When you’re a member of Foxing, it often feels as if you’re throwing pearls before swine.
Here you are, Foxing guitarist Eric Hudson. It’s Spring 2018, and you’re opening for Circa Survive, trying to spread the word about your band’s wildly ambitious, upcoming third album Nearer My God. You’ve just ripped into the lightning-fast, hilariously bizarre guitar solo on “Lich Prince,” a stunning moment that finally answers the long-pondered question of what it would have sounded like if Eddie Van Halen had a Mars Volta phase.
And what do you get for trying your damndest to just fucking go for it in an underground rock scene wherein just fucking going for it just isn’t really the vibe anymore? Non-stop disrespect.
“There was a super fan of that band in the front row, and I remember looking down right after the solo was over and he literally, sorry if this is inappropriate, made a jacking off motion at me,” says Hudson, recreating the self-stimulation gesture while Zooming in from St. Louis. “And then he looked at his friends and was like, ‘this fucking guy.'”
But it’s okay, though. Hudson knows full well what sort of band he’s in. “Guitar solos in this day and age, especially with the way that I play them, don’t sound super modern in a lot of ways, which I like,” he says with a shrug that makes his long, golden hair slightly bounce. “I think our band really likes making decisions that are bold and polarizing.”
That’s why even though Nearer My God was only a month out from its fall 2018 release, Foxing frontman (and occasional trumpet player) Conor Murphy got to work on “Beacons,” a palpitating dance-pop song that’s the polar opposite of “Lich Prince,” but just as bold for reasons we’ll get to later.
Even before Nearer My God was released, Murphy was restless. Sporting the caterpillar-like mustache and oversized normcore sunglasses that have become his signature look, he remembers over a separate Zoom that “I was desperate to write something,” months before the album was officially released. Eventually, Foxing got to work on their fourth album, but then COVID-19 hit. “So the majority of this was really written and recorded in quarantine,” Murphy says. “Which was unbelievably hard to do.”
But the hard work was worth it.
Produced by Hudson (he watched a lot of YouTube videos by Converge member and heavy metal producer Kurt Ballou to learn pointers) with additional production work from friends and tourmates Manchester Orchestra and mixing from John Congleton (St. Vincent/Cloud Nothings), Draw Down The Moon is the boldest Foxing album yet, proving that you can do epic on a budget with enough work. Depending on how fans and onlookers cotton to a collection of vision-quest post-rock, sex-positive prog-rock disco and explorations of inescapable cycles of generational poverty that are available both as delicate acoustic ballads and indie pop-bangers, it could also be the most polarizing Foxing album yet.
Murphy and Hudson went to college for audio engineering, and their usual method is to “write via multitrack,” Murphy says. “We really like to be staring at the same screen and one person will go ‘can I just jump in for a second? I have an idea.'”
That obviously wasn’t an option for a while. Hudson went through different pandemic phases and tried a variety of coping mechanisms. He adopted an adorable tabby named Leroy from the Humane Society, and binge-watched multiple seasons of Vanderpump Rules. But mostly, Hudson set about trying to figure out how to make a suitably towering Foxing album in isolation, a challenge for a band that thrives on the real-time push-and-pull between its two main creative engines.
“We had to change up our workflow quite a bit, because obviously at first there was no information about COVID and what the proper safety protocol was,” Hudson says. “So we just played it really, really safe.” They exchanged song files and talked every day for months, until “it got to a point where ‘we really can’t take this any further without being in the same room.'”
Along the way, guitarist Ricky Sampson left the group to pursue a career in coding, leaving Murphy, Hudson and drummer Jon Hellwig to continue as a trio. “We spend all of our time doing this, and barely give ourselves a chance to really stop and decide if we like it or not, and I think the pandemic was for the first time we were forced to do that,” says Murphy. Sampson decided that he didn’t “actually love this, because we don’t make money at all.” But for Murphy, “it was a moment where I stopped, looked at it and said, ‘I don’t just want to do it, I want to completely hurl myself at it.’”
