The Boxer Rebellion on Its High-Emotional Rock: “We Want to Make Sure We Get a Buzz Off It”
Coordinating interviews with overseas talent means tedious logistics and early alarms. My wife asks why there's already stale coffee upon waking and I cite an early interview with The Boxer Rebellion. She knows the one song.
It's midday in the United Kingdom and guitarist Todd Howe is direct and self-assured. He's having a good summer. He’s not worried about backlash. The band trades in familiar, ethereal rock songs about little more than straightforward feelings.
Howe & Co., fresh off a successful 2009 insurgency devoid of major label ties, is between reaping rewards and hard work. No doubt their profile is buzzing on the heels of a credible, sincere performance in Drew Barrymore's passable, recent romantic comedy Going the Distance.
Howe's earned it. A 2004 album died instantly with its governing label's sudden implosion. Since then, the group has been crafting big, arena-ready rock anthems on an indie budget. We spoke about business perils, Hollywood, and whether or not America needs another Snow Patrol-recalling British import. The Boxer Rebellion plays tonight at the Black Cat. Show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $13.
Congrats on the summer success. Has The Boxer Rebellion arrived?
I don’t really know how to quantify the term because of our history. With the film and what happened to us in the last two years we’re certainly out there. Whether that’s in the semi-underground capacity or wherever, I dont know. I've learned to only gauge it by records and people at shows. For now, we’re outside of the mainstream just because of how we go about our business.
Right, I mean you've been sans label now for five years as I hear it.
Correct, and our first album didn't make it to the States. We were signed to an indie partnership (now-defunct Mercury Records) that imploded. Horrible timing: the label tanked the week our album came out. It got great reviews but no attention so we just kept going forward. We didn't have an end game other than going underground and not resurfacing until we had better music than the first [album].
But with the emergence of last year’s Union I'd imagine the phones are ringing. What’s the brain trust thinking right now?
I don’t know yet. We got wined and dined; we had labels banging at the door. Each time, however, something just didn’t feel right. On a label, we had no control. It became straightforward: We weren’t ready to give up that control and we could do just as good a job working the music on our own. It’s about the rights.
We did finish a third album we're releasing next January, but we don't know how at this point. I'm not discounting anything but it has to feel right.
Elaborate on what does "feel right."
We’re not stupid people. We know what our music is about and I don’t think that was adhered to previously [on a label]. And now we're talking to reps happier to be working for a label and name-dropping than doing the work. So in hindsight, maybe a label wasn't right.
What's interesting is the talk of independence and “underground” through frank, almost punk terms. But unlike fringe genres, your band’s sounds are meant to strike universal, emotive chords: big stuff from the U2-Coldplay school of anthemic rock. Since the band has thus far cooked it all up in-house, how much time is spent thinking about the state and demands of a mainstream genre as general as alternative rock?
Ultimately, we make what floats our boats. I can’t sell something I don’t believe in. We want to make sure we get a buzz off it, right?
With Union, there was lots of second-guessing because of how long it took to make the record. Also it was an album of survival; we wouldn’t be here if it went the way of the first record. We're certainly aware how hard it is to even get to a second, third album nowadays as a band.
Likewise, do you see the market as slimmer from five years ago when bands like Snow Patrol, Keane, Kaiser Chiefs, Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, the like, were force-fed to everyone?
No. Five years ago was more difficult for us: really you had The Libertines and a million other bands trying to copy them. They made it tough for big-sounding groups like White Lies and Elbow to stick. Overall, I don’t think [the climate] matters: it’s simply a case of the music being good enough.
Tell me about filming your rom-com concert scene. You guys had to lip sync “If You Run” thousands of times, yes? How did a label-less band land such a connected gig?
We did a show in Los Angeles, around April 2009, at the Troubadour. Our first gig in the States. We were lucky and made fans from New Line Cinema. There was a scene with a band, they asked us to do it, and we wanted to be ourselves. Four days later, we met the director in New York and it was a done deal. We filmed our scene that August.
With that situation, of course, we wanted to be cautious. But the crew was incredibly accommodating to us. I've seen the film; I think we come across quite credibly.
It’s very much a back and forth, you have to satisfy a specific scene without compromising credibility; and for the film, I mean this literally. We ended up writing three different songs for the end credits. Everyone wants an input.
It was fairly doable. We just read the script, were given a brief, and an intro with dialogue. We got free roam to do whatever we want. Then they changed the ending [of the film].
In general, what does an appearance on the soundtrack, in the movie, do for you guys? Can you quantify the growth in profile?
Oh absolutely: our fan base increased by about 30 percent in one week. It's been quite incredible. A much grander repeat of Union's initial release when we grew exponentially in a week by having, like, a top single on iTunes.
The tradeoff is not wanting to be remembered as that band from that film, but I don't think we will.