Bands generally work best when their members share a unity of vision.
Phox is the exception, in some ways. The Madison-based group is composed of six extremely different musicians, each pulling the band in different directions — toward folk, pop, soul, classical and everything in between. That might cause strife in many groups, but it’s created synergy in Phox, according to Matteo Roberts, one of the band’s founding members.
And it’s certainly helped the group find increasing success over the past few years.
“We all have amazingly disparate taste, style and prior experience, and I think it’s the melting down and combining of these elements that makes our sound,” Roberts says.
Although each of the sextet’s members has an instrumental specialty, they often explore each others’ parts while writing together. “I studied classically at Lawrence University, Jason (Krunnfusz) played in a hardcore metal band, Matt (Holmen) has his brain always ticking in ska chops … but our individual influences and styles cut through and form our sound naturally.”
The most prominent example is “Slow Motion,” the lead single off the group’s eponymously titled debut LP released in June — and its biggest hit yet. “Slow Motion” is, like Phox, hard to describe, kicking off with a country twang before dropping into trancey, melodic verses that evolve as they go, picking up an occasional jazz groove and even tossing a clarinet solo into the middle. No matter how the song zigs and zags, lead singer Monica Martin and her colleagues, including Zach Johnston and Davey Roberts, remain in tight harmony.
Yet Roberts calls “Slow Motion” a “bit of a freak accident, bless its heart.” He suggests its zig-zagging of genres is more the product of slamming together two different songs than the type of unified fusion that Phox seeks.
Roberts says the band strives for more mature and less eclectic songs, such as “Calico Man” and “Raspberry Seed,” both of which settle into a decidedly folk groove while pulling from chamber pop and acoustic influences.
“We’ve refined ourselves a bit,” Roberts says. “With so many members, it’s easy to let yourself get in the way of the song, so we have been tweaking some things in an attempt to be more dynamic performers, which means sometimes just shutting up and letting the song breathe.”
Roberts says the band formed shortly after each of its members returned to their hometown of Baraboo in 2010. The six of them had all had separate and varying relationships with each other, but they hadn’t performed together before forming Phox.
Some of them had little to no experience of being in a band at all — including Martin, who’d never sung in front of a crowd. Their first show was a disaster, Martin admits, prompting an immediate six-month hiatus. After getting back together, their relations remained strained for a while.
“From a personal level, we were all torn apart and didn’t really know what we were doing,” he explains. “Once we got the courage to try it again later that year, we started improving slowly, but surely.”
Madison provided the band with a safe, supportive place to hone its skills, and a series of lucky breaks has helped Phox show off those skills. A last-minute cancellation by Azealia Banks got the band a surprisingly well-attended noontime slot at Lollapalooza in August 2013, and Phox went on to open for the Lumineers at the iTunes Festival in London the next month. That well-received show was recorded and later released as a live EP.
This summer’s tour marks a Phox first as headliners (the band traveled with Blitzen Trapper last year). They’re not ending the tour back home in the Midwest on purpose, but they couldn’t be happier to close things out with a string of local shows, celebrating the environment that helped develop them as a band.
“One part of being a Wisconsin band that I think has shaped us is that there’s a separation from culture,” Roberts says. “A band in NYC has 2,000 other bands to compare themselves against, and 1,000 publications to keep up with. Growing up and living in Wisconsin has kept us somewhat shrouded and left us to our own devices to try and make something that makes us happy and excited, and I think in that ignorance there’s a ‘sound’ or uniqueness that lives with many Wisconsin bands.”
What 2015 will bring for the band isn’t yet clear. Roberts says Phox has two European tours in the fall for sure, but whether that will lead them back out on the American road or into the studio is as yet undecided.
Just like the band’s music, what happens next will be a surprise for its members as well as its fans.
Phox performs at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom, 1034 N. 4th St., at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 6. Tickets are still available and can be purchased at 414-286-3663 or pabsttheater.org. Phox also has two sold-out shows at Madison’s High Noon Saloon, 701 E. Washington Ave., on Aug. 7-8.