Not that Foxing’s commitment could ever be doubted, but the rededicated group went for it with a gusto that could occasionally get out of hand. Take the hymn-like “At Least We Found the Floor,” perhaps the most nakedly unguarded Foxing song yet. Over a strum so bashful it apologizes for disturbing you, Murphy tries to console a lover that the worst is over, before admitting that, no, actually, “it’s going to get much worse than this.” After working at their studio in St. Louis for a while, they decamped to Atlanta to work with their friends and tourmates Manchester Orchestra. “We tried so many different things with it,” says Murphy, remembering a version that starts acoustic and “comes into this orchestral swelling stuff.”
After returning to St. Louis with the intention to add horns, “we were listening back to it and said ‘the demo just has way more character. You can hear the air conditioning and you can hear my girlfriend upstairs walking around,” Murphy says. “It’s the thing that we fell in love with about the song. We just want it to be this, and don’t push it any other way.”
But sometimes the creative free-for-all can transport their music to places that even surprise them. Murphy originally envisioned the first single, “Speak With the Dead,” as a simple “vocal and organ” dirge inspired by Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar. The rest of the band appreciated the thought, but ended up hearing “the opposite of that,” Murphy says. They began running it through the Foxing Filter, and Hellwig had the idea for “sort of a Steely Dan jam section.” Other additions would eventually include: a near-ambient coda, an unhinged drum solo, a symphonic guitar swell and a part where Murphy bellows so loud it sounds as though his chest might rip open.
The result is a multi-suite, seven-minute introduction to the new era of Foxing, one that also includes backing vocals from Yoni Wolf of the art-rap group Why?, one of “the few groups” that Murphy says everyone in Foxing can agree on. It concerns the desperate feeling of wishing you could talk just one more time to those who have passed on. It’s inspired in part by Murphy’s close friend and former roommate, also a huge Why? fan.
There’s a moment in “Speak With the Dead” wherein Murphy’s voice drops to a shattered whimper, and he confesses he often dreams of hanging out with his departed friend on their porch again. Listening back to the finished song in the house they once shared together, and hearing Wolf sing his words “affected me in this wild way that I didn’t realize until it was happening.”
He’s somber for a moment over the Zoom screen, his usually jovial tone dropping down a few notches.
“It was the one hard-line thing I kept saying, that I want this to be the first song that comes out. I think it subverts the idea that you put out the catchiest thing that you have first,” he says. “I know we have fans that have lost somebody, so it’s taking a moment to take everything really seriously.
Murphy and Hudson, friends since middle school and bandmates since high school (they played in a group called Torch Light Red), recorded Foxing’s 2013 debut The Albatross at St. Louis’ Webster University, where they were studying audio engineering. The album established Foxing as a band of unabashed try hards that thought big, and one of the leading lights of what became known as The Emo Revival, a loosely affiliated wave that also included tourmates The Hotelier and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, ambitious DIY artists intent on rehabilitating the good name of emo after the fall of the Myspace era.
During a tour early in their career, Foxing and the beloved Worcester, Massachusetts band The Hotelier “were beefing pretty hard about something petty,” remembers their singer-bassist Christian Holden, “in a way that only young musicians who felt more important than they were could make happen.” Nevertheless, Holden was “always just so impressed” with their live show.
“They incorporated so many layers, tied them in fluidly, used exotic structures and melody ideas,” Holden says. “You know, emo jam band stuff. It was something that I looked at and thought, ‘I would have to work so hard to do what they are doing.’ It was nice to have that strong of a rival, like a Pokémon or something.”
The Albatross is an Emo Revival touchstone now, and the why-don’t-you-love-me anti-love ballad “Rory,” which is almost heroic in its depiction of a pathetic narrator is now considered a classic. But respect never comes easy for these guys, and not everyone was as immediately impressed as their tourmates.
“A lot of people in the emo scene all unanimously say it’s our best record. But when it came out, a lot of people shit on it. And then our second record, all those emo people hated it,” says Hudson of follow-up Dealer, a darker and knottier set of songs that delved deep into Murphy’s ingrained religious guilt (“The Magdalene” is one of the best songs ever written about worrying the Holy Spirit is watching you lose your virginity) and former bassist/co-songwriter Josh Coll’s experience in the War in Afghanistan. “Every record we’ve put out so far, it seems like a decent amount of people hate it.”
