LAist Interview: The Boxmasters -- J.D. Andrew, Mike Butler & Billy Bob Thornton
The Boxmasters are a great study in juxtapositions. Their band’s sound is a fusion of 60s British Invasion and hillbilly music. Their original songs range from poignant to tongue-in-cheek. They are serious musicians, but their record is undeniably fun. And on their tour—including a performance at the House of Blues in Hollywood this Sunday—they serve as their own opening act (more about that later in this interview).
Since its release, the band’s self-titled record has been climbing the Americana music charts and has been featured everywhere from CMT to Paste Magazine. The two-disc album includes one CD of original music and another CD of cover songs that span everything from Mott the Hoople to the Who. LAist caught up with the Boxmasters, J.D. Andrew, Mike Butler and Billy Bob Thornton, as they were traveling through Chicago.
Andrew plays guitar and bass, contributes backing vocals and is the recording engineer for the Boxmasters. He’s also a Grammy-winning producer/engineer who has worked with artists such as Kanye West, the Rolling Stones and Guy Clark.
LAist: People have referred to your music as hillbilly-meets-British-Invasion, modbilly, hillbilly punk, hillbilly rock, neo-mod rockabilly, electric hillbilly and a whole bunch more. Which of these descriptions do you like the best?
Andrew: Probably modbilly, because that one best describes our influences. We love the British Invasion and the late 50s/early 60s electric hillbilly music, so when our friends at Fender came up with that term, we said, “That’s brilliant.” We also dress like a mod band, so we come out and look more like the Kinks or the Animals or the Beatles.
Any plans to tour in England since the British Invasion influenced your sound so much?
Well, we’re hoping that we can go to Europe next year sometime because the record has been released in a bunch of European countries over the last few weeks, and we’ve been getting a lot of requests. I’ve never been to Europe, and I can’t think of a better way to experience it than to go play a bunch of shows.
I know that each of you has worked with scores of other musicians throughout your music careers. What led the three of you specifically to look at each other and say, “We need to form a band?”
Well, Billy and I kind of started the band. He came down to the studio one day when I was working on his last solo record as an engineer, and he asked, “How well do you play guitar? We have to record a song for a Canadian TV show—‘Lost Highway,’ the Hank Williams song—and the rest of the guys I always collaborate with are out of town. You’re the only guy here and we’ve gotta record this today.”
After we were done, we loved the sound of it. I’ve known Mike Butler for the last seven years, and he’s always the guy that I’d have play guitar on anything I was producing. So as soon as we said to ourselves, “We need someone to play lead guitar,” I said, “Well, Mike plays guitar, lap steel and dobro…”
And for the pedal steel, we brought in Marty Rifkin who plays in our touring band. He came in there and played on “I’ll Give You a Ring,” and he just knocked us out. We hadn’t intended on putting pedal steel throughout the record, but Marty was so great that we relooked at what we had and had him play on a whole bunch of stuff.
I know you’ve worked as an engineer and producer on a bunch of records. How does working in the Cave (the recording studio at Thornton’s house) compare to other studios?
The thing that’s different when I work in the Cave is that I’m actually involved in the playing and creating of the music rather than just recording it or just capturing whatever is needed.
It’s definitely a big collaboration among all of us, and it’s great because we play what we want and we figure out what’s best for the songs. It gives us time to experiment and just try whatever crazy things we can think of. We don’t have to punch a clock in the studio and worry about how much time we’re spending. If that were the case, we’d be making million-dollar records all the time because we spend 16 hours in the studio and I know that for all of us, it’s our favorite place to be. The Cave’s a great studio and it’s extremely comfortable. We can watch baseball games, record music and hang out with our pals, so it’s a great thing.
The Boxmasters album seems to be full of juxtapositions—in some places you pair upbeat music with dark themes, there’s original music accompanied by classics, and you even have a Beatles song following a murder ballad. Are these juxtapositions a deliberate effort to keep people on their toes?
Yeah, a lot of it is deliberate—such as having “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” follow “Knoxville Girl.” In that case, it really made “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” darker. When you think about it, it’s such an innocent song, but Billy sang it like he was David Allan Coe, which kind of makes it sound like the guy in the song is a crazy stalker. (laughs)
Your songs really transition well into each other and it’s almost as if some of the song endings were created with the following song in mind, such as the ending of “The Last Place They Would Look.” How much time did you spend on sequencing?
