Interview

Foxing Present The Apocalypse

The St. Louis band on van crashes, bagpipes, and their ambitious new 'Nearer My God'

Foxing got hit by a runaway truck at 50 mph. They played the next night and released a Dido cover as a fundraiser for their totaled van. They had $30,000 worth of gear and merchandise stolen, an amount big enough to make the nightly news in Austin. Lead singer Conor Murphy got his nose broken by a rowdy fan days before an Audiotree session and they played it anyway, rescinding their request for a substitute on trumpet. They lost a founding member to NYU’s Tisch School of Arts, and he spent a recent weekend directing videos for Foxing’s next two singles. The quintet relived their darkest secrets night after night for the better part of four years and wrote a song about it that they never play live. Even Murphy going solo couldn’t break Foxing.

Upon the release of their 2013 debut The Albatross, Murphy said, “Foxing is a band. Someday we won’t be a band.” He was 21 years old at the time, and Foxing were primarily viewed as an emo band. Odds were his prediction would come true sooner rather than later because breaking up is what happens to emo bands when they decide they can’t get along or play to five people or eat Cup o’ Noodles for the next two years. Foxing survived all of that, and yet it was the bagpipes that nearly did them in.

They started as a joke: Inspired by a Vampire Weekend song he can’t remember that doesn’t even have bagpipes, Murphy still thought they’d make a good melodic counterpoint to the second verse of “Bastardizer,” a “Heroes”-meets-Transatlanticism starburst from Foxing’s astonishing new album Nearer My God. The band strongly objected until Murphy offered to pay out of pocket if it didn’t make the final cut.

Mind you, these are guys who are trying to scrape together every last cent for electric and car bills after turning 26 and getting kicked off their parents’ health insurance. But after finding a Great Highland bagpiper in St. Louis that otherwise specialized in funerals, they learned the instrument can only play in one key, and it’s not the one “Bastardizer” is in. “I don’t think I threw anything, but I definitely yelled a couple of times,” recalls producer Chris Walla, the former Death Cab For Cutie guitarist whose even keel belies his previous band’s reputation. “We traded more text messages about how to best capture the bagpipes and deliver them than any other element of the record.”

That’s how Nearer My God rolls. It’s an album willing to put everything on the line — Foxing’s time, their money, their friendships, their sanity, their fanbase — to get everything in its right place. “We tried to bite off more than we can chew on everything,” Murphy says, and this is from a band whose last album contained full-on string interludes, lyrics drawn directly from former bassist Coll’s service in Afghanistan, and an 11-minute video for “Night Channels,” directed and written by Coll and starring Murphy in a bisexual love triangle. “We knew that’s what we were doing. We want this to be bigger than we were capable of, especially when we knew Chris would be involved with it.”

At the very least, Foxing’s brush with death served as a catalyst for the working relationship between the band and Walla. He reached out to them after the accident, offering any kind of professional or emotional support at his disposal, and the partnership developed into a cover of Dido’s “White Flag.” Any income from the song was initially intended for repairs, but November 8, 2016 came soon after, and the band donated extra proceeds to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

As the conversation furthered, Walla foresaw a “massive sorting process” amidst the rough sketches and demos put together by guitarist/co-producer Eric Hudson, but also, “something so beautiful and heartbreaking and I couldn’t articulate it exactly.” Hudson admits, “We love each other, but we’re at war in terms of differing opinions and tastes,” echoing the headline of an interview from 2014: “Foxing Can’t Agree on Anything.” But with Walla’s supervision and guidance, Murphy beams, “One hard thing that we’ve gotten completely used to only on this record is trusting each other and respecting each other’s opinions on things.”

Nearer My God is an indie rock band making a record that aspires to be something far bigger than ’80s or ’90s nostalgia. The festival-ready stomp of “Grand Paradise” is Foxing’s answer to “Airbag,” “Zebra,” or M83’s “Intro,” the leadoff track that doesn’t “level up” so much as shout that an already great band is playing a completely different game. While the title track and “Bastardizer” are laser-lit, howl-and-point anthems that could conceivably elevate them to the status of alt-emo festival staples like Manchester Orchestra, Circa Survive, and pre-downfall Brand New — all of whom they’ve opened for — there’s not much contemporary comparison to the nine-minute ambient odyssey “Five Cups” or the IDM-goes-post-hardcore frenzy of “Gameshark” or “Heartbeats” merging swirling house rhythms with atmospheric post-rock guitars.

Foxing have accessed all of the compositional chops and technological curiosity of their previous albums of cathartic emo and transmuted it into art-rock for the masses, spiritually reminiscent of Radiohead and TV On The Radio. It’s fucking wild. It barely resembles the keening, raw confessionals of The Albatross and Dealer. And given the history of bands of their ilk making power moves like this, there’s no guarantee it will find its audience. “With this record, it’s the first time where it feels like this shit is worth it,” Murphy states with typical bluntness. “This is, ‘I don’t care if we get into a van crash every day,’ because this record means something to us.”

STEREOGUM: With everyone contributing to the lyrics and arrangements, how much consensus does there have to be before you can move on to the next thing?

