Plugged In: The Boxer Rebellion
By Chrissy Mauck
The members of London-based indie outfit the Boxer Rebellion like to think of themselves as the luckiest unlucky band ever because, as frontman Nathan Nicholson explains, “There are far, far more unlucky bands, and the fact is you haven’t heard of them because they are so unlucky.”
Although they’ve been around for 10 years now, more and more people are becoming aware of the DIY quartet, largely thanks to a huge leg up in 2008 when iTunes selected “Evacuate” (from self-funded album Union) as a single of the week. Within five days of its release, Union peaked at number four on the iTunes U.K. top 100 album chart. The Boxer Rebellion also became the first unsigned band in history to enter the U.S. Billboard 100 Albums Chart (number 82) on digital sales alone.
“That was definitely a lucky break for us because it turned a lot of people on to our music, and since then we’ve really ridden the way and made the most of that opportunity and any other opportunities that have come our way,” says guitarist Todd Howe. “The last two years have been really good, especially after so long being in the abyss.”
In truth, it hasn’t been absolute obscurity — just more like fluctuating fortunes.
After a solid outing at Glastonbury in 2003, the band signed with ill-fated label Poptones and was booked to tour with the Killers. But while on tour with the Raveonettes, Nicholson’s appendix burst, requiring emergency surgery and several months of recovery. The run with the Killers was cancelled.
Back on their feet, the Boxer Rebellion released 2005 debut full-length album Exits. Two weeks later, Poptones went belly up. They’ve been unsigned ever since, and ferociously independent.
And although they’ve always strongly believed in the unique and impassioned quality of their music, many bands probably would have imploded after so much ebb and flow.
“I’ve said before if we were solo artists, we probably would have quit,” says Nicholson. “But we’ve got this family thing going on in our band and I think it’s a matter of not wanting to let anyone down. If I quit, it would leave everyone else in the lurch. You are doing it for everyone. I think we all pitch in and it works because of that.”
This family-like band has an interesting and somewhat far-fetched beginning that makes you think something bigger; cosmic, perhaps; was at work.
Following the death of his mother in 2000, Nicholson left his hometown of Maryville, Tenn., for London, where he eventually came across an online posting for musicians by Howe, who was born and raised in Australia.
“We did online dating before there was online dating,” jokes Nicholson. “It’s kind of creepy that I replied to a message board ad, if you really think about it. I was living in a student accommodation with a bunch of other guys, though, so I made sure they were all there in case Todd was a serial killer.”
Shortly thereafter, they placed another ad at the London Music School; this time for a drummer.
“I get this call from Piers (Hewitt) and the first thing he said to me is, ‘I hear you are looking for a little drummer boy,’” recalls Howe. “I really didn’t know how to take that so I nearly hung up on him because I thought that was a little bit over the top.”
Hewitt eventually brought bassist Adam Harrison into the mix, although that beginning got off to a rocky start, too.
“On the first day of music school, we were putting bands together, and me and a guitarist joined up and then Piers had found a singer and so we kind of all came together,” shares Harrison. “I didn’t know Piers at all, but at some point in class I said to him, ‘Hey, I’m signed up for the band you are in,’ and he looks at me and says, ‘No one asked you to be in the band.’”
“Really, that’s what I said?” interjects Hewitt. “I guess I’m famous for horrible first impressions.”
Fast forward a decade, and Hewitt and company are making an impressive climb into the mainstream. The band played themselves in Drew Barrymore’s 2010 film Going the Distance, performing a pair of tracks from Union, and then made their network television debut in February 2011 on the Late Show with David Letterman, where they showcased lead single “Step Out of the Car” from The Cold Still, which will be released digitally on June 27. Another one of the Ethan Johns-produced album tracks, “Both Sides are Even,” was featured on television show Grey’s Anatomy the same month.
“Things feel like they are finally shifting for us,” reflects Nicholson. “And not because all of a sudden we’ve thought, ‘Oh wow, we’re a good band now.’ I think we’ve been a good band for a while, but it’s just always been about getting our music in front of people. A lot of people are getting turned on to our music now, which is pretty good.”
The band, known for crafting a haunting sound somewhere among Coldplay, Radiohead and the National, retreated to peaceful countryside to record their latest effort—at the Peter Gabriel Studios in Box Wiltshire, England.
“It was kind of out in the sticks and there was nothing else to do, so we kind of got more focused,” offers Hewitt. “Living in London, there are so many distractions. Being in a relaxing environment out in Box away from everything really allowed us to fully focus on writing and making the best album — a very introspective record.”
The isolation aided in crafting album closer “Doubt,” with lyrics that include the album’s title.
“It’s supposed to be about a cabin in the woods where the doors are locked and they can’t get out and the house is on fire,” explains Nicholson. “It’s about the moments before they are going to die and wondering if they have done enough in this life and the doubt of what’s to come. So cold still of night kind of was the setting of the song, and after a few days of thinking about album titles, we decided that phrase also best summed up the atmosphere and mood of the album, too.”
Although the Boxer Rebellion writes “songs of monumental quality,” as Kerrang! magazine notes, the band typically gives considerably less thought to what to call them. Take, for instance, a new song of theirs called “Memo.”
“Basically, Nathan sent me a demo from the rehearsal room that he recorded on his iPhone, so it came across on the e-mail as Memo.mp4,” says Howe. “So we just called the song ‘Memo.’”
In similar fashion, the band took two Union song titles from an emergency sign hanging in their rehearsal room.
“It read ‘Flashing red light means please evacuate,’ and so we named one song ‘Flashing Red Light Means Go’ and another ‘Evacuate,” says Hewitt. “It’s pretty lazy, actually.”
Actually, there’s nothing lazy about the foursome; each member has held down a day job to fund back-to-back albums and tour support. A band of lesser conviction might never have overcome the trials of their formative years to get this far, and what a shame that would have been, especially since their self-released latest effort is a substantial and achingly beautiful album.
You can order your copy here, and if you are looking for some recommendations on what to listen to first, here’s what the Boxer Rebellion had to say …
Todd: It’s hard to say a favorite because I think every song really came through.
Adam: I like your guitar in “Caught By the Light.”
Todd: Yeah, it’s really basic guitar up to a point, but then when it kicks in it’s sort of my thing and what I enjoy. “Step Out of the Car,” the guitars in that are pretty banging.
Nathan: Mine is probably the first song on the album, called “No Harm.” I like how it came together. We had a different version of it when we went into the studio and it wasn’t really working. We were working with Ethan Johns, and he got to really spread his wings on that song, and we could see what he’s made of in a producer’s sense. He really brought that track together for us. So we rebuilt the song and I think it’s why I like it so much.
Adam: I’m going to make it really easy and say the same — “No Harm.”
Todd: I would have said the same, but it’s got no guitars in it.
Adam: But it’s got your lovely piano.
Piers: My favorite song from a guitar standpoint is definitely “No Harm.” Sorry mate.
Todd: I’d just like to inform everyone that I’m now leaving the Boxer Rebellion. I don’t want to put up with this anymore.
Piers: OK, really, my favorite track is called “Cause for Alarm.” You want to know why? Because it’s quite nice. I think you can hear some of our influences more than on any other song on the album.
Below, the Boxer Rebellion give an acoustic performance of The Cold Still’s lead single “Step Out of the Car.”