Interview – The Boxer Rebellion
Rebellion drummer Piers Hewitt (right) discusses The Cold Still.
One year ago this magazine veered dangerously close to becoming a fanzine. Reason – The Boxer Rebellion. The group had blown me away in 2009. Their second album, Union, nestled in effortlessly as my album of the year and when I had finally managed to see the band play live, it wasn’t just a case of could they live up to the album? Oh no. They surpassed all my expectations. The Boxer Rebellion cemented themselves as my current favourite band.
Not a big deal, you might think. We all have our favourites, right? Well let me tell you something from the heart. Writing about music changes the way we listen. While most people are having a wonderful time a music critic is thinking what they want to say about the show/record/…whatever. We’re mentally taking it all apart and putting it back together again. Which means some of the innocent pleasure is lost. Indeed the process spills over from the day to day gig or promo assignments to our own personal collections. We lose our sense of subjectivity! And for music fans, this is something akin to being damned. Take a tip from me. Love music? Then don’t go into music journalism.
I say all this just to give you an insight into the impact of The Boxer Rebellion. This band wrenched me out of my analytical prison and let me feel the giddy thrill of being a fan once more.
The Boxer Rebellion saved my soul.
Now after a tireless year of touring, a year which has seen the London-based outfit appear in a major Hollywood film (Going The Distance) they prepare to release their third album The Cold Still. I took time out with Rebellion stick man, Piers Hewitt to get the lowdown on the new record.
Brett Spaceman: How does a TBR song get written?
Piers Hewitt : Various ways really. There really no magic formula. Very often Nathan will come in with the bones of something and we will usually either bin it or change it into something reasonably unrecognisable (the early versions of Soviets and Flashing Red Light Means Go were very different!). We are also capable of writing something from someone just mucking around with a riff or a chord progression in the rehearsal room. Generally if we start writing something from the drums, it means it’s been a tough and fruitless day of writing!
Spaceman: Your earlier music was very intense – what caused the softening on Union?
Piers : I think being on our own terms for Union caused less of a purposeful direction in our writing, so in a good way they were much more expressive songs. We were on a major label for the first album, and whilst we recorded an album we’re all still proud of, there was definite intervention into what we were doing there, and sometimes very late in the day, which influenced the final outcome. Union was a much more natural album given the time we had. We were partially aware that we might want to be writing with half an ear on having a slightly more commercial sound, but generally, we just wrote a little more instinctively. We were also about 5 years older, which if you’re not writing towards a specific market, will always have an effect.
Spaceman: One of the loveliest surprises of Union was Nathan’s falsetto. It was as though he’d kept it hidden before. When did he first unleash that on you?
Piers : We spend so long in the one rehearsal room that when and how some songs came together is often forgotten. I honestly can’t remember when Nathan’s voice started changing too . I suppose as a fan that is easier to hear.
Spaceman: Are you still pinching yourself that you have been in a Hollywood film? Can you tell us how it happened? How you were invited, etc?
Piers : It came together fairly easily really. When we played our first shows in America, almost 2 years ago now, we met some great people from New Line Cinema at our LA show (who have since very much become part of the Boxer woodwork). Going The Distance was obviously on their radar in terms of putting things together for it, and they tipped off the director, Nannette Burstein, to see us in New York 3 days later. She enjoyed the show, we met for lunch the following day, and it pretty much went from there.
From my point of view, it was a strange decision to make for us at the time. I guess I was worried that we might become “that band from that film”, but once we’d seen the script properly it soon became clear the project was really quite cool. As for being in it, in retrospect, it was definitely quite a unique experience, and one that I know I would have regretted had we not done it. It such an eye opener, but more importantly was a lot of fun, which has to be a consideration in most things we do. And it has certainly helped establish ourselves on the map, particularly in America.
Spaceman: Has the movie changed everything for you?
Piers : It has changed some things definitely. It has changed our fanbase, not just in terms of numbers, but our demographic has certainly changed, which is definitely a good thing. As for everything else, I’d like to think it hasn’t changed much in terms of what we’re about. We still write in the same way, and we certainly don’t get recognised for being in it (we weren’t in it for long enough anyway). I like to think it’s just given a whole bunch of people an introduction to our back catalogue that previously might not have gone anywhere near it.
Spaceman: I’ve seen you three times in Belgium. Is touring Europe fun?
