by Steven Sanchez
The East Coast trio, FOXTRAX, is an indie rock band that perfectly embody what it is to be quintessential journeymen. Metaphorically and literally, their music, songs, and focus are odyssey driven to one day stand on the biggest stages and inspire a legion of fans just like the bands they grew up listening to. This band is all about inspiration, it’s what has driven them to this beginning stage of their musical careers.
They were compelled to pursue their music dreams once they were done with college. They hightailed from their home in New York to a secluded cabin into the woods of North Carolina. It was there where they thought up the name of their band, that derives from the tracks left in the snow from the foxes that became an allegory for their futur. The serene cabin served a purpose as a haven where they made music, and it became the name of their debut EP “The Cabin” released in 2016. Since then their music has traveled from one online platform to the next from iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, Ticketmaster, AXS, etc, and on the last leg of their tour their journey led them here, in Fresno, appearing at Strummer’s.
The Big Apple threesome, comprising of lead singer Ben Schneid (guitars, keys, and organs) and brothers Jared Stenz (bass) and Jon Stenz (drums), have one interesting story to tell so far, and that maybe the one thing that separates them from the rest of their genre or musical peers…storytelling. Very hardly do you hear artists nowadays telling narratives in their music. They may convey a feeling, a perspective, or an observation, but not since the last decades of the twentieth century where it was common to hear Top 40 songs on radio share a tale through their lyrics. Whether if they’re telling personal stories or fictitious themes as analogies for life, the denouement of their arc is that they hope to move people with their music. Take a song like their latest release “Lonely Man On The Island.” The content is about a man who survives a plane crash and ends up on an island, isolated. It definitely translates to relatability to those that hear it who have ever felt lonely. And with the sound they have and their ambitious intentions, they have the prospects in which to do that.
After watching them play live and assessing them afterward, I can basically use most of my CD collection or what I have on my iPod to describe them. They went from mellow to loud, slow to fast, expressing emotions to jumping around the stage with each transition to the next song on their setlist. From their multiple personality diagnosis of style one can draw comparisons to lively Coldplay tunes, Pink Floyd-like transcendence when it comes to their calm melodies, and the inclusion of upbeat, classic late 70s and early 80s British pop rock anthems. It’s that unique blend that puts them fittingly into the same class of alternative standouts like Kings of Leon, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, The Killers, and others along those lines.
I caught up with them before their set on May 20 when they opened up for another indie/rock group, Wilderado, and I was just as entertained getting the chance to converse with them as I was watching their performance. I wanted to pick their brains in regards to their recording process, how the change of scenery from moving to New York to Los Angeles has affected their music, how do they go about telling stories in lyrical form, and can a band with uplifting and buoyant songs still rock out like any traditional rock band?
Steven: When you guys were starting out, you all went from New York to an isolated cabin in North Carolina. Most artists would do it the other way around, go to the city, it be New York or Los Angeles to go make music. What did being out there in a serene landscape like that do to you creatively and inspirationally, and what did that environment give you that the city couldn’t provide?
Ben: Sometimes you just need to escape. Get outside your comfort zone and be in a place that you don’t know and kind of turn your brain off for a second and it allows you to create the art that you need to create.
Jared: I agree with Ben. You have to get away from the noise and being focused on what was going to make us unique. Away from the scene, away from the bands we were playing with in New York and all its expectations. It was an amazing experience, the serenity of it all definitely influenced us to go down a more ethereal route, even though it may not come across that way in the music, but it was airy and awesome. That’s what the cabin did for us.
Steven: You got your name from seeing the tracks in the ground from the foxes when you guys would go walking. Did you guys decide on that name because you were intent on picking a name or was it a spontaneous thing? And with that, with your process, is that how this band comes up with titles and lyrics, when that’s your focus and a main priority or do you come up with great work when you least expect it?
Ben: It’s a lot more organic than that. You’re never going to be like, “I’m going to come up with something or be inspired right now.” When you’re inspired that’s when you feel it. To speak to the name we were all in the mindset that we don’t have a good name and we need one. It wasn’t like right now, or next Tuesday in this forty-five minute period, and it’s going to be awesome.
Steven: I’ve noticed when listening to your songs that the majority of them don’t clock out past the four-minute mark. They usually remain in that three-minute space, and most people would suggest that assists in the success of a song. Not too long and not too short. Is that already your mindset when producing a song, let’s keep it into this timeframe and if it exceeds a time limit then it’s time to cut it down?
Ben: Sometimes I think you don’t need to say more. Sometimes you do. I think we, as a young band, for an example…if you’re going to put out a song like “The Less I Know The Better” by Tame Impala, that’s a seven-minute epic, then it better sound like that or epic, and if not, then it’ll just be boring.
Jared: I don’t think we’re actively trying to do that, it just so happens that every song we’ve made lands in that Goldilocks zone.
Steven: Who are you inspirations? And when you do make music, is it your method to emulate your idols. For example, R.E.M., while making Losing My Religion, the singer wanted to copy dance moves from Sinead O’ Connor when doing the music video, and when Mike Mills, the bassist was coming up with the bassline he was thinking…what would the John McVie from Fleetwood Mac do? And that’s how he approached the song. With you guys, is that how you do it, when playing this song, I want to sound like this musician or want to sing like this singer? Or do you feel that if you already have people that you admire that unconsciously you will someway sound like them and not even notice it?
