The first video from Foxing’s dark, absorbing sophomore LP, Dealer, finally dropped nearly four months after the album’s release in October of last year. Bassist/co-songwriter Josh Coll wrote, co-directed, and filmed the clip for “Night Channels” and would spend countless nights post-gig in the band’s tour van editing it down to 11 minutes. The entire process of bringing it from concept to closure took nearly a year. The St. Louis quintet tends to work in grand, sweeping gestures, but upon its premiere at Pitchfork, its inherent ambitions were undercut by a dry synopsis: “the story of a love triangle led by lead singer Conor Murphy.”
The participants are revealed about a minute into the video and familiar roles seem to be established. After an intense practice session with her stern European teacher, a dancer steps outside to meet her likewise wholesome, traditionally appealing boyfriend. With all due respect to one of the most compelling live performers in indie rock, if you’ve never seen Foxing before, you could assume Murphy was a perfectly cast actor for the sidekick role: the prominent glasses, the mustache, the sweater/collared shirt combo. And, upon quick cuts to Murphy awake in the darkness, pondering his exclusion, it’s clear where this is going, playing out the plotline of “Rory,” Foxing’s heretofore signature song (the “so whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy don’t you love me back?!?!?” one).
“I didn’t want to do another thing where it’s guy pining over girl and she’s got a boyfriend and yadda yadda,” Coll bluntly states during our phone conversation. But he knew everyone would assume that was the story “Night Channels” was trying to tell. At least until the nature of the love triangle between the three is revealed. And with that, the original synopsis can be considered an act of kindness, a refusal to hint at spoilers.
Coll anticipated how it might be viewed as a twist. And how that could be a problem. For one thing, Murphy’s not an actor and hasn’t made his sexuality a matter of public record. But above all else, he didn’t want any of it to be shocking or exploitative of a sensitive issue. The sensitivity was heightened by the unflattering portrayal of the relationship between Murphy and Patrik Coyne: “What they’re doing is wrong but it’s not because of their preference; they’re lying and cheating and going behind someone’s back,” Coll explains. “They’re slithering through the video. If you go back and watch it a second time you can see tiny little nods to what was going on before it was revealed.”
As with The Albatross, Foxing kept everything in-house, relying on friends and connections. The female lead is Jessica Manker, a friend of Foxing’s soundman who majored in dance at Webster University in St. Louis and now works as a dance teacher—her way of infusing “improper” (read: modern) technique into the classicist ballet performance Coll had planned in the treatment. The third corner of the triangle, Coyne, is also a friend of a friend and the only professional actor in the video; he recently appeared on The Walking Dead. The fact that he is a professional brought unexpected hurdles for Coll and casting director Katie Keppel, as he mentions that male nudity was explicitly written out in the treatment. “People who are in the early stages of their career don’t want to participate in nude scenes if they’re getting paid very little because it can brand them as someone who’s willing to do that for nothing.”
When Coll and I connect, he admits that he’s in a strange headspace. It’s been a busy and chaotic past few days for Foxing; at a Chicago gig, a fan attacked Murphy and broke his nose the day before they were set to do an Audiotree session. The band called out for a fill-in on trumpet, ostensibly the worst instrument to play with a broken nose, but Murphy still gave it his all. “I can’t believe he did it,” Coll gushes. “Right before we started that session, he was spitting blood, his entire nasal passageway was completely blocked with blood. I don’t know how it turned out because I was in the midst of it, but if he was even at 80 percent, that’s amazing.”
They were also about to head out on the road with labelmates O’Brother and Adjy, as well as Tancred. A few days after we speak, the band announced a portion of the proceeds from the run will be donated to RAINN, the upshot of Foxing clarifying rumors that had been associated with the band prior to their formation. Though guitarist Ricky Sampson was never formally charged, allegations of sexual assault stemming from an incident when he was 17 had intermittently resurfaced throughout Foxing’s existence. Moreover, Coll included an email thread regarding the vetting process of the situation and apologized for the way he interacted with the person on the other end.
Above all else, Coll strove for transparency, not necessarily to present himself or Foxing in the most flattering light or to even convince anyone it’s a non-story, but just to give everyone enough information to come up with their own conclusions. It’s become something of a standard operating procedure; on his Tumblr, Coll answers questions like “how would Conor feel if I asked him to marry me?” and responded to a fan who accused “Rory” of being a kind of “meninist” anthem. This all springs from the same motivational force behind Dealer: “There’s a lot of shit going on with us and we weren’t really dealing with it, and this was us putting it all out there.”
Video by Josh Coll and John Komer
Noisey: What was the band’s reaction when they were first given the video treatment?
