Brilliance from Baraboo

. February 17, 2015.

Six friends from the small town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, former headquarters and now winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus, decide to move to the city capital, Madison, and share a house. No, this is not the opening pitch of a sitcom. It’s the beginning of the story of a Midwestern band’s breakthrough.

That band is called PHOX. The members are Jason Krunnfusz (bass/backing vocals), Monica Martin (lead vocals), Matt Holmen (guitar), Zach Johnston (banjo), Matteo Roberts (keyboard), and Dave Roberts (drums).

PHOX lived in the same house together in Madison for three years. “I would recommend it to bands who are like ‘How could we spend more time doing this?’ their guitarist Matt Holmen stated in a recent phone interview, as the band made their way to a show in Atlanta.

“You can spend much more time practicing and recording that way. That was the plan. I guess it worked.”

PHOX’s sound is described by Holmen as “eclectic folk pop.”  When asked about influences, he states, “We use Feist as a benchmark. Smart pop that has a lot of aesthetics.”

They are also inspired by fellow bands out of Wisconsin, like Dolores.

“You’re allowed to live a more ‘normal’ lifestyle in the Midwest . . . So that lends itself to a sort of casual brilliance seen in many of the bands there right now. You could go into a bar where a band is playing for like ten people and they’re the best band you’ve seen all year,” Holden said.

PHOX’s lead singer, Monica Martin, revealed her initial stage shyness in a recent interview with NPR. Despite being in a choir class, she didn’t feel comfortable singing in front of people at first.

When asked how Martin overcame this fear and came to perform as a front woman for the band, Holmen stated, “There was a period where we recorded songs for fun. She [Martin] would say ‘Hey turn your back’…and then she would start to sing.”

There is a unique and lovely vulnerability to Martin’s voice that is unlike that of most female vocalists found in indie pop today. After recording some tracks, the feedback the band received was overwhelmingly positive. People reinforced this at the shows they performed around town.

“We succeeded by not quitting, basically,” Holmen said bluntly.

Martin’s vocal style has been likened to Sade, which is more than evident on the haunting track “Calico Man,” the first track on the band’s album debut.

PHOX was recently featured in NPR’s favorite songs of 2014 for their track “Slow Motion,” and has also had their self titled album listed as a favorite album of 2014 on NPR’s Listener Picks Poll. Time Magazine also featured them as one of “9 Under the Radar Artists.”

“We’re grateful for all that,” Holmen stated. However, the band keeps perspective. “Whenever you conquer one challenge, then you have a different one. Now we can’t wait to write new material.”

When describing their live shows, Holmen explained, “There are a lot of intimate moments. The main thing is to connect with people.”

PHOX will be playing with Field Report, a fellow Wisconsin band (out of Milwaukee, WI) and Jojo Stella, a well-known local band, as part of the Live Wire series at The Clazel Theatre in Bowling Green.

“We approached this all together,” Holmen stated. “The general principle is to play a lot. And don’t say no to anything, at first.”

PHOX w/Field Report & Jojo Stella on Live Wire, 7:30pm, Thursday, February 19. $13.  The Clazel Theatre, 127 North Main St., Bowling Green.