Fear and Self-Loathing: PHOX on the Reality of Being a Buzz Band in 2014

Monica Martin is in Cleveland… she thinks. The singer for PHOX — the Wisconsin folk-pop sextet whose charming debut has garnered recent coverage in The New York Times and beyond — is in a book store, and it’s closing soon, and would I mind terribly calling her back so she can buy a book of Iranian lithographs? These days, Martin must steal time for living wherever she can.

“The funniest thing about your daily timeline as a touring band is that people have inflated ideas of what it’s like,” Martin says. “We all laugh about it. Each of us in the band has had an interaction where someone we care about has this idea that, ‘Oh, you’re coming to town, let’s go have dinner and ice cream and go to this museum! And then we can go watch your show and then afterward we can hang out!’ When really, you arrive at the venue, you soundcheck, you can’t talk to your family. You have a lot less time, and it’s not as smooth or glamorous as some people might think.”

Book acquired, Martin’s on the street outside the venue, chatting as though the words can’t come out of her mouth fast enough, when she runs into someone she recognizes from Instagram. “She’s this really awesome young girl who covers our songs and puts up 15-second clips of them,” Martin explains. “The first time I saw it I was so happy – it was really bizarre – and I’ve never seen her in the flesh, and she was just walking up the street, so I had to hug her.”

Martin and her bandmates are in an awkward corner of the spotlight. They’re signed to a tastemaking independent label, Partisan Records, which is also home to Deer Tick, Aaron Freeman (formerly of Ween), and The Dismemberment Plan. They play for hundreds of people every night on a national headlining tour, including stops at Newport Folk Fest and the iTunes Festival. They share management (Onto Entertainment) with The Lumineers, an act that’s taken PHOX’s own genre — folk-pop — to its commercial heights in recent years. Their self-titled debut album, released earlier this summer, garnered a nice chunk of buzz via NPR and its affiliates, girly mags like Nylon, and iTunes’ Single of the Week promotion.

All this is apparently enough to warrant online fan-girls, for good reason: PHOX’s music is fresh and familiar at the same time. They big-up Feist in their bio, and it’s not an inaccurate comparison. PHOX are the kind of band that can figure out how to make Queen-esque guitar asides and oboe solos (and lyrics about sucking your best friend’s dick, with disastrous results) sound perfectly tasteful, even pretty. They can get a little sing-songy, but more in ’60s pop revivalist way, à la She & Him, than Top 40. And they temper these tendencies with things like a seven-minute song in which more than half of the track is a sultry rockabilly jam session, complete with a string section.

On planet PHOX, things are happening, but there’s still a lot of upward hustling yet to come. The portrait of relatable vulnerability, Martin sums it up bitingly: “I’m not famous, we had a Starbucks Pick of the Week and now people are getting buck-wild, thinking I think I’m special — and how dare you think you’re special?

“People come out of the woodwork who never really cared about you before, and now they suddenly do, and it’s like, ‘Why? I’m the same piece of shit I was before, now I just smell worse and have less energy. And now you want to hang?'” she continues. “I’ve never been a social climber in this field, partially because I’ve dated musicians since when I was younger. Their balls smell just as bad as anyone else’s.”

The members of PHOX reside in Madison, Wisconsin, which — while not exactly a small town — is only the 83rd largest city in America (population: 240,000). Martin, formerly a hairdresser, works at a bar and venue called The Frequency when she’s not on tour with PHOX. In her opinion, the band’s initial rise had a lot to do with its members’ other media-related skills: drummer Davey Roberts is an audio engineer, guitarist Matt Holmen is a designer and a writer, and guitarist/banjo player Zach Johnston is a film director. “We had these other internal talents that, as a new band, were helpful to self-produce an EP and videos without a budget, and ultimately build media that people actually wanted to ingest,” she explains. “So often it’s word of mouth – ‘Wow, this is a cool video, I’m going to send this to my friend, they’ll love that.’ That’s how things came along in this way for us, from Zach’s videos.”

From there, Madison promoters helped the band debut in a big way at SXSW 2012, where they would eventually meet most of their current team. It was not necessarily the life Martin was looking for, however.

“You don’t want to lose your locality,” she says. “You don’t want to ever stop being someone’s barista, someone’s hairdresser, someone’s bartender. One thing that makes me feel very sad is when people – especially other musicians from Madison, or my family – talk to me like I’m doing something and they’re not doing something. There are aspects of this job that are very dreamy, but there is something very dreamy to me about being at The Frequency. Not that I’m J.Lo or something, but I was seeking stability and somehow ended up in the least stable thing ever.”

Martin is disarmingly upfront about the parts of being a semi-known musician that are not at all dreamy. There are the intra-band issues PHOX struggled with before getting a tour manager (“If one of your bandmates is the person telling you, ‘We’re leaving at 8:30 a.m., don’t be late,’ you just end up unintentionally harboring resentment towards that person”), or a producer to serve as an impartial referee. Even positive press can lead to frustration, and not because an interviewer got something wrong.

“Our manager says not to read the press,” Martin says. “I’m sure one day it’ll actually get old, but I’ve even read the comments. And the fucking internet is such a cesspool of bullshit and meanness because people are faceless. I decided to bite the bullet and listen to a NPR interview we did, which was edited enough that I didn’t sound like a complete vegetable. I don’t think it was apparent at all that I had been crying. But then someone commented, ‘Ugh, she’s a dumbass’ or something because I say ‘like’ too much. I took it to heart, which is so dumb. I’ve consistently been misunderstood, if not self-misunderstood as well, and I’ve had a hard time speaking. For a really long time, I legitimately wouldn’t look people in the eyes. Perhaps just as a general disclaimer to the world — I’m still growing.”

There are also previously unconsidered emotional side effects that have nothing to do with public reception. Martin, who is open about her struggles with depression both in conversation and her lyrics, finds herself battling constant considerations of self-preservation.

“It even gets to the point where you resent the people you care about that are there at the shows, because they also want emotional energy from you that you just don’t have,” she explains. “Your physical body is there, but your mind just can’t be. And when you try to overextend yourself and share your emotional energy, you sometimes feel like the person you love and care about becomes the face of you losing energy.”

If there is one place where you wouldn’t know Martin is battling personal demons, it’s the stage. Particularly after a drink or two, her self-aware banter works so effectively in getting you to like her, it’s almost infuriating. She has some lofty goals for her self-loathing.

“I hope we have a platform one day where I can pull out my thigh and just smash it and show everyone my varicose veins and cellulite and be like, ‘I’m fucking human. You will not make me not human with your ideas of what being in a band or being in a magazine are. I will force you to see me in dumpy cotton underwear.’ I will force that upon the nation. That’s my dream! My true dream is to become recognized enough that I can totally make the concept of recognition collapse under my own self-deprecation.”