There are certain bands that fit in perfectly with their time. Although these artists are not necessarily game changers they tend to do more to expand the tastes of their listeners than retrospective glances give them credit for. The Red Hot Chili Peppers is a great example of this – a rock band, born of the late-80’s/early 90’s rock revolution brought elements of funk and soul to the forefront of their music and sound, yet are always remembered for their rockier works.
PHOX reminds me of this type of phenomenon. Where their style is very clearly reminiscent of the folk-rock acts that have been infiltrating the mainstream for the past 3 or 4 years, they are adding elements that have not yet gained traction in the medium; classical, chamber rock, R&B, soul, surf rock, psych-rock and jazz elements ultimately push the genre forward and create not so much a mash-up or sub-genre but simply halt the growth of moss on the stagnant stone of indie folk.
Nowhere is this more evident than on their self-titled 2014 release. This record, not only a expression of their virtuosity as players, singers and songwriters, but also brings the listener along a road of discovery of the music and feelings that PHOX are trying to express.
As a band, these natives from Baraboo, Wisconson (who actually have their own day in Madison, true story) have been taking off of late. Backing into a last-minute spot at Lollapalooza last August, opening for Blitzen Trapper after a spot at SXSW as well as opening for the Lumineers at Apple’s iTunes Festival London – on top of their current North American tour – I would imagine that this band is one record/viral video away from, not only gaining major international attention of which they already have, but from stepping into the spotlight on their own.
I caught up to Jason Krunnfusz, Monica Martin, & Matthew Holmen, 1/2 of PHOX, at the Drake Hotel in Toronto at the end of July, just before their show where we talked about Facebook, the road, Wisconsin, the Hanson Brothers, Wannabe, and getting into fights over karaoke Queen songs.
We sit around a high table as Monica blocks people from sending her Facebook event invites
Matt: I never look at my event invitations, ever.
Playback: They’ve saved my ass on a few occasions, like, on a Friday night where you don’t have anything to do – there’s always something in the event invitations on Facebook.
Monica: Well, sometimes I wish it was almost more like a calender that you could check into. And I do remember that there was a time that you got an event and it wasn’t white noise.
Playback: Either we grew up or Facebook got old.
Monica: I just feel it was functional at some point…
Playback: Annnnyway… hows the tour going?
Monica: It’s going really well.
Matt: Longest tour ever!
Playback: Nice. Now giving who you’re opening for – The Lumineers, Blitzen Trapper, and whatnot – do you now feel that you’re sort of pigeonholed into this kinda indie-folk vibe or is there a sort of underlying thing that your representation isn’t seeing right now?
Matt: The Lumineers was such a one-off, really.. I mean, we really couldn’t let that opportunity pass us by. Really, we’re nothing like any of those bands.
Blitzen Trapper, for instance, is known for kinda taking a different look at the sort of indie-folk vibe and I feel that, although they still kinda have a sort of Fleet Foxes connection there’s no real connection other than that. We don’t really define ourselves like that per-say.
Playback: So how would you define yourselves then? I mean, that’s a stupid question, let me put this in another way – how would describe your band to your Grandmother?
Monica: Well, I mean, back to the point you were making before – our songs at their core are, in essence, folk songs or classic song-forms. But we all put our own little element and spin on what’s going on – and there’s 6 of us – so I think a band like Blitzen Trapper is a good comparison but someone who actually listens to us can be surprised by some of the soundscapes that are not so directly from a folk vibe.
Matt: … but what would you say to your Grandma?
Monica: Eccentric folk… I guess.. Electro folk?
Matt: … Electro-folk… maybe
Playback: So tell me about Wisconsin – what’s it like?
Jason: A lot like Canada?
Matt: It’s fairly isolated; pretty disconnected from the rest of the world, which is nice. It certainly has a lot of it’s own micro-cultures and communities.
Playback: I saw you guys got a “day” in Madison?
