YOU'D NEVER guess it from the confidence and assurance displayed on the band's dazzling self-titled debut album, but the members of Phox aren't exactly comfortable being the center of attention. Their focal point is the stop-you-in-your-tracks voice of Monica Martin, while the songs of the Wisconsin band are compact oratorios, the sound of a group of musicians whose talent matches their weighty ambitions.
"We're all loath to be in the spotlight—Monica not the least of which, but she's handling it very well, and we're all kind of grateful that she's shouldering that for all of us," says guitarist Matthew Holmen.
"Actually, I've been impressed at how much people have acknowledged the rest of us," he says, discussing the attention paid to the other members of the band. "From the get-go, the whole point was we wanted to be in a band where we could rally around a singer whom we could get behind and not have too many ego battles with—which are typical of any rock band, especially a bunch of twentysomething dudes."
The Madison-based band, whose members all met in high school in the nearby town of Baraboo, illustrate Martin's words with a sumptuous folk-pop backdrop whose subtlety and dynamism recalls bands like Typhoon. Some songs click and clack with toy-train rhythms, while others slowly ripen like fruit. With either approach, Phox is a record that reaches for beauty in every step of its design.
"The songs aren't all based on one theme or from one era, so it ends up being kind of a collage," Holmen says. "The recording was pretty short—just over two weeks—but the whole process leading up to it was long. The songs were written over the past two years, and played out for that length of time, and then we worked with the producer, Brian Joseph, for about two months prior to going into the studio. With him, it was a lot about getting into a good headspace. On some songs that we were stumped on, he would help push it in the right direction, and just help us consolidate things because we tend to have multi-forking ideas.... He was there collaborating as sort of a nonpartisan voice who could just say, 'Hey, this is strong, this is not as strong.'"
While most of the songs on Phox are new, a couple tunes also appeared on the band's remarkable self-recorded EP, Confetti, available on YouTube accompanied by the videos the band filmed for each track. Holmen explains, "We felt like there were a couple of songs on Confetti that best identified the band: 'Slow Motion' and 'Noble Heart.' Those songs just kind of did all the things that we do. With the other ones—like 'Blue and White,' which is one that we all really love and people responded to—we didn't really want to suck all the energy out of Confetti... and not have [the EP's songs] be considered as demo versions of songs that are on our record."
What's striking about Phox is how they're equally adept at parlor-ballad delicacy and full-volume sing-alongs. At no point do the arrangements become busy or overblown; the band finds space for the parts of all six musicians.
"That is a challenge," Holmen says. "But we do try to think as a unit and try to all feel like we're doing something useful, not just contributing noise. It's funny, because a lot of times the part that someone's playing was written by somebody else. It's all passed around."