Lou Reed once said: “There’s only one good thing about a small town… you know that you want to get out.”
But in the case of PHOX, their compact hometown just keeps calling them back. Growing up together in Baraboo, Wisconsin, band members were aware of one another in high school, but only grew close in adulthood.
Reflecting on their origins, Matt Holmen explains: “I was going to a community college and a friend of mine asked us to play this end-of-year show. What we decided to do was to cover Zach (Johnston)’s songs, which wasn’t quite as bad as being a covers band as they wouldn’t know where the covers were from. That was the impetus. We did it and thought, ‘This is fun – let’s keep playing! At least, let’s keep hanging out.’”
Hanging out, practising and writing: PHOX quickly gathered pace. A series of bizarre coincidences saw the group invited to SXSW, where it seemed to gather a dedicated team across the Texan live music blitz.
“It seemed like one link in the chain led to the next,” Holmen recalls. “You keep meeting more people and more people. Friends are always the best advocates for music or anything, really.”
Recording their debut album in Justin Vernon’s home studio was a definite early high point. Produced by Brian Joseph, its residential feel encouraged a fertile creative atmosphere – especially when the Bon Iver singer turned up for breakfast.
“A friend of ours recommended it,” Matt grins. “It’s a home studio, so there’s a full kitchen, bathrooms and bunk-beds. When we saw the bunk-beds we were like: this is it. We’re recording here. It can sleep like 30 people, it’s amazing!”
“Justin came around for a few days,” he reminisces. “He just hung around, made breakfast and contributed good vibes to the studio. He was amazing!”
Debut album ‘PHOX’ soon followed. All contagious indie songcraft, folk textures and Monica Martin’s tender voice, it’s an impressive debut, one that continually feels natural and unforced. Allowing the band to tour across the globe – they recently finished a stateside stint with Paolo Nutini – PHOX have enjoyed every minute.
“This is our first year of consistent, heavy touring,” Holmen says. “Everyone reacts to it differently, and we end up finding a lot of people that are willing to listen to our music – which is great! You never know until you go out there. We’ve had a great response, and we’re trying to keep doing it.”
Recording their own visuals for each track, the next step for PHOX is to conjure up a short film. “We’re actually working on a movie, a film right now. It’s something that we’ve been doing for a long time. We’ve always made movies, film and audio simultaneously a lot. It’ll have some elements of our album, but there are definitely a lot of other visual elements that we want to explore, too. It won’t be feature length – it’ll be a short film. Internet sized.”
Still remarkably young, PHOX are adjusting to the pressures of a bedroom project overhauling their lives. “Some parts of it are easy. Some parts of it are still a discovery,” Matt muses. “You’re just very much of the moment, and that’s a lifetime learning process for musicians. So that’s a work in progress, either way.”
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WHERE: Baraboo, Wisconsin
WHAT: Gently etched, folk-infused indie rock
GET THREE SONGS: ‘Slow Motion’ (video above), ‘Kingfisher’, ‘1936’
Catch PHOX on tour:
8 Glasgow Broadcast
9 Dublin Sugar Club
11 Manchester Soup Kitchen
12 London The Lexington
13 Bristol Louisiana
14 Brighton Green Door Store
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Words: Robin Murray
Photo: Jade Ehlers