PHOX burst onto the scene in 2013, rising out of Madison, Wisconsin after opening for acts like the Lumineers and Blitzen Trapper. They were a highlight of an impressive Shaky Knees Music Festival bill in Atlanta in May, a bill that saw Modest Mouse, the National, the Alabama Shakes and the Replacements headline. And their eponymous debut isn’t yet a month old.
Matthew Holmen joined Weld to discuss the band’s rapid ascent and new record, recorded at Justin Vernon’s home studio, before the band takes the stage at Bottletree Cafe.
Weld: You have managed to appear on a lot of big bills early in your career – how have you been so fortunate?
Matthew Holmen: That’s a good question! We have a pretty sweet team. We were exhaustive through the hiring of our team. I don’t know if I have another answer. We’ve been really lucky, I suppose, as cheesy as it is to say that.
Weld: Did you have material available before this record?
MH: Last fall we put out Live at iTunes Festival, which was on our Bandcamp, and we put out a couple of EPs by ourselves. The last one was called Confetti and it was a video EP. That one is still up on our YouTube channel.
Weld: There’s been a tremendous buzz about what you guys are doing; all of the right people are talking about you. Did you feel pressured to finally get that record out or did you just let it happen organically?
MH: We had recorded more than half of these songs prior in different forms, and we just wanted to record a more definitive version of what we have been doing the past two years. We did want to put it out sooner rather than later, because prior to that we had been putting out something every six months, which is very quick on things. So this one, we did give ourselves a little more time and we were more familiar with the songs. It was a bit slower, and I think we want to give ourselves that opportunity to get things right.
Weld: I feel like Monica’s voice combined with the band’s sound almost sounds like Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs in front of a folk/Americana act. Is that at all accurate?
MH: Yeah, sure. [Laughs]
Weld: What do you get a lot of?
MH: People will say – they’ll pull out old soul singers or, like, Feist or Fiona Apple. Those come up sometimes. They’re all influences; none particularly weightier than the others, but I know they’ve all gone into her ears.
Weld: What was the experience of working with Justin Vernon like?
MH: We didn’t really work directly with him, we just recorded at his studio. We worked with his engineer, Brian Joseph, and he was incredible. Volcano Choir had just gotten off tour, so a tour bus just shows up in the driveway one day with, like, four feet of snow on one side of it. But we were recording on all of Bon Iver’s touring gear – all of the guitars and drums, everything that was there was what they had taken on tour in the past. So that’s all pretty magical; it’s nice to play on instruments that have a history that you’re very attuned to, that you’re very familiar with. It’s a great studio, very isolated. We didn’t do anything but record. It kept us focused.
Weld: There’s a term here that’s become en vogue now called “Southern indie” to describe this new brand of music that many folks want to call “Americana.” You almost have that identity, but your roots are nowhere close to here. Do you feel like you fit into that?
MH: Music with blues roots?
Weld: Yeah. What we’ve been blanketing as “Americana” for a decade.
MH: We used to have a little bit more blues influence. It was a bit heavier. We sort of shucked that for more of a folk aesthetic. I’m increasingly surprised when we take instruments away and play at quieter volumes how it sounds. We started playing at sort of a bluegrass arrangement, with a mandolin – not bluegrass music, but you know, a cello playing sort of a proxy upright bass and mandolin being percussive and I play banjo, kind of toss that around. I’m not really sure where that would come from, it’s just sort of the language of the generation right now. It’s a good way to communicate musical ideas and it resonates with us.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
MH: We always talk about this and I feel like all of the best bands are British. But as far as American rock goes…I suppose Nirvana even though none of us really listen to them. Third Eye Blind. Weezer is for sure one of them.
“All time” is so upsetting. I hate definitive questions.
Jimi Hendrix. And the Band.