CONOR MURPHY: It’s gotta be pretty damn unanimous. When it comes to lyrics, it’s an open door policy — I’ll write the majority, but I’m not gonna put my foot down if anyone says, “I don’t like that lyric” or “I think that’s going too far.” Everyone definitely wrote some rhythmic aspect of the record. We’re all playing each other’s instruments, and this is the first record where I really felt comfortable with Eric getting in on lyric writing and also singing. Which is huge. He doesn’t sing much, but the next record will have Eric singing and writing more just because of how good it sounds.

STEREOGUM: Were there any deadlocks that you thought could never be broken?

MURPHY: The only thing that I was really fighting for is “Heartbeats.” I don’t even think I won the argument, it just resolved in a way I’m super happy with. The beat is the most divisive thing in the world to anyone who was writing it or putting their hands on the production. If you ask anyone to count it, nobody can. At a certain point, I gave up and said, “Yeah, you guys can do it,” and it ended up being the way that I wanted it.

ERIC HUDSON: A lot of the fight for me was getting everyone in the band to care about things that were demos and not fleshed out enough for it to be totally understood. A lot of time I’d come with the demo and know what it could be in my head, but it’s hard to say, “Here’s what I’m thinking, Ricky, with your guitar part, it could be more hazy, or you add the weirdness.” With “Bastardizer,” I originally wrote it thinking it wouldn’t be a Foxing song, then Conor took it and did some things with it so it became Foxing’s. With the last part that I sing on, there was a dispute whether it should be there, and it was the only time in our band’s history when I’ve been like, “This really means something to me and I need this to be here and if it’s not there, then I’d like for it to not be a song.” When I think about it now, it’s a very severe approach. I asked out of a place of feeling threatened. But now that it’s over, I’m glad that it stayed because it adds the payoff to the song.

MURPHY: I felt like for the most part, everyone was pretty supportive. There’s definitely a ton of spots where I needed people’s help. I’m a self-conscious person creatively, so there’s definitely “just tell me it’s good” moments. Chris was a huge help on lyrics. There was a total block on some that needed him there. [to Chris] I’m sure you had a process that you used on me, but he let himself be a catalyst on those songs rather than him being, “Here’s a verse that I wrote for you.” It’s more, “Why is that going to be the line here?” Especially on “Crown Candy,” that was a huge one. We completely rewrote the song when I went to Montreal.

STEREOGUM: Chris, how do you decide as a producer when to step into the songwriting process with a band?

CHRIS WALLA: We started talking about the record [in October 2016] and I did a version of what I always do with bands that I’m fond of, which is, “I’m on your team and I’m here for questions if you want help.” I started getting into it with Eric — the demos were very far along when I jumped in. And I started to get a sense of Eric having a little “Oh my god, please help me — I don’t know what to do with this stuff” kind of vibe. I’m not mischaracterizing, am I?

HUDSON: That would be accurate.

WALLA: The emotional core was so cool and so clear and so much of it already felt like it was there. I was pushing to keep a lot of stuff that they already done. The first rule is, “Do no harm.” I went to the mat for “Nearer My God.” It wasn’t in throwaway territory, but it was on the chopping block, and it didn’t feel like anybody was gonna fight for it. The melody was so strong, and the way the song opened up felt so good to me. I kept zeroing in on it as something that had a lot of emotional weight and felt really relatable to me.

STEREOGUM: Foxing’s developed a reputation of being a very physical and intense live act, and even fans often point out that those aspects don’t come across on the records all the time, particularly with Dealer. Is that something you were looking to challenge this time around?

HUDSON: We were definitely aware of that phenomenon, and as a band, we agree that we haven’t totally figured out how to capture our live performance on record. Our demos, even in the past, were always better than what we ended up with in the studio. Part of it is because you have a limited amount of time in a nice studio and you make snap decisions, you just track a guitar and don’t think about it and it’s over. But coming to our practice space every day for a year and a half, we were able to capture that a little bit easier.

MURPHY: We’re very, very aware. People who come to our shows and people online will say, “I know you think this band sucks but just go see them live!” It’s a balance of [feeling praised] and being offended that people don’t like the recordings as much as your live performance when you try much harder on the recording. A huge goal with this one is to limit that gap, to get it closer to, “Hey, this record is awesome and the live show is just a little bit better.” One of the biggest strategies to make it work is to not think how are we gonna make this work live. I think that’s a tendency we always have — on our last record, we thought, “How could we possibly pull this off live…well OK, let’s just take away these instruments.” But this one — there’s going to be bagpipes, and we’re not gonna bring that guy. There’s a lot of parts where we can’t do this with five or six people, so it’s a matter of replacing instruments with energy. Which is very exciting, I hope people respond to that.

STEREOGUM: A lot of the thematic imagery on Nearer My God skews apocalyptic, but there’s kind of an apocryphal feel to it — the title itself is taken from the hymn that supposedly played as the Titanic sank and also from CNN’s “TURNER DOOMSDAY VIDEO.”

