The Phillip Fox Band is a hard working quartet out of Columbus, OH who are releasing their first full length album, “Heartland,” this Tuesday (September 2nd). The record is the result of twenty months of intense preparation and scrutiny by the band. The group has earned its stripes by doing what it does best, playing live on stage. So when it came time to decide on which songs would appear on “Heartland,” the band sought out the input of those who know them the most…their fans. I have had the pleasure of hearing the new record, as well as seeing the band play live. There is something about this band that Columbus, OH will not be able to contain much longer. To borrow a line from ZZ Top, this band is bad and they are about to be nationwide.
I had the opportunity to chat with the band’s namesake and lead singer, Phillip Fox. Enjoy the interview and make plans to pick up your copy of “Heartland” when it drops on September 2nd!
The Music Room: Thank you so much for taking time to talk to us. I saw your set at Buckle Up Festival and I can tell that you guys thrive on playing live on stage.
Phillip Fox: ( Laughs) We do it enough…that’s really what we love to do. We love to make records and play that music for the people. After doing 200 shows a year, you get comfortable up there.
TMR: Let’s dive right in with the new record, “Heartland,” which is getting ready to come out on September 2nd. I got to hear a preview of it and I can tell that from “Motor City Blood” to this one, you guys have really stepped it up a notch. What went into making this record?
PF: We put a lot more time into…I mean everything, from writing the songs to preparing the songs. I think at one point we had, like twenty-five tunes. We were actively gigging and we got to see how people were responding so we narrowed that down to twenty songs. We did pre-production on all of those in our practice room studio. Then we did three shows here in our home town where we let fans vote on them. We played all twenty songs and got feedback from people on which songs they liked and didn’t like and took that into consideration. So before we even went into the studio we had a really good idea of what songs were resonating with people. And then we had a really good experience recording “Motor City Blood” with Joe Viers and he was mostly engineering that record…and helping guide us. I had recorded records before, and Jonathan had recorded down in Nashville, but this is our first time kind of taking the reins from the bands perspective. We had a great working relationship with Joe. He’s really solid in our genre of music. We brought him in earlier on in the process in more of a producer standpoint. We got his feedback on which songs should be on it, how to approach them, sounds that we should be going for and what kind of pallet we wanted to use sonically. We started that process in January of 2013 and we didn’t start recording until November of 2014. There was a lot of preparation.
TMR: Tell me about the mobile studio that you guys set up and used throughout the process.
PF: We’ve got some digital interfaces and with laptops now…I mean, it’s not anything you’d want to show anybody but in terms of getting ideas down and hearing them outside of your own head and being able to dial in on certain parts…yeah. We were touring around Michigan and my folks have a place out in the country up there so we took an extra day or two and just, you know, we just set up our mics in the living room and in the dining room and just did two ten hour days where we ran through a bunch of material, recorded it, and worked the parts. We did that for maybe five or six day during that first half of 2013.
TMR: I saw that you guys did a Kickstarter campaign for the record that was really successful. That speaks pretty highly about your fan base. How did you guys manage to establish that kind of loyal fan base?
PF: The old fashioned way. Since we started The Phillip Fox band we’ve played over five hundred shows. So it’s just been picking people up one venue at a time. We really haven’t had any big breaks. We opened up for Shooter Jennings, and that was pretty good last year. Buckle Up Fest was sweet. But in terms of, “Hey, we opened up for (insert big name)” we just haven’t done a lot of that. We’ve just been grinding it out on the road in clubs, and playing county fairs. You know the ice cream festival here, and the corn city festival there…you know, that sort of stuff. That’s really it, we’ve just been gigging. Our online presence has just been mainly to give those people at the shows something to plug back into and stay connected. So when it came time for the Kickstarter, that was really our first time of reaching out to our fan base in a big way and say hey, we need something from you guys. You want this record, we want to make it happen, and if we want it to happen this year we’ve got to raise this money. They really came through for us.
TMR: As you said, you started this thing back in January of last year. Here we are and it is about ready to come out. Explain the feelings you have now that it is finally being released and is going to be consumed by listeners.
PF: To me it doesn’t feel like it is done yet because we’re still doing all of the last minute preparation to get it out and have it be successful when it comes out. Even though the record is done and we have the physicals and all that stuff, in my mind it’s like we’re finishing that 200 meters of the race. We’re turning it up intensity-wise to make sure that we finish strong. It’s funny to even hear you ask that question because in my mind it doesn’t feel like it’s done yet, even though musically its been done for a while.
TMR: Will there ever be a time when you will sit back and say “yeah, we are where we want to be”?
PF: We’ve only been a band for three and a half years, so there has never been a time when we have been able to rest on anything that we have accomplished and let things coast. What’s cool now is in the last six to eight months the band has gotten some of its own momentum. We’re getting people calling us for gigs, having fans that are hearing about us from other fans, contacting us saying hey you guys are great, how do I get a copy of the record. So, it’s not so much us having to constantly put it out there. Other people are finding out about us and coming to us, which is a really cool feeling. You know, I don’t know at what point the work lets up or stops. We’re still a baby band in a lot of respects…but put us on a stage and we can hold our own with about anybody. In terms of developing the brand of the band there’s still a long way to go.
