Q&A: PHOX

Justin Sengly

Justin Sengly

Wisconsin-native PHOX were lucky enough to open for Dr. Dog all three nights they played in Minneapolis in February: the 5 at the Turf Club, and the 6 and 7 in First Avenue’s Mainroom. We sat down with guitarist Matt Holmen before PHOX rocked the Turf and learned about Justin Vernon’s home studio, messing up on stage, and what happens when one six-person band lives in a house.

The Wake: Everyone always asks you guys about what it’s like being from Baraboo, Wisc., but I’m more interested in what you thought of the Packers loss.

MH: Oh, it was devastating. We were driving home from tour and we had our friend’s dad DVR the game. I turned off my phone so we had no contact with the world. We caught the game right at the end and we were in shock. We were sure that the whole state was celebrating and that we were going to go out and party.

The Wake: So you guys are big fans?

MH: Jason and I are huge fans. It’s one of those things. It’s a Midwestern thing. The comradery, the massive eating.

The whole band lived in a house in Madison, Wisc., and recently you moved out…

MH: Yeah, we did. Solemnly. It sucks. It was such an ideal living situation. We all got together and created this parody radio show together. It was my mom’s house; she was on vacation. It felt like old times. We were all together on the floor and we never used desks. We just got into a child’s mindset, just playing. Drawing on the floor with crayons.

And then you moved back to Baraboo. Is that where you’re living now?

MH: We moved out [of the Madison house] the week we started the headlining tour. So we all reasoned it was time. It was rational to not get a new place. We just put our stuff in our parent’s garages. Which has been fine. We cleaned the house up. We spent three years there. That’s where we wrote the majority of writing for the album. I think we played every venue in Madison.

Even the Alliant Energy Center?

MH: Ooooh, you got me! No, we did not play the Alliant.

“On the big stage, you can feel disconnected. Our struggle is to try and figure out how to be one unit while spread out like that.”

What’s your fan-base in Wisconsin like? What’s it like to play home shows?

MH: We haven’t played a show in Baraboo in two years, but we’re going to do one this summer. It’s awesome, we know everybody, and it’s a small town. Whereas Madison is a college town, and none of our fans are University students. So it’s small. Most of our friends in Madison are living and working there. It’s like a class reunion. So many people we grew up with come out. Usually people are drinking a lot of [New Glarus] Spotted Cow before we play. I was thinking next time we should play first, and then have a dance band, because we don’t usually drink a lot while we play. If we’re more sober than the crowd it’s like “Aw, man.”

You recorded your debut self-titled record at April Base, Justin Vernon’s home studio in Eau Claire, Wisc. Tell me about what that was like.

MH: That was awesome. It’s a house and the studio is the basement. It still has that house feel. You can make eggs and walk around in your slippers, so kind of feels like you’re at home. A studio atmosphere can be dry and spooky. You want a little spookiness to get you playing, but not enough to get you out of your head. All of the Bon Iver instruments and their touring rig were there, so we had access to all that stuff. There’s a guitar that has the lyrics of “Stacks” taped on it, all the verses in different places. We played every guitar in the studio. I didn’t even choose guitars based on the what would sound good for a particular song, just which one I hadn’t played yet. Like, “We need to use the ‘Skinny Love’ love guitar at some point, so yeah, that sounds fine.”

Justin was there for a while at the beginning, but who recorded the record?

MH: Brian Joseph. We actually had a sleepover at his house last night. When we first heard Brian Joseph was recording our record, we thought he was Danger Mouse, because Danger Mouse’s name is Brian Joseph Burton. But then when we found out, we were like, “Oh! We were wondering why you lived in Wisconsin and why you were white.”

PHOX has so many contributors that use so many instruments. What’s your songwriting process like?

MH: There is a lot of jamming all day. Early on we just stepped on each other’s toes a lot, fighting for attention. It’s normal. After a few years of playing with each other and listening to recordings, you get more of a perspective and judgment about when you’re just making noise to make noise. It’s like a monkey peeing into its own mouth. And you know, saying like, “I love what you were playing there, so why don’t I just not play.” Monica will come out with a melodic idea, and then we play around with it. Everyone takes turns figuring out what they can add. Sometimes we go too far. When we play it live it’s different. Sometimes we get around two microphones, like bluegrass style. It’s so fun. It makes us feel more connected to each other. We play in clubs a lot, but then to go and play places like First Avenue’s Mainroom, we have to try hard to remember that there are other people on the stage. On the big stage, you can feel disconnected. Our struggle is to try and figure out how to be one unit while spread out like that. We’re figuring it out.

Partisan Records | by Pip

Partisan Records | by Pip

You released your debut LP released in June, now you’re playing shows with Dr. Dog. Does it feel like everything is happening so fast, or what?

MH: We feel like things are happening fast, but still at a doable pace. Nothing completely crazy has happened. Well, we’re playing Coachella and Bonnaroo this year, so that’s pretty crazy. That’ll be the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me.

Which artists are you most excited to see at those festivals?

MH: Definitely Father John Misty and the Punch Brothers. Jack White is headlining Coachella, so that’ll be cool. I’ve never seen him.

You play tomorrow night with Dr. Dog at the Turf Club. Have you played there before?

MH: Nope, we haven’t played there before. It’s funny because we used to drive to Minneapolis to see bands like Anti-Flag, Rancid, and Less Than Jake at First Avenue, and now we’re playing in their venues.

What can one expect at a PHOX show?

MH: Well you know, sparklers and gas, jokes, spoofs. (Laughs). It’s nice because Dr. Dog is giving us a substantial set. We get to play for 45 minutes instead of 30! We’re trying to do a diverse set including a sit down segment if the crowd is feeling it. Expect diversity in the demeanor: lighthearted but still honoring Monica’s stories in her songs. No James Dean smoking on stage.

“It was like, ‘We need to use the ‘Skinny Love’ love guitar at some point, so yeah, that sounds fine.”

What’s your favorite song to play live and why?

MH: My favorite is “Blue and White.” It’s an older one that we didn’t rerecord for the LP. It was on our video EP and the recording was great. We wanted it to be a piece of the full-length. It’s our most serious song and everyone always feels it. It’s dark but also loud. It’s really fun to play, and we very rarely fuck it up. Except when we played Chicago a couple weeks ago. The beginning is a heavy moment where the music starts and Monica says “I belong to me alone when I’m alone.” After she sang that, my guitar fell off my back and 4 feet to the ground. It was on and let out this huge noise in the middle of this moment. Everyone was like “Ohhh boy…” I think Monica and Matteo both fell over laughing on stage. Sometimes those moments happen.

What’s next for PHOX?

MH: We’re starting to think about the next record and more songs. Those are bubbling. We’re working on a film project cause we haven’t done that in awhile. Zach and Matteo scored an animated short that’s nominated for an Oscar. It’s called “The Dam Keeper.” Check it out. PHOX did a version of one of those songs that should be coming out soon.

The Wake is made up of a lot of aspiring student artists, both in our membership and readership. Do you have any advice for young people trying to make their art into a lifestyle?

MH: Do it with friends. Get a support group that will be honest with you, but also build you up. Don’t quit. Make something that’s true to yourself, and other clichés that you can find in my book How to be an Artist. (Laughs). Actually no, there’s a great book by Eddie Campbell, the Scottish cartoonist, called How to be an Artist. The book is about how he’s turning a marginal medium into a career. He’s always hopping from lily pad to lily pad, always making art he loves. [His art] doesn’t have a huge place in culture, but he talks about how to advocate for it and how to do what you want to do. Very useful read for anyone thinking about quitting.