Foxing vocalist Conor Murphy laughs when I say his band’s strange, glittery, and stunningly produced new album, Nearer My God, sounds like they went for broke. “I think we literally went for broke. We are out of money,” he jokes. Their third record is defined by a breathless, all-inclusive sort of panic. Death? The afterlife? Reckoning with shortcomings? Craving approval? Apocalyptic visions? It’s all somewhere in there.
The album is overwhelming in a way that is not unlike the experience of stocking up on travel supplies in an unfamiliar New Jersey Target, which is where Murphy is speaking from. Foxing is about to embark on a ten-day run in the UK with Pianos Become the Teeth, before fast-tracking back home and getting on the road again the following week. This should sound chaotic to any homebody, which is what Murphy considers himself—the album’s skyscraping closer “Lambert” is about being terrified of travel and the squandered happiness which comes with that feeling.
But if the massive risks on Nearer My God pay off with a fanbase that’s already hung on through some transformations, the travel won’t cease. Foxing emerged from the rickety St. Louis scene in 2013 with The Albatross, one of the so-called emo revival’s success stories. It was a bracing listen, and they only chose to pare away further on 2015’s downright haunting Dealer. Of course it would only make sense for them to blow it all up again.
Co-produced by ex-Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, Nearer My God is decidedly far from emo, and the furthest thing from quaint, risk-averse indie rock you’re likely to hear this year. Any band that reorients its reference points on every new outing should rightly be uncertain about what the results could yield, but Murphy is confident. He's nervous for how it might go over, yet confident that taking these big swings have made him and his bandmates the happiest.
If heaven is a state of mind, then Murphy’s pretty much there as we hang up the phone, taking a pause on tour-planning and interviewing. “We’re at Benihana, so now I’m gonna go in there and get some shrimp thrown at me.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Noisey: Nearer My God takes a very different direction. Did you have support from the label?
Conor Murphy: Fred [Feldman], who runs Triple Crown, is somewhere in this Target. He’s not standing next to me now or anything, but the amount of support he gave us on this thing was insane. We could tell along the process there was a lot of it that he really didn’t like when we were showing him demos. He would say things like, “Look, I know you’re not gonna listen to me anyway, but I’m nervous about the direction you’re going here in terms of people who like your band.” That was a scary thing to hear, but we just buckled down and said we’re going for it, these are the songs we want to write. If we’re trying to cater to anyone other than ourselves here, this is going to be a half-assed record, a record full of half measures. And we want to go all the way with this, we’d already put so much time into it.
From the band’s early days, one of the big talking points was impermanence. Has the project gone on longer than you initially thought it would?
Yeah, for sure. St. Louis is just a place where bands start, make a record, and then they break up. That’s just how it always goes. We never thought we’d be any different from that. And there’s so many different bands from St. Louis that are so great and break up, and you’re just like, “Oh god, why couldn’t you go on a little bit longer, just make one more?” But for us, this is the biggest surprise in the world to still be allowed to write and record records, so we’re extremely thankful for that. I think we’re kind of over the whole pessimism of it all.
What do you think it would take for you all to walk away from Foxing, happy with all you had accomplished?
I think what we’re looking for as the end is the eventuality that at some point the band runs its course—the music kind of trails off, we’re not making better records than before. We know that’s going to happen someday. I personally really fucking hope that that’s not happening with this record, ‘cause it’s only three records. But it very well could, and we want to recognize that and see when that’s happening and really see it for what it is and say, “OK, let’s call it quits, let’s go out on top.” My personal thought on it is, you wait until you’ve made two really bad records in a row, and when that happens, you’re sensing a trend, let’s pull the plug.
This album uses a bunch of realistic, dystopian language about heaven, like “shock-collared at the gates of heaven” on “Grand Paradise.” What got you thinking about it in that way?
I was raised Catholic, and then turned my back pretty fucking hard on it. But being raised in Catholic school, that stuff never leaves you even if you don’t believe in it—it really is ingrained in you. Nothing feels as scary to me as Revelations or Biblical references because they were the horror stories I was told as a child. Where you know, what hell is like and what the end of the world will be like, what sin is and where it gets you. So when it comes to telling a scary story, I think the biggest influence I have is that stuff, the Bible, because it’s the scariest book in the world to me. So the idea of heaven in all of that, is it’s kind of this breath of fresh air every once in a while, like, “Oh, at least then they throw you this bone, if you do the right thing it works out, it’s good.” I mean, my personal belief is that heaven and hell are states of mind. But being shock-collared at the gates of it is like seeing happiness right in front of you and being stopped by something, especially yourself.
And the album name draws from “Nearer My God to Thee,” which comes from the Titanic story for most of us. Do you remember the first time you saw Titanic, the movie?
Yeah, it was the scariest movie I think I’d ever seen. I was very young. There is a scene where the ship is filling with water, and there’s people that are working in the lowest part of the ship like shoveling coal into it, and water is flowing in and they’re trying to run to the door as it’s closing, and then it closes and they’re still behind it screaming and banging on the door. And I had nightmares about that forever, I was running to the door banging on it, or the opposite where I was on the other side of the door and saw them coming. Also, the first Celine Dion song I ever heard was watching that movie, which is… she’s one of my favorite artists of all time. So it’s definitely a monumental movie for me.
Who are some of the writers, in music or otherwise, that help you form phrases and bend language the way you do?
Probably my favorite writer is Mira Gonzalez, she’s so goddamn good. She’s got this book, I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough to Make Us Beautiful Together. My partner gave me that book and it’s just the most amazing thing I’ve ever read. It’s very raw and kind of makes me remember there’s not a limit to too far when it comes to talking about yourself. It’s you; you have every right to go as far as you want with everything, as long as you’re not pushing it into offending somebody else.
Another thing I was super influenced by was the Dungeons & Dragons modules. The way that those modules are written is extremely poetic and awesome, and almost always scary stuff. There’s this one my group was doing called the Curse of Strahd, and it’s supposed to be kind of a horror movie vampire thing, and definitely reading it a lot while writing this record was a good way to get into the darkness of things.
Were you ever worried about taking too much of a left turn or steering too far into arena rock territory?
We’re still very nervous and scared that people just aren’t gonna like this. We’re kind of just constantly like, “Critics aren’t gonna like it, people aren’t gonna like it, this is gonna be a flop.” But we’re saying that all while smiling because, we love it. This is all of our favorite record. It feels like it doesn’t matter who we disappoint because we’ll have another record to figure out what we’re doing. If we eat shit so bad on this record that we’re starving, we’ll just try to make something somebody likes. But for now, we really made the thing we set out to make and we’re really proud of it, so at least we have that.