INTERVIEW: PHOX (MADISON, WI)
I admit. I miss Madison whenever I’m not there. There’s beauty all around, and a spirit to the city that you rarely find elsewhere; or actually a spirit that finds you. Music-wise, it’s been topping charts for best cities for live music in recent memory, and a multitude of bands have branched into bigger and bigger things more and more frequently. Like many cities, however, there’s a sound that characterizes and generalizes. Chicago’s got the rough and tumble wintery introspective rock while the Twin Cities are off experimenting with the fusion of electro, funk and rap to no end. Madison, feels folksy. So when Amy Musser‘s trusted taste pointed out Phox, one listen to their Unblushing EP made me stop in my tracks completely.
This voice didn’t sound like Madison. Nor Wisconsin. It sounded otherworldly. When their debut album, Friendship, came out, it solidified that made it Madison; freewheeling, lighthearted, just pure fun for fun sake over a soaringly gorgeous voice (which surpasses the Capitol building and Van Hise) and a blend of melodies and musicianship that at least I hadn’t heard come from the Badger State.
All apologizes for the length of the interview, but enjoy it as much as I enjoyed chatting with Jay Sean Krunnfusz, Cheston/Cheydaddy Van Huss, Matthieu Holmen, Monica Martin, and Matteo/Theo Roberts* in their home, right next to the Wood Room where they recorded the following videos. You can pick up their album for whatever you’d like (it’s wholly worth it), and catch them live November 13th in Rock Island or the 15th at Hotel Foster in Milwaukee. And be sure to subscribe to their new Madison-based video series, inviting musicians in to their house, called Wood Room!
*The band and I decided to alter their names. Check their Facebook for correct ones. Awesome. Here we go!
What was this promise that you made to David & Matt’s mom? And did you make it on time?
Matthieu: We did actually. She just really wanted us to do something. It’s useful to have deadlines, whatever they are or how silly they are. It’s just nice to have someone outside who’s holding you responsible for something. As soon as we moved in together, she asked me, “Please. One year, by the time your lease is up, 10 songs. That’s all I ask.” We did it.
Monica: I was actually really upset because I never knew about this until a month before this deadline.
Matthieu: It’s all been about tricking Monica up to this point.
Monica: There’s been a lot of tricks. I don’t like it! [laughs]
Matthieu: It is a little fucked up but…I find it difficult to give people instructions about things. “Hey, do this thing! Do your chores.” Kids are like, “Mom…” But if you can somehow make it seem that it was their idea to do the chores in the first place, then you’ve got a business.
So this was just the moms wanting you to have a band?
Matthieu: More or less. We decided to move in together. We didn’t do anything the first six months we lived together-just sat around and played video games.
Cheston/Cheydaddy: Sounds like something to me!
Monica: It was good.
Matthieu: So it was that looming over us that we waited until the last month to take care of it.
Jay Sean & Monica: We did make it!
Matthieu: She was very surprised. “I can’t believe you remembered! I thought you were just bullshitting me.” I was like, “No! Totally not.” I love moms. I feel like I get along with moms very well.
Monica: I think my mom is gonna come on tour with us next.
Matthieu: Excellent news.
Monica: She’s just gonna hang.
Jay Sean: That’s a whole thing in itself. The Mom Tour. All of our moms come on tour with us and sell our merch. I love it.
Cheston/Cheydaddy: Moms are the most powerful salespeople.
Matthieu: My mom would be really good.
Monica: “What? You don’t support my child?”
You’d eat extremely well as well.
Monica: Yea. I think so.
Jay Sean: “You’re going to stop at Taco Bell, again?! No no no…We’re going out tonight.”
So you booked a show before you even became a band?
