Fast-Rising Wisconsin Band PHOX Reflects on a Big Year with More to Come in 2015

PHOX Baraboo, WI  Band

Six friends from Baraboo, Wisconsin are making waves in the independent music scene playing a fresh sound that’s made them a sought after band.

Since releasing their self-titled debut with Partisan Records last summer, PHOX has shown up all over the place. That includes performances at South by Southwest, on Conan, VH1 and a European tour.

Plus, the band recently announced they’ll be part of the lineup at the Coachella music festival in April.

But first – you can catch them here in their home state. PHOX will be back in Green Bay for a Near Water Concert Series event at the Meyer Theatre on January 14th. They’ll perform at Pabst Theater in Milwaukee two days later.

PHOX drummer Dave Roberts (far left above) took the time to answer some questions from WhooNEW about the band’s backstory and what lies ahead.

“I think PHOX has experienced a steady climb,” Roberts says of the band’s emergence. “Certainly more rapid than many bands, certainly not chart-topping or explosive. We had a few strange things happen early, like the iTunes festival, that felt really odd at the time.”

Roberts is talking about a 2013 performance in London, in which PHOX opened up for smash-hit indie-folk group The Lumineers. Coincidentally, The Lumineers were also one of the early artists the Near Water Concert Series brought to Green Bay.

Just a month prior to that iTunes festival, PHOX was part of the first Mile of Music festival in Appleton. This month’s concert at the Meyer marks PHOX’s third time as part of the Near Water Concert series. They’ve also opened for Ex-Cops and performed as part of Near Water’s one-year anniversary show.

The Sound that Makes PHOX Stand Out

Monica Martin

Monica Martin of PHOX

When you listen to PHOX, it’s not hard to see why they went from gigs at coffee shops to the nation’s biggest festivals in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Their music is decidedly easy on the ears.

Fronting the band is Monica Martin on lead vocals whose singing can be both haunting and uplifting, lighthearted yet melancholy.

Martin’s personality also helps paint the band’s colorful image. She comes across as fun-loving and authentic on-stage while regularly connecting with fans on social media.

Yet this is far from a one woman show. “The boys,” as the rest of the band is often referred, each bring a unique contribution to the band’s sound. The boys include Dave Roberts, Matteo Roberts, Matt Holmen, Zach Johnston and Jason Krunnfusz.

Watch PHOX’s Official Music Video for “Slow Motion”

Here at WhooNEW, we don’t really do album reviews and we’re certainly not music critics. We try to connect our readers with the most fantastic things being created in Wisconsin.

With that being said, we think what you’ll notice about PHOX’s music is how the different instruments (and Monica’s vocals) play with each other and complement one another – like they’re in a dance.

Sometimes you’ll hear less-polished bands perform and it sounds like the instruments are competing with each other.

UWGB Jazz professor, John Salerno, once explained to me that when a band plays a song, it should be like a living, growing thing. He said this because I was going way overboard playing piano in my jazz combo. I wasn’t listening to the other members of the band and responding. I was just playing to be heard.

PHOX makes the complicated act of making music as a group seem effortless. And whether they’re whistling together, creating auxiliary percussion with paper cups or performing on a menagerie instruments ranging from the oboe and clarinet to the cello and banjo – PHOX makes music that’s alive.

“In some way we have no idea what we’re doing, while sometimes the conviction is so pure we don’t need to talk about things,” Roberts says of his bands’ music. “Monica tells honest stories. We get to meet truly great artists on the road and have a wide range of influences within the group.”

That same humility Roberts is expressing can also be found in interviews with other members of PHOX. Maybe it’s because their days as a struggling, unsigned band still aren’t that far behind them.

Things certainly happened quickly for PHOX. But calling the band an “overnight success” wouldn’t be completely accurate. This group has a long history stretching back to their high school days.

The Story of How PHOX Became Family

“Most of us did something in music programs,” Roberts says of what you could call the band’s formative years in Baraboo. “I think the thing that was shared between us was being from a small town and not having a ton of entertainment at hand. Driving fifteen minutes to the Dells for Starbucks was a weekend highlight for me in high school.”

PHOX expresses plenty of love for their hometown, and have made their Baraboo roots part of the band’s identity. But there was a time when they all felt limited by their surroundings.

After graduating from high school, each of the six members took different paths and dispersed throughout the country. As it’s explained in the band’s bio…

“They did the thing that most people do when they are 18: they fled the coop, each going their separate ways (to film school, cosmetology school, a job with Homeland Security…). But promises were made that couldn’t be kept, and as they fell in unrequited love and lost their respective jobs, in spite of themselves, each simultaneously pulled the ripcord and came home.”

Whatever the circumstances may have been, the six friends reunited and began making music together.

However, it wasn’t long before they felt the walls of Baraboo closing in around them again. So they made a move together to Wisconsin’s capital or as they call it – “the Portland of the Midwest.”

