Wisconsin’s indie-pop group PHOX is as sweet as honey. The quintet uses their origin of a chilly little town outside of Madison as inspiration for creating comforting, warm music. They feature diverse instrumentation that goes well outside of standard rock band fare. They utilize everything, from banjos and ukuleles to piccolos and maracas. This wide-ranging background coalesces and swirls underneath the supple, rich vocals of Monica Martin, resulting in a pleasant, provocative harmony that induces smiles. PHOX’s sound is textured and intricate, but still manages to stay light and gentle. The band’s eponymous debut got this recipe perfect.
I spoke via phone with Monica Martin and Matt Holmen about fitting in as a musician, keeping warm, and embracing the sweetness.
Smile Politely: So, PHOX currently has five members. How do you keep the harmony going?
Matt Holmen: I’d say that having a lot in common and having the same sense of humor goes a long way.
Monica Martin: Yeah. I think that just being straightforward with each other is important. If there’s something in the air that’s unclear or something that’s a little off, we’ll just try to say, “Hey, let’s get together on this,” and force ourselves to be better communicators. Because we’re not all really outgoing or super communicative naturally.
Holmen: That’s been a focus for us.
Martin: Yeah, we’ve been trying to make sure that we have a good dynamic with each other.
SP: So are you mostly introverted people, then?
Holmen: Yeah, definitely. We’re trying to alter that. Although there are some extroverted portions of our individual personalities, we’re pretty much fully introverted as a band.
SP: So do you guys ever get stage fright?
Holmen: Yeah, but you know, sometimes you just have to do it. If you’re any kind of performer, there’s a temptation to act way cooler than you are. If you’re doing anything in front of people, really. I guess the way that I see it is that there’s no use in trying to be cool. It’s ok to have quirks or shortcomings, to not fit into the exact mold that was set. Don’t try to be James Dean. Don’t try to be Marlon Brando. Because you’re not.
Martin: I agree with you. People want to be really slick. And the fact is, musicians are just like everyone else. You want to look your best, if that’s what you’re into. But you have priorities. It’s not really in my interest to support the upper echelon existence of musicians that I think has been sustained for a long time. VIP is a joke, and you don’t want to be in there anyway.
SP: Monica, you seem like a pretty unassuming front woman. How do you feel about being in that role in the band?
Martin: It’s weird, but I’m adjusting to being the voice of the group.
SP: Are you someone that’s kind of a private person?
Martin: Yeah, I guess I would consider myself that. Or, shy. Self-conscious. But together, we kind of make it happen. It gets easier every show. You know, at first I think it was a lot harder. It weighed on me. And my nerves and insecurities can get the best of me. But I’m starting to believe the people around me a little bit more, and that makes performing easier. If I’m up there, I think, “Well, all of these people are here, so…”
SP: So somebody must be right.
Martin: Somebody. And even if everybody in the crowd is booing, at least I have my boys in the band who are laughing with me.
SP: Matt, do you and the guys help her out with that?
Holmen: Sure, we try. It’s like she was saying before. Communication is the thing, and also trying to be a supporter. The real trick of being a musician is being able to maintain your self-confidence and also being able to just sell it when you need to.
SP: Right. To me, PHOX shares some sounds with other Midwestern indie acts like Sufjan Stevens, and of course Bon Iver, who you guys are affiliated with. What are some ways that being from the Midwest plays into your music?
Martin: I guess that everything you hear is going to somehow influence everything that you write. It’s about admiring people you know, and you’re convinced that they’re putting their heart into it. As for the Midwest, I do think we have a lot of beautiful examples of that near us.
SP: It’s silly, but I think the shared sound is almost, like, a cozy sadness.
Martin: [Laughs] That’s pretty accurate. You get sad in the wintertime. It gets so cold. Yeah, it’s like the time we played Iceland Airwaves [in Iceland]. When we got to the country, I noticed that for one, it’s always dark. It was November, and there’s like four hours of daylight at that time of year. And it’s cold. And you see art, peppered through the town and on the walls, and it’s kind of menacing art. Even the happy stuff had a sort of, mischief, to it. I think that the Midwest has a similar feeling, though it’s not as extreme. The weather and the sunlight and the ability to move freely does really affect your life, and your mental stability, and your art.
SP: Yeah, I guess you kind of have to do what you can to keep yourself warm.
Martin: Yeah, exactly.
SP: So are you guys releasing any new stuff soon?
Martin: We’re mostly in the process of writing right now. We have a bunch of new stuff on the way, but it’ll need some time. We have to write the songs, flesh them out, and then get into the studio. Let’s just tentatively say, maybe next summer.
SP: Are you going to play anything new in Champaign?
Martin: Yeah, we’re going to play probably two new songs in Champaign. They’re still kind of, you know, in workshop. But that’s natural. I think even our older songs will continue to change — we’ll find ways to make them exciting in a different way, or play a solo with a different instrument, and sort of change things up. But yeah, I think the new songs have their own kind of beauty.
SP: That’s exciting. So, I’d like to ask: People like to use the adjective “sugary” to describe PHOX. Do you think that’s fitting?
Martin: Well, I do really like sugar. I ingest a lot of it. So it’s probably kind of inherently sugary.
Holmen: You are what you eat.
Martin: You are what you eat, I guess. But I mean, sure why not? It’s what you want it to be. But it’s more like, when it leaves my lips, it’s up to other people to digest it.
Holmen: Like a mama bird.
Martin: [Laughs] Like a mama bird. But, there’s some kind of biting stuff in there, too. Say, maybe on like the tenth listen, someone will think, “Oh damn, she wasn’t actually saying that.”
SP: There’s a little bit of sour in there.
Martin: Yes, some kind of sour, or salty, along with the sugar.
SP: You guys definitely have many flavors going on. Thanks for talking with me.
Martin: Oh yeah, as for sugar, I can’t wait to go to that cupcake shop I go to every time. Cream & Flutter!
SP: Yeah, I love that place! It’s delicious.
Martin: Yeah! Thank you. I hope you have a great night.
SP: You too! Take care.
PHOX is playing at The Accord this Friday, April 8th at 8:30 p.m. with Santah. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door.