Foxing have long been associated with the emo scene, but they’ve never quite been of the emo scene as always been everywhere and nowhere, a bit emo, but a bit everything else. “In terms of DIY and emo, we never wanted to make anything or act in a way that was specifically for a genre,” says Murphy. “It did get to this exhausting thing of people saying, ‘this isn’t a very good emo album.’ Well, that’s because it isn’t an emo album.”
(For the record, Murphy is elated by the current Fifth Wave of Emo that has been beguiling certain segments of Music Twitter, as artists such as Home Is Where and Origami Angel are building a fanbase while proudly flying the flag for the once-maligned genre. “The only advice that I ever want to throw out there to people,” he says, “is it’s always going to be better to focus on the music you make, rather than the genre that people are attaching you to.”)
But a backlash would prove to be the least of their worries. They experienced both a terrifying accident and also had their trailer broken into and $30,000 worth of equipment stolen. “It’s hard not to feel cursed,” Murphy says, cocking his head to the side a bit. “But at the same time, bad luck is happening to everybody all the time.”
Coll left the group to begin a career as a filmmaker, as “you wear yourself down to the point where ‘I don’t even know if this is a good decision for me to keep doing this,'” Hudson says.
Foxing responded to their setbacks and the ever-simmering paranoia of the Trump years by adopting a perfectly reasonable approach to their next release. “We really had that mentality of, we want to make the greatest album that’s ever been made,” Hudson says. “We were very forward about that. Even though I don’t even know in the modern-day if that can be done.”
Released in 2018, Foxing’s third album Nearer My God was one of the riskier indie-adjacent albums in recent memory. Working with producer and former Death Cab for Cutie member Chris Walla, it found the band pushing anthemic moments such as “Slapstick” to new levels of grandeur without flattening the tricky arrangements, while also incorporating unexpected but welcome detours into danceable-yet-morose electropop such as “Heartbeats.” If Nearer My God didn’t exactly make them second-line Coachella performers, it at least served notice to anyone paying attention that Foxing was only interested in doing Foxing.
“With the last record, I felt like we finally settled into knowing who our die-hards are. They tell us “I’m just along for the ride and I like that you guys do what you want,” says Hudson. “Those are the people that we’re playing to mostly at this point.”
Foxing constructs their songs more akin to dance producers than a rock band, adding on layers and then stripping it all back, finding a way to make the pop elements strange and the strange elements pop and then perhaps adding a percolating atmospheric interlude along the way. It wouldn’t quite be accurate to boil it down to Murphy being the Pop Guy and Hudson the Prog Guy, but Murphy estimates that the only artists Foxing can agree belong in their collective CD wallet are Radiohead, Why?, Slipknot and Sigur Rós.
It makes perfect sense to Foxing that a band should at least try to be your everything, and maybe all at once if that’s what the song needs. They haven’t toned down their ambition for Draw Down the Moon, but this time they tried to make their disparate elements sit together a bit easier, so the rallying cry for Generation Debt “Go Down Together,” comes with an R&B swing and falsetto hook to sweeten the pill.
“The last one, I think what ambition meant for us was doing the craziest thing that we’re not sure that we can pull off, and this time around, it was ‘let’s try to make the most cohesive sounding and most maximalist thing,” says Hudson. “We tried to make songs that are very sing-a-longable, which is something that we haven’t necessarily ever concerned ourselves with in the past.”
He adds, “it’s actually very, very difficult to make music that is accessible and also not just cringe.” But even when Foxing tries to go pop (and Murphy is an avowed fan of Carly Rae Jepsen) they can’t help but also go “yes and” to the sort of choices that, well, make perfect sense to them.
The single “Where the Lightning Strikes Twice” is a thumping-if-tense disco banger inspired by the groove on Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” but Foxing ended up Foxing it by taking it an “operatic” direction that includes a majestic guitar solo a friend compared to Muse. (They’re not sure if this is a compliment.) “I think from a music theory standpoint, it doesn’t always make a lot of sense, the note choices,” says Hudson. “We were just ‘let’s make something that, truly, you’re either going to think it’s so corny and cheesy and stupid or you’re going to think it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever heard since Queen.'”
