The indie folk band Phox officially formed on a whim in 2011 when guitarist Matt Holmen played a one-off show in Baraboo, Wisconsin. He recruited various musicians with whom he had performed in the past and who had also been involved with guitarist Zach Johnston's album, "Sonntag."
Since they had no songs of their own at the time, they played music from the "Sonntag" album, bringing in singer Monica Martin to perform vocals at the show.
And since that evening, the band's been living a charmed life — within three years of forming they've opened for bands like Blitzen Trapper and the Lumineers, and they recorded their debut album in Bon Iver's home studio in Wisconsin.
But that doesn't change the fact that this is a young band, which means they're basically living in a tour van. And since Phox consists of six members, plus a crew of two, that leads to one very cramped van.
When Martin and Johnston came by the Frame studios between weekends at Coachella, we talked to them about playing gigs at restaurants, being written up in the New York Times, and the struggles of life on the road.
What shows did you play between the two weekends of Coachella? One was at a Mexican restaurant?
Monica: We had a show booked in Santa Cruz, and then the promoter said, "You know who'd really love you guys? Please go for this — Felton, this town that's adjacent." It was a Monday and there were a lot of people there, and they were all really lovely, and it was great. [laughs]
Zach: We're not the kind of band that gets bummed out when we get to the venue and it's a restaurant. [laughs]
Monica: It ends up being pretty ramshackle no matter what we do. I'm not really the type — and I don't really think any of us are — to be like, Oh, we're in a band, we're cool. So being in an intimate space with people feels like being chummy with your friends.
Zach: Felt like being back home.
There are eight of you traveling around in a van, which is just a fact of life for a band in your position.
Monica: You get cozy.
Zach: It's strangely become home. When we first started touring and we were out for two weeks, we all felt totally nuts, like you're going camping every day in the city. But now when I'm driving in the van anywhere in America, I'm just like, Oh, this feels like home. Most of my memories are in the van. [laughs] I don't remember the shows, but I remember the van. It's cool though — I'm really happy. Bands don't always last forever, you know? You don't know how long you're going to do this, so it's really cool to do something like this while you're young and you can handle it. [laughs]
Monica: You ultimately want to have something that's more stable, I think? But when you're having a rough day and you're thinking, Whoa, I'm in a van for 12 hours today, you can just laugh and say, I'll have a house one day. But I'm in a band so I don't have income." [laughs] No, just kidding, but I will have a houseboat or a kayak one day.
When you're constantly on the road the way you are, do you have the opportunity to step back and think about a strategy, like, "Where do we want to go and how are we going to get there?"
Zach: That's not something we've ever talked about. [laughs]
You're just doing what you're doing?
Zach: Yeah, and I think there's a part of that that's been really healthy for us because we don't have a lot of expectations and we've been really fortunate. But yeah, maybe it's time to start thinking about what we want after a few years.
Monica: I certainly didn't set out to be in a band — it just sort of happened. And then Zach as well, he was making films and probably had the most promising career before this. I'm very sorry that was ruined.
Yet there's some buzz about this band, right? You've been written up in the New York Times, you were a pick of the week at Starbucks everywhere. And now you've played Coachella. So how have those things changed your lives and the life of the band?
Zach: There's such a contrast between this life on the road and then life at home, because we live in a small town called Baraboo, Wisconsin. We go home to this tiny, rural town, and you go to the local bar and do the same things, so in some ways it changes everything. But in a lot of ways it really doesn't make any difference if we're written about in the New York Times. At least it doesn't in my day-to-day life.
Was there a moment when you realized there's something here, that could be more than a lark? Did you have any expectations going in? Had either of you been in a band before?
Zach: I had in high school. Matt Holmen, our guitarist, is sort of the mastermind behind this band, and I think he has expectations, visions and ideas about what he wants to do, but we're always like, Why are we here? That's our reaction, for the most part.
Monica: We think we're fooling people, often. [laughs] But I'm starting to develop ideas or dreams within this career. Now that we're putting ourselves out there, I do want to do it very well. I dodged putting myself out there for a long time in every facet of my life because it was really scary, but now that we're out here I'm like, Oh, we could have done this better. Moving forward, I want to make sure that we all love every song on the next record, and I want people to like it. That's the goal.