By Jamie McNamara
CALGARY — Six people living together in the same house sounds like a disaster for most people. For the Madison, Wisconsin-based band PHOX, living in the same house together was the catalyst for success.
The band members all grew up separately save for brothers Davey and Mateo Roberts, in the small city of Baraboo, Wisconsin. An offer to play a show at the local community college marked the beginning of the group, but guitarist Matthew Holmen will be the first to admit that the band started off badly.
“It was such a disaster. At that point [vocalist Monica Martin] had never really sung in front of people before, she was still at the point where if you were going to be in the same room as her singing she would have to turn around and not watch. That first six months would have been tough to get through if we were any other group of people, or if we weren’t close friends. I think that would have been sort of a bitch. We just wanted to be around each other and we wanted to work on other projects too.”
Holmen credits those projects as the glue that kept the band together through disastrous first shows.
“Davey [Roberts], our drummer was still working on Zach [Johnston’s], who plays banjo for us, album. In the meantime, we all moved in together and started living in Madison, which is very kind of in that building, we based our band.”
PHOX’s music is by all accounts “twee.” There are banjos, oboes and all other sorts of instruments that at usually draw more eye rolls than applause from an audience. But what sets them apart from other bands under the folk umbrella is their ability to make those instruments, and some of the crazy musical things they do with them, fit within a song perfectly. Of course, there is also Monica Martin. Smoky, sultry, and a barrage of other flattering descriptors and comparisons are used when describing Martin’s voice, but none of them seem to fully encapsulate the effect her voice has on the music. Sonically, the self-titled album from the band is more of a slow burner than it is a four-on-the-floor, Mumford & Sons-esque folk hootenanny. That’s something that Holmen says the band is proud of.
“We get a lot of compliments from sound guys, house engineers, that we have very quiet stage volume. That’s our merit badge.”
The compliments also came in the form of a record deal on Partisan Records in the United States and a chance to record their album in April Base, the Eau Claire, Wisconsin home studio of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
“It was crazy. The ‘Skinny Love’ guitar was there. It was sort of a musical tourism experience for us, but the studio was just similar to the home studio that we had been using for the prior handful of years. You spend as much time in the kitchen as you do in the live room and they’re only a few feet away from each other. You can not get too stressed out by the studio element because you could just kind of return to a familiar domestic space pretty quick,” says Holmen.
PHOX is a part of a rising group of folk pop bands that have been taking the genre to massive heights. Bands like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and Vance Joy are some of the more recent beneficiaries of the genre’s rise to the mainstream. Though, to compare PHOX to any of those acts would be to discount some of the truly unique things that the band is doing inside the sometimes-constricting folk framework.
For example, the most enjoyable genre stretch PHOX uses is incorporating percussive elements and vocal harmonies to great effect. Songs like the somewhat schizophrenic “Laura” meander through tempos and moods, always staying fresh and enjoyable. They also pull off a hooky, pop single like their breakthrough “Slow Motion,” while still being able to drop a jam that is upwards of seven minutes with ease. However, Holmen says that they still struggle to rein in some of the ideas they have.
“Focus has been a big issue for us. Basically all of the stuff you’ve been hearing and all of our songs that have been released were among the first songs that Monica has written. So as she’s grown into confidence in her voice we’re also trying to figure out how to support and how to subtract around her. We’re trying to have clear songs. That’s definitely been one of the struggles of the past, but that’s also been one of our successes over the past years.”
Those successes have taken the band from Baraboo to major festivals around the world. Most recently, the bands success took them to two well-received sets at Coachella. Almost near constant touring and promotion of their debut album has helped the band break through, but like many bands admit, life on the road isn’t always that easy.
“I think we physically acclimate in a way. Your body becomes numb to the white noise of travel, the road and everything around you. In some ways you can kind of feel like you have privacy in the band. It’s just a huge disparity day to day. You go from occasionally being treated very royally and relaxed and cushy to just eating hotdogs everyday for six months in a row. Although, I try to avoid that,” says Holmen.
The band will continue to tour until July when they return home to Wisconsin for a slot at the inaugural Eaux Claires Music Festival curated by Justin Vernon. After that, Holmen says plans for recording new songs is in place, but sonically “I don’t think we have the capability of planning that far ahead, so we’ll let you know when we get there.”
Catch PHOX at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver on May 27th, at the Republik in Calgary on May 29th and at the Pawn Shop in Edmonton on May 30th.