Catching up with Wisconsin-based phenom Phox
"It's been the best year so far, for sure."
That's how guitarist Matt Holmen described the past year for Phox, in what might be a contender for the greatest understatement of 2014.
The whimsical, swooning neo-soul Madison (by way of Baraboo) band has made tremendous waves in the past year, building upon some strong festival shows from last year and getting its name, music and videos in high-profile places like Entertainment Weekly and NPR – all in preparation and anticipation of the band's self-titled debut album, which came out in June.
The band has been touring for the last several weeks, but next week marks a happy return to the Midwest, with gigs lined up in Minneapolis, Madison and a Turner Hall show on Wednesday, Aug. 6. OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Holmen to chat about returning home, life on the road, the new album and what's up next.
OnMilwaukee.com: You guys have been on tour since about late June. How's that been going?
Matt Holmen: Good! It's been the best year so far, for sure. Great crowds, and we're a lot more comfortable than normal. I feel like it's going well.
OMC: Is it going to be nice coming back home for a Milwaukee show and then a couple of shows in Madison?
MH: Yeah, I mean anything in the Midwest is awesome. It all feels like home. Minneapolis will be great. Green Bay will be a fun show, and then Madison, of course.
OMC: What is it like seeing the different crowds throughout the nation? Are there better crowds or worse crowds?
MH: I've been surprised. There have been a few crowds, like Nashville was incredible. Very attentive. New York was great. I don't know; there haven't been many crowds. It's all been great. It's a little bit of different atmosphere in Canada, which is kind of fun. They're not as easily impressed, I have to say. They're a little tougher. They're not as excitable as a lot of the rest of us are. They're just like, "Yeah, yeah, I know; I've seen it. I get it." I love it.
OMC: Obviously, as you were saying, this has been your best year yet, getting mentioned in Entertainment Weekly and NPR and more, and growing in the spotlight. What was it like seeing you guys grow in the spotlight?
MH: I don't know; it's crazy. It's unexpected. You don't who's going to pick up on it, so anything outside of home is great. It's one of those things where, like, my mom can pick up a magazine at work and show it to her friends, and it's, like, the real thing.
OMC: Now, I talked to Monica a few months back, and we talked about the pressures and struggles of coping with this newfound fame and the responsibilities of it all. Did the rest of the band have the same kind of unease about that?
MH: No, it's definitely not the same because she has about 90 percent of the attention to deal with. I'm kind of grateful that she's shouldered that because the whole thing is you want to play music. You don't necessarily expect all of the other responsibilities that come with it. But I mean, it's fine. I like touring, and I like all the other aspects of this job. It feels natural to me.
OMC: When was kind of the first moment when you realized that you had made it?
MH: I had sort of a little panic attack when we were at South By Southwest. (laughs) Not full-on. We were playing this Minnesota-Wisconsin showcase – it was all Wisconsin and Minnesota bands at The Holy Mountain in Austin – and it ended up being a lot of the people that we work with now at that show, unbeknownst to me at the time.
But I just had this weird churning in my gut. Something about that was, like, overwhelming and frightening. It was just a show; there were like 150 people at it, so it wasn't like anything directly, surface-level frightening at it. But I just felt this weird churning in my gut that I didn't understand.
OMC: Since then, you guys have only grown more and released your first full album, "Phox." How was getting that out into the world?
MH: It's good! Some of the songs are, like, two years old; some of them are only a few months old. It was interesting to find that balance of when is a song ready, when do we know too much about it and when do we know not enough. There's certainly a balance to it, finding when can you record this and when can you still be discovering the song when you're recording it.
I'm happy about how it turned out. There were some moments in the studio that felt more natural and felt more like exploration. Other times, it felt like we were reading a script. It's just a balance; that's really the only way I can put it.
OMC: Which songs felt like natural and discovery, and which ones felt like from a script?
MH: I felt like, for some reason, when we recorded "1936" – it's one of our older ones – as we started playing it in the studio, it had a new life to it. We changed around a few small things, which just created a new synergy in the studio, which was great.
And then something like "Laura," which is another one of our older songs – like one of the first five songs we wrote – it just changed so much since we wrote it, and we haven't performed it that much. It took us like all day to get in the zone where we felt like we were doing it right.
OMC: How did the whole recording process go?
MH: It was just like an all-day thing. We'd start in the morning, maybe around 11 o'clock. We'd usually do some full band takes, where you'd record guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, and we'd do it as many takes as it took – in between five and ten maybe – until we had the one we wanted to keep. And then we'd start overdubbing, and then around maybe ten o'clock, Monica would want to start doing vocals, and then she and Brian (Joseph, the album's producer) would stay up in the booth doing vocals until like three in the morning. Some nights, the engineer and Brian would stay up until four or five doing edits and cleaning up the files.
OMC: Was there any particular inspiration or idea that you really wanted this first album to capture?
MH: There's definitely no central theme. That was kind of the idea; it was just like we went through all our songs, and we picked the ones that we felt were the strongest on their own and the ones that we felt we had the best grip on. It's just a summary of what we've created over the past two years.
OMC: What's next for you guys? You're coming to the end of this current tour, but you have a European tour coming up just a few weeks later, and obviously you just released a new album.
MH: It's a lot of that for the rest of the year. Touring and we have some B-sides from the recording that we're putting out, as well as a film project.
OMC: What's the film project?
MH: Since we put out this record, we've just been doing traditional music videos, and before, "Confetti" was something that we really enjoyed doing, this video EP that was part documentary, part music. I think for this next project, it'll be a little bit more experimental. I don't know; it's really loose right now. There's some narrative, some comedy and some music.
OMC: Any idea on when those B-sides and the film project might come out?
MH: It'll be sometime early next year.
OMC: How's the Wisconsin music scene look to you from your vantage point right now?
MH: I think it's great. There are so many great places to play. I think Madison especially has a lot of room for musicians to play. Milwaukee's always had a much deeper music scene than Madison: more people, more culture, more everything, more venues. But I think everywhere is good, especially small town music. There's definitely more happening in all the collective small towns in the country than in the couple of big cities we look to for music scenes. Anywhere could be the next Seattle.
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