The Boxer Rebellion‘s latest record is a hugely satisfying blend of arena sized melodies wrapped tightly around sophisticated yet intimate songwriting. AMBY had the opportunity to chat to frontman Nathan Nicholson prior to the band’s recent Manchester show to discuss the new album’s development, including the unlikely role of DC comic artist Trevor McCarthy in this process.
AMBY: Welcome to Manchester. How was Live at Leeds Fest yesterday?
The Boxer Rebellion: It was… alright… I think, because we’ve been around for a while and I think the festival is probably geared more to a hipster or younger audience than maybe we are, if we’d done our own Leeds show I think it would have been a lot more fun.
AMBY: Describe what it’s like playing the songs off the new record.
The Boxer Rebellion: It’s really good! We’re still getting out heads around it because there’s a bit of trepidation just because you still learning it. The way we wrote it, it was very layered and we would have a beat and then I would write to that beat and then we would build it up and go back and take things out so we had these really solid demos and then when we went and recorded we used some of the demos and used them as a template and then re-recorded bits so at no point did we ever play it live. We finished the record, I think we finished the final master in September so it’s been around for a while, so the last six months we’ve been trying to figure out how we do this live, so yea, it’s been a long time coming.
AMBY: Was yesterday’s show your first real go at it then?
The Boxer Rebellion: We did Glasgow and that was a little more comfortable because we had a soundcheck. At Leeds it was crazy! It was 11:30 at night… but we also did a festival in Switzerland a few weeks ago and that was the first time.
AMBY: Congrats on the new record. Needless to say, I love it, but it’s certainly different to Promises. What were your intentions when you began working on the album?
The Boxer Rebellion: Umm… we don’t really think about it. Every time we’ve tried to think too much about it, it doesn’t really sound how we want it to or it doesn’t sound good. It’s like trying to write a single, without it sounding like you’re trying to write a single. So, we just write quite a lot of songs and usually that it the case… you write five or ten songs and then you hit your stride and maybe those five or ten don’t ever see the light of day, but for us it was probably around this time last year when we wrote Weapon and the sound of that immediately gave us some sort of inspiration on the way we want the record to… not sound… the aesthetic of it, this kind of Miami Vice, eighties, ocean, coastal thing. And also we knew we were recording in Los Angeles, it was the second record we’ve done in LA, and that whole Duran Duran kind of artwork along with the video for Big Ideas.
AMBY: The new album was recorded at Sunset Sound in LA. What dictates the choice of studio when you record an album?
The Boxer Rebellion: Our producer Billy Bush lives in LA and he has about three or four studios he likes to use and they’re all awesome studios and that was the reason really. Also, the reason LA’s good is because it’s a good place to get away and focus on making an album. We have families and things like that and as hard as it is to be away from your family, it’s sometimes good to be able to focus on things for longer, so we were there for about a month.
AMBY: Listening to Ocean by Ocean for the first time proved to be quite an emotional, almost cinematic experience. Do certain films or film makers inspire your approach to music?
The Boxer Rebellion: Actually, the movie Drive… we liked that aesthetic, even some of the sounds we probably took, especially in some of the synthy things we’re doing. We always have that in mind though… I like the idea of conjuring up images.
AMBY: A lot has changed since The Boxer Rebellion formed in 2001. Has the band’s process of making music changed?
The Boxer Rebellion: Yes. Definitely. For instance, on the third album, The Cold Still we recorded mostly live… we wrote it all, we didn’t really demo anything, if we did it was very rough, you know, two mics in a room, that kind of thing, so yea, it has changed a lot. It used to be where you write a song and then the next week you’re rehearsing and everyone is trying to remember how it went. Now, it’s a little easier.
AMBY: DC Comics artist Trevor McCarthy created the distinctive cover for the new album. How did he get involved?
The Boxer Rebellion: I was listening to a Kevin Smith podcast and he was interviewing a DC writer called Kyle Higgins and I just tweeted and Kyle got back to me straight away and said he was a big fan of ours and so we started a dialogue and he said next time you’re in LA let me know, so a year and a half later we went and hung out a bunch and we told him our ideas to what we were wanting to do and it kind of went from there because one of his really good friends his Trevor and he’s done a few of Kyle’s things and it worked out really well because we just gave Trevor a Pinterest moodboard and he went from there.
