The World Meets the Midwest in PHOX's Music
Jade Ehlers PHOX
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.