We spent a lot of time on it. We got our sequence together and we gave some of the songs natural transitional pieces as part of the song. Then in some other places, we would try to come up with something that would bridge the songs. When we set out to make the record, we wanted it to never stop. We wanted it to be like an album from the 60s and make it a listening experience where you put the record on and have to listen all the way through. We intentionally did all of that. Some of it arose from happy accidents when we started, but after we got going with the idea it was like, “We have to do this—we have to make everything seamless.”
As you were putting the album together, did you write the original songs prior to choosing the covers, or did it sort of happen simultaneously?
They happened simultaneously. We started out with “Yesterday’s Gone” by Chad & Jeremy. That was the first one we did after the “Lost Highway” song. We recorded a few cover songs before we got the first original song written, which was “The Work of Art.” So we just recorded a song every day, whether it was a cover or something Billy had written. We didn’t want any downtime. Whatever we were inspired by at the moment, that’s what we recorded.
Mike Butler plays electric guitar, dobro and lap steel for the Boxmasters, as well as providing backing vocals. Butler is also an engineer who has worked with bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie.
LAist: So what’s it like being your own opening band?
Butler: It works out great! It’s pretty cool because we really get to be in two different bands. We come out and do the Boxmasters set, which looks a lot like a 60s TV show, like Hullabaloo or Shindig! or something like that. Then we take a little break and do stuff from Billy’s solo records and it’s much more of a rock ’n’ roll show.
Is it true that the second half of your show includes a laser light show?
(laughs) It’s not quite a laser light show—it’s not Pink Floyd—but we do have video projection stuff, so there’s a lot going on visually.
With your current tour being so popular, is a live DVD in the works?
We’ve talked about it and actually filmed a couple of the shows, plus we record everything. It’s just a matter getting back and finding time to sort through the footage and see what we got. That’d be great, though—we’d love to do that.
Although you released a couple holiday songs last year, I know you’re finishing up a Christmas album to be released this fall. Will there be a Christmas tour as well?
We’re not sure yet. I think there’ll definitely be some TV appearances, but we’re just trying to figure it out. The holidays can be a hard time to do a full tour, but we definitely want to be able to play some of that stuff live.
You’ve also been working on your next full album. Will this one share the half-originals and half-covers format of the first one?
Yeah, it’s going to be another double-disc set with originals and covers. I think it’s a little heavier than last album. It’s a bit more aggressive—even more raw, if that’s possible. We can’t wait for people to hear this new material. Billy has written some incredible songs.
The Boxmasters' touring band
Has any of it been written on the road while you’re touring?
We write a little bit on the road, but it’s hard because you’re so busy. When we’re not running around like crazy, we’re on a bus, and it’s not the most creative environment all the time. Sometimes you just want to relax with a beer when you have some downtime. But I know that Billy’s written a couple songs with Brad Davis, who tours with us and has been Billy’s songwriting partner for years, and we’ll see if we can get those on the next record.
I know that you’re a multi-instrumentalist—which instrument is your favorite?
Electric guitar is probably my favorite. It’s what I started out playing and what I have the most fun with, but it’s a blast for me to play so many instruments on the record. When we toured last year, I tried to switch back and forth between electric guitar and lap steel, and I was switching guitars so much that it just became a little much for me to handle because it broke up the set a bit.
So during this tour, we have Marty Rifkin, who plays pedal steel on some of the songs on the album, and he handles all the lap steel stuff I did on the record. That way I can just concentrate on playing guitar, and it makes it a much more seamless performance, because I’m not having to switch guitars every song!
BILLY BOB THORNTON (credited as W.R. “Bud” Thornton on the Boxmasters record)
Thornton handles lead vocals and drums for the Boxmasters. A musician since the age of nine, Thornton moved to Los Angeles in the early 80s with aspirations to join a band and pursue his first love, music. While his other talents (Oscar-winning screenwriting and his extensive work as an actor) have turned him into a household name, he has never given up on his music, and recent years have yielded work on a Grammy-winning record and four solo albums—including two gold records.
LAist: Even though “The Poor House” is an up-tempo, sort of tongue-in-cheek song, the lyrics describe something that more and more people can probably relate to nowadays given the economic situation. Has it been hitting home with people?
Thornton: Yeah, absolutely. The music video’s been out for a while on CMT and so forth, so people know that song when they come see us live. Most of the crowd sings along with it, and you can tell that some of the people singing along with it are probably going through it. It really is kind of a timely song.
I read somewhere that you have musicians sign your “wall of fame” whenever they visit the Cave, and I know that Mike Nesmith’s name is on there. Given that you cover two of his songs on the Boxmasters record, was he there during any of the recording process?
