Fiercely independent The Boxer Rebellion have recently released their brilliant fifth album 'Ocean By Ocean'. I coaxed drummer Piers Hewitt away from doing a spot of gardening to have a chat all about it.
Did the songs come easily for the new album?
PH: Yeah, we had quite a lengthy process this time. We had a member change which was different for us. We have never had a member change before. The three of us started writing and realised that without Todd (Howe) who we had been working with for 13 years prior that we had something going on. I always thought that if one of us left we would call it a day but there was too much in there. To start with it was great for us 3 to realise that we had it in us to get going on it. We didn’t know what path we were going to take in terms of getting a new member. In the end we got Andrew (Smith) in who has been absolutely fantastic and slotted in easily. Given that we have had a member change he is involved in the writing process as much as anybody else. So yeah, the songs did come easily, it could have taken longer, even though this is our longest stint between albums for about three albums now, it could have taken longer but nothing felt unnatural and we have never had this much material prior to recording.
How did you find Andrew Smith?
PH: He was part of a support act we had on a European tour about a year prior to getting on board. He was playing double bass for a guy called Christoff and they did a whole European tour with us. We got on really well with him. Initially we had some gigs that we needed somebody to fill in for and he was the first name that came to mind to do that and after a few weeks we asked him if he would like to give it a go writing with us to see it turns out. We already knew that we could get on with him and tour with him and he was a good instrumentalist. It was fortunate that he was the first and only person we approached.
Did you record the whole album in Los Angeles?
PH: Yeah, we did. We have our own space in London, which we have had 24/7 for a few years now. We recorded demos there and a third of the guitars and synths from the demos made the album. We didn’t record from scratch in LA, but we recorded all the drums and almost all of the bass from scratch there. We worked at Sunset Sound in LA, it’s such a great room and one of the few rooms that I have worked in where you know some great stuff has been recorded there and far more than you can appreciate and probably a lot of it is in your own record collection. It’s not really changed, it’s straight out of the 60s almost, but you don’t want it to change.
Who produced the album this time round?
PH: We kind of co-produced it with a guy called Billy Bush who also did ‘Promises’. This time around he just knew what boxes we wanted ticked much easier than last time because we were new to each other and whenever you work with someone new it doesn't necessarily work out straight away and for some people it doesn't work out at all. We knew that Billy’s temperament was really right for where we were at and his creative skills really came to the fore this time around. He’s based in LA too that was the reason we were out in LA for ‘Promises’ and the main reason we were out there for ‘Ocean By Ocean’ as well although it wasn't definitely going to happen in LA until fairly late on.
The album artwork is very bright which is unusual for The Boxer Rebellion, being in LA seems to have rubbed off in the band.
PH: As we were writing the feel we were creating musically seemed to have a brighter feel. We have always got that slightly dark element to what we do almost in an uplifting way. We certainly got into some sounds on this album that reflected that and were different from what we have done before.
How does it feel to be playing live again? And how are the new songs going down live?
PH: It’s been a year and a half which is a ridiculous amount of time for a band not to do a gig although last year there was no reason for us to do any shows;, we were focussing on getting the album right. We have never rehearsed new material more than we have now. The first new show we played was a festival show and it was a smaller set, We only played for an hour and we played four new songs, which aren't that many, but it felt pretty seamless, They just slotted in. What was really nice, particularly for Andrew, was actually playing material live that he had written because he has previously been playing our entire back catalogue up to now, so that was excellent for him.
Your music gets used a lot as soundtracks for film/TV, video games, and commercials. How do you decide what medium to lend your music to? Is it a money thing?
PH: We are always presented with what it is and how long they hold the rights for etc. It’s not just down to money at all, although that side of it does provide us with a lot of our stability. We are not Mumford and Sons selling out 10,000 and 15,000 size arenas everywhere we go, so we can’t look to the live circuit to try and forge out that career. For some bands that works so many people think that’s where we earn all our money. We haven’t said yes to everything that’s been offered to us by any stretch but I would say that 95% of the stuff that’s been put on our table has been perfectly credible. There have been some great TV shows and settings that we have seen our music out to that makes it come alive for me. One that springs to mind quite a bit, and I’d totally forgotten that we had agreed to it was Match of the Day.
I had a friend over last summer to watch the FA Cup Final, we watched the whole game together and the BBC used ‘Dream’ from Promises as the closing montage and I had totally forgotten and my friend was blown away by it and said, “This is you isn't it?” Then I suddenly remembered and I must have sounded underwhelmed because I just went, “Well, yeah.” (laughs) It was really nice to see something that was really important to me, on my TV seeing how appropriate our music was for that kind of thing and it was a big thing it was the FA Cup final it wasn't some nothing game. It was great, that is how I envisage our music when we are writing it, we don’t write for TV but we right write knowing the sounds that we create are appropriate for that and that’s something we really like and we feel we are good at.
Are you still doing everything yourselves?
PH: Yeah I guess so; our rights aren't signed away to a label. We licensed our last album to 3-4 different labels to put it out in different territories and this time we are working with Kobalt Label Services who are a global set up, so it’s kind of a bit easier and a bigger machine. It doesn't work like your traditional record label; we are hands on every day with everything from handling emails to merchandise design and tour managing so we are still very much in control of what we are doing, just with a bigger machine running alongside us whereas when we were on our first album we were signed to a major and we didn't know what was going on and we assumed everyone was doing everything for us., We were behind this big clunky machine that was leaking oil everywhere and we didn't really know what it was doing, so we've learnt from that and make sure that when we are working with people that we are working with them and not for them. The short answer is yes, but we've got ourselves into a position through our status and profile that we have a grander set up than we did 2 or 3 albums back. You won’t find many bands that have their hands on so many parts of the wheel.
I remember going to see the band around the time of ‘Union’ and you were running the merch stand before the gig and the rest of the guys were hanging around.
PH: We have somebody to do it now but we still get behind the merch stand. #1 on a basic level you sell more and #2 it makes the fans evening a bit better and they are more likely to remember you and come back. It’s pretty simple stuff. We have enough waiting around on a daily basis on tour as it is., We don’t need to go back to the hotel and wait around or sit in bars. It’s really not a hard part of our job. I don’t know why more bands don’t do it.
The Boxer Rebellion is probably the most successful unsigned band around. You must be proud of the fact that you have achieved so much on your own.
PH: I don’t think we've ever been prouder than right now to be honest. We haven’t had an average story/lifespan; we have gone through a member change since the last album., That’s enough to break some people up. We have learnt so much as we have gone along and we have done’t a lot of it ourselves, and the whole time we have seen peers of ours get really big and then break up and some of them get even bigger and so many people say to us, – “I can’t believe you are not bigger”.
We fall into that bracket where we are not this new band coming out that no one has ever heard of, We are also not an arena selling established act. We have created this whole new area which some people find really exciting and people like promoters sometimes don’t know what to do with. I am so proud to have got to album five and know that if we really want to do album six we could start it today if we want. I feel just as fresh creatively as I did in the same band ten years ago, maybe more actually. One of the proudest aspects for me is I feel we are just as relevant now as we were then.
What advice would you give to new bands starting out?
PH: For new bands starting out – don’t gig as much as you think you need to gig, because writing new material is more important particularly if you don’t have much time. If you are a band which rehearses once or twice a week – which already isn't enough, don’t worry about playing the Dog and Duck in four weeks time. Because you will end up rehearsing and writing to do a gig rather than to write really great music and bands can waste an awful lot of time doing that.
Playing is fun but if you’re not going to get anywhere by just being a great live band, your’re songs have got to come first. Oh Wonder are a great example of that: didn't even do a gig for about a year. They just put a track out each month until the songs spoke for themselves. The other thing is don’t put everything up online because it’s there for all time really. If you do some crap gig down at the Dog and Duck and you get excited because it’s the first thing that’s ever been filmed, it doesn't mean that you will want to be watching it in four years time. There is so much opportunity now for bands to put stuff online, massively to their detriment. You only want to put stuff up that really is going to advance you and I'm delighted that YouTube didn't exist for the first five years of our existence. Absolutely delighted! (Laughs)
What have you been listening to recently that you would recommend?
PH: It’s been a bit of a wrench turning over from physical to streaming and I've never really liked downloads too much; I've never felt like I have owned it, and I like owning it. Now that I have skipped over to streaming services, I am absolutely fine with it, but now I don’t own it. It’s like sitting in a library, the great thing about it is you can listen to so much stuff or you can listen to whatever you want with no investment whatsoever and if you do want to invest and I think you should then you can do that after investigation.
Now I'm listening to more music in smaller chunks and I still can’t work out of it’s good or bad but at the moment it feels good. So I'm now listening to stuff that I really should have heard a couple of years ago such as the Damien Jurado album which came out then. I was listening to a duo from the US called Hammock, they are good if you are into atmospheric stuff, that was great. And this week I have been listening to the record by the lead singer from The Walkmen, he put a solo album out a year and a half ago, so some new, some not.
The Boxer Rebellion have announced a full tour of the USA and Canada for this fall, see below.