Rob Mair discusses the unwavering intentionality of Foxing’s fourth record, Draw Down the Moon
by Rob Mair
Intentionality. It’s a word Foxing’s Conor Murphy keeps coming back to during our hour-long chat, but it’s a word that is fundamental to understanding Draw Down the Moon, the fourth studio album from the Missouri indie-rock group.
From the music video rollouts to online ‘rituals’ – essentially mini-games on the Draw Down the Moon microsite – there’s been a deliberateness to everything Foxing has done surrounding the album. And that’s even before you explore the concepts of the record, which look at the minutiae and intimacy of human relationships and connections in the context of the cosmic world at large.
If breakout album Nearer My God pointed at grand ideas, here, they’re writ large and flown across the sky on a banner. Nothing has been left to chance on Draw Down the Moon, making it an artistic triumph of style and substance. Foxing aren’t for passive listeners – they want to create something conceptual, confusing and challenging that takes you on a journey – and by golly, have they done it – but for its creators, such intentionality has meant deliberate world-building.
“The biggest thing about this record was that there was intentionality in everything we did – especially compared to our first two albums,” says Murphy. “On [those] albums, everything was so guessed together. It was like ‘OK, so what should we do now’ or ‘What comes after this part?’
“With Nearer My God, we had a realisation that if we go in with the intention of actually writing and structuring the song – and we were more professional with each other – then we were leaving far less to guesswork. Then, early on, we established the concept for this record, so with each song we were able to say what it was about and how we wanted that idea to be sonically conveyed.”
The overarching theme for the record came from the Adult Swim programme Joe Pera Talks With You and an episode that discussed the infidelity of Stephen Hawking, which posed the question, if the universe is so vast and infinite, does it matter if one man cheats on his wife? The flipside, says Murphy, is that if you found out you were so small and insignificant, why would you want to hurt the ones you love or who love you?
Armed with an idea, Foxing set about creating their most interesting and thematically dense record to date – intentionally, of course. Opener ‘737’ – which sees Foxing bastardise the song titles from the album to deliver a proto-running order as it reaches a thrilling, screamed finale – morphs into the group’s most direct pop song in ‘Go Down Together’ with barely a missed beat. When they talk about intentionality, Foxing – completed by Jon Hellwig and Eric Hudson – aren’t playing around, and this is a prime example of understanding exactly what they set out to do and achieving it perfectly.
Indeed, the history of ‘737’ can be traced back to Nearer My God’s ‘Grand Paradise’, as an epic that bursts into life. It isn’t necessarily a recreation of what the group has done before, but a reflection of them learning what worked on the previous record and intentionally applying those lessons to the songwriting process this time around.
Consequently, the song serves as a prelude for the rest of the record – a “tasting of the elements”, as Murphy puts it – reflected in the reciting of the track-listing as the planes that never fly (‘737’), the lightning that never strikes (‘Where the Lightning Strikes Twice’) or the dead that never speak (‘Speak With The Dead’).
Combined with the visually striking, narrative-driven videos, the whole thing has been an audio-visual treat, and again reflective of the intentionality which has underpinned the record.
“To me, just releasing a couple of videos would have been a boring, safe way to release the record,” says Murphy. “The records I really love – like when Radiohead released In Rainbows, the record came with a spectrograph, and I remember thinking about how wild it was.
“So, we wanted to do something unique and intriguing, with loads of interactive shit going on. But, because we had this idea early on, it was ‘OK, well, that’s the idea, how do we pull it off? How do we tell this story and the concept of the album with the website rituals, and all these aesthetic ideas, and how do we pull it all together?’”
Of course, part of the problem is having the ideas; the other part is financing it and doing justice to the ambition on the budget of a mid-tier band that has seen their touring revenue stream dry up during the pandemic.
Step forward an unlikely partnership with Hopeless Records, which, when combined with Foxing’s decision to set up their own label, opened the doors to such creativity, as the group knew there was sufficient backing to allow them to take the necessary risks.