TMR: I am in Cincinnati, OH which isn’t too far from you guys. I have to ask, why set up home base in Columbus, OH? A lot of bands feel the need to move to Nashville or L.A. Why Columbus?
PF: We asked ourselves that question when we first started the band. I originally ended up down here from Detroit because my wife was going to school at Ohio State. We met all the guys that we needed in town, everything from the band, to the people who print our T-shirts. Columbus is a really good geographical location to tour out of. There are so many markets within five hours. We’ve done our recognizance down in Nashville and met with people and played some shows. We still go down there, but we’re just not necessarily sure that we’re a Nashville band yet. We’re not very industry. We haven’t been seeking a record label. We’ve been trying to do as much of it on our own and see where we fit. Country music seems like it’s on a pretty big shift right now, and it’s shifting heavily in one direction. It’s not at all what we do. We’re not electronically based , we don’t rap, we’re not urban by any means…
TMR: Thank you!
PF: And that’s really what’s bumping down there right now. But like all cycles, that has to change at some point. It might make sense for us to move down there at some point and we’re okay with that. But for right now Columbus just makes a lot of sense to live out of and tour out of.
TMR: As a reviewer, it’s my job to describe the music, but in doing that I don’t want to place labels on a certain kind of music. That is getting much too hard to do these days. How do you describe your style of music?
PF: Country-fried rock n’ roll. Whenever we get that question and we say “country-fried rock n’ roll” it seems to pain the right picture in their mind. Some of the sound may not be close to those words, but it’s the closest thing we’ve found.
TMR: And I don’t think you have to describe it perfectly. I can’t help but think of Blackberry Smoke when I think of you guys. They do a lot of different things and you really can’t put a label on them.
PF: They have been a huge inspiration of ours, that band. Just their approach, “Look, we’re great musicians, we play great songs, we write great records, and we go out and play what we play. If you like it great, if not, fine…go listen to Luke Bryan. We don’t care. We’re going to do what we do and we’re never going to be on the radio, and that’s okay.” And they don’t need to be. Those guys have made a great career out of what they’re doing, and I’m sure they are having a blast. Bands like us aspire to do what they’ve done.
TMR: And their first few records didn’t get a lot of attention. Sure “The Whippoorwill” did, but those guys busted their asses just like you guys are doing.
PF: Yeah, I hear that a lot when we’re out on the road. We’ll have guys come up and say, “I saw Blackberry Smoke ten years ago in this same room and there were half the people here.” And it’s like okay….that gives us some hope. You have to start somewhere. I feel like most artists are like, “We started a band and then sold a million records.” I am sure that’s what record companies want you to say, but about the rest of us out here? We want you to tell the truth.
TMR: Another thing you guys really have going for you is the song writing. Sure, you have your party type songs, but then you get a song like “Cancer Can’t.” That really shows the band has some range and depth. I think that makes a huge difference between you guys and other bands out there.
PF: I’m glad that you appreciate that. That song was a big risk for us to put on the record for that reason. Topically it steps way outside of the country, and particularly the rock genre. I mean, nobody wants to sing songs about cancer. And musically it’s way poppier than anything we’ve done. But we felt it was a great song. It’s a true story, I wrote it for my wife when she was going through her cancer battle. We just decided, screw it. We really love this song, and have seen it touch more people more than any song we’ve probably written. We wanted to put it on the record, so we did. I hope people take that perspective, that it’s a depth thing and not just a stepping way outside in left field.
TMR: I have been asking questions based on what I know of the band. In closing, is there anything you want to say, or to let people know about The Phillip Fox Band?
PF: Personally, I just want them to listen to the music. If they hear the tunes and like what they hear then that’s what we’re going for. We made a decision early on that we’re not one of those bands that you’re going to come like cause our lead singers cute or because we hang out with our fans online. We all wanted to write good music and play good music, and that’s what we do. That’s what we spend our time doing. We don’t let guys down in Nashville write our songs so that we can Snap Chat people. That’s just not us. That’s the one thing I want. Juts give a song a listen. If you like it great, if not there is so much other music out there that I’m sure there is something you will like.
TMR: I know you guys are touring regionally right now around Ohio, Michigan, and Indy. What are your plans after the record comes out?
PF: We’re doing a college conference down in Houston in the fall. I think there are close to 200 hundred colleges in that south central region, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma…a couple other states in there. That’s kind of a target area of the country for what we do. When we first started the band we went down to Texas a couple of times and were received very, very well. We’re hoping that opens up more opportunities for us to go down south. Then we’re working on some stuff in Kentucky and Tennessee. We’ve got a few cities in West Virginia that we’re looking to branch out to, but mainly we’re looking to go south and then south west.
TMR: Well, just make sure that Cincinnati is on that path down south.