Matt: That’s how small it is: PHOX appreciation day in Madison Wisconsin.
Monica: That was so funny; so awesome.
Playback: Tell me about it, I mean, did the Mayor just call you and say, “Hey, we’re going to dedicate a day to you guys”?
Jason: I don’t think they threw a parade or anything.
Playback: Well, even just bringing you down to City Hall and just be like, “Here ya go guys!”
Monica: Oh my god, that would be awesome! No it was funny, I feel Tag2Tag [sic] mentioned it, so a good friend of ours who is also a promoter in town – just blocked on Facebook – actually, you know what, I left Tag’s on there. Um, but he was like, “I think they might do a PHOX appreciation day haha” and I was like, “That’s funny”. And all of a sudden some friends were posting about it on Facebook and I was eating a salad alone at the venue across the street in Omaha…
Matt: … and it was like, “Whereas…”. It seriously says “Whereas” 5 times.
Monica: Yeah! It was seriously the nicest thing ever – and I started crying because, I don’t know,… it’s like, fuck… cause I spent 5 years, at least, in Madison since graduating from high school and it very much became my home. The boys had lived there for a few years too. They really did support us though.. It was very sweet. And then seeing that, I mean… what the fuck…
Matt: Even though I don’t actually have a home there… I still feel at home there.
Monica: Yeah, we need to figure that out.
We started touring kinda heavily about a year ago and at the time we were sharing a house together – really affordable – but our lease just, you know, expired. And, well, you know since we’re gone it’s just time to put it on pause.
Monica: Yeah, and it happened to fall right before we wen’t on a really long tour so we were kinda like… eh….
I have actually been starting to look at cars too see if I should just buy one and sleep in it. … Not everyday. I mean, I will drive to friends houses and my mom’s, but just to be able to drive away.
Playback: That’s not as glamorous as it sounds; sleeping in your car.
Monica: I know. I’ve been in situations like that before (who hasn’t) … but …
Matt: Take the van! We used to do that all the time!
Playback: So you guys are flying first class on the tour then, yeah?
Matt: Oh yeah, it’s all champagne, private jets, etc…
Monica: Cocaine. Strippers.
Matt: Typical stuff…
Playback: Cool. So influences – what are you’re influences? One from pre-1995, one from post-1995.. Go!
Pre- Billie Holliday: I just love her voice and the way she uses it, which is funny cause a lot of people would tell her that she sings too slow or you sing too quiet or that her voice is just nasty , and she was like, “this is just how i sing”. She’s just so well loved for it – it’s just this really special quality. Sometimes sad, but you know, I like that.
Post- Fiona Apple: Probably for the same reasons. I just love the things she writes and the things she says. It seems very human. She just allows herself to “feel” publicly and I’m coming to find that universally that that is a really hard task. I think that a lot of people who want to be performers kind of opt out of doing that just as a way to preserve “self”. Of course, there’s something to “developing a character”, naturally I don’t want to write it off entirely, but it’s just something I couldn’t do and I feel like the most moving performances you’ll ever see are the most emotional ones.
Pre- Billy Joel: Still going strong, but you know, just writes great songs. Pop-y but they’re always kinda pushing the weak points of the genre and experimenting with sounds of the time.
Post- Super Heros By Night- It’s the reason I started playing guitar. Matt here was in this band and I thought they were just soooo cool that I had to learn the guitar.
Matt: Everybody knew who Jason was, we we’re a “high school generation” apart, but he was a legend when it came to dancing, drama, drum major in the marching band, lead in all the musicals. So Monica actually went to go see him in Seussical the Musical as JoJo…
Jason: I played a part that was supposed to be played by a young girl, but I was a sophomore in high school.
Matt: You nailed it!
Monica: I know this is about you right now, but really, that was the first time I ever actually considered auditioning for anything, oddly enough.
Playback: So you (Matt) were the cool older one, but you (Jason) were the prodigy?