Not that having such backing made pitching the idea out to the suits any easier…
“It’s a true nightmare,” laughs Murphy. “You have all these things in your head, and then the moment you start speaking… I’m the same in interviews – you have this idea and you’re explaining the concepts and the ideas and how it’s been presented, and then you have a moment when you’re saying it out loud where it’s like ‘this is ridiculous’.
“It gets a little easier when you have something to show people – ‘here’s the lyrics, here’s the artwork and so on’, but at the start I was reading about paganism and I wanted to implement the Dungeons & Dragons stuff, and there’s a sci-fi element and it’s about cosmic significance and the universe, and there’s magic and sigils and rituals.
“When I went into the pitch with Hopeless – at the time we were going to self-release – and I had this mood board, and I was like ‘OK, here’s some books which are required reading, and these are themes we’re looking at, and here’s some video games you should play. I could see on the call that they were like, ‘yeah… this is… cool, but we’re not gonna do any of it,” he laughs. “And to be fair to them, they weren’t doing the thing.”
Even though Murphy might have had lofty ideas – and ideals – there’s no question he achieved his aims. There’s a certain comparison to be made with Wild Pink’s latest opus, A Billion Little Lights. It, too, is preoccupied with humanity’s place in the universe, thinking both on grand scales of cosmology and the insignificance of life and the power held within intimate relationships in this larger picture. Appropriately enough, Foxing’s manager Joe Marro – of The Early November – has a line into both acts, meaning they had an advance listen to the New York trio’s record before it dropped earlier in the year.
Unsurprisingly, considering the similarity of themes and visions, such early access led Murphy to reflect on his own ambitions and how this translated in Draw Down The Moon, again feeding into the discussion around the artist’s intentionality and whether such aims are ever truly realised.
“I listened to their record and watched their videos, and I was so impressed,” he says. “They were really nailing what they wanted to nail. And I’m envious of that because a lot of the time I look at what we do and it feels like there’s so many ideas happening at the same time that none of them are represented. And I hope that’s not the case; I hope that our record is digestible and makes sense.”
By now, Foxing are probably fully aware that what they’ve made does make sense and its themes have resonated with the listening public. If Nearer My God opened up the act to a much wider audience than the emo-revivalist faithful that latched onto The Albatross and Dealer, then Draw Down The Moon looks set to build on the widespread acclaim and commercial success of its predecessor.
At this point – the interview is taking place just three days before the record comes out – Murphy finds himself relaxed at the possible futures awaiting Draw Down the Moon. And while he says that normally he’d be starting to feel anxious about the public and critical reception, he’s currently – oddly – in a position of calm.
“The one thing I’ve learned from writing this record is that having a core concept and a foundation on which to expand is the most rewarding and advantageous way of writing something. It has that intentionality. And when you have that intention, you have success or failure in how you implement it. So, to me, at this point, it doesn’t matter if this record is a success or failure financially or critically because I know that it’s a success in the execution.
“In terms of the lyrics and the sound, it’s met every expectation and intention that we put forward. And for me, it’s so important for that to have been successful because it alleviates the things I get anxious about. I mean, yeah, I still get anxious about that stuff, but in many ways I’ve never been as calm as I am right now, because I’m not really concerned if we get a low score on Pitchfork or it doesn’t sell enough copies. All of that stuff is less concerning to me because we achieved what we set out to achieve.”
That Draw Down The Moon was met with such a muted response from the website should come as little surprise. But, the criticism of the output – rather than the journey or the story behind it – simply reinforces Murphy’s point. The merits of music can be debated for good or ill but ultimately always come down to taste. What cannot be debated, however, is the intention behind it, and Draw Down the Moon more than fulfills the band’s original goals. There’s a Japanese proverb that goes something like ‘vision without action is daydream, action without vision is nightmare’. Through muddled trial and error, Foxing have finally hit the motherload, marrying artistic vision with audio-visual action. More often than not – and there’s no doubt Murphy and his cohorts are perfectionists when it comes to the finer details – such triumphs are etched with disappointment; ‘we could have done this better,’ or ‘it doesn’t quite match the vision in my head’. There’s no sense of heroic failure attached to Draw Down the Moon, more a job spectacularly done and an intention beautifully realised.