MURPHY: Everyone is so aware of what’s happening in the world that it’s barely even worth writing about, and the first time Chris and I talked about lyrics, he introduced me to Devo. So what we talked about early on was the idea of writing about the feelings associated with all of that and the emotional value of that feeling. I don’t think anything really sums it up better than “Nearer My God To Thee” and that CNN doomsday tape. It’s something that really hits you, but why? The world isn’t ending. Whether it’s scary presidents or the impending nuclear doom, these things do something to us on a personal level — that’s worth writing about to me. Actually writing a bomb song is not nearly as interesting. [“Nearer My God To Thee”] is such a weird apocalyptic song that summed up everything we were talking about — not just the lyrics, but talking about the entire time we were writing the record.

STEREOGUM: Did it ever feel like Foxing itself was ending?

HUDSON: I wouldn’t say it ever got to the point where it was going to happen, but we were all feeling very, very burnt out and feeling like fate, if you believe in it, was kinda against us. We have a knack for finding ourselves in crappy situations. After doing this for three or four years, even though we’re aware that bands tour for years and years beyond that, it makes you question, “Why are you doing what you doing?” Do you love what you do? Do you still love it now after all of these things happened? Do you love it after someone in your family who you love dies while you’re on tour? We’re all just scared because we’ve never felt secure in what we’re doing and I think we almost did break up during this record, but coming out on the other side, it feels a lot more possible. It’s a lot more hopeful.

MURPHY: A huge part of that is we like our record. We like our last two records, but when so much bad shit is happening directly — and I know worse shit happens to bands all the time — but a van crash, or a trailer full of gear getting stolen, it takes another toll on you, and part of the reevaluation is, “Is all of this stuff worth it in terms of the music?” Fans of our band have this strong attachment to our music, but that shit wanes for us. We start to really give up on these songs. When you write about personal heartbreak and shit like that, it’s hard to stay proud of it. That’s why it’s the hardest to keep going. With this record, it’s the first time where it feels like this shit is worth it.

STEREOGUM: Chris, did you see any of your own past experiences reflected in what Foxing were going through?

WALLA: So much of it is so familiar and feels salient and relevant. You start playing music because you love your friends, and you love playing music with your friends because it’s the antidote to your shitty day job or degree, and you can’t wait to jump in the van and do whatever the fuck you want plus play shows for three weeks — it’s like a vacation where you play rock music. And everybody’s motivations for why you get in the van and why you keep recording and write music, that just changes. When someone else moves to a different city, is this still worth doing? Do they still love me? Do I still love me? I’m trying to hold together a relationship, is that more important to me? And when you get six and seven years into a band and make three records, you get the sense of, “Am I doing this for the rest of my life? Am I making a living doing this? I’m really not sure if I am.” All of that stuff makes it really hard to get back to being friends, and it can feel very, very fucked up.

I recognize whatever version of that I run into with a band that’s anywhere short of 20 years of existence, I get it. It’s really fucking hard. The amount of sincerity and gratitude that I feel for and towards a band that continues to do what they’re doing, and do it in a way that’s honest because they know how to do it, is boundless. I don’t have to get in the van with Foxing and go on tour, but it’s my job to make the most emotionally resonant record that I know how to make with them. But my hope is to also help you guys try to figure out ways to continue being a band. And so much of that is valuing all of the work that would have been demos and what we would’ve scrapped completely if we did this in more of a conventional way.

STEREOGUM: So the question becomes, how does a band like Foxing become feasible in 2018? I think of bands you’ve opened for like Circa Survive and Manchester Orchestra that can play big theaters and festivals, but they started out before the streaming era.

HUDSON: It feels selfish and not proper integrity [to say this], but I would just love to support myself in a healthy way. We get by fine, but we don’t live well. I’m 26, and that’s not very old, but you get thrown off your parents’ health insurance and things go wrong with your car or you just live in a shitty apartment or with roommates your whole life. I just want to live somewhere with my girlfriend and we can go out to eat and go on a vacation together and spend quality time. I love making music, but the older I get … am I doing a disservice to myself? It’s the specter of adulthood haunting you. If I want anything from the record, I want to know it was worth all of the time that we put into it. If none of the life/financial goals are met, I want to know that it means something to people.

MURPHY: I personally don’t think that it’s possible for a band like us to be well off, just in terms of how many band members there are. With the climate of the music industry, we don’t make music that’s financially viable at all. We’re never gonna be on the radio. It’d be awesome if we got some licensing deals for movies and stuff. Our last record, what we were thinking was this: “Can we please make some money doing this?” We talk about money all the time in the band — but this one, we know we’re never going to be on the radio, we know that this is going to be indie rock for us, and it’s an uphill battle all the time. But if we know we made some kind of imprint the way bands before us did for us, especially knowing well we’re not going to be successful on a level of Radiohead or something — the real goal is making a record that means something. And it may not be this record! But that’s definitely the goal for records to come. As many more that we can make, it will always be our attempt to make our mark on music history.

HUDSON: Chris would always say something along the lines of, “FUCK YEAH, LET’S MAKE A CLASSIC FUCKING RECORD!” All caps. That’s true though! That was the goal on the record and that will be the goal going forward.

Nearer My God is out 8/10 on Triple Crown. Pre-order it here.