Matthieu: Yeah, like I said, “Cart before horse” that’s how we do it. [laughs]
Cheston/Cheydaddy: What was the incarnation of our band at that point? It was us, and Mike T…
Matthieu: We just had a bunch of dudes that we jammed with that we were going to school together with in Baraboo. Not doing a ton. Monica was living here [in Madison]. Yeah…I agreed to do the show and nobody wanted to sing. We’re like, “Well…Monica sings.” ‘Wait, what do you mean? Monica Monica?’”
Monica: Well, Matt had been trying to pull this on me for years.
Matthieu: For like four years…Actually, one of the first times we hung out, I remember being like, “Hey, what’s that Regina song ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’? Let’s play that song!” She said, “What do you want me to do? What do you mean?” And I was like, “Just sing that thing! Sing something.” And yea, it took four years to get that to work!
Monica: I was afraid to sing. I would often cry before singing, but you can blame this guy for the terror that’s been raining upon. Singing now, it’s really interesting. I’m really excited for all of their support.
Yeah, Matt was saying you were singing into a megaphone…
Monica: Jesus, that first show that he did agree to. First we had a different name. We had a fox hat.
Matthieu: We had this fox hat. We were at a show at Turner Hall. I heard these two girls saying, “We’re gonna be virgins forever!” Then they high-fived. I was like, “4ever.” So we became Fox Hat & The Virgins 4ever Sextet. [laughs]
Monica: Yea, that show I did sing into a megaphone! And then it didn’t work!
Matthieu: Our first number, we opened up with a guest musician playing soprano saxophone in a totally different key than what we were playing.
Monica: But he’s great, you know?
Jay Sean: He’s an amazing player.
Matthieu: It was a Kenny G.
Monica: He fucking Kenny G’d it in the wrong key.
Jay Sean: We didn’t even play any originals. We just played covers.
Monica: Oh yeah, there was Sonntag.
Matthieu: Well we just went on tour with our friend, Zach. His project is called Sonntag. He had a record that we all worked on. It hadn’t come out yet. It was in the process for two years. We all played on it. We all knew the songs. Monica sang a bunch on it. We were like, “We can play these songs and pretend like they’re ours.”
Monica: Well he said to me, a few times, that he wasn’t very confident in his voice, which is really silly because we love it. But he’s like, “You should sing these songs.” I said that I was having trouble writing. I knew that I wanted to write, but it wasn’t happening. He’s like, “Just use them.” So that was cool.
Matthieu: It was nice to feel like we owned it without too much on the line, you know? It was really really helpful. It was a great show. The 7 1/2 minute of “Oh Certainly” was the best thing we’ve done to date.
Monica: It was terrifying.
Matthieu: It was the best thing we’ve done!
How did the Pearl and the Beard show go?
Monica: Fucking love Pearl and the Beard.
Matthieu: It was fun!
Jay Sean: They were the best band ever.
Monica: We went and got our nails done the next day. Me, Emily & Jocelyn but we got kicked out of the nail salon because Jocelyn dropped a nail polish color. At first, because there was kinda a language barrier, we thought they were saying, “Oh no. It’s okay.” But they were really saying, “Get the fuck out of our nail salon right now.” It took a little while because we’re like, “Oh we’re so sorry! We’ll pay for it.” And it was really awkward as time went on. They were like, “We don’t have time for you!” Then we backed up slowly…”We’re going to do breakfast now…” So, besides that the show was really fun. And they’re really awesome.
Matthieu: We’re playing again with Anna [Vogelzang] in a month for a Christmas show at Gates of Heaven. We’re going to do a Christmas set. That was funny, because the Christmas show was the second show we ever played. Christmas music has been a big foundation for us.
Monica: I love Christmas!
Matthieu: I really, really don’t.
Monica: I know!
With that first question, I was wondering, ‘Did you promise her a Christmas album?’
Monica: We’re doing one this year!
Jay Sean: Alright!
Would it be originals or covers?
Monica: I don’t wanna write about any of my Christmases.
Matthieu: That’d be perfect! You should!
