The World Meets the Midwest in PHOX's Music



Jade Ehlers

When reached by phone, Matt Holmen immediately tells RFT Music that he's super busy.

"I'm here for 36 hours. I'm trying to put my life in a box," he says.

The PHOX guitarist is in his adopted hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, gearing up for the band's biggest tour to date "by a long shot." Riding a surprising wave of popular acclaim behind the orchestral pop of "Slow Motion" from the band's just-released self-titled debut (and the associated video featuring sultry frontwoman Monica Martin), the six-piece band is leaving the farmland for the greener pastures of bigger locales.

And with good reason. There's a low-key jazzy essence to the band -- back in the day when jazz bands actually used banjos -- that belies the atmospheric rock at its core. Fueled by an unselfishness that allows all the instrumentation to shine through clearly in mellow but tension-filled settings while supporting Martin's vocals, the music's gentle flow and airy lift recall Billie Holiday's darker offerings -- if she were backed by a psychedelic jazz combo in a French café. It's a breath of fresh air, if you can catch your breath.

Holmen, despite his rush and crappy cell-phone coverage, spoke to us about the PHOX's newfound popularity, how being from the Midwest shaped the band's vision, and the truth about Drive Your Tractor to School Day.

RFT Music: Your self-titled debut album isn't out yet [Editor's note: PHOX was released on Tuesday, June 24], but it seems to be getting a lot of attention.

Matt Holmen: Yeah, I'm surprised. It's pretty exciting. There are a few really cool radio stations that are supporting us in places we've played. It's nice to have people you actually know being your advocates. Friends tend to be the best supporters.

You say you're surprised. I mean, the music is different. Terms like "orchestral pop" and "ambient" get tossed about, yet I hear a wide variety of styles all mixed together in unexpected combinations. So are you surprised because the music is rather different?

I don't know. I think everyone will hear something different because there are a lot of different perspectives going into [the music]. Everyone in the band has something different to offer -- French pop, new wave, banjo, guitar -- but we have a lot of common ground that makes it work. I'd hope it would be a little different and attract attention, but it's also a Midwestern thing to expect nothing.

Why would being in the Midwest mean you should expect nothing?

It's just very much a Midwestern thing, in that you don't see a ton of people clawing at or climbing toward things you would see in bigger cities. I find myself relating to both settings when we travel. I love all the culture and excitement of New York and San Francisco, but I also love the quiet. I was raised in a farm town.

That makes sense. Rural life is typically quieter, and you don't have 100 bands competing for that same attention like in a bigger city.

Right. Maybe ten bands. I'm not putting anybody down; it's just a different approach.

So how does living in the Midwest develop into the music you're playing? Maybe this is stereotypical, but I hear the banjo, and I'm going to think more of that country kind of feel. Yet, there are so many non-Midwestern elements too.

A lot of it is less about the aesthetic and more about the way we felt. It's separate from a lot of our contemporaries doing something similar. Being out of touch might be a good way to put it. Music is a combination of verbal storytelling and instruments. We're pulling from the experience we have playing music and our disparate libraries from world music to a cappella to hip-hop to whatever.

The music is very layered. Is there a principal songwriter and you all add pieces, or can anyone bring in a raw idea and you build from there?

One of the founding ideas of the band is to create melodies first; melodies are better. You have a lot more melodic options. Sometimes we see what Monica turns out with her ukulele or her lyrics, and then we try to fit the mood. It's like: How do we convey this idea non-verbally? It never feels like it's one voice. It's always a combination.

Something I like is that there's a simplistic beauty to the music, but at the same time there's a lot going on in many of the songs -- there are six musicians in the band. How do you keep the songs from being muddled?

It's not always like that, but the only way we've gotten through that is with communication. We communicate with each other, but it's not just musical. Only a couple people in this band can tell what key a song is in. If we can't communicate with a musical language, we can as friends and collaborators. We can talk about making dinner together, or who left their clothes in the laundry. It's mostly functional stuff on a personal level, but it helps us musically too.

The music also strikes me as unselfish. Monica is the frontperson, the vocalist and thus the focal point of the videos. At the same time everyone is chipping in for the good of the whole and not trying to force solos or there presence in a video.

Right. It's not part of our motivation for doing it. We're grateful Monica is shouldering that -- even though she is shy and loathes being in the spotlight. It's great that she's doing that, but none of us really want to be thrust forward.

What you say about the friendship aspect of the band and talking about your laundry is all very interesting, yet many of these songs are really personal -- the things Monica is singing about, such as ending relationships. Is it easier for the band to translate emotions to music because you are such good friends, or can it be uncomfortable?

A lot of times her songs can be very private, examining something about her life. But it opens up doors of communication for all of us. We're still figuring it out. Again, I don't think anyone expected to be paid attention to. I think that's generated the heart-on-the-sleeve kind of thing for Monica. It's a tricky thing. I'm always excited to see what she'll do or what we happen next.

I read a lot of bios. Most are true, but every now and then something is so hokey you have to ask about it. Your bio says your hometown is Baraboo, Wisconsin, "a place so small it had a drive-your-tractor-to-school day." Is that real?

Oh my God! That's the most true thing in our bio! [Laughs] I paint myself as a bit of a writer and I try to be dramatic as I can. I said we sound like a combination of Feist and Monty Python. How silly is that?


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