They’re fine with either reaction, as Murphy is done caring about what other people think, and is fully committed to staying true to himself. Shortly after the release of Nearer My God, he took to social media to publicly reveal his bisexuality, and he documents his struggles to move past the shame that was ingrained in him and embrace joy on “Beacons,” the most unapologetic, dance-floor ready song that Foxing has ever made. (Not that people really dance at Foxing shows, though Murphy sometimes wishes they would.)
“Growing up Catholic and going to Catholic school, there wasn’t a single out person my entire first 18 years. Getting that weight off of myself, being able to be an openly queer person, it’s a very, very important thing in my life,” Murphy says. “I thought I would be writing this is as a ‘fuck the church for making me feel this way for so long’ song. But as I was starting to get it out, it was ‘actually, I really am just so happy to be honest with myself, and the people I love. So it’s about feeling so much lighter and leaving the shameful feelings you have in the past and moving on and learning from them.”
He remembers feeling weird when he learned that Jónsi, frontman for Sigur Rós, was gay. “Again this is me in Catholic school where everybody’s pretty sure that you’re going to hell,” Murphy says. “But I was secretly looking at him as a hero.” Things got better when he went to Webster and was exposed to people across the spectrum of sexuality. And similar to many queer people of a certain age, when he looks at how much more tolerant society has become in the past decade and how queer-positive younger people are today, he’s both thrilled and occasionally struck with ‘what if’ feelings that can be difficult to reconcile.
“There’s a part of me that feels jealous of kids right now. That sounds so horrible, but I think all the time how different my life would be if I was able to date a man in high school,” he says. Fortunately, he says the response to his Twitter outing was “100% positive. Nobody took back their love. Nobody cared, for the most part. It’s something that I wish I could have told to child me.”
Murphy told Hudson and the rest of Foxing about his sexuality long before he told the rest of the world. Though supportive, Hudson had long seen his friend struggling with guilt and has noticed a change since he came out. “He seemingly found a more confident, secure version of himself,” he says. “Now that he’s publicly like ‘I don’t want to feel any pressure around me and how I’m presenting,’ I think that has freed him to live totally uninhibited.” The closeted Murphy likely wouldn’t have felt comfortable dancing with abandon in the “Heartbeats” video or wielding a sword and cape on the Draw Down the Moon album cover, or evolving his public appearance to serve “Seventies Gentlement Of Leisure” realness on the current Foxing promo pictures.
That more hopeful frame of mind extends to Draw Down the Moon, named for Margot Adler’s book of Wiccan enlightenment rituals Drawing Down the Moon. In contrast Nearer My God was named after the 19th-century hymn Nearer, My God, to Thee, a plea for salvation that may or may not have been played by the band on the Titanic, and which was included on a video that CNN founder Ted Turner insisted be played in the event of the end of the world. (The album’s title track finds a stressed-out and cash-strapped Murphy admitting “I’d sell my soul/to be America’s pool boy” thus arriving at the Himbo as a Blissful Aspirational State idea a few years early.)
“It’s this dirge that keeps echoing through time, and we wanted our album to be one of the echoes,” says Murphy. Since he didn’t feel up to trying to out-doom himself in what were already dark times, he decided to try to find some solace.
Murphy’s moment of insight came from watching the beloved Adult Swim program Joe Pera Talks With You, an oasis of calm for many in the pandemic, in which a very serene Michigan man goes on quotidian adventures and offers plainspoken insights into the mysteries of life. Murphy was particularly inspired by an episode about the infidelities of one of the world’s most renowned theoretical physicists.
Pera starts by saying,’look at Stephen Hawking’s perspective. He spends his time pondering the vastness of the universe, so how much could it matter for one man to cheat on his wife?’ It’s so insignificant, the vastness of all of it,” Murphy recounts. “And then he turns it around and goes, ‘but following that same line of thinking, if the universe is so vast, wouldn’t you find so much value in finding one person to share your love and trust with? If you found somebody who had a real connection with, why would you want to hurt them?”
