The members of Wisconsin sextet PHOX set a no-compromise policy when recording their debut album.
Any and all elements of jazz, folk, pop, soul and rock that had developed since the band got together in 2011 in the small town of Baraboo were to be incorporated into the overall PHOX sound.
“Every time I’ve been in a band and put a record, at some point in the process of creating the record, we decided to cull and condense everything and go with one of these sounds and let’s not confuse anyone,” says guitarist Matthew Holmen. “With this one, we figured let’s be completely true to what we’ve been up to that point, and make a version of the record that’s unfiltered and didn’t have any compromises.”
The self-titled “PHOX,” released last June on Partisan records, accomplished those goals and more. It’s a record of surprising variety, depth and nuance, led by the single “Slow Motion” (one of Paste Magazine’s top-10 songs of 2014) and star-in-the-making frontwoman Monica Martin’s captivating and soulful vocals.
In fact, it was convincing Martin of her own talents that was the push PHOX needed.
“Monica was never a singer before this band,” Holmen says. “She did it amazingly well, she just never did it in front of anyone. She’s stepped up amazingly and become this charismatic frontwoman. It took forever to convince her of that. Everybody else knew. She was the last one to find out. I don’t know of she’ll ever be fully convinced but she’s more comfortable with the idea of it now.
“Sometimes you have a person fronting a band who has that ‘80s hair band mentality, ‘Worship me,’ and she doesn’t have that at all. I’m exited to have someone humble and talented fronting the band. We’re mostly thankful we’ve found a front person we can rally around.”
PHOX’s musical variety comes in part from restlessness – and talent – with which the band jumps from instrument to instrument. Flute, clarinet, trumpet, strings, banjo and keys augment the typical rock lineup as Martin, Holmen, David Roberts, Matteo Roberts, Zach Johnston and Jason Krunnfusz keep searching for fresh sounds.
“We’ve done so many different kinds of arrangements as far as what instruments we’ve played,” Holmen says.
That vibrant multi-instrumentalism is part of what helps the band write songs, which come from such different starts that they can’t help but end up in different places.
“The way we write songs isn’t by sitting down and jamming, it’s everyone going off on their own and finding ideas,” Holmen says. “Sometimes there will be just a melody. ‘Slow Motion’ started out with the chorus melody and got Frankensteined together and got made by editing.”
But once the songs get put together, PHOX is a full-band affair.
“The way we recorded this record was pretty much live. Every single track has a five-piece band playing,” Holmen says. “The record and the way that it’s heard is filtered through that process of playing live. It’s changed how we are as a band. Playing live you have to be more respectful and listen more than you speak. We’re learning how to better and better. Everyone has a different natural role.”
PHOX has kept the band out on the road since last summer (Holmen spoke by phone from a brief trip home in between a tour in Australia and New Zealand and the latest leg of the band’s U.S. travels). But even amid the bustle of touring, the band is thinking about the next step.
“There are new songs bubbling,” Holmen says. “We’re planning out the rest of the year and getting back into the creative space.”
PHOX will be performing with Daniel the Lion at Club Congress on Wednesday, April 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $14 at the door. For tickets and more information on this all ages concert, visit the Club Congress website.