliberate purpose.
“Monica started writing songs, and instantly surpassed me,” Johnston laughs. If he’s right about one thing in that statement, it’s the immediacy of Martin’s acclimation to her role as frontwoman and songwriter.
“Part of me—and this is because I’m a nervous person—is worried that people will see what has sort of been a natural refining of what we do,” Martin says in the weeks just before their full-length Partisan Records debut. “Some of the songs are slightly less chaotic, or convoluted, and some people might want to [blame] that on the label.” But the decision to go about recording things in an organized, purposeful way was one shared by the entire band, and the natural refining she speaks of extends beyond the planning and production.
And with the full-length wrapped, Martin’s willing to joke that her career is built on something she considers to be selfish, a fleshing out of these personal sadnesses in a public forum. “I had this cloud of sadnesses about things that maybe I should have just thought about and come to terms with,” she says. But straightforward lyrics like those lamenting a cheating boyfriend on “Evil” or more flowery language like the lyrics on “Shrinking Violets” seem to mean something different to each listener.
“It seems really obvious, but it’s very shocking being sort of a stranger in a new city and having these faces approach you and they’re really warm, and they’re really interested already, because they already know parts of you” says Martin. “Even though they’re hearing your words and getting whatever they want to from it, they still are interested in you. That, to me, is shocking enough. Having one person come up to me and do that blows me away. Like, why? Why me? Why do you care about me?”
Phox’s catalog is, even if by accident, engineered to make you care. To see the goofy immortalization of Phox’s playful beginning on video allows a particular kind of relationship between fan and artist: comparing early mannerisms, vocals, and instrumentation to the polished final product is like growing up with the group. Their following, while devoted, is far from cult-like: It’s as if fans feel they have a little piece of them with the band, like tracking their rise via old uploads and new recordings yields a distinct kind of pride in their successes.
When it comes to their successes, the release of their eponymous debut full-length is only the latest in a line of wins for the sextet. They made an unprecedented leap from homemade videos in a tiny Wisconsin town to playing a last-minute slot at Lollapalooza last year and performing for a massive audience at London’s iTunes festival, all before signing a record deal or releasing a proper album.
“People are always like oh, Phox. Like Phish, right? We’re like, okay,” laughs Holmen. “Sure. But something that Phish had said early in their career is that they wanted to play rooms of a certain size until they were comfortable there before moving onto a larger sized room. Which we did the opposite of. We were thrust into playing these good opportunities, and playing these gigantic rooms. It was very surreal.”
It’s a different kind of surreal to see the way Phox’s music’s affects audiences firsthand, though. Particularly when they’re performing in the record stores and smaller venues you’d expect for a band their size. Sure, their particular brand of melodious commotion lends itself well to grinning and good spirits, but the strength of Phox’s relationship with fans perhaps lies most in their sincerity. Martin’s as likely to go on a bit of a rant about a lyric or a boy or a funny story from the microphone at a festival as she is in person, after spilling a drink at a bar. It’s a role reversal of sorts, one where the band has the sort of dazed energy meeting new people that you’d expect from the ones buying tickets. The energy translates: Phox is as excited about seeing you at their show as you are about seeing them. Every event is a reunion you’d be callous to miss, and it’s that welcoming vibe that transcends age and genre.
“We walked into this one place and this little girl, Emerson, she just starts shaking with excitement,” bassist Jason Krunnfusx remembers.
“It was her first time ever seeing a band or a concert, and she was there with her dad and she was just clutching vinyls into her chest just squeezing,” added Matteo Roberts. “She was just the sweetest soul, singing and dancing the whole time. And it was just like, God. That’s such an incredible impact and thing that we can have.”
And we think there’s more to come. After all, maybe Martin said it best about the band’s inevitable maiden trip overseas:
“It’s interesting how media can kind of reach out and go far past what you can see just in your day-to-day grassroots fan building,” Martin says. “Then you go overseas and you see that there are people there that you’ve connected with and you didn’t even know yet.”