Monica: No, it would not! [laughs]
Matthieu: Do you see what’s going on here? Monica has these incredible perspectives on things. Clearly she’s had some traumatic Christmas experiences. Who doesn’t want to hear about that!? Who doesn’t have a traumatic Christmas experience? Because everyone’s going home to see their stepparents and wants to kill everybody. That’s how it is! That’s how everyone’s life is. Slightly more fucked up, therefore slightly more interesting.
Monica: But Christmas music was a good escape…
Matthieu: Yeah, Mariah Carey!
Monica: I love Mariah Carey!
So Phox is kinda the psychiatrist aspect for Monica?
Monica: Yeah, pretty much. I can’t afford a regular one these days.
What goes into your songwriting process since the music is so full of textures?
Monica: I don’t think I can take any credit for the different textures. But usually a melody will form at some point. If I hear something in my head, I’ll have to make sure that I put it into my phone or call Matt’s voice mail and leave it there. There’s a melody associated with a feeling, then I’ll have lines associated with a feeling and I’ll attach them later. I don’t know anything about instruments for the most part. I can kinda pull ukelele. They just do awesome things around it.
Matthieu: I guess our motto has always been: Have fun. Which is dorky or whatever. So Monica comes up with a thing and we come up with the most bonehead progression that you can come up with.
Cheston/Cheydaddy: Kids, are you having fun?
Matthieu: Kids! I’m gonna turn this car around! [laughs] Yeah, every time we’ve written stuff we’ve gone through the process of improvising while recording. That is really dangerous because Davey, our engineer, will improvise something and be like, “Wasn’t that funny? I was totally kidding!” And he’ll just use it and it’ll become part of the song. It’s always been never doing something just because you feel it should be done traditionally. We’ve also switched instruments a lot. Che plays bass now, and he didn’t always. It’s mostly just a process of improvising and culling the ideas that seem to conflict with one another. And trying to offend each other.
[Enter Matteo:] I fell asleep on the kitchen floor while making coffee.
Speaking of random things, is that what happened with “Garden of Night” with the electronic stuff just happening?
Cheston: That’s just Dave being a troll.
Matthieu: Dave was losing his cool. He lost his mind while recording. We’re procrastinators and are always at the last minute. 10 days to do 10 songs, which is just rude for someone who has to do technical stuff. He mixed and mastered it, which was probably a bad idea anyway but we also gave him this stupid timeline. So near the end of it, he was sleeping for an hour or two a day.
Monica: He went so cray.
Matthieu: He just loses some ability to conceptualize reality. He just does things like that, which he thinks are funny. We think he’s doing it is simulating the way his computer responds to having so many files or tracks playing. So he’ll say, “This is what it sounds like. And even though I exported it, it sounds normal. This is how it sounds when I’m working on it.” So it’s his projection of his world, which is all broken up by 1s and 0s. He can see everything how Neo sees it. But that was a Sonntag song. That’s the song that’s been a staple because we’ve had a hard time getting into a set. We’ve been opening for that for the past six months just to get jazzed. When it’s something that’s not your thing, it’s been easier for us to feel free and not nervous. Feelings of hesitation can ruin a set.
If they don’t like it, it’s not our song…
Matthieu: Right! We are so free with it because it was a joke to us. When we were working on our first set…well we practice once per show, but we practiced for two months for our very first show. Every day. Monica would drive drive from Madison to Baraboo to record and play music all night. We changed it into a lounge song out of insanity. So ever since then, we’ve just been making fun of the song since it’s like a surf lounge jam to us. It’s a way for us to view music as a joke as opposed to being serious.
What’s the story behind “Laura”?
Matthieu: It’s about my friend Laura.
Monica: It’s about every girl that has ever dated.
Matthieu: They’re all named Laura. Everyone who’s ever named Laura thinks it’s about them. They’re like, “Oh, you’ve wrote a song about me.” Actually, 2013, World Mom Tour, features a woman named Laura.
