‘No rock bottom, no ceiling’: Foxing nears equilibrium after a decade in emo/indie rock

Foxing (and Michigander) will open for Manchester Orchestra on March 19 at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville.

In a manner of speaking, the goal was always to play Starland Ballroom. When emo/indie band Foxing takes the stage in Sayreville on March 19, it’ll be taking another small step on the 10-year journey from Midwestern isolation to national recognition.

“The goal of the band was to leave,” says lead singer Conor Murphy. “Not to leave St. Louis, but to leave to go on tour. You have to have the drive to do it because you don’t happen to cross a touring band or a booking agent in St. Louis. No one believes in you until you do it and make them believe in you.”

Touring on the heels of their fourth studio album, 2021’s Draw Down the Moon, it’s fair to say folks believe in Foxing. After playing “crappy houses and basements, and working the DIY scene,” on their first tour, Foxing eventually did meet a manager and a booking agent, and started to tour with other bands. But the road from there to here, from then to now, has no roadmap, Murphy says, “instead, it’s like, here’s how you grind for ten years.”

How you grind, it turns out, includes overcoming getting hit by a runaway truck in Northern California, getting a broken nose at a show in Chicago and having the tour van stolen in Texas, which Murphy calls, predictably, “one of the worst moments in our band’s history.”

But part of what makes the grind sustainable is approaching the highs and lows with perspective, which Foxing explores on “At Least We Found the Floor,” a track on the new album.

“Lyrically I wrote that song about bad luck and circumstance,” explains Murphy. “Like for one of the lyrics, I wrote about a van crashing, and when you hit those really rock bottom moments, the floor could drop out at any moment and it can get worse. There’s some kind of comfort to me knowing that there is no rock bottom the same way that there is no ceiling to your happiness.”

And there have been plenty of moments of happiness, too; in fact, many have been born directly out of the bad times.

“With every one of those horrible situations, they are followed by, eventually, something really beautiful,” Murphy says. “That trailer being stolen was a really low moment and all of the gear was gone and wasn’t coming back. But we put up a GoFundMe, and a lot of people shared it and we eventually made the money back that we needed to get back on the road.”

To severely bastardize Tolstoy, every touring band that started small has its own unique, tumultuous journey. Many give in before they achieve the level of success Foxing has, and Murphy says he’s seen plenty of wonderful groups quit before their dreams are realized, particularly in St. Louis.

“The music scene is vibrant and full of amazing artists,” says Murphy. “But on the other hand it’s really, really hard for bands to leave St. Louis because the next closest city to us is Kansas City, which is four hours away. It’s hard to tour because you really have to put money into your gas tank just to get to the next closest city as opposed to the East Coast [where] you have Philly, New York, Jersey, Boston; they are all kind of right there. It’s frustrating that you have these incredible artists in St. Louis, who kind of exist, make an album, play locally, and then break up.”

An artist must have a strong will and passion to overcome those circumstances, and the natural obstacles that come with building a career in the music industry. Murphy, at least, built that foundation early, with two older musician siblings that inspired his own path in music. Both were in concert band in school and Murphy “looked to them like they were the coolest people in the world, and I wanted to do exactly what they were doing.” 

“My brother was like a decade ahead of me and still gave me the respect and friendship of a person who isn’t ten years older than you,” Murphy says. “I thought it was so cool that he would take me to movies, and he’s a phenomenal musician and getting to see him play at the bar was the coolest thing ever as a kid.” 

Murphy says his older sister, Cara, is “one of the smartest people I ever met,” who is now “the pinnacle of cool,” playing in the St. Louis band Shucks, “a punk band that loves Devo.”

All of that is backstory for the growth evident on the new album, which pushes Foxing into new musical and lyrical directions. Draw Down the Moon sounds different than the rest of Foxing’s catalog, with forays into arena rock, pop-rock and dance, but the essence of the band is retained. That was the point.

“We had a lot of intentionality with this album,” explains Murphy. “Our last album, people wrote nice things about it and we were experimenting with it and pushing our boundaries. With Draw Down the Moon, the intention early on was to write something that was fun to listen to and play. Definitely the intention the whole time was to create a vibe for every song and follow through with it and that’s where you get the songs being vastly different from each other.”

Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra helped produce Draw Down the Moon, whom Murphy says was “such a good person to work with” for myriad reasons.

