The Moth & The Flame Frontman Donates Kidney to Save His Hometown All-Ages Venue, And Its Owner

Arash Armin
The Moth & The Flame

Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees and more stepped up to help Corey Fox, who owns and operates Velour in Provo, Utah.

Local music scenes are often described as familial communities, but in Provo, Utah, that concept was put to the test last year, when The Moth & The Flame frontman Brandon Robbins stepped up to donate a kidney and save his friend's life. 

Over the past 25 years, Corey Fox has managed bands, venues and promoted concerts in a college town less than an hour away from Salt Lake City that's home to a little more than 100,000 people. In 2006, he opened all-ages venue Velour, which has served as the epicenter of the local scene -- where pre-Las Vegas Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees, rising alt-rockers The Moth & The Flame and others all got their starts. 

"It's been pretty crazy, the scene kind of exploded -- and in that 11 years [since the club opened] we've had six bands sign to major labels, several others having pretty big national success without labels, kind of doing it on their own terms," Fox tells Billboard. "We're not just booking bands for entertainment. My motivation has always been more like a teacher, where I'm hoping to find talent and then help develop that talent to actually do something. So we're pretty hands-on with mentoring, and in a lot of ways Velour functions as part venue, part record label and part PR company."

Long before The Moth & The Flame were featured as one of Spotify's most promising new rock bands and their single "Young & Afriad" was featured on Netflix's hit series 13 Reasons Why last year, Robbins -- now 29 -- first performed for the 300-person capacity Velour during an open mic night in 2008 after recently moving to Provo as a teenager. Afterwards, he remembers Fox coming up to him to compliment his guitar playing and singing and how encouraging that simple act was to a "timid, young musician" like himself -- a pivotal point in his decision to pursue music. 

"That meant a lot because in the community everyone knows who Corey is; he's kind of a legend in Provo," says Robbins. "Velour is really a lot more than a venue. Corey has been such a mentor with all the bands that he works with but there's just this feeling of family and home when you're playing there. It's an all ages venue and it's a small community, so you get to know everyone and it's just this really really nice environment, a really good place for young musicians to get their start. That's what it was for me."

But last year Fox faced some serious health issues, placing Velour's future in uncertain terms and forcing the longtime mentor to turn to the local scene he helped build for assistance. 

When Fox was 15 he was first diagnosed with kidney disease and was put on heavy medication throughout high school. But over the years that followed, his condition normalized, and after having once been told his kidneys would surely fail, he mentally turned a corner where he decided to start taking more risks and stop waiting for the inevitable end. (This mindset, he says, played a large role in his decision to open Velour.)

But about four years ago, things changed when during a routine checkup, Fox's doctors told him he should be placed on the kidney donor list as a precaution, since it can often take more than four years to make one's way to the front of the line. Just a couple years in, Fox's kidneys began declining faster than his expected wait time, and the situation became more dire. His doctor recommended making a public plea for a living donor. 

"I'm a pretty private person and it was not my first choice to do that, but that's kind of what I was forced to do," says Fox. "I don't think any of us expected how big the response would be. It was pretty crazy."

Fox posted to Facebook explaining his situation, and the outpouring was massive. It was shared over 400 times, he said, and in about a week 200 people signed up to get tested to see if their kidneys were a match -- so many that it "shut down" the transplant clinic, he says. "We had to make a post for people to stop submitting, they stopped taking submissions, they had so many, which was just overwhelming to have this huge outpouring of support."

Some of those bands that Velour had previously hosted stepped in to help, as well, including Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees and The Moth & The Flame. Those bands and others all took breaks from their tours to travel to Utah to participate in a concert last April called #FixTheFox, which helped boost awareness, fundraise to support Velour's operational costs and raise money to assist with Fox's medical expenses. 

In this time, one of Fox's close friends looked to be a donor match, but in the final stages of a months-long testing process was rejected due to an anatomy difference with his kidney.

