Early pandemic life for the Boxmasters was pretty much business as usual, other than songwriting sessions conducted over Zoom and social distancing observed in the recording studio – and maybe the fact that the studio was equal parts workspace and refuge.
“It was definitely less stress for me in the studio than at my house with my three boys trying to Zoom school,” renowned recording engineer and multi-instrumentalist J.D. Andrew tells CityBeat. “That would drive anyone to insanity.”
And in some ways, the Boxmasters’ quarantine may have resulted in slightly too much extra home time.
“It didn’t change our lives that much because we have kids and we pretty much stay home all the time anyway. Unless we’re on tour or in the recording studio, we’re home with the family,” says Billy Bob Thornton, the Boxmasters’ studio drummer and live frontman. “The day we left L.A. for tour, my wife was actually wearing a party hat.”
The incredible thing about this period for the Boxmasters’ is that it resulted in the creation of three distinct albums: a set of nearly all holiday originals, Christmas in California, which dropped late last year; the just-released Help...I’m Alive; and the still-in-the-can Nothing Personal, a moody, prog-tinged work with Pink Floyd and King Crimson reflections. Nothing Personal was the first of the albums to be completed, and there’s a simple explanation for the order of releases.
“When the lockdown started loosening up, we figured we’d better put out the more upbeat-sounding record because people aren’t going to want to hear what we were feeling during the pandemic. They’re going to want to see some sunshine,” says Thornton. “We’ll put out Nothing Personal when everyone’s wounds have healed so they can reflect on that time as opposed to still being in it.”
Just as the title of Nothing Personal drips with irony – it is, according to Thornton and Andrew, completely personal – so too does Help...I’m Alive.
“That was the idea behind the title,” Thornton says. “Instead of saying, ‘Help, I’m dying,’ or ‘Help, I’m drowning,’ it was ‘Help, I’m alive.’
“In fact, I think that was the song that kind of sparked the whole album,” he continues. “It just seemed like a great theme for the record. There are some regular boy/girl songs on there but they all have to do with things we were thinking at the time.”
Help...I’m Alive is a brilliantly Pollack-spattered sonic palette of the Boxmasters’ diverse influences, from ‘60s British Invasion pop and its Stateside counterparts to twangy homegrown country, rockabilly and Americana (a musical gumbo that Thornton and Andrew have christened modbilly). But there is darkness in the album’s light. Andrew was mourning the suicide of a childhood friend during the album’s recording, and Thornton channeled a longstanding fear into the album’s closing track, “You’ll Never Be Mine.”
“It sounds like it would be about a girl, right? But what it’s actually about is that, for a long time, I suffered from agoraphobia (a fear of crowded places and leaving one’s home). My mother had agoraphobia, and I still have a touch of it,” Thornton says. “So the ‘you’ in ‘You’ll Never Be Mine’ is actually life. It’s this guy singing about these houses where parties are going on and wondering what it’s like in there. Or he sees smoke from a chimney and he’s like, ‘I wonder who built that fire?’ but he’s afraid to go in there. Unless you buy the record and read the lyrics, you won’t ever know what that’s about.”
Sonically, the Boxmasters’ foundation has not shifted substantially from the band’s formation in 2007. Before that, actor/director/writer Thornton had recorded a handful of albums under his own name (the Arkansas native had moved to California to pursue music and stumbled into acting), and Andrew was an in-demand engineer. Since the Boxmasters’ first album, the band’s founders have been the primary creative movers in the studio and hire friends to present their music on the road. The current circuit features lead guitarist Raymond Hardy, bassist Kirk McKim and drummer Nick Davidson.
“Help...I’m Alive sounds like a Boxmasters record, but we progress a little more each time,” says Thornton. “We add things to what we’re doing. The last two or three albums have steadily gotten more sophisticated.”
“We’re not going to stick with the same thing,” Andrew adds. “Sometime during the pandemic, we added a Mellotron, so we’re playing with that a lot. Somewhere along the line I bought a fuzz pedal and started using that for the first time. We used to rely on having another keyboard player or guitar player to put down solos, but now we’re confident enough that we don’t have to do that.”
“We play all the parts ourselves; it’s just me and Billy, making a record how we want it to sound and how we want it to be. It’s all our ideas, start to end, and we don’t convey them to anybody else. From writing the songs to mixing them, we do everything ourselves,” Andrew continues. “The only other person who puts a finger on it is our mastering guy, Eric Boulanger, who makes it ready for the masses. It’s about as DIY as you can get things.”
All of the Boxmasters’ hard work over the past decade and a half is clearly paying dividends. The band’s fanbase has been expanding incrementally from what Thornton describes as a cult following to a solid audience, and the band is playing at venues and in areas that, in many instances, they’re visiting for the first time.
It’s tempting to credit the internet for the Boxmasters’ growth but the band isn’t so sure.
“We’re doing the social media ourselves so that can’t be it,” says Andrew.
“We’re horrible at it,” seconds Thornton. “At least J.D. can turn on a computer. I can barely turn on my cell phone.”
The next best explanations for their popularity are old-fashioned word of mouth publicity and the Boxmasters’ tenacity on the road. Their upcoming show at the Ludlow Garage on June 8 is a case in point.
The last Boxmasters show in Cincinnati was a disaster. Thornton and Andrew say they were double-booked at a venue the same weekend as an EDM festival, shunted off to a basement space that was intended to be a music venue but had not yet opened for that purpose (the band gracefully did not share the date or location with CityBeat). A few dozen people showed up for the performance, but it was the kind of experience that could sour a band’s opinion of a market for a long time.
But not the Boxmasters.
“I still get messages from fans that were at that show, and they say how much they loved it but were disappointed there wasn’t a bigger turnout and hope we’ll come back,” says Andrew. “So hopefully they’ll see we’re coming and tell some friends.”
Of course, there is the distinct possibility that a percentage of Boxmasters attendees are curious due to Thornton’s celebrity and notoriety, of which he is well aware. Thornton has a way of handling a crowd if he senses they might not actually be fans of the music, which ties into an odd press release notation that the Boxmasters are at least partially steered by the spirit of Frank Zappa.
“It’s not on the surface of the music, except for sometimes lyrically when we write a more humorous song,” Thornton says. “If we have an audience that doesn’t get stuff, I’ll talk about something insane that they won’t know what it means, just to entertain me and the band, and sometimes I’ll go into Zappa’s voice to do it. Like when we played Dallas, I said, ‘We have a lot of fans around Dallas and we know a lot of you here have seen us many times and you know our music. For anybody who’s new and doesn’t have our records and never seen us live, we don’t do ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or ‘Color My World’ or ‘House of the Rising Sun.’ This is all original music So if you don’t have our albums or know our music.’ And then I went into Zappa’s voice, ‘Get ready for the worst two hours of your life!’”
The Boxmasters play Ludlow Garage (342 Ludlow Ave., Clifton) at 8:30 p.m. June 8. Info: ludlowgaragecincinnati.com.