No, he wasn’t. Mike’s an old friend of mine but he wasn’t around when we did the recording. Mike really is really one of the most unsung heroes of songwriting of anybody I know. The unfortunate thing about people is that they put you in boxes. So they always talk about Mike Nesmith being with the Monkees and that sort of thing, but he’s an amazing songwriter. And even with the Monkees, people would say, “Oh, they were a made-up band,” but I gotta tell you, the Monkees’ records were great.
Mike and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a lot of those characters from that era are just incredible people, and they’ve been a big influence on us. So you throw the Beatles, Stones, Animals, and all those bands together and play hillbilly music, and you get an record that comes out sounding like a 60s pop record even though it’s hillbilly music, and that was our intention.
Speaking of your cover songs, you really did include a great variety. Have you found that your album is also educating people about some great older music?
In a way, I do. That’s part of it. If you can ever impart any knowledge of anything you think is important, then you should go for it. And not only for historical reasons, but just the fact that a lot of young bands really don’t know the history of why they’re even here. So if they can do this stuff out of respect and really put something into it and study it instead of just doing a retro thing on the surface, that’s always nice. You’d be surprised how many young kids are into this modbilly sound—I have a friend whose 10-year-old son keeps the Boxmasters album in the CD player all the time.
…and you have “Return to Pooh Corner” as a cover, too, so there’s something for everyone.
Oh, absolutely. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band used to play that every night when I used to roadie for them. Kenny Loggins wrote it, but they used to do it all the time and it was just one of my personal favorites they did. As a matter of fact, we covered three of the songs they did on their Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy album —the two Mike Nesmith songs and the “Pooh Corner” one.
Speaking of “Pooh Corner,” is it true that your daughter makes an appearance at the end of the song?
Oh yeah, little Bella is on the end of “Pooh Corner.” And at the end of “Sawmill,” that scream is my son, Willy.
A minute ago, you referred to your time as a roadie, and I know that you also played in a ZZ Top cover band many years ago. Is any chance you’d ever do a ZZ Top cover on a Boxmasters record?
Well, we kinda stick to the 60s, because of whole idea behind the band, but we did record a lot more covers for this record than we put on there, and that included a couple songs from the 70s. You’re not going to believe this, but we recorded a cover of “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath. It’s pretty hysterical. It took us a little while to figure out how to make it into a hillbilly song, but we did it. (laughs)
Mike Butler just mentioned that the next album you’re working on is even rawer than the current one. Can you tell me a little more about it?
We’re doing the same double-disc format, only this time it’s a little heavier musically. It’s like we dug down a little more for this next one, although it’s still pretty much the same sound.
The other thing is, on the originals side, the songs this time will be a little heavier thematically—not quite as tongue-in-cheek, although we still have a couple of those on there, too. (laughs) Years ago, I wrote this song that I never put on a solo record, and we’ve recorded for the Boxmasters’ next album. It’s a song called “That’s Why Tammy Has My Car.” It’s about divorce and it’s pretty funny.
Since this is a blog about LA and I know that you’ve lived here for a while, I was wondering…other than the Cave, where do you go when you want to enjoy live music in Los Angeles?
I go down to the Mint sometimes. A couple good buddies of mine play there now and then. And I’ll go to House of Blues—they have a lot of musicians that are more my world. And there’s a nice little place called Safari Sam’s. That’s where my friend Unknown Hinson played the last time I saw him, and I liked that joint.
Any other favorite LA hangouts?
I used to live at the Sunset Marquis, so I hang out at their bar sometimes.
The final gig of your current tour will take place at the House of Blues Sunset Strip this Sunday. Was there a special reason you chose LA to close out the tour?
Normally we start our tours in Los Angeles, but for this tour we thought, “This is where we live, so let’s not experiment on our hometown! Why don’t we do it at the end, when we’re all warmed up?”
Plus having the gig there at the end of the tour is nice, because you can just go home at the end of the night. We do love it on the road, but a lot of us have kids, so it’s nice when we return home.
If I had the Cave in my home, I don’t know that I’d ever leave the house…
(laughs) Well, I rarely do, believe me!
The Boxmasters’ self-titled record (on the Vanguard label) is on sale now, and their holiday album, Christmas Cheer will be released on Nov. 11. Tickets for this Sunday’s concert (Sept. 7, 2008) are available via Ticketmaster. Don’t forget to arrive early, because you won’t want to miss the opening act!
Photos by Myriam Santos