“He doesn’t tell you what words to write, and instead he asks questions, which is the most important thing to do when you’re helping someone write lyrics,” Murphy says. “He also has brilliant insight when it comes to structuring songs; like, for example, we’ll have a song that’s a very standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure, and he’ll come in and say, ‘This song needs to be a linear structure; instead you have all these parts, but they are better when they don’t have a chorus to them.’”

The musical evolution is evidenced throughout the album; take the song “Go Down Together” for instance, which is poppier than what we’re used to hearing from Foxing and which tells an old story with modern relevance.

“It was this casual pop song,” says Murphy. “Lyrically it’s about the history of Bonnie and Clyde, and there’s a book called Go Down Together about the history of Bonnie and Clyde. Reading that book was an important thing for me during the pandemic. When you read the history of Bonnie and Clyde, even though they are despicable people, there’s a weird attachment you have to them as people. 

“They existed during this really bleak time in American history where no matter what you did or how smart you were or how hard you tried, how you were born and where you were born determined how your life would play out and they broke that mold. For me it was less inspired about what they did to break the mold and the song was more about the mold itself.”

Murphy was also inspired to borrow an old story for another song on the album, “Beacons.” Originally, Murphy intended to write the song about a story he read about a mafia boss, but then Murphy tailored it to make it a story about his own life. 

“I got really great advice from Eric (Hudson, guitars), and he was like, ‘This is a cool story, but it feels like it doesn’t mean anything to you.’ He gave me a challenge to write about something that has meaning to me,” says Murphy. “So I wrote it about my sexuality and coming out as bisexual, and wrote something about how freeing it feels, and to be honest and tell the truth.”

In “Beacons,” there is also a line that pays homage to Foxing’s first LP, The Albatross, and how Murphy has grown as a person and musician since its release in 2014.

“That lyric is partially a musical thing of trying to put the past behind you musically and start fresh,” says Murphy. “But more importantly the way I was writing lyrics on that first album was very guarded, depressed and defensive. I was 18 when I wrote those lyrics, but they were very much from a place of frustration and anger rather than a place of content, honesty and respect.”

Even though you will still hear people scream the lyrics to “The Medic” when played at Foxing shows, Murphy says the band is in a different spot mentally now than they were during The Albatross.

“Eric, Jon (Hellwig, drums), and I found a way to write that is healthy for us,” explains Murphy. “For a long time we were guessing our way towards everything, and only in the last two albums have we found a rhythm for being able to write cohesively and in a healthy way. The Albatross for example is an album that we guessed on everything that we were doing. For some people that was their favorite album, and I see some people say, ‘Why don’t you write an album like that again?’ And I’m like we literally wouldn’t know how. Everyone was guessing and yelling at each other.’’

Another event that made Foxing think about things was the ongoing pandemic, and guitarist Ricky Sampson left the band to pursue a career in coding. During the early stages of the pandemic, people thought about their relationships to their work. Murphy had those thoughts as well, but it only reinforced that he wanted a career in music. 

“The pandemic forced everyone to think, ‘Am I doing what I actually love when I’m not able to do it?’ It really makes you put a magnifying glass to what you are doing and what your career is,” says Murphy. “All it made me want to do was to play music more, and realize what I missed and what I needed, which was to write, record and play music. For others, including that member of the band, it was the opposite. And I think that happened to a lot of people. Like when we booked the first tour last year finding people for merch, audio and tour managing, all of those it’s not the same people. A lot of those people said I can’t do this anymore and with the pandemic they found a different line of work and liked it better. You can’t fault anyone for something like that and it happens in every field of work.”

Murphy brings his renewed love of music to the Garden State on March 19 when Foxing opens up for Manchester Orchestra at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville. Murphy feels at home playing in New Jersey, and the band has several South Jersey ties. Foxing’s manager is from Atlantic County, and Murphy has spent a lot of time in Cherry Hill. Murphy also helped produce the latest record for Nonfiction, a band with ties to the Delaware Valley. 

“You play Philadelphia and New York so much, but getting to play Jersey feels a lot like getting to play St. Louis,” says Murphy. “New Jersey really does feel like a Midwestern state that is on the coast. We have a lot of love for Jersey, and I’m excited to go back.”

Foxing along with Michigander will be opening up for Manchester Orchestra at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville on March 19. Ticket information can be found here.