PHOX may be Madison's musical success story of 2013. The purveyors of folky pop and whimsical electronic rock built an enthusiastic local fan base in 2012, but this year has taken them to high-profile gigs at Lollapalooza in Chicago and iTunes Fest in London. Not bad for a bunch of Millennials raised in Baraboo, a town whose biggest claim to fame is Circus World Museum.
The band just concluded their first major tour, which snaked through the South and Northeast and jumped across the pond. As the group recovered from their journey in Minneapolis, I asked singer Monica Martin, guitarist Matt Holmen and video mastermind Zach Johnston what the road taught them about themselves and their music.
What did your tour map look like?
Martin: We went with Blitzen Trapper. We went down to Nashville and then went down south and up the East Coast to Toronto.... We did our last show at First Avenue in Minneapolis.
You've gotten a lot more exposure since signing with the concert-booking agency Billions. Does this mean that you got a tour bus?
Holmen: We all rode unicycles. No, we have a van.... Sometimes you sleep in the van. Sometimes there are 15 people from Baraboo at the show who offer you places to stay.
What sorts of things did you learn on the road?
Martin: I had never really traveled before, so it was fun. But it's also tiring. You're never really alone.... About 75% of us [in the band] are introverted, so it's hard to recharge without some alone time.
Tell me about being an introvert and a performer. How do those two things clash or complement one another?
Holmen: I think almost every performer has.....a shield for social interactions. But it's a double-edged sword, too. If there's a heckler in the crowd, you might want to respond like you're in a conversation. But onstage, you have to do that differently.... I'll turn around and look at our drummer when I'm feeling weird sometimes, and we'll laugh, and I remember I'm with friends.
Monica, as the singer, you're in the spotlight. How do you deal with the pressure that comes with that?
Martin: Talking to a lot of people who sometimes aren't responding is really challenging, and terrifying.... People have said, "You have that awkward, Zooey Deschanel thing going on," and I'm like, "That's just who I am." I'm human, and sometimes I get uncomfortable. There's a reason lots of performers drink, but I realized alcohol could be detrimental to my voice. Being so nervous isn't good for you either, though, so the short answer is a little whiskey.
How did you land gigs at Lollapalooza and iTunes Fest?
Martin: It started at South by Southwest. I thought it was a festival where you see bands, but it's mostly a job fair. There are managers, labels and booking agents.... We knew we needed a manger because we wanted to focus on doing creative things, not answering emails.
Holmen: Foreign Fields, a band originally from [Wisconsin], had success at South by Southwest the year before. They hit it off with the Daytrotter guys and mentioned us to them.... So we went to the Daytrotter studio and had an awesome session that ended up on the "top 10 Daytrotter songs of the year" list. Then we recorded Confetti, our video [EP], and a lot of people shared it online.
Releasing an album in video form isn't that common. Why did you decide to try it?
Johnston: Pomplamoose made a video album we really liked. PHOX wanted to do a more theatrical take on their music, so doing a video made sense.... We spent about $200 on confetti at a party store, and we made the video in our house.
Holmen: We had just watched that Beach House performance in the desert, Forever Still. I think Vincent Moon is also a reference point, and Pink Floyd's Live at Pompeii.
What's next for PHOX?
Holmen: We're starting pre-production on a record.... A lot of times, the songs people have heard live are songs we haven't even demoed.... Playing a show and getting immediate feedback on the songs...you figure out what's missing. You get to understand them better.