AMBY: It seems that that had a role in dictating the look of the video. Was that the starting point for the aesthetic you talked about?
The Boxer Rebellion: We gave him ideas. We wanted it really colourful, we wanted it… fake’s the wrong word… but not life-like.
AMBY: You’re from Tennessee and everyone else in the band is a Brit now. Has this affected who your inspirations and influences are, or are you very similar in this respect?
The Boxer Rebellion: Not too much. I moved over when I was nineteen, so that would be sixteen years ago and if anything I was probably more into British music because it was this far-away place and you know, I used to dream of Manchester [laughs] and in the same way, Adam was into a lot of American music…
AMBY: So you met in the middle somewhere…
The Boxer Rebellion: Exactly, but I wouldn’t say I took a lot of inspiration from a lot of the homegrown music from Tennessee. Not that I don’t like it, it’s just not what I was into.
AMBY: So, what were the first records you really remember obsessing over and can you see an imprint of this somewhere in your own material?
The Boxer Rebellion: The first record I got seriously obsessed with was Oasis’ What’s the Story, Morning Glory and then it kind of went from there. I would say it influenced, and it probably still influences the band’s melodies. Oasis were always melody-driven and I’m definitely like that… It wasn’t about the drums and the bass, for me it’s more about the melody.
AMBY: The success of Union led to groundbreaking moves in digital music sales. What are your thoughts on the way music is consumed and purchased these days.
The Boxer Rebellion: It’s a difficult time. Putting the financial side to one side, I think it’s difficult because the attention spans of people are shorter, and the fact that you have so much choice. Our record’s not on Spotify at the moment [it is now!] and that’s mainly because Apple Music gave us a platform and they pushed us so we have to wait a few weeks until we appear on Spotify, but you’re just one record amongst ten big albums along with a hundred other albums a week. This week, not that we would compete in any stretch, but obviously Prince passed away and then there was Beyonce and there’s Drake. Those are some of the biggest recording artists ever…
AMBY: So when you go in the record store i.e. Apple Music, that’s what you’re bombarded with…
The Boxer Rebellion: Yea, so luckily we did something with Apple and we still get a little bit of light shone on us, but it’s a difficult time in that regard and also because the ability to do things so easily, like DIY kind of stuff… there’s just more and more people putting their stuff in that kind of market place, which is great, but it’s just harder to be seen and heard.
AMBY: Union also led to an appearance in the Drew Barrymore movie Going the Distance. How did that come about?
The Boxer Rebellion: We played a show in LA, our first ever show in LA in 2009 and some music supervisor came down and one thing led to another and we met the director and she saw us play and it ended up where they wanted us to have a bigger role in the movie and I think initially they were thinking ‘do we get a band that’s not even a band?’ but we eventually got written into the movie and yea, it was cool experience.
AMBY: And you met Drew Barrymore, because to me she’ll always be the girl from E.T.
The Boxer Rebellion: Yea, yea I know but we hung out with her a few times, not that she’ll probably remember it, but it’s crazy, I remember that we did this little thing, the venue was terrible in this VIP area and there’s all these B and C list celebrities and the reason we did that acoustic thing, I guess it was a little bit of promo for the movie, it was right before it came out and Drew Barrymore was back stage and it was funny to see the B list celebrities over here and then somebody THAT famous shows up and they’re all like ‘holy shit!’, but it was an experience and we did some of the red carpet things in LA and in London… we’ll never do it again… well, you never know, but I can’t imagine we’ll ever do it again, so it was kind of fun.
AMBY: You have a pretty extensive touring schedule this year. Where are you looking forward to playing?
The Boxer Rebellion: I’m looking forward to getting back to the States. The Netherlands shows are always fun because they’re just bigger.
AMBY: Finally, you’re not a prolific band and I was wondering what your passions and interests outside of the band are?
The Boxer Rebellion: I do a lot of music and I’ve been trying to songwrite with people. I’m always super-busy with the band, we’re always in the studio, constantly, so we have our own little space, our own little studio and I have a little two and a half boy, so that takes up some time which is good and when I’m doing NOTHING I watch a lot of TV shows on Netflix.
AMBY: Any favourites?
The Boxer Rebellion: Game of Thrones has just started which I like, and I just BINGED on House of Cards!
Thank you The Boxer Rebellion, for giving us your answers!
Interview by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto