Foxing Will Go For Broke Or Die Trying

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There’s simply not enough 7-string guitar on Draw Down The Moon. Maybe it’s the Woodstock ‘99 discourse talking, but that’s the main critique I have of Foxing’s audacious fourth album and they probably agree with me. It doesn’t take long for Eric Hudson’s favorite new toy to pop up, as opener “737” explodes like a punctured Surge can, the first time a song has ever inspired me to use “chamber pop” and “Linkin Park” in the same sentence.

The album only gets weirder from there. While Foxing would obviously prefer if Draw Down the Moon led to a widespread commercial and critical success that has mostly escaped them thus far, the trio seem oddly thrilled at the possibility of Draw Down The Moon being a complete flop. At that point, with nothing left to lose, they can finally go full nu-metal. “That’s the one that’s gonna do it for us,” drummer Jon Hellwig jokes. “We purposefully try to tank this thing and it’s gonna blow us up and then we’re fucking stuck.”

He’s joking but not really; Foxing is the most celebrated rock band St. Louis has produced since… Story Of The Year? Living Things? Gravity Kills? Still, Hellwig’s fellow line cooks barely acknowledged Foxing’s existence until they saw him dragging out an empty keg; he needed it to get the most accurate possible drum sound for their cover of Slipknot’s “Duality.” Hellwig showed them the video from their Patreon page and the response was immediate: “Fucking sick, I thought your band sucked but you guys are cool.”

This has been the most familiar beat in a Foxing profile of late — minimizing their many accomplishments over the past decade and trying to figure out how they can win over people who aren’t otherwise predisposed to liking a D&D-influenced, artsy post-emo band from the Midwest. A lot of it is admittedly due to the self-interest of artist advocacy; I know I would certainly feel less insane if more people actively championed Foxing’s 2018 album Nearer My God as one of the decade’s true, populist art-rock masterpieces, which it is. But Foxing’s following reminds me more of the online armies that emerge around cult TV shows, the ones that obsessively track Nielsen and Metacritic ratings because these quantifiable measurements play an enormous role in determining whether it actually survives.

Hudson’s Twitter tends to be a bellwether for Foxing’s internal mood on this front. Quite frequently, he’ll talk about the economic precarity that comes with being the guitarist in their scene’s one band that was stubborn and just successful enough to keep going (he prefers to call it “posting some cringe”). If the “emo revival” indeed channeled the spirit of emo’s second wave by exhuming the sounds of Cap’n Jazz and American Football, history repeated itself as the wave immediately after that one that broke big commercially: as in the early aughts, “emo” is more likely to mean “pop-punk” in 2021. Singer Conor Murphy reflects on what might have happened if scene leaders like Modern Baseball and Title Fight didn’t break up at the peak of their success: “If those bands make it, it gives credence to all of these other bands that were also adjacent,” he guesses. “They’re just gone because there was nowhere to go”; Brendan Lukens dropped out of the spotlight completely, Ned Russin attended Columbia University for creative writing and started a minimalist electro-rock project. Most notably, we’re probably not getting a fourth Hotelier album because Christian Holden found online poker to be more sustainable than a career in indie rock.

Foxing lose an average of one primary band member per album to more stable careers; bassist Josh Coll left the band in 2017 to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Guitarist Ricky Sampson learned to code and announced his departure in September 2020. I bring up a memorable, deleted tweet where Hudson wonders what numbers Draw Down The Moon would have to do for him to not just give up and get a “government job and a normie girlfriend.” The band ruminates on what might actually pass for a comfortable living — “I guess in the Midwest, maybe $47,000 with full benefits,” Hudson shrugs before negotiating against his own hypothetical: “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a minimum wage salary.” The question of what Foxing’s music is truly worth was put in sharp relief after they decided to offer Patreon subscriptions during 2020, a survival tactic in the pandemic that was still subject to the outmoded and self-defeating DIY philosophies that protest anything that gets a band paid because, you know, capitalism. “It’s so disrespectful from the fan point of view to knock something like that,” Murphy says. “You knocking these bands is just helping these giant commercial bands, by eliminating all of their small competition.”