Piers : For me, touring is the best part about being in a band. It really is a privilege to visit different places and meet different people, night after night. It’s something none of us take for granted. Europe has been an interesting one, as we haven’t toured there an awful lot, and we haven’t had much going on radio or press wise, but as time goes on people are catching on, little by little, and it’s always fun to go to the same places and see bigger, more appreciative crowds. This has definitely been the case in Europe.
Spaceman: What do you miss the most when on the road?
Piers : Often I say when you’re at home, you kind of want to be on the road, and when you’re on the road, you kind want to be at home. Never happy us lot…I think I miss the regularity of things most when we’re away. Seeing family and friends regularly, watching telly with a nice cup of tea, popping down the pub if you have a spare evening, your own space, and sport! All of these things you give up by being on the road. We get on well together, but I think our own space and time is what we more immediately long for when we’re away. That definitely doesn’t happen very often.
Spaceman: You seem very hot on all the social media, keeping your fans updated with tweets, blogs and Facebook updates. Was that a policy decision or just the people you are?
Piers : We fell into it in a way I suppose. Upon being dropped, we really were left with nothing but our record and the people (mainly in the UK) that still wanted us to keep going. There is a massive temptation to have a ‘them and us’ mentality with some bands if they achieve things very quickly I suppose. We never had that. We have appreciated them from the word go, and it’s true to say that for a time, they probably kept us going, so when we started on the second album, Union, possibly as independently as we could have done, we wanted and needed them to feel as part of things as possible. It’s got to a point now where I think we like to be involved in this way. It appeals to me that people can see us as people who are just doing a job (albeit a very enjoyable one), and never getting above our station. That kind of behaving like a big, exclusive band stuff just isn’t us, so all the social networking stuff can only aid what we’re doing, so we embrace it, and I think we can see the benefits of that.
Spaceman: I know you run the blog, Todd I think does Myspace – how did you divvy it all up?
Piers : Pretty much I write a blog because when it comes to technology and all that jazz, I’m not the best and having to get my hands dirty with all that stuff doesn’t appeal to me as much as it does the others. I enjoy writing stuff, so I do that. The other guys pull the load in terms of keeping the Facebook updated with videos and pics and things. I guess we all just do what we’re good at. It was never really a case of divvying up.
The Cold Still:
Spaceman: How excited are you (all) about the new release?
Piers : We are completely excited about it. We’re still in a place where we’re never really sure what to expect and very few things disappoint us nowadays so, I think given our position there is a lot to be excited about. It’s excellent to be promoting a new record of ours’ so soon after the release and promotion of the film too. We’re really proud of it.
Spaceman: What I’ve heard so far are shorter, punchier songs – why?
Piers : I think I know where you got that from…probably seeing us live in the Autumn! They’re not all punchy at all; in fact there is a lot of space and atmosphere in this record. We just played all the punchy ones when we were last out playing.
Spaceman: Are the epic, soaring outro’s a thing of the past now? ( NB I hope not!!! )
Piers : Definitely not…we just like to be less predictable maybe. I think you’ll get your quota on this record.
Spaceman: If You Run isn’t on the new album. Possibly your best known song now, globally. Was that a conscious decision not to rip off fans, or not indicative of the new album material/direction? What was the thinking behind that omission?
Piers : I wouldn’t say it was a decision not to rip anyone off. I don’t think that song would have worked any differently to how a single would have done. It was purely a musical decision. The song was written, largely under quite a lot of instruction (and appropriately so) for the film, and the whole process was quite different to everything we have for The Cold Still. I guess, for us, it just wouldn’t have fitted, and I still don’t think it does. Having said all that, Both Sides Are Even was originally written for the film but was not right for it. It’s definitely right for this album though. It’s one of my highlights.
Spaceman: I remember that one from 2009 and it is beautiful. Which other songs should we particularly look out for?
Piers : Personally, my favourite is a track called Cause For Alarm. I think it says the most about where we all were collectively when we wrote the album. I’m sure that will change as a favourite over time, it normally does. It will probably depend on what we enjoy playing the most as I don’t listen to our own music!
Spaceman: Does The Cold Still represent a ‘risk’ for TBR in the sense of breaking new ground?
