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PHOX: From the basement to the big time

Credit:Michael Doyle Olson

There's a historical marker on 4th Avenue in Baraboo, on the grounds of the Sauk County Courthouse. It commemorates the birthplace of the renowned Ringling Bros. Circus. Specifically, where the first tent was erected by the five Ringling Brothers -- Al, Otto, John, Charley and Alf -- on May 19, 1884.

"In the beginning it was a tiny show, the brothers rented horses and wagons," the marker explains. "They put up the tents, sold the tickets and performed in the show. In addition to the proud owners, there were 18 people on the company roster, but through their diligence, honesty and hard work, the circus eventually became a household word in America."

It's doubtful that a marker will be placed at the house in Shorewood Hills where the members of PHOX have lived for the past three years. But something similar could be said about the six Baraboo natives, who seem to be Wisconsin's next breakout band.

PHOX will release their self-titled full-length debut album on June 24 through Partisan Records, the label that well-known acts Deer Tick, Field Report, Heartless Bastards and the Dismemberment Plan call home. The same day they will kick off a two-month tour that begins in Omaha and ends in Chicago following sold-out shows at Madison's High Noon Saloon on Aug. 7 and 8. The tour will take them cross-country, from Seattle to Vermont, with stops at such legendary venues as the Duck Room in St. Louis, where Chuck Berry still plays monthly, and the Mercury Lounge in New York City. After a short break, the band will take their poppy folk and soul tunes to Europe for a couple weeks. This is also where they will finish the year.

It took quite a while for Matt Holmen, Jason Sean Krunnfusz, Monica Martin, Dave and Matteo Roberts, and Zach Johnston to get to this point. Despite growing up in the same town, a lot of things had to fall into place to bring the six musicians together under one roof. It took even more for all those elements to create PHOX.

Pure chance

Baraboo looms large in the band's mystique, not because the musicians grew up there, says guitarist Holmen, but because of its circus legacy and a penchant for "bizarre things." Perhaps its taste for the theatrical.

"We grew up in this weird, vacated downtown where everything closes at 4:30," Holmen says. "But then there's this big, beautiful relic of a theater [the Al. Ringling Theatre] we all performed in starting in grade school: dances, musicals, things like that."

Despite having what singer Martin calls "hundreds of tiny connections," the members of the band weren't all best friends while growing up. It wasn't until much later -- post-high school, after the individuals had gone separate ways -- that they all really connected. Holmen says it was "pure chance" that brought the group together.

"None of us had much of a social life outside of Baraboo," Holmen says. "If somebody in town is artistically inclined, you know who they are, and you know a little bit about them."

Martin says the videogame Guitar Hero played a significant role in bringing the members of the band together, but she mainly credits Holmen, who she feels is the common tie.

"After Matt's last band sort of crumbled, he ended up coming back to Wisconsin," Martin says. "A few of the other boys ended up back in Baraboo as well. In the meantime, I was working in Madison. They started playing music together and started thinking, 'Let's put a group together.'

"It comes down to coincidence," she continues. "I can't say there was any huge, creative driving force pushing us out of Baraboo at all. Matt connected a lot of dots."

Then, the six decided to get a house together.

Roommates, bandmates

There's a long history of bands living in the same house, or having a sort of clubhouse for rock 'n' roll. Take, for instance, the early days of the Beatles. They piled into one-room flophouses together while playing clubs in Germany. There's Bob Dylan and the Band writing and recording The Basement Tapes in Big Pink, and the Rolling Stones renting a French villa to record Exile on Main Street. It's a romantic concept: a bunch of friends who start out playing in one room together and eventually bust out and take over the world. But it's an even better story when it's purely unintentional.

The six individuals who would go on to become PHOX rented a house together three years ago in Shorewood Hills, just north of Madison. Slowly, the idea that they were actually a band started taking hold. Slowly.

Soon they were playing shows. Although Holmen says living together made practicing "unavoidable," that wasn't always the case.

"Eventually, what we discovered is that regardless of how convenient you make something, if some of you like to procrastinate, you're going to procrastinate," Holmen says.

"We had this sort of weird formula every time we'd practice for a show, when we would play like one show a month. If the show was on Friday, when we'd practice on Monday we would have no idea how to play any of the songs. On Tuesday we would be like, 'Okay, we have an idea.' On Wednesday we would be like, 'This is never going to come together.' On Thursday we would have the best practice of our lives, and we would be [ready] by the time we played the show."

Martin says it took her a long time to really feel like what they were doing was "a thing." In other words, consciously pursuing making music as a living, or even a hobby.