Josh Coll: Everyone in the band generally can be passive with videos, because reading what is basically a screenplay can be boring to someone who doesn’t know the formatting. But the response was really good, think even our most cynical members were extremely supportive of it and excited. I originally had two separate ideas. The first one was that the whole band would be in it, and it was the same exact story except it was an open mic night instead of karaoke. But it didn’t feel right. A lot of times in videos, bands feel like everyone needs to be in it and it feels forced. I liked the dynamic between these three people and with Conor performing it alone, I felt it was more risky in terms of the narrative.
How’d you cast the bar scenes?
That’s the bar our drummer John [Hellwig] used to work at. The older gentlemen are actual regulars, John just started contacting them and asked if they wanted to be in the video. They did really well. In the beginning, there’s another dude doing a country song and they genuinely really liked that one. And they clearly did not like our song, a lot of that reaction is fairly genuine. The song has to be played over and over until we get the shots and they were not happy about it. We were giving them free drinks just to keep them there.
Was Conor hesitant to take on the lead role in this video?
Conor is not an actor, but he’s game for something if he knows it’s going to be done properly. At first, he was a little bit uncomfortable with it—not for the obvious reasons, but because he’s acting intimately with someone with whom he’s not in a relationship. That’s something that’s really hard for people who aren’t actors, to be able to flip that switch. The biggest concern was that he didn’t want it to look like he was acting and that he was uncomfortable in the situation and that it felt unnatural. That was big for me as well—it needed to feel like these people had a history with each other. That’s a hard thing for someone who doesn’t necessarily look at things with subtext. Actors would be able to read that treatment, instill different layers and show the progression between these two characters. It was good that the other lead was an actor and he was able to make the situation a little bit more comfortable.
Has there been any blowback or accusations that their relationship was being used exploitatively?
The opposite; we’ve been contacted by a lot of people who said that they were extremely touched and it felt genuine. For me, it was using a traditional narrative and taking a route that wouldn’t want to be so cliche. There’s so much depth to the situation that can be added with just a small changing of the dynamic between three characters. [This kind of relationship] is something that happens, it happens a lot.
It seems that a lot of the more prominent bands in your scene have become much more forthright in deconstructing the stereotype of it being a heteronormative, “sad guy pines over girl” genre. Do you feel like there’s shared values in that regard?
We’ve toured with the Hotelier and the World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, they’re the bands that are driving the scene forward. They have their ear to the ground, they understand the cultural shift as to where we’re headed as a society, they’re open to speak their mind about those things. To a tiny degree, we’re more reserved in terms of using our band as a vehicle for politics. We’re drawing from our own experiences and it’s hard for us to feel like we’re representing anybody. “Indica” [a song from Dealer written about Coll’s military service in Afghanistan] represents my experience and I know from being a part of that experience that it represents others who’ve gone through that.
Despite its subject matter, it doesn’t strike me as being an overtly “political” song.
That song to me is not an anti-war song, it’s not a rallying cry. It’s about my conflict and my experience from when I was coming back [from Afghanistan] when everything came to a head. Those feelings of paranoia, depression, and suicidal thoughts based on what I had seen and been a part of. In that regard, it is political. It’s hard for people who are part of those organizations to be willing to discuss how broken they are. That’s perceived weakness and, especially in that world, it makes you seen as a pariah. You get cut off really quickly because people don’t want to admit they’re scared. A lot of people don’t understand the scope of what we’re talking about on [Dealer] and that’s not a slight to anyone who listens to it. But that song in particular and a couple of others are very, very deeply rooted in some really, really hard things. It’s disheartening when someone just wants to hear “Rory” because that’s the saddest song in the world or something. You start to feel a little disconnected from what vulnerability actually is.
A prominent thread on Dealer is the desire to move on from the sort of “male heartbreak” lyrics that typified songs like “Rory” and “The Medic,” did you feel like this video offered another opportunity for that?
With Dealer, lyrically, I really had no interest in heartbreak songs or anything like that. After years of touring and singing the same songs and having these songs misinterpreted and having people tell us what those songs are about, we were not feeling as connected to them in some capacity. A good majority of what I was writing about for The Albatross was subtly dealing with post-traumatic stress, but it was so bathed in metaphor that a lot of people didn’t see it. We just didn’t talk about it. By Dealer, we lost family members when we were on tour and weren’t able to properly mourn them. Also, it was me personally coming more to terms with my own experiences, coming back home and feeling like it was OK to talk about those things. We matured as people, maybe got more jaded. We wanted to make something that was representative of what we’re actually interested in and a lot of us are interested in a little bit softer palette of music. None of us felt much of a connection with the “sad dude, bummer, girl doesn’t like me” music.
Ian Cohen is on Twitter - @en_cohen