"It seemed like we were pretty much starting from scratch again, and there was definitely a feeling of doom at the time. I was very much questioning mortality, especially with the business -- at that point I thought Velour was pretty much done," he says. 

That's when Robbins stepped up. He had originally thought he was not a matching blood type and by the time he found out he was mistaken had already been closed out from tests due to the volume of people who swarmed the transplant clinic. But upon hearing the news Fox was again in need of a donor, the musician pushed through exams at various medical centers while touring with The Moth & The Flame and soon discovered he was a perfect match. 

"I remember getting the news and just being thrilled. I was ecstatic," says Robbins. "It might be kind of a weird reaction maybe -- the thought of losing a kidney can be kind of scary, I think -- but really I was just so thrilled, because Corey and I have always been so close, and it just felt right."

Robbins said he had somehow always sensed that he should be the one to donate his kidney to Fox and to fulfill that early premonition "just felt right." 

"It was pretty overwhelming and serendipitous," adds Fox. "All these bands I've been hands on with, but anyone who knows me and the scene knows The Moth & The Flame has definitely been a special band to me, that I've helped take under my wing and considered the members like brothers. All this time and two years on the waiting list, all these people waiting to get tested... for it to come full circle around and it be one of the prominent band members in this music community, and one of my best friends -- it was just crazy."

Fox and Robbins went in for surgery together on Dec. 20, with the procedure going as well as one could hope. In the hospital, the doctors put the two friends on opposite ends of the wing so they would be forced to walk further to see each other, pushing ahead their rehabilitation. Fox notes that as a donor, his friend's immediate recovery was more intense than his own, but the singer largely shrugs the whole experience off. Likewise, while Fox notes that Robbins might have risked disrupting the momentum behind his band with the surgery, the frontman suggest the timing was perfect between touring and regrouping to write their next album. Just as serendipitously, Robbins' parents had recently moved back to Utah from Washington, so he was even able to recover in the local comfort of their house.

"It's really not as risky or scary of a process as you think," Robbins says. "It's a major surgery, but people go through major surgeries all the time, and the surgeon actually said it's the same risk as getting your gall bladder removed."

To that point, Robbins said his heart rate was remarkably low before he entered surgery -- just 42 beats per minute -- and recalls his bandmate keyboardist Mark Garbett commenting that he seemed more excited about the surgery than he did when they went on tour supporting Weezer

"I just knew it was going to be all right. I knew everything was going to work out perfectly. And that just kind of stuck with me the whole time. It never really went away," says Robbins. "I think as humans we go our lives thinking we're good people, but this was kind of one of those moments to prove that.... So for me, in my own personal life, it helped me to kind of live for more and contribute."

While Robbins had rebounded from the surgery in a matter of weeks, Fox's recovery took several months of medication that eradicated his immune system, essentially prohibiting him from working at Velour during this time. Now Fox is finally back to work, having cleared the pivotal six-month milestone that doctors look to post-surgery, where his medication has leveled off. "It's a good sign that things are headed in the right direction," he says.

Fox's modesty shines through when he talks about the messages of support he received over this time. With both Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees, he recalls getting nearly identical messages from both bands that basically laid out what they would do to support him and Velour, because they knew he wouldn't ask for it. After the role he has played to help those careers and others, none of the support he has received has been demanded or even expected in return. 

"I'm very proud of what Velour has done for this community and for all these bands, because it's become so much bigger than myself," Fox says. "They weren't just coming back to help me, I think they were coming back to make sure that this special music community and this special venue continued as well. There's no money in running an all-ages venue in a college town that has no alcohol revenue, so the fulfillment comes from the successes of these bands that move on from here."

He continues, "I got so many messages from people just explaining what Velour has meant to them, being in the music community, how that connection led them to their careers doing these other things that are involved with music or young kids who picked up instruments for the first time because of a place like this. You don't hear all of those stories usually. So what's been special to me is it was a rough thing to go through but going through something like this, to have this mountain of love come back and have people tell you that what you're doing has helped change their lives -- that was a motivating factor to get better and do it."