In their ongoing effort to make you feel something beyond feeling everything, Foxing are now set to take on the cosmos. On Draw Down the Moon, Murphy argues that if you have no control over the larger picture, take comfort with what you can do in your tiny sliver of the universe. “We feel like everything we do is meaningless,” Murphy says, “but at the same time, it means so much in the small microcosm.” We might only be specks of dust, so learn to love the specks of dust around you. “Why not value these things?” he reasons.
Foxing are a club-level band that often play as though they’re headlining a festival and need the climactic parts to echo all the way in the back of the field. It’s harder than ever to gain a mass of people’s attention these days, and the pipeline from small label to big stagers is trickier than ever for indie bands, especially ones associated with the never particularly cool emo tag. But, as ever, Foxing will try their hardest. Draw Down the Moon will be released via their new label Grand Paradise in collaboration with Hopeless Records, and it’s being promoted via an online quest game (this band is all very big into Dungeons and Dragons) in which fans solve an Ouija board-esque puzzles to solve to unlock a “ritual” which leads to sneak peeks at new songs.
“We always knew this band was going to have to carve their own path. Even in the emo revival scene of 2013, they were an outlier,” says Joseph Marro, Foxing’s manager. “With every new release, it seems we lose some people who were fans of the first record or two while acquiring new fans who weren’t even aware of those, which means we are reaching new ears little by little.”
The band’s artistic growth has impressed their one-time rival Holden, who insists that they’re all good these days. “I’m still not interested in the reception of Foxing, because I don’t trust many to see what I see that makes them not just good, but genuinely special. People could hate them and I’d still be impressed,” they say. “The fact that they can really push far past their edges on each release and also have enough success to do this full time is just the dessert.”
Murphy is happy with Draw Down the Moon, but he also admits that it’s not quite enough for him, and he’s already desperate to start writing again. “I’m so proud of it, but even with this album, there’s still something else. We haven’t reached the apex of what we do and we haven’t made our true magnum opus,” he says. “Things like getting gear stolen or a van crash or whatever the thing is, it’s a lot easier to deal with it when you feel hope or there’s something important ahead of us that we need to get to.”
Also, said next album could be the angriest, heaviest thing they’ve made yet (going “Full Slipknot” isn’t off the table), as Murphy is furious about how society squandered the “global opportunity” to come together that the pandemic offered. “We failed so miserably and politicized it,” he says, the corner of his mouth crinkling with disgust. But he still has hope, if not always for the world, then for what his band might accomplish.
That drive to prove something to the world, to keep pushing through “the dire straits and lack of money,” might be a St. Louis thing, Hudson allows. His city’s had that underdog mentality since it passed on the chance to have the first cross-country railroad, which eventually went to Chicago. “And Chicago bloomed and St. Louis didn’t.” He knows that it would be a better financial choice to keep rewriting their first album. But cowards don’t drop magnum opuses or even try to make The Greatest Album of All Time or become leading lights of a genre they’re not completely comfortable in. Foxing are eager to rush in where wiser bands fear to tread. Foolhardy? Arguably. But sometimes you have to risk looking like a fool in order to transcend.
“I think for a lot of music in general now, especially in indie rock, playing things safe is rewarded a lot more than it used to be,” he says. “Artists are already struggling to maintain any kind of profile as it is, and so the idea of taking a risk on your career to make something that could just be totally shit on and ruin your career…” He pauses for a moment. “Some of my favorite records from bands are records that I don’t even like. And I say that because, well, I like that they’re trying to do something different.
“I would rather die on the hill of doing something different and trying to grow, as opposed to putting out the same record repeatedly and just resting on our laurels,” Hudson continues. “I can say that because we are a successful band, but not financially secure in any way. So I guess hypothetically, if we did just lose it all because people hate the record that we put out, then whatever. We don’t have anything to lose. ‘Fine, I guess you hate us and we’ll stop touring and now I’ll get a job that actually pays me money.'”