All: Oh yeah!
[Back to influences]
Pre: Weezer – Pinkerton, technically ’96… but you know, I don’t really care.
Post: I got all tripped up cause Pinkerton came out in ’96, so I have to go with Michael Jackson for -pre and Weezer for -post.
Playback: My first record was ‘Bad’ on tape.
Monica: How was mine ‘Hootie and the Blowfish’?
Playback: Oh don’t worry, the Hanson record was on the same receipt.
Jason: Oh man, ‘Middle of Nowhere’, that’s a great album.
Playback: Did you know that MMMBop is about a flower? I had no idea until like, 3 years ago.
We sing some of MMMBop
Jason: I can sing the whole album
Monica: But I think my favourite was .. wasn’t it um…
We sing some of Yearbook
Matt: What about that Spice Girls record
We sing some hits off of ‘Wannabe’
Playback: So when you get back to Ban…Banaboo?
Matt: Everybody says something funny…
Playback: So when you get back to Baraboo or Madison or wherever, what’s item number 6 (cause, you know, 1 through 5 is clearly, eat, see mom, etc…)
Playback:…I mean, what’s the first creative thing.
Monica: I just shut off when I get home, cause I have to, I have to re-charge.
They talk about stuff that nobody is really supposed to know about especially because they’re not ready to announce it yet.
Matt: We actually have some recording to do, Davey is working some of the B-sides that we have, so those’ll be actually pretty close to being done by the time we get home.
Playback: Everything left on the floor from the record, just polish them up a little bit?
Matt: Yeah, for sure. Just songs that really didn’t fit into the flow of the record somehow. So we’ll do an EP and we’re writing a sort of abstract, instrumental, film thing to accompany it. There’ll probably be some brainstorming, some writing involved there.
Playback: Nice. Album two?
All: Oh god… not for a while.
Matt: It’ll happen, but you know, not on this break.
Monica: Oh no… I gotta write a new record.
Matt: You’ve got enough voice memos that if you died..
Jason: Yeah, we could do a Freddie Mercury “From Heaven” Queen record.
Monica: Oh my God..
Playback: Or just like the new Michael Jackson record
Matt: We should’ve said, Queen [for our favourite artists]
Monica: I fucking love Queen.
Matt: Did you see that fucking Queen is touring with fucking Adam Lambert?
Monica: That’s just mean.
Playback: Well, it’s not like he’s the first to do that, they’ve been touring with “Freddie Mercury’s” since he died.
All right, favourite Queen song.
Monica: Oh god.. why can’t I think of…. “Play the Game”
We sing some Queen songs
Monica: I got hit once, by this woman, a 45 year old woman that pushed me over when I was singing some Queen song at a bar.
Matt: Cause you were doing your metal voice.
Monica: Okay, first of all, let me start from the beginning which is, I love song “Play the Game”.
Matt: We covered it. We used to do it live.
Monica: So I’m doing this song karaoke and the disc skipped, so then it through me off so I decided to run with it and do my metal voice – and this woman, even before I growled was just standing there like, “fuck it up, fuck it up”. So I’m starting to wonder, “does she like me or…”. She was a foot shorter and a foot wider than me – built like a wall – so I started to growl and she got right in my face. But yeah, then she just pushed me… [To Matt] I can’t believe you don’t remember this, were you just wasted?
Matt: Me? No I remember this. I just didn’t hear the details.
Monica: It was the most fucked up thing ever – she didn’t even get kicked out. We just left. That’s the first and last time I’ve ever been to that bar.
Matt: Yeah, it’s not the nicest place.
Monica: I’m just going to find her and kill her.
Playback: That’s actually going to be the title of the piece, “I’m going to find her and kill her”
Monica: I don’t fucking care.
Matt: Yeah, but then they wont let you back into Canada.
Playback: Nah, it’s cool, they just wont let you back into the United States.
Monica: Yeah, the American dream – move to Canada.