Indie pop Wisconsin band rocks packed house in home state
PHOX played an energetic and sold-out show in Milwaukee on August 6 at Turner Hall Ballroom. Considered “indie pop” in general terms, the band’s lead singer Monica Martin believes people will most likely enjoy the band if they “like sugared cereal.”
The band, made up of members Monica Martin, Jason Krunnfusz, Matthew Holmen, Zach Johnston, Matteo Roberts and Davey Roberts, is one of the newest additions to the world of music, but is garnering much acclaim. They were called Wisconsin’s “musical success story of 2013” by Jessica Steinhoff of Madison’s Isthmus newspaper, and have been gaining popularity over the past months.
PHOX did not start off big, however. They began as just a group of friends from Baraboo, Wisconsin, making music for fun and playing small shows in their hometown. They became known to wider audiences with their first release, a video EP titled Confetti, in early 2013. Their success only grew with exposure from a Daytrotter session, at a performance at 2013’s South by Southwest, a concert at Lollapalooza opening for Blitzen Trapper and at London’s 2013 iTunes Festival opening for The Lumineers. They also played in Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater with Duluth’s Trampled by Turtles on New Year’s Eve of 2013.
Taking with them their ever-growing fan base, PHOX released their self-titled debut album in June of 2014 to significant praise and critical acclaim. To promote the album’s release, the band embarked on their 2014 international tour, which included a visit to Milwaukee’s Turner Hall last month.
The show included two opening acts, both Wisconsin locals and friends of PHOX. The first was Milwaukee native Rae Cassidy, former member of the New York indie band San Fermin, who has spent the past four months recording her third solo album. Cassidy pumped up the crowd with her stunning vocals and exciting, dance-inducing mixes.
The second to take the stage was Eau Claire’s J.E. Sunde, a man who previously worked with his brother in an indie folk rock project called The Daredevil Christopher Wright. Sunde recently began his solo project, and with the help of friends and other Wisconsin musicians, he released his first album, Shapes That Kiss The Lips of God in early 2014.
With a sound he described as “melancholic folk,” his captivating, Donovan/Leonard Cohen-esque voice and insightful lyrics brought an indescribable energy to the show and prepped the room for PHOX. The crowd did not show their love of Sunde through loud applause and cheering like one might expect, but rather with a relatively silent fascination and appreciation.
After a short break, PHOX finally took the stage, beginning with a shaky, less than stellar “Calico Man,” in which Martin repeatedly forgot lyrics. However, her frequent smiles and witty comments quickly warmed up the room. All doubts were soon cast away as the band launched into an enthusiastic and confident “Shrinking Violets,” after which they stressed how excited they were to be back home in Wisconsin. They highlighted their first stop back in their home state, a trip to Culver’s, and said that they knew they were back in Wisconsin when they were thanked twice by the same person for holding a door open. Both comments earned laughs and shouts of amusement from the audience.
The show continued while the band played through most of the songs from the album, with a perfect balance of some of their slower tracks, such as “Leisure” and “In Due Time,” with upbeat highlights like “Slow Motion,” “1936” and “Kingfisher,” bringing most of the audience to sway, dance and sing along. Between songs, Martin and the band reminisced about their beginnings and their past shows, offered explanations behind the meaning of songs on the new album and continued to share their delight in being back home. Near the end of the set, Sunde got back on stage to join Martin to sing a beautiful, heartfelt duet of one of his new and unfinished songs, warranting cheers of delight from the audience.
Following the show, many, including myself, stayed around to meet Sunde, who was equally as warm and interesting in person. After most of the crowd had left, members of PHOX came out, and I had the pleasure of meeting (and exchanging hugs) with both Krunnfusz and Martin. I can safely say that both are as sweet in person as on stage – and are great huggers.
Music from both Rae Cassidy and J.E. Sunde is available on iTunes, along with PHOX’s self-titled album and their performance at the 2013 iTunes Festival.
by Eli Frank