Piers : No, I don’t think so. We never set out to go completely leftfield. We were not in that position career-wise and also musically. I think we write perfectly naturally, and with that in mind, our songs are much easier to analyse in retrospect. It definitely sounds like we’ve grown up a lot since the writing of Union, it’s more mature. There is also an air of confidence in it as well. We were in a much happier place when doing it, and you can hear that confidence. Things are different, as they should be with any new album, but not different enough to alienate anyone who has been a fan before, of that I am sure.
Spaceman: How would you describe your own drum style? Favourite drummer?
Piers : No-one’s ever asked me that…I guess I try and be as interesting as possible, and add as much to the song as possible, without being at all intrusive. The song always comes first, no matter how good a drummer you are.
If you want to hear this in someone else then look no further than Steve White, ex-Paul Weller/Style Council drummer. A man who takes that attitude to the extreme, but with ridiculous skill. He’s my favourite. And Gene Krupa, though Gene and Buddy Rich (another favourite) were different animals to the drummers you see today. Out of our league.
Spaceman: Favourite song to play?
Piers : I guess I’ll go with Flashing Red Light Means Go. I always look at the crowd while I’m playing, and that always gets people smiling. Smiles are good.
Spaceman: Yeah, I was there when the power went out! Remember that! Mons, La Chapelle!
I don’t recall you guys playing a cover song. Has TBR ever played a cover version? What would you cover if the others agreed it?
Piers : You’re right, we don’t do covers. We had to do a cover of Seven Nation Army a few months back when we played on the pitch before Lille v Marseille (which was weirdly cool in itself!) but I’m sure we wouldn’t want it to go down in history too much. Covers are hard to pull off and are really only for people established enough to get away with it. That is why, however much I love watching it (I love to see failure on telly), The X Factor can go jump. Once you’ve released a cover as your first musical contribution to the world, it’s hard to recover from it. Robbie Williams aside, I can’t believe it’s ever worked.
What would we cover? Honestly, off the top of head, nothing.
Spaceman: Will Union ever come out on vinyl? ( I want it for the artwork if nothing else. Stunning. )
Piers : I hope so. The Cold Still will definitely come out on vinyl. That’s all I can tell you, sorry!
Spaceman: I think I recall from a previous chat, or from another interview, that you all have different influences. Do you think this has helped to create the TBR sound? Drawing upon diverse influences?
Piers : I wouldn’t say many of them are too diverse, but it’s certainly helped having different influences. It’s like throwing interesting ingredients into a meal. If we all listened to the same stuff, we’d be pretty dull.
Spaceman: Who has the best record collection out of the other three?
Piers : I guess I would have to say Nathan, but that really is just because he has acquired a lot of music. That doesn’t make it all good…you should see some of the things on his iPod!
Spaceman: Who has the worst clothes?
Piers : If I said anyone other than me, I guess I would get abuse, so I’ll have to go with me, but generally I think we all tart up quite well when we can be arsed.
Spaceman: Which albums have you appreciated this last year?
Piers : Not much…maybe it’s me just getting older…I liked Everything Everything’s album, and the new Of Montreal one. Laura Marling’s was good, as was Beach House. I could go on, but I’d be sitting here for ages.
Spaceman: Who do you consider as your peers?
Piers : Musically I have no idea really. In terms of “hanging out” we have missed out on the festival circuit regularly over the years for one reason or another too, so I think we have been in a bit of a Boxers bubble, but we are very good friends with Editors. They are our main indie chums. You’ll find members of Biffy Clyro, Oceansize, The Maccabees, and The Rakes (R.I.P.), amongst others, on our personal radars too.
Spaceman: Last one, what constitutes ‘success’ for TBR?
Piers : Obviously we’d love to sell X amount of records, and win this award and that award, but success for us, if push came to shove, is really to keep this as a job and just increase in our stature and size, year on year, album on album, which we are definitely doing right now. If we release an album of covers, then that’s probably a time to call it a day.
~[sic] Magazine thanks Piers and The Boxer Rebellion. All photography reproduced with kind permission The Boxer Rebellion official website and may be subject to copyright. The Cold Still is released 7th February (8th in North America) on the Absentee label. Pre-order via iTunes for 3 exclusive tracks. Pre-order the physical from HMV to guarantee one of the limited run, booklet sleeves and get an exclusive 4-track bonus disc. Visit the bands website to join the Rebellion.~