A few key moments over the last three years gave Martin fleeting notions that the PHOX experience was actually happening. Especially once they recorded a session at Daytrotter, which has featured the likes of Counting Crows, Bloc Party, Iron & Wine and Wilco, among many others.

"It was like, 'Wow, we're a band, maybe,'" Martin says. "And then I forgot we were a band, and I was like, 'What's going on?' And then at iTunes Festival, there was a camera in my nose, in HD, and I'm like, 'Okay, this is broadcast to 120 countries. I think we're a band.' And then I forgot again, because here I am on a mattress on the floor in an empty room, avoiding my real bedroom, [and] I can't think about moving."

Vamping for the video camera

Things started to get very real for PHOX when they released Confetti, a seven-song "video EP," in 2013. Directed by Johnston, the band's guitarist and banjoist, the audio and video were recorded simultaneously. The result is like a documentary of the making of an album, but really so much more.

"Zach and I have been making movies together for like 15 years," Holmen says. "That was kind of the first thing that brought us together as friends. When we were 10, he showed me how to play guitar, and I showed him how to use a [video] recorder."

Confetti is a defining document in the story of what PHOX has become. It arrived fully formed, with a singular aesthetic, both visually and musically. From the cup scene at the beginning of "Slow Motion" to Martin's solo performance in "Barside," the EP showcases the band's playful spirit, but preserves the very intimate soul of the lead singer's voice.

While the music of Confetti is perfectly pleasant to listen to on its own, it is a part of a much bigger whole when combined with the visuals.

"They're definitely intertwined, but not in a way that I can put into words," Johnston says of how filmmaking influences the band's music. "Music and film have always been a huge part of my life, and I've never been able to choose one or the other.... I feel like when I'm making music or writing songs, I'm really making a film. So this band is a perfect way for me to celebrate that on a huge scale and also tell the story of all of us at the same time. We're all very much a part of making the film. I'm just the person holding the camera."

Confetti helped the band catch the attention of Brian Joseph, a recording engineer for Bon Iver and the Fray. He then shepherded PHOX through recording their self-titled debut at April Base Studios in Eau Claire. After two years of playing shows and recording at home, it was time for the band to take everything they had learned and written and put it on tape. It would be a proper audio document of PHOX's development to take to the masses, which would then be mixed by Michael Brauer, who had done the same for My Morning Jacket, Ben Folds and Aimee Mann.

Holmen says that when the recording process started, the band had to take things song by song. In many cases PHOX have a vision of what they want a song to be, but they often have a number of variations on that theme.

"We talked about how we wanted to bring all those versions together to create a definitive version of [a song]," Holmen says, "because we've recorded a lot of stuff off the cuff years before and then learned how to actually play the song live. I think our recording process, even if it's well orchestrated, is still kind of a surprise when it's done."

The songs were written bit by bit over the last few years, but Martin says she still feels like the album fits together because it is a document of the band's lives during that time period.

"These are the first songs I've ever really written," she says. "I've probably written, I don't know, 20 songs. They're really all over the place as far as what parts of my life are stories. I had my whole 25 years of life to write about, so it's not really focused. I think, in the future, I might have more of a focused theme, but I don't necessarily think that's important. I think it can still be an album and be a collection of stories versus a novel. So this is the short-stories version."

One song with personal significance is "1936," about Martin's family.

"I got into a heated back-and-forth with my sister, and I realized after the fact that I was projecting a lot of my confusion about my family onto her," Martin says. "The song is sort of me saying, 'Yes, our family is uncomfortable, but at least we have each other.'"

Chaos and creativity

Even if PHOX weren't from Baraboo, the circus would still be an apt metaphor for many aspects of the band: the family atmosphere they've developed over the last few years, the touring lifestyle, the unpredictable nature of the music and the way they present themselves visually.

Take, for example, the band's new video for "Slow Motion," which was shot in one day in Nashville. It starts out in a backyard party of streamers and whistling before cutting to Martin alone, riding down a street on a bicycle. Eventually the camera returns to the party, where the action continues and, in a sense, revolves around her.

"I'd like to dispel any notion that there's a center [to the band]," Holmen says. "It's too chaotic. In the songs, the center is Monica's creative idea, and then everyone tries to make a grab at pushing it in one direction or another."

Before the album hits stores and the tour begins, PHOX will move out of the Shorewood Hills house. Maybe it's a sign that the gestation period is over and the egg has hatched. Or maybe they just need a little more space to themselves because they spend so much time together on the road.

"Very often, bands [seem to be] six people who want to be rock stars," Martin says. "We just didn't come together in that way at all. I don't mean to over-romanticize it, but we're just people from a small town who ended up doing this and really enjoying it."

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