Monica: Well, let’s see. There was a time when my mother’s behavior confused me. And it was upsetting. And I wrote a song about it. When we moved to Wisconsin, there was this doctor who would give her any medicine she wanted. There was this time when she was hyper-sedated. She would always mess up her hair. One day it was just bleached blonde just for change. I mean, we’ve done that.
Matthieu: Semi-related but that was the first song we wrote fully collaboratively with everybody’s involvement. Monica had the verse and the chorus for the first two sections. We used one of Jay Sean’s riffs.
Monica: Wasn’t it hanging for a while?
Jay Sean: Maybe for a year.
Matthieu: When it came together was when we tried to write a song for FAWM (February Album Writing Month). There’s a bunch of outlets where people write a song a day for the month of February. It’s really cool. So we did that. Everyone came up with separate bands. Mine was called Tetrahedonism. We all were sitting in the Wood Room plotting out the progression. Monica spontaneously started singing the bridge. Everyone started singing along. It was really nice. It was the first time we felt like we trusted each other.
Monica: A lot of it is that I do understand her now in my older age. It was weird then, “That was fucked up.” But now it’s like, “I’m fucked up…let’s hang out!” It’s not about any of the band members’ exes. I don’t think about any of you. [laughs]
Where did all the Friendship intermissions come from?
Matthieu: Again, Dave’s crazy!
Cheston: Well, we were looking to exceed expectations. We had to do 10 songs, so why not make it 20?
Matthieu: And kind of obscure it?
Matteo: I think it was partially that, plus all of our new songs were short. We were like, “Our full length album is 6 minutes longer than our EP…” [laughs] So we had four minutes of us just talking!
What about “Friendship and Cheese Curds”?
Monica: We just eat cheese curds…a lot…because we care about our health.
Matteo: A very, very common subject of discussion in this house is Culver’s. Or just cheese curds.
I was a little late because I did stop at Culver’s.
Monica: Thank you.
Cheston: You are a good man.
Matthieu: Well there’s a thing about breaded versus battered curds, which breaded curds are superior. But you don’t see them anywhere.
Cheston: Battered curds are like…you know you’re in a bar.
Monica: I like battered.
Matthieu: To each his own.
Matteo: I think I’m coming around to the battered though. The reason why is that breaded just tears my mouth apart. We buy family curds, which is not acceptable! We buy two family curds, so I eat 30 by myself. By the end of that, my mouth is bleeding. Battered curds go down so easily.
Cheston: Not enough blue cheese. I prefer the one sauce with the plastic peel top.
Jay Sean: I think most of it was when Monica would mess up while she was singing we would just say whatever.
Monica: I would free speak.
Matteo: She would say something funny or we would just make fun of her. And she would respond.
Jay Sean: That’s what we are. Those kind of peoples. [Cheston plays the track “Friendships and Movies Starring CG Owls”, “Owls and bats and trees and shit!”]
Matthieu: That’s the hit!
Jay Sean: People have seriously come up to me after listening to the album and say, “Owls and bats and trees and shit!” I’m like, “Yeaaah!! …. I didn’t say it though.” Dave was losing his mind. That was it.
Matthieu: Dave’s always done glitches and things like that. I started doing videos to those recently, which I’ll put at the end of acoustic sessions because it’s entertaining to us. He artistically exceeds our understanding when he’s joking. When he thinks something is serious, he thinks it’s acceptable. We think we do alright work. He’s done his best work off of jokes. Since he’s the last stamp on the album, he’s the voice that it’s all filtered through. It’s crucial that he had the opportunity to be free and like an idiot, and not take it seriously.
Cheston: Wasn’t that inspired by Davey doing something with the audio at the end?
Matthieu: Yea! He would do something and expect me to cut it out; make it into a cheese curd. So he was making curds, and turns out it was the best part. You throw it in and everyone’s happy.
Matteo: He has this fetish for Terry Gilliam, Monty Python-style animating. We didn’t know he was going to do this. He started laughing hysterically to the point he started crying. He showed it to Dave. Now we have a place for pure hell. [laughs]
Matthieu: It’s healthy. I was in a band that was all business. No creation after the first six months. Talk about cart before horse. We didn’t do anything but scheme about ways to sell our music. So to have an album as a way to take yourself left seriously is beyond crucial. That’s the best thing we’ve done. The funny things that we’ve done.
Now that the album’s out. What do you feel about moving forward? EPs, albums, videos?
Matthieu: Yea, for me, like I’ve said. Music is fine. It’s certainly not the only thing I’m interested in doing. The best thing about being in a band is putting all these things together. I think what we’re going to do for our next project is do a video song Take-Away Show. Multitracking in environments. I really enjoy the songs we did, but more or less the stuff we did on the album are demos. So we’re looking at Friendship as the tour album. We sold most of them. So we’re doing pay what you want. People would buy them. We would give away a dozen or twenty or more at every show just to make sure everyone got one. I want to represent those songs in a nice way with visuals attached that represent how it sounds more. Something big should be in a place that’s boomy, like a submarine. [laughs]
Matteo: They’re very cluttered.
Matthieu: In my mind, it’s a cartoon submarine.
Matteo: Septic tanks.
Matthieu: Or like a squash court! Stuff like that. Use the environment. That’s the next level. Monica’s have had a song she’s written.
Monica: Finishing up school! I’m excited to get more people over here to play.
Matteo: That has become a much more present part of our group; inviting friends and not our friends over, recording and playing with them. That’s been an important activity of our band is not necessarily working on our stuff but collaborating with artists and helping other artists. It’s been really fun.
Matthieu: They bring beer. It’s fun. We feel like there’s a lot of music here. I feel like not a lot of people know about the good stuff. Some of the really good stuff is not as well represented. I didn’t know about the other bands until we did this.
Monica: It’s good that people are coming here more and more. If we could help that at all, or make it happen in this house, it’s valuable.
Matthieu: Again, so not about music.
Aside from saying yes to the booking when you didn’t have a band yet, what’s some of the other things you’ve said yes to?
Cheston: We already have a Yemen tour planned. [laughs]
Matthieu: Dude, that’s too inside. We can’t let that out yet, that’s our reunion tour.
Cheston: And then intergalactic.
Matteo: We did sign on for that. We want to be the first band to play on Mars.
That robot is pretty lonely out there.
Matthieu: It needs some music to jam to!
Monica: I think we’re playing a burlesque show.
Jay Sean: We are?
Monica: In Milwaukee. I think we have to dress sexy for that.
Cheston: Costume is one of the biggest hot topics the day of the show.
Matteo: That is true.
Matthieu: We do run around.
Monica: We do have a costume closet.
Matthieu: You remember when you made matching bow ties for all of us and we didn’t wear them?
Cheston: I do!
Monica: The day of the show. I used extra fabric from the shirt I altered. I was like, “Let’s do this!” I was rushing and bleeding…not really.
Matthieu: We left them, just sitting there.
Jay Sean: I still have mine!
Matthieu: I saw it in your room yesterday. You cleaned your room.
Jay Sean: I did! I did clean my room. I gotta do something, besides playing video games. Now I set a goal before playing video games.
Matteo: I heard you going at it for a few hours.
Monica: And then he cleaned his room…[laughs]
Matteo: Saying yes to the fall tour was probably the craziest thing we’ve ever done.
Matthieu: We learned four bands worth of material in two days. It’s just hard to say no to people. It feels mean.
Monica: You’re being a meanie!
Matthieu: I said yes to this goofy interview one time.
Cheston: We said yes to a house show.
Jay Sean: We don’t really say no to anything. That’s the problem. Nothing’s crazy anymore because we just never say no. If we do, it’s just to something really silly.
Monica: But it just makes sense.
Jay Sean: Like, do you want milk on your pancakes? “Uh, no.” [laughs] Makes me want pancakes now.
Cheston: I like where this is going!