Ben: All rock ‘n’ roll. It definitely started out more like that, like I’m going to sound like Brandon Flowers (The Killers) on this track, then you listen to those old recordings, and you’re like I don’t sound anything like him. I think overtime, the mix of all your influences come out in you’re playing, and I think that’s what it means to grow as an artist where you stop thinking about what would this guy would do, and you do what you do and it sounds like you.
Jared: Even though we may not actively be trying to mimic another bands’ parts, we definitely do communicate with other bands’ vibes. Like “I hear a Radiohead thing here” or “let’s hear that Killers drumbeat,” so we’re not trying to play the parts exactly but it’s very important to use that as a starting point for communicating with other musicians.
Steve: I’ve been very pleased to see an element in your songs that I don’t hear from most artists, and that’s storytelling. Your songs have a narrative, whether it be about someone else or the story of you guys. Most artists express a feeling, a belief, a concept, a perspective, but yours have a theme and narrative content. To me it’s something that has been lost. Examples I like “Shooting Star” about the rise and fall about a rock star, “Jeremy” is about a kid who shot himself in front of his classmates. Was that a game plan when forming this band that what you guys were going to do was make music that had stories in them?
Ben: All the greats like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and of those great songwriters they always told great stories. If you want to emulate great writers, that’s what they do.
Jared: If you want to listen to a great songwriter, listen to Paul Simon.
Jon: We try to make the music tell a story to help accompany the lyrics, and I think that the beauty of music is that in the realm of storytelling it goes deeper than the words. You can tell a visual story or an audio story, and from day one we were keen on trying to create different forms of multimedia to create one cohesive message.
Steven: When writing a song, does the mood and feel of the song emulate what your feeling at that moment when you’re writing it or is it a coping mechanism in wishing you had the feeling that your is expressing? Like when you’re writing a song with positivity, are you feeling positive when writing it, are you feeling inspirational while writing an inspirational song or do you feel down and sad and that hopefully writing a positive song can help you achieve that feeling?
Ben: I think it’s definitely more like a reaction than, “I’m sad, so let’s be happy now.”
Jon: Making music is just a great coping mechanism whether dealing with a sad song or a happy song, and if it’s a sad song it’s helping you deal with your emotions, and if it’s a happy song then it feels rad.
Steven: Your music has been described as inspirational. But tell me this, as of lately, why has there been so many artists in different genres switching gears and making inspirational music? Genres that were known for singing about partying, good times, and having fun are now shifting their focus and putting songs together to inspire people. Why is that?
Ben: People emulate what they hear on the radio. If you’re not doing it directly then it’s hard to turn yourself off from what’s happening. If there’s a trend happening you’re just going to naturally hear that and the bands who trying to ignore that automatically get that a little bit.
Jared: People in our generation, the millennials, we see that there’s not too many nice stuff going on in the world right now. Music has always been a reflection on the times and a beacon of hope and artists are making inspirational music because people are feeling a little off from what’s going in the world.
Steven: You’re considered to be a rock alternative indie band; most rock bands are known for writing dark melancholic lyrics. That’s been the standard. Can you still rock out and still have inspirational music?
Jared: Sometimes the harder your rock out the more inspirational you can be to a member of the audience. My first concert was The Killers, and I remember watching Brandon Flowers and thinking, “I want to do this.”
Steven: You’re a trio. You have such a complete sound with just only three members, but in this genre, again, the standard most people would think you would have four or five members. What is the benefit(s) of being a three-piece band?
Jared: We just don’t have that many friends, I guess. (Laughs)
Jon: There’s more room in the car. (Laughs)
Steve: You are East Coast boys, but you guys reside in Los Angeles. Has the change of scenery impacted your music in any way?
Jared: I think the new music we are making right now some of it is very East Coast, and there’s some songs that have that LA influence, with that contemporary, cool, indie kind of thing. I’m really looking forward to us getting the chance to blend the two together and to make something that sounds unique.
Jon: Living in LA has its own certain things that you learn from, but touring is so inspiring, and getting the chance to tour with a great band like Wilderado, and playing in markets like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and meeting the opening bands, you can learn something from them, too.
Steven: Where do you see indie rock music going as we are approaching the next decade?
Jared: I think it’s going to be alive and well, the more people are going to make music for themselves, I think indie rock it won’t mean what it meant ten years ago, and it won’t mean what it does today ten years from now. The idea of a group of people getting together or somebody making the music they love will never die, and it’ll always keep going strong.
Steven: Looking at the fox tracks in the snow was a symbolic meaning and guide to your true calling. What do you hope that FOXTRAX can do for those that listen to the music?
Ben: I want them to find that same self-discovery within themselves. Music is our thing, but no matter what you decide to do everyone has got their own path. To me I thought the best music growing up were the ones that made me contemplative on life, and I hope our music is doing that for other people.
Jared: I hope when you’re happy we can uplift you to a new high and when you’re feeling sad we can be that comforting feeling in your life, and that we can touch people in a meaningful way.
Jon: I believe music exists to inspire people and hopefully our music can help people follow a passion that they didn’t even know of before and to have them feel every kind of emotion.