PHOX hanging out

PHOX hanging out

“Some of the boys decided we might as well move into a house in Madison if we weren’t going to do anything in Baraboo,” Roberts explains.

“We luckily found one big enough to make it work and got part-time jobs, made demos, and played coffeehouse and art gallery shows for about a year. There was a lot of just hanging out involved.”

Living together in a 5-bedroom house meant plenty of chances to work on new music – not to mention the time to become even better friends. Roberts looks back on those days and realizes it had its advantages.

“When you can live and work together, everything can be more spontaneous and rapid-fire,” he says. We tend to pump things out at the last minute and being under the same roof with the people you work with (who also happen to be some of your closest friends) is just a truly rewarding thing.

We help each other be better people. Sometimes I forget I had rice on the stove. You need friends for that.”

PHOX built up its fan base by letting people in on this chapter of their story. The band’s YouTube channel now features polished music videos. But there’s also footage from their days shacking up together in Madison.

Some of that you can see in their self-released video EP “Confetti,” which features a couple of songs from their self-titled album with Partisan. You’ll also find songs from “PHOX” on self-released projects “Friendship” and “Unblushing.”

The next step was finding the right person to help them make something even better.

PHOX certainly found the right person. They ended up working with recording engineer Brian Joseph – who has had a hand in recording with bands like The Fray. Perhaps more importantly – he’s worked closely with Eau Claire native Justin Vernon and Bon Iver.

However, Roberts confesses that when PHOX originally approached Joseph – they actually thought he was someone else.

“We reached out to Brian through some web of contacts and initially understood him to be Brian Joseph Burton (Dangermouse). That awkward first contact progressed despite itself…”

Lucky for the band, Brian Joseph really appreciated PHOX’s music. And little did they know at the time that he was probably the perfect person to help them refine the sound & style they’d created.

Debut Album from PHOX

Debut Album from PHOX

The band went to record their 2014 debut at April Base – Vernon’s western Wisconsin studio  – a place that has already become somewhat of legend for aspiring indie bands.

Roberts is thankful for the fact that Brian Joseph saw something unique in PHOX.

“He is a great engineer, producer, and truly wonderful person. In the brief time we’ve known him he has served as spirit spearhead, mentor, and friend. He has done much for many, many people.”

Roberts also points to Justin Vernon and Appleton’s Cory Chisel as two artist who’ve been an inspiration to them and many other musicians.

“There are definitely some giants leading the way. I’m not sure about a revival of things, as I think there is usually good art to be had. That said, it seems like Wisconsin is a little buzzword right now.”

While Roberts stops short of proclaiming the existence of a musical renaissance in America’s Dairyland, the band often jokes about there being “something in the water” in their hometown of Baraboo.

“The water is pretty hard. Use vinegar to clean out your kettle,” Roberts says.

In fact, there are other notable bands coming out of the same small town – including PHOX’s friends Daniel and the Lion as well as Boom Forest. The latter will be playing with PHOX at the upcoming Green Bay concert.

It’s good to know that success hasn’t spoiled the members of PHOX. On the contrary, they seem to be making a conscious effort to remain true to themselves.

“I love Baraboo,” Robert tells us. “I like rural Midwestern scenery and misty bluffs and small downtowns. No doubt ghosts/memories from adolescence resurface, and it’s about -5 a lot of the time right now, but lots of people deal with that kind of stuff.”

Whether fame, fortune and chart-topping success come PHOX’s way or not – these six friends will always remember the time they spent living together and building something beautiful.

The beginning of their official music video for “Leisure” features goofy and bizarre home video clips of the band. The YouTube description under the video says it all…

“Look at these kids, I know these kids. They are us. They are in winter. They are gaining weight. They are making a record at April Base. These kids. What are they doing packing ten people into a five bedroom house?

These kids have empty bank accounts and no jobs. These kids are not sure what’s going on with their lifes but Sunday they watch the Packers game and eat chili and that’s a decent attempt at church. These kids forget to shovel the driveway. They need someone to jump the van because the battery froze.

These kids are looking back at the footage from last year and wondering what happened in between now and then because time’s all blurring together. But you know what. These kids are children of winter and can handle another season I betcha. Yeah, we can handle it. We’ll be fine. Life is long.”

The Details on What’s Next

Roberts says the band will continue touring through the spring, but fans can expect new and exciting things in 2015 too.

Two members, Matteo Roberts and Zach Johnston, composed the music for an animated short film called The Dam Keeper, which is up for an Academy Award. (See a video of PHOX performing music from the film below).

PHOX was recently announced as one of the featured musical acts at the brand new Eaux Claires Festival in Western Wisconsin. The fest is being organized and curated by Roberts tells us PHOX also plans to debut a long-form video project at Eaux Claires as well. That festival takes place July 17th and 18th, 2015.

Meantime, you can catch PHOX at one of these upcoming concert dates and connect with them online.

Find out More About PHOX:

Watch PHOX Perform Music from The Dam Keeper

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