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that Foxing is pretty fucking popular; not that it’s a perfect metric by any means, but their 375,000 monthly Spotify followers are triple that of, say, Iceage. While they still hold out hope for getting signed by 4AD or getting any kind of late-night appearances, Murphy admits, “Those bands might be looking at artists like us and thinking, ‘we’re critical darlings and we’re on Pitchfork Fest and stuff but people aren’t really coming to our shows in droves.” Hudson agrees that Foxing are in a rarefied place, an actual “middle class” band in an increasingly stratified business. Still, “I think the bar for being fortunate is so low. It’s really fucked up that I’m supposed to feel lucky for this.”

Foxing have addressed this issue with unusual candor and frequency throughout their existence. “Where The Lightning Strikes Twice” was technically the third single released from Draw Down The Moon and the one that accompanied the record’s actual announcement: the band imagined it as their take on Queen’s star-spangled prog-pop, though I can also hear the Reno to The Killers’ Las Vegas. “With everything we gave it / It’s hard not to be devastated” Murphy sings over a galloping, indie-disco beat, a metacommentary on the Sisyphean nature of being a middle-class band, one that generates just enough success to make a day job impossible but never provides any real stability. “I twisted both my ankles on a rain dance / Here on the hill I wanna die on.”

Unrequited affection presented itself more blatantly on “The Medic” and “Rory,” Foxing’s most popular songs and the tentpoles for their 2013 debut The Albatross. That album is full of convulsive and ornate emo that rendered its title all too literal in the ensuing years. “I asked my 15 year old brother what his favorite Foxing album is. He told me he didn’t know any of them besides ‘the one with the dogs on it,” Hudson tweeted; whether or not this is true, the joke is in how it’s a pretty common opinion. Emo diehards and, infamously, Anthony Fantano rejected 2015’s Dealer, a muted, gorgeous record stocked with lyrics covering Catholic guilt and former member Coll’s military experience in Afghanistan but very little guitar tapping or Murphy screaming “SO WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME BACK.” Even beyond the potentially crippling financial and physical setbacks they experienced on the road — getting $30,000 worth of gear stolen, a catastrophic van incident, Murphy getting his nose broken before an Audiotree session — the reverent reputation surrounding Foxing’s powerful live show ended up turning into a backhanded compliment: “why don’t you sound like that on your albums?”

These frustrations culminated in the title track of Nearer My God, an album otherwise magnetically tuned into 2018’s zeitgeist of post-Blonde sonics and political doomsaying. “Does anybody want me at all?,” Murphy belts on an actual arena-rock song that was destined for the scrap heap until producer Chris Walla talked them out of it. He immediately heard the resonance in the song’s message, an artist hitting a crisis of confidence, wishing they could sell out if anyone was buying. While Nearer My God inspired occasionally feverish reviews and crashed a handful of year-end lists, none of it felt commensurate with its accomplishments. Foxing overtly aspired to make a classic, something that could hang with Radiohead, TV On The Radio, Wolf Parade, and the other “Pitchfork cred bands” they loved in their teens. Not coincidentally, I found the most receptive audience were my 30-something friends who used to write for music blogs in college, but it wasn’t one they attracted en masse.

From that angle, Draw Down The Moon can appear to be Foxing’s answer to Future Islands’ Singles or Bleed American or Manchester Orchestra’s A Black Mile To The Surface, recent examples of perpetual underdogs betting on the most direct version of themselves. It’s easily the most streamlined Foxing album to date, using “Nearer My God,” the convoluted trance-pop of “Heartbeats,” and Murphy’s underappreciated Smidley album as starting points for songs that favor immediacy and repetition. Simple doesn’t come naturally to Foxing; Murphy proudly states that their manager sees them as “a band that confidently goes against better judgment on everything that they do,” and a brain trust of Big Indie megaproducer John Congleton and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull helped them hone their most unruly ideas into compact pop songs.

Fans who completed the third “ritual” in Draw Down The Moon’s vast and complex multimedia rollout got to hear an 8-bit rendering of “Go Down Together,” which isn’t that far off from the original version that Murphy submitted to the band. In his new role as in-house producer, Hudson rejected the “Game Boy music” synths and tweaked them into something more sleek and modern. He got as good as he gave; Hudson’s original composition of “Bialystok” was a “drawn-out trance-house song that meandered a lot and didn’t make a ton of sense,” before Hull helped the band shape it into a bona fide glowstick-waver. Before “Speak With The Dead” became Draw Down The Moon’s Lazer Floyd closer, Murphy envisioned a solo organ/vocal piece as an homage to Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar soundtrack.

The lyric writing process was newly collaborative as well. When Murphy first brought “Beacons” to the band, it was a cautionary tale of ambition inspired by The Prince and John Franzese, Jr., the son of a mafia boss. “I was like this is the best thing I’ve ever fucking written,” Murphy jokes before Hudson asked him to reconsider, in his typically brusque manner. “Dude, I don’t read. I wanna know what you’re talking about.” The version you hear now is an ecstatic discovery of sexuality after years of being bludgeoned by the Catholic church.

It all superficially appears to be a textbook approach to making an indie-pop crossover record: put the hooks to the front, emphasize a newly positive outlook on life, play up the Carly Rae Jepsen influence. And yet, I’d call Draw Down The Moon the most polarizing pivot to pop I can think of in recent memory. The album confirms what the singles promised, that Foxing go headlong into an era of hypercaffeinated, day-glow major-label indie rock that began with MGMT, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and Passion Pit and served as a gateway towards proper indie, or at least the soundtrack to drunken, youthful indiscretions. Hellwig remembers the “Young Party Jon” of 2009, the guy who spent his early 20s listening to Young Money singles, guzzling Sparks with a “Lemmy chops-to-mustache thing going on.” The trio laugh hysterically upon recalling his “Lil Sleepy” alter ego. “I was a fucking mess dude,” Hellwig monotones.

Hudson and Murphy also admit they weren’t finished products at the time; the duo has known each other since the age of 12, bonding over memorably awful MySpace bands like Kill Hannah before older siblings put them onto Explosions In The Sky, Radiohead, and Anathallo. They’re the target audience for Just Like Heaven festival, guys shaped by the rise of late aughts indie and not-so-secretly longing for a time when tastes shifted entirely on the whims of Panda Bear and Bradford Cox. It’s a tricky form of nostalgia; without fail, you could get 10,000 RTs for saying something like “lolz, blogs tricked us into liking Animal Collective,” suggesting that bands of that ilk were hyped up at the expense of the actual pop acts.“‘My Girls’ was a hit but compared to an actual hit,” Murphy trails off, resigned to the present day where bands like Foxing feel like they’re directly competing with the biggest artists on the planet for resources.

Also, “indie” would eventually become the new alt-rock, “My Girls” and “Stillness Is The Move” and “Sleepyhead” and “1901” opening the door for a bunch of critical whipping boys that still feel like shorthand for entire swaths of festival-friendly, sync-ready, Spotify playlist stuffers loathed by tastemakers if they’re acknowledged at all. The reaction to “Draw Down The Moon” and “Go Down Together” has typically been something along the lines of “this kinda sounds like KROQ music,” and the real question is whether that’s supposed to be a good thing. I think about the times I’ve heard Phillip Phillips’ “Home” in Sprouts and thought, “kind of a banger,” before Googling the lyrics and realizing it’s Phillip Phillips and questioning my own taste. The same thing when I’ve found myself intrigued by “Alligator” or “Visitor” over the gym PA and then discovering, “wait, that’s what Of Monsters And Men sound like?” Or when I somehow catch myself yelling “Hang Me Out To Dry” in the shower despite not having voluntarily listened to that song in over a decade.

These songs aren’t too far off from “Bialystok” or the howl-at-the-moon power ballad “Cold Blooded,” which I could easily hear belting from a distant festival soundsystem or a supermarket or a period film set in 2011. All of which raises an existential quandary: do I love these songs solely because Foxing made them? And does this mean myself and many others were unduly critical of, say, Foster The People or Cold War Kids or Grouplove because they didn’t come from the emo revival?

Maybe a little of both or neither at all; at no point during Draw Down The Moon is there a question of who I’m listening to. Murphy’s voice remains as unhinged and expressive as ever; I’m starting to see Passion Pit brought up more frequently as a comparative point for newer bands, and what I never get is the same sense of desperation and panic that went into Michael Angelakos’ best work. “Beacons” sounds like Passion Pit but it also sounds like Foxing landing a tailspinning plane while the controls malfunction. “Go Down Together” could soundtrack an iPod commercial or a late-night crisis about your student loans becoming due again. Hudson’s first full-on production job is raw and unorthodox; the final choruses of “Draw Down The Moon” and “Cold Blooded” hit with the impact of hardcore, appropriate since he took pointers from Kurt Ballou YouTubes.

Still, Draw Down The Moon sometimes feels both 10 years behind and ahead of its time. While we have enough distance from Sublime and Limp Bizkit to reassess their merit, Foxing anticipate a future where Foster The People, Cold War Kids, and Portugal. The Man are reclaimed the same way Goo Goo Dolls, Gin Blossoms, and Third Eye Blind are now deemed staple influences of indie rock. To that point, their manager Joseph Marro tweeted that if Draw Down The Moon had been released in 2012, “I’d be fucking rich.”

The irony is not lost on Foxing; Marro was previously in The Early November and Hellogoodbye, bands that thrived in a pre-streaming era without having to court the kind of press coverage or festival circuit on which Foxing feel dependent. “It’s so depressing when he talks to us about how easy it was with bands getting bought up so quickly,” Murphy sighs before clarifying that it was easy for some bands. “There are these very accessible parts of the industry where tons of money is getting thrown out and they’re making fuckloads of money off CDs, bands are on TV, MTV is…” and Hellwig chimes in, “music television.”

Hudson claims their label pitched the idea of them doing a TikTok dance for “Go Down Together,” which went about as well as you’d think. “I don’t really feel like being the embodiment of Steve Buscemi, how do you do fellow kids,” Hudson laughs. The fickle and irreplicable nature of virality was best demonstrated on the day Foxing dropped the title track from Draw Down The Moon. Hours after the song went live, Hudson basically tweeted the credo of Remember Some Guys – “Dudes can literally just sit around and name old sports players and just have the best time.” It went extremely viral and Hudson didn’t really seem to know what to do with it. As Keegan Bradford of the very online emo-pop 4.0 band Camp Trash pointed out, “you had the perfect opportunity to plug your band’s new album that is literally just about to come out and you plugged… Jeff Bagwell.” Hudson meekly mentioned Foxing thereafter and received a modest 700 likes. “Draw Down The Moon” has about 151,000 plays on Spotify. The tweet has about 313,000 likes.

But as they’d prefer to look at it these days, 151,000 people have listened to their song. “Early on, critics like yourself or fans of ours or especially management people would always do this thing where they’d say, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing you guys in a basement right now because you guys are gonna be an arena band,’” Murphy says. “It really did us a disservice because everything was a failure when we’re always looking at it in the context of how successful we should be.” As Murphy looks back on the collateral damage of making this record — the emotional toll of working and clashing with his bandmates remotely, the lost income and moral dilemmas of creating Patreon content, the exhaustion of a five-month rollout — he’s come to accept that his perception of Foxing’s status is much easier to change than the status itself.

On a recent episode of the First Ever Podcast with Touche Amore’s Jeremy Bolm, Murphy recalls the reception his band received at the Masquerade in Atlanta; two years earlier, I saw them in the same venue with the similarly hexed Balance And Composure, they played a ferocious show beset by countless technical difficulties. By 2018, the crowd was so loud, none of the band members could hear anything in their monitors. At that moment, he came to realize that — he says this quite literally — Foxing was at a level of success that Nirvana might’ve preferred. The title of that episode: “It’s Okay if this is as Good as it Gets.”

Draw Down The Moon is out August 6. Pre-order it here.